This piece is a fictionalized dystopian reimagining of Dupont’s C8 scandal in my hometown in which high school students are engaging in research to assist scientists and others in exposing the all-encompassing treachery of extractive capitalism.

 

Chemical Woods

The kids ventured into the woods, rifles slung across their backs and bags of supplies in hand. The first, a tall and skinny girl in jeans and a maroon windbreaker. The second, short and stocky in full camouflage; and the third, small, in jeans and a camouflage jacket.

“I’ll head west; Savannah, Dustin; y’all head east with the four-wheeler. I’ll call when I’ve got one.” the third said.

They set off in their different directions, needing no compass to find the way. They grew up in these hills, they knew their way around. With Savannah and Dustin out of earshot, the last member of the group, Jesse, began to hum a song. It was just a tune, really, it had been playing in their head all day. Jesse shuffled along until they came to the creek. This creek was off of the big Dry Run Creek, and it used to teem with a menagerie of life. Little tadpoles once danced just under the surface of the water, swimming along with minnows. Above them, water bugs once scuttled along the water’s mirrored surface. Now, the creek bed was empty and reduced to a small brownish trickle. Further downstream, it came upon an interesting tree whose jumble of greenish roots hung exposed over the water. Jesse paused to look at the roots and listen to the creek’s soft sounds before continuing west. Once the creek was out of earshot, they stopped humming and the silence was only punctuated by their soft footfalls. No birds chirped, no chipmunks played.

Suddenly they stumbled and caught themselves, but not without an audible sound. They froze. The noise of their own misstep had startled them, momentarily derailing their train of thought. Their right boot was now caked in mud, but that was to be expected on a trek like this one.

It was weird that they hadn’t found anything yet, usually by this point in the trek there had been two or three animals. But today, the forest was suspiciously empty, like the dead creek. Decaying leaves made their footfalls quiet as they ducked underneath saplings and tried to scrape the mud off their right boot as they walked.

They finally spotted a sick deer. It was making panicked huffing noises and laying against another fallen tree. As Jesse approached, it struggled to get up off of the forest floor. Its attempts were futile; the poor creature was covered in chemical burns, and dried blood was caked around its flaring nostrils. As Jesse approached the deer, they made soft soothing noises, but they knew there was only one way to end the deer’s discomfort.

Jesse looked into the deer’s panicked eyes and said “I’m so sorry about this, it’s the only way I can help you. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

They took a few steps back, aimed, and fired. Birds flew suddenly out of the surrounding trees, squawking loudly at the noise that disturbed them. Waiting for the deer to die was always the hardest part, and silent tears rolled down Jesse’s otherwise stoic face. Several minutes passed, and there were sickening sounds coming from the deer’s blood crusted mouth and nose until finally the poor creature’s breathing ceased. Jesse said a quick prayer for its departed soul, stroking one of the unburned patches on its side before gutting it. Its insides were a putrid greenish color and stank to high heaven, but this was also expected now.

Jesse rolled the gutted deer’s body onto a tarp and called Savannah and Dustin to bring the ATV.  They heard its loud engine several moments before it appeared, blowing sweet black fumes out of its exhaust. It covered up the smell of the deer’s innards, and the noise surely scared away any animals that hadn’t been warded off by the gunshot. Savannah and Dustin climbed off of the four-wheeler and helped Jesse pull the deer up onto the back and secure it behind their deer with some bungee cords.

“I’ll take the fourwheeler up and meet you at the truck.” Dustin said.

Savannah and Jesse followed the path the vehicle carved. “I’m starting to lose hope.” Savannah said, “Nobody cares. Week after week we bring in these poisoned animals…I’m not sure how much longer I can stomach it.”

“At least it made the news finally. And someone from the New York Times came to interview some folks, maybe they’ll write an article and things will change. I think people do care, they’re just scared and they don’t know what to do. Remember how much everyone loved hunting? They can’t be happy that deer jerky is off the menu.” Jesse said

“Maybe you’re right,” Savannah said, “But no one is doing anything. The plant still dumps whatever they want outside of town, nobody is stopping them. And since we don’t know what exactly is causing this die off we can’t try to find antidotes or ways to clean it up. Maybe I’m just being cynical, but I don’t think an article and a few minutes of news coverage will change anything.”

They broke through the woods and onto a dirt road, barely wide enough for one car in either direction. Jesse kicked up a little bit of gravel, the dust forming a cloud that stretched just above their knees. They reached the truck, a shiny red dually that had just been cleaned parked in front of a shed. The fourwheeler had already been parked in the shed and the deer’s bodies moved into the bed of the truck. Dustin locked up the shed before tossing Jesse the keys. The three of them climbed up into the truck and Jesse started the engine, releasing diesel fumes into the air.

“Getting to do this is so cool, I feel like a real scientist!” Dustin said, breaking the silence.

“What are you talking about?” said Savannah, clearly irritated.

“We’re like, collecting samples for scientists and stuff, we basically are scientists ourselves, going out into the woods and all.”

“Yeah, okay, whatever.”

When they arrived, Jesse backed the truck into the old garage and pulled the two animal’s bodies onto a table with wheels. The scientists rolled it into the lab and worked quickly, sampling the burns and drawing blood. They thanked the three students and disappeared into the back where they tested for the elusive, destructive chemical compound. It could take years; they had said a few weeks prior. The kids weren’t sure if they had years: each week the woods were emptier of life.

The three students got back into the truck, and none of them said a word. Jesse drove out of the makeshift parking lot and turned left down a gravel road. Savannah turned on the radio and the song Radioactive was playing. Welcome to the new age, to the new age.

“How ironic,” Jesse said, breaking the silence. Savannah and Dustin forced laughter. Within moments they reached their second destination of the day and pulled into a gravel parking lot with three trailers in it. There were a few cars and one other truck. Jesse parked and killed the engine before the three of them hopped out of the truck yet again.

A woman in a lab coat came out of the middle trailer to meet them. She had blonde hair, pulled up into a bun on top of her head. Her glasses were skewed on her face: Jesse gathered that it had been a busy day.

“The wait time is about twenty minutes, y’all.” she said

“Alright, we’ll wait out here.” said Dustin.

Dustin pulled the back of the truck down while Jesse lit a cigarette. Savannah went and sat on the edge of the truck’s bed with Dustin, while Jesse leaned against the side.

“I hate this part,” Jesse said as they exhaled a puff of smoke.

“At least we get paid, you know. The deer don’t get paid.” Dustin said with a smirk. “And those lab techs take more than just blood from them.”

Eventually, the lab technician came out of the middle trailer again and motioned for them to go in. Jesse went up the stairs and into the trailer first.

“Please, sit.” said the woman. Jesse followed her directions and sat down on a small red chair with black arms. They pulled up their left sleeve to reveal several bruises from previous blood tests.

“Looks like you come here often,” said the technician

“Yeah, every week,” said Jesse.

Jesse watched as the technician cleaned their arm with an alcohol pad and poked the needle into their vein. The blood slowly filled the tube and then filled the vial in the technician’s hand. Jesse liked to watch the blood go up the tube, it made them feel real despite everything going on with the chemicals and the plant. The technician removed the needle and pressed a bandage over the fresh wound. Jesse stood up, and the technician handed them a check for a hundred and fifty dollars. Same as every week. And probably the same as next week. And the one after that.

Jesse waited outside while Savannah and Dustin got their blood sampled too. When they were done, they drove off and Jesse dropped Savannah and Dustin off at their respective homes and drove down the private drive to their parent’s house. Its pier lights guarded the semi-circle driveway and a massive wooden front door. It was a palace in a ruined ecological landscape. Jesse parked the truck in the four-car garage and went inside. When Jesse got home, their father greeted them in the foyer.

“How’d it go this week?” he asked

“Fine. Nothing new to report,” Jesse answered

“Any results yet from your blood tests?”

“Nope. They won’t tell me anything.”

“Why do you keep going back then? You don’t even know what they’re testing for, and it’s your blood they have! It’s ridiculous how they’ve set this up, and I can’t get any information from them either because you haven’t signed that paperwork.”

“It’s my business dad, jeez. As long as they keep paying me what does it matter? It’s not like anything can be done about whatever results I get anyways, whatever chemical it is’ already in my body. It can’t be undone, and it’s all because you decided to move to this shithole town and work at the plant. So what do you care if I’m poisoned and they won’t tell me shit? They pay us both. You should be happy with that.”

“C’mon, Jess, it’s not my fault that the plant runs everything in the region. I’m just trying to make a living and take care of you and your mother.”

Jesse walked past their father, down the hallway into their room and slammed the door. They took in their new surroundings: four light blue walls, a gray carpet. A queen-sized bed with a white wire frame and a white dresser. Smiling pictures adorned three walls, along with a clock the size of a pizza pie. A big map took up the entire remaining wall. It was so cheery, it seemed stupid to have such a bright space when the world around you was collapsing. Jesse turned around and stared at their reflection in the full-length mirror hidden behind the door and began to strip, their dirty chin-length dark hair flopping to the side. They took their shirt off first, pausing to behold the myriad spots where needles had poked into their arms. They looked like reddish freckles, almost. Then they took off their pants, socks, and underwear and gazed at their body. This body had gone everywhere with them, and it was this body that would one day betray Jesse’s mind and end their life. The borders between them and the environment were blurred. Who was to say where their molecules ended and others began? Some electrons would pass by each other in their rapid rotation, and some would bounce off those of elsewhere, or of the poison chemical compound itself. The chemical was them, as much as the air was them, as much as the room and the house and the sky and the polluted Earth was them, imagined boundaries aside.

It was clear to Jesse and their friends that the chemical was going to kill them. But as the map on the wall showed, there was nowhere left to go. Generations of loose environmental protections and greed had created a poison planet. From Dry Run Creek to the Rocky Mountains and beyond, corporations, militaries, and governments alike had their way with the world. They’d have to stop the pollution first for there to be any hope of picking up the pieces. For now, there were dying deer in the woods. Data to be collected in the labs. School to attend, college applications looming on the horizon. And a fighter being born, slowly carving resistance out of their anger. Hope out of their desperation. Isn’t that what the people who let this happen feared all along? That one day, whether before or after it’s too late notwithstanding, consciousness would arise that would connect humanity, that slow and overconfident ape, to the world it was taught to separate itself from. Demolishing the ultimate hierarchy. Bringing balance. It won’t be long now.

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