Parts Per Million

A Novel

by Julia Stoops

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Chapter 1

Nelson is standing five hundred miles from home, surrounded by sagebrush, waiting for this to be over. There is no moon, only the sweep of Milky Way.

Next to him Fetzer is just a shape in the dark. Fetzer whispers, "They’re using napalm. To get the beams going. I hate the smell of napalm in the morning."

Nelson grapples for a sympathetic reply. Eventually he says, "I can imagine."

"Camera on?"

"Yeah," says Nelson. He's glad for the small talk. "It wasn't focusing. But Jen turned on her flashlight and I got it locked in on that."

Fetzer grunts in reply.

The Earth Freedom Brigade certainly chose a lovely moonless night for a firebombing.

It never occurred to Nelson, as he was studying the science of the natural world, that he'd end up being a part-time cameraman. He's a better writer. It would be nice if the Brigaders asked him to write their communiqué. He'd refer to data and present a cogent argument for the release of the horses. Instead, some kid will pen some hyperbolic paragraph, and Jen will think it's great, Fetzer will cock an eyebrow at it, and Nelson will sigh as he uploads it to the website. But at least being a cameraman at a sabotage action isn't as nerve-wracking as being an actual saboteur.

The soft sounds of horses float over from the corral. Nelson closes his eyes. He sees himself and the others as tiny figures on the vast, high desert plain. Tiny people doing big things to put the world right. All this risk, all this danger, the worth of it. He expects the familiar jolt of purpose, but it doesn't come.

It's been nearly six years since Nelson turned his back on the Forest Service. Jen and Fetzer had sought him out, asked him to listen. They'd opened his eyes to what's really going on, and after that, sitting at a desk making bureaucratic decisions about forests lost its meaning. He'd tumbled out of his desk job and into an exhilarating, terrifying life with them, spiking trees and blockading forest roads. Until one day a fellow activist sent them a VHS tape of some folks hanging a banner over a freeway. The video was so bad it made the action look like a joke.

Nelson and Jen and Fetzer had been sitting on a ragged sofa, late at night, the TV the only light in the room. Jen had said, "I'd be embarrassed to show that," and Nelson and Fetzer agreed. Then Fetzer crossed his arms and smiled at an idea.

"Wouldn't it be great if there was some team of journalists that specialized in direct actions? They'd travel round the country and document all these things that nobody ever hears about."

It was one of those spear-through-the-heart moments. Nelson had turned to Fetzer and Jen and said, "We could be that team."

How clear it all seemed back then.

"Done," says a voice, and Nelson opens his eyes. One of the Brigaders walks in front of the corral, snapping twigs on his way over to the van.

Nelson really wants this to be over. He shifts his feet, but bumps the tripod. Repositions it. Wipes his damp palms on his pants. There's a scraping sound, and a guy near the van says, "Quit spilling it on my fucking shoe."

"Shhhhh," says another guy.

Fetzer's voice is a close-by murmur. "And they're using aluminum-sulfur for the igniter."

It occurs to Nelson that Fetzer, with nothing to do right now, has chosen to stand beside him instead of Jen on the other side of the barn. If Nelson asked, Fetzer would probably shrug and say something like his feet hurt and he can't be bothered walking over there in the dark. But they both know that Jen is in her element, surrounded by these Brigader kids on the cusp of a firebombing. The energy coming off her big body the past few days has been palpable. They both know, even if Fetzer wouldn't articulate it, that there's a comfort in each other's company.

"We're like the Three Musketeers," Jen once joked, and Nelson had to explain that it wasn't a good analogy because the Three Musketeers didn't share their urgent need to save the planet.

"But still," Jen had said, and she wiped the cuff of her plaid shirt under her nose. "They rode around and did rad shit."

Nelson imagines the three of them on horses, and it makes him smile. For a moment it seems marvelous, beautiful, that they've stuck together all this time.

Fetzer was drunk the one time he told Nelson, years ago, that napalm bombing was what did it for him. It was like witnessing the end of the world, he'd said. He'd witnessed it burning through to bone. It burns bone. Keeps burning.

Bones. Barns. Paint it on the heavy beams to keep them burning. Nothing more pathetic than an arson strike that fizzles because your incendiaries are weak.

The barn is black against the starry sky. A flashlight swings a slippery beam, making grasses, shrubs and feet surreal, then the light bobs and bounces with footsteps that crunch across the dark. Maybe it's Jen.

Nelson turns on his headset mic. "Camera two?"

"Forgot my water bottle," Jen's voice says into his ear.

Earlier, in the dusk light, Nelson saw a patch of Sierra Valley ivesia, just starting to bloom. Those tiny yellow flowers! Ivesia aperta var. aperta. A Species of Concern according to the Feds, and too beautiful to lose—not that Nelson would admit it out loud. Last time he visited this area he was a grad student researching the genus. Now he's about to film an arson by a bunch of people stomping all over the place. Jen better not be stomping on any Sierra Valley ivesia.

Nelson tips back his head and the night sky fills his vision. The silence of the stars. If he'd carried on with his normal life, right now he'd be asleep in bed next to Lise.

His neck hurts and he brings his gaze back down. Over a decade ago it was hard work looking for that plant, eyes on the ground for hours. Finding one was like finding a jewel. It was only his thesis, but it felt like he was writing a book of jewels. Now, here in the dark under the watching stars, he's pointing a camera at a barn in the last minutes of its existence. Back when Nelson was doing his thesis, he would have despised who he is today.

Fetzer's profile changes, listening. There's a faint thumping in the distance.

"Helicopter?" says Nelson, and already his heart is thumping louder than the far-away sound. There's a guy in the van with a police scanner, but who knows if he can pick up aviation communications.

Fetzer's inhalation makes a quiet whistle in his nose. "That's—not a helicopter," he says, like he's not sure. He holds still. "That's a big rig. Compression braking on the freeway." The sound fades. Nelson breathes in deep and pulls his hands out of his pockets. Squints his eye to the viewfinder. Battery's full. Manual focus is on. Just like it was five minutes ago.

Fetzer murmurs, "That girl Emma was giving you the eye earlier."

Nelson puts his hands back in his pockets. Last thing he needs.

"She's pretty cute, don't you think?" Fetzer adds.

"She's what, nineteen? Twenty?"

Fetzer sighs.

The horses are pacing. One of the Brigaders, Brian, whisper-shouts, "Ignition in five minutes!"

Nelson looks over to where Jen should be in the dark. "Camera two?" he says into his headset.

Jen's voice comes into his ear. "Locked and loaded."

Brian stage-whispers: "You camera guys ready? This is it! Where are you, Jen? Wanna make sure the horses don't run you down."

Jen's flashlight clicks on, small in the distance, and waves an arc in the dark.

Brian checks in with the Brigaders one by one, and when he gets to Emma she calls out, "I'm doing another check for small animals." Her flashlight blinks through cracks in the barn wall. Stomping sounds, and her high, young-woman voice. "Fuck, it stinks in here," she yells.

"Quit holding us up, Emma," Brian stage-whispers, and there's a note of contempt that makes Nelson's heart twinge for the girl. "Wanna burn this fucker down."

The flashlight turns off, and there's the crunch of Emma jogging away.

"Everybody ready?" says Brian. "You, ah, the other camera guy?"

Irritation sparks through Nelson. He says, "Yeah," but his voice disappears into the dark. He clears his throat and checks the viewfinder. 'Other camera guy'. Sheesh. He drove five hundred miles to be here. Least the Brigaders could do is remember his name.

People always remember Jen's name. She's a large enough woman that in those flannel shirts she sometimes gets mistaken for a guy, even with her long hair, so the name helps clear up any ambiguity. And people remember Fetzer just fine, being so short and with his shaved head and his black combat boots. He looks like a little thug, until you realize he's a really good guy. But everything about Nelson must be average and ordinary to these Brigader folks. Forgettable.

Horses snort. They're not being released until the barn is on fire.

Nelson, Fetzer and Jen had argued with the Brigaders about it earlier that evening. Brian had declared the order of events would be fire first and horses second. "It'll drive them away," he'd said as he tossed a dreadlock over his shoulder. "And good video. Horses in firelight!"

They'd argued that the fire would frighten the horses and they should be released beforehand, but Brian just grinned and said, "Think of the footage!" And Nelson had decided right then that Brian didn't deserve to be cell leader. In the supposedly leaderless structure of the Earth Freedom Brigade.

"Besides," Brian argued, "fire's a natural part of their ecosystem."

When Brian had stepped away, Nelson muttered after him, "Think this is a movie or something?"

Now Brian calls through the dark, "Emma? Got the second gate?"

"Yeah," she says, sulky. Nelson can't blame the supporting actress for feeling unsupported.

"This is it, guys!" says Brian, his voice squeaky with excitement. "Ignition commences."

Small crackling sounds come from inside the barn, then Brian is crashing through the sagebrush going, "oh wow oh shit oh wow!" Then everything falls quiet.

Nelson's heart starts to thump again. Above him float constellations, but through the viewfinder there is only black. Nelson presses the record button until it gives way with a tiny click. It's a negligible movement under the magnificent wheel of the sky.

The horses shouldn't have to run past fire, for God's sake. Sure they'll be free. But already their social structures are messed up from being captured and corralled, and now they'll be extra traumatized on top of it. And here he is, standing in the desert, nameless to these people whose intentions are so noble and whose tactics are so messed up.

The crackling in the barn gets louder and the first splinter of yellow appears through the wall. Then the smell of smoke hits Nelson, and the oily diesel smell of napalm. The fire's in the viewfinder now, a flower on the side of the barn, then whoomf it goes, and it is like something in a movie, bursting flames and roiling smoke, and metal hinges squealing, the Brigaders whooping and yelling, and the horses galloping, pounding the ground, dust clouds billowing, horses black on yellow, light flashing through their legs.

Nelson is breathing fast. He pulls back from the viewfinder. The world is hot and lit up like an orange circus. The air stinks and roars. The smell of sage and dust and horses and napalm stings his eyes, fills his hair, invades his clothes. Nelson's sleeve is orange. His hand is orange. His fingernails are orange. Beside him, Fetzer is standing clear and sharp head to toe. His shaved scalp shines in the firelight. His head is down like he's searching—searching the ground for a jewel, but his eyes are closed tight.

Oh God, the smell of napalm. This must be a nightmare for him.

Nelson reaches to put a hand on Fetzer's orange shoulder, but Fetzer turns away and heads for the car. Nelson lifts his face to the smoky copper sky. Heat presses on his bare throat.

This isn't how it's supposed to be. His life. Not like this.

A single star blinks through the smoke. Then the star is obscured and a tear slides onto Nelson's hot cheek.

"Fucking amazing!" says Jen in his ear. "Burn, baby, burn!"


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