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."
"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."