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"Strangely, it's the fresh air I miss the most. Not trees or green grass, or even a cloudless blue sky. Not a freshly cooked steak, a homemade apple pie or a chilled brew on a muggy summer day, but a single whiff of sweet, stale-free oxygen. Air that doesn't contain the faint scent of day-old farts, the coppery stench of burnt coffee or tar and nicotine breath.
"Nine months inside a concrete tomb, that's basically what it comes down to, although this particular mausoleum does hold considerably more charm than our last extended rest stop, 'The Glow Motel', as Sergeant Rock had so aptly dubbed it. Don't believe any of us were ever quite comfortable spending two months in an abandoned nuke silo. Just didn't have that 'homey' feel, so to speak.
"The 'Hive' isn't exactly the Hilton either, but at least it does contain a dozen separate walled sections, so there is a semblance of privacy anyway.
"I found the unmarked, unlabeled DVD's at the bottom of a cardboard box in the rear of the supply room, buried beneath a pile of yellow pocket folders overstuffed with dry-rotted files from decades past. The entire room smelled of ancient rat droppings, despite the obvious impossibilities of such. The place is so spotless, so strangely sanitized, that it almost makes you lonely for the occasional roach or dead fly lying about. Not sure why I decided to take an impromptu inventory of the room after all this time, other than to chalk up such a fruitless task to extreme boredom. Despite the camaraderie of the unit, we all desire our moments of solitude, especially with the impending scenario looming like a dark storm cloud.Humans crave companionship, true, but are also a solitary creature at heart. As a species, we are…were walking, talking contradictions. I never dwelled upon such matters, never had a reason to actually. Scary how things change, like that guy from The Eagles once sang, in 'A New York Minute'.
"I can hear Lieutenant Lava's shrieking rant through the thick concrete walls, no doubt railing on Private Brain Dog, who patiently waits, preparing his hip-hop themed, profanity-laced rebuttal to whatever she's moaning about. Those two seem to revel in the art of argument for argument's sake, complete opposites in terms of personality and general opinion.
"Sergeant Rock is always telling them to 'jump between the sheets and get it over with', a suggestion that never fails to induce a cringe from Father Pete, despite the fact that everyone knows such a coupling between the two is old news.
"Being the only two females within the unit, both Lieutenant Lava and Airman Legs willingly accept their unspoken responsibilities to the male troops, as well as the 'mother figure' roles they assume solely for Kid Cadet, the only child within our skeletal crew ranks. My admiration and respect for those two women (especially the good Lieutenant, but more on that later) goes even beyond that of the Chief, the man most responsible for keeping us alive the past year and a half.
"As I begin to repack the box (a brief time filler at best) after setting the mystery DVD's aside, I hear the Chief chime in as if on cue, spouting the now nauseatingly familiar 'Stow it, clowns!" refrain in his deep, husky tone. Despite his best efforts, however, it's obvious his bark is decidedly worse than his bark of late. I would think it's rather easy to lose your authoritative edge when mortality is staring you dead in the face.
"They are all gathered about the makeshift monitoring room, no doubt sipping lukewarm coffee and munching on MRE crackers that are less crisp than rubbery from decades old packaging. Everyone, save myself and Sergeant Rock, who I can hear thumping around in the exercise room. I don't have to glare into a monitor to know what awaits us. I don't have to see or hear them to know they're out there, swarming like bloated maggots on a rotting corpse. The ad campaign worked wonders, it seems. Better than we could ever have hoped. The ruthless hordes know we're here. Probably smell us, like roasted wienies propped over a blazing campfire. We are truly the life-source for their being, serving a double purpose to the future of their survival as a species while our own has been so cruelly, systemically eradicated. Not that we're one hundred percent positive that there aren't others like us still out there somewhere, living like moles instead of humans, but even so, it's a safe bet that the numbers are frighteningly low. The hordes seem increasingly frantic the past few months, decidedly more desperate. Hosts are becoming few and far between, and the air space they occupy is becoming thick with anxiety.
"As I depart the supply room for 'sleep bay', the largest of the Hives' compartments, I hear The Chief instruct Corporal Chatty to up the amps on the outside speakers. The vibrations are whipping them into a frenzy, like a dinner bell ringing from some unseen buffet hall.
"I kneel onto my sleeping bag, lay back and remove the rubber band which serves to hold the coupled DVD's together. The discs are pitch black in color, the outside cases clear and without markings of any kind. I deduce they must consist of 'Top Secret' war contingencies or Op Plans, possibly even training films on how to survive a nuclear holocaust-ravaged earth. Regardless, the utter uselessness of such drivel strikes me as hilariously ironic as a wide smile creases my usually stoic visage. Laying back to further study the stone ceiling overhead, I realize how dramatically I've aged since the plague, especially in the psychological sense. A twenty-seven year old man housing a senior-citizen attitude; battle worn and constantly at odds with a level of mental fatigue he never previously thought possible.
"Another loud thump from two rooms down, and I hear Sergeant Rock sigh loudly. A true creature of habit, is our Kenneth McKay. Pounds those weights for hours on end, like a man prepping for Mr. Universe honors. Hits the hard bag until his fists are raw and his knuckles bleed. I guess we've all developed our own unique technique to stave off the insanity boiling just below the surface of our skullcaps. Mine is to journal this maddening existence as the days drone on, despite the reality of never having such a dairy read by anyone of my own kind. Everyone's been asked to add something to the time capsule that Father Pete is putting together. He's packing the objects in a stainless steel tube he pulled from the silo. Doubtful it will survive the blast, but it's the symbolism of the deed that counts, not the eventual fate of the object itself.
"Eighteen months of avoidingdeath's sharp-edged rapier can take their toll, both mentally and physically. I'm sure all nine of us would be a real study if such an occupation as psychiatrist still mattered. Incurable head cases with multiple phobias and remarkable tolerance levels for pain and anguish. We've all seen more death and destruction in these past several months than in every ultra-violent movie or TV show ever produced.
"I reach over and pull the worn, leather bound journal from my duffel, careful not to tip over the small makeup stand sitting between my own sleeping bag and that of Airman Legs. Maintaining her looks is Pam Vincent's vice. I can't say I don't approve of the effort, however moot. Pam is what society used to label 'drop dead gorgeous, despite the added battle scars of recent times.
"Flipping to the front of the book, I glance over the initial entries with an astonishingly diverse mix of feelings, the gist of which include both pinning nostalgia and gut-wrenching, primal fear.
"Some of the names had long since departed our dwindling ranks, and the attached faces vanished just as quickly from my tattered mind.
"The present line-up:
"Yours truly, Barry Hooper, AKA 'Private Radar' (for my inexplicable talent for sensing impending danger. More curse than godsend, in my humble opinion, but even I cannot completely deny its usefulness in our plight).
"Age: Twenty-seven (last October, when months, days and hours actually meant something)
"Physical Description: White male. Five-eight, one-hundred sixty pounds. Prominent, beak-like nose (a mark of us Hoopers since my great, great grandad), pasty complexion (never could hold a tan. Skin would always turn rose red and proceed to roast).
"Former occupation: UPS Route Driver, Austin, TX; part time writer of un-published fiction.
"Family status: Wife (Denise) and five year old son Wallace missing, presumed deceased (taken three days after the nest was unearthed in Northern Alabama). You hold out hope for a while, then it slowly fades into reluctant acceptance. The sour feeling never leaves my gut, however, whenever their faces enter my dreams.
"'Swarm Day' Location: When the city was besieged upon on that steamy hot Austin summer day, I had driven my route truck towards home like a doped up lunatic, only to discover the house (actually the entire street we lived on) ravaged and my loved ones gone. Looked like someone had rocked our house, as every window was shatteredand every door bashed open. I had been on my way to my parent's place in Fort Worth, the interstates packed to overflowing and moving at a snail's pace, despite the shoulders on both sides being used as lanes. The hordes swept down on us from all directions. I saw several unfortunate individuals pulled from their vehicles and whisked away like confetti in a funnel cloud. The idling Greyhound was parked just to the left of my UPS van. Just as one (several?) of the swarm landed atop my vehicle, I leapt from the truck and sprinted to the bus. Inexplicably lost the pinkie finger of my right hand in the process. Hope they choked on it. The rest, as they say…will soon be history.
Copyright © 2005 Terry Lloyd Vinson