The Purifier

I was one of three foremen who ran the Purifier for the General Secretary before and during the upheaval. Those were dark days for all of us, and anyone who can sit in a rocking chair by the fire, warming his fingers and talking about those times, is lucky. Lucky to be alive, lucky to have his fingers still, lucky to have his tongue. But not everything about those times was evil. Like all times, in all places, I suppose, some bits of light make life worth living, grim as things might get.

The light for us, back before the Upheaval, was the Secretary’s Science and Projects Liaison. Now, I’ve been accused once or twice of being a bit of a dreamer. But understand, everything I have to say about the Liaison is pure truth. Heaven knows how a woman like that ended up with that position. She wasn’t dumb, exactly. In fact, as models go you’d consider her rather intelligent. She was in her mid twenties, and we all recognized her from various men’s interest magazines that were in circulation before the Secretary took full power and the presses were shut down. I guess that put her out of work. Maybe the Secretary hand-picked her for the job, maybe he felt guilty for putting her out of business. You’d think that picking a beautiful woman with no scientific background for Science and Projects Liaison would be a terrible mistake, but really what her job entailed was keeping us workers in line. And that was something she could do with a flick of the wrist and a bat of the eyelashes. She even was able to keep the women workers hard at work with barely any effort at all. It wasn’t just her beauty, she had an aura about her – call it charisma, or leadership, or maybe just confidence. Anyway, we saw her about once a month, which was more than most other facilities and projects could say. The Purifier was very important to the Secretary.

The Purifier was a marvel of human ingenuity and engineering. I wish, now in the twilight of my life, that I could claim I had helped to build or design it. But I didn’t. I just came on after it was finished, with my wrench and my hammer and the rest of my toolkit, and I made sure the other mechanics didn’t screw anything up. Not to say that this wasn’t hard work. A number of my men died or became too sick to work because of leaks in the reactor. The fact that I’m still alive, after all the years I spent at the Purifier, is a testament to something. Probably my great reservoir of dumb luck.

I never used to believe in luck until I got stuck in the elevator with the Liaison. The elevator was on the side of the Stack, which was a fifty story, eighty foot radius chimney stack. This was how the Purifier released the water back into the atmosphere. This was how we made the clouds. The Liaison and I were riding up to check on some repairs that were underway two thirds up the Stack. Most of the deaths were from people being knocked off by gusts of wind, so needless to say, being that high on the Stack, once you got out of the elevator, was dangerous. But the Liaison never shied away from danger. She was utterly fearless in fact.

So part way up, the elevator ground to a stop and shuddered. She looked at me like I was responsible for the elevator being broken, and then she said, “Look, all you’re getting out of me is a kiss. You get your kiss, and then you turn the elevator back on. I’m very busy today, and don’t have time for this.” Just like that, not more than ten seconds after the elevator stopped. I hadn’t even had time to move, or to call the repairs crew.

I was dumbfounded, and just sort of stood there, staring. She had incredible black hair, down to her shoulders. All of her features were sharp, and her skin had more purity than the widest expanses of northern tundra after a blizzard. I, by contrast, was ugly. I was in good shape, I don’t mind saying – always in good shape. The Purifier spans the better part of half a mile, when you factor in the Cables that draw the ground water, and so I was always walking or running from here to there, there to here. And with a foreman required on site at all times, I worked 60 hour weeks. It was hard work, and my muscles were large. But my face was what you’d call “unpleasant.” My ears were too big by a lot, and my face has been describable as “weathered” or “leathery” since I went through puberty. Anyway, it’s not something to recoil from, but certainly not the kind of thing that a woman like the Liaison would be interested in kissing.

So when she rolled her eyes and leaned in to kiss me on the lips, I wasn’t exactly in the kind of mental state to grab her and reciprocate. I mostly just stood there, baffled. At least I had the presence of mind to remember the feeling, to store it away for later use. It’s something I’ll never forget. It’s something I still lie in bed at night and think about. I close my eyes, and instead of envisioning her, I just try my best to recall that kiss. Never in my life have I felt lips so soft. There have been women in brothels, a couple of girlfriends in my youth, and the divorced woman that I nearly married. Compared to the Liaison, kissing those women was like kissing a hedgehog. Also, I’m rather short, and she’s rather tall, so her hair slid forward a bit, and came to rest on my cheeks. All I can say about it is: it was like silk. I know everyone’s heard it a thousand times, but no other description is appropriate. And anyway, are there other women for whom it’s literally true? Not that I’ve felt silk more than once or twice in my life, mind you, but her hair – it was literally the same sensation as touching silk. These days, I’d do unspeakable things to feel that hair pooled on my chest.

She kissed me on the mouth for about two seconds. For those two seconds, the ugliness of my face, all the ugliness of my existence, everything but her – it disappeared. For two seconds I was in a forest from a childhood fairy tale, kissing a princess. And then she stood up, put one hand briefly on my chest, lifted it off and looked at me expectantly, and we were back in the matte gray of the elevator, and I was my ugly self.

It took me a moment to collect myself, and then I buzzed the internal maintenance crew and ordered them to fix the elevator as fast as possible. “The Liaison is on a very tight schedule, so drop everything until this problem is fixed,” I said.

I looked back at her, confident in a way I’d never been before, and never will be again.

“You didn’t arrange this elevator malfunction in advance did you?” she said, and my confidence began to wane.

I shook my head. “No, ma’am. Why would I do something like that?”

“Oh shit,” she said, and then started laughing.

Gradually it dawned on me. I can be a little slow sometimes, but I’m not a moron. “You thought I had them shut the elevator down so that we’d be stuck in here together,” I said, “in hopes that we’d have some moment of forbidden passion.”

She nodded, her hand on her mouth as if to stifle her laughter. That was the first time I’d seen her smile (in person, at least), and I remember thinking how she belonged in magazines, not on industrial sites.

“Sorry,” she said. “It happens to me more often than you might think.”

I shook my head, wanting to say something along the lines of, “Don’t apologize, and if you’d ever like to do it again, please feel welcome to.” But now that I knew what had happened, I could tell that we were both reverting to our normal professional selves. Her smile lingered, and we shared a few more laughs, and then the elevator shook, and resumed its ascent, and it was as though nothing had happened.

Except that the phantom of the sensation of her kiss has never left me for forty years.

Would I feel any better about the death of the Liaison if she hadn’t kissed me? Probably. She was a good woman on top of being such a beauty, but so many good people died in those years, it’s hard to care about any single one of them, unless, for instance, they gave you the most memorable kiss of your life. Anyway, you get to be my age, and there’s so many what-if’s to dwell on, it just becomes pointless to think about any of them. She did kiss me, that’s the reality. I can’t go back in time and take that away so I’ll feel better about what happened to her. And anyway, I’m personally responsible for it, so no matter how hard I try to forget, it’ll never happen. That will always be, for me, one of the worst days in history.

Don’t get me wrong. The Secretary had it coming. His whole tyrannical regime had it coming. But not her. She was different. She never really belonged to that regime. We all knew that, at the Purifier. Still, the hatred builds up in some people, until they can’t distinguish who the real villains are.

That day was one of the earliest days of the Upheaval. We didn’t know it was a revolution yet, at the time there were just some sporadic riots. In fact, that was the very day that scholars now point to and say: The Revolution started on this day. There had been unrest before, but on that day it was as though the entire nation’s fuse was suddenly lit, and everyone just spontaneously rose up.

I remember. It was eight a.m. and at the time I had no idea that things would take such a violent turn. I had gotten my usual five hours of sleep, and was on my way into work. I still recall what I was thinking about: The Liaison was going to be in at nine, because we were having a glitch somewhere between the Furnace, where the water was cooked into vapor, and the Ionizer, where the vapor was condensed into cloud form. She and I were going to spend the entire day troubleshooting the problem. This was five years after the kiss, but she looked younger and more beautiful, if anything. Maybe she just always looked the same, but since I’d spent a lot of nights looking at my own face in the mirror, tracing the new lines that were cropping up, every year noting the continued progress from skin to leather, it always seemed that she was getting prettier while I got uglier.

We shook hands, as per the usual, pleasant with each other but all business. I had heard about a few more riots on the news that morning, but it all seemed so distant. My entire life was the Purifier, you see, and maybe a drink after work or the rare visit to a local brothel.

After our pleasantries, we got right down to work. I didn’t even go to my desk, just dropped my toolbox in my office and the two of us were off. I suspected that the problem was with the Ionizer, for technical reasons that it’s not important to go into. It turned out I was only half right. We got down to the Ionizer, and had a talk with the crew chief for that section. I poked around some of the wiring and the main chassis of the Ionizer itself, and based on what the chief said, and what I saw, I figured out that the problem was actually further up the line, in the Reactor’s output. Basically, the output was faltering. I was pretty sure it could only mean that the Reactor’s on-duty crew chief was letting his responsibilities slide. In hindsight I realize that it would’ve had to be every one of the Reactor’s crew chiefs, and couldn’t have just been the one. Odds are it was probably just faulty wiring that they didn’t know about. But I had a chip on my shoulder about the Reactor crew back then, and I just assumed it was human error. They had every right to be disenfranchised with their lot, but all I cared about was efficiency, the smooth operation of the Purifier, and they tended to be the most lax down in the Reactor. Maybe that’s why it all happened. You accuse someone who’s angry enough of a problem that isn’t really his responsibility, and well…

The first great mistake of the day was letting the Liaison go to the Reactor’s crew chief by herself. I had received an urgent page from a worker on the westernmost fringes of the Cables. A long haul, and the Liaison didn’t want to wait around while I responded to it, so she said she’d go have a talk with the Reactor’s crew chief by herself.

The Cables were like magnificent iron tree roots. It was probably my favorite part of the job, walking down one of the paths beside the Cables, running my hand along them. They were always cold, from the water running constantly through them. Deep groundwater, a lot of the time. Sometimes they were so cold it hurt my fingers. I’d always pretend they were deep tree roots, and I was walking along a forest path. Between the clouds and the towering mass of the Purifier itself, there was seldom any sunlight down there by the Cables, so it wasn’t a difficult thing to pretend. The constant background hum of the various parts of the Purifier became the rustle of trees and the quiet chirping of woodland creatures.

That day, like all days when she was visiting, I was eager to return to the glow of the Liaison, and so I didn’t take the time I normally do to slow down and have my nature fantasy. Instead I hurried down the field of coiled steel to the post from which the page had originated. Turned out, it was just a new guy who’d panicked when one of the Cables stopped pumping. I had to explain to him (where was his crew chief? I didn’t even bother to wonder) that sometimes one of the Cables depletes the ground water in a spot, and shuts down, and when more water seeps into that part of the ground, it’ll start pumping again. That took a few minutes. When I’d gotten him calmed down, I hustled back to the building, and descended to the Reactor level.

I’ve tried to blame that rookie for what happened, but of course it wasn’t his fault. It’s even hard to blame the Reactor’s crew chief. He’s an easy villain, but of course he probably had the most rage of anyone in that place. The Stack’s crew chief had the most fatalities to deal with, of course. But that was just accidental deaths, mostly from gusts of wind or guys not being careful. The Reactor’s crew had the toughest time. When those guys died, it was after weeks of slow, painful radiation poisoning. That wasn’t accidental, that was because the Secretary wouldn’t spend the money to make the Reactor level
safe for employees.

Anyway, in the end, the Reactor’s chief wasn’t the worst of us, on that day. Not by a long shot.

I got back to the main building pretty quickly, and took the elevator down to the Reactor level. When I got to the chief’s office is when I knew something was not right. The door was locked, for one thing, and I could hear noise through the door. Voices, but not the kind of voices you’d expect to hear during a professional meeting between two colleagues. Fortunately, as foreman, I had a master key to every door in the Purifier. I didn’t hesitate to use it, and when I opened the door, what I saw was: The chief had the Liaison over his desk, his pants around his ankles, and was fumbling with her pants with one hand while trying with his other to hold her down. He was yelling at her to stop moving around, and she was shouting right back at him. He was a big man, and I could see from the blood on her face that he’d already hit her at least twice, but to her credit, she showed no signs of giving up or crying instead
of shouting.

He was a big man, but size isn’t by any means the most important thing in a fight. In fact, my center of gravity was much lower than most guys that picked fights with me, and so I’d say that, most of the fights I’ve been in, my shortness has actually been an asset. It helps that I was in such good shape. I usually win fights, and with the fury I was experiencing just then, I’m not even sure you could call it a fight. I threw the chief off of the Liaison. He cracked his head against the wall of his office, and was slow getting up. While we fought, she slipped out of the room. I heard her say something about my office, but I could barely register anything. That same imagination I like to make use of kicks in of its own accord when I’m really upset or flustered, so rather than noticing or hearing the Liaison, what I was experiencing was a room full of boiling lava. There was fire everywhere, and a white-hot seething noise. This was mistake number two, letting her out of my sight again. I didn’t stop to think why one of my crew chiefs felt safe raping a Liaison to the Secretary. Instead, I just kept hitting him, while she left. He fought back, as best he could, but I put a lot of hurt on him. I counted each broken rib I gave him (five), and when I left him on the floor of his office, I wasn’t sure that he was still breathing. And in fact, things got so crazy that to this day, I don’t know if he lived or died.

Anyway, when I got back to my office, the Liaison was nowhere to be found. One of her shoes was on the floor beside the desk, though, and there was more blood beside it. This was when I started to connect all the dots. Like I said, I can be slow sometimes, but I’m not a moron. These were the dots: the riots that were building up momentum in other parts of the country, the absence of the Cables crew chief, the boldness of the Reactor crew chief, and now something else was apparently happening to the Liaison. As the highest ranked agent of the Secretary’s administration at the Purifier, she was the obvious target. I still, to this day, wonder if what happened next would have happened to me, instead, if she had not come to the Purifier that day. But again, it’s pointless to dwell on these sorts of “what-ifs”.

What I did next was I turned on the Purifier’s PA system, and I tried to keep my cool long enough to deliver my message. “Listen up,” I said. “Someone has taken the Liaison from my office against her will. Some other strange things have been happening around here today. I’d like to remind everybody that we all have jobs to do, and that the Liaison is a very important person, and not to be harmed. Return her to my office, and I’ll do everything I can to mitigate the charges against her abductor.”

It didn’t take long for the new guy to page me again. There wasn’t any kind of two way communications device for that part of the facility, a cost saving mechanism owing to the breadth of the Cables, and so I had to walk it again. Except this time I ran, and so I was able to get there in only a couple of minutes. What he told me, stuttering, was that his crew chief and a bunch of the other guys who worked in different parts of the Purifier, were doing something on the Stack. He was supposed to get all of the guys in his crew and go to the south side of the field of Cables, and look up at the Stack at exactly noon. It was 11:58. I still remember checking my watch, and how those numbers glowed like hot steel. 11:58.

It took me seven minutes exactly to get up to the top of the Stack. When I got to the top, there was nobody. I looked down, and there were a bunch of guys on the walkways two levels down, about ten percent of the way from the top. I couldn’t tell what was happening until I got back in the elevator, and went out on that level. There were men and women from every section milling around and speaking to each other in a low murmur. Most of them were good people I’d known for years. Maybe the closest I’d ever come to friends. A few of them were holding nail guns. Nobody looked me in the eyes, and I walked carefully past them. The walkways were narrow, and though the winds were calm at the time, I didn’t want to bump into anyone up there.

I wound my way around toward the south side of the Stack, expecting all the way along to find that the Liaison had already been thrown to her death. What I found was worse, and is something that haunts me more vividly than anything else in my life, more vividly even than the kiss, which I can recall with amazing clarity of sensation even now. What I found was the Liaison still alive, nailed to the side of the Stack, the crew chief of the Cables and his brother both standing there holding nail guns, waving down at a small crowd, forty five stories below, who could probably not even tell what was happening.

They were shouting something, but I couldn’t tell you what they were saying, any more than the people down on the ground could. My mind had already done its thing again, and brought me somewhere else. I was on the side of a cliff, a narrow rock ledge. Small shrubs poked out of cracks in the mountain, and down below I could see the tiny green florets of a million trees sweeping away towards the horizon. My newly-revolutionary co-workers’ shouting had become the cries of hawks, circling far above me. It was raining in my vision, and when I looked up at the hawks, the rain got into my eyes, partially blinded me.

What I did next was probably not wrong. I was raised in the times when the Secretary had outlawed all religion, so of course I’ve always grown up believing there was no God. What I saw that day, and afterwards, has certainly done nothing but reinforce the belief. Still, I like to believe that if there is a God, He would forgive what I did as an act of mercy, even if I will never be able to forgive myself for my lack of courage.

I was aware, to be sure, that I was the very next rung on the ladder, one step down from the Liaison, and a likely next target for what was clearly a revolt of the Purifier’s workers. Still, what I wanted to do was save the Liaison. Up there on the Stack, two inches from a long fall to my death, I almost went for the chief’s hammer, to pry loose those nails and get her down. She looked at me, her eyes wet from crying. Her mouth had been taped shut. When she saw me, I saw a little bit of hope. Like she thought I might really be able to save her. The men just watched me, unsure, nail guns in hand.

But what would have happened is this: I would have pried her loose, and we both would have been thrown to our deaths. Or maybe they would’ve killed me before I even got her down. She was already dead, or I guess the word is doomed. Destined for death that day, she just hadn’t been finished off yet. So I did it for them. When people recount what I did, they say I had tears in my eyes. I want to tell them it was just the rain, that I have an over-active imagination, but who would understand such a thing? She was in so much pain, and yes, I admit, I wanted to live.

So I took the chief’s nail gun, and I put it to the side of her head, and I put my free hand over her eyes, and I whispered into her ear, and then she was still, and I did it, and then she was really still. There was so much blood. I’d never killed anyone before, and until you kill someone violently like that, you will never truly know how much blood is inside the human body. I gave the gun back to the chief, who took it and just stood there. Nobody was sure what was supposed to come next, so we all just stood there. Eventually, I returned to the elevator, and descended back to the ground level. The rest of the day I spent walking the Cables, my eyes closed, running my hand along their iron lengths.

That day was the real beginning of the Upheaval. Several government buildings were bombed, four major members (not counting the Liaison) of the Secretary’s Cabinet were assassinated. Rioters seized armories in cities across the country and became revolutionaries. It all started that day – so much bloodshed.

And I was hailed as a hero of the revolution. My greatest shame, to this day, is that I went along with it. I allowed myself to become an icon: The foreman of the Purifier, who rose up and killed the lackey to the Secretary, the evil siren who would have done unspeakable things to save her master. I waved at cameras when the free press was restored. I stood and smiled while reporters told how I did what had to be done, but how I rejected the cruelty of my co-revolutionaries. I told how abhorrent the conditions at the Purifier had been under the dictatorship of the Secretary. No mention of the Reactor crew chief ever reached my ears, though surely it must have been obvious to everyone at the Purifier that I was defending the Liaison until the very end. The truth, which is probably obvious by now, is that I’m no hero. I was in love with the Liaison, that’s all. A foolish and futile love that spanned many years, and ultimately was worth nothing to her except an faster death. What I should have done is saved her. A hero, indeed.

Whenever I dream, these days, what I dream is: I’m walking in a dark forest. Giant roots from a mighty tree trace the ground in all directions of the forest. Cicadas call, and wind gently rustles the leaves of lesser trees. Somewhere in this forest, waiting for me, is a beautiful woman with dark hair made of silk, and if I can just see her smile, touch her lips, all the sorrow and pain in my chest will drain away, and I’ll live forever.

What I told the Liaison before I killed her was this. Maybe this isn’t the only life there is. Maybe there’s another life, a beautiful one full of trees. In this life, the wind is kind, and there is no pain. I’ll see you there, one day.

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