The Gray Machine by Ronald Heath

(Chapter 1)

Robert Michaelson awoke to the sound of his alarm. It was a digital alarm that had glowing red digits that read 6:20.

The beep of the alarm caused Robert to reach over and press the snooze button. Robert’s thoughts at this point were not many. Mainly there was a visualization of a steaming cup of tea, and a plan to follow the routine of showering and dressing.

He pulled away the blankets from the right edge of the bed and moved his right leg over the edge of the bed. There were three layers of blankets and one sheet. The first was a gift from his mother who had passed away nearly five years ago. The second and third were purchased at the local thrift store.

Robert continued with his other leg and stood up at the right side of his bed. His thoughts now were about the slightly musty smell of his bedroom that was mixed with the cold crisp air from the window that was open with a one inch gap. He contemplated on weather to open the window another half an inch. The month was January, and the mornings were still very cold. Robert concentrated on the temperature of his bedroom while reaching for his dark blue uniform pants. As he was pulling them on, he reflected on the coolness of the room, and what the cost would be if he turned up the heater from it’s setting of 56 degrees F. Due to the added cost of heating, he decided against opening the window any further. He also decided to put off the shower this morning.

Robert stepped to his closet and selected one of the white shirts with the required collar and button down front. He turned to the mirror that he had mounted onto the door of the closet, and buttoned his shirt.

Robert then walked to the kitchen of his double wide mobile home and put a packet of tea into a cup before filling it from the water cooler. This was a combination cooler and heater that always had both hot and cold water. The jug of water was refilled at the corner grocery store next to the bar. Robert enjoyed the warmth of the cup as it was filling and once again reflected on the low cost of the cooler that he had purchased at the thrift store and of the economy of filling one of his two jugs at the grocery store, as the other was in the cooler, rather than having it delivered. His first sip of the tea woke up more of his mind and he glanced at the wall clock that was mounted above the small kitchen table near the window. It read 6:30. He put a frozen TV dinner and a package of chocolate cakes into his lunch box, then walked back to his bedroom.

Robert continued with his dressing while sipping from his cup. The black socks came next, and then it was the jacket with the security emblems on each sleeve. The polished black shoes completed his uniform and he checked himself at the full length mirror on the door of his closet. He arranged his graying hair a bit, and his thoughts were that this would be covered by his hat this time, but he would need to stop at the barber in the next couple of days. Having satisfied himself that all was well, he grabbed his black hat with the golden band and polished black bill and walked to the front door of his mobile home, grabbing his lunch box along the way.

Robert opened the door and stepped out onto his wooden front porch before closing the door and locking it. He took a slow, deep breath of the crisp desert air through his nose and looked around at his mobile home and the large open space of the desert around it. He reflected on how much he enjoyed this place. The little painted wooden porch that he was standing on, that he had built himself the previous spring. The small tufts of scrub brush that naturally grew in his five acre fenced property. No, he reflected, no lawn to mow, no kid to raise, and no more wife. Robert had divorced ten years previous to this time, and had purchased this property with his share of the proceeds from the sale of his house in the suburbs.

Robert walked over to his small faded sedan. He opened the door of the little celica, and sat in the bucket seat with the torn vinyl seat cover. Once again the car started on the first try. Driving down the driveway that differed from the open desert only by the tire tracks and the lack of scrub brush, he soon came to the public road. He got out of the car and opened the gate in his fence, then got back in his car and drove past the gate, before getting out and closing it. He placed the padlock on the gate, but left it unlocked. Although the key was somewhere in the glove compartment of his car, he had no desire to hunt for it. Robert drove down the dirt road to where it met the paved road and turned right. There were no other cars on the road and Robert continued at a leisurely pace of 45 mph. He continued down the road for ten minutes and then turned off onto another paved road with a faded white line that seemed to make the road a little too narrow. Soon he came to a small building next to the gate of a large fenced in lot. The fence was tall with barbed wire along the top of it. Dave’s truck was parked next to the building. This was the first vehicle that he had seen during his commute. Robert’s thoughts reflected this as he thought about the size of the bush that had grown up at the side of the road across from the small building. He had been watching this bush every morning because it was the only green scrub brush plant to be seen. Most times, Robert would see this plant and toy with the idea of not thinking about it. Other times he would delight in the ability to have nothing else on his mind besides the health and shade of the plant. Perhaps there was a leaking water pipe near the plant, or maybe one of the guards throws coffee at it some mornings, thought Robert.

Dave had been guarding the fenced in lot that contained various cables, trucks, generator trailers, trench diggers, and other equipment. Robert drove up to the lot, parked his faded car next to Dave’s old rusted out blue pickup truck. After locking the front door, he opened the trunk and removed the holster with his .45 colt. This he strapped around his waist. Robert then walked towards the small office near the entrance gate to the equipment storage lot.

“Good morning, Robert. Right on time, as usual.” Dave said as he opened the small walk through door in the tall chain link fence.

“Good morning Dave, anything new ?”

“Nope, nothing new. The crew should be here in an hour or so to pick up the big cabling truck, but that’s about it.”

“Ok. Have a good one.”

“You too.” replied Dave as he began walking to his battered pick up truck. After a couple of tries, the truck started and Dave drove away down the road.

Robert closed the chain linked door, hearing the click as it locked behind him. He then entered the office and took a seat at the old and scarred wooden desk. After making a log entry that documented the beginning of his shift, he twiddled with a knob on one of the six monitors. This monitor looked at the rear of the equipment lot. It had become a bit dark, or it had been adjusted for the darker conditions during the night. Either way, it was now bright enough to see the details of a few stacked crates near one of the equipment sheds.

Robert thought about how much he enjoyed his job. There was absolutely no stress unless the wrong sort of people showed up, and this had not happened at all during the last four years of his employment. His job title in the city had been a software engineer, specializing in language translation algorithms. Robert had neglected to tell this to his present employer, only that he had worked for the company. The stress of deadlines and too much work had finally taken their toll, and with his only son off to military service, he didn’t need to make a large salary anymore.

Robert removed the cup with the chip in it’s handle from it’s peg on the cup rack near the desk. He then walked over to the coffee pot that was on the opposite side of the office from the window and poured a cup of coffee. He turned toward the window and was able to see for some distance down the road. He walked back to the desk and sat down, scanning the monitors. There were also motion detectors in the yard that would beep, just in case the guard had drifted off, but Robert had never fallen asleep on duty.

After two hours a car drove up with three people in it. Two of the passengers got out and headed towards the chain linked door. The car then pulled back onto the road and drove off. Robert pressed the buttons for the lock and the intercom, also flicking off the motion sensors.

“Hello Sam. We’ve got a fresh pot of coffee in here if you want.”

“No thanks. Just finished breakfast.”

Robert did not recognize the other person, but he was wearing a company badge that was clearly visible in one of the color monitors.

The two employees went over to the truck that had a large spool of fiber-optic cable mounted on the rear. Sam started the engine.

Robert pressed one of the buttons and the chain linked vehicle gate rolled parallel to the rest of the fence, leaving the road open to traffic.

Sam drove through the gate and Robert closed it after them.

This was the high point of the entire day. Absolutely nothing else happened for the rest of the shift, not even a phone call. Robert was quite happy with this. Some of his time was spent reading a novel and allot of time was spent sitting back and thinking about the things that he should bring with him on his trip.

At the end of his shift, his relief drove up and parked. Robert opened the door for him.

“Hello Tom.”

“Hi Robert, going camping this weekend ?”

“That’s right. You finish painting your deck yet ?”

“Not yet. I got it about three quarters done. I have to work tomorrow, but I can get a little more done sunday. Well good luck to you, hope you find something to catch this time of year.”

“Yea, there probably aren't going to be many fish, but it will be great to just camp there. This is the first time this year that it has been warm enough to be pleasant.” professed Robert.

Robert went out through the chain linked door and put his gun belt into the trunk. His car started on the first try, and he drove off down the road.