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Old 09-19-2020, 06:22 AM   #4
Level 9 - Obstreperous
Join Date: Jan 2005
Location: Roselle or Schaumburg, Illinois
Posts: 1,102
Bincount™: 136
Re: My Last Best Friend - A Short Story

My Last Best Friend - IV

He stepped into the booth and emptied his clip into a mid-range target with reasonable success. The handgun’s concussive retorts gnawed at my psyche. This is not right. This is all horrible. This is all wrong.

Gavin nodded as he passed to me the reloaded gun. His eyes told me I had to shoot. I could not back away.

I took off the gun’s safety with wired, trembling fingers. Why in the hell is he entrusting me with this instrument of death? The construct of the broken world trapped inside my head came unraveled. I forgot my own name. I turned around and searched for Gavin but I could not find him.

“Shoot it!” Gavin said. His words scratched at me from within the center of my mind. “Come on, you’re supposed to be a pro at this!” I spotted him urging me on from behind the yellow safety line. I did not see him walk in that direction.

Gavin, my unrelenting savior. He acted as if the gun trembling between my calloused thumbs held the key to some ancient cosmic miracle. I depressed the trigger. I lost control of my arms upon the second shot’s firing. The clip emptied itself with a flutter of my panicked heartbeats. I exhaled a thick primal grunt. The target before me stood unscathed. I looked closer and saw that my best shot had grazed the edge of the upper corner. I landed no direct hits.

“Aw man,” Gavin said. “Nerves?”

“Go to hell!” I screamed. “I hate this! You set me up!” I took a long backward step and threw off my safety equipment. “You hear me? I hate this!” I kicked my discarded ear muffs against the back wall. The gun trembled in my hands like an overflowing jar of simmering poison. I feathered the instrument onto the sturdiest part of the ledge and backed away.

Gavin froze in shock. His dimpled features shriveled into a grotesque stare of bewilderment. I bowed my head. He mouth-breathed down my side as I stepped around him. The clerk behind the front counter stood in place, swaying in time with the malignant dust motes that floated past him. I threw open the glass doors and broke ahead into the light-seared belligerence.

I paced in circles through the parking lot’s interminable heat. I locked my trembling arms around my heaving rib cage. The loneliest terror pierced the back of my neck like a thin hollow needle with no end. My head shrunk with every breath.

“Are you okay?” Gavin said. I stood leaning against his truck when he caught up to me. I turned around and squared my body up to his. My veins swelled with fury and adrenaline. If I did not strike him down now, he would forever own me.

“What the hell do you think?”

“It’s alright, don’t worry about it. I shouldn’t have taken you here. This is my fault.”

“Go to hell.” I shuffled the dirt near the truck’s tire with the end of my shoe. Why do I wish to murder my keeper? Why does he insist on keeping me?

“I don’t think you’re well,” Gavin said. “That’s okay. You don’t owe me or anyone else an explanation. Not now, not ever. Let’s move on. We can forget all about this. Let’s go get some food.”

His primitive sympathy hit a nerve. My head bent lower under the hollow pull cast by my passing nightmares. Gavin should have known that he risked his life by remaining in my presence. And yet, he stayed. He kept trying to help me.

“It’s my fault too,” I said. “I was an idiot for thinking I could go and shoot this weapon off like some goddamn Sunday hobby. The shock didn’t hit me until after I fired. By then, it was too late. It was too much, too soon. I’ll tell you more once I figure this thing out. Let’s get out of here.” I admitted my weakness to him. I acknowledged my defeat. The demons which had been towing me along laughed at me from the thin fault lines of the burning shadows.

We rode away in peace. The shooting range sank into my pit of broken memories.

“There’s this bar I know,” Gavin said as we turned out of the industrial district and onto one of the town’s arterial roads. “It has the best steaks in town. Half the price of any of those big-box restaurants, but twice the quality. Oh, and for your drink, I suggest you order something called the Cow Town Special. You won’t be walking after two of those.”

“Alright,” I said. “That sounds good.” I had been advised to avoid alcohol, but I saw no harm in having a few drinks over a comforting meal. The capricious unraveling of my pride made me yearn for simplicity.

A milky haze grew from the lower reaches of the heat bled sky. Gavin turned up the truck’s air conditioning. Tiny pockets of hell rose up and staked their claim over the abandoned homes lining the peripheral roadway. The decade’s indignant war on the poor had driven out their once hopeful owners. Their gutted frames stood as cathedrals of sorrow, leaning low and longing for the spark of a flame. We drove past the colossal rail yard which cut through the town’s edge like a neglected scar. The fields beyond the rusted amber rail lines begged for the clearing winds of a storm. The land refused to exhale.

“This place looks broken,” I said as we pulled into a rickety lot behind a sagging wooden lodge. The edge of the unkept asphalt rolled off into the wild grass ends that floated above a steep ravine. “I can’t imagine them serving steaks at all, let alone the best in town.”

“They do, they do,” Gavin said. “Trust me. Your meal, it will be a masterpiece.”

“I hope so.”

Gavin’s feet skipped a beat as he opened the bar’s off-set wooden door. My trailing steps sank into a mournful bog. The establishment’s geometry pushed against me like a foul dream too meek to be deemed a nightmare. The low ceiling and its greasy support pillars reeked of concealed decay.

“I don’t feel too good,” I said. Gavin kept moving. He motioned me to toward a cushioned bar stool near the center of the counter.

“You’ll be okay. Sit. You’ll be okay after your first drink.” He turned to the bartender. “Two Cow Town Specials please, double up on the whiskey. Also, two steak specials, fully loaded. Then a second round of drinks, if you will.”

The thick smoked-out woman commanding the bar threw us a half-smile as she took Gavin’s cash. I tried to free my heart from the claustrophobic grip of the wooden chamber’s décor. Sets of oversized dining booths stood across the aisle like a cluster of unmarked graves. I did not see any windows. I did not see any other patrons. Esoteric relics intertwined with framed photographs of gray and anonymous people lined the outer walls in an unbroken weave. The fan blades spinning a yard above my brow hinted at forthcoming dust waves to be spawned by a nuclear winter. Their methodical crawl pushed the decades of my life into a queasy retrograde.

I settled down when the drinks arrived. The Cow Town Special produced a robust kick. After the initial sting it tumbled down my throat like a high end cream soda. I blinked a few times and noticed my glass to be half-empty.

The liquor cleared my senses. With each ensuing pull from my glass the bar revealed more of its camouflaged pleasantries. The walls backed away. The curved ceiling withdrew its claws. The tranquilized ambiance draped over me like a cocoon of hickory cinder and Midwestern straightforwardness. I could learn to like this place. I could grow to love it. I could die fighting to defend it so that someone down the line could sit in this same spot and think these same thoughts. How many other Cow Town Specials might this sprawling gut of our nation hold? How many other incarnations of me?

Our plates of food arrived. My mood continued to rise. I gazed into the plethoric stack of greased starches and seared meat. What beauty. A comforting vibration passed through me. I breathed in a whiff of the plate’s aroma and then I dug in. My homebound heart stirred from its hibernation.

“I still can’t believe you’re actually shipping out,” Gavin said between sloppy bites. “I couldn’t imagine leaving. Goddamn, I’d miss places like this. I’d miss Sarah so much I think my heart would start bleeding through my teeth after a couple of days.”

“I hear you. If I had what you have, I’d miss the hell out of it too.”

I took an oversized gulp from my second glass and fell into a bout of nebulous reflection. My past melted away. The few memories I could recover now lingered as faint clichés. The Program had killed more of my individuality than I dared to admit. One of its core mantras sank its icy claws into the back of my brain. The repetitive words hammered through my skull, a nail gun’s blow for every other syllable. What did I not remember? I let out a gargled yell.

“You okay?” said Gavin. He shot me a worried look. I did not recognized his face.
Oh, there are problems in these times...
But none of them are mine!
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