Friday, April 25, 2014

Chapter 14

Graham awoke at 5:15 a.m., as was his custom.  He flipped his light panels to “dawn” and stretched for about twenty minutes in front of a decades-old sunrise from the Canadian Rockies on his video wall.  He had seen that particular sunrise hundreds, perhaps thousands of times, but he liked the sound of the running water in the small creek in the foreground and the gradually glowing cirrus clouds above the mountaintops. 
A gaggle of geese flew high overhead through streaking sunrays as the first infinitesimal curve of the sun rose between two towering peaks.  Graham waited for that moment every time he dialed up “Sunrise CR-98.”  He knew exactly when the geese would appear.  He would stop stretching just to watch them pass – a perfect V, high overhead.  By all reports, every goose on the planet had perished soon after the Collapse.  Graham still hoped that maybe, just maybe, some of the strongest from the video had offspring that had offspring that were flying somewhere – unknown to any human being – past a beautiful sunrise at that very moment.  That would be so cool, he thought as the last geese disappeared from the immense screen.
While drawing a bath, Graham made his bed.  He took the top sheet and blanket completely off.  Then, he pulled the bottom sheet tight, straightening each corner so that the sheet was perfectly centered on his narrow mattress.  He replaced the top sheet and the blanket, centered and straight on the bed, and meticulously tucked in the sides and the corners.  He deftly fluffed his pillow and put it carefully at the top.  He knew that his subordinates did not make their beds very well (or sometimes not at all, he had heard), but he did not run this outpost like a continuation of boot camp.  He knew that most of the kids out there were just trying to make it through to their next assignment.  He had bigger problems to worry about than whether every soldier had mastered a proper, hospital-corner fold.  He felt like one of the perks, few as they may be, of being stationed at the water production facility was the fact that the soldiers didn’t have some middle-aged, testosterone-driven superior officer breathing down their necks.  It might be dark and dreary, but at least the atmosphere was mellow.
Graham followed the same routine every morning.  He was up before anyone else at the post.  After stretching and making his bed, he shaved his minimal stubble, made a cup of sweetened instant coffee in his microwave, printed out the daily reports from the facilities and any important messages from his superiors, and sank into a long and deep bathtub, filled to the top with steaming water.  He read his reports and drank his coffee while soaking in the clear, hot water.  He liked the lasting feeling of cleanliness of his diurnal baths and the way that it warmed him to his bones, deeply warm, penetrated and soothed.  Early morning was, by far, the best part of his day.
That day, Graham felt especially good.  He caught himself humming and smiling as he shaved.  He put a sprinkle of bath salts into his bath as it was filling up.  He momentarily laughed out loud at the ridiculousness of his putting salt into the water.  Here they were working year-in and year-out to desalinate the ocean’s vast resources, and then the leader of the program turns it back to brine.  He did not know where the bath salts had come from.  His quarters had been stocked with a case of them when he moved in.  That meant that they were at least fifteen years old.  He held the canister up to his nose.  It still smelled like roses.  Graham threw a few more crystals into the tub for good measure as it continued to fill.
He did not feel guilty about taking a bath every day.  While such an excessive use of water was illegal in the L.A. Climate Shelter Zone, headquarters had more water than it could ever use.  The Army had constructed large condensation tanks on many of the rooftops surrounding the Transamerica Building.  The constant, thick fog filled the tanks with water, which was then filtered for use by the staff.  Even if Graham and the other soldiers bathed and flushed the toilets all day every day, they still would never run out – as long, of course, as the water production facilities were operating.  The post even had a medium-sized swimming pool on one of the subterranean floors near the planetarium.  Graham encouraged his soldiers to swim and bathe as frequently as they wanted, for they would never again experience such luxury once they left.  Even in Alaska and other countries relatively rich in water, only the excessively rich and powerful could afford daily baths or a swimming pool.
Graham stepped into the tub.  The hot water stung the skin on his shins.  Perfect.  He stood still for approximately thirty seconds, waiting for his feet to adjust to the heat.  Then, he gently lowered his body into the tub’s warm embrace.  After a few moments, he closed his eyes and shifted farther down into the water, submerging the back of his head and his ears.  He lay there listening to his breath.  Other soldiers were starting to rise now.  He could hear taps turning on and off.  He could hear toilets flushing and water running as it reverberated through the pipes.  Perhaps Peggy Lee had gotten up.  He imagined her washing the sleep from her eyes and looking at herself up close in the military-issue mirror inside her quarters.  He wondered what it would be like to have her living with him, to have her come into the bathroom, tired and groggy, to wish him a good morning as he lay in his hot bath.
Quickly, he pulled his head up from underwater.  Where was he going with this?  She was worldly, gorgeous, smart, and successful.  She would never choose to leave her career and her life of travel and adventure to live on this island of solitude with some stranger known as the water hermit – a man with no life whatsoever beyond the water production facilities and watching old movies. 
And despite his drunken thinking last night, he knew that he could never leave.  No, it wasn’t even worth thinking about.  He had to stop fantasizing about making a life with Peggy Lee or he was going to drive himself crazy.  He shook his head and said under his breath, “What are you thinking?  You’ve known her for less than twenty four hours.”
He then slowly shifted into a sitting position, careful not to spill water over the edge, and dried his hands on a neatly-folded towel.  He reached over and picked up his daily reports and his coffee from the nearby toilet seat cover.  The rain reports looked normal, even a bit above average.  The winds looked relatively calm for their tour of the facilities and the Farallon Platform. 
As he flipped though pages, his mind wandered back to Peggy Lee.  It seemed likely that her report would cast the water production facilities in a good light.  He had done a good job last night discussing the Deep Six Cover-up and the facilities’ unhappy history.  And she did not seem interested in asking him any really tough questions.  Everything seemed to be going smoothly, he thought.  He was doing what the Minster’s memo required – and he was doing it without having to compromise his integrity . . . at least not too much.  No out-and-out lies yet, at any rate. 
Peggy Lee had been so sweet to him last night.  Could she have been simply building rapport, buttering him up so that he would reveal unflattering details about the project?  Or about himself?  He certainly had shared a lot of personal information.  But his gut told him that he could trust her. 
He quickly finished his coffee and ducked back under to wash his hair.  He flipped the drain and stood up slowly, careful not to make himself dizzy.  He turned the shower on for a quick rinse as the water level below him fell steadily to his ankles, then stepped out of the deep tub and dried off. 
As he donned his uniform and laced up his shoes, he continued to think about the night before.  Had he actually shoved Peggy Lee out of his way on his frantic exit from the walk-in fridge?  He could not quite remember.  She hadn’t made fun of him or gone up to her room.  She hadn’t rejoined Ian.  In fact, she had warmed up to him even more after his claustrophobic freak-out.  Did she feel sorry for him?  Maybe she was just being nice to the foolish old soldier who spent the whole night stumbling over himself just for a tiny bit of attention from the gorgeous journalist.  She was just a good person, he concluded, and certainly not interested in Graham in any kind of romantic way.  He needed to maintain composure and reapply himself to his initial tactic of being professional and informative above all.
Dressed, Graham ran a comb through his hair and plucked three stray nose hairs from his nostrils with a pair of tweezers.  His eyes watered with the prickly sting, but he had to admit, he was looking good.  He had slept well.  Slouch gone, eyes bright.  It was almost 0700 hours.  He crossed his bedroom and went out into the hall, securing the door behind him.  Well, he said to himself, here we go.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Chapter 13

Everything Graham had told Peggy Lee about his life at headquarters had been true, but he knew it was not the entire truth.  Not anymore.  Despite his efforts to avoid them, his doubts – about the facilities, his position, his life – were quickly ballooning out of control.  And now, Peggy Lee’s questions – her simple presence – had scratched an itch that he had been ignoring since he had received the Minster’s confidential memo. 
Didn’t he deserve a life better than this?  He could leave.  He could use his savings and travel the world – with the singular goal of enjoying every last minute he had left on the planet.  Colonel Graham Snow’s Bacchanalian phase . . . filled with real rather than virtual pleasures.  He dreamt of stretching out on the bank of a faraway river, someplace like the ol’ Missouri of his childhood, gentle sunlight warming his face.  He dreamt of sitting down to a table covered with every indulgence still available – lobster from the Alaskan shellfish farms and prime rib from the Siberian cattle herds.  He dreamt of holding Peggy Lee’s hand, a quiet dinner with her – red wine, cheese – alone and in love.   
He needed to escape, but he did not know how.  He wanted to forget the dehydration and hunger that lay just over the horizon . . . and the final die-off for which he would feel, at some level, responsible.  But then he knew he could never abandon his post.  Or could he?  Was he going to die out there?  Was it inevitable?  Or could he find some way to be with Peggy Lee, to build something new somewhere far away?
Crossing his arms and examining the creamy smudge of the Milky Way, Graham wondered if Peggy Lee had a similar effect on everyone she met.  Did she walk through the world changing people’s lives forever in just an hour or two?  He couldn’t remember the last time he had spoken to so openly to anyone.  Maybe never.  More than just beautiful, she was powerful . . . maybe to the point of being dangerous, at least to Graham’s equanimity.  He decided that it was time to get her to her room.  He already knew that he was falling for her.  If he didn’t pull himself together, he would surely make a fool of himself. 
“Shall we go to bed?” he said, snapping himself too quickly out of out of his reverie.
“Why, Graham, how absolutely forward of you!  Do you offer such services to all of your visitors, or am I special?” Peggy Lee laughed and gave him a nudge. 
“You know what I meant.  May I escort you to your room?”  Why did he keep saying these ridiculous things to her?  But she seemed to see his social clumsiness as amusing, perhaps even endearing.  Unbelievable.
“That’d be great.  And, may I say, I had a lovely evening.” 
Graham shut down the winds, turned off the stars, and walked Peggy Lee back up the bleak, florescent-lit stairs to the main floor.  This time the elevator was waiting.  They ascended silently to Floor 5.  Down a maze of dim hallways, he led her to her room.
At the door, Graham gave Peggy Lee a pass card that had been pre-programmed for her room and showed her how to use the scanner.  There were more high-tech locks these days – iris scans and fingerprint identification pads – but he had never seen a need to spend the money for an upgrade.  The old pass cards worked just fine.  When the door clicked open, Peggy Lee said softly, “Thank you Graham.  A demain.”
Graham took her hand and gave it a squeeze.  He wanted to raise it to his lips, but he was not gallant like the knights of long ago.  “I will be back to collect you for breakfast at 0700 hours.  We have a big day of sightseeing tomorrow.  I hope that I have not kept you up too late.  Get some sleep.”
“I will,” Peggy Lee said.  She closed the door quietly.  Graham stood still for just a moment.  He breathed in the last of her lingering scent – it was lemons.  It reminded him of his mother’s kitchen in the summer.  Then, he turned and walked down the hallway, feeling exhausted, confused . . . and aching with hope, fear, and desire.  
That night, Graham dreamt that he was wrapped up like a baby in an old-fashioned, wicker basket.  He was his adult self, but wrapped up snug like an infant.  Invisible fingers lifted him from a flowered meadow and placed him gently into a brook deep in the woods.  The basket floated easily on the surface.  He pulled an arm free from the swaddling blankets and dipped his hand into the clear, cold water.  He then licked up the honeyed droplets as they ran down his forearm. 
As the brook merged with other streams, other baskets joined him.  By the time the many streams had become one thick, wide river, Graham could see thousands of baskets bobbing along.  They covered the entire surface of river from bank to bank.  A warm, comforting breeze blew upriver, soothing the travelers as they flowed through a wide, unpopulated valley.  Eventually, they fell asleep, cooed by the natural flow of the river and shushing sounds of the wind.  They floated together, quietly asleep, a peaceful flotilla of slumbering humans. 
Still in his dream, Graham awoke to the roar of a waterfall.  He could see a massive cloud of mist rising in the near-distance, beyond the drop-off.  All of his cohorts awoke as well.  Graham looked for fear in their eyes as they coursed inevitably towards the falls.  They all smiled reassuringly.  Graham searched his own feelings.  He was not panicked.  He was not fearful.  He was ready.  The baskets in front of Graham began to disappear one-by-one over the edge.  When it was his turn, he felt exhilaration.  As he fell, the basket and the swaddling blanket disappeared.  He was naked with all of the other strange looking, naked people – old and young and all different races, free-falling in slow-motion through the mist.  As the bottom of the falls approached, Graham felt his body disintegrate, becoming millions of fine water droplets.  In the final moment, he felt a part of him surging deep into the pit of the waterfall, and then into the dark, cool commotion of the rushing waters downstream.  Another part of him became mist, billowing in a perfect arc up towards the mighty sun.

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.