Mary called a couple days later. “I think I’ve found the perfect job for you.”
“Really?” He probably should have been looking instead of watching TV all day.
“You can control yourself well enough for this one. And as a bonus, the guy who owns the place is great at helping people learn to control themselves and all that good stuff.”
“Sounds good. I mean, I can light a lightbulb, but I can’t manage the same energy as a rotting potato.”
She laughed. “I think your problem is that you generate too much. Speaking of which, I’m bringing my probe over.”
“Yeah, to see how much electricity you generate. A tester thing.”
“Let’s go with calling it a tester, then,” he said.
“Call it what you want, I’m sticking with probe,” she laughed. “Open your door.”
“You’re here?” he looked around the corner to see her shadow through the frosted glass of the front door.
He hung up and let her in.
“Hey, here’s the probe, are you ready?” she grinned.
“Not until you call it a tester,” he said. Should he kiss her in greeting? Hug her? Shake her hand? How long was too long to wait before moving?
“Never,” she said. “Hold this.”
He shut and locked the door before grasping the metal piece. Mary looked at the readout.
“Okay, now do what you do for lightbulbs.”
He tried, but he couldn’t see if it was working. He didn’t feel anything.
“Interesting,” she said. “Hit it harder.”
He focused and tried to send more through the rod. “Is this even working?”
“Harder,” she said.
“Stop!” she shrieked.
The melted tool clattered to the tile. It stuck when Colin tried to pick it up.
“Ow, shit!” he shook his burned finger. “I’m sorry about that.”
She shrugged. “They’re expensive, but replaceable. Sorry about your floor.”
“It was me who did it,” he said. “I’m sure this isn’t the first time it’s ever happened, we can probably find out how to get this off, right?”
“Yeah,” Mary said. She didn’t even try to sound convinced. “So do you want to know about the job?”
They left the mangled tool and went into the living room to talk.
“A couple of locals, Isaac and Katrina, have a farm,” she said.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s probably technically a ranch, but everyone calls it The Farm anyway. They have animals, and they’re working on some construction. They’re really into natural healing and meditation and yoga and all that stuff. They’ll be able to help you control yourself on a daily basis. Plus, there aren’t too many people around and the only ones causing you any stress will probably be Isaac and Katrina.”
“What would I do on a farm?”
Mary shrugged. “Do I look like a farmer to you? I’m sure they’ll give you the lay of the land, see what they can use you for, that sort of thing. Do you have any appropriate work clothes?”
“I have a pair of jeans and a lot of t-shirts.”
“That will do. If it doesn’t work out there, I’m sure we can use you at CERT. Everyone wants to party there and use the amenities, not to mention the ones who practically live there full time, but getting someone to clean up is like pulling teeth.”
“It sounds good to me, I guess.” Colin started a pot of coffee. A farm. Not only a farm, construction on a farm. His grandfather would be rolling in his grave. Abelardo Delgado called that kind of job “Mexican work”, and refused to treat the people doing that work as equals. Colin was a teenager and Abelardo was dead before Colin realized his grandfather wasn’t Mexican himself. Abelardo was an old racist Cuban who saw his third wife, Betty, as a pretty, pale accessory, like his white suit. Colin never knew Betty, but according to his own mother, she was always sweet, quiet, and busy.
“What are you doing?” Mary asked.
“What?” Colin grabbed a pair of mugs.
“Why?” The water started to bubble in the machine.
“We’re going to the farm,” she said.
“Do you have something better to do?”
He sighed. “You’re never going to stop using that, are you?”
She kissed his cheek and took the mugs. “When you have something better to do, I’ll come up with another line. I’ll pour when it’s done. Get ready.”
The farm was everything Mary promised. Cows, chickens, horses, plants in rows- everything. He wasn’t looking forward to working there.
“They probably don’t have much for you to do yet, I sprang this on them this morning, too,” Mary said. “But at least we can get the introductions and the tour out of the way.”
“That’s good,” he said. “I’m probably not dressed for farm work anyway.”
“You’re wearing jeans and a ratty old shirt,” she said. “That’s perfect.”
“Excuse me, but this shirt is fine quality craftsmanship. It says so right on the tag.” He smiled. “I meant my shoes. Boots would be better, right?”
“I’ll take you to the shoe store later.”Mary parked the car and tied her hair back with a white string. “Come on.”
They got out and started toward the little house. A sudden gust kicked up dirt so Colin had to close his eyes.
“Isaac!” Mary shouted.
The wind settled and a naked man appeared. At least Colin was dressed more appropriately for farm work than the owner of the place.
“Howdy. You’re Colin right?” Isaac extended his hand.
Colin shook it. “Hi.”
“Mary hasn’t told me much, but I’m sure we’ll get along fine,” Isaac started toward the house. “Mary, you can scoot along darlin’. Fetch him around seven or eight. Katrina’ll call you if there’s a problem.”
“You got it, boss,” Mary said. “Take care of him for me.”
“I always do,” Isaac said.
So much for introductions and the lay of the land. He had no ride and no food in his belly, and many hours of work ahead of him.
“Mary told me some,” Isaac said after she drove off. “You’ve got some control issues, that right?”
“Yeah.” Colin felt self-conscious in the presence of this wiry old man. What if he asked for a demonstration? “She said you could teach me meditation or something to help out.”
“That I can.” They passed the house, kept going to a shed near some stables. Isaac stopped in for some clothes and gloves. “Put these on. You’ll be more useful with some skin left on your hands.”
“Does meditation require gloves?” Colin asked. He put them on. Obviously he was here to work. He’d hoped for some time to adjust to the idea of farm work, but like with everything else in his new life, it happened quick.
“For you it does,” Isaac said. “How old are you, son?”
“I just turned thirty-two.”
“Well, happy birthday. I expected you to be a man, ready for man’s work, but you’ve got a little bit of that teenager attitude, don’t you? If you’re not ready to work, you can come back any time. I can be a great help to you, but I’m not your daddy or your nanny, so you need to help yourself first.”
“I’m ready,” Colin said. “Mary kind of caught me off guard with this. I wasn’t expecting to start working today.”
“What the hell did you think you were coming out here for?” Isaac laughed and started toward a hill.
Colin flushed. “I don’t know. Get the lay of the land, maybe a meditation lesson.”
“Oh we’ll get to the candles and quiet side of it all. First you need to get in touch with the creature side.”
“The creature side?”
“Your animal side. That body you’ve been walking around in for thirty-two years.”
Colin huffed and puffed behind Isaac on the way up the hill. For someone who’d been running for sixteen years, he should be in better shape.
Isaac unlocked the barn when they reached it, and pulled open one of the massive doors. Light poured into the dusty, unfinished interior.
“Alright,” Isaac clapped the dust from his hands. “We’ve got bags of concrete on one side, and a concrete mixer on the other. I bet you know where this is going.”
“Put the concrete in the mixer?”
“See? I knew we’d get along fine. You’ll want to add one bucket of water for every bag as well.”
Colin looked at the little bucket. One gallon, one bag. Easy enough. But there were a lot of bags. “Got it.”
“Make sure you toss out any rocks in the concrete. We want it nice and smooth.”
“Great, Katrina or myself will be back to check up on you. I’ve got to see to the animals.”
Isaac stayed long enough to watch Colin empty the first bag into the mixer before he left. Colin worked alone, picking up one bag at a time and using a trowel to sift through the grainy mix to check for rocks. He managed the first four bags with almost no trouble. Every bag after that felt heavier than the last.
Eventually he felt like his arms might fall off, but he knew for sure that if he stopped, he’d never get started again. He lost count somewhere between twenty and thirty bags.
He finished them all, and sat on a beam in front of the little pile of rocks, surrounded by concrete dust. He wiped his forehead with his filthy sleeve. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to lift his arms again.
“Oh, you’ve made a mess of the place, haven’t you?”
Colin looked to the doorway, where a woman who had to be Katrina stood silhouetted in the bright daylight. He forced a weak smile. “I guess so.”
“I’m Katrina,” she said, stepping into the barn. “Isaac’s wife and half owner of this farm. You must be Mary’s new friend.”
“Colin,” he said. He extended a hand toward her, looked at it, and lowered it. “Sorry.”
“That’s alright. Just came by to see how you’re doing. Hope you weren’t sitting there too long.”
“Not at all. I just sat down.” He chuckled. “I don’t know how effectively I’ll be able to stand again right now.”
She smiled. “Everyone who works deserves a break now and then. Just don’t wait too long, or Isaac will have a fit.”
Isaac laughed from a smaller doorway. “I’ll have a fit! Ha! Not likely, compared to you, Katrina.”
She waved a dismissive hand, but kissed her husband when he reached them. “Here, Colin, I’ll help you out with the water. I understand your talent is fire?”
Colin hesitated, then nodded. If Mary insisted on keeping up the charade, he’d have to go along with it.
Katrina kicked aside a pile of empty bags to expose a spigot against the wall. Like a conductor, she waved her hand and the water flowed. It seemed to bounce off the ground into the mixer.
“How about you?” she asked. “You have anything to drink? I’ve got some bottles of water out in the wagon. And a sandwich if you’re hungry. Pretty sure it’s cheeses and tomato. Nothing too exciting.”
“That would be great, thank you.” Colin tried to stand, but his legs protested.
Isaac laughed. “I’ll get it.”
Katrina finished up with the water and Isaac returned with two bottles of water and the plastic wrapped sandwich.
“If you’ve got a broom, I’ll clean up the mess,” Colin said.
“Don’t worry about it,” Isaac said. “I’ll handle it.”
“Might want to tuch that into your shirt and close your eyes,” Katrina said.
Colin obeyed, but didn’t close his mouth in time to avoid the blast of dusty air. When Colin opened his eyes again to watch the last of the concrete dust settle into the bottom of the prepared area.
“Don’t get used to it,” Katrina said. “We were planning on doing this ourselves, so we aren’t going out of our way to help you right now. If you stay on, we’ll leave you to be much more independent. And you’ll be in charge of your own food and drinks.”
“Though we’re always happy to help in a rough spot,” Isaac said.
Colin unwrapped his sandwich. Cheese and tomato was probably the best sandwich he could have eaten. The sweat and concrete smells didn’t impact the flavors too much. Then again, Colin had definitely eaten worse.
Isaac switched the mixer on.
“Well, I’ll let you boys get back to it. Nice meeting you, Colin. See you at the house, Isaac.”
“You too,” Colin said.
“See ya,” said Isaac. “So, are you good and sore yet?”
Colin nodded and mumbled through a bite of his sandwich.
“Enjoy your break, then. We’ll be laying the concrete in just a few minutes.”
“What are you building in here?” Colin asked. “This is the biggest barn I’ve ever seen. Not to mention they don’t normally have concrete floors.”
“It was a barn,” Isaac confirmed. “Turns out it’s actually too big, so we’re turning it into a hotel. A bed and breakfast type thing. Going to put in some proper rooms, build a road leading down here, put un some windows and walls, the whole deal.
“Sounds nice,” Colin said.
Isaac nodded. “It’ll be extra money for the cause. As much as some think we should just wipe out the humans and rebuild, like Katrina does, some of us don’t see that as an option. Money fixes everything with humans, so we may as well try to blend in and play on their terms.”
“So you don’t think we’re human, either?” Colin stood and stretched. His back cracked and his arms creamed for mercy, but he was ready to work again.
“I think it’s pretty clear we ain’t,” Isaac said. “Humans can do a lot of things, but they can’t control or become an element. I don’t know if there’s ever been any DNA testing, but I bet you it wouldn’t come back human. Come on, let’s pour.”
Colin helped Isaac pour the concrete. DNA testing? Someone had to have done it before. With the varieties of elementals in CERT, at least one of them had to be a doctor or a scientist of some kind.
“A Positive,” Colin said.
“What?” Isaac shouted over the whirring and splashing of concrete.
“My blood type. It’s A Positive.”
Isaac shrugged. “I’ve never seen a man turn into a tornado or a woman into a hurricane, that’s all I’m saying. Plus, haven’t you seen that video where that couple goes to a bunch of different labs and they find out DNA isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Yeah, they’re even throwing it out of some court cases now,” Isaac said. “There’s a huge contamination rate. Too much risk of human error.”
“Yeah, I’m serious. It was that couple, the Debunker Buddies or something like that.”
They finished pouring and smoothing the concrete in silence, except for the odd “look out” or “missed a spot.” When they finished, Isaac clapped Colin on the shoulder.
“Well, son, I’d ordinarily ask someone of your talent to help it out a little, but since you came here for control issues and I don’t want a cracked floor, let’s go work on the meditation thing.”
Colin’s legs felt like jelly, but they somehow carried him back to the little house. Isaac told Colin to sit on a bench on the little patio and poured a big glass of water for each of them.
“Alright son, just breathe for right now. Sit up straight.”
Colin straightened. “Should I close my eyes?”
“You can if you want. Just breathe. That’s the only thing you should be doing now.”
“Should I be clearing my mind?” That wasn’t going to happen with his body this tired. If he cleared his mind, he’d fall asleep.
“If it helps.”
“What if I can’t?”
Isaac laughed. “What if you can’t breathe? Well, you can’t seem to stop talking so I think you’ll be fine there.”
Colin smiled, an embarrassed little spark jumped on the back of his neck. “Okay. Just breathe. Got it.”
Sitting and breathing was somehow a horrible, uncomfortable challenge. His legs twitched, his posture slipped, and every time he thought he’d gotten the hang of it, something itched. Isaac sat beside him the whole time, looking out at the sunset, occasionally shifting or taking a sip of water, but otherwise still.
Colin looked at the sunset. Despite the dried sweat and concrete on his skin and the promise of pain in his muscles, he felt good. The setting sun painted the sky pink and orange, the clouds highlighted with bright white and yellow. As the sun slipped lower, the pink turned to purple.
“It’s really beautiful out here,” he said.
“That it is,” Isaac confirmed.
They both turned to the sound of a car pulling up on the dirt. Mary stepped out.
“Hey, how’d it go?” she asked.
“It went great,” Colin said.
“He did okay,” Isaac said. “In a few months, he should be downright useful around here.”
“Well, that’s a glowing review if I ever heard one,” Mary said. “You done for the day?”
Colin shook Isaac’s hand before getting up to join Mary.
“If you’re up for it,” Isaac said. “We can use someone three or four days a week. The pay won’t be great, but I can put you up in the office if you need a place to stay. “We’ve got a few other places for lodging, but we have humans who live here, too sometimes. And of course I’ll be more than happy to help you find control in whatever ways I can.”
“Thanks,” Colin said. “Should I be back tomorrow?”
Isaac laughed. “If you feel up to it, come on by before six. Any later than that and we’ll be hard to find. I won’t expect you back until Monday, though.”
“Come on,” Mary said. “Let me buy you that dinner we missed. Thanks again, Isaac.”
Mary joined Colin in the shower. Her soft hands helped wash away the filth of the day while her strong fingers worked his sore muscles. She scrubbed his scalp with her fingertips to dislodge the bits of hardened concrete.
He sneezed. “There’s concrete in my sinuses.”
They laughed. Mary kissed him and pulled him from the shower onto the bed. He already felt more in control and she noticed. She kissed him, toyed with him, brought him to the edge of his patience, but he didn’t shock her. She smiled and eased him into her. “It’s already working.”
“I’m already too sore to move,” he said.
She bent down to kiss him. “Don’t worry, I’ll do all the work.”
She did all the work, and afterward, she rolled over to lay beside him. “Are you still hungry?”
“Starving,” he said. “But I don’t think I can move for a while. I’ve still got frozen burritos. I’ll be fine.”
She laughed. “We need to get your diet together. And probably change your sheets.”
“It’s water, it’ll dry,” he said.
“It’s a lot of water,” she protested. “We should have dried off first. Where do you keep your linens? I’ll get the new ones and you’ll only have to get up for a minute.
He caught her arm before she could get out of bed and held her close. “How do you do it?”
“You’re good at everything and you’re always in control. How do you do it?”
She settled in beside him. “I’m a badass.”
“You are,” he agreed.
“It’s not easy, but I guess I never realized I had other options. You remember how shows were when we were kids, right? Do you remember how many black girls there were? Or black women? My dad would point it out to me all the time. There were villains, or there were the strong ones. The ones who are next-level bad ass. Or the token friend, the sassy black friend who snaps her fingers and tells it like it is.” She sighed. “I’d rather be the villain.”
Colin hugged her tighter.
“Anyway,” she said, breaking them both out of the strange cocoon of unexpected intimacy. “I can give you a ride for the rest of this week and next, but you’ll have to drive yourself eventually. Where’s the linen closet? I’m going to get the new sheets.”
“In the hallway,” Colin said. “And, Mary? Thank you.”