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Old 09-19-2020, 06:17 AM   #1
Level 9 - Obstreperous
Join Date: Jan 2005
Location: Roselle or Schaumburg, Illinois
Posts: 1,102
Bincount™: 136
My Last Best Friend - A Short Story

My Last Best Friend - I

I reached into the storm and pulled in a handful of rain. The barbarous wind heaved sheets of the downpour over my neck and shoulders. The truck’s tires chewed into the highway’s surface like a synchronized pack of wolves. A seismic lightning fork crashed into a nearby radio tower and the sky washed over with a purple neon blight. The hairs on my neck stood rigid as the flash and the sound coalesced into a singular shock of ethereal fury.
A second strike erupted out of its predecessor’s embers. Its form burned through my sight line like the pulsing vein of a contemptuous god. My eyes gaped in awe. The stale colors of the fields inverted into an apocalyptic hue.

Gavin flinched his shoulders and raised my window with the flick of a switch on his door panel. The wind hissed a final retort against the closing seam before merging with the staccato hammering of the rain. The truck clung to the middle of the lane like a stubborn anchor, steadfast in its course and impervious to the violence of the buffeting winds.

“Come on man, the water is beautiful,” I said. “So is the air. You can feel the storm breathe. You can feel its power.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, but it’s cold. I know you won’t get sick, but I will,” said Gavin. “My vacation is up in seven days. I don’t want to be stuck inside with a head cold while you’re out and about tearing up my wonderful little town. I need to be there too.”

Gavin slowed the windshield wipers. The tail of the storm swooped above us. The sinking sun cut the outer cloud’s edge like a fiery sickle, creating a perfect golden iridescence in the emptying sky. My glassy eyes locked onto the faraway point where the tempest had surrendered. The ambivalent funnel cloud refused contact with the earth. Darkness lost. The light won, though it did not win of its own accord.

My soul wept into the setting sun. I had not seen it rise or fall in ten months. In those ten months I had surrendered the greater part of my free will.

“Country’s the same,” Gavin said. “Bar’s the same, work’s the same.” He dug his boot down into the gas pedal as we passed onto the dry belt of the highway. The truck’s diesel engine whirred like an awakened bear. The speedometer needle crawled past ninety.

“We’re not late for anything.” I glanced at the needle, then forced my eyes away. “We’re not in a hurry.”

“Town hasn’t changed since you’ve been gone,” Gavin continued. He ignored my subdued plea for a slower pace. “That’s part of what I love about it. You, on the other hand…”

He looked at me and I turned my head to hide my surge of anxiety. Grinding memories swam like dirty eels beneath my skin. I worked to keep their heads submerged, but their slithering barbs scraped against my heart.

“Life has to change,” I said. “If it doesn’t change, it’s not life.”

“I don’t know. I just don’t know. I would have taken the straight prison time if I were you,” he said. “Ten months or five years? I don’t know. What did those ten months cost you? Five years, and you would’ve been done with it. You would’ve still been your old self after getting out. Now… sure, its ten months, but you’re not looking the same. You’ll never be the same again, you know. You’re looking like some kind of machine.”

I hunched in my seat as my vision drifted through the manic oscillation of the road’s division lines. I recalled the ways in which Gavin’s immutable truths had cut through my life. He never lied. He never had to. Two days after we met, he persuaded me to steal a bag of jerky from the neighborhood gas station. During the escapade I grabbed a second bag because I thought that stealing one would have insulted his honor. He took the unopened bags home at sundown without thanking me.

Gavin reigned over me for the rest of my formative years. He did not bully or victimize me, but he never relinquished his insidious control of my mind. He loosened his grip in the critical moments when I had to choose either his friendship or my sulking loneliness. In those moments his voice surrendered its drill-like persistence and his face turned full and golden. My lazy eye’s focus would drift beyond his forehead and in that perfect angle I would catch a glimpse of my maker. I would submit to his will and I would again become whole.

My time in The Program liberated me. After ten months I had surpassed Gavin’s station in life. He knew nothing of the sacrifices I made. He knew nothing of the new and wondrous burden I carried. I shut my eyes as I shuffled through my stock of our deepest, fondest memories. Those memories now infuriated me.

Gavin continued to cast seedy glances at me, looking me over as if I were a misguided calf that had strayed too far from his barn’s shadow. He could not see past my shell of steel nerves and muscle. He did not know my thoughts, though I could read most of his in the movements and timbres of his plain-spoken face.

I was not the same chubby, dusty idiot who had stumbled up the steps of the Army bus ten months ago. No. I had become a warrior, and all the while Gavin had done nothing. Nothing. He had spent that time burrowing deeper into the humdrum of the Midwestern muck. Now he summoned the nerve to look me over as if he still owned me. As if I were the same little whipping boy of our youth. I could break half his bones with no strain or effort. I could force his precious truck into the roadside ditch and walk away unscathed. His body would lay twisted and bleeding inside the burning wreckage of his life’s work.

“It’s not about avoiding prison time,” I said as I snapped out of my trance. “It’s not about the physical enhancements. It’s about honor and sacrifice. I am no longer the focal point of my own life. My ego and personal trifles don’t matter anymore. I want to serve. That’s my only purpose."

I exhaled a heavy breath as I rubbed the protruding scar on my forearm with the side of my thumb. I had received a bone strengthening graft during my first deep anesthesia session. Every morning since the fusion my joints buzzed with an unsettled hollowness. My psychotropic drug regimen spawned a cycle of ghoulish nightmares. Every night they stabbed at my awareness with a routine precision as I lay helpless in the bottom of sanity’s trenches.

“Yeah, that sounds noble, serve the country, I get it,” Gavin said. “But how do you feel? Do you even feel?”

“Yes, yes,” I stuttered. Do I even feel? That was a question I never considered to be worth answering. “I’m okay,” I said. “I feel okay.”

I rested my right elbow against the door panel. Gavin stared into my elbow’s bend as if looking up into a loaded rifle barrel from the perch of his own bent knees. He coughed and turned his head back to the road.

Our conversation ceased. I fell into the genesis of my darkest memory. A cruel, formless terror swept through me. Gavin’s truck vanished. A surgical chamber materialized in its place. My body lay sprawled over a cold table which stood at the chamber’s center. I rolled my eyes down toward my cheeks and spotted the top section of a familiar steel door. I could not raise my head. My skull lay pinned down in the clasp of a madman with a drill. He hovered above me as he worked the surrounding equipment with rapturous movements of his arms.
An unseen mechanism clicked twice. The madman pulled off his surgical shield. Gavin’s opaque grin shimmered down to me from its perch in the center of a halo of sterile light. My eyes rolled across the rims of their sockets. My brain boiled in its casing.

Gavin basked in my terror. His canine grin widened as he closed in on my defenseless skull. The steel apparatus in his gloved hand screamed and I screamed with it. My walls of numbness crumbled. Every nerve in my body caught fire. I screamed louder and louder into the black tunnel that began swallowing the chamber’s ceiling. Death. It came like a sheer and magnificent curtain pulled over a stage on which the unsuspecting actors had not yet settled into their early lines.

My voice broke into an inhuman crescendo. Gavin pushed the truck’s gas pedal to its limit. The cabin’s paneling rattled like the hollows of a belligerent snake pit.
“Hey, hey, relax,” Gavin said. He did not ease off the gas pedal as he turned to face me. “You can trust my driving. We’re safe.”
I looked around the cabin with stunned moonlike eyes. The surgical chamber vanished. The hazy outline of the familiar steel door merged with the sweeping curvature of the truck’s front end. I blinked in rapid succession as I worked to regain my bearings. I palmed the seat below me. The truck kept on with its breakneck hurtle down the dry bone top of the highway. Muted gusts of wind cut across the sealed windows.

“I’m fine,” I said in a hoarse tone. “Must’ve dozed off for a minute. This road lulls you to sleep, you know. It’s like an ocean.”

“Yeah. Alright. You’ll be home soon,” Gavin said. His face turned keen. His angles sharpened during my brief but treacherous slumber. “Try to stay awake now. I don’t want you screaming like that again. Oh, and I meant to tell you, I read that article about The Program, the one in Time…”

“The one that caused a firestorm of scrutiny? Don’t overthink that one. It was all propaganda.”

“Well, it seemed credible. It was bleak. Scary, even. They followed up on the initial Program recruits. Half of them killed themselves within two years after returning home."

“The Program is in its fourth iteration now,” I said. “It is better now than ever before.” The truck’s velocity turned alien and intrusive. The rolling plains smeared into a nauseating blur.
Oh, there are problems in these times...
But none of them are mine!
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