by Emmet Browne
We drive through West Texas, where the sky is almost red and where the sun sets faster than a bull with its ass ablaze. The AC on max in the diesel monster, we sweat like pigs on our way to the slaughter, a 12-gauge between the seats, loaded with hollow-point slugs. The same country song about a dog that’s gone off its leash starts up on the radio—like our personal anthem—as the road unspools ahead into the dotted red hills, its blacktop lying out flat but warped by the swimming air onto the horizon behind us, where home is.
“The Salton Sea.” Coach rolls the name out of his mouth. The hair on his head, grease-slick, he swipes at his forehead, takes a pull from the unlit cigarette, lets it hang between his cracked lips. “Hotter there,” he says.
“Depends which kind of hell you prefer, a dry one or a humid one,” I say.
For the last hour I’ve been scouring Google for anything and everything on the Salton Sea: a man-made accident at the border of California, former hot and hip tourist spot, money-grubbing oil drillers’ wet dream, a chemical vat filled with empty promises made by politicians.
Couple that with the strange experiments you won’t find on Wikipedia, you have a lake and surrounding area incapable of supporting an ecosystem, including humans; the trail of promises leaving a vast dead sea––where fish skeletons wash up onto the receding salt flats—poisoned by black carbon, chloride, and the silica. The same chemical toxins that are whipped up in the wind and carried on the dust into the local community, gifting the civilians with asthma and recurring cases of bronchitis. In microeconomics, they’d call the civilians an externality: a third party suffering from a two-party transaction.
Follow the money, and you’ll find the ugly truth at the intersection of politics, environment, health, and economics; it stretches border to fine border, shore to shining shore. And really, the saddest part of it all, the place—this Salton Sea—is a microcosm of our not-too-far future, our crime against the Earth.
“What if I fucked up, just kicked the hornet’s nest on this one?” I ask. I need Coach to tell me that everything is going to be okay. That I’m okay. That we’re doing the right thing. Coach gives me a hand signal, and I remember to turn off my cell phone. Coach doesn’t own a cell phone.
“How’d he say he’d do it again?” Coach asks, swerving away from the tumbleweed that jumps at the headlights, the sun having raced into the hills already.
“He said it was a nerve agent he used back in the day, has been carrying it for years—”
“Back in the day?” Coach says.
“Back in the MK-Ultra days,” I say. “When he was still on the inside.”
“Go on,” Coach says after lighting the cigarette, hands shaking. Out in the way beyond, in the pitch black, I see hovering green dots, a pack of coyotes, reflectors from construction posts, maybe kids playing with sparklers; the eyes play tricks out here.
“The guy said he’s been hopped up on Adderall for days, mixing everything, setting up buckets in the corners of the room.”
“Buckets?’ Coach blows smoke, asks again, “What buckets?”
“Like above the doors, that nerve agent? It’ll dump the moment the door opens, a drawstring attached to the knob. Yeah, just sitting there, waiting for them.”
“Is that how he said it? Hopped up?” Coach asks.
“I know. Sounds odd. Like someone who doesn’t do drugs.”
“Who tipped him off?” Coach asks. He already knows this but wants to hear me say it.
“A friend still inside the agency who plans to defect.”
“Were you on the same site as last time?”
“The one with the trust seal, yeah,” I say.
Coach nods. “Remind me to pay you my half of the membership.”
For the next few hours, the cabin falls silent, Coach telling me to “sleep, sleep,” but I only pretend. I watch the road, and signs materialize in our headlights like they weren’t there until we touched them, more of my animal brain playing tricks on me as I pass over several circadian rhythms. And all I can think about is where exactly this began, and if this is where it ends.
“You’re not sleeping,” Coach says.
“What are you thinking about?” Something my father never would have asked. Which is why I love Coach.
“The day you read my essay for the first time.”
I walked up to Coach’s desk that day, his hands were shaking then, too; the side of his face twitched, made his eye look at me before he looked at me, my paper starting to fold because it was so tight in his grasp. A week earlier he’d asked us to turn in an essay on the topic of mentors. The prompts: Who do you consider your mentor? Why? When did you meet them? If you don’t have one, how do you imagine them?
I’d written about my older brother, Evan.
And because I was mad—mad as hell—I included that he’d died working the site at the new Wells Fargo tower in Austin, set to beat out the one in Chicago. Because in Texas, everything must be bigger and better. Bigger and badder.
“Ah, yes,” Coach says. “You thought you were in trouble.”
“You looked me up and down for a solid two minutes. Then, you asked if I knew which truck was yours, to meet you in the parking lot after school. I thought you were gonna kick my ass or something.”
Coach chuckles. “I brought you over for barbeque.”
“Still the best I ever had.”
“I told you about Danny.”
Danny was Coach’s son.
At Coach’s house, I found out Danny had worked on the same crew as my brother, base of the tower, only two stories done at that point. Also, the common denominator between Coach’s son and my brother: they’d served in Iraq, came back, were recruited into the death squads in Columbia, backed by the CIA. The squads who took care of the cocaine problem, the FARC, a.k.a. the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, and anyone and everyone considered “extreme” left. All a strange coincidence, huh?
The bomb that took both of their lives was a 200-kilo urea-nitrate-hydrogen-gas-enhanced device, the same kind that nearly took down the World Trade Center in 1993. Coach’s son, like Evan, was given one of those “veteran contracts.”
It was the things my brother and Coach’s son saw and did down there in the jungle, brought back with them, that made them fly at the opportunity of the construction job—that and the unusually good pay. Coach and I discussed the death we’d seen in their eyes—that strange shimmer that settled like light reflecting off a deep, placid lake. There, every time Evan and Danny came back for a break, they holed up in their rooms day and night, beer after beer, before having to climb back into the jungle.
Coach and I sometimes ponder if they ever crossed paths on that construction site and recognized one but they just kept on going because all each of them wanted to do was forget. Our guess is not, due to how many men were probably down there in the jungle. “But can you imagine?” Coach and I would ask each other.
“What did I say that day?” Coach asks.
“We are entwined by fate, tasked to serve justice along the moral arc of the universe. Be it by God or some other ethereal presence.”
New Mexico: orange-and-yellow adobe buildings pockmark the modern land. We hum through small towns with no stoplights. All seem dominated by a single sand-colored church. Back in the larger towns, we drive on past museums and little boutiques that sell American Indian handcrafts.
“You remember what else I said that first day you came over?” Coach asks.
“The site supervisor died in the blast, so you tried to get in front of the mayor, but he wouldn’t see you.”
Headlines said the bombing was carried out by one of the workers who’d been mentally unstable; the shots gathered for the story showed FBI recovering ten types of assault rifles from his apartment, and a trail of posts on a dark-web message board discussing his plan. All evidence that could have easily been planted.
It was on the WikiLeaks affiliate where I found other reports of veterans who’d disappeared in one accident or another—a drunk driving accident at 3:00 a.m., an overdose on basic pain medication, a hike gone wrong on one of those 120-degree days. All things that were too suspect since the first guy had never had a drop of alcohol in his life, the second never abused his medication in the ten years he took it, and the third a former Navy SEAL who’d spent years on hot Iraq sand. The one common thread: all told their families they were spending some time in Colombia.
The Salton Sea, California. The rotten egg smell—hydrogen sulfide coming off the sea—penetrates the vehicle before we hit the 86. We’re still ten-plus miles north. The gas causes headaches—mine already started—but Google assures that although highly flammable, the health effects aren’t long-term.
We pull up onto what is like a berm in Afghanistan—I’ve seen pictures of the mounds that soldiers lay on, fight and fire from behind, because I was always trying to research what the world might have looked like through Evan’s eyes. The berm overlooks the steady descent into the valley below, where spaced out homes, all along one thin road, are surrounded by nothing but desert. The orange sun peaks over the mountains ahead, burned into the sky.
“You know they used to feed radioactive candy to autistic children to see what would happen?” Coach says. “Call it a medical experiment.” He’s talking about MK-Ultra again.
“He mentioned that,” I say, meaning our cooperator, his house now on a straight shot two-hundred yards ahead, “in his notes.” Something, a question, crawls up my spine and into the back of my mind: have we really thought this all out?
“What if, once we get one of them, they spook, you know? What if they don’t answer our questions?” I say.
“You are not to worry about that,” Coach says. “Like I said, you’ve done your part. I’ll do the ugly stuff.”
“And if they come for me?”
“I’ll never let that happen,” Coach says.
Coach is right. Every bit of research I’ve done has been from his house and on his computer. The log-in, the social security number, they all trace back to him. We haven’t left a trail of emails or phone conversations either.
I notice movement off to our left. It’s far but noticeable enough for me to ask, “What is that?”
Coach puts binoculars to his eyes. He smiles. “Here,” he says, handing me the binoculars.
I see a man in a hazmat-like suit, big hat on, pulling up a frame of honeycomb covered in bees—hundreds, maybe thousands. His hands are bare. The bees whirl. I have to wonder if they sting. If the man is impervious. They look attached to the golden hive, moving in a semicircular shape.
“Ambitious,” Coach says.
The binoculars still to my eyes, I say, “The bees will help build back the ecosystem around the sea.”
“A nearly impossible hill to climb.”
I take the binoculars down. “Yeah,” I say. I hand them back. “Admirable, though.”
Coach seems to pause on that for a second. “You know, what we’re doing isn’t any different.”
Eight thirty a.m.: We’ve been sitting and watching for almost three hours. Coach is impatient. It makes the cabin of the truck feel smaller by the second.
He shakes his watch into place. “We’re a half hour past.”
“Eight was just his guess.”
“Why would his guess be eight?” Coach asks. “With the sun out, it’d be the worst time to do it. There could be officers in that house right now.”
“I think we should wait until at least ten,” I say.
Coach, already wearing tactical boots and pants, reaches into the back seat and grabs a gas mask and his son’s military jacket. “I’m going down there.”
“What if we’re wrong?”
Coach pulls the collar of the jacket up. “Kid, you put in the work.”
“Yeah, but there’s—” I stop myself. I know I would say, “still a chance,” but what is the point in stopping Coach now? We’ve come this far.
Coach pulls out his Beretta, checks the magazine, racks the slide, says, “I don’t doubt you. Don’t doubt yourself.”
I watch through the binoculars as Coach, in the heavy military jacket and gas mask, traverses the slope toward the tumbledown homes spread evenly and far apart. If anyone in Laredo saw a man dressed this way, the cops would get called in minutes, but out here, I get the feeling not so much. That you might see a lot of strange things if you spent enough time here. Your life here.
I can’t stop thinking of the beekeeper. When Coach is on flat land, I glass the guy again.
The beekeeper handles the frames, sliding and resetting each one in the box with precision that seems both art and science, and for him, I imagine, an ongoing daily meditation built over days, months, years. It is in every small, deliberate movement that has been ingrained upon his senses, becoming simple reflexes through practice and time.
I switch the binoculars back to Coach. He’s up to the porch, his hand to the doorknob. Something is wrong. I can feel it in the way the air shifts around me, on the dust sifting through the cracks in the window.
He turns the doorknob. Everything seems fine. I exhale. Coach takes a step.
Hellfire comes out the other side.
Swallowing Coach whole.
I can’t move. I can’t speak. Can’t hear the sirens when they come for me.
I don’t remember if I was fully conscious in the police car. I hardly remember the firefighters who pulled me from the truck, my limbs not responding, the signals from my brain broken lines of communication. And the fire, all the way up the hill at that point, a few feet from the truck, the brush like a fuse line.
The room is small and gray. There are two chairs on my side and two on the other. My whole body still feels mostly numb.
Two bodies fill the rectangle of glass, and the door opens. First, an older man wearing a button-up, pressed pants, Glock, and bored expression. Following behind him, a woman wearing a suit, her gun not visible beneath the gray jacket. They sit, open a file.
I look at the chair beside me and want Coach to be sitting in it. On the door, the rectangular glass along the handle side looks onto a floor of cubicles speckled with police officers talking on phones, holding coffees and conversations, pushing papers. I’ve been sitting here for an hour, maybe two? Can’t tell without my watch, which was taken.
The man and the woman look over the thin file already building the case. They share a nod when the man points to something on the paper.
“Shane,” she says, “my name is Detective Moretti. I work for the Riverside County gang and narcotics unit. From the information we’ve been gathering, the house that Aaron Dillinger entered was a stash house owned by someone we’ve been trying to track down for a while. What can you tell us about why you were there?”
“No, no, no,” I say, “you’ve got it all wrong. We weren’t there for drugs.”
“Then why don’t you explain,” the man says. In my head I name him Station Detective.
“I’ll tell you everything, I swear.”
Both nod me on.
“It started with my brother,” I say. “We were trying to find who killed him, and Coach’s—”
They look confused. “Mr. Dillinger’s son.”
I go over the Cliffs Notes of everything. I tell them about the Wells Fargo building in Houston. I tell them about their time in Colombia. I tell them about the WikiLeaks affiliate. About what our plan was, kidnapping a CIA officer and all…but that we obviously didn’t, and couldn’t ever really do that. When I’m all done, I can tell they aren’t sure what to say or think, that they haven’t been since I started talking.
“You better not be fucking with us,” Detective Moretti says. “This is serious shit. The guy we were after was involved with some very bad people. You ever hear of the Sinaloa cartel?”
“I swear every word is the truth.” My shoulders are hunched forward. I’m turtling, trying to protect myself, trying to make them understand.
They give each other a glance, and a whole conversation seems to play out within it.
“You have family?” Station Detective asks.
“Just my dad,” I say.
Another glance, then he says to Detective Moretti, “Let’s give him a call.”
She nods, but her eyes say she’s not done with me yet. “I need you to tell me a little more about your relationship with Mr. Dillinger.” Station Detective gets up and leaves.
“What do you want to know?”
She gets something out to take notes on. “How about where you first met?”
I do something between a gasp and a laugh; it’s hard reaching into memories so quickly after. “Football practice,” I say. “I was twelve…but a freshman already. I’d skipped two grades.”
She looks impressed. “See here in your file your mother died young, I’m sorry. But. You must have made your father proud.”
“Not really,” I say. “He called it ‘beginner’s luck.’ But that’s about the closest he came to complimenting me, halfway deep in his case of Friday-night Bud Light.”
“I see,” she says. “Well go on about that day, football.”
“Sure,” I say, shaking my head, not getting why this matters. “I got cut after day two. Coach sat me down, said he could see I had a mind and that I was better off not on the team. Said most of the players would be stuck in a mental static by the time they were thirty from concussions and alcohol, about what every supposed true man in Laredo aspires to.”
“So he saw you were smart?” she asks.
“I guess so.”
“And from what I understand,” she says, “he was the English teacher, eleventh grade?”
“Your relationship evolved then?”
“Like a desert flower growing through a crack in the cement, Laredo being that cement that tries to keep anything nice from prospering.”
“We read well.”
“And clearly you connected over Evan and Danny being they both died at the Wells Fargo site? Both served.”
“Evan and Danny, yes. And probably because we were both broken by life but not without the poetry and insight to explain it all to each other.”
“Uh-huh, do you have any final thoughts?”
“Other than the Lonestar State is a fucked place. And so is this Lonestar country. No.” They’re Coach’s words coming out of my mouth.
A slight smile from her. I don’t know if it is facetious or not.
“Did he ever try to do anything…sexual with you?”
“What the fuck?” I say. “Why…no…No!”
“But is it fair to say you loved him?”
“I don’t understand how any of this relates.”
“You’re almost done, Shane.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Yeah, I loved him. Like a father, like a brother.” I have to focus on the wall behind Detective Moretti to keep the tears from coming.
She closes the file. “Okay, that’s all.”
“Look,” I say, “I know this may not be my place, but what exactly was in that house that killed Mr. Dillinger? I mean, it had to be a bomb, which means that this guy I found was clearly planning something for whoever walked through that door.”
“You’re right,” she says. “You are out of place to ask that.”
“I saw it through the binoculars. That bomb went off right when he stepped in.”
“Crazier things have happened,” Detective Moretti says, getting up and pushing her chair in, her eyebrows real high like: for example, your story. The other detective pops his head in, and she says to him, “Call his father, but I want to hold him overnight, in case anything comes up.”
“I can hold him for the full forty-eight if you want,” he says.
She looks me up and down. “Thanks,” she says—to him, not to me.
They step out, and I sit there, my head in my hands.
I stand up and walk to the rectangular window and look onto the station floor. Detective Moretti, her back to me, is on a call. I look for the other detective, but he’s nowhere in sight, probably already gone to lunch. When I look back at Detective Moretti, she’s looking over her shoulder, her eyes locked with mine, phone still to her ear.
Sometime later, I’m transferred to the holding cell by two officers. Inside, I’m asleep in seconds, the adrenaline burn making me tap out.
“Wake up, Shane,” I hear Station Detective say. “Your father’s here.”
I think I must be in a half-remembered dream, wishing for something unbelievable.
I sit up and wipe the sleep away and see Station Detective standing at the holding cell door.
“I thought you were holding me for forty-eight?”
“Shane,” he says, “you’re a twenty-year-old who graduated summa cum laude from Texas A&M. I don’t really give a fuck what you were doing over there, but just keep yourself out of trouble from now on, yeah?”
“What about Detective Moretti?” I ask.
“Actually, it was her who called me and said to let you out,” he says. “I guess she felt bad.”
Station Detective turns, says, “Come on.”
I hear the door open and shut, hear my father say, “Jesus, Shane, are you okay?” He says all of this before getting to the cell door. I don’t want to believe that he’s putting on an act.
But, yes, he definitely is.
“Yeah,” I say, feeling myself squint, hearing the confusion in my voice. Station Detective’s eyes linger on my father a moment. I wonder if my father smells of the drink. Who am I kidding? Of course he does. But I think the detective’s eyes linger for a different reason; he’s figured out the true dynamic here—he is a detective after all.
There’s a clearance buzz. The door unlatches. The detective opens it and I step out. My father stands there like he’s not sure what to do. Like if he should give me a hug. He overrides whatever voice was holding him back and squeezes me.
When “Pa” is done, the detective guides us out. Before letting us out into the night, the detective stops and puts a firm hand on my shoulder. “Hey, I’m sorry about your friend,” he says.
“Thanks,” I say.
We get into my father’s old F-150 that smells of propane—his occupation—and pull out of the parking lot. There is a silence between us that makes me feel small, like I’m five years old again. I check the clock. It’s almost four in the morning. I was in that cell for almost a whole day. My father must have started driving the moment he got the call.
I don’t wonder if my father wants to say something, anything. The man has hardly said a word, kind or otherwise, to me from the time I went away to school to the time I came back and started living in Coach’s guest bedroom. I hardly register that he’s glanced at me a dozen times since we left and rolled out into the barren desert. Mostly because where it all happened, that fireball that took Coach, is no more than a mile from here. That’s what I’m stuck on. All the ambulances, the sirens on the police cars wailing, me sitting there, frozen, mouth stuck open, binoculars pasted to my eyes. I taste salt on my chapped bottom lip. It mixes with blood running down my nose, something that only used to happen when I was a little kid and got too scared, my fight-or-flight response all wrong from my father’s beatings. Yeah, I still taste that.
“If I only had known,” my father says, pulling to a crossroads, where from every sight line, this paved road, the single stop sign, and the one canopying light are the only signs of modern civilization.
I wait for him to pile into me. Wonder if he’ll try to smack me up for old times’ sake.
But I have to think, that’s bullshit. I’m not a scared little boy anymore, living under your roof; I don’t have to take your fucking bullshit.
“If you had only known?” I say. “What the fuck do you mean?”
He gets quiet then. I want to see inside his head. We travel down to the next crossroads. No stop sign or streetlight. He pulls to full stop, and I’m waiting for it as I stare out into the black beyond, the darkness swarming around the vehicle and almost speaking to me the same way the air did when Coach put his hand on that doorknob.
It feels like we’re stopped there for an eternity, nothing happening, before I finally turn to him, my father.
There are dried streams down his face.
“I just—” he says, trying to say whatever it is in the right way but he doesn’t know how. “I just—”
“You just what?”
“I just fucked up for so long. And—”
Is he saying he’s sorry? Now? Really?
“I prayed to God,” he says, looking into his lap and squeezing his eyes shut so hard. “I prayed to God, I prayed to God, I prayed to God.”
“You prayed what?”
"That you weren’t the one who walked in that house. I realize now that I can’t lose you too. Not after losing Evan.”
“I lost Evan too!” The words came out of me like a reflex. He cowers back like I’m ready to raise my hand to him. But there’s something behind him. A noise. The engine’s roar is unmistakable, but there are no lights. We both turn to look out the driver’s side window. The black SUV is maybe ten feet away and moving like that Texas sun: bull, ass ablaze.
It hits us like that damn bull.
No. A battering ram.
Because it is.
The entire world goes flat; then it is barrel rolling. Every dream I’ve had of my father and I starting over, starting new, is jostling loose; his head hits the steering wheel, the ceiling, the glass, the fucking floorboard. Because he never wears his seat belt.
I know I haven’t gone full blackout. Time is floating like desert heat. Definitely a concussion. I look to my left. We are fully upright again. Next to me, my father’s head has crumpled into pieces. His skull knotted in hair all over the dashboard, his blood on the windshield, the wipers turned on now, smearing it back and forth. I think of screaming, for help, reinforcements, those detectives. Instead, like Coach has taught me so many times, I reach for the shotgun between the seats. It isn’t there.
That’s right, we’re in Dad’s car.
I open the glove box, find my father’s model .17, check the clip. It’s full. Eighteen rounds. I stuff the gun and its magazine in my waistband.
I open the passenger’s side door, and holding my ribs, do something between a stumble and a crawl, one thing or multiple things torn in my knee. I shut the door behind. A web of broken glass falls onto the passenger seat.
Someone hit us.
Behind me, footsteps crunch salt and rock.
I turn slow.
Headlights pop on like floodlights. I raise a hand to protect my eyes, try to see. In front of the lights are three men and a woman, all wearing suits.
The woman pulls out a handgun from beneath a jacket and trains it on me.
“You shouldn’t have gone kicking the hornet’s nest, Shane,” she says. That voice. Detective Moretti.
One of the men steps forward. “Radioactive candy.” He laughs. “I came up with that myself.”
Holy shit, they’re fucking spooks.
I think back to Detective Moretti on the phone, looking at me. Calling her friends, I guess.
I think, too, of how I got out of the holding cell early, and right, how my father would have had to start driving before they said they called him. Because that’s a twenty-hour drive no stops. I add it up to:
There was a bomb in that house, meant for Coach, for me, except…they hadn’t known about me because of how well Coach had covered my tracks to protect me. When I was found at the site, pulled from the truck, taken into the station, the spooks found out then. They went into damage control, asked themselves how they were going to fix this.
Let me back into the wild was the answer.
In the wild there’s no law.
“I gotta know, what was your angle on all this?” Moretti asks.
“Get answers,” I call back, my voice shaking, because I don’t want them to shoot me, and truth be told, I don’t want to shoot them. “About Danny. About Evan, my brother. Why they were killed, what they saw that was so terrible they had to be killed.”
The men laugh. “Shit,” Moretti says, “so you were going to blackmail the fucking CIA by holding one of their officers hostage until what, they handed over their supersecret files? Don’t you think if they were capable of such things that they’d have been watching you, waiting to see if you were up to any suspicious behavior?” It’s the way she asks the last question so deliciously that only further confirms they have found me.
I want to tell them the only reason they haven’t been watching me is because Coach was better than they thought. And so was I. “We were just doing whatever we could. We were desperate. I told you we couldn’t have ever really pulled it off. We’d lost ourselves. Lost our minds.” All of that is true.
“It’s sweet, really,” she says.
I’m slow to put my hands up. Moretti says to her comrade, “He thinks we’re here to arrest him.”
Before she turns back, I dive behind the car to take cover; bullets hit glass and pierce metal. I think I’m safe.
I pull the .17 from my waistband, hold it close to my face. I remember the breathing techniques Coach taught me, which his son had taught him. I do them while the bullets shred the car, my father’s corpse.
It works; time starts to slow, the bullets quieter somehow, the air thick and falling on me like a blanket. Maybe I got more of Evan in me than I thought.
I close my eyes and think of peaceful things.
The beekeeper, handling his frames.
I make a promise to myself: If I get out of this, I’ll work with bees. Do my own keeping. Build back the ecosystem the right way.
The gunfire dies.
I lock the magazine and rack the slide.
Emmet Browne is a writer from Detroit, Michigan, residing in Riverside, California. He has an MFA from the University of California-Riverside.