She was in pain, and that was my fault. I always misjudge my strength when I’m upset.
But the fact that I had her by the elbow while asking what the hell she was doing? That was hers.
“Sorry,” I said, softening my grip and my tone. “But I can’t let you walk away.”
She took advantage and jerked free. “Sure you can. Just pretend you didn’t see anything.” Her eyes narrowed. “Why were you following me, anyway?”
I didn’t want to admit the truth. We were both new to the job and spent most of our breaks talking and smiling at each other. The other pipeliners assumed I was sleeping with the hot girl.
I felt like there was a chance, though, so I kept getting to know Jillian through intelligent discussions during stolen moments. It was a tried-and-true method. I was lonely. She was lonely, too. That’s what she told me anyway.
But there were some days when I couldn’t get that alone time, when she would lose me among the dozens of other workers, enormous earth-moving machines, and maze of steel pipe. That was the case a few minutes ago, and I shouldn’t have cared. But at 3:15 p.m. on the Saturday before Labor Day, I’d wanted to spend as much time as possible with Jillian before our rare two-day weekend.
Rather than answer her question about my motives, I deﬂected. “It doesn’t matter why I came over here—I caught you. How long have you been doing this?”
To say I was upset with Jillian would be a massive understatement.
We were welders’ helpers. As the title suggests, our job was to do the bidding of our welders. Fetch their tools. Bring them water. Clear their pickups of empty beer cans in the morning, then ﬁll their coolers with new eighteen-packs covered in convenience store ice.
Each helper had one welder—I worked for my best friend Jorge, she helped my old friend, Paul—and everything we did affected their reputations.
That’s why I was angry. Jillian had just pulled out a cheap battery-operated grinder from the end of a pipe and gashed the rusted steel like a cutter on the inside of his thigh.
Leaving grind marks is one of the worst sins a helper can commit. When we were caught leaving scars, that section of pipe was supposed to be cut out and the ends re-welded to ensure the line didn’t have any weak points.
But beyond posing a safety issue, grinding on the pipe could postpone a job—the greatest sin of all. Money ﬂows through pipelines, and those who keep companies from their cash aren’t pipeliners for long.
Six welds had been cut out the last three weeks, and the bosses were on edge. Jillian and I were the only helpers who hadn’t been accused of severe ineptitude. Our welders had no repairs, so the four of us showed up every day in relatively good moods. Everyone else was mad as hell.
“So what?” Jillian pushed past me and hoofed it toward the rest of the crew. I’d followed her to the lay-down yard, where ﬁnished sections of pipe waited for inspection and transportation. Everyone else was parked about a hundred yards away, with most taking shelter in their air-conditioned trucks.
I jogged after Jillian and confronted her head-on, grabbing her shoulders.
“I can’t let you keep doing this.” I was talking too loudly, so I stepped closer and lowered my voice. “I have to turn you in.”
Her focus shifted to a spot over my left shoulder. I turned around and saw several labor hands and welders walking toward us.
Jillian took advantage of the bad optics. She slapped me across the face and ran a few steps before turning around, hands on her hips and forced tears leaking from the corners of her brown eyes.
“I told you, we’re over.” She pointed at me, continuing to play the distressed damsel. “Don’t text or call me again. If you do, so help me Bartholomew Beck, I’ll get you kicked off this fucking job.”
I tried walking toward her, but the crowd—which by now was nearly everyone—began closing the gap and yelling at me to back off. Jillian retreated into the mob and found Melissa, a fellow helper and the only other woman on the job, who rushed her toward the collection of jacked-up trucks.
Melissa lowered a tailgate and gave Jillian a boost so she could sit. Welders liked to have their trucks ride as high as possible, despite how hard it was for us helpers to climb inside and retrieve their tools. I watched as Melissa, an ex-Marine who had won several arm wrestling contests against other helpers, gently rubbed Jillian’s back.
Our weld boss, Zak, stepped between me and the rest of the crew and whistled to shut everyone up. “Welders, get a head start on the weekend. Go home with ten. We’ll see y’all on Tuesday.”
I needed to tell Zak what I’d seen. I stomped toward him, but he held up his right hand.
“I don’t know what that was, but it looks bad.” He was calm, but I could tell he was in no mood to hear excuses. “And I don’t need it on top of the other shit going on around here.”
I opened my mouth, but Zak cut me off. “I don’t want to hear anything from either of you until Tuesday. And if you make another scene like that, I’ll run both of you off.”
He didn’t let me respond before marching toward his truck, which was being swallowed by dust as a dozen pickups raced for the gate.
I waited for the air to clear and found Jillian. She gave Melissa a quick hug before shutting Paul’s passenger door.
Melissa immediately turned around and marched to Jorge’s truck. She jumped up into his bed and ﬂipped open her pocketknife, then proceeded to scrape off one of the stickers on the side of his gray welding machine.
Jorge hopped out of the cab and pointed at her. I walked their way but still couldn’t hear what they were arguing about. I also couldn’t read which decal she was removing, but I knew by its location.
Melissa was attacking the silhouette of a naked woman and the words labeling his rig The Panty Dropper!
THE BITTER SMELL of cheap beer and tomato juice poured from the opening of Jorge’s can. It was his second chelada. The ﬁrst had gone down in ﬁve long pulls.
I didn’t approve of his drinking and driving. But since I rode to work with Jorge every day, I also didn’t have a choice. I’d offered to drive once, telling him it should be part of my duties as his helper, but Jorge was proud of his hunter green truck and the welding machine in its bed. If we were going to crash, it would be his fault and nobody else’s.
I reached across the cab to turn down the cumbia music. Jorge stopped dancing in his seat. “Dude, what the hell?”
“I need to talk to you.” I tried to convey the seriousness with my stare but knocking Jorge off his party pedestal was never easy.
“You always want to talk.” He paused to take another swig from the tallboy. “You’re worse than my wife.”
I shook my head, unsure how to get him to listen. “That ﬁght with Jillian a few minutes ago, it wasn’t about—”
“It was about the fact that the hot girl doesn’t want to fuck you. Melissa already yelled at me about it. She’s scary, bro.”
I clenched my jaw to keep myself on track. “That’s not why we were arguing.”
“Oh yeah? What’s the matter then? You can’t get it up for her?” He laughed and turned the radio back up.
I muted the music again. “Look, I’m serious. I caught her leaving grind marks next to a weld. She’s been causing all the cutouts and repairs.”
That ﬁnally got his attention.
“Holy shit.” Another, longer drink. “Did she tell you why?”
“No.” I turned to look out the windshield. “I was trying to talk to her when it all went sideways. And Zak was so pissed he didn’t let me tell him.”
“Good. We should handle it ourselves.”
That didn’t make any sense. I was new to pipelining and didn’t know all the unwritten rules yet, but shouldn’t Zak be the ﬁrst to know if someone was sabotaging the job? Jorge read the confusion on my face. “You know that would come back on me and you, right?”
“The bosses look at us all like a team. Us two, you, and Jillian. And Paul’s your best friend, so it’s like you vouched for them.”
“Not best friend. Old friend.” I was constantly correcting Jorge on that point. The position of best friend belonged to him. Paul Schuhmacher, on the other hand, was an old high school buddy. Until a wild night in Oklahoma a month or so before the job started, I hadn’t heard from him in more than a decade. Paul was a year ahead of me at Hinterbach High and went to Tech on a football scholarship. Then he dropped off the map. At this point, I knew more about Paul’s father, a U.S. congressman from the Texas Hill Country who was constantly in the news.
We told Zak we knew each other, so he paired Paul and Jorge together. Jorge would weld one side of the pipe and Paul the other. That made Paul and Jorge brothers-in-law—a pipeline term that hadn’t made much sense to me. But apparently it meant we were like family, and Jillian’s actions were to be treated as a family matter.
“So how do we handle it?” I asked.
“We probably won’t have to do anything. You know what she’s been up to, so I bet she’ll just stop.” “And if she doesn’t?”
Jorge shook his can to see if any was left. He was putting it to his lips when I heard a deafening thud. The truck rocked to the right, then lunged like a bull trying to buck us.
When the pickup was safely parked on the side of the county road—Jorge always took the back way home to avoid police—we jumped out of the cab. He immediately inspected his side for damage, while I looked back to see what we’d hit.
A deer was sprawled out across both lanes. It was a doe, with at least one broken leg and a slick, heaving chest. My heart sank.
Jorge, as usual, knew what I was thinking. “Hey, I’ve been drinking. Forget the deer. We have to get out of here.”
“You know we can’t do that.” The right thing to do was to put the animal out of its misery. “Come help me.”
“I’ll drive off and leave you, bro. I swear to God I will.”
“Calm down. I’m sober, so we can say I was driving if anyone comes along. Just toss out the empties.”
Jorge nodded and got back in the cab. I walked over to the deer and stroked her neck. She kicked violently and let out a haunting—almost human—death scream. Though she was breathing, her side was crushed, the light brown hide soaked in blood where a rib had penetrated her ﬂesh.
I turned back expecting to see Jorge. He wasn’t there. I called for him again, but all I got in response was a middle ﬁnger from the passenger-side window.
I jogged over. “What are you doing? Come help me.” “I can’t do it, man. Just get in so we can go.”
We all turn into cowards in some moments. For Jorge, it was here, now, confronting certain death.
I, on the other hand, had known for many years that death didn’t faze me.
I was sixteen the ﬁrst time I took a life.
I’d been riding back to town with Dad after watching my sister run at a track meet. We’d seen that deer, but he couldn’t swerve in time. My job had been to control the buck while my father slit his throat. We then drug him to the ditch, where myriad insects and animals waited to feast on the carcass.
I would have to do both jobs this time. My knife was not sharp enough for the task, and I couldn’t get that close to the deer given how much ﬁght she’d shown. I jumped into Jorge’s bed and opened the stainless-steel toolbox. After sifting through the grinders and hammers, I emerged with the machete he kept to chip off the teal-colored epoxy that coats underground pipelines.
I tried ineffectively to slow my shallow breathing as I approached. She could sense what was coming and began writhing and screaming louder with each step. She managed to get on two legs but fell, the pain of her broken hind leg and ribs proving too much to bear.
“I’m sorry girl.” I repeated the phrase as I lifted the machete, still trying to reconcile dueling truths. I was about to take the life of another living, sentient being, which is inherently terrible. But I was also putting an end to her suffering, which I knew would continue for hours unless she was hit by another vehicle.
I couldn’t look at her while I did it. I’d never been proﬁcient with hand tools, and my new occupation had only slightly improved that skillset, so I kept swinging at where her neck should be until the screaming stopped.
I only had a moment to think about the life I’d taken before hearing an oncoming truck. We were still in the middle of the road, so I slid the machete between my belt and jeans like a marauder and drug her body off the blacktop, still asking her for forgiveness.