Alan Paul Preston and the three other men sporting the same olive green jumpsuits left behind the gray,dismal foggy landscape, far bleaker than any description of London's streets in the eeriest gothic novel. With an air of relief, the tension in their muscles visibly relaxing, the three entered the first of three exit chambers that were essential to pass through in order to rejoin their own dimension and what passed for civilization. The scent of the chemical mist that showered over them always brought to Preston's mind the camphor and menthol that his grandmother had worked into this chest as a child when he'd suffered a bout of the sniffles.
"Damn! That stings!" yowled one of the three men behind him, three long gashes that appeared to be claw marks traversing his face, crimson blood oozing from the wounds.
"How are you holding up, Branson?" Preston asked. Doug Branson was Preston's least favorite of the bunch standing behind him. He was only slightly younger than Preston at thirty seven, brash and arrogant. It was no surprise to Preston that he'd been married and divorced three times.
"Alright, I guess. I'll be a hell of a lot better once we're through all this rigamarole. Twenty four hours of my life I'll never get back. 'Fraid I ain't got much left to spare as it is." Branson answered. Preston glanced over his shoulder at his comrade. Though he was making an effort to sound tough and bear up, Preston noticed the fear still evident in his eyes and the slight trembling of his muscular frame.
"Sorry about that. Don't know how I missed seeing it coming." Though Preston disliked much about Branson, it in no way had figured into what had occurred. Preston was dedicated to having every man under his command return after each mission in one piece. The creature in question had been rather large, perhaps the size of an Irish Wolfhound, though far more terrifying with its multiple eyes and protruding fangs, yet it had been stealthy in its attack. Preston was actually well aware of how it had dodged their defenses. With all of their hearing impaired by the headsets they were required to wear which only allowed the men to hear each other and the fact that they were down a man to keep watch, it was a wonder they hadn't had more such incidents.
The numbers of available men to tackle each bi-weekly mission was falling precipitously. There were a few more in the pipeline undergoing the intense testing and training regimen required to reach active status, but not enough in Preston's estimation to continue on much longer. It had been some time since he or anyone else leading the expeditions into the netherworld of nightmares had lost anyone during a mission but today's mishap had been too close of a call for Preston's comfort.
"One's bound to slip through every now and then. Not like I'm gonna be competing for Miss America." Branson jested.
"You'd rock a bikini." Brandon Kelly, the youngest of the four joked, a slight juvenile cowlick of reddish brown hair evident at the crown of his head. Preston wasn't sure of his exact age but guessed it couldn't be that long since he was first legally allowed to enter a bar.
"They're not doin' the swimsuit part no more." Wayne Fielding informed him. Fielding was the next youngest, a couple of years shy of thirty, though he already was beginning to display a few strands of silver throughout his otherwise raven black locks. Preston wasn't certain whether it was due to aging or the result of the horrors he'd experienced since joining up.
The three moved to the second chamber, removing their jumpsuits and throwing them into a chute. The four now dressed in only shorts and a T-shirt of the same olive green hue stood as a blast of icy air hit them from the walls and ceiling.
"Really? Why the hell not?" Branson asked. All four men stood shivering as goosebumps erupted on their skin, their voices shaky with the cold as they conversed.
"Some feminist bullshit." Fielding answered, his arms wrapped around himself though it did little to relieve the chill.
"Figures. Fat, ugly chicks always gotta ruin it for everyone else." Branson whined. Preston visibly stiffened at the comment but remained silent, his back to the three, facing the door to the next chamber.
"Hey, fat chicks need love too." Kelly said, his teeth chattering. "More cushion for the pushin'."
"They ain't gettin' it from me." Branson replied. "When was the last time you were pushin' against anything but Ms. Palmer, Kelly?"
"When's the last time you fucked anything that looked better than you in a bikini?" Kelly retorted.
"Probably should ask when's the last time he fucked anything but a hole in the wall." Fielding said.
"I'm gonna stick it in the hole in your face if you don't shut up." said Branson menacingly.
"You'd like that, wouldn't ya? I bet you'd also like a-" Fielding began being Preston interrupted him.
"Enough." Preston said commandingly.
"What do you think, Preston? You think they outta bring it back?" Kelly asked.
"Bring what back? Civil conversation?" Preston asked.
"Swimsuits...Miss America…" Kelly clarified.
"He ain't got no skin in the game. He's a Brit. Miss Britain's probably a bunch of women in granny skirts quoting Shakespeare." Branson interjected.
"You'd be amazed how far a good sonnet can get you." Preston said as the light above the door transitioned from red to green and the entrance to the last chamber slid open.
Preston, Branson, Fielding and Kelly upon exiting the last of the three chambers made their way to the powder blue curtains hanging from stands that surrounded four gurneys arranged in a row in the high ceilinged, expansive room of what appeared to have once been a warehouse or a factory.
"Sweet dreams, gentlemen." Preston said as the four men laid themselves down as a medic in scrubs stood on the opposite side of each gurney. The medics searched for a vein on each man, swiftly finding good candidates before injecting them with the hypodermics that lay on a tray placed on a moving stand beside each bed. As if moving in a choreographed dance, the medics then crossed to the other side of the bed, inserting IVs into their opposite arms and via the monitors adjusted the flow into each patient of the clear fluid that filled the suspended bags hanging from their hooks. After that was accomplished, electrodes were attached to their temples and chests, their leads running to monitors on a long shelf behind the head of each gurney.
Preston felt the familiar heaviness overtake his body, as if the chemicals circulating in his veins had produced a weighted blanket over him. Listening to the assorted beeps of the monitors as they tracked their vital signs and brain waves as if they were a lullaby, he glanced down at the gold band on the ring finger of his left hand before consciousness fled.
A year prior…..
The few mourners that had gathered to see his grandmother to her final rest had already taken their leave, heading for their respective vehicles as Alan Preston caressed the silky smooth petals of the lily in his hand as he looked down into the cleanly dug grave open before him that held the varnished casket with the bronze name plate that had been engraved to his specifications, "Violet Marie Whitfield" and below that "Nan." The gentle hand came to rest on his shoulder of the blond haired and rather plain, somewhat plump though by no means obese woman in the black skirt and blouse that stood beside him in the spring warmth and sunlight that contrasted with the heavy darkness in his heart. Raising the lily to his lips, he inhaled its light scent as he kissed it before tossing it atop the casket.
"Are you ready?" the woman asked in a soft voice.
"They're all here now. They're all gone. There's no one left...just me." Preston said mournfully.
"I know…I'm sorry." the woman said.
"I had just talked to her on the phone...the last thing I said, as I always did, 'I love you, Nan. I'll ring you up again next Sunday, same time.'...with the time difference, it couldn't have been long after..."
"At least you know she didn't suffer. It's how I'd like to go...just go to sleep and dream myself away. You were the last person's voice she heard. She knew you loved her. There's not much more anyone can ask for at the last...to know someone loves you."
"I suppose you're right." Preston said as he continued to stare into the grave. "Goodbye, Nan."
"Hey…" the woman at his side said as she removed her hand from his shoulder. Preston turned his attention from the grave to her, looking into her blue eyes, her one feature that stood out. "You know I love you, right?" she said as she wrapped her arms around him in an embrace.
"Yes, I do. I do know. I love you too, Anne. I know I don't say it enough."
"We should go and let them finish up here." Anne said, releasing Preston and taking his hand. They walked from the grave site past other, longer established ones and their monuments towards the car parked along the road in the distance.
As they reached it, Preston reaching for the door handle to open it for Anne, a man turned his head towards them as he spoke to another older man and excused himself from the conversation, making his way quickly towards them.
"Alan!" the tall, handsome man with the chiseled features called out. Both Preston and Anne looked in his direction. Reaching the two, the man held out his hand, Preston taking it as the man rested his other on Preston's opposite shoulder. "Alan...I'm sorry I wasn't able to make it to the viewing. I had a meeting I couldn't get out of. Why don't we get together this evening...visit the old stomping grounds...raise a toast...or two or three...to dear old Nan."
"I'd love to, Robert, but I'm afraid we have a plane to catch in the morning…"
"Surely you can spare an hour before you abscond back to the land of the free and home of the brave. Who knows when we'll get the chance again."
"You're right. I'm not sure when I'll be round again now with Nan gone. I suppose I could join you for a pint." Preston said.
"Good man." Robert said, patting Preston's shoulder. "See you at eight?"
"Let's make it seven, if that's not too early a start for you." Preston answered.
"Seven it is. Your lady is welcome to join us, of course." Robert said. "I'll see you then." Robert moved off in the direction in which he'd come as Preston opened the car door, Anne seating herself in the passenger seat. Walking around the car, Preston opened the driver's door and sat, closing it.
"Your lady?" Anne asked, "You know I've never liked him. I know I've only met him a couple of times, but I just have this sixth sense when it comes to people."
"He saved my life...more than once when we were there."
"Yes, I know and I'm grateful. It's just...I don't know. He looks at me like he's the earl of some grand estate and I'm a kitchen maid that doesn't belong in his presence...or yours for that matter. I know he thinks you could do better….but then so does everyone else." Anne said, looking down.
"How many times must we tread the same ground?" Preston asked, a hint of irritation as well as fatigue in his voice.
"I'm sorry. But you know it's true. You're in the same club as he is...one I'll never be invited to join. 'Beautiful people' are supposed to be with other beautiful people. How often do you see actors with ugly wives or girlfriends on the red carpet? You know, like that old song, one of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn't belong."
"Why would you care what anyone else thinks? Why do you care more about what they think than what I think? You are beautiful in ways those people will never understand. Robert's first wife looked like Marilyn Monroe...and fucked about every bloke on the base at least once. I never met her but I don't suppose the other was any more virtuous or she'd likely not be the second ex Mrs. Warfield."
"So you're saying that it's good I'm ugly because no one else would want me so you don't have to worry about me screwing around?"
"No! That's not what I'm saying! You're putting words in my mouth!" Preston said angrily.
"You're right. I'm sorry." Preston looked over to Anne who sat with her head bowed, tears threatening to spill from her eyes. His expression softened. Reaching over, he put his hand under her chin, lifting her head and turning it to face him.
"You don't have to listen to her anymore. You know that."
"Yes...I know...but it's not just her. Everywhere we go together people stare. You're not blind or deaf, I know you've seen them, heard the things they say,"
"Even if I have, I don't care. I'm happy. That's all that matters. Are you happy...with me?"
"Of course I am, you know I am. When it's just us I feel like I'm in a dream, like this couldn't possibly be real..I keep expecting to wake up. I just wish other people could be happy for us...happy that we're happy, that they didn't act like they pity you, that you could do better. It's hard to explain."
"I understand...I do. But the way I see it, that's their problem, not ours. They're the ones that should be pitied….that they'll never know this…" Preston said, leaning over and kissing Anne, a long, deep, passionate kiss.
"When you put it that way…." Anne said, smiling. "I'm so stupid...to bring it up today of all days."
"Well….perhaps you can bring something else up another time to make up for it." Preston said with a grin.
"If that's the price I must pay, then so be it." Anne said, returning the grin. The grin faded from Preston's face as he closed his eyes, putting his hand to his forehead. Anne's smile fell from her face as well, replaced with an expression of concern as she put a hand to his shoulder. "Alan...are you alright?" Preston nodded though his hand remained on his forehead, his eyes closed.
"I'm fine. Just tired...Nan...the last few days..."
"Why don't you call Robert? Tell him you're not feeling up to it. If he's a real friend he'll understand. We'll grab dinner early and you can go to bed." Anne said as Preston opened his eyes and lowered his hand to the steering wheel.
"It's alright. I'll take a nap when we get back before I go. I'll just have one...are you coming?"
"No…..I don't think so. I'll get our things packed so we don't have to rush in the morning...and warm up the bed for when you get back."
"I look forward to that far more than I look forward to listening to Robert waffle on about business. Maybe I should bring him over, have him give a lecture to some of my classes. They'd likely find a new appreciation for Shakespeare." Preston said, starting the car.