FICTION WINNER- Remote Control

The only light in Martha's bedroom comes from the nineteen-inch television across the room. Unable to concentrate on the book some well-meaning friend gave her, she flips the channels, looking for something to occupy the rest of the hours until daylight. She passes the cooking shows and the infomercials, unconsciously vetoing each program in the impossibly small increment of time it takes for her thumb to press the "channel up" arrow.  She's in danger of exhausting her options as the numbers go into three digits.

Now the screen shows a cable news reporter in her mid-twenties standing next to a heavy-set woman in her mid-forties. The older woman's face has a typical Scots-Irish roundness, light complexion prone to freckling, and puffiness around the eyes. She reminds Martha of someone, maybe her grandmother when she was younger, but like a wax museum version.

Normally when she stumbles on a news channel she skips past it quickly, but she feels this woman's face drawing her in, disabling her thumb. The muscles in the woman's face have gone slack; she's given up on using them to form expressions. Martha has a feeling this woman needs to use all her energy to keep her insides from shattering. Without warning, the image is snatched away and replaced by a different reporter, a different scene.

"It's been thirty-seven hours," says Henry Sondberg. "We don't know for sure how much oxygen remains underground." Even though the hilltop where he's standing is in the same time zone as Martha's home in the Washington DC suburbs, it looks like full daylight there. The foreground is flooded in camera lights, while far in the background a yellow glow emanates from the windows of a church. Henry interviews a representative of the United Mine Workers who speculates about the location of the explosion and the culpability of the mining company, then says, "Back to you, Jenna."

Feeling a hot flash coming on, Martha flings off her covers. Her husband, Steve, stirs and opens his eyes. "Go back to sleep," she tells him.

He pats her on the arm and drops off again.

The young reporter and the older woman are somewhere on another part of that same hillside.

"I'm here with Rose Campbell, whose son Jamie is one of the trapped miners," Jenna says.

Martha gasps, suddenly understanding what she saw in Rose's face.

"Mrs. Campbell, how are you feeling?" Jenna thrusts the microphone under her nose.

Rose stares ahead into the camera lens. 

Martha winces and shakes her head. That's not a question a mother should be asked at a time like this.

Jenna tries again. "Tell us something about Jamie."

Rose holds up a photo of a handsome boy with a crewcut wearing a prom tuxedo, his arm around a petite girl with red hair. The cameraman keeps adjusting his angle to compensate for the glare of the lights on the glass of the gilded frame. 

"He just started working in the mine in June– right after he finished high school."

Scarcely a month ago, at the prep school in suburban Maryland where she has taught English for twenty years, Martha saw hundreds like Jamie lined up at their graduation ceremony, wearing their uniforms of hope and expectation.


She watches for hours, waiting for another glimpse of Rose. Two weeks ago, Martha would have been quick to dismiss this sort of woman– overweight, bad haircut, wearing a t-shirt with the logo of a cheap beer, lacking the ambition to get out of that dead-end Appalachian town. She would have wondered why Rose and people like her were so surprised when their family members' dangerous jobs put them in situations like this.

In the newsroom, a man named Bob sits behind an electrically shiny desk. "Again, an explosion at a mine in Kentucky, twelve miners trapped underground. We'll be following the story as it unfolds. Right after the commercial break, a zoo finds an unusual friendship developing in one of its habitats."

Martha hits the mute button on the remote control. Even without the sound, she can figure out what they're advertising. The scene of a middle-aged couple walking hand-in-hand across a beach, laughing and swinging their arms, means it's a prescription medication with horrendous side effects ("ask your doctor if it's right for you"). 

Martha gets up to go to the bathroom. Steve stirs again and finally rolls over to face the wall.

On her way down the hall to the bathroom, Martha hurries past the doorway of her son's room without looking in. Steve insists on keeping the door open, saying it's not healthy to shut everything up. There's no reason for her to look anyway; she's memorized the uncharacteristic tidiness of it. The bed hasn't been unmade for months now. There's no carpet of dirty laundry. The Eagle Scout certificate hangs on the wall next to the American flag and the sports trophies are lined up on the dresser like ranks of toy soldiers. She now regrets having cleaned the room when David left.

Back at the anchor desk in Atlanta, Bob's smile gives way to a grave expression.  Martha sees the specially-designed graphic for the mine disaster hovering over his shoulder: a map of Kentucky with the number twelve superimposed on it. She turns the sound back on.

"The governor has just been rushed into the church to address the families gathered there. We're expecting a press conference within the next hour."

The scene switches away from the mine story and Martha again mutes the television. She's never been to Kentucky, but she has images in her mind of Daniel Boone in a mountainous wilderness. There are caves in Kentucky, she remembers. There must have been millions of places for the Indians to hide for an ambush. 

She remembers her brothers in their coonskin caps running with air rifles through the woods behind their house, whooping and yelling, not concerned about whether the enemy might be lying in wait for them. The Indians had been gone for a hundred and fifty years by then, and the real war was far away from the woods of eastern Ohio. 

In the seventeen hundreds, with the caves and the mountains and the dangerous natives, Kentucky might have been a lot like Afghanistan is now, except that she thinks of Afghanistan as brown and dusty, and Kentucky as leafy green. She pictures David and his unit wearing coonskin caps in the poppy fields of Helmand province, but that's all wrong. She shakes her head.

Her neck is getting stiff from sitting up in bed staring at the screen. She rearranges her pillow, trying to get comfortable, but nothing feels right. She closes her eyes and imagines trying to get comfortable enough to sleep on top of a mountain, or three hundred feet underneath one, or on the hard pews inside that church. The light from the screen flickers across the insides of her eyelids for a few minutes until she dozes.


Steve's alarm goes off at six o'clock. Martha feels him gently folding the corner of the covers down enough to swivel his feet to the floor, then shifting his weight carefully to avoid causing the mattress to spring back and reverberate across to her side of the bed. He's done this every weekday for the past two weeks. As he reaches toward the television to turn off the picture, her voice breaks the silence.

"No. Leave it on."

"Did you get any sleep last night?" he asks.

"I don't know. Two or three hours I guess."

"What were you watching?" he asks, opening his sock drawer.

She hesitates, not sure she wants to share this part of her world with him. "Miners in Kentucky."

"Did they get out yet?"

She glances at the screen and sees the graphic again and the somber expression on the anchor's face. "I don't think so." She turns the sound back on. 

He sits back down on the bed and they watch together for a minute. "Want me to bring you some breakfast?"

"Not hungry," she says.

The morning anchor team has taken over, with their coffee-infused chatter. They're always dressed with no regard to the season even though they have a whole weather department right there to advise them. Like Steve, Martha realizes. While he's drinking his coffee, he'll turn on the radio to listen to the weather report, even though he's already gotten dressed in the suit and tie he has to wear to his information technology job at the National Archives. She used to envy his devotion to his daily rituals, but she's begun to find it irritating. Things happen out in the world that change your life. It's no use pretending they don't.

Martha fidgets while the Washington reporter talks about something the President said yesterday. Then the anchor says, "More American casualties..." Martha reaches for the remote and hits the mute button just in time. She looks away from the explosions on the screen as Steve comes back into the room buttoning his shirt cuffs.

"I saw Sandy Smith yesterday," he says. "She asked if you wanted any visitors." He waits. "I told her I'd ask you." 

She looks down at the sheet and smoothes a wrinkle she finds there. 

He continues. "I think it might be a good idea. For her to come over. Or if there's somebody else you'd rather see. Or if you got out of the house for a little while even." He leans toward her and raises his eyebrows, as if making his eyes wider will somehow hypnotize her so she'll do his bidding.

She shakes her head. Steve's been on this normalcy campaign with her for the past few days. He hasn't said it in so many words, but she knows him well enough. Going to work, staying in his routine– he needs to do these things to keep the earth rotating.

He sighs and stands up. "I'll see you tonight. Call if you want me to bring dinner."

Steve's car tires crunch the gravel outside the bedroom window as he pulls out of the driveway. She never used to hear this sound because she was usually in the kitchen having her coffee when he left, on the other side of the house. Now it's a familiar noise.

Jenna must have been up all night without a shower–she has dark circles under her eyes and her hair is flatter on the top than it was earlier. She has Rose Campbell next to her again.  Martha crawls to the end of the bed, closer to the screen.

"What's the mood in the church, Mrs. Campbell?"

"We been prayin' all night. We cry some in between the prayin'. Then we sing hymns. All we know is we got to stick together." 

Martha scowls at Rose's passivity. If she were there, she'd tell Rose to go and stand above the spot where the miners are trapped. That small pocket of life is like a magnetic field. If you're going to pray, Rose, that's where you should do it. Martha wills Rose to go there and extend that magnetic connection upward through her body, straight into the heavens, drawing her son up through the ground, becoming the conduit for his ascension. 

Rose isn't thousands of miles away from her son– he's right there. She could be within three hundred feet of him. Martha has an impulse to call directory assistance for that town in Kentucky and ask for the phone number of the Campbell residence, but, of course, Rose isn't home. She's in front of the church talking to a reporter. Where is Jamie's father in all this, anyway? Is he at home sleeping so he can go to work tomorrow?

For the past two weeks, Martha has barely turned on the television, instead spending her days listening to folk music from the sixties and staring at the ceiling. Today she passes the rest of the morning toggling the mute button off and on, occasionally closing her eyes for catnaps, sometimes leaving the volume on as she drifts off to sleep. With the heavy curtains closed it's hard to tell the position of the sun, but she looks at the clock finally and sees it's twelve-thirty. In the next half hour or so, Steve will call to check on her, and she'll let the machine pick up.

Jenna, still in front of the church, is speaking in an agitated voice. Behind her, people pour out of the building, scattering, being pursued by other reporters holding microphones. Martha leans forward to get a better view, but the two-dimensional screen can't offer any more depth. Are those red flashing lights? 

Jenna puts the microphone to her side for a moment and turns away from the camera. The zoom lens takes over suddenly and allows the viewers to see a train of ambulances in the distance, racing down the road, down the hill and disappearing around a curve. 

"Ambulances," announces Jenna, her hollow eyes electrified by adrenaline. "Headed toward the mine entrance." She reaches her microphone into to the stream of people, but nobody stops to talk to her. Her left hand goes up to cup her left ear. "Apparently something's happening... we're going to Henry Sondberg, at the mine entrance."

"Several ambulances arrived here at the mine entrance just moments ago," says Henry. His open-necked dress shirt looks freshly ironed, as if he's just walked out of his house. "Of course, the hope is that they're about to bring someone out, but so far we haven't seen anything, and no statement from the company spokesman."

Martha sees a parade of pickup trucks in the background, coming down the hill, disappearing behind the curves and then reappearing. She smiles at the thought that Rose must be in one of them, finally going to be near Jamie.

Henry says, "We're going back to Jenna at the church. Jenna?"

Jenna is nearly breathless now. "I'm speaking with Pastor Whitehead. You've just come from the church—has there been an announcement?"

His face is encircled by silver hair. "They're alive! Praise the Lord! They sent the ambulances down to get them."

"Has the company made an official announcement to the families? How did you hear about this?"

"The company? No. They haven't bothered to talk to us. Word came back from somebody on the rescue team." He leans so far into the microphone that it looks as if he's trying to devour it. "Now we just gotta keep waiting and praying they can get them all to the hospital in time." 

"Do you have any family members down in the mine?"

"I consider every one of those miners family," says the Pastor.

Martha has never lived in a place where people feel that way about each other. At least not the people she's known. She draws her knees up to her chest and clasps her arms around them.

Bob at the anchor desk says, "Several hospitals in the region are preparing their emergency rooms to receive the miners."

Those young men will be able to go home. Sure, they might have to spend some time in the hospital, but they'll get to go home. Martha's body shakes as she cries, soundlessly. She uses a corner of the sheet to sop up the tears that won't stop coming. 

She knows what it's like to come out of the darkness. Every time they'd gone through a few days with no reassuring email, she would descend into her own sort of mine shaft. There would be echoes of voices from outside that she couldn't quite make out, and she would feel as if she had nearly used up all her air supply. Then the electronic signal would arrive to rescue her, bringing her back to life on the surface, and she would suck in as much oxygen as she could. 

The governor is on the screen now, standing at a podium, praising the rescue efforts, praising God, thanking the country for their prayers. The church bells start ringing, drowning out the rest of his speech.

Someone has fixed Jenna's makeup and fluffed her hair out. "Still no official statement from the company, but there's a celebratory mood here." She smiles for the first time in many hours. Martha smiles back at the screen. Maybe Jenna will be able to go home soon and get some sleep.

For the first time in two weeks Martha feels like getting dressed. She lays a pair of jeans out on the bed with her favorite purple shirt– the one with the embroidered yoke and the mother-of-pearl buttons–and gets in the shower.

The warm water running over the top of her head and down her back crashes to the blue tiles under her feet. She holds her breath as she puts her face under the shower just to feel what it's like to breathe afterward. The shampoo lather slips between her fingers like silk. The lavender smell travels to her brain and triggers a shudder.

Toweling her hair off, she goes into the kitchen to look for something to eat. She finds a granola bar and a package of peanut butter crackers, which she takes with her to the living room television.

Jenna cocks her head, frowns, and squints. Martha bites her lower lip. She hasn't seen this expression on Jenna before.

 "We're hearing conflicting reports. At first we were told the rescue team had made contact with the miners and they were all alive." Jenna pauses as more information comes through her earpiece. "Now several of our sources say that eleven of the twelve have been found alive. We're trying to find out the identity of the one who didn't survive."

Martha's knees buckle, delivering her to the seat of the sofa. Don't let it be Jamie Campbell. Rose, keep holding on. Martha picks up her purse from the chair by the front door where she must have left it after the funeral. She jams the granola bar and the peanut butter crackers inside.

One family holds the losing ticket in this lottery. They still have the luxury of hope, maybe for a little while longer, but when they redeem that ticket, they'll look back on this brief period as the time God, or the Universe, or whatever they believe in, was taunting them.

Steve and Martha were notified about their son twelve hours after his unit was ambushed. She spent the first few days afterward taking inventory of her actions during every one of those twelve oblivious hours. While she was doing laundry, he was already dead. While they were having a glass of wine at dinner with their friends, he was already dead. David was one of five who were killed that day. There was no national vigil for their convoy's trip through the valley.

David was only seventeen on September 12, 2001,  but he had wanted to enlist. They made a deal with him, hoping to buy some time. He agreed to wait until after college. The war outlasted their crossed fingers.

Jenna's eyes and mouth are sagging. She seems to have aged ten years. "The mining company is holding a meeting in the church with the families. This is the first direct communication."

The church bells have stopped. Jenna turns just as the double doors open and a few people rush out. A man holding a legal pad and a pen is walking briskly toward her, his lips pressed tightly together, his brows furrowed.

"Are you a family member?"

"No. I'm a reporter with the local paper."

"Can you tell us what happened inside?"

"There's one miner alive, and the rest didn't make it, not the other way around."

Jenna's mouth drops open and she stares at the newspaper man, as if she's forgotten who she is and why she's there.

"The company says it was a 'miscommunication.'" Shaking his head, he continues. "It's a bad scene in there. Everyone's screaming, crying, shouting 'liars, liars.' One man tried to attack the company spokesman." 

Jenna's lip is quivering. The control room switches to Henry Sondberg.

"The surviving miner, identified as Clark Miller, has been taken away in an ambulance. The rescue workers are going back in now with empty body bags."

"Jamie!" Martha screams. How could this happen with his mother right there? She feels her chest tighten and her breathing speed up. She flashes on the image of army officers at her door. This was what it felt like right before she fainted. She doesn't want to faint. She struggles to slow down her breathing, to steady her racing heart. She won't be any use to anyone this way.

Finally calm, she scribbles a note: "Steve, gone to Kentucky." She leaves it on the kitchen counter and heads out the garage door.


Rachel Unkefer is the first place winner of the Hook's 2009 short story contest, judged by top novelist John Grisham.



I really enjoyed this story, being pulled in gradually until I had full identification with the main character, Martha. The parallel story lines of the mine disaster and the loss of Martha's own son are developed in syncopation, providing both a sense of plot movement and subtle messages on class, war, the differences between men and women in handling tragedy, and the potential healing power of bridging those differences to support each other. Congratulations on a deserved first place finish!

Thank you, Rachel, for doing the hard and lonely work of writing this story of a family's grief, love, and compassion. The cultural struggles of the Appalachian area are clearly described; you have also described the uniting and caring elements of our common humanity so well.