The loose gravel dug through the soles of Doug’s worn boots like years tearing through his broken body. All of it was shot, and there was no use wasting time on feeble repairs.
His heart pounded fast and jagged, weak but still strong enough to flush the bottom of his cheeks.
When was the last time he’d seen Brown? Twenty years ago? Thirty?
The decades blurred together as Doug pivoted onto the cracked and crumbling sidewalk leading up to Brown’s weathered farmhouse. The place had once been a palace, a testament to Brown’s intellect and ruthless money practices.
Now, with the old man on his deathbed, it wasn’t much more than an outbuilding in the middle of the industrial-strength farm run by nephews and business partners and lawyers from back east.
Doug pulled his achy body up the steps. The book under his arm pulled him toward the earth like a millstone.
He knocked on the door. No answer.
Doug swung open the ornate screen frame and stepped inside the cool, dark entry way.
“Brown, you here?” A slight stirring from the back of the house was his greeting. “Brown?”
“Back here!” a raspy, petulant voice cracked through dusty years. Doug’s mind flooded with memories, his chest tight with emotion.
The childhood friendship, the battle for Mildred’s heart, the bitter rivalry … and then, Brown becoming hard and cold and ruthless as Doug and Mildred settled into family life on their modest homestead.
“Brown, it’s me. Doug Trabor.” Doug walked down the hallway toward the gasping breaths that rattled in the darkness now. He held the book out in front of him, as if Brown could see through the walls. To hear the locals tell it, Brown couldn’t see much of anything.
Weak orange light splashed onto the hallway floor from a doorway, and Doug stepped inside.
“I brought you something,” he said.
“Is this some sort of joke?” Brown barked. He lay in his bed, greasy hair matted to a thin, dirty pillow. His face was drawn and white. The room stunk of feces and death.
Doug studied the profile of the man who had been with him since childhood, but who had been gone now for so long long. Doug remembered how the long, hooked nose would flex up and down while the boy read aloud from his favorite book when they were still students in Miss Grable’s classroom.
“It’s no joke, Brown. I just come for a quick visit. To say hello. It’s been a long while.”
“You get out of here,” Brown growled. He didn’t open his eyes.
Doug nodded. “Yep,” he said. He sat down in the wooden rocking chair next to the bed. It was the sort a young mother would sit in to rock her baby.
Brown never had children. Had never been married.
Doug fumbled the book open with gnarly, achy hands and squinted hard until the words came into blurry focus.
“‘Call me Ishmael …’,” he began.
Brown sighed but didn’t say a word. Doug glanced at the bed, where his old friend and nemesis lay still, the start of a grin curling the corners of his mouth.