Unknowable Prices

This story is set in my Willyverse. Please, read the other three stories before this one. It is very different.

Dedicated to Nicholas T. Simonic. Just because a man puts down his weapon it does not mean he leaves the wall.

“Because they stand upon a wall and say, ‘Nothing’s going to hurt you tonight, not on my watch.'”

The stupid green blackie was too far out. I chuckled at myself, green blackie. That was funny. He was on point and the L.T. should have called him back, but the L.T. had not been in country for any longer than the coon. It saved the life of most of the men in my squad. At least for a little while. He triggered the ambush sooner than the gooks had planned. Much of the platoon was still out of the killing zone.

I heard a crack and watched the kid start to fold. As I threw myself flat a round busted my left arm and another one took me in the thigh. Then the mortars opened up. The VC had zeroed them on the paddy. I hugged the earth and hoped that pissing myself was not the last thing I would do in this life.

Our weapons squad got set up and the suppressing fire started to suppress. The minutes flowed slower than the red Georgia clay of my home town. Someone popped smoke and I heard the angelic whuffing of heli blades. Rockets rolled over the tree line. I think I might have lost a lot of blood already because it reminded me of that cartoon cat running his hand across a piano keyboard; foliage arcing up like ivory and ebony dominoes following the explosions. But the mice would already be pulling back. Go cat.

I struggled to my feet, leaning on my rifle and turned toward our lines. Unfortunately the pajama wearing bastards manning the mortars did not get the bug out notice. The world went white and silent. Why was I back on the ground? I closed my eyes and then the piano crashed down on top of me and I screamed. I opened my eyes. I lifted my head and stood up. Well, I lifted my head. The stood up part just refused to happen. More mortar rounds were falling and the choppers were taking fire. I looked back to my lines and saw Frank stand up.

Six feet two inches of coal black blue gum. And he was running my direction. I am pretty sure that I told the stupid jiggaboo to get down and shoot. I might have hated niggers, but I hated gooks more and he could have been firing at them. He ignored me and kept coming. He bent down and grabbed my unbroken arm and slung me over his back. My broken arm arced through the air until it was stopped by something hard and I fainted. I came back to my senses just in time for for another mortar round to send both of us sailing through the air. Things got worse after that.

I came back in a narcotic haze of semi-peace. Someone had given me an extra ampule of morphine. The sound of the helicopter and the straps holding me into the stretcher faded away.

By the time I got back to the states the cast on my arm itched infernally. My broken ribs ached abominably. The puckered wound on my thigh and the stitches in my chest did not feel any better. I got the rest of the story. Frank had picked me up again and slung me across his shrapnel ridden back. He had staggered back to the dust off site and held his hand over my sucking chest wound until a medic got to me. He saved my life. Not Joey, not Steve, my buddies. Frank. A buck from no name Mississippi. I never saw him. Not that it could ever be enough, but I did not even get to say “Thank you”.

A limo pulled to a stop next to the park. A man with graying hair slid out and shaded his eyes and he cast his gaze about. A fantastical Neptunian fountain ruled the center of the park. The man stood, searching for long minutes. He must have found something that he was looking for because he began walking toward the fountain, a slight hitch in his gait. As he walked he fumbled a small bottle from his coat and shook out two extra strength Tylenol. The glare from the hot sun was giving him a killer head ache. He dry swallowed them with apparent familiarity.

Willy watched from the edge of the fountain as the rich man came closer. No one wore threads like that around here unless it was Sunday. And he was pretty sure that he could see himself in the guy’s shoes from twenty feet away. The man walked on past and stopped at the bench in the shade. He knelt down and gently shook the shoulder of the huddled form on the bench. “Frank? Frank? It’s Clayton Robinson. Frank?”.

Smelly Frank recoiled from the touch of the stranger. His eyes rolled crazy in his head and a string of gibberish curses rattled from his mouth. He shrank away and looked about with bleary eyes. The man quietly spoke again. “Frank. It’s Clayton Robinson. We served together in Vietnam. Do you remember me? You saved my life.” Frank stood up and moved behind his cart. He began to declaim for or against something in a totally meaningless babble. Clayton continued to talk quietly at Frank. Eventually some of the meaning seemed to penetrate the cloak of inebriation and lunacy that Frank wore. Promises of food, or alcohol, or something eventually enticed Frank to get into the limousine. The driver protested the smell and condition of his new passenger. Clayton was undeterred and never noticed the ruined knees of his suit.

The next morning found Clayton and Frank heading for the VA hospital. This limo driver had no problem with his passengers. One was dressed in an expensive suit. The other wore a denim shirt and jeans with sturdy Carhartt steel toed boots. Both were expensively groomed and neither smelled badly. Though one might have been in the bottle despite the earliness of the day.

Evening saw Frank stone cold sober and with medicine for his schizophrenia.

Over the course of the next several days Clayton’s story came out. He had attended college on the G.I. Bill and then had a string of moderately successful businesses. A wife and kids, gone by the time he started a small internet company in the middle 90s. The dot com boom had propelled this last company to stellar heights and he had cashed out just before the bomb. Clayton was insanely rich. He had already spent the last 30 years giving back. His employees had always been treated well. He had hired a disproportionate number of blacks in the 70s. His companies had provided opportunities to many that still faced barricaded doors in the deep South. Many talented people were passed on by other companies simply because they had the wrong skin color. Clayton attributed his success in no small part to his hiring practices. Success or not, it was the right thing to do.

His newly earned wealth had given him an chance to fulfill a longstanding desire, Clayton had explained. It had allowed him to help those he had served with who were in need. He began contacting old buddies, talking to veterans organizations, and searching. He found many in need, but one man eluded him. Frank had dropped out of society. It was the VA that had eventually set him on Frank’s trail. Medical records were supposedly private, but Clayton’s reputation and friendships had opened doors that might otherwise have been closed to him. He had followed Frank to three cities, but was unsuccessful in locating him. Until the latest. Largess had opened the final door when his name and relationships had failed. Clayton frowned on base bribery, but it had a magic all its own. Frank’s records listed the park as his current address.

Frank shared Clayton’s penthouse suite and soaked it all in. He did not talk much, but his story was one Clayton was intimately familiar with already. His back had been ruined by the shrapnel from the mortar blast. His country rejected him for his service and then his countrymen rejected him for his skin color. The trauma or war gnawed at his mind. He could not hold a job and eventually succumbed to schizophrenia, homelessness, and alcoholism.

Over dinner Frank confided that he hated the drugs. They made him feel “Muzzy”, he said. Clayton had chuckled, “Better than living on the street without them”. That night Clayton tossed back plenty of Tylenol, but when it come to for Frank to take his pills they remained in the nightstand. The next day he was more withdrawn, but Clayton was busy. He certainly did not need to work, but he did anyway and he had put off much in his final push to rescue Frank. At dinner Clayton announced that he would be busy much of the next day, but would see Frank in the evening.

As they drove back to the hotel their route took them by the park. Frank was shaken. Something was wrong, he felt a malevolence hovering over the park. He quickly rolled down his window. Some insidious evil seemed to drift on the night air, tenebrous currents of wrongness curling about the comfortable landmarks. The normal happy figures of the fountain seemed subtly distorted. The merman’s haughty look of grandeur was smudged into a cruel sneer; the playful laughter of his mate twisted into an anguished wail. Frank flopped back into his seat dismayed. Clayton seemed not to notice absorbed as he was in a thick folio. That night Frank cleaned out the minibar, his shaking hand closed on a pill bottle, but only to push it deeper into a drawer.

Frank awoke as Clayton knocked on his door and announced that room service would be up with breakfast for him in about 15 minutes. Frank mumbled something and felt a coiling darkness in the suite. A heavy malevolence pushed a the edges of him mind. He smelled a grim putrescence that faded with the steps of Clayton. Frank dressed quickly, fractured thoughts driving him. The gibbering voices swelled from the rediscovered void, their caressing familiarity chipping away at his hard won sanity. His sharded consciousness sought familar pathways and the maelstrom swept over him.

The hotel waiter left the cart laden with fresh flowers, eggs benedict, sausage, toast, and juice in an empty suite.

Clayton was worried that evening when he could not find Frank. He became frantic when a quick search turned up a nightstand drawer with more than a Gideon Bible in it. Clayton spent the next three days desperately searching the city for Frank. He called in help. He visited homeless shelters, contacted hospitals, and canvased the park daily. He slept no more than four hours a night as he drove the streets in a frenzy. His head aches mounted and his stomach rebelled from an almost exclusive diet of Tylenol. But Frank’s medicines were an even more leaden weight in his coat pocket.

Finally on the fourth morning after a tortuous night of tossing and turning Clayton spied Frank in the park. He stood on a bench gesticulating and shouting to the four corners of the world. Clayton fumbled with the door handle in his haste to reach his friend. Once open, he ignored the open door as he sprinted across the park.

This street was known to Smelly Frank. As the dark of night gave way to the gray of dawn Smelly Frank broke out into the swarded expanse of his park. But wrong, WRONG! It was no longer his park. Something else strove to own it. Frank could feel a swirling dissolution that was gripping the area. His voices whispered of Juan and a fist fight. Their sibilance imparted an image Willy being bullied. They moaned of a woman mugged in daylight on the park edge. They hissed of cuts, bruises, and a sprained ankle in this, the safest of havens. The voices screamed with the twisted wrongness of an oppressive insidiousness tearing apart a refuge of peace.

But Smelly Frank knew what to do. This was something he understood. He moved about the park. His palsied movements were punctuated with guttural exclamations and fractured shouts. As the sun rose it did nothing to push the invisible darkness back, but Smelly Frank’s path rent the hideous miasma. Finally his perambulations brought him to a bench and he climbed onto it. His frenzied motions made him seem as if controlled by a spastic puppeteer. His postulations were declared with vehemence and utter unintelligibly. But as he slumped to the bench the fresh sunshine touched the top of the fountain and its prismatic beams seemed to scour the air and a clean fragrance seemed to suffuse the park.

Clayton stumbled to a stop before the bench as Smelly Frank finished his insane antics. His calls roused Smelly Frank. His pleading touched a spark still struggling in Smelly Frank’s tortured mind. Smelly Frank reached out and touched his old friend’s arm and said, “No. No. My home is here. I won’t, can’t go back with you. Thank you for what you have done, but this is my life.”. Sadness and tears filled Clayton’s eyes. With rock hard certainty he knew that there was nothing else he could do for Smelly Frank. Each man had to choose his own path and Smelly Frank had chosen his. Both men’s hands shook as they grasped and Clayton gasped out a haunted “Goodbye” and turned away. As he did the pressure in his head threatened to overwhelm him. The horrible ache slammed back into his head and he bent weakly to retch.

Smelly Frank’s tenuous grasp on reality slipped away with his friend. And the voices rose again to engulf him. No slow whispers this time, they exploded in garish riotousness. A cloying stench of brokenness erupted in his mind. And it warned him. He sensed the a twistedness, an eroding destructiveness. It was centered on the man hunched over puking. Smelly Frank did not know about chromosomes, and genes, and unrestrained cell replication, though he would recognize the word cancer. But in his own way he understood brokenness and his talent was to be able to place things right.

Clayton wiped sour bile from his mouth with a Brooks Brothers coat sleeve attached to hunched shoulders as he shuffled back to the car. He refused to look back as Smelly Frank’s ululations commenced. He wanted to remember the Frank he had known the previous week, not the convulsive husk capering behind him.

As the limo pulled slowly into traffic Smelly Frank’s movements slowed and his speech faltered. In some small corner of his mind he understood he was done for now, the fetid evil had been pushed back and extinguished. His park and his friend were safe again. Clayton slumped in the back seat and reached for his Tylenol bottle. But then realized that his head did not hurt and he did not need another pain killer. He rode on sad and oblivious to a debt acquired equal to the one he had come to the city to discharge.

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