Friday, April 11, 2014

Chapter 12

Graham leaned his head back against the planetarium seat.  Peggy Lee turned toward him and whispered, “How long has it been since you saw the real night sky?”
 “Not that long.  Last year, I went to a small base southeast of the L.A. Climate Shelter Zone for some R and R.  One night, I hiked up a hill behind the guest barracks and sat for a couple of hours.  The stars were brilliant; they made me feel like I was the only person in the entire universe.  But that wasn’t the last time I saw the stars.  Whenever I’m on an overnight trip to the water production facilities – like the one we are going on tomorrow – I take a small craft out beyond the fog.  There’s not a single light source for hundreds of miles.  On a moonless night, the Milky Way absolutely glows.”
“Is a night excursion to view the stars included in your usual media tour?” Peggy Lee asked.
Graham laughed.  “I’ve never taken anyone with me, but we can see what the weather is like tomorrow night.  If the ocean’s calm, I’ll consider it.  The trip only takes twenty minutes from the Farallon Platform, where we’ll be staying.  It’s quite dramatic.  You go from dark, warm fog so thick you often can’t even see your shoes to incomparable clarity.”
Peggy Lee took the final sip of her beer and handed the bottle to Graham.
“I think I’ll have one more before heading to bed,” Graham said.  “What do you say?”  He had a perfect beer buzz going and did not want the evening to end.  He still couldn’t tell if Peggy Lee was just being kind or if she actually liked spending time with him.
“Sure, Graham, one more beer and then off to bed.”  She kicked off her high-heels, crossed her slim ankles, and arched her back in a gentle stretch.  Her breathing was slow and easy.
Graham popped off the caps of the remaining two beers.  He slid the empties into the six-pack.  “Cheers,” he said, “to one of the nicest reporters I have ever met.”
“Likewise, to the nicest Colonel I’ve ever come across . . . and a great host.”
They clinked bottles and each took a swig. 
“Can I ask you something?” Peggy Lee said.
“Sure.  Anything.”
“Why have you stayed in this lonely place for so long?  I mean, what are you really doing out here?  I know you believe in the water production mission and all that, but come on, nineteen years of your life?  By this point, I bet you could ask for an assignment almost anywhere in the world, and the Army would give it to you, right?”
“Well, probably . . . but where would I go?  I’ve gotten very used to my life here.  And this place would fall apart without me.  Sure it can be lonely.  It’s hard to make friends.  Everyone just comes and goes.  They leave as soon as the Army will let them.  This is the hardship post of the hardship posts.  But, for me, it’s become home.  I feel . . . hmmm, how to put this . . . strong here.  I am the only person who really understands the whole operation.  Soup to nuts, I’ve experienced it all.  Not to brag, but I see things that need to be fixed before they need fixing.  I see problems that even the best technicians overlook.  I suppose I could train someone else, but they would just leave as soon as they could – just like the rest of them.  So I stay and do this job.  I guess I feel like I have a real purpose here . . . or at least, that’s what I used to think.”
“What do you mean ‘used to’ think?  Has something changed your mind?”  Peggy Lee asked.
Graham responded quickly.  “I just get discouraged sometimes, that’s all.”  Aside from his superiors at the Department of Climate Security, he had not conveyed doubts about the water production program to anyone, not even Charley, and here he was blabbing, half-drunk, to the media.  He had to be more careful.
Fortunately, Peggy Lee did not pursue his slip-up:  “But wouldn’t you rather live someplace where you could breathe fresh air, wake up and walk on the beach . . . go out to a restaurant on a Friday night and meet people?  Maybe make some lasting friendships?  There are still some places like that.  I’ve seen them.  Most of Alaska is pleasant enough throughout the year.  And some of the northern Soviet port towns are very temperate – almost like the devastation here isn’t happening at all.  I just cannot believe that a sweet, intelligent guy like you would voluntarily hide so far away from the rest of society for the majority of your life.  Explain it to me, Graham.”
“Well, you know . . . I never fit in with the crowd.  Even here, where I’m supposedly respected, where I’m the proverbial top dog, I’ve had trouble sometimes.  About ten years ago, a group of soldiers stationed here used to call me Saint Snow, the water hermit.  They had been through basic training together and asked to be assigned to the same post.”
Graham took a long drink from his beer.  It felt good to get drunk with someone else for a change.  He was feeling so loose.  He hoped that he wasn’t falling into Peggy Lee’s journalistic spider web.  But at this point, Graham thought, who cares?  He ached to reach down and caress her ankle, the arch of her foot.  He felt momentarily dizzy as he continued.  “Those guys were thick as thieves – brothers-in-arms and all that.  Typical young soldiers.”
Peggy Lee turned slightly in her chair, focusing her attention entirely on Graham.  Graham continued to look at the stars on the planetarium ceiling as he continued. 
“So, anyway, they called me Saint Snow, the water hermit.  Not to my face of course, but I heard them in the hallways, the cafeteria, the bathrooms.  They weren’t too subtle about it.  They were so young and stupid, and I knew that they did not mean any harm, but it bothered me a lot.  It made me feel like a freak.
“So back to your original question, I am not really sure that I want to leave.  I never liked getting drunk at the bar on Friday nights with my fellow soldiers.  I guess I’ve always felt most alone when I am surrounded by people – especially people having fun.  When I am here and focused on my work, I usually feel okay.  And when I feel lonely, I just put in one of my old movies.  Sometimes I think that my favorite movies are also my best friends, but that’s alright with me.  I’ve learned to deal with it.”
“Another completely honest answer.  I admire that about you,” Peggy Lee responded, and then said no more.
Graham had expected pity from her.  Her silence felt like respect.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Chapter 11

            Graham and Peggy Lee sat in a comfortable silence, taking in the calming effects of the planetarium.  Graham went to a familiar place in his head, his childhood.  He recalled sitting on the front porch and watching constellations traverse the great dark bowl above his family’s two-story farmhouse just outside tiny Chamberlain, South Dakota.
The farmhouse creaked when you walked up the stairs and moaned in the wind.  It had felt like a relic to young Graham, something that archeologists had dug up just for his family.  He imagined that they lived in the Wild West, his family homesteading on the prairie with no neighbors for miles.  When he was nine, his parents got him a kitten to keep him company during those long winter weekends when the whole family was snowed-in.  He named her “Ginger” after the movie star on Gilligan’s Island.  His family always ate breakfast and dinner together.  In that old farmhouse, Graham always knew he was loved.
During the summer, Graham helped his father tend the fields.  When he turned eleven, he learned to drive the tractor.  Around the same time, his father taught him how to fish the banks of the Missouri River.  Graham spent many afternoons sitting in the shade of willow and cottonwood trees, pulling up catfish and daydreaming between strikes. 
When he was sixteen, his father’s corn fields failed, along with the rest of the area’s crops.  The rains in the mid-West had been steadily diminishing for years.  Farmers managed with the little rain that did fall, mostly by increasing pumping from the groundwater reservoirs underlying their farms.  Each year, aquifer levels dropped significantly; each year, farmers hoped for replenishing rains.  But then, in 2067, the year of the Great Climate Collapse, no rain fell at all. 
Throughout the Midwest, corn fields turned brown and bare.  In late summer, prairie fires raged across the plains.  Aquifers dried up and even the deepest wells were choked with dust.  Near Graham’s house, the Missouri River receded to almost nothing.  Wide mud flats punctuated by blanched fish skeletons replaced the lazy currents of the river.   
And of course it was not just America.  It was much worse elsewhere.  Graham remembered watching the news every night with his mother and his father.  The Collapse die-offs started in earnest in the fall of 2067.  First, newscasters tried to make sense of the numbers coming out of Africa.  Then, news from India took the headlines.  Then South America.  Then Central America and Mexico.  Then, China.  And then the stories circled back because the dying was unrelenting.  San Francisco’s Summer of Death three years prior paled in comparison to this new, grim, world-wide reality.
Some nights, the news covered dying animals and disappearing ecosystems for a few minutes.  Graham remembered one story about an enormous migration of Monarch butterflies that was blown off course.  The butterflies ended up exhausted and in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  That night, Graham dreamt of an ocean covered with dead and dying butterflies, their orange and black wings undulating on the surface until they all slowly sank into the depths – never to be seen again. 
The news anchors interviewed climate experts, seeking an explanation of what was happening to the world’s weather patterns.  An abrupt and irreversible disruption of the ocean’s thermohaline circulation had occurred, the scientists responded.  In other words, global ocean currents had gone haywire.  The cooling effect of those critical currents had been all but eliminated.  Would the world’s currents return to normal?  The scientists had no answer.
Mostly, the news tried to cover the estimated scope of each day’s worldwide casualties, but the images on the T.V. could not accurately capture the truth.  The number of dead was too enormous to fathom, the decimation incomprehensible, but every once in a while, Graham saw the true extent of the devastation in the faces of the on-location reporters.  The shock, bewilderment, disbelief – and the fear, the base, animal fear – leapt from their eyes and directly into Graham’s family’s living room.  The world’s population was plummeting right there on the screen, like a horror movie filled with confusion and unending bodies, a terrifying spectacle that was taking place closer and closer to home.  “Coming to a theater near you,” Graham thought to himself in despair.  
Graham knew his father had their life savings invested in farmland, equipment, and crops.  He watched as the relentless sun sucked up all the moisture from his family’s fields.  In 2068, his father took out loans to pay the bills and waited for the following spring.  Alas, 2069 and 2070 were both bone-dry.  Graham’s father, along with all of the other farmers in South Dakota, watched helplessly as their farms turned from rich loam to one giant Saharan plain.  In three years, Graham’s father went from an optimistic, fun-loving guy to a dour and miserable shell.  He grew distant and spent most of his time in the barn alone, even sleeping out there some nights, presumably unable to face his family.
At the outset of the third summer without rain, Graham graduated from high school and immediately enlisted in the military.  He had planned to go to college to become a scientist and work on solving the climate problem.  But, with the demise of the farm, his parents could not afford to send him anywhere.  His grades had been good in math and science, but below average in the other classes; he could not get a scholarship.  The army, on the other hand, was looking for every available set of hands to help contain the crisis.  Graham figured if he enlisted, he would be able to send some money home every month.
Two years later, in the spring of 2071, Graham’s parents sold the family’s useless farmland and equipment for pennies on the dollar.  The night before they were to move to Chicago to look for work, his father’s car slammed into a giant, dead oak tree five miles north of Chamberlain.  The news accounts said that the dry oak burst into a million splinters upon impact.  They called it an accident. 
Graham’s mother moved to Southern California instead of Chicago and started a new life.  She remarried and had another son.  Things between Graham and his mother were never the same.  She mentioned one time that he reminded her too much of those last, painful years in South Dakota.  His father’s accident, or whatever is had been, had thus robbed Graham of both his parents. 
He sometimes wondered what his life would have been like had rains continued.  Would he visit his parents on their happy little farm often?  Would he help his father mend fences?  Would his mother sit on the porch, humming and knitting in the day’s dying light?  Would they have a goose at Christmas like when he was young?  But the answers were too painful.  He barely kept in contact with his mother now, and he had never even met his half-brother.  She preferred it that way.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Chapter 10

            Graham got up from the table.  Their conversation had gotten much heavier than he had intended.  “There is one more place I would like to show you, if you are up for it,” he said. 
“I’m up for anything.”
“Would you be interested in watching the stars?”
            “Sure, but I thought that we were pretty much fogged in.  Is there a place where you can look up at the night sky?”
            “No, not the real sky,” Graham replied.  “But we get a feed from Hawaii.  Did you know that there is still an observatory there, high up on Mauna Kea?  It was once the best place in the world to see stars, probably still is, now that I think about it.  Government scientists remain out there to look through giant telescopes for other habitable planets.  The rest of the islands have been reduced to dry and uninhabited wastelands.  In the early 2070’s, the government put in a desalination plant and a system of pumps to move fresh water up the mountain.  The scientists live side-by-side with a small group of die-hard, native Hawaiians who refuse to leave.  Anyway, long story short, we display the feed in our little planetarium.  Would you like to see it?”
            They exited the cafeteria, stepped into a stairwell, and descended four flights to what used to be an underground parking garage.  Graham led, catching glimpses of Peggy Lee’s slender hand on the railing each time they rounded a corner.  Her nails were short, but neat with a French manicure.  Funny how they still called it a “French” manicure, Graham thought momentarily.  France was all but erased off the map during Russia’s consolidation of power campaign.  Graham had read quite a bit about the French.  French men had prided themselves on being great lovers.  He figured he didn’t have a drop of French blood in him.
Right then, he decided that he wouldn’t make a move on Peggy Lee.  It was not worth the risk.  He’d keep it professional.  He was a fool even to think about trying something.  Yet he was dying to touch her, to feel her hair between his fingers, to kiss the soft curve of her neck.
            They came to the bottom of the stairwell, and Graham swiped his access card to open the planetarium door.  The room was completely dark, but Graham made his way easily to the control console.  He turned on the floor lights so that Peggy Lee could walk over to the reclining chairs.  It was not a big planetarium, only twenty seats, but Graham liked it because he felt like he was in his own back yard.  None of the other soldiers came here except for the newbies, and they quickly got bored.  But for Graham, the pace of the planetarium was perfect.
            He turned a knob to “warm, summer breeze.”  Silently, a fan unit began to replicate mid-July air, complete with the moist smell of fresh cut grass.  He reached towards the switch labeled “crickets,” but then reconsidered.  Perhaps the chirping of crickets, once the anthem of peaceful country nights, wouldn’t be as charming or soothing as it had been a year ago.  Graham could not remember how many people had starved to death last summer in South Africa because of the locus infestation, but he knew that Peggy Lee had covered that story.  Instead, he turned on the sound of wind rustling leaves.  Finally, he turned off the floor lights and flipped on the night stars.  The rounded ceiling lit up.  Graham slowly and carefully walked over to sit next to Peggy Lee. 
He pulled out his trusty pocket knife and opened a couple more beers.  They sat facing the last, dim moments of daylight as it disappeared under the horizon.  There was not a cloud in the clear, Hawaiian sky.  Despite the overheating solar panels, the Minister’s confidential memo, Mirosevich’s potential exposure, and all the rest of the world’s problems, Graham closed his eyes for a moment and smiled.