Zero Day Read online
To the memory of my mother
And to Charles “Chuck” Betack, my friend
THE CLOUD OF COAL DUST driven deeply into his lungs nearly caused Howard Reed to pull his mail truck off the road and throw up onto the stunted, burnt grass. But he coughed and spat and tightened his gut. Reed worked the accelerator and raced past the haul roads where dump trucks lumbered across, spewing black grit into the air like burning confetti. That same air was filled with sulfur dioxide because a coal waste pile had caught on fire, as they often did. These elements would drift up into the sky, react with oxygen to form sulfur trioxide, and then clamp onto water molecules to create a potent compound that would later fall back to earth as toxic acid rain. None of it was a trusty recipe for environmental harmony.
Reed kept his hand tightly on the special mechanism, and his eighteen-year-old Ford Explorer with the rattling tailpipe and shuddering transmission stayed on the cracked asphalt. His mail truck was his personal vehicle and had been modified to allow him to sit in the passenger seat and pull up flush to the mailboxes on his route. This was accomplished in part by an apparatus that looked like the fan belt in a car. It allowed him to steer, brake, and accelerate from the right side of the car.
After becoming a rural mailman and learning to drive from the “wrong” side of the vehicle, Reed had wanted to travel to England and try his newfound skill on the roads there, where every motorist drove on the left. He had learned that this dated back to the days of the jousters. Most folks were right-handed, and back then a man wanted to keep his sword or jousting pole closest to his enemy. His wife told him he was an idiot and would most likely end up dead in a foreign land.
He moved past the mountain, or where the mountain had once been before the Trent Mining and Exploration Company had blown it up in order to get to the buried rich coal seams. Large tracts of the area looked like the surface of the moon now, cratered and denuded. It was a process called surface mining. To Reed a better term was surface annihilation.
But this was West Virginia, and coal provided the bulk of the good-paying jobs. So Reed didn’t make a fuss about his home being flooded by a fly ash sludge storage pond giving way. Or about well water that turned black and smelled like rotten eggs. Or about air that was routinely full of things that did not mix well with human beings. He didn’t complain about his remaining kidney or his damaged liver and lungs from living around such toxic elements. He would be viewed as anti-coal and thus anti-jobs. Reed just didn’t need the added grief.
He turned down the road to make his last delivery of the day. It was a package that had to be signed for. He had cursed when he’d picked up his load of mail and seen it. A signature meant he had to actually interact with another human being. All he wanted right now was to scoot over to the Dollar Bar where every mug of beer on Monday cost a quarter. He would sit on his little worn-down perch at the end of the mahogany slab and try not to think about going home to his wife who would smell the alcohol on his breath and spend the next four hours lecturing him about it.
He pulled into the gravel drive. This neighborhood had once been fairly nice—well, if one went back to the 1950s. Now it was not so nice. There wasn’t a soul around. The yards were empty of kids as though it were two in the morning instead of two in the afternoon. On a hot summer’s day the kids should be out running under the sprinkler or playing hide-and-seek. But kids didn’t do that anymore, Reed knew. They sat inside in the AC and played video games so violent and gory that Reed had forbidden his grandchildren to bring them into his house.
Now the yards were filled with trash and dirty plastic toys. Ancient rusted Fords and Dodges were up on concrete blocks. The homes’ cheap siding was popping off, every surface of wood needed painting, and roofs were starting to collapse as though God above were pressing down on them. It was all sad and rather pathetic and made Reed want that beer even more, because his neighborhood looked exactly the same as this one. He knew a few privileged folks were making a fortune off the coal seams. It was just that none of them happened to live around here.
He pulled the package from the postal bin and trudged toward the house. It was a tired-looking two-story with vinyl siding. The door was hollow-core wood, white and scarred. A sheer glass door fronted it. A plywood wheelchair ramp bled off the stoop. The shrubs in front of the house were overgrown and dying; their branches had pushed against the soft siding, buckling it. There were two cars parked in the gravel in front of his black Ford: a Chrysler minivan and a late-model Lexus.
He took a moment to admire the Japanese car. Something like that would probably cost him more than a year’s salary. He reverently touched the blue metallic paint. He noted a pair of aviator sunglasses hanging from the rearview mirror. There was a briefcase in the backseat and a green jacket next to it. Both vehicles’ license plates were from Virginia.
He continued on, bypassing the ramp, hit the bottom step, trekked up the three squared-off logs of poured concrete, and rang the bell. He heard the sound pealing back at him from inside.
He waited. Ten seconds. Twenty. His irritation grew.
He rang again.
“Hello? Mailman. Got a package needs a signature.” His voice, virtually unused throughout his workday, seemed strange to him, as though someone else were talking. He glanced down at the eight-by-eleven-inch flat package. Attached to it was the receipt that needed signing.
Come on, it’s hot as hell and the Dollar Bar is calling my name.
He glanced at the package label and called out, “Mr. Halverson?”
Reed didn’t know the man but did recognize the name from previous deliveries. Some mailmen in rural areas became friendly with their customers. Reed had never been that kind of mailman. He wanted his beer, not a conversation.
He rang again and then knocked on the glass, two sharp raps with his knuckles. He swiped at a bead of sweat that trickled down the back of his burnt red neck, an occupational hazard from sitting next to an open car window all day with the sun beating down on him. His armpits were oozing sweat, staining his shirt. He wasn’t running his car AC with the window down. Gas was expensive enough without wasting it.
He raised his voice: “Hello, it’s the mailman. Need a signature. If it goes back you probably won’t see it again.” He could see shimmers of heat in the air. He felt slightly dizzy. He was getting too old for this.
He aimed his gaze at the two cars. Had to be somebody home. He stepped away from the door and tilted his head back. There was no one peering at him from the dormer windows. One was open, making them look like mismatched eyeballs. He rapped again.
Finally, he heard someone approaching. He noted that the wooden door was cracked open a few inches. The sounds grew nearer and then stopped. Reed was hard of hearing or he would’ve noticed the odd sound of the footfalls.
“Mailman, need a signature,” he called out.
He licked his dry lips. He could see the quarter beer in his hand. Taste it.
Open the damn door.
He said, “Do you want your package?”
I could give a rat’s ass. I could just chuck it down a ravine, like I’ve done before.
The door finally inched open. Reed tugged back the glass portal, his hand extended, the package in it. “You got a pen?” he asked.
When the door opened more, he blinked. There was no one there. The door had opened all by itself. Then he glanced down. A miniature collie looked back up at him, its long snout and furry hindquarters swaying from side to side. It had obviously nosed the door open.
Reed was not the stereotypical mailman. He loved dogs, had two of his own.
“Hey there, buddy.” He knelt down. “Hey there.” He scratched the dog’s ears. “Anybody home? You want to sign for this package?”