Old Friends by J.D. Lee

Brian was always different, calm, collected, mysterious and old school. By old school, I mean vintage, antique, historic. It was like he had walked off some page in a history book. Maybe it was a collection of pages since I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. His suit was always pressed, his shoes always polished and his hair, heavy with grease, was always slicked down to the side, parted with perfect precision. All of which would seem normal if we worked upstairs with the suits, if he was another reporter or editor for the paper, but down here in the mail-room, Brian stood out.

He didn’t banter and chitchat with the other guys. He didn’t participate in the games, the name calling or the bullshitting. He just quietly went about his work, and he went about it perfectly. He was incredibly fast and wicked intelligent. He had beautiful penmanship and an incredible vernacular. He could sort the mail faster than anyone who had been through that mail-room, and he’d been there the longest – since the beginning. He was at his greatest under pressure and was able to subtly command the department, but he never applied for advancement. He never took vacation or sick time. He never complained about policies. Hell, he didn’t even bat an eye when the powers-that-be cut our pay by fifteen percent. Brian was an enigma, an ideal of a man, a perfect employee, a remnant of another time.

I had to know more. I honestly thought Brian could be my ticket upstairs, the first female reporter for the company, but that doesn’t matter now.

It was Tuesday when I decided to follow him after work. Maybe I’d been working at that paper for too long, reading too many of those investigative reports. I thought it’d be easier. It wasn’t. Public transportation makes for difficult shadowing. Fortunately for me, the crowds were thick that day and I was able to blend in seamlessly. When he stood, I sat. When he looked, I turned. I dodged his glances all the while wondering what about him I would find.

Maybe I thought he’d lead me to his portal, the one he uses when the sun goes down. Or maybe I’d discover the mystical hollow where he rejuvenates his youth each night. Or maybe he was some wizard or alien or government project. I didn’t know what, but I knew it was going to be big. I’m telling you. After fifteen some-odd years of him working for that paper – all those employee pictures on the wall, year after year, his face the same in each one, not a wrinkle or a scratch or even a gray hair – I really thought he’d vanish, dither or dematerialize while he flipped some switches on his watch, or maybe mix some crap into a cauldron and drink a magic potion, but no. What I discovered was different.

First we got off at Harbor and 8th. I followed Brian as closely as I could without being discovered. He went into an antique store called Bradgins. I remember the name because I’d seen their ads online all the time. They were known for their international wheelings-and-dealings of novelty nostalgia.

I waited across the street with a newspaper perched ahead of my nose; cliche but effective.

After about twenty minutes, he emerged with a small, brown, paper bag tucked under his arm and made his way down 6th toward the park.

On his way, he stopped at a small food cart and ordered two coffees. He politely nodded his head to the vendor and continued down the sidewalk, now whistling a tune I didn’t recognize. I was carefully following, about twenty feet behind him when he looked over his shoulder in my direction and I quickly ducked into some bushes beside the park. I thought I was going to lose him.

I pushed my way through the shrubs as quick as I could, branches scratching along my arms as I climbed through the thick hedge. Then, there he was. No more than fifteen feet away, Brian was sitting at a small concrete table. Both the coffees sat open, but Brian was alone.

It wasn’t long before a young man approached. He was pushing a decripit old man in a wheelchair. It was obvious he came from the hospice across the park and that the young man was his caretaker, his nurse. The nurse bent over to assist the old man out of the wheelchair but Brian stood to his feet.

“Allow me,” he said.

Brian bent toward the old man, picked him up and sat him down on the concrete park bench across from his own chair at the small table. Straightening his jacket, Brian took his seat. I realized his breathing hadn’t changed one bit. The old man couldn’t have weighed more than ninety pounds, but Brian made him seem weightless.

The two men stared at each other long and hard. While they sat in silence, the young nurse went about setting up a chess game between them. He seemed to move slower than he should, taking an exorbitant amount of time to place each piece into its square. They sat silent for so long, I got tired of staring at them. I was watching a group of college frat-boys throw a Frisbee back and forth and getting ready to go home when I heard the old man snear and grunt.

“You know I can’t drink that shit anymore, Brian.”

He swatted the cup of coffee to the ground.

I turned back to the two men, the nurse and the chess game.

Brian didn’t flinch.

He calmly replied, “Old habits die hard, friend.”

“Don’t tell me about old, Brian. -HHRARRK HHRARRK- I’m an ancient wreck,” the old man snarled through a series of dry, hollow coughs. “You look the same though.”

The nurse wiped some spit from the old man’s chin.

“I do, don’t I?” Brian declared as he moved his pawn forward. “I don’t feel the same.”

The old man pointed his curled finger toward his rook while looking sideways at his nurse. The nurse obliged, moving the old man’s piece.

“How’s Susan?” Brian asked.

“Dead.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. What about Roddy and Marge?”

“Dead. Dead.”

“What happened?”

“Old age, Brian. Just plain, boring, old age.”

“It’s been that long?”

“It’s been seventy-four years. Seventy-four long, hard years.”

“It doesn’t feel like seventy-four years,” Brian said as he moved another pawn forward.

“Maybe not for you it doesn’t. But for me, it’s felt longer. Much longer. Too long. I’m tired. I’m an old fucking man now, Brian. Really old. I’m dying.”

Even from my vantage in the bushes, I could see the sadness in the old man. It welled up behind his eyes, but he didn’t cry. His hands shook uncontrollably above the flannel blanket draped across his lap.

Then the old man asked, “Where have you been?”

“Here.” Brian sipped his coffee, adding, “In the city.”

He said it so matter of fact.

The old man squirmed in his seat. He was seething.

He growled through his yellow teeth, “This whole time? Doing what? Where?”

Brian nodded and said, “Being human. I like it.”

My ears perked up.

Then he pointed downtown toward our office and said, “Over that way.”

“It’s not the same when you have to die.”

“They wouldn’t have been able to come with. You know that, right? I couldn’t have brought them. Not all of them. Even if we left seventy years ago. They still would have died.”

“I know, but I wouldn’t know about it. Do I have to die like them?”

The old man’s eyes grew wide. I saw a sudden flash of life that wasn’t there before. The old man looked thirty years younger. Not everywhere, just in his eyes.

Brian examined him and said, “I noticed you don’t salute anymore.”

The old man nodded, his whole body rocking back and forth in his wheelchair.

“Mhmm,” he said. He cleared his throat and swallowed, “You neither.”

The old man started gasping for air. He peered up at the nurse with his beady eyes and made a hooked motion toward his gulping mouth. I could see his chest rising and falling rapidly. The nurse rushed to place a small ventilator mask over the man’s dry, cracked lips.

After a few quick breaths, the nurse pulled the mask away and the old man added, “It’s been along time since I have.”

Impossible, I thought, there’s no way they served in any war together.

I suddenly pictured them in full military garb, olive drab helmets weighing down their heads. The old man, many years younger, and Brian, just the same. I could see them hunkered down in a foxhole somewhere in Poland or maybe it’s France. Brian’s gig-line straight as an arrow, his four-button tunic looking perfectly pressed, his uniform resplendent against the gray dust, while the young, old man stands crooked, wrinkled and untucked. Brian’s brown boots still polished, even in three inches of mud and oil and grime. The old man is somehow soaked from head to toe, knee deep in mud. Explosions fill the sky above them, shouting filling their ears, and fear gripping their hearts. Well, at least the old man’s. I’m not so sure about Brian.

The static on the radio breaks and some commanding officer, maybe Eisenhower or Patton or Bradley, announces the end of the war. He tells the soldiers they’re coming home. I see the fright in the old man’s eyes wash away as hope fills his heart, but Brian, I’d imagine he didn’t flinch. I see him having no contest in fighting more or less war. I see him the same in peace or in battle. The cease fire was just another day for him. It made him no safer, no happier, no less burdened. It was just another day for Brian.

The two of them, along with thousands more, marched along the barren countryside. Brian taking it all in; the old man already trying to forget. Each and every soldier painted in dirt and blood as they march in formation, proud and accomplished, returning home where many live to die less heroic deaths at ripe old ages. Except Brian. Brian stayed the same.
Then the old man said, “It’s been along time since you made that promise.”

“Indeed it has, old friend,” Brian replied in a whisper. “That’s why I’m here. Can you ask your nurse to leave?”

Brian motioned toward the young man hovering fervently over the chess game. “Just for a moment.”

The old man shook his hand at the nurse and grunted a bit, saliva spilling off his lip, then snarled, “Scram, yeah?”

The young man didn’t say a word, he simply turned around and walked away, pulling a device from his pocket and plugging away at it with his thumbs.

The old man leaned forward.

“When?” He rasped across the boardgame.

“Tomorrow night. I finally finished it,” Brian said as he brought out the brown paper bag and began unfolding it in his lap.

He pulled out a framed picture. I couldn’t see what was on it, but the old man snorted and chuckled when he looked at it.

“Remember?” Brian asked.

“I thought it was a joke.”

“You don’t anymore, do you?”

“Not after knowing you, Brian. No after knowing you.”

“Good,” Brian declared. “Then tomorrow night. I’ll meet you…”

He paused, thinking for a moment, then finally announced, “I don’t know where you’re staying.”

The old man extended his chin toward the north end of the park and said, “The hospice there.”

Brian considered it then asked, “No children?”

“No, Brian. No children.”

“A shame.”

Brian looked around the park thoughtfully.

“I’ll come get you from there, then.”

The old man looked, at the same time, both insulted and relieved. The same way I’d imagine you’d look if you won a few million bucks at the mere cost of a limb or two.

“Let’s pray I make it through the night. Call my nurse back.”

Brian waved his hand in the air, motioning for the nurse to return.

As soon as the nurse was in earshot, the old man squawked, “We’re leaving.”

The nurse gripped the handles of the wheelchair and released the locks. As he did, the old man leaned over the table, his body shaking, and with his crooked, knobby fingers moved his queen across the board.

“A fool’s mate, Brian,” the old man hissed. “I’ll see you tomorrow night. Keep the game.”

Brian stared at the game while the young nurse carted the old man away. I left him there staring down at the concrete table, holding that picture frame loosely in his lap. It was getting dark. The bushes were getting cold. I had what I needed. I’d follow him tomorrow night, and I did. I followed him the next night, but in between there was work.

The next day started out like any other. Brian was the first one to work. His hair was perfectly parted, his shoes neatly polished, his suit freshly pressed. I walked in a few minutes late.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was going to show up that day. I didn’t know if I could keep it together. I had knots in my stomach. I couldn’t sleep a wink the night before.

Earlier that morning, I sat around in my robe, staring into my black coffee, thinking about what could be in that picture. What promise Brian could have made to that old man. Then I started worrying about the scratches on my arms. The ones I got from crawling through those bushes in the park. How would I explain those?
I figured I could always follow him after work. But, then I thought, What if he leaves early? God, I couldn’t forgive myself if I missed out on this. Whatever this is. It hadn’t dawned on me that he could not show up at all. I decided on long sleeves and headed to work.

The first thing I noticed when I walked into the mailroom was a new picture leaning atop Brian’s station. The same picture he showed the old man.

Perfect. I had to get a closer look.

Fortunately for me, the scheme was easy this time. I didn’t have to follow anyone across town, or hide in any foliage. Brian’s desk was right across the room, right next to the water cooler.
I stood up and walked over to the water jug. I couldn’t help but whistle a little tune. I guess I thought I was being inconspicuous. Looking back, I couldn’t have been more obvious. I tucked one hand in my pants pocket and let the other hang to my side as I sauntered over to get a drink.

“God, I’m so thirsty this morning,” I said to no one as I came closer to Brian’s desk.

I grabbed a small paper cone off the stack and depressed the blue tab. Water began trickling into my cup as I leaned over Brian’s shoulder and peered at the newly placed picture frame before him.

There, tucked neatly behind the glass and framed by a cheap walnut knock-off, was an old newspaper article. It had been folded as to show only a black and white picture with the headline, UFO finding declared a hoax by U.S. government. The picture showed six men in military uniforms. They were standing before a large silver egg that appeared to have cracked across an outcrop of granite. The soldiers held their rifles loose in their hands, each posing differently for the picture.

I couldn’t see the date on the newspaper, but from the photo it looked to be at least sixty, maybe even seventy years old. And, there in the center of the photo, his arms raised high over his head like some sort of victory declaration, was Brian.

“Ahem,” Brian interrupted. “You’re spilling.”

I felt the cold water splash my sock. I released the blue tab.

Brian was staring at me.

“Neat. Isn’t it?”

I didn’t know what to say. I wouldn’t say I was frightened because I wasn’t, but a sudden sense of unease washed over me. Brian was very, very old.

“Just picked it up last night. I love these old hoaxes.”

I couldn’t muster a word. I looked down at my wet pant leg, then back to Brian, then back to my wet pant leg.

I took a sip from the paper cone and nodded.

“Where’d you get it?” I finally managed to ask.

“Found it on the internet. What a cool invention. Picked it up last night.”

“Cool,” I said as I motioned toward the mess on the ground, “I should probably clean this up.”

Brian turned back to his desk and I walked away. I didn’t clean up that mess. I stayed away from Brian the rest of the day. I can only imagine the stack of envelopes that piled up on my desk while I was hiding in the restroom. I waited until just after lunch before I came out. Which, it turns out, was just in time.

I came around the corner to see Brian gathering his things, which wasn’t much. In fact, he had nothing on his desk that didn’t belong to the company. Nothing except that framed picture, which he left.

Brian headed for the elevator. I headed toward the stairs. I half-jogged all the flights up to ground floor and came into the lobby just as he walked out the front doors.

He headed to the same bus stop he had waited at the evening prior. However, this time the stop was pretty empty. I stood back, out of sight and waited for the bus to arrive. After a few minutes, Brian stood up and began walking away. I followed.

It was a long walk to the park. I wished he had taken the bus. I wished I hadn’t taken the stairs. Surprising to me, Brian not once looked back in my direction. I had successfully followed him without notice. I felt proud like a trained ninja or secret operative.

The sun had just begun to set as he arrived at the hospice home. The old man was waiting alone outside, his flanel blanket protecting him from the evening cold.

The two of them had a brief exchange of conversation, but I was too far away to hear what they had said. I could only see the look of excitement on Brian’s face as he gripped the chair’s handlebars and started off down the street.

Brian took the old man on a long walk, longer than I expected. After about fifteen blocks we were in the warehouse district. I was tired, out of breath, cold and sweaty. Brian still looked as cool and composed as ever. He and the old man came upon a large, chain-link fence. It was mostly covered in plywood planks, but a few sections had come loose. The area didn’t posses anything particularly out of place, there was nothing to see behind the fence, just more warehouses, but still, the place felt strange.

Brian fished his keys out of his pocket, bringing them to the fence and deftly removing a padlock with a quick twist and a pull.

Once on the other side of the fence, he locked it. I remember thinking, Shit. Well, I wasn’t going home so I scaled the fence. I tore my pant leg on the way down. Fortunately, I didn’t make a sound.

The two of them had made their way to a large, abandoned warehouse. Brian took out a garage door opener and pointed it toward the bay door. It slid upward and the two men moved inward. I darted for the loading dock and crouched beside the door, peering in as the two men advanced into the dark warehouse.

Finally the old man rasped, “You’ll be able to heal me?”

Brian stopped pushing the chair.

“Not me. No. They will. And once we get there, you’ll be good as new.”

“How long, Brian?”

“It’s a fifteen earth-year trip back to Obri.”

“I don’t think I’ll last another fifteen years, Brian. Us humans,” he examined his crooked hands.

“We’re weak.”

“Not a worry, friend!” Brian exclaimed.

“Once on board, the ship enters a temporal stasis. You won’t age. You’ll stay just the same until we arrive.”

“Will I be asleep?”

Brian began moving forward again, progressing deeper into the warehouse. I could only hear the echoes of his words as they recoiled off the walls and under the bay door.

The echoes were interrupted by the whir of the motor box beside my head. I crouched low and slid beneath the closing door, scuffing my knee as I did. As I stood to my feet, brushing the dust from my pants, I heard Brian’s voice loud and clear.

“Hello,” he said.

He was standing right in front of me. It suddenly became very apparent that this was only the second time I had spoken face to face with Brian. It also became quite evident that I was trespassing. And spying.

“Come. See my ship,” he said.

I shook my head and raised my hands, pointing my fingers awkwardly toward my chest.

“Me?” I squealed.

Brian nodded, turning away from me.

“Who’s that there?” The old man asked.

“We work together. That’s how I pay the lease on this place. Humdrum. I like it.”

He looked over his shoulder, smiling at me.

As I reached the two of them, Brian gripped the wheelchair and moved forward. A pair of large, orange hangar doors slid open before us. It’s difficult to describe what was on the other side even now. It was a massive array of slick, metal plates. They gripped the walls of the cavernous warehouse. They hovered around each other, frozen about a central core of glowing light. As we moved closer, the metal plates gravitated inward, moving toward one another, enclosing on the glowing center. For a brief moment I could make out the outlines of what looked like a futuristic cock-pit, but then the plates sealed shut, enclosing the light inside. Locked in place, the entire thing looked like a seamless, stainless-steel egg; a thirty foot tall shiny, floating, metal egg. The same shiny egg in the photograph.

“Here she is.”

I managed, “Holy shit.”

The old man, he said, “You should take her with you.”

Brian looked confused.

Glaring right at me, the old man said, “Go with him. He shouldn’t be alone.”

Then he lowered his head and coughed violently into his lap, spit pooling on his tattered flannel blanket.

I spoke over the old man’s coughing fit, “I don’t know. Aren’t you going? Can we all go?”

I paused, realizing I wasn’t invited, then added, “Oh, how I’d love to.”

Taking a deep painful breath, the old man finally declared, “I hurt constantly.”

He raised his head, his parchment cheeks stained with tears.

“I can’t last another fifteen years like this,” he cried.

Brian said, “I understand, my friend.”

And, he did. He looked at me with a smile and said, “I know we barely know each other. I mean, we’ve worked together. But we don’t really…”

He stopped. He looked toward the ship with his hand perched neatly on his chin. I could see the gears in his head turning as he hemmed and hawed.

Then, placing one hand across his back and extending his other toward me, he bowed and asked very politely, “Would you like to travel the universe with me?”

I didn’t give it any thought. I wasn’t leaving anything behind. Thirty-six years old. No kids. No family. A dead end job.

“Yes. I think so at least. Yes. Let’s do it,” I blurted.

The words just spilled out. I couldn’t keep them in.

Brian looked down at the old man and said, “We’re all going. You’ll be fine.”

The old man crooked his neck toward Brian, his jaw hanging, globs of spit stuck to his chin like sap on a tree. His wrinkled cheeks red just below the eyes.

He barked, “If I don’t, you’ll leave me here in this abandoned warehouse won’t you?”

Brian nodded.

“I guess we’re all going,” the old man whispered into his lap.

Brian gripped his fingers around the chair’s handlebars and began forward with the old man. I trailed closely behind, marveling at the giant, floating egg.

As I watched, a sliver of light broke through the silver shell. The crack grew and widened until there was a massive circular breach in the egg. A metallic ooze dripped from the opening, freezing in mid-air to form an array of oval stepping stones suspended in place – stairs.

Brian pulled the old man from the chair and hoisted him over his shoulder as he hopped onto the first step. He continued up the floating stairs, leaping from one to the other, until he finally reached the bright light spilling from the doorway.

Standing in the doorway to his ship, Brian turned to me, waving his free hand.

“Come on up. We’ve only a few minutes before we’re out of position.”

I lowered my right foot onto the first step, testing it. It didn’t budge at all. I moved my other foot onto the step. It was as solid as the floor inches beneath. Confident in the stones, I made my way up to Brian and the old man.

Once inside, I asked, “What do you mean, out of position?”

“This ship utilizes a planetary gravity guidance system. We need a very specific planetary alignment to get enough propulsion to exit this solar system.”

Brian explained about gravity waves and propulsion systems as he situated the old man in one of the three seats. I’m no rocket scientist. I honestly have no idea what he was talking about. I quietly nodded as I watched and listened.

As Brian set the old man down, the seat reclined. As the old man laid there, Brian opened a small box beside him and removed a long, silvery tube. Brian trailed off in the middle of a sentence about gravitic negative fields as he moved his fingers over the old man’s right arm.

“Your veins are quite weak,” Brian said.

His fingers finally settled on a portion of the old man’s arm. Brian jabbed the silvery tube deep into the skin.

“We’ll be there before you know it,” Brian whispered as his friend closed his eyes.

“What did you give him?” I asked.

“He’ll sleep for the trip.”

Brian sat in the center chair and motioned for me to sit beside him. A complex board of knobs, dials and buttons emerged before us, surrounding Brian in a half-arc of blinking lights and switches. He mashed his hand into a large, green triangle on the control panel and the whole ship jolted upward. Tearing through the warehouse roof, the walls dithered and faded away, revealing the gray clouds rushing by us.

“I wasn’t planning on going to work today, you know. Not originally,” Brian declared.

A knot formed in my stomach as we exited Earth’s atmosphere. The darkness instantly engrossed us. The translucency of the ship’s walls didn’t help. Mars approached and passed. The knot tightened. The absence of boundary between us and space, the high velocity we were moving, all of it. It made me sick.

“I knew you were following me,” he said, turning to me with a smile.
Brian must have noticed my skin turning pale. Without missing a beat, he flipped a switch on the console and the walls solidified. First they returned to their original steely sheen, but that was quickly replaced by a firy orange sunset illuminating a field of dew covered grass swaying in the wind. Each droplet of dew and every blade of grass was so detailed, so life-like. We may as well have been sitting in a field in Kentucky. It was quite gorgeous. It is gorgeous.

In fact, it is that very same sunset that soothes me now as I finish telling you my story – my expose so to speak. If it does end up in someone’s hands, yours, I’m sure I’ll get the Pulitzer, assuming they can overlook my colloquialisms. After all, I just work in the mailroom. Tell me how to sort registered from first-class and postcards from letters, I’m gold. As for telling a story, I’m not so sure. But, this one, I think it’s quite a doozy.

I’m placing this into the airlock now. I don’t know where it will go.

I don’t even know if anyone will find this. But, if you’re reading this, it would seem you did. Tell everyone, I’m doing well, and for the record: Brian spent two hundred years on Earth. He still won’t tell me how old he really is. He says it’s improper to ask.

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