It is the twentieth day of Kristine. I mark time by her arrival in jest but I know the date for certain as an overdue deadline has come and gone for a second time. The calendar’s red-circled task glares at me accusingly while I pretend it doesn’t matter if a few days are missed.
However, I know full well that the ten day intervals are not marked as suggestions. Neglecting this duty any longer will eventually lead to darkness and foul air. Discomforts I don't intend facing until my final exit is assured.
I have to service the generator.
I have to go outside with the Creepys and Crawlys.
This mission raises my level of paranoia and anxiety to a sharp point. I dwell on this deeply and the pills of peace and tranquillity quit their abilities to calm my mind. I check the service schedule again, in case the passing days are fabrications of my mind.
No such luck. It is definitely overdue to the point of being due again.
Procrastinating further is inadvisable. I risk damaging our only source of power. We’d return to the Stone Age. No lights, no air-conditioning, and no refrigeration. The prospect of drinking warm beer scares me almost as much as a Crawly caressing my face.
The following day starts off badly when I see it is the thirteenth day of the month. It is only because it is a Thursday that I spur myself into action. The possibility of the genset failing is overwhelming my thoughts. In the last few hours I have been constantly torturing myself.
Is the fridge still on?
Did that light just flicker?
Are we about to be evicted due to my brand new case of agoraphobia?
I summon the courage to peek outside using the kitchen’s high and well-barred window to peer through.
A car park lot lies below me. My loyal cars stand in their regimented rows, where I’d placed them many months ago. The overgrown lawns provide sparse cover from this high angle. No one lurks amongst the bending stalks. A distant stretch of cyclone fencing, marking the extremities of our property, is intact.
My face remains pressed against the cool glass for an extended length of time. I seek to outwitting those I know are out there waiting for me. I become totally absorbed in rescanning this increasingly familiar arc of ground when Kristine’s thirst interrupts. The kitchen door bangs open and I leap away from the glass, cursing loudly at her disregard for my wound up nerves. Kristine back-peddles a step or two in surprise; and then she adopts that look of irate puzzlement, commonly applied to me. My flattened face feels numb from the pressure against the glass. My huge, dry eyes are agog with fright. I’ve really worked myself up.
“What the hell are you doing, Sam? I thought you must be in your...”
Kristine takes in my wild state.
“...what’s out there? Are they here?”
Her urgent whisper raises hairs. I whip around to strain eyes outwards, checking again to be sure.
“No. Nothing. Nothing’s there. Nobody... nothing.”
I leave the kitchen, obsessively checking the security door lock as I pass. Kristine sidles up the window and untrustingly has a look outside for herself.
We have converted one bedroom into an armoury. Here I strap armour over the uncomfortable leathers and buckle on chunky boots that clump noisily about the room while I retrieve shotgun’s and pistols from wall hooks. Then I head to the study to print off a typed procedure, developed to ensure essential tasks aren’t forgotten during this hazardous outing.
Kristine sneaks around behind me with worry on her face. She hears the shaking of a bottle of artificial calm and the disappearance of another pill down the neck of a frightened man. She tackles me before the last glimmering brain cell can sputter out.
I sit on a beckoning couch, head dipped to read the page.
Kristine kneels in my presence, misreading my sagging deep-thought posture as dumb relaxation. She unlimbers her ‘calm’ voice, used to stop me from inadvisable acts, like using the couches as surf boards.
Her demands are usually simple and always completely opposite to my current desires.
My attention is forced from the page as she takes it from my hands. The cartoon playing on the silent TV is immediately a fascinating alternative.
“What’s this? A genset maintenance roster? Are you’re going outside?”
“Yeah. Sucks, but I have to...”
I trail off, caught up in the Roadrunner’s trickery.
“You’re high, Sam! If something happens to you I’ll be locked in here; I can’t get out.”
She speaks very slowly and forcefully, like you’d talk to a drunk or the feebleminded. At this moment I deserve those extra considerations. I sigh and rub my face while my thoughts congeal.
It had never occurred to me that I hold her captive, like a pretty song-bird in a gilded enclosure. To me, confinement was merely a positive side effect that kept the nasty stuff outside. This ailment of boredom that abrades her mind is an inevitable development. Finished with her housekeeping, she’s growing fretful. I guess she wants to broaden her horizons.
I’m in no shape to cope with a wilful woman and the needs of a mechanical device. I sort through the various stones of my choices here, seeking one that may kill two birds with one throw.
“You want to go outside?”
“Yes! I can help. Please don’t leave me in here. I don’t know how to work the security doors. You’ve got all the keys, and you’re going outside completely fucked up.”
She’s correct. Explaining the security doors’ procedures had not been covered in her rushed induction twenty days prior. We haven’t even left this wing since our day of arrival.
My thinking is a bit muddy. An Adderall hit would be nasty on top of Methadone but, what the hell. I stalk past Kristine for a fumble through neat soldiers standing to attention on the kitchen bench. Three should do.
Kristine shadows me, keen to press her advantage.
“Hold your horses; I’m trying to get straight.”
“By taking more pills? That’s not how it’s done, Sam.”
“That depends on if you want me alert or strung out.”
My twisted logic shuts her up. I judge the level of her patience by the depth her fingers are sinking into her hips. I hold up my hands, mockingly surrendering. These chemicals will have do their job while I placate her.
I float off to search out a spare set of keys.
Crossed arms and nervously licked lips greet my return. I hold out the jingling cluster of shiny metal and find her unwilling to take them. I’m annoyed.
“You want these or not? If something does happen out there, you might want to get back in here without searching my body first!”
For my own sake I’m quite sorry I said that. The words raise alarming visuals of my bloody and violent death.
She watches me closely. Plain feelings cross her honest face and an unfamiliar empathy enlightens me. She fears this confrontation. She may be planning to flee from me and leave this prison behind. I try to articulate something reassuring but it comes out as nonsense.
“A prisoner of fate is the girl who chooses too late. You’re afraid of the loose nut behind the wheel. I see through you. I see inside you. Make your choice and we can dance together in sunlight.”
“You don't make any sense when you’re high. How can I discuss anything important when you’re like this?”
“Take the keys, lady. Master your destiny. Do as you will.”
She quietens, definitely afraid, but unwilling to let up the pressure. I’m fighting a cycle from elation to despair. Explosion of lights bloom and fade as different trains of thought chug across emotional wastelands.
If she leaves, I’ll die alone. I still want to die but I’d modified my death to include the possibility of her holding my hand and dripping goodbye tears on my face. Yes, I am gripped by selfishness.
“If you’re worried that I won’t let you leave, don’t be.”
She frowns deeply.
“You’re not a prisoner here; I just never thought to show you how to get out of here. I’ve been hiding something.
An urgency to convey my feelings carries my voice too high.
“I’m scared to go out. Have been since I brought you here. Please, take the keys.”
I shove them at her again. They stop their incessant jingling when she grips the bundle in a small fist and feels their power.
“You sure are a loose unit, Sam. I wasn’t thinking of leaving; unless you make me. If we’re going to live together we need to share everything.”
She’s caught me at a bad moment. Tears threaten for both of us. I must have gotten dust in my eye or something.
“Let’s get this absolutely clear. You want to go outside with Mr Paranoid and his shotgun, instead of staying in here, doing needlework, nice and safe?”
“Invited or not, I’m coming. You need me to watch your back.”
“I never considered asking for your help. It’s a man thing. But OK, on one condition. You have to do everything I say, without arguing.”
She nods but I’m not convinced. I know she’ll evaluate my mindset and make her own decisions at the time.
I experience another upward swing in my mood.
“Excellent. Let’s go. I took so many uppers I’ll be bouncing off the walls soon. Get dressed in your finest armour, young lady, the intricacies of servicing a genset await.”
The spare leather jacket I hand her is a bad fit. Way too big.
“Take it off. You’ll be safer without it.”
She’s already about to question me. Instead of explaining, I blank my face and paw at her arm imitated the way the Creepy’s try to grab you. She attempts to back away so I roughly grab an excess fold of leather and proceed to jerk her back and forth until she staggers.
“Quit it! That hurts.”
When I let go she shrugs the jacket off and rubs at the red marks on her arms.
“Don’t look at me like that. It will hurt a lot more when they start biting. Just wear boots and whatever tears off you the easiest. Might I suggest a bikini?”
Her eyes roll at my practised leer and she steals a shirt from my clean pile of clothes that she’d dumped in my room without commenting that she’d told me to put them away several days ago. She retires to her room and changes into the camouflage pants she’d been wearing when I met her. There isn’t much else to offer her. I hadn’t catered for a woman’s needs when I was looting. I’m not bent that way at all.
Psyching up for the excursion builds an agitated state. My supressed terror is ripe for exploitation by my malicious brain that likes to go over everything that can go wrong. I skip the ‘required’ roof-side reconnaissance and perusal of the grounds despite the fact that it is a prominent first step on my inviolable checklist. A dishonest tick takes care of the empty box.
For once I’m not motivated by laziness. These suppressing drugs are cresting and I’m counting on them to hold back that terrifying memory; that monster clamped to my face; for long enough to get this job done. I know Kristine’s mind is also soiled by the effects of that event. Although we do not speak of the images that break our sleep, occasionally I’ve heard her eerie night cries as I sit up late, staving off the claws and teeth of my own dreams with the help Duramine.
Kristine’s dark-ringed eyes nervously flit from the weapons I draw for her, to the bottle I swig from. I toss her a shoulder holster which she rotates cluelessly in her hands. Watching her contortions to fit the straps has more entertainment value than assisting but I’m reminded the humour of her resulting bondage is one-sided. Stripping it off her, I untangle the mess and competently impart a gun-lore lesson which was the result of book-learning in front of a very patient mirror.
With the holster adjusted correctly, I snug the accessory with its shooting partner and take a moment to admire the way the tightened straps accentuate her breasts.
A flood of endorphins are sweeping away the last of my lethargy and recalcitrance so I take a deep breath and we exit through the security door that I haven’t touched in 21 days. As we retrace our entry route I explain which keys open which doors plus impart other pertinent advice and instructions. Kristine listens carefully.
We stomp and clatter our way to the outer air-lock doors. It is here my phobia makes a comeback. To pre-empt its threat to seize my limbs I irresponsibly slam the outer door open and rush outside, letting loose a war-cry. I wave the shotgun in all directions, strangling the barrel with one hand and one finger pulling tightly at the locked out trigger. Anything larger than a bee will cause the safety to be snicked forward and be met by an eruption of fire and lead.
Kristine finishes her surprised scream at my stupid action. She edges out behind me and kicks my ankle as payback for the scare. She kicks hard and that hurts even through thick boot leather. I slip on sunglasses to protect my eyes from the hammering sunlight and limp down the metal steps.
We jog along the wide asphalt strip that crumbles under an onslaught of roots and seeds that spring from every hairline crack. A healthy distance is maintained from the tall grasses that crowd up to the concrete gutters. The gently waving mass of green is impenetrable to our straining eyeballs. Estimations of the things that might hide within it automatically taunt me. Jumpy as a cat, I cautiously drop to a fast sideways walk to keep the obscured area covered.
Our destination is the concrete altar that houses our God of Power. The hulking structure sits on its island of gravel, vibrating the air gently. Bright reflections from the stainless steel tanker crush us into dwarfs that lock my wavering attention.
The genset has not been located with post-apocalyptic access in mind. The intelligence of its old world placement doesn’t mean I curse the designers any less. Why couldn’t they have put it in a nice safe basement, deep beneath the building? The again, that’s where the monsters prefer to dwell isn’t it.
There’s a narrow ladder welded to the side of the tanker. I slam up the rungs and dip the fuel compartment. Gesturing angrily I sign at Kristine to cover us instead of watching me. She waves her gun uncertainly at the empty road and whirls to point the barrel at the sinister whispering grass stalks that rub together in the breeze. I see her whole body vibrating with nerves and feel glad that it’s not just me on the edge of freaking out. I return to the ground hastily and slip on the last rung to fall hard on my arse. My tongue prevents my teeth crashing into each other. Pain flashes hotly.
Fuck that hurt.
Spitting blood, I snatch up a rock while I bound to my feet and scrawl a large X that closely match the other three that march down the side of the tanker. It is a reminder to change the valves over next service. This forth compartment of six is almost empty.
The genset door lock gives way to the forceful use of the correct key. I yank it open and receive the expected blast of heat and noise stoically. Unprepared for the racket within, Kristine cowers back. I reach out and drag her inside so I can slam the door.
The noise is extreme. So much so that I must exaggerate my actions to show her how to take the load off the genset, and then bring the roaring pistons to a clattering halt with its prominent stop button. The silence is golden until Kristine bombards me with questions that I try to answer while working around the plinking of cooling metal. My caution about hot filters is demonstrated when I burn myself as an example of how not to handle them.
Time flies although I work like a man possessed. The thought of possession in these trying times makes me laugh. Kristine’s concern for me doubles which makes me hold up a hand and take a few deep breaths to show her my mind has levelled.
Kristine does none of the actual work. I won’t let her. Every few minutes, between instructions, I wave her outside to check the area around us.
The job is completed just under my best previous time. When I used to do this alone I was constantly stopping to look outside. This paranoid precaution slowed the chore, but I really don’t like surprises.
I demonstrate the restarting sequence several times before hitting the big green ‘start’ button. The angry beast resumes its internal clattering and we depart, shutting in its roar with relief. Jogging back to the doors recently exited I begin to grin. Once more safely inside I whoop the pleasure of our success out loud. Kristine breathes deeply before allowing my infectious good humour break her ghostly-white face into a smile. We laugh at ourselves and all is good with the world, for a few seconds at least.