Birthday – Part 2

From the Memoirs of Irwin Morrow

The rifle weighed in my hands with the palpable security of a child’s nightlight.  It felt a part of me, and my fingers crawled over it in a mindless way checking the release of the magazine, the movement of the charging handle, the set of the sights.  The symphony of oiled slides and small clicks sent satisfied tingles cascading down my spine.  The ritual complete, a warm ooze of catharsis trickled down from my shoulders as I loaded the weapon and slung it over my shoulder.

I had found the rifle mounted on a rack in the back of my locker after dressing.  A black coated pistol was mounted beside it, but the rifle had called to me somewhere from very base of my mind in a deep resonance that could have been the beat of my own heart.  Now that it was once again a part of me, I performed the same sacred rites upon the pistol, slid it into its belt, and wrapped it around my hips.

A relaxed breath poured from my lips and with it the tension that stretched from behind my eyes all the way down to my toes.  Standing in that wet, musty room, I was clothed and armed for the first time in my life.  Sudden lightness filled me.  I felt buoyed like a drowning man who finds a float and is no longer unaided in the merciless sea.

I closed the locker door, spun the lock, and turned to watch the water dripping from the ceiling.  The pool it formed was jaundice and acrid.  Unclean.  Unsafe.  Priorities:  Water first.  Then food.  The thought cut in, a clear bell in the night.  Another imprinted memory of training I had never received.

The clang of the opening door bounced a short way along the filthy corridor.  To say that a map of the complex filled my mind would be inaccurate, but a dowsing sense of direction was with me.  When I thought of a general need, a subconscious tug pulled me in one direction or another.  Water.  A tug to the left.  Food. The left again.  Escape.  To the right. 

Priorities, I reminded myself and turned left into the hallway, hoisting the rifle stock to my shoulder.  From somewhere ahead a distant primeval shriek tore the air.  It was followed by another, a scuffling sound, and then horrid silence.  I steadied my breathing, leveled the rifle, and continued forward.

Within a few steps, I had rounded the corner into the corridor that lead past the room of my birth.  The flickering emergency lights gave motion to the shadows that clung inside the frames of the other steel doors.  Naked in every sense of the word, I had not thought to peer inside any of them in my flight to the instinctive comfort of the barracks, but now my imprinted memory crackled as my eyes and rifle swept the corridor. 

The first door on the right was of steel construction like the barracks but marred by long deep claw marks.  A large dent as though something heavy had been thrown into it bowed the door slightly from the floor to about waist height.  Looking first left and then right, I punched the last four digits of my serial number into the keypad and pushed the aluminum lever to open the door.

I swept the derelict infirmary with my rifle.  Water stains spilled down the seafoam walls like a black mold tide with fetid beds for breakers.  Privacy curtains hung in tattered streamers.  Streaked with mildew, they danced like ghosts as the stale air exchanged with that of the hallway.  A gangrenous odor permeated the room and I followed it back past the rancid rows of sick beds to the far end. 

The cloying reek led me to the rotting body of a man.  He had propped himself up in a corner between two cabinets and spread an assortment of medical supplies around him.  Among them glinted a still sterling medical saw.  A long, deep gash had been sliced into his thigh and, above it, a red rag had been tied painfully tight.  I squatted down to inspect the wound more closely.  The putrefaction around the wound was more advanced than the rest of him.  I let my eyes wander up his corpse to look into his waxy shriveled faced.  His eyes were blue like mine. 

You were going to try to amputate your leg, weren’t you?  I stood up still gazing down at the body as the weight of this man’s final desperate moments settled upon me.  As I contemplated the horror that he must have felt dying from blood poisoning in a blighted hole, I was struck by his clothing.  They were all wrong.  They weren’t fatigues like mine or even a coverall.  They lacked the uniformity of this place where the doors and corridors were built the same, where people were grown in batches.  His clothing was too unique and too personalized by life.  The denim of his pants was worn and patched.  The leather of his jacket was water warped and stained.  His shirt was a color I had never seen before. 

Staring at it, the word “purple” bubbled up out of my mind and over my lips.  The sound of my own voice startled me.  It shattered the silence and a moment passed before I fully awaked to the knowledge that I had made that sound.  That hoarse gravel sound bent into a bubbly word was my voice; that was what I sounded like.  The gravity of it knitted my brow.  I had never spoken before.  And now I had said “purple”.  My first word was “purple”.

With the vague sense that I had made some kind of personal progress still glowing in my chest, I turned my attention back to the corpse.  He didn’t come from here.  So, he came from somewhere else.  Somewhere outside.  The idea of “outside” gave me a feeling of being underground, of something brilliant and dangerous above.  A nagging instinct told me that eventually The Above is where I must go, to the great unknown with all the hazards it held.  I swallowed hard as if to reabsorb the percolating fear in my gut.

Focus.  The future may be uncertain, but the present is in my control.  I repeated the thought over in my mind like a mantra of a kind as I unconsciously touched the identity tag to my heart.  “I am in control of the present,” I said in a hard whisper with a dry throat. 

When my pulse had sufficiently slowed, I slung the rifle and walked the room collecting the cleanest linens I could scrounge.  I returned to the dead man and, gripping his boots, pulled him supine on the tile floor before covering him with the scavenged sheets.  “Rest well,” I murmured as I slid the cover over his face.  It was a paltry funeral but the best I could come up with.  To this day, I pray he understood that.

Now exposed, the corner between the cabinets revealed the man had propped himself up with a backpack of worn but quality leather.  I lifted the pack and undid the buckle.  Inside the man had stuffed a hunting knife, a small tinder box, a course quilted blanket, a dented metal canteen, and a coil of rope.  I pulled the canteen free and gave it a shake, but the lack of slosh told me it was dry.  Worth a try, I thought a little crest fallen. 

I replaced the canteen and set to work digging into the cabinets to recover what few first aid items were still fit for use.  A minimal assortment of sealed bandages, a roll of tape, and one missed bottle of antibiotics were all that remained.  I stuffed them into a tight tin, packed that away in the leather backpack, and then slid it onto my back.  With a few soft words of appreciation to the dead, I lifted the rifle once more and stalked back into gloom of the corridor. 

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