Reserves


Fred Nolan

Fred Nolan is a technical writer for a commercial subcontractor in North Texas. His speculative fiction has been featured in over a dozen anthologies and magazines. He lives with his wife and two children.

Have you ever been to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve? There is no reason you would; the agency doesn’t give clearance to just anyone. It’s in a salt cavern here in Louisiana, you’d think it would be beautiful.

The place is hideous, though. Deep and unlit and choking.

How have I seen it, you ask? I woke up there once. Take a look at me, is it that hard to accept?

It was Angela who taught me about sleeping in the ocean, and that is how it all got started.


We were on a friends’ trip to Cancún. My lover was there, but we’re not together anymore. We split up before the year was over, you’ll see. Angela was married to Kyle at the time. We referred to them, jointly, as AK, like the gun. But they’ve split, too. We’ll get to all that.

Vicki flew in a day after we did and threw a beer bottle at Jackson her first night. The rest of the trip she guessed her punishment was coming, she feared a storm would level the place, blow us all out to sea. A typhoon for a Blue Moon, that was our limerick about it.

Rick and William were there, drunk and sunburned as ever.

As for the saltwater trick, Angela brought it up late on Friday. Two a.m., maybe two-thirty.

We were talking about insomnia, about what we had tried, how long we had suffered. Did we secretly enjoy the sleepless nights, that sort of chat. When Vicki walked up Angela said, ‘What have you two heard about being a wave?’

Vicki and I hurried to say it first: ‘Being a wave?’

‘I haven’t tried it and I don’t believe any of it. But what they say is if you float in warm ocean water, if you really sleep—’

Vicki was nervous already, ‘So you’re not talking about bringing it back to our tub? Like, with buckets?’

‘No, you walk out to the beach. You take off your clothes and then keep walking.’

‘No way. And how can you say some trick for sleeping is to just fall asleep? What am I missing?’

‘I said I don’t think it will do anything. But what I hear is you float on your back, it just sort of—’

I cut in: ‘One of you should try floating on your face.’

Vicki glared hard: ‘Don’t, Wayne.’ She was one of those, just talking about something made her panic.

Angela returned my smile, and I responded, ‘What? She said she doesn’t think it’ll work. Maybe it will if you try it face-down.’

‘I’m serious. Don’t.’

We each checked our phones and read from various accounts: blogs, Medium, Tumblr. Most of the pages were a kind of religious counterculture. One of them read: Your left hand and foot will drift out toward the east, while your right hand and foot will stay in the west. Make sure it’s cloudy or the starlight will drill straight through you. You are immaterial. If a boat shines its light on you, you’re finished.

In the end—if we pulled it off, if we turned to brine—we would be pale smears across dark water. We would have the best night’s sleep in our lives. When our eyes filled with sunrise we would collect ourselves, become whole again. Flesh first, then bone, the opposite of what you would think.

You can still find your things. Despite that it seems you floated off, you will not have gone far.

‘What about the part about burning to death from starlight?’ It was Vicki who mentioned it, though I was going to. What I asked was, ‘And what about the part about drowning?’

‘I’ve said over and over I don’t believe it.’

Vicki was out. And by now it was almost four: too late for Angela and me to try, either. We agreed to wander off some time the next night, the last night of our trip, so long as it was cloudy. After the bar closed, maybe.

No one suggested we bring Kyle or my lover, Gwendolyn.

Did I tell you? Angela let me kiss her the next afternoon. Our mouths tasted of rum and when we were finished she grinned around her straw. Her dimples cut deep and gorgeous. Cut to the bone, for all I knew.

She had huge eyes, and I let myself believe she chose that top with me in mind.


At midnight, when Vicki repeated that she was too frightened to try, I followed Angela past the breakers. We did not sleep much; we mostly kissed and touched in the shallows. At times her laughter was cut short with a wave. You wondered if your unseen, liquid fingers had skimmed into her mouth. I can’t tell you how erotic that was.

We must have nodded off, though, because at once it was daybreak and my torso felt unspooled. Our limbs were dissolved together the same as two flavors of milk, which were adrift on a third, vast, salty flavor.

Warmth from the gathering dawn woke us in time to put our bodies together.


Angela and I were friends already but we kept in better contact now. We sent each other texts which we erased at every step. There was something ghostly about that, as if Kyle had discovered us and the AK went off twice and we kept on talking.

You’ll remember the Iron Wolf spill near Houston; that was the second Tuesday in August. By Sunday the protests had reached the hundreds of thousands, at Exxon’s offices in Irving and Spring, and all along the Texas coast.

Angela texted me the following Wednesday:

you watching this iron wolf thing?

I wrote back:

Ofc

the protestors are talking about hiring boats

give you any ideas?

Not really

it gives me an idea

I did my best to dissuade her. Yet at the same time I wanted her to do it, I wanted to go. We could spend the days on board, making love in time with the ocean, at whatever pace it set. At night we could sleep within the spill, spreading out with the petroleum until we were acres. Square kilometers. They would measure our bodies in nation-sizes.

You know what they do to oil spills right? 

ik they burn them, that’s got nothing to do with us

You told me starlight alone would put holes thru us

yes, and those stars will see us from space, wyatt

from actual space

*wayne sorry baby

She sent an email to the group, then privately asked Vicki to agree, or appear to. She asked that of a few others, too, promising they could back out at any time. It had to look as though we would all make the drive to Galveston, and commission several boats.

Why Vicki? Because she had worked it out already. ‘She was there the first night, in Cancún. A woman knows.’ This by itself was reason for concern. If Vicki knew, everyone knew. But Angela wanted to keep her close.

That night Gwendolyn turned her mouth downward and asked, ‘Did you see this crazy thing from Angela? She has lost her mind.’

‘About a protest? Why’s it crazy?’

‘She’s getting a bunch of us in a boat and we’re heading out there with the marines and the USDA and the spill? Christ, no. I’m not going and you’re not either.’

It wasn’t the marines, it was the Coast Guard. And it wasn’t the USDA, it was the Environmental Protection Agency. But I had other things to correct her on:

‘Actually I am going.’

‘The hell you are.’

‘We’ll be cleaning this up for ten years. It might never get clean.’

‘You sound a lot like her right now.’

‘I mean, you and I got the same email.’

‘What she’s not getting is that Exxon will be sued dead, and they’ll lose every lease in the U.S. There’s a way to handle this without sailing to the middle of some—, some—.’ She stammered a bit, then finished with: ‘Some grease fire.’

We argued until something happened to her eyes. I knew the conversation was going to shift. No: I knew we would shift.

‘I get it, Wayne. She looks great in a wrap. But honey, she’s not going to fuck you no matter how late y’all stay out.’

Like I said, if Vicki knew, word was all around. Gwendolyn was crying in the end. I felt awful and twice asked her to come along.


With such short notice we couldn’t find an excursion boat, though a fishing guide agreed to take us if we paid for a full group. It was twelve hundred for the night and he did not once blink at the terms: leaving at dusk, dropping anchor at the Iron Wolf site. No need for bait. No need for tackle.

He was in his mid-thirties with lean, sun-wrecked legs and a large silver crucifix. He had named his boat Seven Eves; he made constant jokes about soyboys and bailouts and seaside elites. I liked him despite it all, and did not mention that the Texas coast was still a coast. I did not ask who subsidized his rent when his best source of income was parked in a marina.

It did not occur to me that we would drip crude on his deck until we arrived. He was nonchalant: ‘Don’t worry, money washes everything out.’ He told us to go swim, that he’d be fishing with Bill Clinton’s old partners while we did. It was one of those punchlines, you laugh because you don’t get it at first.

Overnight we swam and took the horizons for ourselves. There was a black chasm above us and one just underneath, and there were no ships, no sounds of ships. The water was almost body temperature and I mentioned sensory deprivation a few times, though Angela kept shushing me. The idea of a tank the size and shape of creation made her anxious.

But she did not comment that Seven Eves was drifting further and further off. A hundred yards or more. A speck we’d mostly forgotten.

There was no coast guard, no EPA or activists. No seagulls. No fish, that we could tell. And so much for my idea of photographing other protestors, of sending the image home to Gwendolyn as proof of something.

We had a deep, perfect rest, and when we woke our hands were miles from us. You had to plan ahead if you wanted to put fingers through her hair.

On the drive back I told Angela her mascara was running. Her only response was that she wasn’t wearing any.


If she was concerned, she did not let on. I think she worried less about her body composition and more about my car interior, at least for a while.

We bought towels at a hardware store in Conroe and began wiping dark, thick fluid from our eyes. I thought she looked sexy with black lips but she was intent on keeping them clean. She stayed at it with the rags, but the fluid kept coming forth. It was starting to drench our clothes. She unclasped her necklace, which her grandmother had left her.

‘Don’t let me forget this.’

She put it in the glove compartment with my unpaid utility bills. I tried making a blackmail joke but she didn’t get it. And I thought it was best not to explain.

She asked, ‘How would we even google this?’

‘You mean, this?’ I held up a palm, which was the same shade as coal.

‘Jesus, look at you.’

‘I keep trying not to.’

‘And it’s not like I could just: hey Siri, what’s this black Crisco coming out of my pores?’

Her phone answered: ‘I found this on the web—’ and we cracked up. It was probably the last time laughing for both of us. For good.

‘You don’t suppose?’

‘Suppose what?’

Angela smelled one of the rags and made a face. I knew exactly what she was going to say: ‘It smells like motor oil.’

‘Mine does? Or yours does?’

‘We both do.’

She tried a few searches but was quick to give up.

‘Your phone isn’t working?’

‘I’m not working.’

I nodded: my hands were slick on the steering wheel, and when we stopped at the Valero in Madisonville I could barely open the car door or get my wallet out. I could barely put the transmission in park. We tried playing it down. We said we’d pour ourselves into the tank to get better fuel economy.

But dark humor didn’t work. Everything was already dark, including the taste in our mouths and the heavy sensation of bile in our guts. It was dark crude oil that came forth when we sweat. Came from our tear ducts when we cried.

If Gwendolyn and Kyle had not figured it out yet they would now: the outpouring of 10W-30 was some new sexually-transmitted disease we had concocted and passed to each other, without once making love.

Amen, if we were going to be blamed for it we might as well do it: we stopped in Corsicana for the night (it was a few minutes past three). We had no luggage and no way to answer our calls, which kept coming. Our thumbs slid ineffectively across our phone screens, we could neither answer them nor dial out.

For all we knew we would die in that room, unable to open the door or knock on it, or use the hotel phone.

Our clothes came off in slick, easy gestures. We put towels on the sheets but there was no use. The bed was void-stained in no time.

Angela’s breath tasted of catalytic converter but I did not give a damn. I breathed her in and drank her. I gently bit her. She was three states of matter, then: gas, hydrocarbon, petra.

She spoke more than I would have thought. She was profane. She was propane, too. You found yourself thinking of hell almost constantly.


Vicki and Gwendolyn and Angela stayed in touch with William. With Rick. Whether they were deliberately shutting me out or it only happened like that, who could say?

Jackson was the last to stop taking my calls, which strangers had to place, after I handed them my phone and told them my passcode. And I’d be damned if Kyle and I would start over together. (I was damned as it was.)

I lost my job. No matter. Living alone wouldn’t work out, besides. What was I going to do with the front lock, the fridge? The coin-operated laundry?

What was I going to do with the coins?

I mostly wandered and dug through garbage for food. Don’t act disgusted, none of the trash I ate was as foul as my sulfuric breath.

I hitchhiked to Nebraska, only walking at night, fully covered up. I took rides from men in pickups, anyone who had room for me in his truck bed. My jacket was sodden with sweat-oil, and when I dozed, light petroleum came from the sides of my mouth. It looked like the strangest of mustaches.

I waited during the day, usually sleeping under a bridge or in a highway barn. On a map, my route was almost straight up. North star north. It felt like a pilgrimage.

I haven’t told you what my plan was yet. Only that it was magnificent.

When the miles and poor sleep overcame me, I checked into an emergency room in Wichita. I was certain my organs had turned to crude, yet every scan was inconclusive, starting with the ultrasound of my bladder.

Never mind the results, I was pissing motor oil and had done it in front of the nurses.

‘There is this life hack for insomniacs. You sleep in the ocean and it turns you into ocean. In the morning, if the water is clean, you turn all the way back. But what if the water wasn’t clean?’

The checkout paperwork read likely organ abscess, but I drenched it black by touching it. I was the perfect censor, I could redact any document.

The desk attendant said, ‘Did you talk to them about that?’

‘I tried. They won’t hear it.’

‘That’s not normal, sir.’

‘Tell me about it.’

‘Let me get someone.’ It was the second time she had offered to.

If I was bent on extermination, I could have just stripped from my clothes and stood oil-side out in the sun. But it was more than that: I wanted a ride. I wanted to be stretched into a thousand-mile shape, to sleep and dream. To stay fully enclosed in metal for a hundred hours.

Suicidal? No. Though whether I woke up again was secondary.

I meant to water-slide the oil pipeline from Steele City to Port Arthur, which was fewer than a hundred miles from Galveston, where this began.


In Corsicana she asked me, ‘How much of your life do you think you’ll just let go?’

I stirred. She was stirring, too. Her question roused both of us. I had fallen asleep to her soft hands, her strong forearms on my chest and arms. My abdomen.

It was a deep-tissue oil massage, in a way. But the deep tissue and the oil were one and the same.

‘What’s that?’

She said, ‘The things you want to do. I don’t know, volunteer at the SPCA. See your kids get married. How much of that do you think you’ll have to let go now?’

‘This isn’t going to kill us. Angela.’

She grinned. I could hear her oils respond to the movement in her face. ‘You forgot my name for a second.’

I had, though I’d never admit it. She reached over and touched my diesel throat.

‘It’s alright. It happens with affairs. Happens all the time.’

‘I’ll take your word for it.’

‘It’s the whole point, actually. Affairs are soul-to-soul. They go right past our names and go straight to the essence.’


I did not consider the distribution hub in Oklahoma, or the refinery in Kansas. So I must have been collected, left in a barrel, hauled, unloaded and poured out, all while dreaming of Angela’s coconut rum and warm lips. Her turbulent mind.

I woke up in that underground Louisiana cave with no chance of sleep anymore. My insomnia was crueler than ever, likely because there was no way to drown or swim or set fire to the place, and no clear way out.

The mind has to wander before it can sleep, and there was no room for wandering here.

Had I not remembered AP Organic Chemistry, what I might have done was name the place Chevronia and install myself as its eternal president. Serve as its listless tyrant. I never let myself mention hell. I did my best not to think of this in religious terms.

Instead I tried reciting the principles of surface tension. Tried listing the conditions which allowed liquids to oppose great forces, including the force of gravity. I tried repeating the adhesion coefficients between petroleum and various surfaces, namely mineral surfaces. I tried some examples of Young’s equation, and used trigonometry to determine contact angles.

The theory escaped me, yet in applied terms I found my fluid hands reaching up, my limbs pushing into tiny apertures in the cave walls. I found myself spreading, breaking apart, splitting into a network of arteries and veins. Of capillaries, really, because that was my only way out, was it not? Capillary action?

Had we conversed at the time, you would have heard one hundred near-silent voices. Had I any willpower at all, it would have been the sum of one hundred separate wills.

I cannot describe what my form was when I reached grade level. Better said: what my forms were. And thank god it was pre-dawn or I would have combusted into a wildfire. One that lived up to its name: vast and truly wild.


Angela, it seemed, did not mind holding out until dawn.

She was sublime. Tall and bulky. She had no face, at least not one the news helicopters could capture on film. Those choppers were a safe distance off, forty feet at least.

While my escape had carved me into scores of nightmarish cubist works, some other force had accumulated her into a single crude oil beast, eight feet in height, with the strength of a rhino.

She was in flames. Yet the way she strode through downtown Fort Worth, you could tell she had no pain at all.

“Circus Sized Man” Sets Himself Ablaze in Texas, Reason for Protest Unclear, read the chyron.

Angela promised me we would turn to waves. Ocean waves, radio waves, I guess it didn’t matter. She had lived up to the oath, good for her.

I had to turn away from the screen, one of a few dozen in that electronics store downtown (I was in New Orleans by then). If I saw her fall to one hand, or saw any anguish in her gait, I would have splashed right there where I stood. I would have been a rorschach pattern on the sidewalk. Not that I wasn’t a rorschach already.What was the last thing she said to me, after we checked out of the Corsicana hotel? It was worth it, baby. Not one of them can touch us now.