For the first half hour out of Augusta the next morning, digesting my breakfast of corned beef hash, eggs, and soggy toast, I kept my thoughts to myself. My shotgun rider didn’t say anything, either. Old Jack Hill sat cradling his left elbow with his right hand, strained tendons being the price he’d paid for humiliating MMA wannabe Tad Collins yesterday, but he looked…content.
I was anything but.
‘Treemin Jackson,” I thought to myself, “who are you, really?”
It was no idle question. On the surface of things the answers–not singular, definitely plural–were easy: I was a 24 year old black cowboy welder salesman hunka hunka burning love with a hottie at home and a 1989 Pontiac Grand Prix in mint condition.
Beyond that, though, the terrain got trickier. My uncle’s alarm at the idea I might actually consider trying to learn to do what Hill had done, living for centuries in the same body…let’s just say he had reason for concern. I was seriously drawn to the idea. Not because of ego, or at least I didn’t think so, and not because I feared death (which I did not) or anything other folks might consider logical.
It just felt right.
I understood a few things. The spiritual hierarchy, however that worked, might help a fellow hang around long term if he was the right candidate for the job. Darker Souls had learned to master Time to one degree or another in the past, living many times longer than most and perfecting their understanding of this, that, and the other thing. Which made it clear you didn’t have to be a nice guy to live sort-of-forever.
Hanging around planet Earth with the goal of helping others was still a good idea, though. Especially if you didn’t have to incarnate so often, come back endless times as a squalling infant. I hate being a kid.
No matter how long the incarnation, the butcher’s bill would still come due at the end of the process, and karma is still karma. Which was no problem. I got that. The rest of it…not so much. My head was spinning, churning, mixing visions of Mammoth Riders and modern day gangstas and hit men and a wife who didn’t want to hear about it.
Came out of my TOC, my Trance Of Confusion, when we hit Interstate 15 and hooked north. Straight freeway shot, 73 miles to Shelby. An hour to chat with Jack if he was up for it.
I bit the bullet.
“You figuring on cutting my throat again any time soon?”
The old Protector chuckled ruefully. “Figured it out, did you?”
“That I was the Union guard who messed up and trusted you at Andersonville just enough to get myself a red smile? Yeah, that was pretty clear the instant you told the story.” The indignation roiled up inside me, burst out of its own accord. “And you’re not even sorry!”
“Sorry?” He sounded genuinely surprised. “What’s to be sorry about? It was war.”
“But nothing. You’ve not done military service in this go-round, but you’re no innocent, either. The drill sergeants teach it now, and they taught it then. Prob’ly been teaching it as long as there’ve been humans on the planet. In war, if you’re captured by the other side, your number one duty is to escape.”
“And you have to do it fast. The longer you stay imprisoned, the worse the odds stack up against you. Ask John McCain how easy it was to escape, once they had him for a while. I was at the end of my rope, Tree, and there weren’t no knot tied there for me to hang on, neither.”
“Partner,” his voice softened suddenly, “It was simple. One of us had to die, and you drew the short straw. If I hadn’t sliced you when I did, I’d have been dead myself inside a week. It was that close.” He paused, took a breath. My objections had somehow run out of steam; I waited for him to go on.
“You know,” he finally continued, “it ain’t like we’d never done that dance before.”
“Huh?” I had a sudden sense of where this conversation was going. Made me feel a bit better, danged if it didn’t.
“Meeting up under difficult circumstances and one of us ending up dead. The recall is kind of vague, but I’ve got this sense that you and I have been swapping killings for a lo-ong time.”
He went silent for real then, let me think it through. “You’re saying we’ve been taking turns, you killing me off in one lifetime, me killing you off in the next?”
“Something like that.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him nod. “Does staking me out over an anthill ring any bells?
Actually, it did. Well then.
“So,” I ventured, “you’re thinking maybe the Lords of Karma gave us a shot at being on the same side this time? Figured maybe we’d have a better chance of getting things balanced out between us? Break the old vicious cycle?”
“Why not–look out!!”
I was already on it, foot slamming down on the brakes. Which were unfortunately *&#%!! ABS version pieces of sh*t, so the big Ford and its still heavy trailer didn’t exactly come screeching to a stop if you know what I mean. Pulse-pulse-pulse-sh*t! There was no safe way to spin the wheel, not with that load pushing from behind.
When a huge blacktail doe leaps the freeway fence and tries for a Gold Medal in Hood Ornamentation, all you can do is shut ‘er down as quick as you can, hold everything as straight as possible, and either pray fast or cuss a blue streak.
We were still moving a good forty miles an hour when she crossed in front of us. Time didn’t exactly stand still, but it most surely did get scrambled. Not sure she didn’t clip the left front fender with a hoof, it was that close.
She was still moving like a scalded cat when she dipped through the median, dashed across the oncoming lanes, and put a green Kenworth T800 in the ditch, big as day. That trucker obviously did not know what he was doing. Managed to avoid the animal the hard way, ever and always a huge #1 no-no for those who pilot 18-wheelers.
The driver somehow kept the tractor shiny side up, but only because the fifth wheel didn’t hold his bullrack’s kingpin. The metal-sided cattle trailer rolled from the whip he’d put on it, but came loose from the power unit in the process.
That was one stroke of good fortune for the fellow. The other was that his semi trailer was empty; there would be no cattleman bellowing about his livestock getting all busted up and/or running loose along the freeway.
I parked the Ford, set the flashers, and we headed over to the wreck to see if the Kenworth driver needed help. We could see he was already on his cell phone, more likely to his dispatcher than to the HIghway Patrol if he had a lick of sense. Beautiful day, partially cloudy with a cobalt sky directly overhead.
“Score one for sloppy maintenance,” Jack muttered as we jogged toward the fool. Not all so-called professional truck drivers really do know what the heck they’re doing.
“Maintenance. Adjusted right, no way that kinpin woulda popped outa there that easy. He had his fifth wheel jaws set too loose. Most likely hadn’t checked ’em in a month of Sundays. Lucky he didn’t drop a load right in the middle of town somewhere.”
We were rolling again in a matter of minutes. The shaken trucker said his name was Shorty, but he didn’t offer any more than that and clearly didn’t want us hanging around. Which was understandable; if he was to make up a story of how exactly he’d come to be parked in a ditch with his semi trailer detached and splashed down on its side, he didn’t need us adding our two cents worth.
Which was fine with us.
“Where were we?” I asked as the next rise took us out of sight of the wreck.
“Karma. Balance. You and me.”
“Ah. Yes.” Neither of us spoke for another six or seven miles. Then I asked, “So, how you think we’re doing so far?”
Hill laughed uproariously. I wasn’t quite sure why that struck him so funny. Nothing to do but wait till he settled down enough to explain. Which he did, eventually.
“Well, Tree,” he got out between gasps for air and wiping his eyes with his sleeve, “We been hanging out with each other off and on for months now, and both of us are still alive. I could be mistaken, but I do believe that’s some kind of record.”
“Excellent.” I grinned, risking a glance at my centuries-old frenemy. The dude definitely looked good for his age. Of course, most dudes his age would have been worm poop for a long time already.
Time, I suddenly realized, had been slipping away. Another ten minutes, we’d be hitting Shelby. Best get to the point.
“In case you haven’t figured it out, I got more than a passing interest in this idea of hanging around for hundreds of years.”
“Yeah.” He sounded serious. “That’s been obvious for a while.”
“My uncle B.J. thinks I’m nuts. Says yeah, it might be doable, but I’m nuts for thinking it’s a good idea. What do you think?”
“I think,” he replied, speaking slowly, “that Big Jude is a wise man indeed.”
“Hunh. He’s guessing it ain’t no cakewalk, that you struggle to stay alive every day, just like every other human out there.”
He sighed. I waited. “Tree, you don’t know the half of it. Can’t know the half of it, not unless you go through it yourself. Which I reckon you’re fixing to do, all right. Not that I can tell you how it’s done, except that the belief in the possibility and the determination to make it happen are key. I know that much.
“But the daily struggle? You betcha. B.J. nailed it.
“See, the masses out there…well, there are a lot of idiots incarnated in human form, let me tell you. If they see you at a certain point in your life, they only see where you are, not where you been and what it took to cover the distance between.”
Hm. “Could you clarify that a little?”
“Sure. It don’t have to be a matter of longevity. Take money, for instance. Wealth. Let’s say Mr. & Mrs. Idiot meet you, get to know you just a little, and find out you’re a multi-gazillionaire.”
“Har har. Point being, they won’t even ever think about the decades you spent making those gazillions happen, the sleepless nights, the price you paid to get what you got. All they’ll see is that you have money and by the way, gimme some!”
“Yeah.” I got it. “Like Obama and his Welfare Army wanting to tax the so-called rich till there are no rich, gimme gimme gimme and the heck with working for it. Bunch of crabs in a crab bucket.”
“Exactly. And the longevity issue works out the same way. I’ve not told many about that side of my nature for obvious reasons. But any time a man or woman beats 100, or God forbid 110, the vultures start to gather. So-called journalists want to hear from the oldsters what helped them avoid the Grim Reaper for so long. And if the toruture chamber science types can get hold of them, they’ll run every test imaginable, test the old person to death if nothing else.
“That sounds natural enough. Wanting to know. Ponce de Leon wasn’t the first to go looking for eternal youth.”
“Yeah, but you’re missing the point. These idiots, the journalists and medical researchers and government black ops types, they also miss the point. They want to figure out, hey, is it genetics, or diet, or the environment…and how can we use the knowledge to our advantage? What they don’t get, ever, is that the struggle’s never over till it’s over. It’s not something that can be distilled and put in a can.”
“Um…” I felt like one of the Idiots, but I couldn’t help myself. “What is it, then?”
“Simply put….” He hesitated, as if fearful that sharing the knowledge might break something. I’m not sure, but I think I held my breath. “You have to decide you’re going to live a long time, that the rules makers for such things are full of it right up to their statistical ears. You have to decide, and you have to know why you’re doing it…and most of all, you have to be willing to pay the price.”
Fortunately for my sanity, we had time for a lunch break prior to calling on Highline Feed & Seed in Shelby. The waittress was old and ugly, nothing to interest either of us, but she knew her job and the food was good. We’d downed our burgers and were loitering over second cups of coffee when I decided I just had to ask or bust a gut.
“What’s the price, Jack?”
He blew on his coffee to cool it, took a sip, and told me.
“For one thing, you do this thing and you’re no longer part of humanity. Not as most people understand the term. You meet a girl, let’s say you’re a hundred and fifty years old, she’s just turned twenty. You’ve been long without a woman, decide to cross the line, and hook up with her. Never mind the gossips, old creep, young chick. That slides off your back like rain off a duck.
“But what don’t slide so well is when she ages out and you don’t. At first, let’s say till she hits 50 or 60 if her health is more or less normal, she doesn’t believe you if you tell her you’re going to outlive her. Then she does start believing, even hoping you’re right, ’cause otherwise she’s going to be left alone in a failing body with nobody to take care of her. So in the end, you nurse her through ten or twenty or thirty years of pain and suffering, bury her or cremate her or whatever…and start over.”
Tania, I thought miserably. I knew he was right, had already figured that part out. But being just 24, and my lady younger than me, it hadn’t seemed real. Until now.
When Jack Hill laid it on you, you knew it was fact.
Not that Jack was done talking. I’d opened the spillgate.
“Changing identities is tricky, too. You have to disappear from the system every so often, then pop up as somebody else entirely, or else you’re going to have the science zombies and the peckerwood press all over you. Lock you up in a heartbeat if they get the chance, which would sooner or later kill you for sure.”
“I was wondering about that,” I admitted, eyeing the cherry pie sitting in the dessert display across the room.
“Yeah. It’s a beast, sometimes. Wasn’t so bad before they got all this technology, fingerprints and DNA samples and birth certificates and Social Security numbers and GPS chip implants and all…but hey. Isn’t your appointment with Highline set for 1:00 o’clock sharp?”
I glanced at the restaurant wall clock. 12:47. We could barely make it on time, and to me, if you’re not early, you’re late.
Jack paid the bill. I unlocked the Ford, had it fired up by the time he made it around to the passenger side. My gut was roiling some.
Couldn’t tell how much was nerves over this next sales appointment and how much was wondering if I had what it took to do what the long-lived Protector did every day. You have to be willing to pay the price, he’d said.
Was I willing? I did not know, simply did not know.
I put the truck in gear, signaled, pulled out to head on down the street to Highline Feed & Seed. Time to start worrying about the sales resistance of one Orville Shawntek, owner of the store. Get my mind right, put on my sales hat. The heck with worrying about living for centuries.
If I didn’t get this order, my ego wouldn’t even live through the day.