I am a big man but I am not a smart man. My father always says that and I inherited the saying like I inherited his wits. Dad drives lead in the convoy. He hates using the grinder but insists on driving up front anyway. I don’t know why. My brother and I take the middle. My brother never lets me drive. He says I don’t have the coordination. My uncle Rob drives back with the animals. He sometimes leaves the radio on when he talks to them. His voice calms us, keeps our eyes on the road.
We drive north so it is easy to follow the compass. We haven’t seen Highlands for a long time now. It has been weeks maybe since we hit the bottom. It is hard to tell. I tried marking the days off on a calendar but I keep forgetting. Mostly I just check the sensor to make sure the silt isn’t too deep, even though Dad does that anyway and he is much better at it.
We drive in the column of smoke belched up by the grinder as it turns whatever is in front of us into fuel to sell when we reach the Highlands. I catch brief glimpses of the bottom as we go. Rocky spires and huge carcasses and muck as far as the eye can see. I’ve stopped looking. It’s not that it’s all the same but it is the same kind of different.
Dad’s voice comes over the radio. He says there are Highlands ahead. Maybe a station. Northeast turn. I go to point for my brother but he says he has got it. The smoke turns and we turn with it. I catch a glimpse of the Highlands. It is way smaller than I hoped. A single finger of rock jutting upwards, birds circling above, a spiral road melted out of its length.
Rob says “shit” over the radio and I hear his truck stop. I look down at the sensor and the warning light is blinking. Our truck stops, then Dad’s. I put on a gas mask and slip wide plastic pads onto the bottom of my shoes. I open the door and jump out onto the silt.
Slimy, multi-pronged worms writhe in the muck. I try not to look at them but I can still feel them under my feet. Rob is standing by his truck. It hangs over the edge of a huge trench that has opened behind it. The silt slowly pours over the rocky edge, half-formed creatures sliding with it. I walk up to the truck, putting my hand on it for balance, and lean out over the edge. The trench does down further than I can see.
Dad takes hold of one of the front wheels and motions for me to take the other. We pull as hard as we can but the truck only slips backwards. Dad swears. I inject some stimms. I feel them course through my veins and feel my muscles tighten. My brother tells me to be careful. I ignore him and try pulling on the wheel again. It doesn’t work. The animals are screaming in the back of the truck. Dad says to push them over, better to give them a quick death. I roll the wheel backwards. The truck rolls back and the animal’s screams fall into the darkness below. Dad pats Rob on the back and he climbs into the front truck.
We drive slowly up the spiral road. My brother strains against the wheel the entire way. I watch out over the bottom. New things at first and then the same things over and over again. I start humming as we drive and then stop when my brother starts humming the same tune.
The top is smaller than it looked from below. A single station takes up most of it, a wide covered area with petrol bowsers and a small warehouse. We get out of the trucks and I breathe a deep breath that tastes of petrol. The wind is very loud and cold. I move away from the bowsers to smoke while my brother fills up the truck.
I move to the side of the warehouse so the wind doesn’t blow out my lighter. I can hear a sound like rain coming from a window. I poke my head in and see a room filled with ferns, sprinklers raining lightly above them. A young girl dances between them, wearing headphones. She sees me and her eyes widen, then she smiles and beckons me inside.
I find a door and walk in. The girl immediately grabs my hand and twirls under it. I stand stiffly and the girl tries to move my arms, tries to make me dance. I start to move my feet and she laughs and moves with me. I move my arms through the air and feel their weight, their momentum. The girl moves her arms in the air to match mine, looking as ridiculous as I feel.
The girl puts my hands on her shoulders, her weight is pushed around with every tiny movement. I try and concentrate, try not to hurt her. I slip on a puddle of water and crash down through the ferns, snapping them beneath me. The girl falls too. She yells at me, hits me, tries to push me out of the room. I brush my wet hair out of my face and then brush her out of the way. I leave.
I put a cigarette to my mouth as I walk up the side of the warehouse. The cold wind chills my wet clothes. As I go to light the cigarette a man jumps on my back, trying to wrap his arms around my thick neck. He struggles for a while and I light my cigarette. I feel a sharp pain in my shoulder, a knife cutting through my flesh. I let myself fall backwards onto him. I hear him exhale and feel his ribs crush under my weight. I roll off him and stand up.
The girl rushes over and kneels next to him, crying. He struggles to breath and his eyes bug out. I walk away. When I reach the truck my brother says that I fight like a wrestler. I tell him that I don’t fight. My Dad asks me what I did in the warehouse. I tell him that I danced. We hear choking noises from the man. The girl seems to choke with him, her eyes darting around, looking for something. My brother tells me that I can drive if I want. I refuse. We start up the trucks and drive away.
Dad always said that it is the small places that make the best homes, because they are easy to move when the tides change. He says to find something small that makes you happy and hold onto it until it becomes too heavy to carry. He says a lot of things that I don’t understand. I am a big man but I am not a smart man.