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Friday, August 21, 2009

Chapter 1: The Seventh Man

Watching the black waters of the strait slip past his window, Trevor Strong tried to remember the day he drowned. That day, after work, he and Jay had hit the Sea Otter Pub, but that was it, the last he could recall. Jesus.

He slumped in the truck’s passenger seat, his knees jamming into the dash board. At six foot three, he dwarfed the driver, Jay Dalton. On the seat between them, two lunch buckets rattled with the road.

Friends since grade school, Jay and Trevor graduated together and then went to work at the Deer River Pulp and Paper Mill. Since the accident, everyone said how great a friend Jay was, helping Trevor out the way he did. Jay never talked about it.

Beyond the truck’s window, the dawn sky was heavy with rain and low clouds hung along the coast like a ramshackle tent. Trevor could feel the cold weight of those clouds press down on him, crushing the air from his lungs.

Involuntarily, he sat up, coughing. Jay looked over.

“Shitty day,” Trevor said, aware that he was being watched. He leaned forward to look at the sky.

“You’ll be inside,” Jay turned his eyes back to the stream of taillights leading them north to the Mill.

“I wanted today to be…,” Trevor began and then stalled.

“Better?” Jay suggested.

“Yeah, better.”

They drove on in silence.

“Bleak,” Jay said after a time. “’Bleak’ is better than ‘shitty’.”

Trevor continued looking out the side window, but repeated the word, “Bleak.”

“Gloomy,” Jay suggested.

Trevor shrugged.

“Or dismal.”

“Okay, okay. Piss off already.”

“Just trying to help,” Jay smiled, the picture of innocence. “I don’t want you coming across as some uneducated loser.”

“Fuck off.”

Jay chuckled. The dark morning grew even darker as the road veered away from the shore and wound into the forest.

“Yup,” Jay said, leaning into the steering wheel and taking a long look at the overcast sky. “It’s one shitty, motherfucker of a day all right.”

Despite himself, Trevor started laughing.

“What the hell would you do without me?”

“I’d be fucked up, I guess,” Trevor gave the customary answer to Jay’s customary question.

“Right about that,” Jay turned his attention back to the road. In an hour, the traffic would begin running the other way as the Mill’s graveyard shift raced home to the uneasy sleep of night workers.

Beyond the last of Campbellford’s houses, past the Sea Otter Bar and Grill where returning mill workers stopped for drinks, dinner, or breakfast, depending on which shift they were finishing, Trevor and Jay crossed the bridge over the Deer River.

“There’s the spot,” Jay slowed the truck to take a look at the river below.

“So they say.”

The river looked so calm it was hard to believe that this was where it had happened.

“No big deal, right?”

“No, yeah, right.”

“Cause we could go back. Call in. No one would say anything.”

“No,” Trevor said. “No, it’s okay. I’m okay. I want to go.”

“Man, you are fucked up. No one wants to go to the Mill.”

Trevor almost smiled.

At two in the morning, six months earlier, Trevor’s car had left the Island highway and flown into the Deer River, landing inverted in the icy, waist-deep water. There were no skid marks; no sign that any attempt had been made to slow the car.

The night had been clear, no other cars had been involved, no indication of mechanical failure and there was little alcohol in Trevor’s blood. Given the price he had already paid, no charges were ever pressed.

Trevor’s car, a well used Camaro, missed the bridge almost entirely. One front tire had run up a metal support beam just far enough to begin the twist that would turn the car over in mid-air. There were no tracks down the riverbank; the car had cleared it entirely. The impact partially crushed the roof, smashing the windows in both doors as their frames collapsed.

Unconscious, Trevor hung from his seatbelt, submerged. Thank God, everyone said, Jay was with him. Although Jay’s alcohol level was far beyond what any rational person would choose to put in their body, at least it kept him relaxed during impact.

The water was not deep, but it ran quickly over the polished stones of the river bed. It filled the inverted car within moments, the cold seizing Jay like a vise on his heart, forcing the air from him and pulling him out of his drunkenness. The partially crushed car doors couldn’t be opened. He ripped at the door handle with increasing panic, feeling the last of his air being consumed. Forcing his way through a smashed side-window, he could feel something cutting into his back, tearing at him from shoulder to hip, but he had to get through, he had to breathe.

Bleeding into the river, gasping for air, he clung to a tire – the only piece of the car not fully immersed. After a minute, or was it several, he realized where he was and that he was alone. Trevor must still be in the car. He lurched through the water, found a door handle below the surface and tugged at it. No movement. He climbed across the car and tried the other door. Again, nothing. He looked around, searching for something or someone who could help.

Perhaps some passerby had seen the crash and called for help, but there were no sirens calling through the still night air, no chaotic dance of emergency lights, just the quiet, dark water moving around him. On the far side of the river there was a lumber yard, but it had closed hours earlier, not even a security light left on. In the dim light grudgingly offered by the stars, Jay could make out the silhouettes of trees lining the river and the ominous shape of the bridge overhead. In the water, one submerged taillight continued to glow.

Jay clambered across the car and pulled himself underwater, crawling back in through the same window he had just exited. This time, whatever cut him on the way out, went to work on his other side. He entered the car up to his waist, feeling in the darkness for Trevor – he found an arm, a shoulder, but no movement. He followed the seatbelt to its release. With Trevor free, Jay backed out the window, pulling the dead weight of his friend behind him.

At the surface, he checked for signs of life in Trevor, no pulse, no breath, nothing.

“Fuck,” Jay muttered into the night air.

He dragged the lifeless body onto the just submerged underside of the car. He tried to remember how to apply mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He’d learned it in swimming lessons a decade ago. Was it two breaths and a chest pump? Three? He hoped it didn’t matter and just began, doing the best he could.

Minutes passed, ten perhaps, maybe twenty, he couldn’t be sure. He looked at the night sky, silent and black. He was shaking from the cold. We are going to die here, he thought. Briefly, he considered leaving Trevor, climbing onto the shore and clawing his way up the bank to the road above. Maybe a car would find him; maybe he could save himself at least. But he couldn’t do it. He cradled Trevor’s head in his hand and breathed into his mouth again. Waited, and breathed again.

Car lights moved across the bridge above him.

“Stop” he shouted, and then, “Help.”

The weak calls dissipated into the night air. The car kept going. Jay thought he might as well have shouted from underwater. It’s over. He let Trevor’s head slip from his fingers. He couldn’t hold him another minute, another second. It felt as though the cold had seeped deep into his bones. His marrow had turned to ice. The current tugged at Trevor’s lifeless body.

Overhead, the trees began to flash red and white. So this is it, Jay thought. This is death. He allowed his eyes to close.

“I’m coming down for you,” someone shouted from the bridge. Jay opened his eyes. A light danced down the side of the river bank. Why does Death need a flashlight, he wondered before passing out.

“The rescue boys will be here in three minutes,” a cop shouted, wading through the stream. “Hang on.”

The cop pulled Jay and Trevor onto the underbelly of the car. Jay, somewhat revived, was able to hold on, so the cop focused his attention on Trevor, applying CPR until the ambulance arrived.

In the ambulance, Trevor began drawing breath on his own. One of the paramedics raised an eyebrow and shrugged a ‘you-never-know’ shrug at his partner.

Consciousness eluded Trevor for a week, and then, on the seventh day, he awoke. He had an overwhelming sense of being late – as though he urgently needed to be somewhere else. The room was white and bright, a hospital. What the hell?

“Wha’ I do ere?” he asked a nurse who was writing something on a clipboard at the foot of his bed.

“Mr. Strong,” the nurse looked up, surprised. “You’re awake. Let me get a doctor. I’ll be back in one minute. Okay? One minute.”

Trevor gave a small nod, trying to understand what was going on. “Awake,” she had said. That must mean he had been out for a while. What the hell had happened? How did he get here? The last thing he remembered was… he had to think. The last thing he remembered was, the Sea Otter. He had been at the Sea Otter. That’s it. Now he was in the hospital. Jesus.

The nurse reappeared with a doctor at her side. The doctor looked as young as Trevor. Jesus.

“Wha’ dappen?” Trevor said.

The nurse and doctor exchanged glances.

“One more time,” the nurse said, gently.

Trevor repeated his question. This time it came out slightly clearer.

“There was an accident,” the doctor answered. “Don’t you remember?”

Trevor shook his head, slowly.

“My ‘ar?” he asked.

The nurse and doctor exchanged glances again.

“Oh, your car?” the nurse said, with the excitement of someone who had just won a round of charades.

“It was a car accident,” the doctor smiled. “Good.”

“I think he was asking if it was his car,” the nurse said.

“Oh, I see. Yes.”

“’Uz I a-own?” Trevor asked.

The doctor tilted his head to one side.

“He wants to know if he was alone,” the nurse bubbled like a game show participant.

“No,” the doctor said, “there was another one.” Then, checking his charts, he added, “Jay. He’s just down the hall.”

“Is ‘ee oday?”

“Oh, sure,” the doctor said.

The nurse looked disappointed that the doctor had figured out Trevor’s jumbled speech without her help.

“He’s doing well,” the doctor added. “We can’t move him, but maybe you’ll be able to see him later. We just have to take a look at you first. You’ve been a hard man to talk to.”

The doctor moved a penlight back and forth in front of Trevor’s face, watching Trevor’s eyes track the light. He had to put a finger on Trevor’s chin to stop him from moving his head.

“Now touch the tip of each finger to its thumb.”

Trevor looked at him blankly.

The doctor demonstrated, raising his right hand in front of him and quickly tapping the tip of each finger to its thumb. Trevor attempted to mimic the motion, first with his right hand, then left and then both simultaneously. His fingers moved in slow motion and some never connected. Trevor looked anxiously at the doctor, waiting for some comment on what was happening to him, on why his hands weren’t following basic instructions.

“Interesting,” was all that the doctor said.

Using the back of his pen, the doctor traced a line across the palm of Trevor’s right hand and asked if he could feel it. Trevor said yes, but chose not to reveal that the sensation was remote, as though he was feeling it through heavy gloves.

The doctor gave Trevor his pen and a notepad and asked him to print his name. Trevor did as he was asked and held up the sheet. The printing looked like that of a six-year old.

The doctor took back the notepad, cocking his head to one side as he tried to decipher the scrawl. At last, he looked at Trevor, but this time with no smile.

“Not unexpected,” he said. “You very nearly drowned, Mr. Strong. You are going to have to be prepared for the possibility of… damage. But you are alive. Let’s focus on that.”

“Ow dung?” Trevor asked.

The nurse and the doctor exchanged glances, each hoping the other could interpret.

Trevor focused on more accurately pronouncing the words and he spoke more slowly, “ow… dung… uz… I… oudt?”

“Oh,” the nurse and doctor said in unison.

“Seven days,” the doctor answered, glancing at the chart. “This is day seven.”

When the doctor left, Trevor asked the nurse if he could see Jay.

“Not today,” she said. “You should rest. Maybe later this week.”

She was probably right. He had a lot to think about anyway. What the hell had happened and why couldn’t he remember it? Jesus.

He went back to sleep.

When the doctor arrived the next day, he had two physiotherapists trailing in the white wake of his lab coat. He asked Trevor if he would mind taking a walk. The accident had left no broken bones and no structural or mechanical impediments. Now, the question was one of function. Was Trevor’s mind still able to make the pieces work together?

Rising to his feet, with a physiotherapist gripping each arm, Trevor struggled to support his weight. “Even in a week, you can lose a lot of muscle,” grunted one of the therapists, bracing himself against Trevor’s swaying mass.

Trevor’s legs held, but they felt strangely unpredictable. Hesitantly, he took several uneven steps, still supported by the physiotherapists. Just when he thought he was beginning to get the hang of it, his left toe hooked behind his right heel and he tumbled forward. The therapists, unable to stop his fall, at least slowed it, and the three of them collapsed to the floor.

From the ground, Trevor let out an embarrassed laugh. He tried to push himself up but couldn’t. The therapists stood, each taking him under an arm, and pulled him to his feet.

“Tanks,” he said.

An older doctor arrived just as Trevor tried again to walk. Even with a physiotherapist under each arm, again his left toe hooked up and he began to tumble forward. This time his helpers were better prepared and stopped him from falling.

The older doctor nodded at the other and then left, as quietly as he had arrived.

“Wha’ izit?” Trevor asked the younger one, understanding that some communication had just taken place between the two doctors, that they knew something they were not telling him.

“Trevor,” the doctor said, his voice soft but clear. “Here’s what happened to you, as much as we know.”

Trevor listened to the story of his drowning, of how Jay had risked his life for him, of how he had almost died in the river, of how his car was destroyed and of the extent of Jay’s injuries. It was like someone was describing a scene from a movie, not an event from his life. He could not remember a single moment of the story.

“After all of this,” the doctor said, “you have to remember how amazing it is that you are alive at all. But I won’t lie to you. There are challenges. You were underwater a longtime and there appears to be some residual damage. Neurological damage.”


“Brain,” the doctor said, gently. “Damage to your brain. That sounds bad, but the brain has an amazing amount of redundancy built in.”


“Redundancy,” the doctor paused, “back-up systems. Like a complicated machine.”

“Oh,” Trevor said, an image of the Mill’s paper machine flashed through his mind, the most complicated machine he had ever seen. But it had no back-up systems. If a piece of it broke, the whole thing stopped. He didn’t feel cheered.

Two days later, Jay’s photo was in the Campbellford Mirror, under the headline, “Local Hero Saves Friend’s Life.” It was the photo from their graduation yearbook, Jay’s hair longer than now and a big grin on his face.

With the help of a nurse, Trevor taped the article to the wall beside his bed. He read it again and again, trying to remember the events of that night. Over time, the newspaper story became the memory and it felt less and less that there was an unexplained gap.

At night, Trevor began to have a dream of swimming underwater. At first, the dream was enjoyable, liberating, floating in warmth, swimming as quick as a seal, diving, dodging, turning. But then the water grew darker and colder, and he was no longer able to move. Something had him trapped, an arm wrapped around him and he couldn’t pull free. A pinching sensation grew in his chest, becoming tighter and tighter. He had to breathe but he was under water. But he had to breathe. He opened his mouth. Water rushed into the void of his lungs and his body convulsed.

He would awake, panicked, gasping for breath. Once he found a nurse standing over his bed, drawn by the alarm of his heart monitor.

“Are you okay?” she asked. He tried to explain about the water.

The fourth day after waking, Trevor visited Jay. His nurse helped him into a wheelchair and pushed him down the hall.

“Hey, man, look at you,” Jay grinned when Trevor came in. “They said you were okay, but I couldn’t exactly get up to see for myself,” he glanced at the bandages covering much of his upper body.

Trevor didn’t smile. He had done this to Jay. This, the bandages, the tubes running into his friend’s arms, all of it, his fault. Jesus.

Jay watched him for a minute and then looked at the nurse.

“Is he okay?”

She half nodded, half shrugged.

“A bi’ shady,” Trevor said.

Now it was Jay’s turn to stare blankly.

“A bit shaky,” the nurse translated.

“Oh, shaky? That’ll pass,” Jay said, trying to sound more confident of that statement than he suddenly felt.

“The dogdors say I'll be fine.”

“Well sure,” Jay managed a smile.

“Loogs light someone tied oden you wid can odour,” Trevor said, a look of concern on his face.

Jay eyes narrowed as he tried to decipher the words.

“Looks like someone tried to open you with a can opener,” the nurse said.

“Oh, feels that way, too,” Jay glanced at the nurse.

“Sorry… all dis,” Trevor said.

“It’s not your fault.”

“I drivin’.”

Jay was silent for a moment and then said, “Well, I never would have gotten to try these high-end drugs otherwise.” He held up his right arm and the IV tube that was feeding him morphine.

“You save’ me,” Trevor said, each word arriving slowly, “saved my ’ife. Tank you.”

Jay nodded once and then looked out the window. Silence filled the room like an unwelcome visitor.

“Tank you,” Trevor said again, but Jay kept staring out the window.

“Maybe we should be getting you back to your room,” the nurse said, taking the handles of Trevor’s wheelchair and turning him toward the door.

Trevor looked over his shoulder and waved, but Jay was still looking away. The nurse shrugged and pushed Trevor back to his room along the neon-lit hall. It seemed a long way to Trevor, much further than when they had come.

Jay followed the northbound convoy of cars into the Mill’s gravel parking lot. Below them, the Deer River Pulp and Paper Mill spread back from the water’s edge like a grey, creeping fungus. Smoke from the big stacks merged into the low clouds, and jets of escaping steam formed red ghosts in the sodium light.

Hell, Trevor thought, stepping out of the truck, I work in Hell. His stomach tightened. It was familiar and strange at the same time. He remembered it well enough, but what he couldn’t recall was why he’d ever chosen to work here.

The sound of grinders and chippers filled the air with the promise of destruction. He wanted to turn back, go home, find another job, be somewhere else, anywhere but here.

Just as he was about to turn away, Jay gave him a clap on the back, propelling him into step with the stream of workers headed toward the main gate. Trevor glanced back at the truck, and in that moment, the toe of his left boot hooked on his right heel. He stumbled forward. Jay caught his arm to stop him from falling.

“Easy there. Watch your step.”

At the main gate, workers lined up to punch in their time cards. The people ahead of Trevor performed the morning ritual automatically. When his turn arrived, he took a second too long searching out his name, and then an extra second or two trying to fit the card into the slot. A low chorus of complaint rose behind him. Jay grabbed the card from his hand and stabbed it into the punch clock.

“I had it,” Trevor muttered.

“Sure,” Jay punched in his own card and pushed him through the gate.

Just inside the gate, Bob Gould, the Mill’s HR guy waited for them.

“Hey, look who it is,” he said in a friendly sort of voice, the voice of an actor acting friendly.

“Hey, Bob,” Jay said, not slowing his pace, pulling Trevor along with him.

“Just a second guys,” Bob trotted to keep up. “I need you two to come have a chat in my office.”

“Our shift starts in ten minutes,” Jay still didn’t break stride.

“I cleared it with your foreman. Don’t worry about it.”

They followed Bob into a yellow, aluminum-clad administration building. Bob’s office was finished in fake wood paneling, and the furniture was covered in an orange fabric that had been popular twenty years earlier. On the walls hung faded aerial photographs of the Mill taken from various compass points.

Bob had been a few years ahead of Jay and Trevor in high school. After graduation, he went off to college for two years and then came back to the softest job in the Mill, and his body seemed to take the shape of his profession, formless and doughy.

His desk had several tidy stacks of paper and one framed photograph, a picture of him holding a salmon. The fish was held at arm’s length toward the camera, exaggerating its size.

“That’s a big one,” Bob said, following Trevor’s gaze, “thirty-six pounds. Picked him up just off Race Rocks. You guys been doing any fishing? Trevor, you got that new boat out yet?”

“Yeah,” Trevor said, “Uh, no, we’ve been to the ramp a few times, but…”

“It’s the water,” Jay explained.

“Oh,” Bob had a confused look on his face that faded to understanding as he thought about what the water must mean to a man who had nearly drowned. “Well that’s too bad. All that time off,” Bob glanced at each of them, “but I guess you’ll dust off that boat and get back in the saddle when you’re ready.”

“That’s a mixed metaphor,” Trevor said.


“Boats and saddles. It’s mixed. A mixed metaphor.”

Searching for something to say in response, Bob’s mouth opened and closed several times, fish-like.

“He’s been watching a lot of public television,” Jay said, trying to hide the grin that slipped across his face,

“Uh, yeah, that’s great,” Bob conjured another of his phony smiles, “anyway, Trevor, how are you doing?”

“He’s fine,” Jay answered.

“I asked Trevor.”

“I’m okay,” Trevor said, not slurring, pleased with how it had come out.

“That’s good to hear, and it’s good to have you back. But today, I want you to just take it easy, okay? Stick with Jay. He’ll take care of you. Get you back in the swing of it.”

“Sure,” Trevor glanced at Jay.

“He’s okay,” Jay said.

“I can see that,” Bob said, and then turning to Trevor, added, “Can you just wait in the lobby for a minute?”

When the door closed behind Trevor, Bob turned to Jay.

“He’s not ‘okay.’ I know the Mill wants to do some charity work here, but there is no way I want him touching any of the machines. He is manual labour only, got it?”


“He’s your responsibility. If he fucks up, it’s your problem. You got that?”

“Yeah, I got it,” Jay said, “but he’s not going to fuck up. He’s fine.”

“We’ll see,” Bob pushed a stack of papers on his desk to one side. “I know you want to help him out and someone in this place agreed to let him come back, but he can’t be a risk. He can’t slow down production.”

“And you don’t want him to get hurt, right?”

“Yeah,” Bob said quickly, “that’s right. We all want what’s best for Trevor.”


“Just keep him out of trouble, okay?” Bob stood and led Jay to the door.

“Everything all right?” Trevor asked Jay outside.

“Yeah.” Jay nodded. “Just don’t fuck up, okay?”

Trevor’s stomach tightened a notch further.

Walking through the Mill’s compound, grey lunch boxes under their arms, they passed beneath a conveyor belt that carried logs to their doom in the chipper. The grinding scream of the chipper’s mechanical teeth doing their work almost convinced Trevor to turn back on the spot. Jay nudged him forward.

Beyond the docks, they turned up toward the massive block of a building that housed the newsprint machine. That’s where they would spend the day. No windows, Trevor thought, something he’d never noticed before.

They fell into stride with dozens of other lunch pail-toting workers trudging to their various posts. Nothing had changed, Trevor thought, the rancid smell of the air, the threatening drone of machinery, even the stooped shoulders of the workers, all depressingly familiar. But as bad as it was, at least he remembered it. That was something, anyway.

Suddenly, Trevor came to a complete standstill, forcing people to swerve around him like a current around a rock.

“Jesus,” someone muttered.

The foul look that another man shot him was wasted as Trevor focused on something in the sky.

“What?” Jay tried to figure out what the hell Trevor was staring at.

Trevor pointed. A bald eagle glided just below the cloud cover, finding lift in the heat rising off the Mill. As they watched, the bird drifted closer and closer, finally veering away as it neared the big smoke stack.

“Come on,” Jay said, tugging on Trevor’s shoulder.

Trevor pulled away.

“Don’t you wish you could do that?”

“Sure,” Jay shrugged, “who wouldn’t? Now come on.”

Trevor refused to move until the eagle had gone from sight. Finally, he started forward, but just then someone flipped Trevor’s hard-hat off and it skittered across the asphalt.

Jay snatched it up before Trevor had even reacted.

“Who did that?” Jay shouted, looking for the guilty party.

Somewhere ahead, in the bobbing sea of hard-hats, a few voices cackled in laughter.

“Assholes,” Jay shouted, inspiring more laughter. He handed Trevor the hat.

“It’s okay,” Trevor said.


The newsprint building was the largest structure in the Mill and it housed just one paper machine. At its far end, the machine scooped the grey sludge called pulp from a pool and then pressed it through a serpentine path of rollers. At the near end, a stream of white paper flowed out at fifty miles an hour.

The heat of the machine washed over Trevor, embracing him. He remembered the heat, now. On the hottest day of summer or the coldest winter night, the newsprint crew wore the same uniform – t-shirts, jeans and steel-toed boots speckled in paper. The heat welcomed him.

Jay pushed foam plugs into his ears to combat the machine’s carnivorous roar. Trevor fished through his pockets for plugs but found nothing. Jay held out a new pair in a plastic package.

“Thanks,” Trevor said, his words lost to the noise. He struggled to open the package, turned it over and tried again. Watching, Jay shook his head, finally snatching the package back and opening it.

“Thanks,” Trevor said again, but Jay had already walked out onto the machine floor.

The newsprint machine was run by a team of six – the positions titled first man to sixth, with the sixth man being the lowest on the totem pole.

Cliff Darby was first man on the day shift, and it was his job to make sure the paper was clean of flaws. Part engineer, part artist, the first man knew every bolt on the machine and every one of its moods.

At forty-eight, Cliff was one of the oldest guys on the production line. He had been offered a foreman’s position several times over the years, but each time he’d turned it down. “I prefer to work for a living,” he’d say.

He gave a nod and a small wave when he saw Trevor and Jay arrive. The rest of the crew looked over and several gave half-salutes. Suddenly embarrassed, Trevor looked down at his boots.

Jay pushed him toward the lunch room. Away from the noise of the machine floor, they removed their ear plugs and Jay put his lunch box into one of the six slots above an abused picnic table. Trevor looked at the slots, each already full. After a moment’s thought, he set his lunch box on the counter. Then he decided it would be less in the way if he moved it to the table, but that was even worse, now that he saw it there, so he moved it back to the counter.

“Everyone’s glad to have you back,” Jay said, watching Trevor’s squirrel-like indecision.

“Yeah, that’s…. nice.” Trevor considered putting his lunch box on the floor.

The door swung open and Kevin Larson, the sixth man from the night shift, swept in, chased by a cloud of heat and noise.

“Trevor, good to see you, man. How are you feeling?” he asked, but didn’t wait for a reply. “Nothing much to report,” he said to Jay, “We made a lot of shit last night. Lots to put down the hole. But you got help.” He glanced at Trevor and let out a little chuckle. “A seventh man, good for you, buddy.”

Kevin grabbed his lunch box and headed out, the door closing with a spring-loaded slam behind him.

“Don’t worry about that,” Jay turned to Trevor.


“That seventh man crack.”

“Oh, yeah. I guess that’s what I am though, whatever that is. What is that?”

“It’s just temporary.”

“Welcome back,” Cliff shouted as they walked onto the machine floor. “It’s good to see you, Trevor. Jay, you’ve got a spool to change. Once you’re done that, you can both start cutting up the shit they made last night.”

“You got it,” Jay said. He liked Cliff, despite the older man’s general surliness. “We’re a pair of cut ups,” he immediately regretted the pathetic attempt at a joke made even worse by the fact he had to shout it.

Cliff’s heavy eyelids narrowed, and he held Jay in the laser beam of his gaze until the younger man was visibly uncomfortable. Finally Cliff chuckled, and clapped Jay’s shoulder, “Just cut up the paper, okay? And don’t give up your day job.”

Jay walked to the control box for the hoist, with Trevor trailing him a step and a half behind. Newsprint flowed from the machine onto enormous spools that had to be swapped out every fifteen minutes. It was a simple enough procedure when things worked. Hoist in an empty steel spool to a holding rack, break the paper from the old spool and get it turning on the new one. Once the new spool was up and running, hoist out the full one over to the storage rack. Simple.

But when things went wrong, it was something to behold. A full spool of paper was six feet in diameter, 20 feet long and weighed something like ten tons. During training, in a moment of enthusiasm, Jay had set the hoist’s hooks a moment too early, freeing the full spool from its restraints while it was still spinning. Like an out-of-control locomotive, it hurtled down its metal rails, smacking into the new spool and popping it free like a cork from a champagne bottle.

Members of the crew dove for cover.

Seeing Jay’s blue trainee helmet, the foreman just rolled his eyes and sent him home. A week later, he was called back and went to work on the line as if nothing had ever happened.

Today, Jay made the exchange perfectly, with Trevor watching his every move. After gently placing the full spool on the holding rack, Jay grabbed Trevor’s arm and led him to one of the previous night’s spools where it rested on the floor beside the recycling hole. The paper was uneven and filled with tears, and it had to be fed into the recycler beneath the floor. There, man-sized beaters would shred it back into pulp.

Jay took a knife from the leather pouch on his belt, set the blade in the paper and walked the length of the spool. A quarter inch thick sheaf of paper spilled across the floor. Trevor followed Jay’s lead, setting his knife into the paper and cutting a length of it away. Jay watched him.

Ten minutes later, they had stripped the roll of paper down to its metal spool. Jay hoisted the spool out and Trevor began feeding paper into the recycling hole. All he had to do was get a thin layer of sheets to the edge of the recycling hole, and then gravity took over. The paper slid into the pit and the beaters completed the destruction.

Three hours and five spools later, the discard paper had all been cut up, and the stuff coming off the machine was clean. Cliff was very nearly smiling.

That was when the winder went down. The winder was located at the foot of the paper machine, and it was used to transfer paper from the metal spools to cardboard cores for shipping. If the winder couldn’t wind, they would run out of space for new paper and be forced to shut the line down.

The foreman’s door banged open at the end of the floor and he stomped over to the winder. Two engineers appeared from nowhere and began speaking to the winder’s operator, the fifth man, Danny Duncan. When the foreman reached them, the four of them huddled in conversation on the far side of the machine. One of the engineers began making a lifting motion, and the foreman, taking in Trevor’s abundant size, signaled for him to come over.

Trevor started forward and had taken several steps when he noticed that the expressions of the foreman, the engineers and even Danny Duncan had changed. They were looking at something above Trevor’s head. Following their gaze, Trevor looked up. He had walked under a spool of paper that was hanging by the slender cables of the hoist.

The newsprint machine had a few cardinal rules, and chief among these was never to walk under a spool. Anyone fool enough to venture under all that weight was just asking for it, daring fate to make an example.

“Go back,” the foreman shouted, his voice crushed beneath the noise of the machine. Trevor looked at him blankly. The foreman put his hands up, palms forward, like a mime pushing on an invisible wall.

Trevor took the hand signal as instruction to stop so he continued to stand in place. He glanced again at the paper overhead. It seemed, somehow, closer than before.

The two engineers beside the foreman began gesturing excitedly for Trevor to come toward them, even as the foreman continued to push back on his invisible wall.

Trevor glanced behind him. Jay was waving for him to come back that way.

When he finally decided to move, his legs refused his orders. He was frozen in place as though the weight of the paper had already pinned him.

Jay, going against all of his natural instincts, took three broad steps forward, grabbed Trevor by the collar and dragged him back to the main floor.

The rest of the crew watched as Jay shouted at Trevor. For his part, Trevor kept his eyes fixed on a spot on the floor several inches in front of his boots and nodded in general agreement with whatever Jay was saying.

Eventually, Jay noticed that everyone in the place was staring at them. He waved to the foreman. The foreman shook his head, exchanged glances with the engineers and went back to solving the problem of the winder. Ordinarily, that would have been it. Just another mess up. No one got hurt. No big deal.

Danny Duncan decided not to let it end so easily. He grabbed the “Danger – Stand Clear” sign that hung from the winder, crept up behind Trevor in exaggerated cartoon steps and slung it over his neck.

Trevor groped around behind him but couldn’t quite reach the sign. Then he tried to pull the loop of rope over his head, and sent his hard-hat flying across the shop floor. He stumbled after it, the “Danger” sign flapping on his back.

Seeing that Danny and some of the other hands were laughing at him, Trevor flushed and abandoned the pursuit of the hard-hat. He stood up and turned his massive six foot three frame toward Danny.

The laughter faded instantly from the fifth man’s lips.

Trevor felt he should do something now, take some kind of action, but he wasn’t sure what. In a form of hesitation that bordered on paralysis, he just stood there, his size becoming less imposing with each second of indecision. Danny, perceiving that Trevor posed no threat, started laughing again.

For Jay, that just wouldn’t do. He went straight at Danny, swinging his hard-hat in a broad arc that caught the fifth man on the side of the head, knocking him to the ground. Then he bent over Danny’s prostrate form, grabbed his collar and pulled his face close, “Leave… him… the… fuck… alone.”

Danny squirmed out of Jay’s grip, cupping his ear with his left hand, and pushed himself to his feet.

“He shouldn’t be here,” he shouted, backing away. “There’s no such thing as a seventh man. We don’t need him.”

Jay frisbeed the Danger sign at Danny.

Danny was about to add to his list of unwise decisions by taking the conflict a step further, when Cliff intervened. Standing between the two younger men, Cliff alternately pointed his paper club at each of them.

“I don’t care if you two kill each other, just don’t do it here. Danny, get over there and fix your winder. Jay and Trevor, get back to work. Do your jobs.”

Danny glanced over his shoulder as he walked back to the winder. Jay picked up Trevor’s hard-hat and handed it to him.

“Thanks,” Trevor said. They walked back to the paper machine.

Jay didn’t even want to look at Trevor. There was a time, he thought, when Trevor wouldn’t have needed any help straightening out little Danny Duncan.

“Could have been worse,” Jay said, as he punched his card out at the end of the day.

“You think?” Trevor found his card and punched out.

Bob Gould was watching them from his office, a phone held to his ear. Jay noticed him and pushed Trevor toward the parking lot. Danny Duncan, who was walking just a few feet ahead in the crowd, glanced back, and then he began to trot toward his car, not quite so fast that you could call it running.

“You see that?” Jay asked, watching Danny’s bouncing hard-hat weave through the crowd.

“Yup.” A smile flickered across Trevor’s face.

“Running scared,” Jay chuckled.

“Of you.”

Jay looked up at Trevor towering over him, and shook his head, “What the hell would you do without me?”

“I’d be fucked up, I guess.”

“You’re right about that.”

Before climbing into Jay’s truck, Trevor took one last look down the hill. The concrete slab of the Mill was about the most… dismal place he could imagine. And he’d be back here tomorrow. Jesus.