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.