It was like trying to swim the English Channel. Jeb's knees were wobbling by the time he opened the gate to the fortification that was Carl's yard. The winter wind fought him every step of the way down the gravel path and up the rickety porch steps which creaked and popped as the stout breeze toyed with loosened boards.
Carl, the closest and only person to a friend Jeb had left, still liked this setup it seemed. Ever since the psychotic break ten years ago, he had developed a fetish for the bizarre. There were perfectly-spaced fence posts surrounding the perimeter of the trailer. No wire. A lawn chair facing the dark green thicket of pines and brush at the west end of the half-acre. What one would assume to be the foundation for a storage building of some sort, except that over the past eight years, Carl had never added anything to it. A fresh-dug hole between the tomato garden and the trailer, which he would come outside to admire at exactly 2:05 PM every single day.
Clear up until last summer, Jeb had tried his best to be a friend to Carl. Tried his best to unravel the mysteries which had built a wall between his neighbor and the outside world. When Carl screamed into the cold midnight sky, Jeb had tried to understand the rage. Made it a point to see to it that each December, they both had some resemblance of a Christmas. When Carl would show up at the door in the sleet or rain on any given day, any given time, he would answer that door. Sit outside with him. Nurse a shot of cheap whiskey with him to make the frigid wetness more tolerable. Say nothing about the hiss at the tips of the dampened cigarettes Carl had refused to give up lighting. Laugh when he laughed, agree with everything regardless of the absurdity or offensiveness. Invite him in to warm up, though knowing he would decline.
Carl was still Carl down deep somewhere. His mind had simply been hijacked. Jeb knew this to be true because, on the right day, this old friend and lifelong neighbor would still sometimes smile the way he used to back when they were both young: Bright and cheeky, but tame; not angular and rigid, and not caked over with dried fruit juice. It would be the same grin he had always displayed any time Jeb came over to try his luck beating him at target practice with that air pistol and those empty mason jars.
Now, Jeb felt more than ever like a puny wimp about to face a monster. Not because Carl had grown stranger, less predictable and more dangerous recently, but because of the fear of never accomplishing what he'd trudged the hundred yards between his living room recliner and the trailer's dented aluminum door to do.
With hesitance and labor, he tapped at the corroded copper bell until it began to chime. The thump of rhythmic bass behind thin, dusty walls tortured him already. He would have to expend what little energy he had left shouting above the noise. His toothpick legs responded to the tension with pins-and-needles sensations.
"Troops!" he overheard mingled with the music. "Aim to kill on my order!"
The moisture in Jeb's throat shot up, emerging from the skeletal skin of his forehead as perspiration, leaving his white tongue sandpaper-dry. The beats paused and he saw the crude rectangle of fabric covering the door's window peel back, then heard the inside bolt as it slapped open.
This is it. This is Goodbye, Jeb thought as the knob jiggled and turned. His eye sockets wrinkled under the strain of trying to keep it together just this one last time. A tug-of-war over whether to ease his way into the subject or simply blurt it out during this brief window of silence put him in an internal fetal position. The latter idea won and he inhaled in preparation of the words.
"Mister Jeb G!" Carl blared out of his tall, sandal-clad body across the neighborhood.
Jeb tucked his short, blunt sentence away for later and lowered his shoulders.
"I haven't seen you in forever! Hell, it's about time! How you been?"
Smoke attacked Jeb's long, aged face as Carl left it hanging in the air to go grab a bottle and two shot glasses.
Say it now, while you have the chance! Jeb commanded himself.
He hadn't come here to party, nor could he anymore even if he'd wanted to. And any time liquor was involved, Carl was guaranteed to slip into one of his phases at some point.
"Hey, Carl?" he started with a coughing voice that barely touched the yellowed walls and ceiling of the back hallway enough to echo.
"Yeah!" Carl echoed back.
"The reason I'm here is to..."
The words collapsed to nothing as the stereo resumed with Carl pointing the remote at it. He set the bottle down with a hard clink. His eyes glowed bloodshot as he flopped down on his exclusive, filthy couch. Jeb knew his own assigned seat at the opposite end of the den and took it.
Though it was a small relief feeling the weight of his diminishing person settle down into the dungy vinyl of the chair, this time just wasn't like all the others in the past. He remembered the song that was playing. Same song Carl was jamming to last summer. He remembered having hair as full and black as the whole inside of Carl's trailer was dark. He remembered thinking at the time, with a wave of grief over the sight of Carl's substance-ravaged stature: I'm going to end up outliving him...And then what?
But there had always been something elastic about Carl despite all his problems. Today, he was back to looking and sounding healthy as a normal guy in his thirties. He sat over there rolling his third cigarette since Jeb's arrival with the dexterity of a brain surgeon's hands, his tanned arms bulging with power and his face already beaming from the effects of intoxication.
The song finally ended and there was a pause before the next one.
"I came here to tell you...", Jeb began with a solemn mumble.
Carl, with his trademark fidgetiness, had already left the room again. His bottle sat half empty. Jeb sneaked to the kitchen and poured half of the shot he'd been given down the sink to make it look like he'd been drinking it.
"I'm worried about you, Jeb," Carl stated with his natural clarinet tone while fitting a guitar strap over his shoulder and plugging in an amp.
As well you should be, thought Jeb. The perfect and possibly only opportunity to spill it out was now.
"I haven't been feeling well..."
"I can tell, man!" Carl said.
And as though he believed his monotone guitar picking were medicine, he began plucking away. The reverberation of the chords stung Jeb's eardrums with more intensity than usual, but Jeb forced a pleased look to form below his drooped cheeks anyway.
The grime-plastered Gibson with its missing third string came to rest on the couch beside Carl's waist. He then switched the TV to the evening news.
"She is hot!" he repeated for what had to be the hundredth time in the past three years that his favorite meteorologist had been with this station.
Jeb discreetly turned his gaze away from the stream of saliva easing its way over the edge of Carl's bottom lip, waiting impatiently for him to get back around to the subject.
"Hell Jeb, you never get out anymore! That's your whole problem! You're what, thirty-seven?"
"Right!" Carl continued, making Jeb feel like a dog barking at a wall when he spoke.
That had always been one of the unnerving things about any of his visits with Carl. Once he got started talking, he was unstoppable, and the one-way conversation was liable to lead anywhere, including physical rage.
"You need to get out more!" Carl spat. "Look how white you are, man? I'm worried about you! Hell you never come over anymore! You're letting yourself go! I mean look at you!"
Jeb looked between Carl's eyes, at the sweat glistening off the bridge of his long, flared nose. He didn't want to look directly into them, and he didn't want to look at himself. He wished his friend was right. He wished it could be that simple: Just get out more. So many times before, Carl had been right about things. In Jeb's opinion, the kid was a genius. A misguided genius, with a seeming gift at keen insight. Had he taken Carl's advice years ago, perhaps life never would have had to come to this.
Or maybe it would've anyway, he thought while continuing the pretense of listening to the babble and begging for a diplomatic way to get one simple, three-word sentence in and get out.
"The reason I look so unhealthy, Carl, is..."
"Hey man, wanna play some Ten-Card Death?" he offered while shuffling cards and refilling Jeb's still half-empty glass.
Jeb grimaced visibly at the sound of those words for two reasons. He hated that stupid game. It wasn't even a real card game; it was one Carl had invented himself. The object was to avoid what he called "the Death Hand": Any hand dealt that had a Seven of Spades in it. The "deck" he used only had ten cards, with the "Death Card" being one of them. He would shuffle them, often dropping a couple on the floor due to the awkwardness of such a thin deck, and deal he and his opponent five cards each. He always wanted to play for dollar bills, and always cheated; the folded corner of the undesired card was obvious, and Carl always "passed" every time it turned up in his hand, meaning Jeb had to trade cards with him as-per his own rules.
Of course, being a friend, he had always allowed Carl to win. The poor kid needed all the validation he could get, from anyone willing to give it. He needed to know that he was truly as important and relevant to others as he felt he deserved to be.
Which was why the pain of declining this one time tore at Jeb's conscience nearly as much as the physical pain tearing at his body right now.
"Sorry Carl, but I have to go."
He kept his back turned to him as he staggered out of the chair and toward the door, wincing with clenched teeth, feeling nauseated.
"I'm the Emperor!" Carl yelled with distortion in his voice similar to the sound of that guitar.
Jeb panted and wheezed as the exertion from running in this shape began to make him feel faint.
"I am the Emperor of this land!" he continued from the elevated royalty of his top porch step. "You're all gonna die! It was I who opened the Seventh Seal to unleash the plague, and I'll do it again!"
And as he rambled on with slurred rage at the world at large, Jeb was forced to stop midway across the yard to recharge enough for finishing the distance.
It's spread to your bones, Jeb. I give you, at most, three more months. I'm sorry.
Those damned X-rays. They were a permanent fixture in his mind's eye now, along with the doctor's words, crowding out any happy memory that tried to resurface as a spark of joy.
"Goodbye, Old Friend," Jeb mumbled as he took one last deliberate look at Carl's distant face before closing the door to his house behind him.