A Companion, A Comrade
by Josh Dale
Ten minutes had passed since Otto’s ‘be right out’ text came in. The sun was getting low, and the last family had already scooped their children up to go eat dinner. I took a seat on a swing, letting my body swing at the knees. My feet never lifted off the ground as I looked in the direction of Otto’s house. It’s not like he lived far, maybe a five-minute max powerwalk. The park is surrounded by single-family homes ranging from ranchers to three-story behemoths. Behind me was a freeway traveled mostly by commuters and busses. Otto and I come here to smoke multiple times a week, no matter the season. It wasn’t uncommon for wayward souls to pass through to catch a bus or seek a safe place to get high. We always went back to Otto’s place once it grew dark, so a curious cop wouldn’t have a reason to talk to us.
I unlocked my phone resting over my hoody pocket to browse Twitter when an unfamiliar voice said, “Hey.”
I looked up to see this man in a beanie. His face wrinkled by the sun and peppered with stubble.
“Can I bum a cigarette? If you have one?”
I felt my lips waver. It was as if I wanted to tell him to go away but couldn’t. I didn’t have any cigarettes, just a vape. He was eyeing my hoody pocket.
“Sorry, I don’t have any.”
“What’s that in your hoody?” he said, pointing towards the lump.
I wanted to lie and say it was a gun, clicking my nail against the metal shrouding, so he got the picture and fucked off. But I was honest.
“Oh, those things.”
I looked over the shoulder of the man, hoping to see Otto jogging up, ready to clock the guy in the back of the head.
“Could I get a hit?” he continued.
“Sure, just wipe it off when you’re done,” I said, withdrawing the device.
I handed it to him, watched the LED turn on. He exhaled a large puff, wiped the end on the inside of his flannel, and handed it to me. He released it quickly and I almost dropped it.
“Thank you,” he said, coughing. “Damn, is this nicotine?”
“No, it’s THC,” I said, narrowing my eyebrows.
“What the hell is that?” he said, coughing more.
“Dude, it’s cannabis. Weed. Ganja. Whatever. It’s the oil from it.”
The stranger’s face reddened. “The fuck, girl. You should’ve told me. I have a job interview tomorrow!”
I shrugged. “You should’ve asked first. Just drink a gallon of water by tomorrow morning. You’ll be fine.”
The man sniffled. Tears circled his crystal blue eyes from coughing so much.
“Shit, I don’t even have money for a McDouble, let alone a gallon of water.”
I leaned back on the swing, so I was basically erect. While I didn’t feel in danger, I wanted to be in a tall stance. It’s easier to run to Otto’s instead of having this guy rope my neck with chains. He upheaved his pockets and a few glimmering coins fell onto the wood chips.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” I said. “What kind of job is it?”
He inhaled deep and exhaled the red from his face. It was weird.
“Some welding gig. I’m between jobs right now but I can stack dimes like a motherfucker.”
I nodded, having no idea what ‘stacking dimes’ meant. “Don’t you need to wear those face shields, so you don’t go blind or whatever?”
He grunted as he counted change with his fingers. It was dark enough to open my hand sanitizer, dab a napkin in my pocket, and wipe the tip of the vape for good measure. The one streetlamp flickered on, and the far corner of the park lit up with an orange hue. A couple of lights in the surrounding homes started popping on like clockwork. First-floor dining rooms, bedrooms, wherever. I felt that now would be the time for one of these affluent families to peek outside their window. To see some scruffy-looking man yelling and grunting with a 19-year-old woman in close vicinity. Cops would probably arrive in a minute, tires screeching, guns drawn over the open car door. Or maybe they would just yell, and he would be on a foot chase. I’d have to make sure he ‘dropped’ the vape, too, so I could go to Otto’s and tell him the wild story. Maybe videotape it from afar with the man’s dirty head on the orange road.
“Y’know what?” the man spoke once he had a myriad of pocket things in his hand. “Fuck it. It’s been at least 20 years since I lit up.”
“Good for you, dude,” I said.
I took a hit. The breeze pulled the cloud of apple pie into the man’s face. He ended up sitting on the adjacent swing. The rubber seat sagged low as he groaned.
“How many of those do you need to get high?” he said. Both of his hands were gripping the chains.
“Uh, probably three for you.”
“Would you mind if I took another hit?”
My oversized sleeve draped over the vape. “At least introduce yourself, man. It’s etiquette.”
He looked up, squinting at nothing. “I’m Nathan, Nathan Togg.”
I handed him the vape. “Marissa.”
“No last name?”
“No offense, but I can’t tell you that. I’m in witness protection.”
He cackled after the plume exited his body. “Seriously?”
He took the bait. But I was also high. “I have a friend on the way, too.”
I thought about it. Saying something like, ‘Yeah, my big burly boyfriend will kick your ass if you try to make a move.’ But Otto was neither, just a scrawny doomer like me that only once touched my butt. But then again, we were hotboxing his van, so anything goes.
“Friends are good. It’s been a while since I got in touch with someone,” he continued.
As if the timing couldn’t get any better, Otto appeared under the jungle gym. He was quiet, like a sniper in the jungle. He would’ve surprised me if I was sober.
“Yo, Maris,” he said, standing before us. “Oh, who’re you?
“I’m Nathan, Nathan Togg,” Nathan said, extending his arm for a shake.
Otto returned his arm, staring at me with a ‘Who the fuck is this guy look, and I smirked at him. He sat by my legs like a dog. Axe body spray was pungent on him. Some wood chips got scattered around by his dirty white Vans. He pulled his vape from his ratty jeans pocket. A cherry smell intermingled with the apple pie to make one hell of a dessert aura.
“As I was sayin’,” Nathan said. “The last time I talked to my friend, Sam, was probably five years ago. We were in the same platoon in Iraq. Turns out, we grew up one town apart. He went back to his family somewhere in Delaware, and well, I stayed here. We lost touch since the move.”
Otto and I locked eyes again. I wanted to tell him psychically, ‘He’s like our parents’ age,’ but I think he got the picture. I wiped the vape again with the napkin I kept out of sight. Nathan had to have been stoned by the time the sky turned purple. He kept rambling on about his friend and other unique war stories. Otto and I kept taking hits. In no time, he became our comedian.
“And then, he dropped his mag and was like, ‘Fuck, my balls dropped,’ and took a shot downrange and said, ‘Man or boy, you can’t hit the target for shit.’ Oh, that guy.”
You could see his face get younger as he recalled his memories. His voice rose an octave and his eyes, while squinted, were full of joy. He was even swinging more than I did at any part of our meeting. He went up high a couple of times. The vibration of his motions rumbled my chains. Otto and I giggled from time to time, especially at the story about dropping a scorpion in the commode. When Nathan couldn’t hold it together, he lifted his head in laughter. On his neck was a raised brown scar that went from his jaw to his collarbone. The worst of it looked like ink dripping onto paper. Maybe it was deep at one point, filled with sand, small metals, and coagulated blood.
We must’ve been loud because we heard a screen door slide open, and a mother peeped her head outside. I saw a small child peering through the glass. The pair scrutinized us from their cushy deck. Deciding what level of sketchy we were to warrant a 911 call. I stood up, feeling my body rush to life after sitting for what felt like 40 minutes. Otto followed, snapping up like a spring.
“Hey, man,” Otto said. “Thanks for the stories. Hope you get that job and whatever.”
“Still telling you to drink that water,” I said. A smile crept onto my face after I spoke it.
“Thank ya,” Nathan said. He stood up without moaning or anything. “It was worth the chat.”
I wanted to give him a few bucks from my back pocket, but he was already walking away. He went to the bus stop and disappeared behind the shrouding. As we plodded out of the wood chips, we heard Nathan’s voice echoing through. More laughter between him and someone else. The faint roar of the bus engine pushed their banter away as all the riders embarked on a bus ride to wherever.
Back at Otto’s, he fired up his Xbox One and went to the kitchen. I heard the crinkle of a bag and guessed Totino’s. I shouted at him to grab me a Mountain Dew. I stared at his collection of all the first-person shooter games I could imagine. He was back in five and plopped next to me, handing the soda over and the hot plate on his lap. Call of Duty loaded onto the TV.
“He must’ve had a bus pass or something,” I said. “I kinda feel bad for smoking him up.”
“Why? He’s a grown-ass man. Maybe he was lying the whole time.” Otto said. The familiar theme song of CoD played.
“Maybe it’s under the table or whatever.” I took a sip. “I told him I was in witness protection.”
Otto bellowed. “Well, I think his stories were true, at least. Did he ever say what his rank was? People who practice stolen valor always give themselves crazy high ranks.”
The scar flashed in my eyes as I watched the loading screen. We were boots on the ground in seconds, carrying big black guns and weaving in and out of buildings. I didn’t say a word as I was the first on our team to get killed, leaving Otto to defend the bunker. My hand flashed toward the pizza rolls.
“Did you die just so you could eat pizza rolls?” Otto said, eyes affixed to the flashing lights and reddening screen.
I popped one in my mouth, and it seared my tongue. I went muah ah ah and spat it onto the floor. Steam and gooey guts leaked out onto the nubby carpet. That is probably how a flashbang felt in real life. Nah, no way.
Josh Dale does well with cats, plants, and coffee. A native Pennsylvanian, he’s an alumnus of Temple & Saint Joseph’s. His debut novella, The Light to Never Be Snuffed (Alien Buddha Press, 2022) was released in front of a crowd of ants. His fiction has appeared in Breadcrumbs, Autofocus, Drunk Monkeys, Maudlin House, Rejection Letters, and a winner in the 2021 Loud Coffee Press Micro-Fiction Contest.
Photo by Kelly on Pexels.com
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