Friday, June 13, 2014

Chapter 21

Graham watched the hover transport pilot negotiate the streets of San Francisco as they turned off Pine Street onto Divisadero.  Steve McQueen ripped through these streets in Bullitt, the first film Graham watched when he got to headquarters; he always was a sucker for car chases.  He had then spent days studying old maps of San Francisco.  He wondered if he was the only person left in the world who knew these street names. 
Graham saw a bus stop that had been crushed by a falling tree many years ago and knew exactly where they were.  In a few blocks, they would turn right onto Fulton Street and head west, past Golden Gate Park until they reached the Windmill Pier, named after the old Dutch Windmill at the end of the park.  The dilapidated windmill, once famous for its surrounding fields of tulips, now stood partially submerged in the Pacific Ocean, directly adjacent to the Army’s main pier.
The Army had installed thousands of heat nodes along the route between headquarters and the pier.  The vehicle’s heat-sensing eyes produced an image of the street superimposed on the windshield.  The clear lines of steady, red lights cut through the swirling, ever-obscuring fog, making the pilot’s job ten times easier. 
Graham turned towards Peggy Lee who was looking out the large window on her side of the vehicle.  “See anything interesting?” he inquired over their private comm line.
She turned her head slowly.  She was quietly crying.  “I see a whole, big, empty city out there,” she answered before turning back to her window.
Graham looked out his own side window.  He remembered being struck by the sadness of it all.  San Francisco had been evacuated and was now a completely toxic city where no life – except for the deadly mold and a few lonely soldiers sealed up in the Transamerica Building – could exist.  During momentary breaks in the fog, he saw brief glimpses of the life that had existed before the fog and mold had taken over.  He noticed a Korean shop front with a handwritten sign still partially visible under a thin layer of mold: “Best BBQ in SF!”  He saw an old mountain bike, missing its front tire, locked to a parking meter.  A large, metallic billboard advertising a once-famous pizzeria had rusted, fallen to the pavement, and become almost completely covered with mold.  A playground appeared momentarily before disappearing again into the fog.  The merry-go-round dripped mold from its curved hand rails. 
Peggy Lee had been correct; the silver slayer had claimed over two million people from these very streets.  The media had called it the modern equivalent of the Black Plague.  Morgues overflowed.  People stored the dead in supermarket meat lockers.  Now, all of the neighborhoods, office buildings, shops, museums – everything that once was the city – stood silent and empty, testaments in concrete, metal, and mold to the tragic history of the once-glorious San Francisco.
But Graham tried not to think in those terms anymore.  The past was in the past.  Each wisp of fog was a glass of water for someone somewhere who needed it.  The price had been extreme, but what choice did they have back then?  Without the water production facilities, the western half of the United States would have become completely uninhabitable.  The megalopolis of Los Angles, with its tens of millions of people, would have quickly become empty and lifeless – its fate marked by sand dunes, unrelenting heat, and sun-bleached skeletons.  As much as it had cost in human life, the creation of the water production system had been the lesser of two evils – a means of preventing an even greater cataclysm of human suffering and death.
Graham could not cry for San Francisco.  He was far too concerned about the future to worry about tragedies of the past.  The secret about the failing solar panels portended great suffering.  When the water production facilities quit working, the devastation of San Francisco in the mid-60’s would pale in comparison to the horrors that would mark the fall of the L.A. Climate Shelter Zone. 
As Peggy Lee cried quietly, Graham felt the weight of it all.  Unless some solution could be found to the overheating solar panels, the end was coming fast.  He could ignore that reality for spells, but it was starting to eat at him more and more each day.  He knew that he should put his hand on Peggy Lee’s shoulder and reassure her, but in the end, he felt like he was the one in need of reassurance. 
Or escape. 
He’d do anything to escape with her.
The pilot turned onto Fulton.  For ten minutes they floated slowly along the dark street in silence.  They were nearing the Windmill Pier.
Graham looked at Peggy Lee, who was still turned toward her window.  He gazed at the back of her hazmat suit and helmet, thinking of the golden hair inside her helmet, her freckled skin beneath the tyvec, nylon, elastic, and cotton . . . her curves, her ribs, her earlobes, her teeth, her perfect fingernails . . . . 
But was she even there?  Was it just an empty suit next to him?  Was she a fiction?  An empty promise?  Was her heart really beating under all those layers?  Did she breathe? 
Graham remembered an old movie in which a little boy could speak to dead people called The Sixth Sense.  The main character, a child psychologist, tried to help the boy.  In the end, the psychologist realized that he had been murdered months earlier and that the little boy was the only one who could talk to him because he was now among the dead.  Graham now thought that the twist at the end was all too real – at least for him in the present times.  He felt like he was living with the dead – the walking, breathing dead, painfully unaware of their looming demise.
Was Peggy Lee a ghost?  Were they were all just ghosts now?
Graham reached over the aisle and squeezed her elbow.  She slowly turned and looked at him.  Her gray-blue eyes glistened through her visor, but no trace of tears remained on her face.  A faint smile appeared on her lips. 
“You okay?” he asked.
“Of course,” she responded.  “It’s just . . . well, I knew someone who died here.  I was thinking about him.  I’m fine now.  I just needed to get it out of my system.  I’ll tell you about him sometime.  You remind me a great deal of him.”
She is real.  Complicated, tender, tough, and . . . oh so breathtaking.  “Okay.”  Graham nodded and let her turn back to the window.
Just then, the transport vehicle veered to the left, and its emergency siren began to blare.

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