Friday, July 18, 2014

Chapter 26

A few minutes later, the boat’s PA announced, “We have cleared the Spore Zone and will now commence exterior decontamination.” 
The SS Birmingham was equipped with hundreds of sprayers, which began to cover the entire outside of the boat with a potent, de-molding liquid.  Just like in Graham’s office back at HQ, a green liquid covered the bridge’s windows.  After a couple of minutes, the sprayers produced a rinsing agent, and the green hue disappeared.  “Decontamination complete,” the PA announced.  “Exterior doorways unlocked.  All hands may now exit the sealed area.”
“It’s nice to be clean,” Captain Sherwood said.
The fog was still very thick, but just then, Graham saw Peggy Lee walk out onto the deck.  He decided to join her.
At the bottom of the stairs, a short hallway led to the deck door.  Along the side of the hallway, yellow and red raingear hung from hooks.  Graham grabbed a yellow, full-length coat, opened the door, and stepped into the warm, thick outside air.
Through the fog, he spotted Peggy Lee.  She was leaning against the rail at the side of the boat, looking out into the gray emptiness as it flowed by the boat.  She had helped herself to a red raincoat, but had left the hood down.  Her hair was soaked and lay flat against her head.  Her head was tilted up – a challenge to the foggy breeze.  He could not see her full face, just her ear and the very edge of her cheek, such a fine line cutting down towards her perfect chin.  He stood stock still, frozen by her beauty.  He noticed one of her hands clasping the rail.  Her fingers were slender, but every part of her conveyed strength and grace.  
Then Graham saw that one of her feet was tapping ever-so-slightly on the wet metal of the deck floor.  She was waiting, waiting to get going, waiting to start the story, waiting to see the facilities . . . or perhaps she was waiting for him.  He desperately wanted her to turn around.  He wanted to see her face though the fog, to see her smile at him.
And then she did. 
She caught him watching her.  He was immediately embarrassed, but she didn’t seem to care.  She smiled and waved.  
As he approached, he noticed a rippling undercurrent of sadness in her eyes, but then it disappeared.  Would he ever know her well enough to ask her about those moments – or even to understand her thoughts without explanation? 
Her forehead and cheeks were covered in tiny beads of water.  As he reached the handrail, a rivulet of water ran between her eyebrows, down past the side of her nose and onto her lips.  She licked it with the tip of her tongue.  “Tastes sweet,” she said. 
“I’m glad that you are enjoying your free sample.  The next one will cost you.”
“It’s lovely water, Graham.  It truly is,” Peggy Lee responded.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Chapter 25

As the group exited the locker room, Captain Sherwood offered Peggy Lee and Ian the use of his office to prepare for the shoot.  “Just don’t try to go outside yet,” the Captain instructed.  “All of the exterior doors are locked and sealed until we clear the Spore Zone.  You will hear an announcement when it's safe to exit.”
Graham, Charley, Captain Sherwood, and the escort soldiers went up to the bridge, a large room at the rear of the boat with floor-to-ceiling windows, which, when not obscured by fog, overlooked the boat’s long deck two stories below.  Graham ordered a soldier to bring Peggy Lee and Ian a pot of coffee and some cookies.
When the boat cleared the pier, Charley pulled Graham aside.  “Sir, I didn’t mean to be argumentative down below.  I just thought your initial inclination to return to HQ made sense.”
“I understand, Charley, but Peggy Lee is under a deadline and well . . . .”
“Yeah, but deadlines can always be pushed back – especially for someone like Peggy Lee.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to delay for a day or two, make sure everyone’s healthy, get the bags, and then come back out here?”
“Perhaps I let Peggy Lee talk me into pressing on too quickly,” Graham said, smiling, “but she’s a pretty convincing woman.”
“Yeah, I see your point.”  After a moment, Charley asked, “So what do you think of your chances?”
“Chances of what?”
“Your chances of getting somewhere with her?  She clearly likes you.  But you gotta play your cards right with a woman like that.  You gotta have the right approach or you risk getting rejected right away.  Do you have a plan?”
“Yeah, I have a plan.  My plan is to do nothing,” Graham responded.  “She’s here in a professional capacity.  And I’m an Army representative – the Colonel in charge of these facilities in fact.  I can just imagine the headlines:  ‘Army Outpost Filled to the Very Top With Aggressive, Sex-deprived Perverts.’  I’m certainly not going to try to hit on Peggy Lee.  It would be completely inappropriate.  Not to mention the fact that she would slap me silly if I tried anything.  She is way out of my league.  You and I both know it.”
“Sir, with due respect, you’ve got it all wrong.  She’s totally into you.  I could see it within the first five minutes of being around you two this morning.  Ian can see it, too, I’m sure.  Shoot, the hover transport pilot could probably see it on the cabin cameras.  You just need to play your cards right.  Again, with all due respect, don’t be a coward.  She’s one of the most beautiful and talented women I have ever met.  You’d have to be crazy not to at least give it a try.  I’d be all over her if I was in your shoes.  She’s sending you positive signals left and right.”
“To tell you the truth, Charley, I’ve never been good at reading these kinds of situations.  We did have a really nice time last night, just the two of us in the planetarium.  And . . . well . . . I guess I can let you in on a little secret.”  Graham lowered his voice.  “I asked her if she wanted to go out beyond the fog curtain to see the stars tonight after dinner.  She was totally into the idea.  But I was not planning on making any advances.  I’m at least ten years older than she is.  So my plan was to take her out there for a little while tonight, show her the stars, and, well . . . who knows?”
“Now you’re talking, Chief.  You never know with women these days – she might make things a whole lot easier for you by making the first move.  If she doesn’t, though, my guess is that she will be waiting for you to do it.  So you’ve got to act decisively when the time is right, okay?”
“We’ll see,” laughed Graham. 
“There’s only one thing that I’d add to your plan,” Charley said.  “You need to find a way to bring some wine or booze or something out there with you.  I bet I can rustle you up something when we get to the Platform.  I know some soldiers had a batch of reconstituted burgundy going a couple of months ago.  It won’t win any awards, but it should do the trick.  Supplies are always limited, but if you want, I can hunt around this afternoon.  A couple of the guys on the Platform owe me a favor or two so I should be able to get my hands on something for you by tonight.”
“Sounds good.  I’m completely dry.  My flask is back in my bag on the wrecked transport vehicle.  I’m not sure she really would have appreciated my white lightning anyway.  But please don’t say anything to anybody.  I was planning on keeping the whole star-gazing expedition under the radar.  Just say that you want the wine for yourself.”
“Ten-four, good buddy” Charley said.  “In fact, I will start right now.  Those escort soldiers were out on the Platform just a few days ago, right?  I will ask them if they have any leads.”
“Thanks, Charley, but don’t make it too obvious.  I’m trusting you.”
“Not to worry.  I’ll hook you up with the finest vintage available.  I’m glad to be of service, sir.”

Friday, July 4, 2014

Chapter 24

Just when Graham thought he could not stand being confined for one more second, the vacuum fans roared to life and sucked all the irradiated mold spores – now harmless – out of the room.  The lights in the chamber brightened.  A voice announced, “Decontamination complete.  Scan shows 0% active mold spores.  All clear.” 
The door at the other end of the chamber opened and the group spilled out into a maritime locker room.  Graham immediately removed his helmet.  The air in the locker room was heavily filtered, but he could smell the ocean.
The others took their helmets off and began unzipping their hazmat suits.
Captain Sherwood entered the locker room.  He wore a light blue jumpsuit that had SS Birmingham stenciled across the chest.  Graham noticed the captain’s bright blue eyes shining out from his grizzled and sun-beaten face.  A black beard and thick, curly hair framed his features.  Captain Sherwood struck Graham as more of a pirate than an Army man, but somehow he had made his way up through the ranks.  He had been running the water production facility’s ocean transportation operation for about five years.  Graham always felt safe in his experienced hands.
The captain shoved past the escort soldiers and stuck out his hand.  “Morning, Colonel,” he said, shaking Graham’s hand vigorously.  He had been born and raised in Wales – back when it was inhabitable – and still spoke in a thick brogue.  “Ran into a bit of trouble on the way out, did ya?”
“Yeah, one of the blowers on the hover vehicle overheated.  We lost control and smashed into the side of a house.  The vehicle is completely messed up.  It seems we all escaped without getting exposed.  At least, that’s what the suits say.  We were very lucky this morning.”
“Very lucky, indeed,” Captain Sherwood said, scratching his beard. 
“Let me introduce you to Peggy Lee Swenson and Ian Patten, Jr., our guests,” Graham said.
“Pleasure’s all mine.  And I believe I’ve met this strapping lad once or twice,” he continued, turning towards Charley, “but I don’t recall your name.”
“Lieutenant Charley LeBrock, at your service,” Charley answered, shaking the captain’s hand.  “We have crossed paths a couple of times, but not in a while.”
“Now, let’s get to it, eh?” Captain Sherwood said.  “What’s the plan now, Colonel?  My crew and I are ready.  The Birmingham is all fueled up and in tip-top shape.  You say the word and we will be on our way.  But I understand if . . . well . . . .”
“I think we should abort the mission,” Graham said quickly.  “No need to press our luck.  I’d like to take our visitors back to headquarters for medical observation, just in case of a misreading on one of the suits.  We’ll recover everyone’s bags from the disabled vehicle, rest up, and then try again in a couple of days.  Get in touch with headquarters and tell th—”
“Graham,” Peggy Lee interrupted, “May I talk to you in private for a moment?”
“Sure.  Let’s step out into the hallway.”
When the door closed, Peggy Lee said, “There’s no need to go back now.  We’re all fine.  Like I told you when we first spoke on the phone, I’m not afraid of a little hardship.  Neither is Ian.  I’ll admit that I was a bit nervous on the walk.  But we made it.  No harm, no foul.  There’s really no reason to turn back now, is there?  I need to get this story to my editor soon.  It’s the feature in next week’s main edition.  Plus, I want to see those stars with you tonight.”
“But I’d feel a lot better if we were all near the HQ infirmary tonight.  The suits do not always function perfectly.  One of us might be infected.”
“And what if we were?” Peggy Lee asked.  “There’s no cure, right?  What purpose would it serve to return to headquarters now?”
“Well . . . yeah, but we don’t have your bags here either.  Ian has his cameras, but you two don’t have anything else that you brought with you.  Don’t you need that stuff?”
“Do you have an extra toothbrush?” 
“We have lots of toiletries on the Farallon Platform.”  Graham laughed.  “Is that all?”
“Sure.  I can make do with almost anything.”
Graham shook his head.  “You’re sure are full of surprises.”
“You don’t know the half of it.” 
When they stepped back into the locker room, Graham announced, “We’re not going back to HQ.  Captain, fire up the engines and let’s get out to sea.”
“But Graham,” Charley responded, “I think you were right the first time.  We should go back.”
“Our guests are ready and willing.  I see no real reason to ignore their desire.”
“I don’t know, sir, it seems—”
“Don’t worry about it, Lieutenant.  It is my call, and we’re pressing on.”

Friday, June 27, 2014

Chapter 23

As Graham waited in the cramped chamber, he found himself thinking again about the decisions he had made in his life.  For someone with an aversion to being confined, he sure had chosen a life that kept him locked up all the time.  For nineteen years now, he had lived without fresh air, cool breezes, a view of the sky . . . without the feeling of the sun’s heat rising off a parking lot on a hot summer afternoon.  He lived in a temperature controlled, humidity controlled, hermetically sealed outpost in the middle of a toxic wasteland.  Every day, he faced walk-in refrigerators, control rooms, and decontamination chambers.  Even his quarters often felt unbearably tight. 
In South Dakota, he had slept with his bedroom window open every night.  Even when it got down to twenty below, he nonetheless opened it just a smidge, so that he could feel his escape route, so that the inside air would not crush him, so that he knew that there was more space just within reach.  He had now grown used to sleeping with everything sealed up.  But more and more he longed to live in a normal house, a place that did not require complicated precautions and security measures just to step out into the world.
Graham’s skin began to itch on his back.  Then, around his ankles.  He looked to turn the air conditioning up in his suit, but it was already at maximum.  His breathing sped up.  He was afraid he might hyperventilate.  He needed to get out of the chamber and the suit – and quickly.
He reached subconsciously for his scar, but the glove and helmet got in his way.  He practiced the breathing techniques that the Army psychologists had taught him and tried to think about starry skies, the expanse of the universe, and the view from the boat out on the wide-open ocean.  Instead, as always happened when he was starting to feel boxed in, he was transported back to the day of his first claustrophobic attack. 
That morning, Graham and his parents attended a pancake breakfast to raise funds for the local soccer league.  Graham was nine.  A few years later, the town council held those same events to help farmers keep their farms.  But these were the good years.  Corn prices were high, and Graham’s father’s farm was doing well. 
On their way back from town, Graham’s father said that he needed to get some of the recently harvested corn into the grain elevator before the rains hit.  Graham offered to help, but his father declined.
When they got home, Graham’s father got to work.  Graham made himself a glass of iced tea and sat down on the porch steps to look through one of his favorite science magazines.  For half an hour, he read and watched the afternoon clouds darken as they marched towards the farm. 
As the first drops of rain began to fall, Graham suddenly remembered that he had forgotten to put away the broom he had used to clean out the main silo in the grain elevator.  His father was down beyond the garden.  Graham yelled down to him, but he could not get his father’s attention.  He noticed the sweat stains on his father’s shirt and the irritation on his face.
Graham put his magazine and empty iced tea glass in the house.  As he walked down the porch steps, he felt the first-to-arrive, windswept sprinkle of rain and that energized, unsettled air that signals the coming of a major thundershower.  A swirl of dust rose up as Graham crossed the yard and stepped into the grain elevator.
There were four silos in the grain elevator.  A week prior, Graham’s father had offered to pay him ten dollars to sweep out the entire area, including all four silos.  It had taken him a few days, but eventually Graham had finished the task.  Entering the largest silo, Graham saw his cat, Ginger.  She had been very pregnant, but was now looking visibly thinner now.  Graham followed her to see where she had given birth to her kittens.  She quickly exited the silo, jumped into a small ventilation shaft, and disappeared.  He knew that his father would be filling the silo soon and thought that all of the dust from the filling process would not be good for the new kittens.  He peered into the shaft, but could see nothing.
“Hiding them from me, huh?” Graham called into the darkness.  He called again to her, but she did not respond.
He figured she was a capable mother and could tend to her litter, so he went back into the large, dark silo to retrieve the broom.  He propped the maintenance door open with a small block of wood and entered the silo.  The rain had picked up; the patter on the corrugated steel roof high above quickened.  After a few moments of groping around, he located the broom and headed for the door. 
Just then, however, he heard a high-pitched meowing, a kitten’s voice.  A second later, Ginger reappeared, scooted past Graham, and crossed over to the far wall.  She had circled back to protect her litter.  He walked over quietly, his eyes adjusting to the darkness.  There, just a few steps away, in a little ball, lay four, squirming kittens – new, blind, and beautiful.  Ginger lay down and wrapped her body around the fury newborns.  They would need to get Ginger and her kittens out of there before they could fill the silo.  He got down on all fours and approached quietly.
“Ginger, come on mama,” Graham cooed.  “You can’t stay here now.”
Ginger began to yowl, low and deep.  Graham inched closer, and then Ginger barred her teeth and swatted at him with her sharp claws.  She definitely did not want to be messed with.  His father would know exactly what to do.  Graham backed away, stood up, and grabbed the broom.  As he turned to head out, he heard the silo door slam shut.
Graham walked over to the door and gave it a shove.  The wind had closed it tight.  He banged on the door and called out to his father, but no one was there.  Sweat dripped from Graham’s brow into his eyes, and they began to sting.  He legs were shaking.  He was no longer interested in the kittens.  He just wanted out. 
Then, all of a sudden, the elevator’s conveyor belt started up.  The machinery’s loud grind reverberated through the silo’s walls.  Ginger began to screech and yowl.  Bits of old husks, dirt, and dried corn fell from the conveyor belt above, covering Graham, Ginger, and the kittens with fine, dry dust.  Graham began to sneeze.  After a few seconds, loose, dry corn kernels started to fall into the silo.  First, it was just a couple of grains hitting the metal floor – ding, ding, ding . . . .  A small pile took shape in the middle of the floor.  Then, quickly, the volume of grain increased.  And in an instant, a thick waterfall of corn began crashing down.  Graham moved over to the edge of the silo, next to Ginger and the helpless kittens.
The corrugated steel walls began to shake as thousands of pounds of corn poured into the silo.  Graham banged on the walls, but it was futile; the roar of the machinery and corn was like thunder.  For a moment, he saw Ginger’s mouth as she yowled, but he could not hear her.  The air filled with a thick, grainy dust that got into Graham’s eyes and quickly filled his nose.  He could not catch his breath.  He was gulping down air and dust, coughing, sneezing, and gagging. 
The corn kept coming.  He tried to keep it off of Ginger and her kittens, but he could not block the flood of corn.  The corn reached his knees.  He continued to dig, trying to save the cats.  He got a hold of Ginger for a moment, but as he lifted her away from her kittens, she sunk her teeth deep into his hand.  He tried to hold onto her, but she was thrashing wildly in his grip.  She reached out and clawed him in the face, catching his eyelid momentarily and then tearing a deep cut down his cheek.  He screamed and dropped her. 
The corn quickly rose to his thighs.  He frantically dug down into the corn for the kittens, but it was too deep now.  He had to give up.  The corn reached his chest.  He tried to push himself up onto of the pile, but he could not stay on top.  It was coming too quickly now.  He kept sinking into the rising tide of loose corn.  He thought he would die, buried in the corn and asphyxiated by the dust.  He could not catch his breath and began to shake all over.
The corn reached his neck when all of a sudden the conveyor belt stopped and the machinery fell silent. 
Graham heard his mother wailing from far away, somewhere outside.  She was screaming, “He’s in there, he’s in the silo!  I know he’s in there!  I saw him heading over here.  Graham, where are you?  Answer me!”
Graham tried to call out to his parents, but he could not catch his breath.  He was coughing and spitting corn dust.  He managed a weak yelp.  Then he cleared his throat, spat, and this time, he yelled as loud as he could.  He heard the silo door opening.  A dim light shined from the opening as corn spilled out of the silo.  Graham saw his father’s face coming up through the corn as he climbed up into the silo from the maintenance door.  His father crawled across the corn and grabbed Graham’s hands.  With a couple of forceful tugs, his father pulled him up out of the corn and threw him toward the open door.  They slid down the slope of corn that had spilled onto the grain elevator floor.  Graham reached up and touched the cut under his eye.  His hand came away stained red.  His mother grabbed him and squeezed him against her, repeating, “I thought you were dead.  I thought you were dead . . . .”
Graham saw Ginger skittering away out of the corner of his eye.  He could not stop crying.  He could not catch his breath.  His mother took him into the farmhouse before he could tell her or his father about the suffocating kittens. 
For the next three months, Graham did his chores and went school, but barely spoke a word.  Every night, he re-lived that moment in the silo in the same recurring nightmare.  The corn fell, the dust suffocated.  Ginger and the kittens cried.  The corn buried his legs, his waist, his chest, and then eventually climbed up over his thrashing head. Then it pinned him in place, and he could not move at all.  The weight continued to increase, pressing against his legs, arms, and chest.  He was frozen in place.  He could not breathe.  In this dream, his parents did not find him for months.
When he awoke from these nightmares, one image always stuck in his mind:  the broom and those kittens under all that corn.  It often made him sick, and he would have to rush down to the bathroom to vomit.  Then, he would sit alone on the linoleum, stroking the developing scar under his eye until he felt calm enough to return to bed.  His mother took him to see the school therapist and then to a psychologist in Sioux Falls.  The nightmares gradually went away, but the claustrophobia and the scar were indelible.   
One afternoon, a week before Thanksgiving that same year, his father came back from town with a new pocket knife.  It had a thick blade and wooden sides.  Burned into the wood were Graham’s initials.  He sat down with Graham at the kitchen table and said, “Son, I want you to carry this pocket knife with you everywhere you go, from now on.  It’s yours, okay?  If you’d had it in the silo, who knows, you might’ve been able to pop the hinges off and squirm out of there on your own.  It’s the best knife they carry down at the hardware store.  It’ll last you – you don’t have to worry about that.”
Graham did as he was told and carried the knife with him everywhere, never showing it at school, keeping it under his pillow at night.  Over the years, his grease and sweat seasoned the wooden handle to a dark gray.
Graham reached down.  Through his hazmat suit, he could feel the familiar shape of that pocket knife resting against his thigh.  He held it tight as he repressed the waves of panic that washed over him.  He almost screamed out twice, but managed to hold it in as he waited for the moment of his release from the overheated decontamination chamber and stifling suit.