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The Veteran

A Terrible Truth

By Kenny PennPublished about a month ago 10 min read
The Veteran
Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

“I think I’ve had enough,” Booker muttered to himself. His clean-shaven face was flushed, but he still felt ok. The bar hadn’t begun spinning like the ‘Tilt-A-Whirl’ ride at a carnival yet, but it would if he kept drinking.

He held up a tiny shot glass, peering intently through its glossy haze at the last amber bead of bourbon. Every so often he’d tilt the glass left, watch the liquid slide across the bottom, then tilt it to the right. Fascinating.

“If only I could find a handsome man willing to look at me like that,” a woman sighed suddenly beside him. “I’d be tempted to take him home and give him something that would really make his eyes pop.”

Booker recognized her husky voice and turned to greet her. She made him think of a matured wine, with naturally smooth olive skin that was just beginning to reveal the wrinkled hints of age. Dark hair spilled over her willowy shoulders in gentle waves. Hazelnut eyes gazed back at him, containing twinkles of mischief and light amusement. Her scent was lightly floral mixed with hints of vanilla.

Leaning back in his seat, Booker helped himself to a good long look at her considerable assets. “Francis, if I stared at you long enough, I wouldn’t be able to walk out of here without everyone pointing at my pants,” he said.

She laughed. A low, attractive sound that made him grin and took years off his weathered face. God, how many times had he heard that laugh and fantasized about taking this woman to his bed? Perhaps tonight she’d finally take him up on it.

“Wouldn’t be the first time you stood up for me, you old wolf.” She flipped her hair daintily over one shoulder and winked. “You make an old woman feel young and pretty again.”

“Old?” Booker was genuinely puzzled. “You’re not old, woman. You’ve just ripened, that’s all.” He looked her pointedly up and down. “I bet you taste like summer strawberries.”

Francis smirked and raised an eyebrow. “You think so, do you?” She caught the barman’s attention and ordered herself a rum and coke. “So, what are you doing here alone, handsome?”

“I – uh, it doesn’t matter,” he muttered. The truth was, he couldn’t remember. That was happening more and more often lately. He cleared his throat. “I’d rather talk about you, gorgeous. What are you doing here?”

“Smooth,” she giggled, her lips pursed in amusement. “I might be looking for a lover.” It was her turn to eye him up and down, and she grinned wickedly. “Know anyone who might fit the bill?”

“Oh, I think I might know someone,” he smiled and ordered another drink.

***

Once Booker’s senses returned, he found himself lying in a strange bed, staring at a strange ceiling. He had a nasty migraine, and his mouth felt stuffed full of cotton. The air was blessedly cool, but his body felt hot and slick with sweat.

Someone snored next to him. Startled, he realized he was naked, and his arm was wrapped around a woman’s body. One of her bare breasts rested comfortably in his hand.

“What the hell?” Booker extracted his arm and sat up slowly, trying to shake the grog from his mind. He focused on the sleeping form. Once he realized who she was, he felt a terrible dread unlike any he’d ever known.

“Sable?!” His stomach lurched. “Sable, what the fuck?!”

Her eyes opened, and she smiled up at him lazily. “Hey there, handsome. Ready for round two already?”

“NO!” Repulsion hit him in the gut like a fist, and he scrambled out of bed, nearly toppling over onto the floor. He snatched his clothes up and looked around, bewildered. Now he recognized the cheap carpet, the small writing desk next to the bed, and the cheap walled air conditioning unit. “What the fuck are we doing in a hotel?!”

Sable frowned and struggled to a seated position, pulling the blanket protectively over her breasts. “What do you mean, Booker? I thought this is what you wanted?”

He opened his mouth, but suddenly, a wave of nausea washed over him. Memory flooded back, and with it, a sense of anguished horror so great it threatened to stop his heart. It had happened again. He’d had another hallucination, only this time it was going to cost him everything. He’d thought he was with Francis at the bar, but it had been Sable, not Francis. He’d blacked out at some point, come to this hotel, and had fucked Sable, not Francis.

The urge to throw up was almost overwhelming. How could she? How could he?

“Booker?” Sable’s voice was filled with concern. “Are you ok?”

But he couldn’t respond. He didn’t want to. Booker snatched his clothes off the floor, then half ran, half stumbled to the door. Sable’s words stalked after him like a predator. I thought you wanted this?

***

Booker groaned in his sleep.

It was the same nightmare again. He ran, barefoot and shirtless, unmindful of the peppered gray rocks strewn across patches of dying buffalo grass. Snowy curls of kinky hair glistened wetly against the dark skin of his chest. His arms pumped madly, breath hitching in and out in painful gasps. A sharp stitch dug cruelly into his ribs, but he couldn’t afford to stop.

He wasn’t going to make it in time.

Around him, the darkness thickened, blotting out all but the pale hands of his two closest friends clawing at the cliff’s edge a dozen or so yards ahead. They hung over a black abyss, clutching desperately at sparse grass and dirt, tearing out thread-like roots buried deeply in the earth. Each passing moment brought them closer to a plummeting death. Another moment, and they’d be lost to him forever.

“No!” Booker leaped forward; arms outstretched like a diver’s. Dozens of jagged rocks slammed and sliced into his chin and chest. His teeth snapped down on the tip of his tongue, flooding his mouth with warm, copper-flavored blood.

His hands closed around clammy, mud-covered skin. “I got you!” He felt an odd mix of hesitant triumph and anxiety. He’d reached them in time, but it wasn’t over yet.

Somewhere nearby, a baby began to wail.

Booker’s arms hung painfully over the open chasm, each pulled by the weight of the two friends dangling beneath him. Their wide-eyed faces stared up at him, imploring. On his left, Percy tried unsuccessfully to pull himself up, drawing furrows on Booker’s rigid forearm with torn and bloody fingernails. On his right, Sable hung like dead weight, her pleading screams raw and hoarse but no less desperate. Strangely, Sable’s pale face seemed to be much older than he remembered. Her lips had contracted into something thin and small, her eyes hollowed and sunken, skin more wrinkled leather than flesh.

Percy clawed at Booker’s arm. “Pull us up!”

“I can’t!” Booker cried, “You need to pull yourself up!” He felt Sable’s grip loosen and almost panicked. Her hands had darkened to a pale gray. Black varicose veins rose under her skin like submarines breaking through the choppy surface of an ocean. “Hurry, Percy!” He breathed through gritted teeth. “Something’s wrong with Sable. I can’t hold out much longer!”

The baby’s wailing grew louder, cries echoing in the darkness.

Booker fought against his terror, but he was exhausted. His strength was ebbing fast. The choice was clear, then. He would have to drop one to save the other. The thought sickened him. He couldn’t – wouldn’t - do that.

Sable’s blue-eyed gaze caught Booker’s in a moment that seemed to stretch forever. She smiled, her decision made plain in the depths of her eyes.

“Don’t!” Booker shouted but was too late. She let go. He didn’t have the strength to hold on. She slipped from his grasp easily, like she’d been covered in oil. Booker’s fingers snapped together as she fell wordlessly into the yawning chasm.

The baby’s wailing increased, drowning out the howling wind.

“Sable, No!” Booker’s scream tore at his throat like hot razor blades. Tears blurred his vision as he sobbed her name over and over as if by repeating it, he could somehow bring her back.

At some point, he remembered Percy and shifted against the cold earth, intending to use both hands to pull his friend away from the abyss.

But again, he was too late. To his horror, Percy, too, was gone. Booker hadn’t felt him go.

The baby’s wails reached a crescendo. Booker joined his voice to it, howling in pain and fury. Thunder crashed across the sky as if in answer to their combined rage until the darkness swallowed him.

***

“So, Francis called me the other day,” Percy said. “She’s worried about you, brother, hasn't seen you around lately.” He sipped his beer and winked. “When are you gonna get the guts to tell that woman how you feel?”

Percy chuckled, but Booker had never felt less like laughing. His mouth tasted sour. His throat burned. He felt as if iron chains had tightened around his stomach, squeezing acid into his chest with every breath.

The night was growing late. They sat on Booker’s front porch, watching the moon through an overcast sky. Percy was just finishing his fifth beer and reaching for a sixth, but Booker didn’t want to drink, and he didn’t want to talk about Francis either.

That dream had become a nightly occurrence. He barely recalled the last time he’d had restful sleep. If he didn’t confess soon, it would drive him bat shit. Besides, he owed Percy the truth. Once it was out, though, their forty-plus-year friendship would certainly end. Worse, it might also spell the end of Percy’s marriage.

And what about Sable? Didn’t he owe his silence to her? Was her continued regard for him worth any less than Percy’s?

Sable isn’t here, though, Booker thought. Percy is.

“What’s wrong, bro? You look like you’ve swallowed a bucket of spoiled lemon juice.” Percy’s aged face was lined with concern. He gripped Booker’s shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “Come on, man, out with it; what’s got you looking so ugly?”

For a moment, Booker could only stare back blankly. Percy’s worry made what he had to do so much harder. He suddenly wished his friend would sneer or crack a cruel joke at his expense. Anything but continue to regard him with such open concern. But that had never been Percy’s way.

They’d been friends since the army days. Booker signed up in 1968, not yet a full day past his 18th birthday. Sable, his childhood friend, had seen him off to boot camp, her wet tears still warm against his cheeks as the bus pulled away from Annapolis, carrying him to an unknown future. Thoughts of the Vietnam War had been at the forefront of his frightened mind, but it turned out he never set foot in that hellhole.

Sometimes, he wished he had.

After a year in service, Booker joined a volunteer medical research program in Aberdeen. They promised him an easy couple of months. No KP duties, no guard detail, weekends off, and such. It was supposed to be a simple gig. Instead, he’d been subjected to some of the most inhumane treatment one could experience and still live.

The Army Chemical Corp gave him several experimental drugs, mostly LSD and BZ. The experience nearly killed him, but he’d also met Percy, a fellow soldier volunteer. Their shared suffering had made them more than friends, more than brothers. Percy’s dark sense of humor and iron will to live saved Booker’s life.

Booker brought Percy back with him to Annapolis and introduced him to Sable. Watching love bloom between his two best friends had been like watching the sun rise over a distant horizon. It made all the horrors he’d endured at Edgewood somehow worth it.

Now, though. God help him, it would all end.

“Percy,” he said, “I have something I need to tell you.” His voice was choked with grief. “Something you aren’t going to like.”

***

Booker trailed off, his voice hitching. Tears streamed freely down his face. He’d felt a wall growing steadily between them with every spoken word, his friendship slipping away like sand through his trembling fingers.

“I – I’m so sorry, P-Percy. I s-s-swear I d-didn’t nuh-know it was her.”

Percy only stared at him. The angry words Booker deserved to hear never came. Instead, Percy’s eyes shone with unshed tears; his face twisted into an expression of pity that Booker didn’t at first recognize. Percy raised a trembling hand. Booker flinched, expecting his friend to hit him. But Percy only touched Booker’s shoulder, giving it a soft squeeze.

“Oh, man. What they did to you, to us, was so fucked up. I’m so sorry, brother.”

Booker blinked and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. Percy was sorry? Why should Percy apologize to him? He hadn’t been the one to betray their friendship.

“This never gets any easier,” Percy continued, and now there was a clear hint of anger in his voice. He looked into Booker’s confused, tear-streaked face and smiled sadly. “Sable is dead, brother. Gone for almost 20 years now.”

Booker flinched backward. His brows drew down in confusion. “What? No, that’s impossible. I just told you I was with her two weeks ago.”

But Percy was shaking his head. “No, brother, you only thought you were. It’s the BZ, man, and the LSD. You had another hallucination, just like you thought. But you hallucinated Sable, not Francis.” Percy’s eyes pleaded for Booker to understand. “The hallucinations, God – they got worse once your dementia started. An early onset I don’t doubt was caused by those same fucking experiments. I’m sorry, bro, but you didn’t sleep with Sable. You have nothing to apologize for.”

“But I, no, you’re wrong, I - “

“Sable died giving birth to my son, your godson, Lucas. You went to the hotel with Francis, man, not Sable. I told you; she called me. You freaked her out, bro. That was her in the hotel room.”

Could it be true? Of course, it could. He thought of the Edgewood experiments, the hallucinations, the inability to focus, and the torment he’d gone through. How Sable and Percy had helped him live with the trauma for years. Sable would never have sabotaged their relationship like that.

But I don’t remember her dying! Yet maybe a part of him did. In his nightmares, she always died to the sound of a baby’s wail. Lucas’ wail. And Percy wouldn’t lie. It had to be true.

Percy slid an arm around Booker’s shoulder and pulled him into a wordless embrace, comforting the old soldier as he sobbed.

psychologicalfiction

About the Creator

Kenny Penn

Thanks for reading! I enjoy writing in various genres, my favorites being horror/thriller and dark/epic fantasies. I'll also occasionally drop a poem or two.

For a list of all my work, and to connect with me, go to www.kennypenn.com

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Reader insights

Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

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  1. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

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Comments (4)

  • L.C. Schäferabout a month ago

    Excellent twist! I'd have liked some nightmares flashing abck to those experiments, because I have a morbid streak a mile wide! This did NOT feel like a ten minute read... It flew by in moments. I was GRIPPED.

  • Dharrsheena Raja Segarranabout a month ago

    Whoaaa, I didn't think Sable was dead. That was so unexpected. Those drugs really messed him up so bad. I can only imagine how hard it would be for him. Loved your story!

  • Andrea Corwin about a month ago

    Oh wow. A lot to unpack. Horrors of drugs and so sad he decided to be the volunteer. You built the characters and the storyline and kept me reading. I felt for him and then the baby wailing and his needing to confess…. But best was his friendship and the forgiveness and love and understanding! Marvelous!

  • Hannah Mooreabout a month ago

    Damn, this is so SAD.

Kenny PennWritten by Kenny Penn

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