Read by Gloria Sanders
Nell grew up in the desert and when she was eleven years old, when she had long limbs and impossibly blonde hair and she was in the lobby of a casino pulling the lever of her mother’s slot machine for luck, a talent agent noticed her. Her mother took his business card, her lips a tight line framed in smudged lipstick. The man ran his fingers over the buttons on his suit jacket and said he had been having a drink in the bar and couldn’t keep his eyes off Nell. She remembered feeling suddenly hot, for the first time aware of the tension of being ashamed and pleased in the same instance.
Now she was seventeen and her hair had dulled and her hips had widened and she told this story of being noticed to Kyle Walter as she sat in the cab of his chevy pickup. She did not say how often she thought about what might have happened, how she studied herself in the bathroom mirror for hours. From certain angles, she found her face enthralling, but from others it took on a certain heaviness, a foretelling of time and gravity. It was not seductive for a girl to mention regret, so she acted as though she barely thought of it at all. “He was probably just some pedophile who bought a fancy suit at the thrift store.” she said. Her upper thighs were sticking to the plastic seat and she tugged down her skirt.
“He could’ve been an agent. You look good enough. Could’ve been around because of some thing my dad was shooting.” Kyle kept his eyes on the road. His father set up explosions for tv, sometimes even films on the salt flats west of town. Kyle worked for him on the weekends. His nose was too large for his face to be considered genuinely handsome, but Kyle Walter was as Hollywood as Nye County got. He wore a bomber jacket and aviator sunglasses and had a tattoo sleeve, but he held the steering wheel with both hands. She had observed, too, in Algebra, that he never got the grades she did, but he always arranged his pencils very carefully on the lefthand side of his desk, close to the edge but not too close. Every day she would sit behind him and watch him do this, always with the sense that she was waiting for one of them to fall.
His truck sailed along the empty road, kicking up dust on either side.
“How much farther? Where do we have to do it?” she asked.
“It has to be sheltered, it can’t be windy,” he said.
The horizon stretched out before them, an unbroken line, nothing but low bushes and licks of sand and unbearable heat. There was nothing out there.
“I guess just far away enough that my dad won’t see the smoke after. It can drift really far. He would know what it was.” A sheen of sweat had erupted on Kyle’s upper lip. His fingers tightened on the wheel and the mortar pots in the back of the truck rattled – mortar pots were used to control the direction of the blast. She uncrossed and recrossed her legs, leaned her head against the window and imagined what the explosion would be like.
At school the day before, he’d been leaning on her locker, telling her how his dad just got back from Tunisia where he had been working on a setup for a James Bond film. “The biggest one that’s ever been done.” His voice dropped to an artificially masculine level whenever he talked about explosions and she was too young to find it ridiculous. But when she said “your dad has the coolest job,” it seemed to agitate him. He grabbed the open locker door behind her with his right hand, pinning her in. “Do you want to see one?” His face was close and he was breathing with his mouth open, stale cigarettes and chewing gum. She felt her heart rate accelerate, nodded yes she wanted to, and had felt nauseated ever since. She hadn’t truly known how small her hopes were until Kyle Walter looked her right in the eye.
After a few more minutes, he stopped the truck abruptly, no shelter in sight, save a small, lone boulder that seemed to have been dropped from the sky. He got out of the truck and stood looking around, working his square jaw on the wad of gum in his mouth.
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, here should be good.”
They began unloading the truck. Kyle let her carry the two sheets of cork board but would allow her to touch nothing else. The rest of the contents were mysterious to her. There were some green containers that Kyle heaved off the flatbed, only the slight grimace on his face betraying their weight. There were bags of sand and concrete, and canisters of gasoline. Two heavy lead mortar pots which looked like giant lenses with slightly different focal lengths. Kyle deposited all these things into a pile and stood looking over it. “Yeah here. Good,” he said, not really to her but as if he was reassuring himself. “Hand me the shovel.”
He guided her out of the way, putting his hand on the soft flesh above the waistband of her jeans. “What should I do?” She was aware that she was blushing, aware of pushing her hair behind her ear, aware of every stilted movement that she made. He was already digging. “Relax. Turn on the radio. The keys are in it.”
She went back to the cab of the truck, and turned the keys. The tinny sound of top 40 hits become abstract as it bled into the afternoon heat. Then she arranged herself on the blanket lining the bed of the truck in the position of an attractive woman sunbathing, hands behind her head. It was important that it look like her eyes were closed, that her only interest was in tanning, but behind her sunglasses she watched him very carefully, willing her mind to record every detail so she could play it back over and over for herself later in the darkness of her bedroom.
He dug a shallow hole and plugged it with one of the mortar pots. He spent what seemed like hours winding masking tape around a small package of newspapers, sorting through wires in one of the green containers, placing things carefully in the pot and stepping back to survey what he had just done. When the mortar pot was full, he starting breaking apart one of the sheets of cork board, kicking through it with the heel of his motorcycle boot. And then he arranged the pieces on top slowly, almost tenderly. When it was finished, he stood looking at the contents of the pot with hands on his hips for an excessive amount of time and she wondered if there was something wrong, if sometimes you had to arrange every last domino before you could see that you didn’t want to push them over at all.
Moved by an unexpected desperation, she rose from the bed of the truck and went to him. She stood very close, placed her hand on his arm. She was almost as tall as he was, so when she said “Is it ready?” she breathed right on his ear. His sunglasses were dark. He stooped and picked up a spool of wire – the end of it snaked out of the pile of explosives.
“This is the fuse,” he said, placing the spool in her hands. He got in the cab, told her to get in the back, and then he inched the truck away. She held the handles on the sides of the spool and it unwound unevenly, resisting until the force of being pulled overwhelmed it and it relented, jerking through a full turn. When they were a dozen yards back, Kyle stopped driving and emerged from the cab with one last green container which he placed on the bed of the truck. “You scared?” He was suddenly playful and he pulled her towards him by the feet.
“This is the det box,” he explained, busying himself with attaching the wire to a fuse inside the green container, which contained a console with several buttons and levers. He showed her the three buttons that needed to be pressed to detonate the explosion. “Don’t touch them,” he said, suddenly sharp, as if in that moment her hand had been reaching up, when in fact they both remained at her sides. “No civilians. Sometimes even the directors want to push the button, but Dad doesn’t allow it. It isn’t safe.”
“Okay,” he said. “You should cover your ears. I’m going to do it now.”
“READY?” The only answer was a slight echo, carried back by a feeble gust of wind. “ACTION!” With one hand he held hers and with the other, he pushed the three buttons on the det box.
There was a long beat during which nothing happened, although afterwards she wondered if it was simply her anticipation stretching out time. And then there was the moment in which everything happened at once. There was a bone thumping crack. And a heat, so sharp and so short that the only experience of it could be relief that it was over. The flash of light was equally brief – not fire, just an incredible release of power, blowing apart the sand bangs and sending jagged fingers of dirt into the air. The pieces of cork were the only things that caught fire. They were sent highest, burning and tumbling, raining down fragments that left the finest little smoke trails hanging behind them. It happened too fast, all in an instant. It was more than she had expected and it was less.
The already faint cloud was drifting high and westward on the blank brilliant sky. He had not been looking at the explosion, he had been watching her face.
“It was loud,” she said.
He released her hand. He looked smaller now, like a disappointed child shrinking in on himself. “They look bigger in slow motion. I’ll make one with gasoline this time. It’s more dangerous.” He sounded angry and he was already walking away, back to the mortar pot.
“Kyle, don’t be stupid,” she said but she didn’t really try to stop him.
This time he worked faster, not placing things as he had before, but tossing them in, moving on to the next thing carelessly. When he was finished, he crouched above the new setup he had made and fiddled with the wire for a few moments. She did not sit back down in the truck bed. She stood and watched him with a growing pity. She too had grown up in the emptiness of the desert and knew what it meant to look out and find nothing looking back at you. Later she could not exactly say why she had done it, but when Kyle stood and had only just begun jogging back, she reached down and pressed the buttons on the detonation box. One, two, three.
(c) Sunny Teich, 2016
Sunny Teich grew up in Boston, has an engineering degree from the University of Pennsylvania and works as an artist in the visual effects industry, blowing fake things up with fake explosives.
Gloria Sanders's work includes audio-book narration for the RNIB and frequent collaborations with Cabinets of Curiosity. She has performed The Clock, her devised one-woman show with Hide and Seek Theatre, at the Brighton Fringe, the Pleasance, Islington, and the Ghent Artscene Festival.