Dalton Stark had tried to sell his soul to the devil once in a room smaller than this one. As blood seeped from his thumb he remembered trying to make that deal. At the time he’d assumed the Father of Lies was on vacation, because no lesser demon had appeared with a pen and a piece of parchment paper. Now he was beginning to rethink that assumption. Perhaps the deal had gone through and he was living it now.
“Stark,” Stephens said from across the room.
Dalton glanced up. “Not a big deal,” he insisted.
Stephens looked at the blood. He seemed unconvinced.
“Really,” Dalton insisted. For good measure he picked the nail gun back up. “It’s fine.”
He pressed the guide sight flush against the wooden window frame and pulled the trigger. There was a slight hiss before the sharp crack of the finish nail being fired by thousands of pounds of pressure per square inch. This time the tiny metal projectile embedded itself into the wood and not into Dalton’s skin. Nowhere to go but up, he figured.
Half an hour later, the job foreman called for a break. The filed out of the work site and onto the packed dirt of someone’s future front lawn, a rich someone judging by the size of the other homes in the area. Dalton himself had only worked on these kinds of houses. He was from a different neighborhood altogether, far on the other side of town.
Stephens, Donaldson, and two Hispanic floorers that Dalton didn’t know stood in a huddle, blocking themselves from the cutting wind by strategically locating themselves near the row of port-a-potties. Dalton was thankful he didn’t have the urge. He’d pissed in front of enough strangers lately. They all lit up at once. Dalton was tempted to join them even though he didn’t smoke. What kind of greedy asshole worked a crew nearly round the clock in late November? But the question already contained the answer.
The foreman lit up his own cig and glared at Dalton through a haze of blue smoke. Dalton ignored him. He’d skipped lunch, yet again, but he wasn’t skipping break. He climbed into his beat up Toyota pick-up and stretched out in the cab. He pulled a bandanna out of the glove compartment and wrapped it around his throbbing thumb. The last thing he saw before he closed his eyes was the jagged, white scar on his hand.
Dalton supposed he could live without food, but the lack of sleep might actually kill him.
A few minutes later a loud bang on the side of the truck startled him awake. By the time he sat up, the foreman was already walking away. Dalton sighed and opened the lid of the small cooler sitting on the passenger side floorboards. He popped the top off a can of Coke and took a large gulp. He still had four more hours left on his shift that had started before dawn. None of the houses in the new subdivision were occupied yet, so there was no one around to complain about the noise.
Dalton slid from the cab and shut the driver’s side door. As he crossed the lawn, his watch beeped signaling the end of the break.
He worked gingerly around his still-throbbing thumb. It wasn’t that he couldn’t take the pain, but it brought back old memories and reminded him of what could go wrong on the job. He worked slowly, cautiously, ducking the disapproving looks being thrown at him by the foreman.
Fuck him, Dalton thought. His good will could only stretch so far. Dalton was grateful to have a job, but if he wasn’t careful, it would be his last.
He finished framing the window, setting the last nail just as the call sounded for the end of the shift. Dalton said a silent prayer of thanks. If it’d been a weekday they’d plug along until well after dark using tripod lights and a generator to see. But it was Friday and the boss man wanted to get his drink on.
It was strange how alcohol still affected his life in certain ways.
Dalton slowly put his tools away as the foreman passed out the envelopes. There was no point in hurrying, he’d always get his pay last. The man liked to make him wait.
Union guys got their envelopes first, thin ones with actual checks with extra zeroes denoting the overtime. Next were the undocumented workers, guys who spoke just enough English between them to get the job done. As a former union man, Dalton had been irritated by their presence on work sites. Now that he was among them, below them, so it would seem, he couldn’t conjure up any animosity toward them. Their envelopes were fatter, though not by a lot. Cash was king on a job site these days, though Dalton didn’t have to compare totals to know who got paid more. He vowed never to complain about the dues if he ever got reinstated.
The foreman finally reached him and tossed the envelope into the open tool box Dalton was loading. Dalton didn’t say thank you or even bother to look up, but he supposed he had no real right to complain. He’d missed days, a lot of days, back when his pay came stamped with bank routing numbers and respectability. Somewhere in the hazy days of early summer, he’d been officially fired. He’d had to wade through a dozen voice mail messages before that last one telling him not to bother coming back. It had been Adam who’d gotten him his job back, Adam who’d gotten him cleaned up in the first place.
As Dalton watched the foreman walk away, he wondered what Adam had offered him to make him hire Dalton back. Free tattoos for life? Dalton doubted it. The boss didn’t seem to have any ink, nothing visible anyway.
Who knew? Maybe the man had “HOLE” written across his butt cheeks.
Dalton pocketed the envelope without bothering to open it. If he’d been shorted, he had no recourse anyway. The foreman, so far, had not stooped that low. Dalton was still the best worker they had on site and there were plenty of other construction outfits in the city that paid under the table. Dalton could probably make more money with them, but he’d rather make amends instead.
He headed back to his truck and his open can of Coke. At this rate, he’d need an IV of caffeine by Christmas. He was on hour fifty this week, or maybe more. He’d lost count and he still had tomorrow to work.
Come Hell or high water this cookie cutter house would be finished for the holiday— A true Christmas miracle!
Except that clinking sound wasn’t a bell, it was the extra change in the boss’ pocket that he saved by not paying Dalton time and a half. Dalton didn’t care much. He was still getting his wings. Maybe. Eventually. Maybe eventually. He refused to dwell on it, though. Jig had warned him to be careful about depression, especially around the holidays.
Dalton had a job and a place to lay his always-weary-lately head. Things could be worse.
He hauled his massive frame into the rusted out truck and cranked the ignition. It roared to life despite the weather growing increasingly colder. It didn’t look like much, but it was reliable, at least. He reached up and rubbed the two-day stubble on his face and hoped no one could say the same about him.
He was a decent looking guy when he was cleaned up, if he did say so himself. He was also built like a linebacker, which made sense because he was one in high school. A partial scholarship had come through even, to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, but Mom and Pop couldn’t afford the rest.
They might have. God knows they would have tried for as long as they could scrape the money together to send him, but Dalton hadn’t let them. He wasn’t quite NFL material due to a slowly deteriorating left shoulder. He’d have made it through college, though, barring any serious injuries. But all Mom and Pop’s tuition money would have bought was a useless degree for jobs that didn’t exist in Rapid City for a guy like him and maybe a few more trophies to put on a shelf. In the end it seemed hardly worth it just for a few more years of gridiron glory. Dalton had let Mom and Pop keep their hard-earned money and enrolled in trade school after graduation.
As it turned out, he’d had a talent for carpentry. Mom had beamed and said, “You know who else had a talent for carpentry?” Dalton had never responded. He was a nice guy, but he was no saint. He’d had too many women and too many beers, even back then. That had been Mom, though. She had always seen the good in people. When Dalton and Adam had moved out, she’d adopted two more kids. Her philosophy had always been that everyone deserved a second chance. Dalton wasn’t sure about that yet.
Kids, yeah, because they were innocent, just victims of the shit hand life had dealt them. They didn’t deserve the short end of the stick just for being born to asshole parents. But Dalton had made his choices and none of them had been good after the accident.
If he was in Hell, which was debatable at this point, then it was one of his own making.
He turned down a side street and headed to a more humble abode across town, though not his own.