Images by Thomas J Gamble

Images by Thomas J Gamble

<Click here for an audio version>

When the pandemic first shut down the Salt Flats Casino in West Wendover, Nevada, her manager said, We’re family, and nobody lost their job. One week later, everyone in housekeeping and facilities got let go.

She drank coffee at the small formica table in her single-wide trailer on Cactus Street, staring vacantly out the dusty kitchen window. Beyond the wooden fence separating her modest dirt yard from the KOA campground sat lines of mammoth RVs hooked up to rumbling generators. They looked, she thought, like mobile mausoleums. She dialed the Nevada unemployment office, but invariably reached looping robotic menus or busy signals. Thousands of hospitality workers in Las Vegas and Reno were calling the same number. After three punishing days, she gave up and downloaded Laborfy, the app connecting enterprising independent contractors with flexible gigs.

The next day, she joined a landscaping crew at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the Utah side of town. A man from the church introduced himself as the bishop and told them the grass should be kept three inches high in anticipation of the summer months. Like most everyone she knew, she was God-fearing, but the Mormons with their desert lawns and gold-plated everything creeped her out.

Later that week, she drove her wheezing Toyota Camry thirty miles east on Interstate 80 where she assisted a department of transportation employee in pressure washing a towering but unremarkable roadside sculpture. The UDOT worker asked her if she knew about the Donner Party, about how in 1846 they trudged across the surrounding, waterless Bonneville Salt Flats before getting stranded for the winter in the Sierra Nevadas, and about what happened next.

Yes, she told him, everyone around here knows about that.

She painted and performed light maintenance work at Bella’s and Donna’s, neighboring brothels an hour west in Wells, where she locked her keys in the car. Saint Zita, she muttered irritably, pray for me. It was long past dark when the locksmith arrived. The next morning, exhausted and three hundred dollars poorer, she bought a magnetic hide-a-key from A & I Hardware and stashed a spare in the Camry's rear passenger wheel well.

Throughout the following weeks, she installed plexiglass barriers and adhesive floor markings outlining CDC-approved social distances at multiple West Wendover casinos, including the one that had just let her go.

One cloudless, arid spring morning, she reported to the old Wendover air base, a decommissioned World War II military complex where top-secret Manhattan Project crews rehearsed the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She was tasked with clearing rusted metal from a chaotic scrapyard on the north side of the base. Nondescript, boarded-up buildings framed the junk-filled lot. On her lunch break, with little else to do, she circled one of the single-story structures until the scrapyard proprietor, crimson-faced, beer-bellied, and reeking of cigarette smoke, squawked at her to fucking leave it be.

On her short drive home, she stopped by the Pilot truck stop and casino. She selected a premade deli sandwich and an unsweetened iced tea, which she paid for through a slot in a plexiglass shield she’d installed a few days prior. There were no other customers in the store. The digital bells of the slot machines in the attached gaming room chimed for no one. Back home, before she could sit down at the small formica table to eat, Laborfy pinged her. A third-shift custodial gig in the Grantsville area was offering $40 per hour, nearly triple the app’s average compensation rate. She accepted the job promptly, wolfed down her dry ham and swiss, and prepared a thermos of coffee.

The sun disappeared behind the mountains in her rear view mirror as she barreled eastbound on an empty I-80, through the Bonneville Salt Flats, past colossal but unseen hazardous waste incinerators and radioactive dumps, towards Salt Lake City. After an hour, the artificial female voice of the Laborfy app instructed her to take exit 77, then head southbound on Highway 196, Skull Valley Road. By the time she passed the ghost town of Iosepa—a short-lived, segregated Polynesian-Mormon outpost from the dawn of the twentieth century—a seamless desert night had erased the barren landscape. Half an hour later, the artificial twilight of another Mormon church perforated the pitch-dark vault over the Great Basin.

Slight right onto Stark Road, said the Laborfy lady.

She eased the car westbound onto Stark, where she promptly encountered a glowing military checkpoint. Three soldiers, wrapped in digital camo and carrying M4 carbines, emerged from a squat structure and shouted at her to turn off the engine. They blinded her temporarily with an LED incapacitator, then dragged her out of the driver’s seat onto the hard-packed ground. One of them demanded identification and authorization to enter the perimeter while the other two ripped through the Camry. Their uniforms bore no insignias, badges, or name tags. Terrified, she showed them the Laborfy work order on her phone. The soldier who’d interrogated her squinted at the app, then stepped a few yards away into the darkness. She heard him communicating with someone by radio, though she couldn’t determine the content or tone. He returned a few moments later.

Continue down this road, he said flatly, gesturing with his chin. Half a mile past town, you’ll see another checkpoint. Make a left on the dirt road just before it. One mile down that road, you’ll see a pullout on your left. They’ll meet you there.

Sweat beaded around her hairline as she continued on Stark Road. Streetlamps soon appeared, marking access points to homogenous cul de sacs of stucco homes. To her right, the glowing green of a Holiday Inn Express sign flickered. She passed a gas station mini-mart, a handful of sun-cracked strip malls, and what appeared to be a baseball diamond, though it was difficult to discern at night. Besides the occasional car, there were no people. It occurred to her that she had entered Dugway, Utah, the closed military city at the northeastern corner of Dugway Proving Ground, a clandestine weapons testing facility. Great Basin locals from Moab to Winnemucca referred to the base, only half-jokingly, as Area 52. She’d long known about the black site; in high school, her favorite book had been the post-apocalyptic epic The Stand, and she had read that Stephen King based parts of the novel’s super-virus inciting incident on secret bioweapons experiments at Dugway. Paranoid thoughts flooded her head. She shook them off, focusing on the desert road unrolling in front of her.

Soon, an eight-foot fence topped with concertina wire appeared. The second checkpoint. She observed the soldier’s directions and guided her car left over a bumpy dirt shoulder and onto a glorified two-track. The Camry’s struts creaked and moaned and she followed its high beams into the scrubby abyss.

A humvee was waiting for her at the pullout. Two soldiers also holding M4 carbines directed her off the two-track, over the rough terrain, and into a makeshift parking spot. Sagebrush scraped the chassis of the Camry as she hobbled it into place. They took her ID, phone, keys, and personal effects, placing them into an aluminum mesh bag, which they locked in an ancient green cartridge box.

Still on Cactus Street? one of them asked. She said yes.

Security precautions, the other said. You’ll get your stuff back when the job’s done.

The app knows where I am, she reassured herself.

They drove off-road into the desert. The humvee’s lights bounced up and down, bathing the pale earth and sporadic, scratchy vegetation in washes of electric yellow-green. From the back seat, she stared out the boxy window into the cold, inky emptiness. She was unable to ascertain a horizon line, let alone any landmarks, that might confirm the space as three-dimensional. Fifteen minutes later, they arrived at a remote jobsite trailer. An unmarked work van, the kind without windows, maybe navy blue or dark gray, she couldn’t tell exactly, was parked alongside it. The van’s brake lights lit up red and a cloud of exhaust coughed from its tailpipe as whoever waited inside started the engine. Her handlers from the humvee escorted her out of the armored vehicle and into the front passenger seat of the van, buckling her in next to yet another soldier in anonymized camo. All of them had been white, probably early twenties, their bulbous khaki helmets concealing short-cropped hair. She couldn’t tell them apart to save her life.

Is this Dugway? she asked as he drove the van further into the vacuum of the night.

He nodded silently. She noticed that his pursed face vibrated a little, divulging what she took to be a hint of fear. A wave of nausea somersaulted through her stomach. It climbed the ladder of her spine before seeping out in cold perspiration behind her ears and across her nape. When she shuddered visibly, he turned a knob on the dashboard, warming the cab of the van. He looked eighteen, she realized, nineteen tops.

The app knows where I am, she reminded herself.

Up ahead, the van’s headlights gave shape to a low-rise, windowless concrete facility. He parked beneath a lone sodium flood lamp outside the bunker-like structure.

This is it, he said.

He took her around to the back of the van, leaned his rifle against the driver’s side rear quarter panel, then opened the vehicle’s barn doors. After sifting through boxes in the back, he located a binder. He handed it to her, directing her to sign a suite of forms that she did not have time to read. He gave her a yellow, vapor-tight hazmat suit that included a self-contained breathing apparatus. It looked, she thought, like something from Outbreak.

Is this because of the virus? she asked.

He shook his head as he removed his helmet and climbed into his own suit. Once they’d zipped each other into the protective garb, he leaned back into the van’s load space and extracted a two-tiered aluminum rolling cart. Packed into the cart’s shelves were what she could only describe as futuristic cleaning supplies: stainless steel spray bottles differentiated by bands of various colors; black microfiber towels bound into sets of three with kevlar lacing; carbon canisters the size of wastepaper baskets with locking industrial lids; heavy duty arm-length gloves; several boxes of 6.0-mil contractor bags; and two large bench scrapers. He unzipped a wax canvas duffel and produced a tactical belt. She panicked internally as he wrapped it around his waist, noticing that it included a handgun, holstered knife, small radio, some kind of taser, and what she inferred to be ammunition pouches.

Let’s go, he said, picking up the M4.

Pushing the cart across the dirt towards the building, her heart hammered. The bulky suit made breathing awkward. Its clear face window, which was presently fogging, offered no peripheral vision. A lone metal door in the middle of the unwelcoming premises reflected the street lamp perched over the van. Marching towards the egress, her bones moaned with vibrational fear. She scanned the enveloping black landscape for an exit route of any kind. There was nothing but the forsaken shadow of the salted desert.

He punched a lengthy numerical code into a complicated locking mechanism on the door, then shouldered it open. Dim, twitching light poured out from the doorway and onto the tough terra beneath their feet. She stared at him, willing that he would go in first.

Move, he said, nodding his head at the entryway.

She backed into the building, pulling the cart up over the elevated threshold into a narrow hallway. The interior walls, like those of the facility’s exterior, were unforgiving concrete brick. Sealed doors ran down both sides, marked only by numbers.

Back and to the left, he said, stepping into the corridor behind her. You’ll know what to do when you see it. Room nineteen.

With feet made of lead, she began pushing the cart down the long passageway. The last door on the left, number 19, was open. So much light poured out from it into the shadowy hallway that she could not see what laid beyond the door frame. She stopped just short of the throbbing glow, her warm breath still painting clouds on the clear plastic window of the protective suit. She flexed her hands into fists, then relaxed them. She closed her eyes tightly, drawing a deep breath.

She turned to ask him how long he expected this to take, but he was not there. He remained thirty yards down the hall at the building’s entrypoint. Raising his weapon slightly, not at her, but towards her, he gestured from a distance in the direction of door 19.

Put on the whole armor of God, she whispered to herself, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.

She pushed the cart through the doorway into a clinical, blinding light.


<Continue to BACK\SLASHER\02>


This is an excerpt from BACK\SLASHER, out in print May 2022 from Humor and the Abject.

<Pre-order BACK\SLASHER>