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.