“Welcome to a day in the life of an ordinary, unsuspecting hall guard in a top-secret government installation.”
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I’m going to die today.
I dreamt about it. I woke up with my death playing over and over again in my mind like a rehearsal for some grand performance.
I didn’t bother my wife about it. I haven’t bothered her about much in twenty-six years now.
But like a runny nose, the thought hasn’t stopped bothering me. I don’t know why it’s worse today. I have the dream all the time. Same shit, different day. But it’s worse than normal this morning.
I try not to think about it on the way to work. I turn up the radio and try to focus on the thin gray stripe of road between two gray walls of gray forest. It takes forever to get to work. I mean forever. The drive devours time and gas and microwaved food and somehow I’m always still half-an-hour away. Jesus. With so much time, I can’t find anything to think about other than the nightmare in my brain.
I turn and he’s there. Some asshole in a black cap and black fatigues, crossing my eyes with a silenced pistol that moves in for a kiss. I open my mouth to yell. But it’s too late.
Then I wake up.
I slap myself to reality and try to admire the landscape of ashen winter. It’s really beautiful if I take the time to admire it. The gray tree trunks, sagging in the violent cold, the kind of cold that locks bones and joints into rigid marble. And the bland sky, cloudy for years. The occasional wolf gazing my way, only to move on, entirely disinterested.
When I finally arrive at the perimeter checkpoint, the gatekeeper checks my identification while two other guys circle the car with leashed dogs to sniff for drugs or guns or a black-capped asshole in the trunk. I know I’m clean, so I pick my nose and flick the findings out the open window until the gatekeeper waves me through. Another half a kilometer inside the first perimeter is another checkpoint, and this one’s the real deal. Barriers, heavily armed soldiers, fences, spikes, machine gun nests – the home furnishings of Satan himself. The regular fellow on duty, Karl, knows me. We’ve knocked shot glasses once or twice. But for the sake of appearances, he sneers at me and sizes me up each time he checks my ID.
He remembers me. He has to. He sees me every morning, right?
I pass unscathed. But today I don’t feel so clean. I scan the area for any additional military buildup. Perhaps they’ve heard word about my dream. Perhaps they intuited it and are preparing for a breach, the inevitable cracking of codes and locked doors and the embarrassing leak of secrets, followed by a shitload of gunshots.
I park and step into the numbing cold as it slips through the cracks of my coat and trousers and slides over my body. Every hair stands erect. I rush up the steps through the steel doors and flash my ID one more time at a uniformed woman behind a desk. Oh, how she reminds me of my wife before the three children. I let my stare linger for a moment – she notices and frowns – but I don’t have time for nonsense, and I step slide my ID through a scanner and enter the building’s belly.
My responsibility every day from 0700 to 1900 is the southwest hallway that adjoins Conference Room H and Laboratory 93-B. It is a simple hallway – narrow, long, a waxy tube of concrete and fluorescent light – floored with glaring linoleum and ancient scuff marks. On one end, the end that forks in three directions after the conference room door, is a wooden podium I acquired at a church sale and brought in for the keeping of notes, personal materials, and edibles. At the other end the hallway, the floor terminates with three steps before turning north, opposite the laboratory door.
I keep detailed notes of all who pass. The scientists. Military brass. Common privates and grunts with no business lingering about the windows of the conference room or laboratory to ogle the works of greater men. Sometimes I stand stock still against the wall, mimicking the position of attention. More often, though, I patrol the hallway – exactly thirty-five paces from the conference door to the laboratory door. I sing songs with the precise number of beats to match the paces. I’ve invented poems and rhymes that I imagine sharing with my children, even though I can’t.
For the precise measurements of this installation or a closely-guarded government secret.
I bring my knapsack down and stuff it into the base of the podium and remove a clipboard from the darkened belly. Its shiny paw holds a thick stack of papers in place, my notes for this month. Forty-five rows per page of hallway activity. The regular officers, rank and file, doctoral staff, assorted janitors, and visiting dignitaries. Any fresh faces that appear are noted with special care, detailing their behavior in shorthand.
Like I said. My kingdom.
I snap my head to peer around the corner toward the quiet glass of Conference Room H for the source of the sound. Mallets thunder against my ribs. My breath catches in the silent corridor.
A man steps into view, his green uniform clashing with the aggressively gray walls, cigarette smoke swirling about his head. He snaps his fingers again and the flash of a Zippo light gleams down the hallway.
I sag in sudden exhaustion, still in the haunting grip of my dream.
The earthquake of many boots fills the corridor. Squads march by and I note their various designations. After them comes a team of scientist, babbling in languages I’ll never recognize. Technical staff, plastic ID cards dangling from metal clips, pushing carts and dollies and carrying boxes marked in strange code or nothing at all.
I note them all.
A short man stands in the frame of the laboratory door. His mustache wriggles as he frowns up at me.
“Don’t just stand there,” he hollers. “Take care of this mess!”
He points at the hallway ceiling, a little ways beyond the laboratory, and I march forward so I can see what he’s talking about. Several feet above our heads, a brown, moldy stain spreads like a mushroom. A steady trickle of water falls to the linoleum floor – Drip! – Drip! – Drip! – where a small puddle coils into a river that runs rapid along the wall into the infinite distance.
“I’ll have to notify Nicholas,” I report. “This is his duty area – ”
“Just clean it!” the man barks before disappearing into the lab.
Yet my smaller adversary knows nothing of patrol politics. Though he is nowhere to be found, Nicholas owns the forty-two paces from the bottom of the steps near Laboratory 93-B to the automatic double-doors that grant access to South Diagnostics. And nobody crosses Nicholas.
For six god-awful minutes I abandon my post to raid the custodial closet for a mop, bucket, and a couple squares of false ceiling. I wheel the goods down my hall, hoist them down each step, and shove the mop and bucket to rest near to rippling pool, leaning the white ceiling block against the wall.
Of course Nicholas isn’t there. My colleague in guard-work is famous for shirking duty in order to sneak liquor in the fire control room with girls from Communications. What a bastard. What a lucky, lucky bastard.
Back in my kingdom, I slouch on the podium and note the incident.
Mustached man of low height (Laboratory 93-B) complained of water-damaged ceiling.
A clutch of armed soldiers jogs past. I straighten, fly my best salute, and ease down once they’re gone.
Complied and delivered cleaning and replacement materials to duty area of Guard Nicholas B.
I add the time, and sigh.
My blood rushes hot and tingling.
I turn as the conference room door glides to a soft shut and a young, bespectacled man strolls away from me.
“Stop it,” I scold myself with a whisper. “Control yourself.”
I grasp the discarded pulpit with both hands and suck deep breathes.
Maybe I need to find different work. Maybe they need someone to plow the eternal snow from the roads or shovel it from the village sidewalks. I don’t know. Sometimes I want to do something where you can be sure an enemy isn’t hiding behind you. Snow never ambushed anybody.
What if I did die here?
I sink into the podium. My wife would never know. Guarding this hallway is top secret shit. She thinks I operate a metal press at a factory that makes cheap silverware. How would they explain how I died? Would they say that I had fallen into the press and my body had been fashioned into 8,000 fleshy forks? Would my closed casket rattle like a silverware drawer?
And then I worry for her, and for our two boys and daughter, over what my piddly pension would bring. So little bread for a lonely, tired widow, grief-stricken with the loss of her bacon-bringer. There’d be no hero’s farewell. No folded flag. No military salute from men in creased uniforms and iron eyebrows. Just the sound of dirt hitting the top of my plywood coffin. Dirt and rain.
I’m sorry. I think about death a lot. There’s not much else to think about around here. Just death, death and drinking.
That reminds me.
I sneak a glance down the hallways and see that I am alone. I reach into the podium and feel around until my fingers close on a paper bag. I fiddle with the cap at the top of the bag and pull a few short sips off the flask inside.
The alcohol stabs at my empty belly. It’s too early to drink.
The corridor sleeps in the late morning doldrums. I double-check my notes. No one has passed in nearly an hour. Slow morning.
I reach for the flask and tuck it in my pocket and travel the thirty-five paces to the steps. Perhaps, if Nicholas is actually in his place, I can repay him for dumping that cleaning job on him. I’ve never known Nicholas to turn down a drink.
But as I round the corner, there is no one to greet me. My mop and bucket sit as they were, entirely unmolested. I sneak another pull of the flask and spin the cap. This will definitely have to go in the notes.
Nicholas B – Duty dereliction at 0930 hours (estimate).
I tuck the flask in my pocket and return to my post. Take the half-eaten pencil in my hand. Put the lead to line thirty-seven of today’s log.
And I begin to think, just as I scrawl the first letters of the note about my negligent colleague, to record today’s upsetting and frequent number of clicking sounds to my supervisor, inquire of their significance, and then—
Image Credit: Michael Cote, Creative Commons