Tidbits from Gary

Hello and welcome to Stories by Baker!

This just in: you can now find me on facebook under an official fanpage name!! YAY!

Anyways, and as always, enjoy if you will or don't if you won't!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Tendrils of Chaos

“Tendrils of Chaos”
a short story
Gary Baker, early 2016

Smoke wafted like tendrils of some deific tentacle from the microscopic sea of a lit cigarette set aside in an abandoned ashtray on the brass countertop. “Shit, man,” choked Gril as he set down a thick nine-millimeter with  metallic clunk. His eyes started watering, and his cheeks warmed into a deep red even as he reached out and retook the burning tobacco. “Now that is some potent shit, if you ask me.”

Oria scowled, offended, and swiped the cig from the other man. He took a long draw and held it for a count of seven before exhaling, eyes closed, through the nose like a bipedal ape-like dragon. “Trust me, Gril, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Finally Gril was able to unclench his teeth and pryed open his eyes again, to look his greater with increased respect. “We gonna go for another round?”

“Hell yes, my friend. Hellz yes.”

Oria reached forward and grabbed the thin man by the wrists, fingers lacing around his leather sleeves, painfully pushing the steel zippers into his skin. On cue to his humming, the room seemed to glow, the air thickened, and the incessant ticking of the chess-timer slowed. Red lights tocking back and forth on the “we’re open” sign hesitatingly became one-sided, the tufts of smoke ceased to rise, and a barmaid wearing black fishnets purposefully making her way toward them stopped in her tracks, slowly making that last step. Her booted foot came down like falling rain, then slowed to a feather’s fall, and finally simply ceased to move less than a centimeter from the wood-panelled flooring.

Gril wanted to look about, but felt the pressure of the air around him as though he were encased in solid glass. He couldn’t breathe. His lungs scrapped within him, trying to break out and suck in whatever happened to be there, be it oxygen, formaldehyde or even liquid water. All he knew was that his lungs wanted air like the moon wants water. It felt like he was creating a solid block of cold, hard ice deep inside of himself and he could do nothing about it.

Eyes wide, he looked to Oria, smiling like the devil he was and blinked. Once. Twice. Three times.

Cue given, the man clenched harder, digging his nails into Gril’s wrists as though he were trying to kill him, blood began to seep out and around the man’s dull nails, and, finally, the smoke began to descend just as quickly as the barmaid’s boot began to rise and move back to where she’d previously been.

Gril wanted to moan, his testicles felt like someone was massaging him where it truly counted, and the air began to move within him like a living being, forcing open his lungs to flow out like cool liquids going in the wrong direction. He could feel the different coils that the air had made on the way in begin to form again and shift back toward his teeth and away from the sponginess of his lungs. He felt the tingling sensation of the electric zap that he’d been given when the cigarette had been initially picked up, but in the opposite direction. The gust of air that had been loosed when Oria had opened the window hit him like a fist from the wrong side, moving toward the window as though out into space, and the scent of chimichanga’s from the kitchen wafted back to his nose once again.

It was tantalizing to say the least. His muscles contracted instinctually at the point when he’d picked up the martini glass on his table, and he watched as the glass moved as though by his hand again. Suddenly warm liquids shifted up and out, flowing through his throat and across his tongue like before. Again his gums burned as the alcohol coated his teeth and he watched it all pour into the salted glass as if watching a POV video of a man drinking a manhattan in reverse.

The glass then moved out and down to the counter between the two men and settled beside the ashtray where the now just-lit length of tobacco rest with a full arm of white and only partial burn marks. Oria grinned and the coin he’d flipped into the air only moments ago, despite the ages since he’d released it, tumbled high again from far behind himself and slowly, ever so slowly, revolved until it held in the place he’d had it before picking it up to flip it in the first place.

The cigarette then lifted from the tray, as with a lighter tucked into Oria’s breast pocket, and met each other in the middle where the embers seemed to spark a flame that then simply ceased to exist, causing the smoke to end in a flash leaving the paper and cut leaves as burnless as water.

Oria grinned at Gril and let go at long last. Instantly the world started up again, the man drinking rum alone while failingly hitting on the barmaid brought his hand back down to her bottom only to receive the same slap that Gril had seen, now, many times over. The girl in high heels and a mini skirt who’d come here with her boyfriend again found herself slipping on the unseen, fallen ‘wet floor’ sign, and despite the expectation of it, Gril found himself once again stunned at the kid’s ability to catch her mid-fall. Again she turned to the young man and planted a wet kiss in gratitude, not noticing as the drunk at the bar leaned back to check out her thighs.

The headache Gril had gotten was gone, as was the intense high that he got from the trip each time. He felt the urge for a smoke rise, and Oria whipped out both in perfect response, as though they’d been thinking the same thing.

“Want some blow?”

That was different.

Gril hesitated, eying the white length warily. “Um,” he breathed, “sure, why not?”

He reached out, grabbed the white roll, already lit, and brought it to his lips to take in a long draw. It was worse than he’d expected, the sensation nearly killing him in the process of going in. He felt his heart race for several moments and his ears pop when he thought the world had become a hallucination. Worried, he reached out and grabbed Oria’s wrists and fought to speak. Blow was not his thing. Not in a smokable form, at least.

“End. This.” He choked.

Complying immediately, Oria wrapped his long fingers around Gril’s wrists again and the chemicals came out and back into the blunt, recombined into one log of paper and powder, then unlit itself and made it’s way back into Oria’s pocket. Like a cat, Oria watched Gril from across the counter as he felt the high increase despite the loss of the chemicals.

Gril slapped himself loudly, feeling the strike of icy fingers hit his soft, warm cheeks, and again felt the need to stare as the drunk groped the unsuspecting barmaid, or the man catch his date before she could crack her head open on the hardwood floor panels.

The high increased still, as though, despite the absense of chemicals, his mind wanted nothing more than to obey to what it had initially been prepared to see and feel. His fingers went slightly numb, his throat tightened, his pupils dialated, and his nostrils went cool as his breath chilled somehow.

“Here,” Oria chuckled, “let me get that for you.” He reached forward with the cigarette again, lit and ready as it had been before, and again Gril felt himself complying without objection.

He brought it to his lips, drew, and exhaled softly to feel the tingling numbness overtake him and add in to the otherwise increasing high. Suddenly he could feel the burn of the alcohol overtake his tongue and gums again and stared with wild wonder as though the Manhattan was about to lift into the air and pour itself into his open mouth.

It didn’t, but that wasn’t the point, either.

“What,” he stammered, “what is this?”

Oria shook his head laughingly, and stroked his sideburns with a stray fingertip. “Just you wait, my friend. It gets better.”

Gril looked up with incredulous eyes. “How?”

The man motioned toward the drink, still full and still very much untouched. “Take a sip and you’ll find out.”

So he did. He brought the bourbon and cherry to taste-moistened lips and felt the familiar loving burn begin to take him anew. His tongue warmed as it coursed across to his tonsils until at last Gril swallowed and felt that same searing intelligible electric heat as it made it’s way down.

Oria grinned like the cheshire, and once again grabbed Gril’s wrists.

The feeling was as nauseating as it had been the first time, but when it had ended he felt both the high of the blow, with the numbness of both singular drinks that were actually the same one, as well as the mental clarity brought on by the number of cigarettes that he’d had, without lighting more than one.

A tear made it’s way down his cheek and onto the countertop with a near-inaudible splish and again the drunk snuck his dirty fingers out and onto the plump flesh of the barmaid’s shorts. Again Gril watched with horrendous awe as the young man caught his date. Again he felt the need for a smoke increase within and could predict the precise moment when Oria would whip both items out and around, when the smoke would begin and just how the tuft would rise and shift about when Oria opened the window to avoid detection.

“God, man,” he breathed aloud, “this is intense.” He looked to the curator of all this with a smirk-turned-sour, “have you ever done this before?” He looked around, at the folks moving passed on the street outside, at the barmaid making her way toward them with heavy footsteps, to tell them to stop smoking inside, at the way the drunk heaved down another pint. It was all so surreal. Colors seemed to shift and warp, smells seemed to combine and alter each other, tastes ceased to be while overpowering his mouth in the same thought, and his pulse quickened.

Oria smirked in response but said nothing. He merely tucked his hands away where Gril could not reach, and kept the burning cigarette perked in his pursed lips, letting the smoke fray and splay out in the incoming breeze. He exhaled off to the side without taking away the tobacco, and shrugged.

Gril blinked and suddenly maroon flecks lay silent off to the side, the bar completely gone, and his gaze now looked where a limp arm wilted like an overheated rose trimming, adding more crimson coalescing into one greater pool with the continued ticking of the clock. The longer Gril looked, the more he started to realize that the bloodied arm he was staring at, the one extending from beneath his prone form, lain awkwardly on a glorious wooden floor, was his own.

He turned his head in shock, the pain coming in tides of greater and greater agony, his senses blaring, his nerves undone by the burn he couldn’t comprehend. What happened? What was all this? What had happened to the bar? How had he gotten here? He winced as the pain roared within what few portions of himself had yet to go numb, and he shook for a moment with the electric insanity writhing under his skin.

Then he glimpsed Oria smoking a cigarette while leaning against the balustrade of a balcony just outside. “See, the thing about time,” Oria took a drag almost ending the drug, then the cigarette nauseatingly burned in reverse to become a full piece again, “is that it moves whether you are there for it or not, you dig?”

Gril tried to sit up, but found his torso unwilling to comply. He rolled in his mind about the thrum of the hot, endless horror that had become his limbs. It took all his concentration to simply focus on Oria’s words.

The dark shadowed man paced over, his hands hidden behind his back. “I feel kinda bad, actually,” he mused as though talking to a failing student, “here you are with absolutely no clue as to what you did,” Oria paused looming directly over Gril and pulled his hands out from behind his back. In his hands were a pair of bloodied steak knives. “And yet, what would I be if not consistent? You’re not exactly the first to do this, I should mention.”

Gril panicked. He raged within and fought to move, fought to be free of this torment, fought to get out and away and to live. His whimpers must have done something to the man who almost seemed to dissolve with the shadows at the peripherals, for he stooped low and cocked his head to the side.

“What did you do?” Oria asked. “Is that what you’re trying to say?” He paused a moment as Gril nodded violently. “Well I guess cutting out your tongue might have been a bit much...huh.” He shrugged. “Fine. You were too curious. You found out my secret and threatened to expose me. You found out how…” the impossibly-calm man looked to his fingertips and the cigarette rebloomed and unlit itself, then moved to his ear of it’s own accord to rest there quietly, “...how I do this.” He turned back to Gril and winced. “It’s not magic, that’s for sure, but for me to remain a god no one must ever survive to tell anyone else. That means you, too, Gril. You discovered my secret and now you must pay for it.”

The bastard had the nerve to caress Gril’s cheek absently as one might with a loved one. “You were so close, Gril. We could have been lovers. We could have ruled the universe together. But… as they say: curiosity killed the cat.” With that, the blade in Oria’s right fist struck to the hilt and Gril’s world went dark.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Interminable Discord

"Interminable Discord"
a short story
Gary Baker, July 2016

The news was too much. Nick thought he could handle it, but he couldn’t. Not this. Not now.

He ran out of the room, backside bare to the world and the tails of the ties moving as though in a rough breeze. Outside was a shock. The late night had turned sour, the sweltering heat still emanating from the pavement while the desert grasses and dunes seemed on the verge of a serious chill. Melissa Strauss came running out behind him with an intense worry plastered over her that he could see even without looking.

This wasn't happening. It couldn't be.

The moment was going on for far too long as she gave chase, having gone passed the end of the lot and into the island of desert brush that kept the sign company within mere heartbeats it seemed like. He took the only route he knew and bolted west along the highway, still wearing nothing but the plastic garment the doctors had given him.

"Mr. Valiant!" The woman screamed, swearing with each leap in her stride as she fought to catch up with the escaping patient. "Nick stop!"

But he couldn't. Not yet. He needed to get there... to that place he had in mind but could never seem to find. He still needed to find her. Glancing ahead told him that no cars were coming for miles, negating any means for taking this into the next town, so with the woman hot on his heels he took a sudden turn into across the highway and out into the unending desert night.

He leapt over fallen logs that once stood as telephone poles back before they'd been replaced by their aluminum successors, and slipped around thick arms of cacti that had grown in a forest-like density in this area. He felt the needles scraping him, tearing his skin raw and gaping wide for blood to emanate from. The pain was intense, but he kept going anyway. He had to get away. His feet had started throbbing only moments before but it was only as he vaulted over a low thicket of grass only to land right onto an unseen ball of wicked angry needles and torment that he came to recognize the implications of his flight. The lack of thinking ahead had been what had gotten him in this mess in the first place, and now here he was losing his ability to walk, losing his ability to keep on his quest.

He was losing his fight to seek her out while he still had time.

He fell hard, his foot torn wide and the blood suddenly washing over his leg when he screams of agony seemed to summon Melissa out of nowhere. She was kneeling at his side, pinning him with one hand while checking the damage with the other. He tried to roll away, tried to crawl back to his mangled feet, but her strength was greater than his by far. When he caught a glance of her face, she barely even looked winded even after all that running.

It took only a short moment for her to get him to lay still as she wrapped her white coat around his foot and cinched it tight with her belt. Once done, she glared hard under the vast starlit sky. "What the hell is wrong with you?" She began, her tirade bursting forth with the clarity of a broken damn. "I know the situation falls rightly in your favor, but what the fuck did you plan to do? Go running into some coyote den and end it on your own terms instead?"

He only wept in response. It was all he could do. The years came crashing down on him suddenly, so very suddenly, and he started to regret more than he ever thought he might have. How many near-misses had he come to in the decades, in the few short fragments of a century he'd been allotted? How many of those whom he'd had connections with might have remained with him had he only asked? How many could have become the companion he needed, the essence of life which he so dearly sought?

How many might have been the one?

He caught himself mumbling about love and never finding something, and shut himself up the instant that he realized. His eyes then drifted away, out into the surroundings where even in the most hellish of places life managed to survive and almost flourish. How dearly he needed that which he couldn't even put a name to just then, as the world moved on without him, as the world kept turning on it’s axis even while his own fell to shambles.

"Jesus, Mr. Valiant, this... this isn't just about the diagnosis, is it?" Her eyes glimmered in the corner of his vision, while the tears in his own reflected light from the hospital. Her voice softened too much, her touch suddenly too cautious. In a split second she had gone from enraged nurse to concerned companion without even thinking twice. "Nick... what's gotten into you all of a sudden?"

But how could he explain it? How could he describe his anguish? It wasn't exactly something he could just come out and say with the nonchalance of a man talking about the weather.

He let out a long sigh and watched the celestial mists of the Milky Way passing slowly overhead. "I..." he hesitated, looking for the words. Finally he settled on speaking the notions as he thought of them, perhaps maybe that way she might make sense of that which he could not. "There's no time, anymore. I-"

"No time? You've got over six months-"

"-just can't get passed that." Nick reached out with an absent hand and let a handful of fine sand and desert soil slowly crumble through to the ground again. "All I know is that all this time I've been searching-"

"Searching for what?"

"-for... I dont know, I guess."

An eyebrow raised in bewildered frustration. "You don't know what you're searching for and yet you continue to look for it? Is this some sort of philosophical crisis you're trying to explain to me?" She shook her head slowly. "Nick I want to help you, but I'm no good with psychology. It's why I became a nurse in the first place. Give me needle and a vial and I'll get your blood drawn like that... but ask me to help you through a breakdown...?" She held up her hands in defeat. "I'm sorry."

But he'd heard none of what she'd said. His momentum had been found and there was no turning back now. For all he knew he wasn't even talking to anyone but himself. "All I can think of is that I have been longing for something real all this time, for a life worth living, for a love worth devoting my whole life to." He pushed his hands back and rest his head on the sand as he lay down to look at the stars again. "She's out there still, you know... the woman I have always needed, the woman I have always known deep down that I would find and suddenly be free of all this chaos of depression and anxiety and all because I would have then found someone to take my attention off the small things and always keep me focused on her."

He sighed, suddenly self-conscious. "It's stupid, I know, but all this time I have felt so severely lonely and the only way that I could imagine my life being anything worthwhile would be to do so with the love of my life at my side...." He trailed off and let himself focus on the torment that was his bleeding leg, letting the pain bring him back to reality just enough. "But the worst part is that I don't think I've even met her yet, and now I know for sure that I don't even have enough time to actually find her anymore." Finally Nick looked Melissa right in the eye, the sorrow and humbling reality coming to a crescendo at last in that one look he gave her. "I no longer have anything to live for, coincidentally on the precipice of learning that I am bound to die lonely and alone... within this very year."

There were no words that she could bring herself to speak aloud, his anguish more resonatingly painful than anything she'd ever felt before. This was the main reason she'd never gone into psychology, she told herself, for she was far too much an empath to actually succeed in anything involving other people's emotions. Chemicals and elements, numbers and physics, all of that kept her solidly grounded, but emotions were where she too fell apart.

When she wiped the tears from her eyes she found that Nick had gone silent again, his vacant eyes traversing the galaxies far away from his terminal diagnosis. She only wished that there was something she could say to soothe his ache. She longed for something to ease his chaos. When no words came, she instead found herself reaching out to tenderly hold his hand. Maybe that would be enough. Maybe that would suffice for now.

But Nick's eyes never left the ripples of the stars. Had it not been for his fingers closing around hers with the tenderness of a man whose hopes had all gone, Melissa would have sworn he hadn’t even noticed her attempt to soothe him. Maybe that would suffice for now.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016


a short story
Gary Baker, June 2016
(based on the true events of the death of Harambe and the Cinci Zoo)

I remember the day it happened. I remember the horrors, the screams, the chaos. You see, my usual job is nothing. I’m basically a janitor of the grounds, roaming like a battle-dressed cyborg among the patrons as they gawk and wonder with eyes like saucers, while I politely pick up their trash without a word. There are those who stare at me, sure, but I know it’s not me they are afraid of… it’s the old-fashioned hunting rifle hanging on my shoulder. Patrons stare at me as if wondering when I will strike and start felling any in my way. They wonder when I will snap.

I think the only thing going for me in most cases is the fact that I am one of the best shots in my field. As a former Navy Seal, I can hit a button from one hundred yards without a problem, no questions asked. That easy.
So when the screaming began, my training kicked into gear and my partner and I bolted. We had just been about to hand over change for a couple cokes with extra ice, but were forced to leave both behind. I don’t even know what happened to my ten dollars. All I know is that the cages were just around the bend and the crowds were major.
I could hear a womans voice over all the other screams. Even in war, I had never heard anyone who wasn’t a mother make that sort of wail. We tried to get there faster, but the crowds took time to move. That was when Doctor Jeffreys pulled up in the emergency jeep and let the horn rip with gusto. Patrons suddenly got the hint and scattered just barely far enough.
Jeffreys moved into the space given and kept moving as more patrons shuffled aside. “L.T!” My partner, Halden, called down with an arm held out for me. “Hop on!”
I didn’t need to be told twice, and grabbed the tire-bar at the back of the jeep and swung high, landing firmly with my combat boots crushing someone’s lunchbag. By now the rifle was at my side, held at mid-mast like Excalibur in my right hand. The tarnished brown wood suddenly felt natural in my hand again. It felt like I was finally coming home. It felt like I was doing what I was meant to do again, after so long without. The shouting, the screaming, the horrific tremors of fear then all fell into place and my heart slowed. I had the rifle set on the main beam of the roll-cage and had the stock held at the pit of my shoulder, when the Zookeeper showed up and hopped onto the jeep behind me.
Halden nodded. “What’s the story, sir?”
The immaculately-dressed old man breathed deep and grunted. He crossed his arms and I could feel him watching the beasts ahead, through the trees, as if his eyes were a set of binoculars. “Some twat fell into the exhibit. With the gorillas. Not even a child, yet.”
I glanced over as the jeep finally hit a large gap and we surged forward. “How close are the apes?”
The man scowled. “Not apes, gorillas. There’s a difference.” Then he shook his head regretfully. “The Alpha was closest to the boy, just moments ago. Maybe seventeen yards”
“Well if I’ve learned anything about Alpha’s by working here, it’s that he won’t take too kindly to a visitor,” Halden cursed. “Darts, then?”
The Keeper cursed under his breath and handed me my round.
Eyes wide, I scowled back at him. “Live munition?”
“Just make it quick, son.”
The jeep jolted to a stop and that was when I got my first sight of the fray. Up ahead, down in the pit, sat a young boy of about five in the moat near the base of the enclosure wall. He appeared scared shitless as any child would, but what caught my breath was the beast coming for him. It was magnificent. The gorilla was a behemoth of muscle, all lean and covered in scars from battles with the lesser males. He was intimidating, but in a gorgeous way.
“Dammit, just fire!” Ordered the Keeper.
So I pressed forward and brought the sight along the scene. The gorilla had grabbed the boy by his ankle and was dragging him. At first glance I thought the beast was about to smash the child on the cement, but looking closer it seemed on the verge of saving him from the moat. I hesitated because I couldn’t imagine killing such a feat of natural selection. It was clearly intelligent, and just wanted to save the boy, right?
Then out of nowhere the Zookeeper snatched up the rifle from my hands and didn’t even brace the barrel on the jeep. The rush of noise was maddening, so many voices in hellish torment at the sight of a lifetime. He let the barrel drift for hardly a second when he exhaled and his finger began to close on the trigger.
Had he not been right beside me I never would have heard the old man breathe “I’m sorry” just before the crack tore the chaos in two and gave people a new reason to scream. I’m still not even sure who the apology was for: me, for taking the rifle from my hands in such a way? The child for the trauma this would ultimately cause him for ages into his life? Or was it for the gorilla, itself?
When the deed was done, the old man scowled into the distance as though to be sure of his shot, the one that had rendered the gorilla’s skull into crimson markings of oblivion on the enclosure wall, and brought a cigarette to his lips with the liquid ease of a man in desperate need. He took a long drag as he handed the rifle back to me, then released the pent up tension with eyes rolled back and his teeth grit. When he finally opened his eyes again, the Keeper then shook himself slightly, almost unnoticeably, and shot a look to Doctor Jeffreys at the wheel. “Get a crew down there to get the boy and start a clean-up. No more mess-ups, we clear?”
He turned away from the enclosure and we happened to make eye-contact as he did. “I’m sorry, sir.” I mumbled meekly.

The look he gave me was almost too stoic, the look of a man just hinting at the sensation of any emotion at all. “Don’t be. Back in my early days post ‘Nam, I would have done the same.” He pat my shoulder lightly and began to climb to the ground again. “Killing another man is nothing compared to killing one of those beauties. Takes a different kind of man, and you just weren’t it right then.” Halden then gave me a sympathetic look, no longer entranced in the aftermath down below, and shrugged.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Bliss of the Numb

"Bliss of the Numb"
a short story
Gary Baker, January and April 2016

"Look, kid, its like this," the man in white crossed his arms and leaned back, "whats in here" he hit his chest suddenly with a closed fist "aint nothin but sissy bullshit, and nothin more." The younger of the two perked his lips to one side and looked away quietly as the older man went on.

"See, some will tell you its natural to let go of this sissy shit where the world can see, you follow?" He took a drag of his coffee, black and thick as molasses, before leaning back once more to watch his companion from across the wire table. "I met writers who did that and you know what it got them besides weaknesses the world could see?" 

There was a long silence between them as the older man waited. Eventually the younger glanced back over and shrugged. "Does it even matter?"

"Ha!" The elder exclaimed. "Now you're getting it!" He followed the younger man's gaze out across the void and let his eyes also linger there. "Anyway, all I'm sayin is that what you're feelin right now? Don't even try to talk about it. Hold that shit in, kid. Ain't anyone want to hear about it, and thats for damn sure."

The younger man looked to his companion with a sudden scowl, "this is why there are alcoholics in the world. Because of people like you who think it helps to hide what we feel."

"You've got a point, kid," the old man grunted. "But I'd much rather be an alcoholic for life than a sissy bitch any day of the week."

The scowl turned to a glare, then to a look of a man unsure. He turned again to look away from his elder, his back to the other people who'd come out and about once more. He shrugged "it's your move."

Without looking, the man in white reached over and shifted a pawn to take the younger man's rook. From there he sat back and grunted. "Now whats on your mind, Echo?"

Echo, the younger of the two, shot the old man a wicked glance. "Nothing that concerns you, old man. I thought you made that clear already."

The old man smiled. "Now thats what I'm talking about. You jus' keep whats up here-" he pointed to his temple with one hand while drawing up his coffee with the other "-up here and nowhere else." He took a long drink from his steaming mug, then shrugged as he finally pulled it away, "any time you start to be a wuss-ass just tell yourself 'out of your head', now, hear?"

The old man had a point, or so Echo was starting to believe. For far too long he, himself, had been opening up his every daydream, fantasy, and all else to the only person in his life who would truly listen... even when she clearly shut her ears to it by her own annoyances personified. Echo knew what he had been telling her was wrong to say out loud, that every time he told her of some fanatical daydream involving just another pretty pair of eyes she had been thinking he wanted to leave her for something better, but that wasn't his intent at all.

"I just wanted her to know what was going on in my head," Echo sighed.

"Hey!" The old man shot, "Pansy!" Again he leaned over the chessboard and snapped his fingers, "Lookit me, you bitch-ass!" Finally Echo pulled out of his depressed space-out and looked to his angered companion. "What. Did I. Just say? Eh?"

Echo opened his mouth to respond and was shut down midway through his first syllable.

"No! I'm talkin', Wuss-Ass, don't interrupt. I said 'any time you start to be a-' what?" He paused for a moment, as though prompting the young man. "Start to be a what, kid?"

"A bitch," Echo answered.

"Very funny, but thats not what I said. I said 'any time you start to be a wuss-ass, you jus' tell yourself...?" Again he prompted his chess partner. "What?"

"Get out of my head!" Echo yelled.

Suddenly, blinking his eyes, Echo became all-too aware that he was sitting at a park bench alone, with people all around him. They watched him sit in the shade of the public park's namesake sycamore tree as though he were tricked out on drugs, as though he were more of a junkie than an emotional-wreck. Quickly he shot his hand to his bag sitting beside him, then threw himself into a brisk walk along the cobbled pathway leading back to the road.

Even as he practically tore out of earshot, Echo knew the moms who'd been staring at him while their kids played Pirates on the jungle-gym were already talking among themselves about how bad this side of town was getting these days. He knew they would point to the various political rifts in society and claim it was all to blame on this person or that policy. Who cared what they talked about, though? Why would Echo feel the need to seek understanding by them?

With his bag firmly thrown over his shoulder, the young man strode out to the edge of the parkway. It was high time he focused. It was high time he re-purposed this farce of a life he was living. Maybe the old man was right. Maybe Echo just needed to let the anger wash over him, to let the wuss-ass sadness be overcome by enraged alcoholism and stoicism. Life was nothing but suffering these days, but that didn't mean he had to bow down and accept the pain without agents to numb it.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Drive

"The Drive"
a short story
Gary Baker, January 2016

Brendan pushed the pedal and set them surging forward as Peal Jam came on under the dim roar of wind tearing through the open windows. "It's like this, kid," he gestured with his shift-hand while keeping the other loosely on twelve o'clock on the wheel, "how long's it been? What? A decade?"

The silence led on long enough that the passenger, sitting awkwardly in his would-be coffin, eventually mumbled "Nine years, three months, se-" with the speed of a viper Brendan backhanded the man.

"Right. There." Brendan pointed. "Right fucking there." He reached down onto Carl's side of the car and pulled a can of lager from the paper grocery bag there. He shook it vigorously and then held it out for the passenger.

Carl look askance, and took it with gingerly trepidation. "You want to drink? While driving?"

The driver shot a glance at his companion. "No," he said, "I want you to drink, while I drive."

"Whatever, man." Carl looked sideways out over the passing dunes to his right. The sky was breaking into a bright clear azure the longer they sped on.

"Again!" Brendan exclaimed. He slapped his palms onto the wheel as though tapping out a heavy-rhythmic drum solo from the stone ages. "What are you doing? Right now. What the fuck are you doing, bro?"

Carl shrugged. "Im... waiting for the beer to settle?"

"Fucking exactly." The driver shifted into a higher gear and the roar of the wind grew as they broke eighty. "Fucking. Wonderful. You just proved my point, bro. Right fucking there, you just did."

The highway began to veer slightly to the left, but Brendan just pressed on with the needle rising as slowly as the clouds passed by overhead. Dunes meshed with patches of grass and stones, occasionally broken by a thin ripple in the terrain where a dry creek bed once existed.

Carl finally shrugged. "Man if I open this now, the whole thing will spray me in the face. Do you want that to happen? Do you want your car all messed up with beer?"

Brendan smiled, his point having been made without the effort he had expected. "Bro that is your problem. You forgot how to take a risk. You forgot what it was like to just dive in and see what happens."

"And the beer?"

The driver shrugged. "It's a metaphor, bro. Fuckin wait if you want to, that's entirely up to you, but you'll never experience life by waiting. You won't get to taste the sweet relief that comes from expecting the worst," he took the beer from Carl's hand and popped it open without holding the wheel for the time it took. Amazingly nothing happened. Brendan gave his companion a knowing look as he handed it back. "...and getting the best."

Carl took a swig and leaned an arm out the window. "Well you timed that perfectly, you smug bastard. You knew it had been long enough not to worry."

"Did I?"

"Why would you do it, otherwise? If that had shot you in the face... while we are speeding, I might add...."

Brendan nodded. "Proving a point, bro."

"And this," Carl tossed back another swallow, "all of this. It was all because I'm not dating yet?"

Brendan kept his eyes forward, set his jaw, and kicked the car into the next gear up. In a blink they had broken into the triple digits, and the driver gripped the wheel with a new sense of security. They whipped passed dunes as if they were blades of grass, the whole desert turning fast into a blur in every direction but the general areas ahead of them

"It's been ten fucking years, man. You hear that?" The passenger took a swig that ended the can, threw it out the window where it disappeared as though it'd disintegrated into oblivion, then reached down and took out another. It was open before Carl's hand even had it out the bag. He took a long swallow, and wiped the drippings of his chin onto his sleeve. "Tabetha and I..." he looked long out the right hand window as if to try and understand the blurs he was seeing. "We were perfect together, man. We had it all."

He looked over to Brendan fiercely. "And you know what happened? It ended. It fucking ended. Just like that. Just like everything else. My life was ruined." He took another long drink and ended the can, sending it to the same fate as it's predecessor. Carl grew quiet and seemed to shrink in on himself. "And it was all because love doesn't exist, man. It never did."

Brendan went to speak but Carl cut him off before the driver could get a word out. "No. It. Didn't. It doesn't. It's all just molecules and hormones and bullshit energies at the atomic level that make this fucked-up contraption," he swung his finger about his ear, seeming to point to his head in general, "think that the concept of love exists." He spat out the window angrily. "But it doesn't. How could it, man? Tabby and I... goddamn, man, we.... If love really does exist, then why did she and I fail? How can something last for so goddamn long and not have some element of truth to it?"

Brendan waited. When he was positive Carl wanted an answer, he shifted down and brought them back down to one-ten. "What if it did?"

"What? Have some element of truth?"

Brendan nodded. Incubus began to play from the speakers, the song titled 'Agoraphobia', and the driver reached over to turn it up.

Carl seemed not to notice the music. "Fuck man, what if you're right?" He shook his head slowly, staring out at nothing in particular. "Man, that would mean that love can die. Man how fucked up is that? I mean, you always hear of it acting like a virus or something, but... but what if it actually is a virus or something, and we just haven't discovered it yet? What if being in love is just being mutually affected by the same strain of a malevolent nonliving organism that plagues most of humanity?"

He looked up suddenly. "What if love isn't actually that common, and we only think it is, because we are unaware of it's viral nature?" The passenger reached into his pocket and pulled out a pair of brown cigarettes and a lighter, then offered one to Brendan. "Want a light?" Brendan took the stick and let Carl light it, then took a drag as the passenger did the same.

Carl shook the lighter to cool it, then thrust it back into his breast pocket and let his arm dangle out the window. "No, but seriously, man: this whole love thing is as fucked up as the world in which we live. Think about it. If it really is a not-so-common virus strain, then think about how many relationships are built on the lie that our species constructed entirely by itself? Think about how that would change things, man, were we to discover how to see it? To learn how to discern one strain from another." He took a long drag and tapped the ashes to the wind. "I mean, then loneliness: that shit would be nothing more than our brains crying about being addicted to the affects of a virus that we barely understand! Think of the drugs you could concoct to counteract that!"

Brendan shifted again and took them back down to the double-digits. "It'd be one hell of a realization, bro."

"Yeah it would. That's what I'm saying, too, man."

"So what are you going to do about it?" Brendan leaned back in his seat and relaxed as the road turned perfectly straight for as far as they could see.

Carl cursed, hitting the doorframe with his right fist. "Goddamn you, man. All I want to do is mourn over the loss of Tabetha, but here you got me convinced that I just happened to eliminate the virus within me right when I learned she had cheated, man. All I want is to fucking let myself go and to turn to dust and shit, and let this life be over with, but now I can't help but wonder if maybe, just maybe, my strain mutated to fit the needs of another strain, instead."

Brendan smiled, and inhaled deeply through the cigarette. He breathed out like a beast from hell, letting the smoke slowly filter out of his lips to be drawn out into the desert by the raging torrents of winds that fought the car with every mile. "Wanna try that beer trick again?"

Carl's fist struck Brendan's right arm loosely. "How 'bout you just find us a bar in the next town, up, eh?"

"Are you going to do some flirting this time?" Brendan asked.

The passenger glared. "What's that supposed to mean?"

The driver shrugged, "I dunno, bro, just that last time you started bawling about-"

"Fuck you." Carl drew on his cigarette again and crossed his arms, "but yeah, I'll fucking flirt my bloody heart out. I'll flirt so hard, that girl's strain won't know heads from tails."

Brendan looked cross at his companion. "Bro, don't force things, alright? You know the rules. We go in, buy some beer, check out the babes, and hope like hell that we both go home to get laid tonight." He lifted a hand, pointer finger held out scoldingly, "and under no circumstance are we to-"

"Yeah, yeah, man. I get it." Carl mocked. "Under no circumstance am I to talk about Tabetha or what she did to me by fucking my-"

Brendan slapped the passenger again, right across the jaw. "I fucking said no, bro. Henceforth there will be no mention of exes; by either of us. Ever. Again. Capiche?"

Carl dashed away the last of his ashes and reached through the window to put the stub out on the mirror-housing. "Yeah, yeah, just get us to a bar where we can find some babes who aren't looking to get married and shit."

Brendan smiled, taking the car into a higher gear once more, sending them back into the triple-digits. "Fucking told you I could get you over her, bro."