His head in a plastic cradle, an IV of contrast solution pumping incrementally into a vein deep within his neck, and with his body covered by a warm blanket, Taggart listened to the incessant whir-clik-bang-bang of the MRI as it ingested his body millimeter by millimeter into a tight, narrow tube. A red laser centered his approach and the table he was lying on twitched in millimeter jerks, taking him deeper and deeper into this gaping maw of medical insight.
‘Just close your eyes and pretend not to care,’ echoed in his mind, Dina’s words of wisdom every time he’d had an MRI, and yet those helpful words still didn’t help. ‘Claustrophobia is a completely rational response to this,’ he thought – again – as he lost sight of the room outside of the tube. ‘Well, now I know what it feels like to be a meatball…’
Then the thought hit him: if I fart in here I’ll die from the fumes.
Whatever you do, don’t fart. Taggart…? Don’t you do it!
“Oh, no,” he moaned.
“What is wrong?” the technician running the exam said over the intercom.
“I’m gonna float an air muffin.”
“You are what?”
“Fart. I’m gonna fart.”
He heard laughter coming from the little office off the main equipment room.
“Yup. Here it comes.”
“Do not hold it!”
“No choice now,” he cried. “Sorry!”
The rumbling sound started in the lower ranges, drowning out the whirring sound of the sliding table, then grew louder and louder as the gas gained real speed, sounding a little like ripping cardboard before slipping into high gear, suddenly sounding more like a wounded duck than escaping methane.
“Sorry about that!” Taggart said.
“At least we don’t have to breathe it,” the tech said – just before the stench crept under the door, gaining entry to their little office.
Taggart smiled when he heard them coughing and retching: ‘You know, it’s the simple pleasures in life…’ he thought as he heard one of them slapping a desktop, then aa door slapping open, followed by footsteps running for open air.
A few minutes later, when things had settled down again, the tech came on again. “Sorry, but we must restart the test…”
“Fine by me. Plenty more where that came from.”
“We will try to hurry.”
“A fine idea.”
Dina was waiting for him in the lounge; everyone was watching the latest news from Poland and the Czech Republic, where NATO forces were struggling to reach the front amidst waves of fleeing urban residents. There was only silence coming from Finland and Ukraine now, and Dina looked at Taggart then at her watch as the orderly wheeled him into the room.
“That took much longer than expected,” she said. “Was there a problem?”
“Yup. Major gas leak. Let’s get out of here and find Rolf. I could sure use some Indian food right about now.”
A lingering waft of fumes trailing his wheelchair hit about that time. “Oh, Henry! You didn’t!”
“I did. More than once, as a matter of fact.”
“You are eating too much salmon again. Your gas is beginning to smell just like Clyde’s…”
“Thank you very much,” he said in his best Elvis voice. “Now…Rolf, then Indian. I feel like I could eat a horse.”
“You smell like you have been eating horse,” the orderly said, causing Dina to cringe in horror.
Taggart shook his head. “You’re just jealous, both of you.”
“Of course I am,” the boy said, “as it has been my life’s ambition to fart just like this. By the way, do you think you could walk from here?”
As they walked up to Time Bandits, Taggart saw Rolf and Mike sitting in the cockpit and he smiled – because he could just make out Dinky hovering at the masthead.
“You know, I think I’d better put on a fresh pair of underwear before we go anywhere.”
Dina scowled. “On behalf of the people of Amsterdam, I thank you.”
“How you doing, Henry?” Mike asked as Taggart climbed on board.
“Splendid, as a matter of fact. A bag of platelets and some of Dina’s magic elixir and I feel like a new man again!”
“Sounds like the plot of a new Dracula movie, if you ask me…” Mike said as he watched Henry disappear down the companionway.
Taggart rummaged through a drawer and found a new, tighter pair of undies and slipped into the head; a moment later Dinky appeared and hovered in front of his face, almost in contact with his forehead. A minute later he knew everything that Mike had done so far that day, and he shook his head – though he smiled at the predictability of Mike’s actions. After he changed clothes he walked back up to the cockpit…
“Anyone care for Indian food today?”
“Me!” shouted Rolf.
“Has Clyde been out recently?”
“Yes, but Henry,” Rolf said, “his gas smells very bad.”
Dina turned away, trying not to laugh. “Well,” Taggart said, “I know just how he feels. So, we’re off to see the Wizard, the Wonderful Wizard of Ah-hs.” He leaned over and whispered in Dina’s ear that he needed to talk with Mike while they walked, so she went to her grandson and walked along with Rolf.
“So, you really feel that much better?” Mike said as he slowed to wait for Taggart.
“I do, actually. So, how did your errands go?”
“I went out to the new embassy, had a talk with the CIA’s new head of station. She wants to take you out, now. I think I’ve convinced her that we need to let things rest for now, let things play out in the east.”
“I take it they’re not burning papers at the embassy yet?”
“No, but people are nervous.”
“They should be, Mike. The world they’ve known is coming to an end, and now everyone knows it. The deck is being reshuffled – with all the uncertainty that implies – but this time it’s not on television – it’s going down right in front of their faces.”
“I take it your not worried about…”
“Que Sera, Sera. Nothing I can do about those yahoos.”
“I take it you still have a weapon with you?”
“Yes, of course.”
“If it comes down to it, Mike, protect Dina and the boy.”
Mike nodded and looked around, trying to spot a tail. “Have you seen the news?”
“Finland and Ukraine have fallen. Poland will go next. NATO appears stronger in the middle right now, the old Fulda Gap strategy I assume.”
“People on the train were talking about getting out. Not many flights left to South America, if their gossip is reality based. Very few incoming flights now.”
“So the airlines will run out of airplanes here, then they’ll be commandeered to fly troops to France.”
They found an open restaurant and the nervous owners seated them and took their order.
“Why is everyone so nervous, Henry?” Rolf asked.
“Because they smelled us coming,” Mike said…but Rolf wasn’t going to play that game today.
“Henry? What is going on?”
“The Russians, Rolf.”
“What about my mother, and Eva?”
“I’ll talk to her this evening, after we find out what the air travel situation looks like.”
“Henry, I am worried.”
“You are not worried?”
“No, I am not.”
“Should I be worried?”
“You should think about the things you need to do, Rolf, and not the things you can do little about. Such worry does nothing but hold you back.”
Taggart’s phone chimed – in an unfamiliar alarm – and he took the phone from his pocket and held it up to his face to unlock it. Holding it so Mike could see, a live video feed from the boat appeared on screen, and two men were walking on deck – one of them carry a small black duffel.
“Hold this, would you?” he said to Mike as he handed over his phone. He then leaned back and closed his eyes, taking a few deep breaths as he established contact with Winky. A few seconds later he opened his eyes and smiled. “I wonder what’s taking so long with our food?” he asked no one in particular, but when Mike returned the phone he saw the two men were gone, and Mike was scowling. Putting his phone in a pocket he smiled at their waiter as lunch arrived.
“Britt? It’s Henry? How are you?”
“It is a little scary here. Is my son…”
“He’s right here. Is there anything I need to know?”
“Eva. Henry? There’s something not right with Eva?”
“Describe to me what she’s been doing.”
“She does strange things, Henry. First, I hear she goes outside of town, and people have seen her standing by the sea as if she is waiting for someone. I have tried to tell her you won’t be returning but she remains there most of the day.”
“You should go with her when you can, Britt. It’s not me she’s waiting for.”
“She’ll know. Anything else?”
“No, the war so far is still very far away.”
“There are no airlines operating to Norway now, Britt. I am looking at other options, but those are dwindling fast.”
“If the phones go down please remain in the city – unless or until trouble approaches. I should be able to get you out within a few days, perhaps a week.”
“And I need you to tell Eva one thing. Tell her to Reach Out. Got that? Reach Out.”
“I don’t understand?”
“Just tell her, Britt. Now, here’s your boy…”
He went topsides and sat with Mike, looking at the nearly deserted streets and sidewalks. “Feels strange, doesn’t it? One day there are too many people and the next day almost everyone is gone.”
“What did you do to those two…”
“Who…me?” Taggart said, grinning madly.
“They’re fine…though they’re probably in the brig on the Cape St George.”
“Crap. I should’ve known. The spooks at the embassy are probably going apeshit right about now.”
“They have more important things to worry about right now, Mike.”
“Oh, I don’t know. What the Russians will do next, maybe?”
“I’m more concerned about what we do next.”
“Well, the first bridge opens in an hour, so we probably better get ready to go.”
“Just something to think about, Henry, but we’ll be like ducks on a pond if we take the canal.”
“So, you think we should go outside and make for the Seine?”
“Safer that way.”
“Sounds safer for Dina and Rolf, Henry. I know the people you’re screwing around with, Henry – and I’d just as soon not have to deal with them any more than I have to.”
“Did she tell you she’d be sending people out to the boat?”
“No…wait a minute. I didn’t tell you I was dealing with a…”
“That’s right. You didn’t.”
Mike blinked several times as implications pulled him to several conclusions at once. “Winky?” he asked.
“Okay…so we’re taking the Staandemast route?”
“I think so. Besides, it goes within a few clicks of the embassy, so it ought to be more fun.” Taggart then called out to Rolf: “You off the phone yet?”
“Yessir. Do you need me now?”
“Yup, time to leave.” Taggart stood and stretched, then disconnected the shore power cord while he let the diesel warm up; Mike and Rolf handled the lines as they left the marina and started for the first bridge, right in the center of the city. Dina brought up hot tea for everyone and sat beside Rolf as they motored along.
“I’ve never seen this city so quiet,” she said. “It does not feel right.”
“The warning wind,” Mike said, shaking his head. “The calm before the storm.”
Rolf’s head swiveled like an owl’s, taking in their surreal surroundings with an apparent mixture of awe and fear – and reluctant curiosity.
“Probably instinct for these people now,” Mike sighed. “Seems like every European war leads right through Holland.”
“I don’t understand why there has to be war,” Rolf said.
“Someone always wants what you’ve got,” Mike said. “And sometimes those people are willing to take what you think is yours. That’s how we stumbled upon the idea of laws and religion, to try and control that impulse.”
“But what do they want?”
“Oil…and to not live in fear of the next German invasion.”
“But the Germans do not want to invade Russia…”
“Instincts, Rolf. Russians are basically a paranoid people, but it didn’t just happen. Mongols overran those people for hundreds of years and then, just about the time things started to settle down a little, the Germans came rolling along – and twice within just a few decades. Russians don’t trust outsiders, Rolf. At least that’s the way it was put to me.”
“Keeping in mind, Rolf, that Mike went to a military academy,” Taggart added.
“It’s true, Taggart, and you know it.”
“How many Russians do you know, Mike?”
“None, and I’m proud of it, too.”
“And that proves my point, Rolf. And, I guess you could say that’s the answer to your question, too. War comes down to human instinct.”
“If you build weapons of war sooner or later you’ll use them, and if you train people to fight, sooner or later they’ll fight. Think of it this way: once you give someone a purpose, they opt to pursue that purpose.”
“So, why not train people for peace?”
“Because,” Mike sighed, “there’s no money in it.” He looked down, shaking his head as he realized the truth of his existence, then he looked forward. “Is that the first bridge, Taggart?” he added, looking through the binoculars.
“It is, according to the chart.”
“There’s no bridge tender,” Mike said as he passed the binoculars to Henry.
Henry set the VHF to 12 and called the bridge; when there was no reply he switched to 16 and tried again – and there was still no reply.
“Okay,” Henry said as he swung the wheel, “I was afraid of this. Looks like we backtrack and head back to the main ship canal.”
“The way we came in?” Dina asked, and Taggart nodded. “What if the locks are closed?”
“Then we’re a day late and a dollar short, I’m afraid,” Henry sighed. “Time to beat feet – while we still can.”
“You know, with the city empty like this,” Mike added as he looked around, “it feels like maybe they know something we don’t.”
They heard the new sound immediately…low flying jets – followed by turboprops – and Henry swung the binoculars to the closest transport. “Red stars. Russian. Looks like paratroopers getting ready to make their jump…”
“They’re jumping over by the airport,” Mike said. “Doesn’t this canal go right by the airport?”
Taggart pushed the throttle to the stops. “Ballsy move on their part, if they can pull it off.”
And a wave of fighters coming in low from across the English Channel jumped the transports, shooting many of them down – but only after their troops had jumped. Taggart watched as hundreds of green parachutes opened and drifted down towards Schiphol International – just as a wave Dutch helicopters roared in low over the city…
“Tanks won’t be far behind,” Mike said. “Those paratroopers are meant to take the airport and hold it until major reinforcements can land, and those ought to be about a half hour out…”
“And so,” Henry said, shaking his head, “here starts World War Three. And naturally, we’re going to be right in the middle of it…” He saw four freighters up ahead, all heading for the locks that led out into the Channel, and he smiled a little at the sight – just as a wave of Dutch F-16s with wing pylons loaded with ordnance – dove on the airport, dropping their bombs on the runways before screaming off to reload and refuel. More helicopters approached, flying just above the water, and Dutch troops waved at them as they passed.
“I’ve never seen so many fuel tanks in my life,” Taggart said, looking off to the left. “No wonder they’re trying to take the city on their opening move.”
“Split Nato forces in Germany. Fortune favors the bold.”
“And no one will use nukes here,” Henry added. “What about Rotterdam?”
“More fuel farms there. You can bet they’re going for them, too. Can you pull up the BBC?”
Taggart winced as he leaned over to turn on the radio, and Dina caught his reaction.
“Are you in pain?”
He looked her in the eye. “Everywhere.”
“I see. Are you ready for some pain medicine?”
He shook his head. “Going to need a clear head for a while, you know? And…where’s Clyde?”
“Asleep, on your bed. What about your other meds? Have you taken them?”
“Fine until midnight,” he said as he punched the BBC pre-set.
“…repeating news from the top of the hour, Russian paratroops and air forces have launched major assaults on Copenhagen and Amsterdam, and a three pronged armored operation is underway, currently aimed at Germany’s Baltic coastline. Analysts believe Russian aims include securing Baltic sea-lanes…”
“Norway will be next,” Mike said. “And now we know why all those naval assets were headed north.”
“What about my mother!?” Rolf asked, now almost beside himself.
“Don’t worry, Rolf – they’re going to be just fine.”
Britt’s apartment was located on the Måseskjæret, a small street that jutted out into the bay just north of the city center in Bergen. Though small, her home had a decent view of the fjord and was conveniently close to work; it also had three bedrooms, leaving one room for Rolf and a spare to use as a kind of office. Eva was living in Rolf’s room now – when she managed to stay in the apartment, that is. Recently, when Britt came in from her clinic Eva was simply not there; more troubling still –there was scant evidence of Eva eating or drinking anything at all. More recently, Britt would sit up watching the news on television while waiting for Eva to return, and she usually did about an hour after sunset. Eva would then drink a few sips of water and take a few strips of raw salmon for her supper, then shuffle off to bed with little more than a “Hello” or “Good night” passing between them.
On her best days, those just after Taggart left with Dina and Rolf, Eva remained sullen and barely communicative, and she had remained in her room most of the time. After Britt talked with him in Amsterdam, and after Britt relayed his message to “Reach Out,” Eva had nodded once before taking a sip of water and retiring for the evening – completely oblivious to the outbreak of war, or pretty much anything else going on in the world.
After Taggart’s “Reach Out” dictum, Eva seemed to drift about this world for a while, then she would seem to dissolve and flow into another state of being: Here in this life, perhaps – but not really. Her longest walks started then, and she usually disappeared for the day – again, coming home only after dark. Britt grew quite concerned – for Eva, and for Eva’s twins – and resolved to follow Eva on her next day off.
But the night before she had resolved to follow Eva, soon after she went to bed, she felt memories flashing through her mind’s eye. And she soon felt that something, or someone, was sifting through her mind…looking for…what?
She tossed and turned after that, concern for her own twins growing by the minute. Was it the war, she wondered? Had concern for Rolf and Henry fouled her sleep…?
And as she was dressing the next morning Eva came into her room and stood there, simply looking at her as she put on her hiking boots.
“I’m sorry you had such a bad night,” Eva said.
Britt felt a sudden shifting underfoot. “What do you mean?” – lurching as her frame of reference began shifting…with each beat of the hearts in her womb.
“If you’re ready, we can go now.”
“Go? Go where?”
“You’re wasting time, Britt. We need to go – now.”
“Alright,” Britt said, suddenly realizing there was no need for continued subterfuge.
The walked north along the shore road until they came to a little spit of rocks that reached out into the water – large rocks, beige granite with greenish stains marking the highest reach of the tides – and she followed Eva now, who hopped from boulder to boulder with practiced ease – until, at last, they both stood beside a small tidal pool contained with a single large boulder, the pool worn smooth by the ages.
Eva took off her clothing and stepped into the water, her arms spread wide, her head tilted back and her eyes closed, then she moved to step into the sea.
“Come here,” Eva said gently, “and stand beside me.”
Britt hesitated, but then she too took off her clothes and stepped into the icy water. “What are we doing?” Britt asked, nervously looking around for unwanted onlookers.
But Eva was gone now, absorbed in some kind of ritual. At least, that’s what Britt thought was going on: Eva’s arms were spread wide, her head tilted back and her eyes closed – and she was beginning to sway from side to side, like something in the water was pushing her to-and-fro.
Movement caught her eye and she looked out over the water. There! A dorsal fin…no…more than one…
And then Eva reached over and took her by the hand, then she pulled them both into deeper water…
“Are you crazy!” Britt shouted, trying to pull away. “We need to get out of here!”
“You need to be still,” a voice said…a man’s voice…
“I’m here,” she heard his voice say, a reassuring little sprinkle of laughter somewhere in the notes…
“Where? Where are you?”
“I’m with you, Britt. Go now, go out into the water…”
“Wonderful! Now I am hallucinating…”
“Just move easily, slowly. You’ll be alright.”
“Henry? Where are you?”
“Where I’ve always been, Britt.”
“I don’t understand…”
“Close your eyes, try to clear your mind…then reach out…”
“Reach out? What am I reaching for…?”
“Britt? You need to let go now. Close your eyes, swim with Eva and take her hand…and trust us…”
Her eyes closed and moving into very deep water now, she felt something impossibly warm move around her womb, and then the warmth spread throughout her body – and against all odds she felt herself relaxing.
“That’s it, my love, reach out now…just as if you were reaching out with your hands, reach out with your mind, reach out for the warmth, then beyond…
Everything seemed to fall into place in the next few moments.
She spread her wings and let her head fall back and rest in the water, then she felt more warmth as other bodies came to her, listening to the new life in her belly…
Then she saw Henry…standing on a sandy white road with Clyde by his side…and she wanted to cry out for him but couldn’t form the words…
“That’s right,” he whispered as she tried to reach out to him, “I’m right here, but you need to go back to them now. In the water, they’re waiting for you…”
She felt an insistent pull now, like someone had her by the hand and she could somehow feel their confusion, almost as if they were trying to regain control of her, pull her back from…
She opened her eyes, saw a pale yellow orb spinning right in front of her face and a moment later she screamed – when she realized she was adrift in a sea of stars…
© 2020 adrian leverkühn | abw | this is a work of fiction, pure and simple; the next chapter will drop in a week or so.
You had me literally laughing out loud with the MRIscene. Thanks, I needed that.
There’s nothing more odious than an SBD in an elevator, but an MRI comes in a close second.