The International Writers
- Stories from Across the Globe
That morning he lay awake waiting for the alarm to buzz, his mothers
voice rode into the dark bedroom with the screeching wind blowing out
of Prudhoe Bay. After sixteen months drilling for oil in Alaska, Hank
Croix had learned to ignore the sound of the wind, but not the shrill
voice from the grave.
Croix walked out of the pharmacy mumbling to himself when he couldnt
get a refill on his prescription for sleeping pills. He was told
hed have to wait until the doctor returned to the drilling
camp next week. Didnt matter to the stupid old pharmacist
how dangerous it was to work without sleep, dumb shit, Hank thought,
as he stared at hard earth on the way back to his quarters.
It always sounded like it did when she was in the asylum, and always
stirred a memory that had haunted him for years, lately with great frequency.
Henryshe pronounced it Ahn-riLook who come to see us. Its
Uncle Bill! Hell be staying with us for awhile. Her words set
the scene for Hank: the hot sun, the sound of the Gulf surf, the little
boy digging in the sand of Galveston Beach.
Hed watch the boy continue to dig in the sand, paying no attention
to the visitor. The boy knew that Uncle Bill wasnt his real uncle,
and he could see that he hadnt brought him a gift like he had
the last time. He was standing in the hole up to his waist, hauling
out sand by the pail-full, faster now with the appearance of this lanky
man with the thin moustache, the shiny boots and the big buckle on his
And when the man spoke: Thats quite a hole youve dug there,
boy. Pretty soon youll have dug all the way to China, Hank continued
to ignore him, but later would ask his mother if he kept on digging
would he really get all the way to China?
Why yes, sugar, shed smile, but youd likely meet a nice
little Chinese boy diggin from the other side, come to play with
you. Mamas voice always ended up soft and soothing before she
left his memory.
As he showered and dressed, Hank wondered if the persistent, childhood
memory meant that recent events had been prophesied on that day long
ago? That nice little Chinese boy hadnt come to play with me.
Papa can attest to that, he thought. Mama was wrong about the little
boy, maybe because of Uncle Bill.
Later in the dining room, Hank was sipping his third cup of coffee before
heading for the field when one of his roughnecks sat down across from
him. "Whats going on, boss? Weve drilled three holes
and come up dry. Are you sure this slopes sitting on top of oil?"
"I cant explain it, Slink," Hank answered. "All
I can tell you is what the geologists said. Drill through the frozen
tundra, go down another eight thousand feet, and itll be just
like tapping a keg of beer. They seen the mud from that depth. No sign
of oil. Well keep at it, Slink, until they tell us to stop, or
until they stop paying us."
"Well all be talking to ourselves, Hank -- like I seen you
doing the last few days-- unless we hit a well today."
Hank couldnt remember a more frustrating time. Hed been
working the oil fields all his working life, first in Oklahoma, then
in his native Louisiana. Hed worked years in the hot deserts of
Iraq, and now had acclimated himself to the frigid north slope of Alaska.
It was his job and he moved with it as easily as a white collar worker
moves to a new building.
After nearly thirty frugal years, the last ten of them as a driller,
hed amassed a nice nest egg, an investment portfolio valued at
a million dollars. Maybe Ill retire soon, he thought. Start a
permanent home. I aint too old to start a family with a good woman.
But right now, Hanks mind was focused on why his team hadnt
struck a well when all of the geological data pointed to a rich field
under their drilling. The derrick had been wheeled to several locations
and Hanks crew had come up dry at every one of them.
Once full of energy, driving his crew hard, Hank was feeling tired.
'I use to sleep good', he told the field doc. 'Now I wake up a lot and
cant get back to sleep. I use to be a calm fellow, now I shake
in the dark, never sure what Im afraid of. When there aint
no oil in the ground, I feel like theres aint no blood flowing
in my veins. And then I see the boy digging in the sand.'
"What the hells going on, Chauncey? Are we doing something
wrong?" hed asked the field manager.
"Cant tell ya a fucken thing, Hank. I dont tell the
bastards where to drill," came Chauncey's curt answer, intended
to put an end to the questioning.
Hank shook his head sympathetically and said, "Well keep
at it, Chauncey. Maybe well get lucky before the replacement crew
But this morning, it was more of the same. The bit cut fast and deep,
just as it had on previous drills but when he examined the mud that
came up from the last hole, close to ten thousand feet down, there was
no sign of crude.
The crew was nearing the end of a fourteen hour day and the last of
a fourteen day rotation. Everyone hated to see the shift end on a note
of failure. They knew that two weeks off would mitigate the frustration,
but also knew how pissed off theyd be to return and learn that
the alternating crew had hit a well.
Friday was steak night, and Hank would leave camp in the morning, not
bolt out after a shower the way his crew did. No jet flight to Fairbanks
for him like the young studs looking for bars and broads. Hed
catch the bus down the Dalton Highway to Deadhorse, a dry town, a joke
to the young workers. "Two weeks in Deadhorse is like beating a
dead horse to death," went the chant. Hank never let on about his
arrangement with the Deadhorse Inn. His room always came with a bottle
of good cognac.
When the work day ended, Hank stayed at the drill site after everyone
had left, circling the scarred earth that looked to him like an empty
grave. The wind off the bay started to pick up and carry in a flurry
of light snow. He pulled the strings on his parka tight and stopped.
He heard something, a sound, no a voice coming from the ground. Maybe
its the wind, he thought. No, its a voice, but I cant
make it out.
He wished for the wind to stop for a minute. But he was certain; it
was a voice hed heard. The voice came rapidly and choppy, like
the wind but it wasnt the wind. It was a voice, a Chinese voice.
The day of digging in the sand on Galveston Beach rushed into his mind--
Mama, Uncle Bill, the sand pail, the Chinese boy.
That movie he saw in Iraq, The China Syndrome came to him. A nuclear
melt down burning all the way through the earth to China, like Mama
said. Were not that far away. The world is a small place, and
I know about the yellow hordes who want what we have. Maybe I can stop
All of the transportation back to the housing area had departed, so
he began a hurried walk made faster by the wind at his back to the managers
office. There was a light showing through the Quonset hut window, so
he knocked and opened the door.
"Hank, what the hell are you doing here? Youre off the clock,
and you should be getting ready for two glorious weeks in Deadhorse."
"I have to talk to you. Chauncey. What do you know about the oil
industry in China?"
"Hank, for Christs sake! What the fuck are you talking about?
Are you planning to go drilling in China?" Chauncey calmed down.
"All right. What do you want to know? They got a small industry,
mostly in the northeast. Not much news about it, but theyre more
active down in Thailand. But the way their economy is exploding, theyre
gonna need more oil then rice and tea. So why your interest?"
Hank was silent for a minute, collecting his thoughts. He didnt
want to say something that would sound crazy to the boss. "Chauncey,
you know the way we come up dry on four holes, like there's no oil down
there. Well, do you think its possible that the oil is being stolen?"
Chauncey raised his eyebrows, lit up a cigar, stared over his half glasses
at Hank, and then offered him the cigar box. The driller took one and
put it in his pocket. Then the boss said, "OK, Hank, whatre
you got stewing in that crazy fucken Cajun head of yours. Pump it out."
"Im thinking that the Chinese could be using horizontal directional
drilling to steal our oil. I know that couldnt be done from their
mainland, but what about using submersibles off the coast? They could
be tapping into our wells and pumping them dry."
"Am I hearing you right, Hank?"
"The oils supposed to be there, Chauncey. So wheres
it at? And I heard some voices"--he stopped suddenly before going
on. "Its an act of war, aint it Chauncey? Shouldnt
we ask the Coast Guard to investigate? Or tell the lease owners? Seems
to me it explains the reason why weve been coming up dry."
Chauncey took a big drag on his cigar and blew the smoke at the ceiling
of the hut, and said, "Hank, do me a favor, will you? Go to the
dining room. Get a nice fat steak. Go to your room and get some sleep.
If I wasnt afraid of getting fired, Id give you a few slugs
of booze to relax you. Tomorrow you get your butt outa here, find
yourself a piece of ass in Deadwood. I hear theres a horny squaw
just waiting for you down there."
Hank recognized trouble in the bosss face. Was it anger? Surprise?
Would it pass? He wondered what his face looked like to the boss. He
wished that he had a mirror to see. Why does Chauncey talk like that
to me? Hes known me for years. That I dont go with bad women.
Once when I was drunk in New Orleans. But I confessed that to the priest
four or five times.
Hank left the hut dissatisfied, talking to himself, replaying the conversation
hed just had. He thought it best that he follow Chaunceys
advice and walked to the dining room.
"You hungry man, Hank?" Ho said standing over Hank seated
at a table near the kitchen counter.
He looked up, startled to see an Asian face staring down at him, smiling.
"Oh! Sure, Ho, Ill have some dinner if Im not too late."
Ho grilled him a t-bone about an inch thick and he sat picking at it.
Could Chauncey be somehow involved? he thought. Maybe I should go to
the Coast Guard myself. Theres a lot at stake. When the word "stake"
entered his mind, he looked at the t-bone in front of him and strained
his mind to find some significance. Who can I trust, he wondered. He
was certain that the voice hes heard earlier was Chinese. He stared
at Ho cleaning up behind the counter.
Hank was afraid to eat any more. I hope I can sleep tonight, not see
that hole in the sandam I able to stop the yellow horde from taking
over the world?
"Something wrong with the steak, Hank?" chef said, bringing
him out of his thoughts.
"No, nothing wrong, Ho. Thanks. Im just tired. Time to hit
Nothing seemed clear to him tonight. His muddled mind knew where he
was, what he was here for, and understood the disappointment of not
getting the job done, but it all was clouded by a sense of threat. Was
he really on the brink of discovering a conspiracy that would have earth-shattering
consequences? Or was he unconsciously looking for an excuse for failure
as a driller?
He walked around trying to decide, trying to tire his racing brain before
heading for his room. Its good to have a private room, he thought,
the privilege of his position and years on the job.
"Oh, my baby, what have I done?"
"It wasnt your fault, Mama. Papa didnt die because of
you. He was killed by the Chinese. They killed him in Korea, Mama."
"I was so lonely, Henry. You know what it means to be lonely, baby.
I missed your father and needed a man."
"I wanted to be your man, Mama, but you drifted away from me. Always
thinking Papa got killed because you were bad. I was the bad one, burying
you alive in that sanitarium. If only Id made a home for you
If I stayed with you maybe youd a got better."
"I was dead to everything, Henry. You knew that after the visit when
I didnt recognize you. There was pain on your face, baby, but made
no difference to me. Wouldnt made no difference if youd stayed
with me, sugar."
"Ill stay with you now, Mama. Im going to be a hero against
the Chinese like Papa was. Youll see. Youll be proud of me.
Youll be proud of me."
He closed his eyes. Tonight for the first time in months, he heard the
sound of the wind screeching out of Prudhoe Bay and it shook every inch
of his body.
The Deadhorse Inn had a few guests besides Hank Croix, mostly hunters
out for deer and salesmen looking to peddle a new chemical or piece of
equipment at Prudhoe Bay. At last nights seating for dinner, Muffin
Smart, a Creole who owned the Inn, watched Hank move from table to table
warning of a forthcoming war with China. He screamed that the Chinese
were stealing American oil, getting ready to attack, and they must be
stopped now. Muffin did his best to quiet Hank down.
"I thought this town was dry," said one salesman. Another added,
"I want some of what he had."
When Hank didnt come down for breakfast in the morning, Muffin worried
and opened the door to his room. He was in bed with his clothes on curled
up in a fetal position, his eyes open. He stared blankly at the innkeeper
when he shook him.
"Hank, I know you gonna be pissed at me, but you need a rest back
in the lower forty eight. Im gonna call Prudhoe to come get you.
The driller turned over away from Muffin, mumbled something about digging
in the sand, and closed his eyes.
© Joseph Guderian May 2007
Stories in Dreamscapes
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