Friday, September 19, 2014

Chapter 35

Peggy Lee began looping rope through the wardrobe door handles.  As she paused to undo a tangle, she said quietly – her voice trembling – into the crack between the doors, “I’m sorry, Graham.  This is something that has to be done – for your sake, for our sake, for the future of the planet.”
Graham hands – still tied behind his back – were balled into shaking fists.  How could he have fallen into this trap?  She had been faking the whole damn time.  Did she really think an apology whispered into the darkness – as she locked him into a closet – was going to make him feel better?  Did she really think that she had him that wrapped around her little finger?  No, no, no, Graham thought to himself, I don’t think so. 
And then she said something that sent him over the edge. 
“If it’s any consolation, I really did – do still – like you.”
He instantly shifted his weight and whacked the doors with one of his knees.  Peggy Lee had not yet tightened the ropes.  One of the handles broke free and the door smacked her in the face.  She screamed in pain.  As she tried to shoulder it back, he kicked it again.  The blow knocked her to the floor.  He fell out of the wardrobe and then struggled to his feet. 
He stood stock still, breathing hard against the ball-gag.  He shook his head in a vain attempt to get the hood off of his head.
All was silent except for the sound of Peggy Lee crying quietly on the floor beside him.
“So that’s how you want it, eh?”  Ian said from across the room. 
Graham heard the sound of a metal chair scraping across the floor as Ian got up from the desk.  He heard Ian walking slowly over in his direction.  He tried to kick in Ian’s direction, and Ian laughed.  Graham stepped forward and tried to kick him again. 
This time Ian caught Graham’s foot and yanked it high in the air, throwing him back.  Graham fell violently, cracking his skull against the bottom edge of the wardrobe.  Unconscious for a moment, Graham came to just as Ian kicked him square in the stomach.  The air from his lungs surged out against the gag and came out of his nose.  Mucus and saliva covered Graham’s face as he struggled to catch his breath.
“How do you like that, lover boy?” Ian said as he pulled Graham up to a sitting position.  “You like beating up pretty girls?  What kind of sick, army pigs do they have running this joint?”
Ian cuffed Graham upside his head, knocking him back to the ground. 
“Stop it,” Peggy Lee said, “it was my fault.”
“You’re bleeding,” Ian said.
“I’ll be all right.  Let’s just get him secured and get on with the operation.”
Ian grabbed Graham by the arm.  “Come on now, get in the closet.  I’ll kick the living shit out of you if you try anything like that again.  Got it?”
Ian shoved Graham back into the wardrobe.  In just a few seconds, he had tied the handles of the wardrobe closed.  “See how easy that was?”
Graham could hear them moving around the room.  Then, Peggy Lee said to Ian, “Remember, no one gets killed.  You can’t go overboard, okay?”
“I know, I know, no more Tarrytowns.  I know the drill.”
Graham knew immediately what Ian was talking about.  Tarrytown, New York, was the site of the Center for Combating Global Climate Change.  Hundreds of geo-engineers from all over the world worked collaboratively to find new ways to recreate a livable climate.  The Center had produced the huge shade canopies that covered large parts of the Great Lakes and LA Climate Shelter Zones and had been responsible for many life-saving improvements to solar-powered air conditioning technologies.  Graham had given multiple presentations there on the water production facilities. 
Ten years ago, seven militants from a subgroup of the Movement for Earth’s Rebalance had stormed one of the central buildings on the Tarrytown campus.  The lab’s scientists had been working for years on “Project Ice Floes,” which involved a new chemical that could raise the freezing point of salt water.  The ultimate goal was to create large-scale ice masses around Antarctica.  The floes would reflect sunlight and aso counteract the warming trends of nearby ocean currents.
The project had been controversial from the start because it involved dumping massive amounts of a highly classified freezing agent into the Southern Ocean, an action that could harm many aquatic species and threaten the survival of the last remaining population of penguins.  But the Center saw the project as the potential silver bullet.  The trade-off seemed worth it.  What was one more extinction among the many thousands, after all? 
The MER militants entered the lab with the aim of destroying everything related to the project.  A struggle ensued, however, between the armed men and the scientists.  After shooting two of the lab workers, the militants took twenty-seven of the top scientists hostage.  The lab was sealed off.  The U.S. Army surrounded the building.  Negotiations proved unproductive and slow.  And then, in the middle of the night, the lab blew up.  Fueled by large quantities of flammable liquids, an immense fireball exploded into the night sky, blowing out windows for half a mile in every direction.  All of the militants and scientists perished instantly, along with seventeen soldiers who were positioned too close to the blast.  No one ever discovered exactly what happened that night inside of the lab. 
While successful in terms of accomplishing its primary objective, the action became a public relations disaster for MER.  The Movement’s leaders denounced the attack and claimed that they had had nothing to do with it, but no one believed them.  The media thrashed MER for weeks, causing many of its supporters to leave the group.  Then, one of MER’s leaders was shot and killed at a restaurant in the East Coast Climate Shelter, and the Movement went underground.  Since then MER had been relatively quiet.  Two years ago, the U.S. government had released an assessment that downgraded the threat presented by MER to “existing, but likely insignificant.” 
Clearly the government had been wrong.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Chapter 34

Graham could not get enough of Peggy Lee.  He wanted to open himself up and drink her into him.  She kissed him back passionately.  His hands were exploring every curve of her body, breasts, buttocks, thighs.  He untucked her blouse to feel the warmth of her flesh.  He felt a lifetime of loneliness fueling his longing, his need.  He desperately wanted to consummate his new life and simultaneously close the book on the past twenty years of utter solitude.   
But then, he heard a shuffle behind him.  There was someone else in the room.  Desire gave way to alarm.  He pulled away.  A voice hissed, “Now!”
Before he could turn around, he was being tackled and pinned to the floor.  Peggy Lee had adroitly stepped away.   
“Now, get the hood and straps.  And don’t turn the lights on.” 
Graham recognized Ian’s voice. 
“I know the protocol,” Peggy Lee hissed back. 
Graham could not believe what he was hearing.  He thought for a second that it was a terrible joke, but he could feel Ian’s knee grinding down on his spine.  This was no joke.  Ian’s weight pressed the air out of Graham’s lungs.  He could not catch his breath enough to call out for help.  He gasped hard with his cheek pressed against the linoleum floor.  He struggled against Ian’s grip, but to no avail.  Ian had his arms locked behind him.  Peggy Lee located a flashlight and was digging through Ian’s camera bag.  Quickly she passed some things to Ian.  Graham tried again to struggle free.
Ian wrenched Graham’s head back and forced a ball gag into his mouth.  He affixed the straps of the gag tightly around the base of Graham’s skull.  Then he put a large hood over Graham’s head.  He pulled the hood’s drawstrings around Graham’s neck.
“Not so tight,” Peggy Lee said, “he’s claustrophobic.”  Graham hated the pity in her voice.  He wanted to strike out at them, but he could barely move.  “Make sure he can breathe, Ian.”
Ian then bound Graham’s hands behind his back.  “Listen,” Ian said menacingly into Graham’s ear, “do what I say and you won’t get hurt.  It’s as simple as that, okay?”
Graham nodded his head. 
“Get on your feet.”
Ian pulled Graham up from the ground, holding him roughly by the nape of his neck. 
“Peggy Lee,” Ian called.  “Shine the light over here.  I’ve got to find his pass card.”
Ian searched through Graham’s pockets.  Graham considered kicking him, thinking maybe he could land a knee to Ian’s face – maybe break his nose – or to his groin.  But he quickly decided that would be a bad idea.  He could never best Ian in a fair fight.  With his hands tied behind his back and his eyes blindfolded, he would be beaten to a bloody pulp.  Ian found the pass card in Graham’s shirt pocket.  “Got it,” he said. 
“Okay,” she replied.  “Now get him into the wardrobe and get your bag.  Make sure he can breathe.  I mean it.”
Ian walked Graham over to the wardrobe and pushed him inside.  Graham tried to yell but the gag was too tight.  He struggled, but Ian manhandled him back into the wardrobe.  “I said cooperate, damn it, or I am going to bash your brains in.  You wouldn’t be my first.  Now, get in there and sit still.”
Ian shut the wardrobe doors.
“Tie those handles together,” Ian instructed Peggy Lee, “and do a good job so your boyfriend can’t get out.  I’ll finish getting the materials ready.” 
“Okay, Ian.”

Friday, September 5, 2014

Chapter 33

When Graham walked out into the dining hall, he found Peggy Lee standing near the waterfall.
“Good evening,” he said as he crossed over to her.
“Hello.  Come look, you can see a gorgeous rainbow in the spray.”
Graham had seen the rainbow hundreds of times; it was always there – it was part of the design – but he wanted to share it with her.  As she pointed, he breathed her in deeply.  She smelled like orange blossoms, honey, and cucumbers.  But there was something else as well, something acrid, something industrial.  He could not quite pinpoint it.  He tried to smell her again, but she had taken a step back.
“Where’s Ian?” Graham asked.
“When I stopped by his room, he didn’t look so good.  He said that he had slept all afternoon and that he was feeling flu-ish.  He felt hot to me, so I think he might have a slight temperature.  He was going to go back to bed so that he would feel better by morning.”
“I should send the medic over to his room.”
“That’s not necessary, Graham,” Peggy Lee answered.  “You know, Ian always does this, really.  To be truthful, I think he is a hypochondriac.”
“But you said yourself that he felt hot,” Graham pressed.  “What if he really is sick?”
“Oh, no, no, no,” Peggy Lee said.  “He always gets himself worked up.  If it will make you feel better, we can stop by there before we go out and see the stars, and then you can check him out yourself.  You’ll see what I mean.  Besides, I thought you might be pleased that he wasn’t going to join us for dinner.”
“Well, sure, but—”
“Exactly,” Peggy Lee interrupted.  “So we’ll check on Ian after dinner, and for now, let’s enjoy each other’s company in this fabulous tropical grotto.”
“All right,” Graham responded, laughing.
They sat at a small table at the edge of the pond.  Graham hoped that Charley would notice Ian’s absence and leave the two of them to eat alone.  When Charley entered the dining hall, he did just that.  Instead of coming over, he sat down at a long table with the escort soldiers and some of the guys stationed at the Platform. 
The same soldier who had served them lunch appeared with two plates of green salad.  He returned a few minutes later with soy burgers and a plate piled high with steaming garlic curly fries to share.  Peggy Lee pecked at the fries and barely touched her burger.
During dinner, Graham talked about his childhood, basic training, the helicopter accident, and about his career at the water production facilities.  Peggy Lee talked a bit more about her years in Georgia, but then Graham could not get her to open up further.  He wondered if her inability to talk about herself might be a consequence of her job.  Maybe, she just had trouble getting out of interview mode.  But he felt like it was something more.  She had mentioned her father leaving her family, but avoided going into particulars.  He decided not to press her.  The loss of a parent in whatever form can be so very painful; Graham knew it well.  So after a few attempts to get her to open up, he respectfully steered clear. 
After dinner, they headed back towards the guest quarters.  As they walked, Peggy Lee said, “You know, Graham, there is a lot that I want to tell you.  I feel like I can really trust you.  But I just can’t talk about certain things with you right now.  I hope you understand.”
Graham wondered if she had been reading his mind.
“Just because my life is an open book doesn’t mean that I expect anything from you.  I hope you didn’t think that I was trying to pry into your personal life.  I’m just interested, just curious about you, that’s all.”
“I wish I could be more open.  Honestly, I really like you, Graham.  You are a trusting, honest, and good person.  What you have done here is extraordinary.  You deserve so much in life for all that you have done for others.  Your altruism is commendable . . . even heroic in this time of crisis.  That is what makes this whole thing so damn hard.  That’s what’s been bothering me all day.” 
Her head hung low.  She seemed on the verge of tears.  Her bubbling energy was gone.  She looked into his eyes for a moment and then looked away again.
“What are you talking about?” Graham asked.  “What has gotten into you?  I’m not upset with you about anything.  I’m nothing but extremely thankful for your visit and for your putting up with me for the last couple of days.  You have brought sunshine into my life.  Truly, you have.  You may not realize it, but you’ve changed me.  You’ve opened some doors for me that I thought had been sealed forever.  I know it sounds extreme, but it’s true.”
Peggy Lee responded with silence.  They were approaching the guest quarters.  Graham could not figure out why she was so sad.  She would not look up at him.  “Peggy Lee, what’s bothering you so much?  I don’t understand.”
“I’ll explain it to you on the boat.”  Tears welled in her eyes.  “Let’s stop by my room,” she continued, “so that I can pick up a scarf.  Then we’ll check on Ian, okay?”
This was not at all how he thought the night was going to go.  He thought back on their dinner conversation.  Had he asked her too many questions?  Something had really disturbed her.  He felt terrible, but he didn’t know why.  It felt like they had been pulled apart by some unknown force, and now the rift between them was growing with heartbreaking speed.
“Before we go in, there is something that I need to do,” she said.
“Peggy Lee, I want to apologize if I upset you in any way.”
“Oh, Graham, please, just be quiet for second and close your eyes.”
He diligently closed his eyes.
He felt her hand gently touching his face.  She drew slowly close to him and said, “Keep your eyes closed.”
Graham could not believe it.  Maybe this was it.  Maybe he had served his time in solitary and the guards were now going to pry open the doors of his cage and let him out into the sunlight, into a free world full of color and love and life.  He felt her body press up against him, her arms wrap around his neck, pulling him close.
She rose up on her toes and ever-so-slowly brought her lips to his.  She paused.  Graham felt her breath on his lips.  He didn’t know if she was watching him or if she had her eyes closed as well.  He felt a roaring, hungry desire building inside of him.  He wanted her so badly. 
She whispered, “I’m sorry,” onto his lips, and then she kissed him, first gently and warmly, and then hard and strong.  She gripped the back of his neck, pulling his head down to her.  He kissed her back, pressing her against the door.  She pulled her key card from her pocket and opened the door.  Graham backed her into the room, kissing her neck, her cheeks, her wonderfully soft, wet mouth. 
She moaned plaintively.  The door swung closed behind them, and a darkness that promised freedom enshrouded their embrace.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Chapter 32

Graham returned to the Brain Room to talk some of the soldiers and to check on a few details regarding operations at the platform.  He had done two tours out there, each for about sixteen months, and he remembered all-to-well the persistent feeling of isolation.  At headquarters, a few soldiers passed through each week as they were being deployed to different substations.  There were always a couple of fresh faces around.  But once you got out to the Platform, you could be stuck interacting with the same guys day in and day out for weeks at a time.
The Platform had been built directly adjacent to the Southeast Farallon Island, one of the biggest in the chain of rugged, rocky islands located about twenty-seven miles west of San Francisco.  A narrow footbridge connected the Platform to the island as an emergency escape route.  When Graham had been stationed there, he frequently took long walks on the island.  After he was finished in the Brain Room, he decided to step outside for a bit of fresh air.
Graham had read a lot about the history of the islands.  While some of the smaller islands in the chain had disappeared with the rising ocean, the Southeast Farallon, along with its nearby neighbor, Maintop Island, remained.  They had first been inhabited by Russian seal hunters who coveted the soft pelts of the seals that lived on the islands.  Graham had seen a picture of a street in Moscow in which hundreds of men walked shoulder to shoulder all wearing identical hats made of seal fur from the faraway islands.
Then, after the seals had been wiped out, the United Stated took control and built a few residences and a lighthouse high atop the Southeast Farallon Island.  A few years later, some entrepreneurial San Franciscans responded to a shortage of eggs in the City by boating over to the Farallons to collect millions of eggs from the hordes of seabirds nested along the craggy shorelines.  Competition between the egg collectors grew intense.  Graham read that there was even an “egg war” between rival companies, which left two men dead.  After the island chain was given protective status by the government, scientific researchers set up shop.  In their journals, the researchers explained that the islands were so covered in life that they could barely walk on its paths for fear of crushing eggs or new-born chicks and that the surround seas teemed with white sharks, elephant seals, and an astounding variety of fish. 
All that was long gone.
Graham walked the silent paths to the ruins of the government housing and the lighthouse.  He imagined the cacophony of millions of seabirds squawking and the scientists’ delight as they tagged birds and studied seal mating behaviors.  The afternoon was perfectly calm.  He could hear no waves breaking on the shoreline below.  He felt like his senses had shut down.  The thick fog obscured his vision, and the silence of the island, where once so much life had thrived, gripped him by the throat.  He could not believe that the final chapter of the islands’ incredible history would be so empty, so quiet, so meaningless – just a few lonely soldiers walking aimlessly through the fog.
            At five, Graham returned to his room to freshen up for dinner.  Throughout his career, he had stayed in countless small, bare rooms such as the one he occupied that afternoon.  The walls were empty and white, devoid of history or personal attachment.  They simply divided space.  The floor was hard, cold, and bare.  The Army did not even provide a small mat by the bedside to prevent the occupants’ feet from getting cold first thing in the morning.  A round window the size of a diner plate displayed the same grayness he had lived with for the past nineteen years of his life.  A large, institutional wardrobe stood imposingly in a corner.  A metal desk and chair rounded out the d├ęcor.
Graham had the urge to pin something up on the walls or scratch his initials into the desk, as a tiny reminder to his soul that he might have had something more – something that did not feel so much like a prison cell.  Then, he reconsidered this comparison.  The room was less like a cell and more like an oubliette, where jailers used to strip prisoners of all their clothing, lock them away in a tiny cage in the dungeon, and literally forget them until they had repented their misdeeds and committed themselves to a better life . . . or the prisoners died.  He wondered what he had done to deserve a lifetime of penance and isolation.
The sterile twin bed, shoved up against the wall, reminded him of his first days as a soldier.  He pictured himself sleeping there as a young man – curled up and all alone.  He remembered that some nights the loneliness seemed to carve deep pits into his heart.  All he could do was lie still and wait for the night to end.  For the past decade or so, he had almost convinced himself that he had outgrown that feeling.  They say one can get used to anything.  His noble role was to sacrifice so that others might live.  What did he expect?  Real sacrifice was not easy.  But now, standing in that small, dark room, he realized that he wanted more.  The image of his body curled up in endless solitary confinement – young, middle-aged, and eventually old – burned deep in his gut.  He lay down on the bed and stared at the gray ceiling. 
Why was Peggy Lee being so kind to him?  Charley thought he had a chance with her.  Charley thought it was worth a try.  Graham wondered for a second if Charley was just toying with him, pushing him into a situation that was bound to backfire.  But no, Charley would not do that to him.  So maybe there was a glimmer of hope.  And she kept encouraging him.
But it was so hard.  He had never felt so insecure.  He was in completely unchartered territory.  The intensity of his feelings scared the shit out of him, but this fear also made him feel alive – more alive than he had felt in years.  Maybe, just maybe, there was a sunnier future for him.  But it was all too much.  Joy and fear.  Euphoria and devastation.  Was this what it felt like to fall in love?  She was shaking his foundations.  Like Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, Peggy Lee had changed the all rules.
Graham showed up to dinner a few minutes early.  He went into the kitchen to check on the menu to make sure that everything was vegetarian.  The soldier from lunch was preparing a large salad.  He apologized for the gaff with the squid. 
“That’s okay,” Graham responded.  “I know you were just trying to do something special.  And it would have been nice – very well appreciated, in fact – with most other guests.  I didn’t know that our invitees were so opposed to eating meat.  Don’t trouble yourself about it anymore.  I hope you all back here enjoyed them.”
“Thank you, sir, we did.  Might I add – um, well – have you ever seen such a horrified expression on a person’s face?  It was like we were serving them fried grandmother or something.” 
“I know, I know, she seemed a bit overly-shocked from my vantage point too.  But we all have our convictions, and Ms. Swenson is clearly against eating meat.”
“No, sir, I wasn’t talking about her.  I meant him, that big guy.  When I came back into the room with the soup, he was still pale, and his eyes were fixed on the plate of calamari.  It looked like he might blow chunks right there at the table.”
“I didn’t notice – I guess I was focused on Peggy Lee.”
“Well, let me just tell you, it was strange all right, real strange.”