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!
“So what? They keep creating new iterations, one after another, changing the protocols as little as possible from one wave to the next. Look, I’m willing to help you out with your journey through it, but you have to remember that a lot of it is a big power grab. They’re consolidating a big chunk of the population into some kind of a neo-fascist slave machine. I know that’s not the whole story, but you should see it from my point of view.”
“I know The Program wasn’t right back then,” I said. “I won’t deny that. You can have your opinion, but I was there, in that facility, under those lights, working those routines and practicing the new regimens. We’re all doing the best that we can. I met some of the guys I’ll be running with, and they’re steady. They don’t accept violent criminals anymore. It’s all middle of the road guys, ones who are still good at their core. They need a second chance. A mulligan.”
“Kind of like you?”
“I suppose. Remember, The Program is voluntary. Nobody forced me into anything I did not accept.” A sliver of stray anger tempted me into telling Gavin to shut his mouth. He knew nothing, and yet he judged. He judged with the condescending fury of a backwoods pastor. I tensed my forearms and pictured myself shredding the interior of his precious truck with my bare hands. I exhaled and brought my elbows back down to my side.
“Voluntary. Right. So what do I need to know to make sure that you don’t lose your head over the next ten weeks?”
He hinted that part of me was unwell. Perhaps I did not know everything he knew. I gathered my stray thoughts. A part of me hated him and another part of me wished to shower him with everlasting gratitude. I glanced at the dashboard. The speedometer hovered a tick past ninety-five.
“Stay on course,” I said. “Stay upright, ride through the turbulence. Avoid becoming a crashed heap of scraps.”
“That goes for both of us,” I continued. “You’re my civilian ward, so you don’t need to worry about anything technical. Check on me every few days. Ease me back into the world’s light, if you will. Start with getting me home in one piece.”
“Right. I think you’re a little out of it, but sure, whatever works for you. Yesterday I read through some of the complimentary files your case worker sent me. Your diet is insane. How many calories are you up to?”
“Eight thousand. Every day. Eight thousand, at least.”
“Is that a permanent thing?”
The setting sun tore apart the last of the storm clouds. The thunderous microcell coiled into the horizon like an inconvenient memory. Gavin pulled the truck into the right lane and softened his blow to the accelerator. The cabin’s rattling ceased. I spotted the green and white highway signs marking the first of the Lincoln exits. My awareness sank into the chilling beauty of the plains. The fields lay open and acceptive of their fate as they flowed away into the still lake of the horizon.
The reserved and dreary beauty of Lincoln unfolded around us. We drove through the town’s boxy center and past the long shadow of the Art Deco ghost that was the Nebraska State Capitol. A fresh wave of college students breathed life into the sidewalks at the northern edge of downtown. The deepest tremors of existence had not yet shaken them. The quiet ones sat alone, locked in their miniature worlds of hope and contemplation. I sensed they knew something which the shuffling majority did not, though the intrinsic nature of this knowledge silenced them.
We turned onto the street on which my parents lived. Gavin pulled the truck to the curb and rolled down the windows. The storm had not passed through here. The neighborhood sat still and dry in the arthritic rigidity of the evening heat. I looked past the crooked front yard fence toward the off-tone yellow bungalow that sat in the faint shadow of the ancient oaks. I stared deeper into the twilight as the reprise of my youth washed over me. The house exuded a gentle but uncomfortable warmth. Sixty days had passed since my body attained its peak physical form. My reconstruction had once brought me joy. In the shadow of my childhood home my manufactured body shamed me.
I sat and watched the swaying oaks cradle the yard where I took my first steps through the sun’s open warmth. I recalled the viscous weave of my childhood’s endless days. I pictured myself as an eager boy running through that unkept yard, diving head first into every adventure and backing down from nothing.
I prepared to walk again through the yard’s ageless bliss and harmony. I looked down at my torso and my eyelids twitched. I expected to see the body of the eager and spry boy from my memory. Instead I saw the behemoth shell of a dormant killing machine. With my next breath my leaden years unleashed their burden. I looked through the bungalow’s dim living room window. The dying colors of the side panels seeped into the matted rot tucked around the foundation’s edge. The corners of my eyes watered. Things were not how they used to be.
Gavin and I exchanged a brisk goodbye. I bumped his fist through the open window and he drove off into the nameless web of middling streets. I stood at the bungalow’s door with a single duffel bag hanging from my left shoulder. My gray father opened the front door while I reached for the doorbell button’s light.
__________________ Oh, there are problems in these times...
But none of them are mine!
“Welcome,” my father said. “You seem better. You look healthy.” He gave me a long one armed hug as I stumbled into the rustic foyer. I did not feel his presence. He moved like a cheapened imitation of someone once dear to me who without warning had emerged from a life erased.
My mother drifted in from the depths of the lightless hallway with sheepish, tired eyes.
“We were worried about you,” she said as she tried to embrace my granite shoulders. “I left some dinner for you. I won’t pester you with too many questions just yet. You should eat and rest.”
I stepped around her. Her arms fell down to her side and her eyes took on a stern, perplexed gaze. I set my duffel bag on the hallway floor and shuffled ahead into the living room. My father looked on from the bungalow’s threshold. He took a deep breath and shut the front door.
My parents stood side by side near the kitchen wall while I reheated the food. Their eyes dissected me. My heart became a settled stone that had nowhere left to roll.
I inhaled my dinner from my familiar perch at the worn oaken table. My parents sat down across from me once their kettle boiled. They sipped steaming tea in an awkward unison. We exchanged plain phrases of comfort and assurance. Their health kept on. Their tiny household kept going. I told them that I had completed the greater part of The Program. After my ten week grace period I would be thrown into the grisly routines of a professional war.
Our pleasantries ran their course. A chill passed across my nerves. I cut my sentence short the moment I realized I had nothing worthwhile left to say. My father returned to his living room armchair and raised the volume of the televised football game. My mother went to the sink and began cleaning the pots and the large frying pan. I continued to eat as I stared into the near-darkness outside the small dining room window. The only neighborhood I had ever known wallowed beyond a scuffed pane of aged glass.
No amount of food satisfied me. I did not ask for more after I cleaned off my second plate. My eyes darted from room corner to room corner while I waited for the coffee to finish brewing. The house had shrunk in my absence. My mother’s vacant smile carried the pain of a concealed juxtaposition. Sixty days ago I awakened in the body of someone I did not recognize. Now I watched that same awakening repeat itself through her eyes. A strange person rummage through her kitchen. He jangled through her cabinets and ate an impossible portion of her curated meal.
I went to bed after the football game ended. My bedroom had become a dusty hollow in my absence. It carried the air of a neglected bottom shelf in a forgotten broom closet. A tinge of remorse hit me as I arranged my lumbering body onto the mattress. I had no one to thank and no one to blame for my displaced existence. My processions had been reduced to a single breath and the sparse moments around it. I owned nothing else. I knew nothing else.
I slept with the window open. The cool night air cleansed me. I woke to the shine of early autumnal light. I eased out of bed and let my bones settle into themselves. Gratitude poured through me. This tiny dying house was not a prison after all.
I walked into the kitchen and discovered three wrapped plates of fluffed pancakes sitting on the counter. I read the notes my parents left attached to the refrigerator door. My father would be gone until six in the evening. My mother planned to return sometime after lunch. I began to eat. As I swapped an empty plate for a full one, I gave the hand-scratched notes another look. Their nostalgic redundancy warmed me.
Gavin called me during my final bite. My assigned phone jangled as it slid across the slick counter. I fumbled the device between my fingers. I struggled to activate the unyielding screen. On the fifth try the security lock took my thumbprint. Gavin’s voice sprang into me from the phone’s diminutive speaker.
“You alright? Everything okay?”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said as I held the device an elbow’s reach from my ear. “Give me a minute.” I adjusted the volume setting and brought the phone closer. “Cheap ass phone,” I said. “It maxed out every setting when I tried to answer. Anyway, I’m here.”
“Good. I’m parked outside your house. Let’s go.”
“Let’s go for a drive. You need to get some air. You’re not going straight from a shut-in to a soldier. Not on my watch.”
“It’s not that simple… there’s much more… never mind.” He had me. “Give me some time to gather my things.” I listened for a response, but the static faded and the call screen turned dark. I changed into a clean pair of jeans and gathered my keys from the top of my dresser. I opened my wallet and glanced at the military ID card inside the clear sleeve. The red holographic P which identified me as a Program recruit appeared blurry and misshapen. I rubbed my thumb along the corner of the card and the letter recaptured its sheen.
“Took you long enough,” Gavin said as I walked up to the hulking door of his vehicle.
“I needed a minute,” I said as I climbed into the seat. “I’m not used to doing whatever I want whenever I want to. You could have given me more of a heads up.”
“Hey. Take it easy,” he snapped. “I took a week off work to help you out. I toil like a yard dog, day in and day out, and still the manager didn’t want to give me this time off. I worked his ego for days trying to convince him. I’m helping you because I want to. I don’t need to be here.”
“Alright, alright, I’m sorry,” I said. “I appreciate your help. I wouldn’t want you to think otherwise. What did you have planned for today?”
He revved the truck’s motor and shifted into gear. The air in my lungs jittered. We took a sharp corner at full speed and beat a changing light before merging with the stalled pace of the central avenue. The other cars swayed below us like helpless dinghies in a high tide. We rode above them, proud and imperious.
“Are you up for showing off some of your skills?” Gavin said.
“I was thinking we’d go to a shooting range. You were never into this stuff before you entered The Program. You know, military, guns, discipline, that kind of deal. So, show me what you’ve got.”
“Shooting range?” Something in my brain did not connect. Military? Program? A fog descended over my mind. I had not noticed its slithering intrusion.
“Don’t look so confused. It’s just a little indoor shooting range. We’ll have the place to ourselves. Nobody will be there. We can grab some food after.”
Gavin kept up his jovial tone as we drove on, but behind that front he seemed edgy and a bit jealous. I forced myself to be in agreeance with his winded small talk. I didn’t want to present myself as being above him, yet an unwavering part of me knew that I was. Despite my thickening mental fog, I knew that I was important. Far, far more important than him.
We pulled into a forlorn stone battered lot. I surveyed the gray stocky building in front of us. It leaned on a blighted foundation engrossed by weeds. The lot stood deserted, save for a rusted sedan and a pale maintenance van.
“Here we are,” Gavin said. “Doesn’t look too promising from the outside, but it’s quiet, and their rates are low.”
We passed through the building’s smudged glass doors. My strained eyes welcomed the dark interior. Beyond the first array of vents the lobby’s air turned necrotic. The walls and floor exhaled worn linoleum and neglected flesh. A decrepit man swayed in the dusty shadows behind the service counter. Gavin approached him.
“Hello. We would like two of your basic sessions with one handgun, please. Thirty minutes.”
The clerk drifted forward and drew a feeble breath. He then punched his way down the analog cash register and barked out our session fee. The limbs on his frail shadow of a body seemed to come further unhinged while he reached for our equipment. His barren gaze drifted into the wall of daylight behind us as he slid the handgun across the scratched glass counter.
“Here we go,” said Gavin. “Half an hour should do. They give fifteen minutes of buffer time before they start charging us. Let’s go.” He put on his ear muffs and safety glasses and trotted ahead like an overeager idiot.
I followed Gavin despite my growing sense of estrangement toward him. Every step of his boyish gait seared me with a tactile jolt of anger. I had an urge to reach for the gun held loose in his hand and shoot him through the back of his skull.
“Why are you looking so down all of a sudden?” Gavin said. “Come on, this is supposed to be your job. This is supposed to be fun. Come on, let’s rattle some off.”
__________________ Oh, there are problems in these times...
But none of them are mine!
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!
“These drinks might be too strong,” I said. “What… what do they put in them?” My brain leaped into a confused frenzy. The tumultuous mixture of the Cow Town Specials slammed my cognition against a wall.
“That’s a secret,” Gavin said. He flashed a faint outline of a sadistic grin. “I was thinking you wouldn’t get more than half way through your second one, but here you are. All gone.”
All gone. Everything I ever had… all gone.
I reached my teeth over the marbled chunk of steak at my fork’s end and sealed my quivering lips around its scorched bits of viscera.
“John! John… is that… is that you? Oh my God!” A woman’s airy half-rasped voice pushed its way into my ears while I chewed through the morsel’s center. I put the fork down and turned away from my plate, unsure of what to expect or who to look for. The room stood in its place like a November lake, still as death, but not yet frozen. I looked for Gavin but he was not there.
She stepped through a booth’s shadow and approached me in a direct line of feathery steps. Her hair flowed in a cascade of dreamlike wisps that concealed a part of her face.
“John, I didn’t think you’d be out already. My God… I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“That I’d be out? Out from what? I’m sorry, miss, but I think you’ve mistaken me for somebody else.” I turned back to my food and took another bite. She came closer.
The familiarity of her approach paralyzed me. I was not somebody she once knew. I was somebody she had once lived for. She sat down in Gavin’s seat and straightened her posture. I tried to decipher her with another look, but her features melted into an anonymous void.
“John… you don’t remember, do you? Christ, you don’t remember… you don’t remember anything.”
“Remember what, exactly? I’ve never seen you before. I don’t know who you are.”
“I can’t believe they did this to you.”
“What are you talking about? Everything that was done to me was my choice.”
“No, John. It wasn’t. You are not well.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Please excuse me. You are interrupting my meal. My best friend Gavin will be back soon and you’re in his seat.”
“It’s me. It’s Stacey. We have a daughter. A beautiful little girl. She’s in preschool now, and I’d bet anything that she is a genius like… Look, John. There is no Program. Do you understand? Here, look at me, look at me.”
She took a hold of my elbow and turned me closer. To me her existence had no meaning. In her I saw nothing. Not a ghost, not a lost memory, not a forgotten encounter. Nothing. Her faint eye creases and spotty imperfections screamed their history back to me, but I heard none of it.
“Again, I’m certain that you are mistaken,” I said with a deeper, more direct tone. “I am a new recruit in The Program. I am going to war soon and I would appreciate it if you let me finish my meal. My best friend Gavin is my civilian ward. He can help you once he returns. I’m not supposed to talk about any of this. I don’t know what else to tell you. If you are a fan or an… admirer of those enlisted, there is nothing I can do for you. My behavior is monitored at all times. I’ve been ordered not to interact with people like you. I’m not trying to be disrespectful, but please, please back away.”
I looked around and still I did not see Gavin. The bottom of my stomach turned cold.
“John, dear, you are not well. I was your longtime girlfriend. We met in high school. You worked at the rail yard for over ten years. We were practically married before you… Listen. There is no such thing as The Program. Gavin is not a real person. We’ve had this talk before. You’re unwell again. I didn’t think you’d be released already. It’s been what, ten months?”
“Released from what?” I said. My tone turned defensive. “Released from what? I wasn’t released from anything. You don’t know me. You’re just a heartland bar whore leeching around for another story to tell before you hit the wrong side of forty. Get the hell away from me!”
“John… no…” she sighed and turned away. She pulled out her phone and dialed a long string of numbers. The air between us turned to ice. A memory of her smile’s outer crease drifted by, but I buried it.
I swung my shoulders around in disgust. I looked for Gavin. I called his name twice, but he did not come. I shoved away my unfinished plate. I called louder and still nobody came. The stocky bartender disappeared through the swinging kitchen door.
“Gavin!” I screamed. “Gavin! Gavin!”
Stacey retreated to the entrance. Her distraught eyes remained locked onto me as she mumbled indiscriminate phrases into her phone. She held the device jammed deep into the side of her cheek. The protruding bones of her angled wrist trembled.
A crash of shattered glass stung me. I fell into a defensive stance behind one of the large booths. A viscous redness pooled at my heels. My forearm burned. The room fell into a wild and nauseating spin. I gathered my breath and screamed with all of my might. I turned myself upright and sprinted to the back wall. I flipped a table and I smashed through the nearby chairs. My head shrank into the size of a needle point. With failing breath I capsized. Gavin had set me up. The bastard poisoned me. I wheezed a silent curse of damnation onto his name.
Powerful red and blue lights flooded the chamber. A brick of a man charged through the front door. He yelled out a string of broken phrases in a manic timbre. With the corner of my eye I caught the sight of a raised gun held in his meaty fists. Stacey ran up to the brick man and begged something from him. She pleaded with hysterical fury.
I lay bleeding on a mound of glass shards. I tilted my head and watched the door. Two shorter men scampered in and pulled Stacey away. The brick-like man stood his ground, gun steady.
My breath returned with a weak reprise. I stood up and straightened my legs. I began to walk into the aura of warmth that opened up before me. The brick-like man barked louder every step I took. I looked past him and saw a crevice of the greater world shining through the axe wound in the crooked wooden door.
Fresh air. Open sky. Beauteous fields tilled by simple men whose worlds spread no farther than their outstretched callused palms. Home.
I walked into the light. An odd numbness crept up from behind my chest. A heartbeat later the numbness spilled out into my limbs. I collapsed when the force of my own dead weight became insurmountable. An alien language of desperate commotion hovered somewhere far above. I shut my eyes. Everything ceased.
Time bled against the walls of my skull and through the hollows of my bones. No heaven and no hell stood before me. A torturous shred of my former self-awareness remained. I had been called forth to witness my own Judgement.
I drifted through an icy swap. A mute blind man led me to its edge. He struck each of my limbs with his cane. He then delivered me into a wall of infinite light.
I gasped against the toxic mud stuck in my airways. My teeth bit down against the synthetic foulness of a hospital tube. The wall of infinite light set fire to my eyes. I jerked my head up but my skull remained pinned. My neck seized with a violent tremor. I could not move. My body lay contorted against the steel jaws of a sinister apparatus. A pale servant dressed in white stabbed me with a fresh needle and I returned to my palace of nothingness.
The mute blind man came back to face me. We stood over the abyss upon a fallen tree. He swept his cane through my shins and I fell backward into the swamp. The mud and debris turned into water as I hit the surface. My limbs turned to stone and I spiraled down into the crystalline infinity.
I drew a fresh breath of air and opened my eyes. My lungs sang with the taste of mountainous purity. The overhead lights glistened like welcoming angels. The jaws of the steel apparatus and its tubes had been removed. I now sat upright, bound with leather straps to a simple chair. A dark haired man with telescopic glasses sat across from me. He stared at me with excruciating intent. He stared right into the center of my brow. I raised my hand to scratch it but the bindings on my wrist refused to give way.
“Do you know your name?” the man said.
“John Wilson,” I said.
“Do you know where you are?”
“Do you know why you are here?”
“Are you a member of something known as The Program? It is a top secret biological engineering project designed to enhance the bodies of willing participants so that they may serve as perfect soldiers for the United States Army.”
He stood up and walked out of the room. The colossal steel door swung shut behind him and its mechanized locks clicked twice.
__________________ Oh, there are problems in these times...
But none of them are mine!
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