Birthday – Part 4

From the Memoirs of Irwin Morrow

Hissing and chittering droned through the tatters of the steel door at the far end of the corridor.  The solid metal had been torn and splayed outward into a jagged fluted edge.  A pungent, rotten egg odor seeped from the darkness beyond.  I clung to the concrete of the wall where the shadows were thickest and made my approach low and slow.  The supplies I sought would not be found in that room.  I knew that deep in my instinctual memory.  The way to the storeroom took me passed the ruptured door and whatever hid within.

Something large darted past the opening.  I froze not even daring to breath for a few eternal seconds while I waited to see if the thing would show itself again.  When it did not reappear, I continued padding my way forward.  Rivulets of sweat ran down my face and into my eyes forcing me to blink away the stinging salt.  The hallway seemed to stretch on for leagues.

With each step closer, the din from the creatures beyond grew from a buzz to a great reverberating rumble that I felt in the roots of my molars.  With all my self-control, I was forcing my breathing into slow, steady respiration.  The edges, resisting all smoothing, remained ragged at the demand of a booming heart.  The sweat poured faster, and my feet moved slower.  Despite all, my rifle remained steadfast and poised to erupt should the slightest thing move through that blackened gap.

I reached the corner and pressed myself flat against the wall.  With a glacial revolution, I bent an eye around the edge to peer down the dim corridor beyond. The muddy tracks were thicker here forming a knot of smears but, through the wavering light, I saw the storeroom door remained sealed.

An odd mix of relief and terror washed over me as I pulled myself in tighter to the wall.  On the one hand, the sealed door hinted that resources within remained unclaimed.  On the other, it also meant that I could not turn back now.  The void of any imprinted memory or instinctive knowledge of the world above rattled me.  Here in this dark warren, there were dangers, but my unknown creators had left the secrets of this place etched on my mind.  I found that foundation reassuring.  It gave me soil in which to grow.  The Above held only emptiness as far as I knew, and that primal terror of the unknown shook me harder than the fear of whatever beasts lurked in the gloom of this vault.

Deep down I knew I would have to leave.  In collecting supplies, I was preparing to leave without really thinking about it.  My people were stillborn.  There was nothing to keep me buried in the Ark.  Yet there, crouched against the wall at the intersection of survival and death, I was not willing to contemplate the horrifying uncertainty of The Above.  Over the years since, I have often wondered if that unwillingness to face the inevitable was cowardice.  Perhaps it was but I had been born only earlier that day, so maybe I can be forgiven a craven moment.

I breathed myself up and cut around the corner with a purposeful stride.  The barrel of the rifle scanned the passageway ahead while my head swiveled between front and back.  I arrived at the door and jabbed at the keypad with my finger while my eyes continued their sweep.

The keypad buzzed twice shattering the silence and I looked down to see the red light above the keys flashing.  I gushed sweat, leaving my forearm slick as I wiped my brow.  My pulse pounded against my ear drums.  A slight tremor rippled through my hand as I pressed my code into the keypad once more.  2-1-0-5.  Come on!  Come on!  Come on!  I was screaming in my head as my eyes bulged out as if to open the portal by will alone.  Then after a pause of a dozen manic heartbeats, the light turned green and the bolt slide clear with a heavy, flat conk.  I did not wait to find out if the sound had drawn the attention of the creatures next door and dove into the syrupy dark. 

Inside, there were no flickering emergency lights.  Only the strobing yellow light that spilled in from the hall eroded the murky black.  A hand light had been mounted on the wall next to the door and I jerked it free, cupping the beam in my hand to make sure it was still working.  Light in hand, my thoughts turned to the open door.  Shutting it would give me a layer of safety if those creatures came sniffing around.  Yet, these doors did not open quietly.  Is it worth the risk?

No.  It isn’t.  That other door didn’t hold them back and neither will this one.  Resolute in my decision, I stowed my rifle and drew my pistol.  My programmed training told me I wouldn’t be able to both hold the hand light and fire the rifle accurately.  The extra punch won’t do a damn bit of good if I can’t shoot straight.  I slowed my breathing, focusing on survival and the clarity that came with it.  Pistol and light in hand, I stalked into the gloom. 

Whoever my creators had been, they were organized.  Rows of warehouse shelves towered around me in neat lines.  Each row was labeled with a letter and each shelf section with two numbers separated by a dash.  For the second time, my imprinted memories failed me.  The code meant nothing to me.  I guess I wasn’t meant to be the quartermaster. 

Time stretched by as I wound my way through the aisles.  Water was found with relative speed.  It was kept on the bottom shelves in massive, milk-white tanks reinforced by aluminum cages.  I unscrewed the top of one and filled the canteen from my pack.  I chugged that first liter in great gasping gulps, sloshing nearly as much water down my front as down my throat.  A cardboard box of soft plastic reservoirs sat on the self above the water.  I tore one out and filled it along with my canteen before slipping both back into the pack.

Food proved harder to find.  I wandered up and down the rows scanning each shelf with my light to no avail.  In the meantime, my pack began to sag with additional plundered items found along the way.  All told, I added a mess kit, a compass, and several boxes of ammunition for both the rifle and the pistol to my growing hoard. 

Then, just as I was beginning to wonder if I was pressing my luck, I saw it.  Way up on the top of the shelves in the far back corner was a pallet labelled as rations.  It was easily twenty feet off the ground.  I cast a wild glance around the immediate area hoping for a ladder or anything to help me to the top.  In the corner near a backdoor squatted a forklift.  I chuckled to myself at the irony.  Of course.  The one thing I can’t use.

The climb was quick and uncomfortable.  The regular reinforcements along the end of the shelving made for an easy ascent, but they were thin and bit into my palms with each pulling grasp.  To top it off, the light had been too bulky to hold in my teeth and so I had been forced to holster both pistol and hand light.  The dark made it impossible to gauge my progress. 

When I arrived at the top, I knew it by feel.  The air moved more freely up here in the same way that it does around the tops of standing trees.  It dried my sweat, leaving my flesh chilled and hoary with goosebumps.  The pallet held an expanse of brick sized packets which had been neatly stacked and then the lot had been wrapped in a thick plastic wrap.  At least, that was what my fingers told me as I groped in the dark.  I clambered on top of the pallet for stability and pulled as many of the packaged ration bricks free as I could fit into the pack’s remaining space. 

Satisfied that I had met my immediate needs, I had nearly lowered myself onto the top rung when an ominous clicking skipped in from the hall.  With all the stealth I could manage, I bear crawled across the pallets towards the front end where I was able to look down on the doorway to the hall.  My breath caught in my chest.  A long menacing shadow was silhouetted in the flickering yellow light.  With a slow chittering, one of the creatures stepped in through the door.

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