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Companion Trilogy: Companion

Mike Buckley is a widely-published short story writer whose work has appeared in national journals such as The Alaska Quarterly Review, The Southern California Review, and Clarkesworld. His work has been anthologized numerous times, including in The Best American Non-Required Reading, 2003, and the upcoming Red Hen LA Writers Anthology. His debut collection of short fiction, Miniature Men, was released in 2011. Find him at mikebuckleyauthor.com.

Tarifa's office was so hot that as I was sitting opposite her, listening to her complain about Ott's disappearance, I couldn't help but imagine him laid out on her desk, roasting.
"He's your partner. Find him," she said finally.
Tarifa's companion stepped gently over the crown of her skull, its long black legs picking through the strands of her hair. It worked its needle back and forth in the small wound on her forehead, fixing its single, shiny eye on me (and my own companion).
"I'll get him, Tarifa," I said.
Her companion removed the needle from her forehead and clear fluid dripped from the tip of it.
"You damn well better, Marlon. Detectives don't disappear from my station."
Which, knowing Tarifa, was clear enough to me: If I didn't find Ott, they'd be looking to kill him.
"A day," I said. "No problem."
I found Ott just where I expected to. It wasn't so much a neighborhood as a study in decay, building after building tumbledown and empty of everything except trash and shadows.
And Ott, on the third floor of a tenement, sitting bareheaded on a filthy mattress. His pistol was five feet away on the carpet.
"Tarifa's wondering where you are," I said.
He shrugged, like here I am.
I wondered if he remembered what we did here, in this very apartment, two years ago. We'd been tracking a gang of companion-killers and found them here. They called themselves scientists. Rebels. A companion was cut apart on the table like they were studying it, just like you see in horror movies. That was the day I saw what Ott could really do with a gun. There were still stains on the walls.
"What happened to your companion, Ott?"
He was silent for a long second.
"You can rip them off, did you know that? But you have to..." Ott's voice drifted. The wound on his forehead, where his companion has been needling him his whole life, looked red and distended. "You have to hide the thought," he finally continued. "If the companion senses rebellion in you they eat it, suck it up through their needle."
Ott's chin flicked in the direction of the bathroom, and there I found his companion, on the tile floor, smashed.
But maybe Ott's OK, I thought. Maybe we can get him another companion.
I felt the needle shift in my forehead, and my companion's delicate feet perch over my ears. A realization blossomed in my mind.
Of course Ott couldn't be saved. Just as had happened for all of us, the moment Ott had slipped from the womb, a new, tiny companion had been lifted from an egg pod and set upon his soft skull, where it lowered its needle into him, joining his thoughts. Just imagine how he felt now--the horror of being alone; the coldness; my God, he must be so scared. But maybe, also, it would be hard to go back. He might want to be alone now. This is how it happened for those "scientists" we had shot down here two years ago. One gets loose of his companion somehow, snatches his friend's off, and then they start plotting to kill other companions. The scientists had pasted pictures all over the walls here in the bathroom, of things I couldn't see the importance of. Empty buildings. Extinct animals. Fields of executed rebels in front of the capitol building. The work of nuts.
I heard a thud in the next room, and for the first time it occurred to me that I had left Ott's gun on the carpet. I'd left him--Ott--alone with a gun.
There was an empty beer bottle in the sink and I picked it up and tossed it down the hallway. Once it passed the corner three rounds hit it perfectly, turning the bottle into glass powder, but I was right behind it, capitalizing on Ott's mistake, rolling low. Ott, like an idiot, was standing in front of the window, perfectly silhouetted. I fired and hit him in the chest. As he fell I fired again, at his head. He lay there, his throat flexing.
Not wanting to look at my ex-partner's dying, and worse, companionless face anymore, I stood in front of the window. My mind wandered, and for a moment it seemed that the neighborhood's decay stretched across the whole city. The buildings were scabbed and shabby. The parks were overgrown and abandoned. I thought for a moment I saw a rotting corpse a few blocks away.
Then I blinked, and it was gone. The city was pristine again, and the reflection of my companion was looking back at me, its shiny black eye regarding me as it worked the needle deeper into my brain.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, July 13th, 2016

Author Comments

For me, this story trilogy is about how ideas, experiences, and biases influence the way we see the world. They're our companions in a very intimate sense, and it has always interested me how we spend so long putting together our memories and habits and identities, only to, later, go into something like therapy to break free of them and try to find an authentic self. Beyond all of the ideas about ideas, though, writing these stories made my head itch.

- Mike Buckley
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