A year later...
Preston entered the bedroom of the home he and Anne shared that they had chosen from among those offered and had moved into almost exactly a year prior. Preston remembered clearly the day they arrived. He had slipped the brass key that had been placed in his hand by Lt. Colonel Stillwell into the lock, turning the knob and opening the door, he and Anne stepping inside to find their furniture already in place, boxes containing their belongings neatly stacked in the rooms that corresponded with their labels. The movers had been efficient, not a single box or piece of furniture was the least bit damaged or missing even after being moved nearly across the country.
The home was almost twice as large as the one they’d previously shared with hardwood flooring in most of the rooms, polished to the point its shine was almost a glow. The rooms were spacious, the walls recently painted. Everything was in working order. There was nothing to be done but unpack. There were four bedrooms in all, one of which Anne had taken as her studio, another converted into a library and study for their extensive collection of books, the master bedroom was at least twice as large as that of their past dwelling, the master bath equipped with marble tile and a jacuzzi tub as well as a separate tiled shower.
Preston didn’t turn on the light, the small night light plugged into the outlet in the master bath lent just enough for him to make his way to the bed upon which Anne lay on her side, facing away from him, dressed in a long, black silky nightgown and covered with the slick royal blue satin sheet, the one whose feel on her skin she so loved. As he stood by the bed, looking past the empty space where he laid himself down to sleep each night at the woman he loved more than he had any other in his life, the woman to whom he had made the ultimate commitment, he felt the weight of the cold metal object he clutched in his hand. Raising it, he pointed the barrel with precision at the back of Anne’s head.
“I love you.” he said, feeling the warm tears flow from his eyes as his finger pulled back on the trigger.
Preston’s eyes flew open as he emitted an audible gasp, the sound of the gunshot reverberating in his head. Unlike past experiences coming to wakefulness after his day long hibernation, he did not feel the peaceful, relaxing, floating sensation throughout his body as his mind rose to the surface of consciousness. It was an abrupt jolt to full awareness, his muscles tense. That tension accentuated the pain that spread over the right side of his chest that accompanied a sensation of deep cold.
The memory of what was the cause of that pain came flooding back to him, the slight coppery taste of blood lingering in his mouth another reminder. He looked down at his chest to see it bound with an elastic bandage over a large ice pack. He could just see the borders of an extensive deep purple and wine colored bruise past the edge of the bandage. A medic reached his side, removing the IV from his arm and the electrodes from his head and the unbandaged area of his left chest. After doing so, the medic took hold of his arm, giving him an injection. He’d never received an injection upon waking before and was confused until he soon felt the effects...morphine. It not having knocked him on his ass, still able to think clearly for the most part, it was obvious that it hadn’t been a large dose, just enough to ‘take the edge off.’
Preston turned his head to the left and right, the other gurneys empty, no sign of the men that usually occupied them.
“Preston, welcome back. You had a close call in there. You got lucky. Damn lucky. You’ve got a couple of broken ribs, some bruising. You’re gonna be fine but you’re gonna feel like hell for a few days. I know, been through it myself. As soon as they’ve got you up on your feet, come see me. We have some things to talk about.” Colonel Crewson said from a chair near the blue curtains across from the foot of Preston’s gurney. Before Preston could respond, he rose and strode away.
The medic, the only one who appeared to still be present, began to assist Preston to sit up before Preston waved him off. Preston, slowly having come to a seated position, his body stiff and aching even with the powerful painkiller coursing through him, moved his legs off the gurney to the floor. A slight groan escaped him as he pushed off the gurney with his hands, raising himself to his feet. Looking to his right his eyes came to rest on the usual tidy stack of clothing.
Dressing had been a challenge but one he had met. Sitting back down and putting on his boots was an even greater feat to accomplish, though he managed it, only swearing a handful of times. Pushing himself up from the gurney and rising again, he slowly stepped away from it. He found that he actually felt less discomfort standing than sitting, the stretching of the muscles in the remainder of his body felt good, as it always did after awakening, though more so this time.
He couldn’t help but wonder if he’d been kept under longer than usual. It felt as if he had. If that was the case however, it would mean that he was or would be late getting home. Anne would undoubtedly be worried not having heard from him. After she had told him the story of her friend Lynn a year before, he now understood why she was anxious if he were more than a few minutes later than expected, whether it was returning from his five day duty, which was nearly an hour’s drive away, or merely the grocery store.
Out of his current team of Branson, Fielding and Kelly, and previously Wells, he was the only one married or currently in a relationship. He had given Anne the contact number they had instructed him to leave with her for the five days he was away, which if called would be answered by a secretary who acted as a front for the non-existent company Anne believed employed him. If he contacted her, he had to do so from the only room where calls were allowed to be made and then using a phone assigned to him which would record their call and which would spoof his number on her caller ID, his personal phone turned in upon arrival at the facility. It reminded Preston of the protocol in a jail or prison.
Preston made his way down the corridor to Crewson’s office at a slower pace than usual, somewhat like a groggy child having risen to use the restroom in the middle of the night. Mentally he was awake and alert, but his body hadn’t seemed to have yet gotten the message, there seeming to be somewhat of a delay between the signals his brain was sending to his legs and the rest of his body to move and them actually performing the task. Perhaps he should be thankful for that, Preston thought, as he was sure without pharmaceutical intervention, he would be having an even harder time ambulating due to the pain it would bring.
Finally reaching the Colonel’s door, Preston raised his arm, willing his hand into a fist and knocked, his fist practically sliding down the smooth surface as he sent the requisite signals with his mind to his arm to lower itself.
“Enter.” Preston heard Crewson’s voice from behind the door. Again, he had to will his hand to reach out and close around the knob and turn it.
“Preston...I was expecting it to take you longer. I should have told you there was no need to rush. Don’t want you overdoing it. Please, sit down.”
“It feels better to stand, for now anyway.” Preston replied.
“Whatever’s most comfortable for you. As you’ve probably already concluded, we kept you under an extra day to let your body rest and get the healing process underway. You weren’t going to be going home on time anyway, so why not spare you the pain a little longer. We contacted your wife. She’s been told that you were in a relatively minor car accident after a lecture, the car you were riding in struck by a dumbass running a red light, and that you suffered some broken ribs but was otherwise unscathed but unable to talk to her due to being high as a kite on pain meds. I spoke with her again today, told her you were resting comfortably and that you’d give her a call later, which you will, and you’ll tell her you’ll be home tomorrow afternoon...or the next day if you think you’ll need more time…”
“I think I can manage tomorrow.” Preston said. Home with Anne was the only place he wanted to be and couldn’t imagine delaying it yet another day no matter how much discomfort an hour’s drive might bring.
“Well, as I said, don’t push yourself too hard. You were originally scheduled for another treatment session before you went home, we’ll get you set up with that tomorrow morning, give your body almost another day to recover. Anyway, there’s a couple other things we need to discuss. I was told there was a bit of a dust up in the common room the night before you went in, that you had prints of some pics of Branson’s ex-wives. So that’s why you wanted to see his file.”
“I wanted to prove a point. I think I succeeded.”
“You may have also succeeded in almost getting yourself killed. Kelly and Fielding came to me before they left and they both suspect what happened might not have been an accident. Of course Branson conveniently tossed his weapon so we have no way to confirm his story that it jammed. You were there and had a better vantage point than Kelly and Fielding. You’re in command of the team. I’m leaving it up to you if he stays or goes. You’ve gotta be able to trust every man that goes in there with you.” Crewson said in a serious tone.
Preston replayed the event in his mind. It had happened so fast and the memory was a bit fuzzy at the edges, but it didn’t make sense to him that Branson would have wanted him dead, or even incapacitated. It would put the team down a man and it was difficult enough already without Wells. Branson had been injured himself on the previous mission before that, though that had been Preston’s fuck up, not seeing the creature in time and misjudging its speed in the swirling mist and fog, which could have also spurred Branson to retaliate. But then that would also put Branson at even more risk the next time if they were down to only three. Preston couldn’t imagine risking it with only three, but there would be little choice. Of course, by that time the new guy might be with them, but he wouldn’t want his life in the hands of someone so green.
Preston also wondered what would become of Branson if he were to be dismissed. There was no way to erase almost a year’s worth of memories. There’d be a real risk, if along with the dismissal the money and perks stopped, of a disgruntled Branson blabbing to the media or anyone that would listen. How would they prevent that from happening? Dark thoughts related to the possibilities filled Preston’s mind. This was the military and as with any military, the mission came first. Branson’s only surviving family was an older brother. He was someone that wouldn’t be missed. They had come up with a cover story for Preston’s failure to return home on time. They could easily do the same to explain why Branson never made it home, especially seeing as he was dying anyway just like the rest of them.
“I don’t believe it was intentional. It didn’t look that way to me. Shit happens.” Preston said, wincing slightly as a twinge of pain ran along one of his broken ribs as he spoke.
“Alright. And from now on, any ‘point’ you need to make to anyone about anything, you come to me about it and let me make it. We’ve relaxed all the typical military protocol and etiquette simply due to the nature of what we’re doing here, to promote more of a mindset of a team or partnership over a hierarchy, but that chain of command still exists. There’s a right way and a wrong way to handle things. Understood?”
“Yes, of course. I let my personal feelings get the best of me. It won’t happen again.”
“Speaking of personal feelings, that brings me to the next subject. Maybe it’d be better if you sat down.” Crewson said. Preston took the seat in front of Crewson’s desk, gingerly lowering himself into it, keeping his torso stiff and straight. Crewson held a pen between his hands, looking down at it in silence for a few moments as if contemplating the best way to approach what he had to say next. “Kelly was concerned about you, something you’d said to him. I know we all get down in the mouth at times around here. It’s a dangerous job, I know you’ve all seen things in there, obviously experienced them too. On top of all of it you’re all aware your number’s going to come up sooner than most no matter what. That’s why you’re here. I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t broach the subject, if I just let it slide. I need to know, and I need an honest answer, do you have any intention of carrying out what you told Kelly?”
“Anne...she’s been through a lot...a hell of a lot. She also lost a close friend suddenly, in a road accident, when she was younger, along with all the rest. It’d be hard for anyone, but it’s going to be even more difficult for her….” Preston paused for a moment, collecting himself and his thoughts. “What Branson had been saying...they were the same sort of things people have said to her. I was angry, wasn’t thinking straight. It was just one of those things that come to mind in that sort of moment but you have no intention to actually carry through with it. I could never do that to her.” Preston said, though he wasn’t sure it was the honest truth, the truth that Crewson had asked for. In the dream he’d been in the midst of before waking which had seemed so real and hadn’t had the feeling of a dream whatsoever, he’d found himself quite capable, which troubled him.
“Good, I’m glad to hear it. Of course my first concern is for your wife’s safety and wellbeing, and yours of course...but if something like that were to happen...there would be an investigation...of course your diagnosis could be considered enough of a motive, but if they decided to dig any deeper….we’re still putting out fires by those who don’t buy our story of a chemical leak. It’s not that we want to be dishonest with people but there’s just some things people are better off not knowing, especially when they can’t do anything about it anyway. Better to let them go on with their lives unaware.”
Preston was at first disturbed by Crewson’s statement. Wouldn’t it be better for people to know so they could be prepared, unlike the sorry souls he’d seen torn apart in the video Crewson had shown him the day they’d met. But then wasn’t that what he was doing with Anne? Letting her live her life blissfully unaware of what was to come, he wishing her to go on being happy for as long as he could allow her to be? There was nothing, absolutely nothing, she could do about it so why trouble her with it until the day came when he could no longer keep the truth hidden from her?
“I agree.” Preston said simply.
“There’s one more thing. It’s still a ways off, but I thought you should be the first to know. The powers that be have decided our little party here has gone on long enough. We’re no closer to an answer as to how to close this thing as we were two years ago. That and the difficulty of finding recruits have led them to implement plan B. Six months from now once the design and materials are complete they’re going to begin sealing off this whole place like they did Chernobyl and then go one step further. A year from now where we’re sitting will be buried under a few thousand tons of rock. Basically they’re going to make this place into a sort of artificial mountain. Probably should have done it sooner to be honest.”
“What does that mean for us? I mean, I’m sure you’ll be reassigned somewhere but the rest of us? Will that alter the terms?” Preston asked, concerned.
“Not that I’m aware of. You’ll all be given a final lump sum payment that should be more than enough to get you through whatever time you have left. Your wife will still receive regular payouts for the remainder of her life after your passing, whenever that may be. You’ll be able to keep your vehicle, remain in your home, unless of course you wish to go elsewhere, we’ll still be providing medical care, all the rest. I’ll be letting the others know when they return.” Crewson told him, reassuringly.
“What about the men already in training, the ones you said were coming up?”
“Oh, they’ll finish up their training and join us. We’re still going to need them and a few more if we can find them to get us through. If everything goes right, which it rarely does, it’s still going to be another year before they pull the plug. That’s all I have.” Crewson opened a drawer of his desk, pulling out a phone. He stood from his chair, walking around his desk and handing it to Preston. “Go lie down, put your feet up. Give your wife a call, I’m sure she’ll be happy to hear your voice instead of mine. As I’ve said before, you’re a good man, Preston, I trust you. Keep it.”
“Thank you.” Preston said, struggling a bit to rise, attempting to find the method of doing so that would result in the least amount of pain. Crewson took hold of his arm, assisting him. Crewson walked to the door of his office, opening it for Preston, Preston carrying his phone with him out into the corridor.
Anne sat on a stool, brush and palette in hand in her studio, far larger than the one in her previous abode, in front of the canvas propped on an easel, studying the progress she had made thus far on her latest painting. Beside her to her left sat a small folding table holding a drinking glass half full of water and her phone. As the ringtone of her phone reached her ears, she practically threw the palette and brush down on the flat topped stand on the other side of her, grabbing the phone, answering it before the end of the first ring.
“Alan...thank god...are you alright?”
“Obviously, since I’m talking to you. I feel a bit squiffy from the drugs but I’m fine otherwise. A few broken ribs, it’s nothing. I’ll be back on the road in the morning. I’ll be home tomorrow by dinner time.” Preston told her as he lay in his bunk, a book lying on his abdomen.
“Are you sure you’re up to driving? I can come pick you up.”
“No, I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”
“You may as well tell me not to breathe. Of course I’m going to worry about you. All I could think about when they told me was Lynn, how I couldn’t go through that again, not you too, especially not you. It took me a moment to even realize they’d said you were going to be alright. I was a mess. They probably thought I was crazy.”
“They’d have likely thought it odd if you hadn’t reacted that way. It’ll take a hell of a lot more to take me away from you than some prat too busy having a wank while at the wheel to bloody well pay attention.” Preston said. Yes, he thought to himself, it’s called myelodysplastic syndrome. Preston heard Anne chuckling over the phone, the sound bringing a grin to his face for the first time that day despite his last thought..
“That’s an image I didn’t need. Thanks a lot.” Anne replied..
“You’re welcome. I may find myself doing the same if I don’t make it home soon.”
“I doubt you’ll be up to that with broken ribs.”
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Preston replied.
“I suppose there is.” Anne answered in a suggestive tone.
“I’m feeling a bit zonked. I’ll let you get back to whatever you were doing.”
“It’s so good to hear your voice. I’m glad you’re alright. I love you so much.” Anne said, Preston hearing the relief as well as longing in her voice.
“I love you, too. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Preston put the phone on the bunk at his side, picking up the book. It was his mother’s diary. He had only just started reading it after receiving it a year earlier. He had put it aside with all the activity surrounding the move and then afterwards had not felt himself ready to read it until recently.
The diary entries had begun in his mother’s early teen years, long before she had met his father. It was almost as if reading something written by a stranger, the girl behind the words far different than the memories, the few he still had anyway, of the somber, lonely, depressed woman he had known, always with a bottle of something intoxicating near at hand. The girl in the diary had been happy and hopeful, full of life and dreams for the future, dreams that would never be realized. Preston couldn’t help but think it was he himself that had put paid to those dreams, to the girl she had been, before attempting to dissuade himself from those thoughts by reminding himself he had no say in his own creation. It had been his mother and father who had made the decision to throw caution to the winds.
He couldn’t help but contrast his memories of his mother with Anne. Anne too had been lonely, had experienced heartache, and yet the night he’d met her, he had noticed something in her eyes that he couldn’t recall ever seeing in his mother’s...hope..a small flickering flame of it still in them which had grown brighter the longer they had conversed.
Preston continued to read. Though he had slept for two days straight and only been awake for a short while he felt his eyes growing heavy. The handwriting, though neat, was becoming difficult to read as his eyes grew increasingly unable to focus. Setting the book aside with his phone, he closed his eyes, surrendering to his body’s need for rest, not the type that came from a syringe, but the natural, healing, restoring variety.
The smile on Anne’s face faded as she sat the phone back on the folding table beside her. She looked at the painting on the easel in front of her and began to reach to her right for the brush and palette before changing her mind and instead reaching for the glass of water on the table to her left. She lifted it to her lips, taking a small sip from it, then another. A look of alarm crossed her face before she sat the glass back on the table and rose from the stool, turning towards the doorway and swiftly vacating the room.
A man appearing to be nearing thirty, his hair so blond it almost appeared to be white, kneeled by a military style bunk in a room very similar to the one in which Preston rested. Placing his hands together, interlocking his fingers in what appeared to be prayer as he rested his elbows on the bunk, he bowed his head, whispering so softly his words were unintelligible.
“The time draws near.” The deep voice of the black, shadowy, humanoid figure said from behind him. The man ended his prayer, raising his head. “You have been a faithful servant. Do not fear the loss of the flesh. You will become more powerful for it. I will see to it.”
“I fear nothing, for I exist only to do your bidding. ‘I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.’”