Krista, who had leaning back on the couch now slowly leaned forward after Doctor Ness decided to dredge up the person who had given her some of her best and most tragic memories. She figured that this would come up, but she certainly didn’t want to talk about it. Some shrinks had the ability to bring the strongest emotions out of people, and the subject of Arlen Bradford was sure to do that if she went down that road.
“What do you want to know about him? Have you read his service record too?”
“Of course I have. But I never had the pleasure of his company, and as I said before, you can only tell so much from a file that other people wrote. But it doesn’t take a genius to compare your records and see that your problems with following orders began not long after his transfer from Recon to ALERT, and then got a great deal worse after he died.”
Krista looked around the room, trying to avoid eye contact. She didn’t want to talk about this, not at all, and that was all Doctor Ness needed to see to know that this was something that could be beneficial if properly explored.
“Doctor, I’m pretty sure you already know the basics of the story. Hell, everyone in the colony knows about that. Everyone knows what went down and I still catch hell for it. Do we really have to discuss this? What can I tell you that the rumor mill hasn’t already?”
“Krista, you might be the only person who can give me the whole story, and the accurate one. Rumors tend to contain an element of truth even as they get more unbelievable as the story goes around. I wouldn’t mind hearing it from the source. And yes, I know perfectly well what people say around town about it, but I want you to tell me your side of it. I don’t think you really get to do that very often. And if this helps, I’m here to listen. I’m not here to judge you. Just tell me about what he meant to you and how he still affects you.”
Krista was still not willing to jump right in and lay her heart bare to this man, however astute his conclusions had already proven to be. She started slowly, hoping that the story would peter out after a while and she could avoid a meltdown right here in Ness’s office. Of course, once the telling began, it wasn’t easy to stop, and she quickly forgot why she didn’t want to speak about it in the first place.
“When I met Brad…Arlen Bradford, it was when the whole thing was pretty much done. I mean, the street battles between us and them, the mass evacuations, the sky full of airliners, helicopters and all that, no more fires or anything. When we met, the world was done. The government didn’t exist anymore, the TVs and radios weren’t broadcasting, the power was out, the military was gone, it was just a world full of them and people like me stuck right in the middle of it trying to survive. I had been on my own for a couple of weeks, and I looked like hell, stunk to high heaven, and my days were spent looking for a mouthful of something and my nights were hiding in one place or another, trying to sleep while at the same time afraid that those things would find me. That was back in Albuquerque, you understand? The biggest city for hundreds of miles in any direction, half a million people had become almost half a million corpses, half of those still up and moving. I figured that I was the last one. I hadn’t seen anyone in a while, and I had more or less given up on it anyway. I had walked north out of the city, hoping to try to hit the smaller towns where there wouldn’t be that many. Just me and my bat, that was all. I was in Bernalillo, you know the place?”
Doctor Ness just nodded.
“Well, I was breaking into this Starbucks, thinking that I might need to really stay wired up if I wanted to keep outrunning those things, and that’s when I heard the engine. I hadn’t heard a car engine in at least a couple of weeks. But there it was, a Sandoval Country Sheriff’s SUV coming up the road. The driver saw me and pulled in. I thought about running, but I just readied my bat. I didn’t know if he was a rapist or something. But he got out and he was a sheriff’s deputy. He was clean-shaven, his uniform was neat, and he had a gun belt on and a shotgun. I couldn’t believe it. I still can barely believe that he showed up like that. He looked like someone who should have existed a month earlier, but there he was.”
“I presume that this was Arlen Bradford?” Doctor Ness asked, knowing the answer already, but letting Krista feel as though she was actually in control at the moment.
“Yes, that was him. He aimed his shotgun right at me and I thought I was dead, but he quickly pulled it back and told me his name. I told him mine and he said that he had gotten word on a CB that a bunch of survivors were making a go of it south of Albuquerque, and he was heading there. He politely asked me if I wanted to come with him. That was all. I didn’t really believe him, that there was a large group of survivors still out there, but what did I have to lose anymore?”
Doctor Ness kept jotting down notes, nodding as Krista spoke. He believed he was really getting somewhere.
”Brad was…I don’t know how to describe it exactly, a gentleman maybe? He didn’t put the moves on me or anything, didn’t ask if I had a boyfriend when all this began, he just spoke politely as we drove. Asked what I did for a living before it all went to hell, where I went to school, things like that. Didn’t do anything that made my skin crawl on anything like that. He drove all the way around Albuquerque. He knew like I did that no one in their right mind would go in there. He had this duffle bag in the back seat, full of his clothes, toothpaste and things like that. He also had some guns, which he said he had taken from either the armory at his station or the evidence room. He had no trouble giving me one, either. This PPK I have on my belt?” Krista patted her off-duty weapon.
Doctor Ness asked, “He gave you that one? Gave it to you on the trip south?”
“Yes he did. We listened to this MP3 player he plugged into the radio. He just drove, listened to music, and engaged me in conversation. He was young, too. He was only a couple of years older than I was. He had gotten out of the Army and went to the law enforcement academy and by the time he found me, only had three years on the job. He seemed optimistic about what we wound find south of the city.”
“Was that when this colony was being founded?” Doctor Ness asked.
“Yeah. Were you here then?”
“No, I came up later, with that group from Las Cruces, about nine months after they started building the wall.”
“Then you wouldn’t remember what it was like, Doc. We’d been driving for about three and a half hours, because of that large detour we made. By the time we got here, I felt like I’d known him my whole life. Anyway, at that time, this place was just being built. The locals, what few didn’t get the hell out of dodge weeks earlier, took matters into their own hands and began using whatever was lying around to build some kind of perimeter, and as they put the plant in operation, they started building real walls, and we started expanding them all the time, just like we do now. After the few remaining locals started the council to make the laws and all that, we took over this campus and started the Constabulary to keep order and start patrolling outside the walls looking for supplies and other survivors. Of course, that was before we were able to establish the farms we have here now. It was hairy back then, but we made a go of it. Brad and I…we worked at the metal plant making sections of the wall until a few guys from the Constabulary came up to him and suggested he join, since he was a deputy and all that. I joined with him. That’s how that started. But not long after joining the force, we…well…things got serious. We were already living together in this neat little house right by California Road, but we weren’t together really before. We just shacked up because we didn’t want to be alone, but later…we really became an item. After the council formed the Recon and later the ALERT teams, we volunteered for Recon. He was already a corporal and they gave him his own team and let me join it.”
“And this didn’t cause any problems? Dating a coworker?”
“Not at all. If anything, it helped us. We really looked after each other. When the team was put together, we were a really tight gang. He was a good commander, I can tell you that. Really backed us up and got us out of some real shit. Brad…he really knew his stuff. He got himself quite a reputation. You see, he had this way, this thing about him…Brad was able to make just about anyone like him right away without trying. He just had this personality that drew people in. He was really popular on the force, everyone loved him. He had a good sense of humor, he could see the good in anything, and when we managed to bring survivors in, he really knew how to keep them going until we could get them to…you, I guess. He was what my grandpa used to call a ‘shirt off your back’ kind of guy. Everyone was always happy to see him. When the population of this place kept growing those first couple of years, he was one of the best-loved people here. We were a real couple, they said. Everyone thought we were the cutest when we walked around town. Everyone loved Brad. We started talking about…you know…going to that next level.”
Doctor Ness was thoroughly intrigued now. “That being?”
“Well, making it official. Getting married and all that. But we talked the most about having a family. Once things got settled here, that what people really starting doing. When the council opened the schools and the daycare center, and they turned that otherwise unoccupied room at the clinic into the pediatric center…it really made us feel like we had control of our lives, you know? Those things, those stumbling gore-bags out there…they took it all from us. Our homes, our families, our country, our hometowns, our world…and our future. Now, we had everything we needed to really start over, and when we started to see happy couples pushing baby carriages around, we started seeing that we had a future here, and eventually, we’d be able to go outside again and start taking it all back. We hoped that we’d grow old and see another generation take charge and give us our world back. That was…it gave people hope to see children playing in the park and carrying school books. We had a lot of love for each other, Brad and me, so we thought a lot about sharing it, if you know what I mean.”
“I hate to state the obvious, Krista, but it seems like your plans didn’t pan out. May I ask why?”
Krista realized at that moment just how much she had said. She had revealed things that now caused painful memories and, in her mind, were better left unspoken. She was hesitant to go any further.
“Doctor Ness, this is…well, the story really goes downhill from here. I mean, it still hurts to think about it. I don’t know if this is the time and place to relive it.”
“Actually Krista, this is the perfect place to relive it. You’ve gone this far. Let’s go the rest of the way.”
He was good. She had to give him that. His reputation hadn’t been exaggerated in the slightest.
“Well, I don’t really know the best way to describe it…but we…we spent months, at least four or five months trying to, you know, have kids. But nothing happened. I was starting to get really nervous, like maybe the stress of what had happened to us all turned off the plumbing or something. I’ve heard that can happen. Can it?”
“It’s possible, but I’m guessing that it wasn’t the problem here,” Doctor Ness replied.
“No, it sure wasn’t. It got to the point where I’d wake up ever morning pissed as hell that I wasn’t barfing myself silly from morning sickness. We went to the clinic and, well, we didn’t have a fertility specialist, and you know we still don’t, but you didn’t need one for this. He did the whole jerking off in a cup thing and within a few days, we found out that he was shooting blanks. Zero sperm count or something. No kids, no chance. I…overreacted.”
“How did you do that?”
“I wanted kids so badly, Doctor, so badly, do you know what I mean? I so wanted to one day be an old woman in a nice little house without any high walls in sight, watching my grandkids play in a world that we took back. I wanted to see that future and produce some little ones to be part of it. But there I was, twenty-five years old, being told that the love of my life couldn’t give me any. I was…I guess devastated, if that’s the right word. I wasn’t thinking straight, it was like the thing I wanted the most in the world was now gone and I…well I blamed him. I don’t know why, but that’s what I did. I took it almost like a personal betrayal, if you can believe that. I took it all out on him. I wanted kids, he couldn’t do it, and I just lost it. Within a few days of getting the news, I exiled him to the couch. Then I would stay up all night, crying and thinking about what could have been, and when I would be out during the day, I would see happy parents walking their little kids around and I would just fume inside. I mean, they got to experience that, why not me? What I did to Brad…damn, I really wasn’t thinking. What I did…I haven’t forgiven myself yet.”
“Is this what caused your relationship with him to end?”
“Oh yeah, and then some. I couldn’t take it anymore. I told him that we were done and he should grab his shit and get out. He argued, he protested, but I wasn’t listening anymore. He didn’t cry, and after a couple of minutes, he didn’t even put up a fight. He packed and was out. He stayed with a friend of ours from the force for a while. I somehow felt that I’d won, if that makes any sense.”
“Not really. Could you please elaborate?”
“Well, he had taken my chances for having kids away from me, or at least that’s how my brain saw it. Now, I had taken myself away from him. I felt…I don’t know, vindicated? Those things out there took it all away and now I had taken from him all that he still had, believing that he somehow deserved it. I can’t believe I thought that. I really can’t.”
“And according to his service record, he didn’t wait long after your relationship ended to volunteer for ALERT training.”
“No Doc, he sure didn’t. You know those guys…real cowboys. Badass through and through, going out there and doing the shit that would give nightmares to anyone else. They take the fight right out there into their territory…I’ve seen their handiwork so many times…bodies piled up, each with a neat hole in the head, burning in the street…those guys are real ass kickers. It’s also dangerous shit. They really go at it out there. We’ve lost some ALERT people here and there, how could we not? But I heard he had signed up for ALERT and I started thinking about what it meant. This wasn’t recon like what we’d been on together. This wasn’t sneaky-pete, just observing and reporting and all that. This was balls-out war against the dead. I wondered what he was thinking…then I guessed that he had nothing left here. He signed up to go out there and find his own death, or at least that’s what I thought. He ran off to join those guys because there was nothing left for him to lose. He already lost me. The house started seeming really empty. I started to miss him. I would have nightmares about him, face down in the road with a ton of those things eating him…I would wake up screaming and look for him, feeling around the bed in the dark hoping to find him, but of course, I never did. It haunted me, you know? I realized what a terrible decision I’d made. He saved me, save my life and brought me here, and look what I did to him. I took it all away over the most petty of things. I hated myself. I wanted him back. I starting thinking: screw kids. He was all I wanted, and I threw him away. I tried to contact him inside their training compound, but he refused to see me. I left messages. He never responded. He didn’t want anything to do with me anymore, and I don’t blame him, after what I did. All I wanted to do was to find him and make him speak to me, tell him that I was wrong and I was a terrible person and beg him to come home…come back to me…but…I couldn’t get in to see him. After a month and a half, I got the word that he had gotten killed in a training accident. I still don’t even know what really happened to him. Maybe he could have survived it but he gave up because of me? I don’t know. But I tried to get in to see his body, and they didn’t let me. I wasn’t allowed to attend the memorial service. Everyone on the force has a will, it’s required. That’s how we tell others what happens with us and our stuff when we’re gone. He modified his not long after signing up for the Brown Coats. It said that in the event of his death, I would not be allowed to attend any services or anything, and no information or personal effects would be made available to me. Even if he was dead, he didn’t want me around.”
“What happened after his death? What happened to you in the weeks following?”
“Oh, you’re going to love this one, Doc.”
"If you have a milkshake, and I have a milkshake, and there's a straw, there it is, that's a straw...and my straw reaches...acrosssssssss the room, and begins to drink your milkshake. I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE! SLURRRP! I DRINK IT UP!