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Companion Trilogy: Companionless

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.

Two weeks after I found Ott, my old partner, bareheaded and totally rogue in an apartment and killed him, I looked out my window and saw I was being watched. It was a simple white van a half block down. They weren't trying to hide themselves; or not very well, anyway. A man sat in the driver's seat, his companion clinging to his face and arranging its needles so he had to look around its small black body to see.
I knew him. His name was Varner.
I picked up the phone and called the station. Tarifa answered right away.
"Marlon," she said. "Better not be calling in sick."
I weighed my response, watching Varner from a crack in the blinds. I was pretty sure he knew I was watching; his companion had crawled almost all the way down his face and was looking up, dangling from the needle it had implanted in his forehead.
I weighed my response.
"Sick?" I said. "Hell no. I'm on my way in."
Tarifa was silent, no doubt trying to figure out what I meant. I hung up, looked for another moment at Varner's companion crawling across his face--it had an unseemly, jerky movement that my own companion would never use--and then walked downstairs.
When I got out onto the street he was gone.
What would Varner want with me, I wondered.
I had met him about five years ago. The department rented out Shon's every month or so, and the drinks were on them, and cops from all over the city jammed in the place. I had been standing with Ott at the bar talking. He stopped talking and pointed.
"Bloody Varner."
I had no idea what Ott was talking about, but he explained it. A year before the department had been called to one of the companion nest sites. These are practically shrines for some people. They quit their jobs and just spend their days standing around the nest sites, looking down into the pit, seeing fresh egg chains being dragged up by the people who worked there to be taken to hospitals and joined to babies. It's all beautiful, of course. Postcard stuff. But these people take it too far. They watch the egg chains come out and they weep and wail. Sometimes we get called in for crowd control because they get so emotional that one of them will fall into the nest site. Varner was in charge of a four-man squad that day. There were a lot of loonies, and they started pushing past the barricades. He ended up ordering his people to fire into the crowd. Killed thirty people and their companions.
"Tarifa keeps him around for dirty stuff now," Ott had told me at Shan's that night. "Without her he'd be gone, and he knows it."
Which is what helped me make my next decision.
I didn't go into the station. If Varner was following me, it must be on Tarifa's orders.
Instead of going in, I went back into my apartment and turned the TV on, put a rotating fan on high, then I walked back down to the street, moved up a block over, and bought a coffee at the breakfast place there. From the front window I could see the whole block easily.
Before very long, Varner showed up again. He parked where he had before, and he sat in the driver's seat staring up at my window. He was looking at the flickering lights from the TV, and the blinds moving in the wind from the fan--did that mean someone was inside? As he was watching I left the breakfast place, walked around the block, and approached his van from the back.
I stayed in the rearview mirrors' blindspots as best I could. The plan was to open the door, yank him out, and hit him--and then figure out what he and Tarifa were up to. I yanked, but Varner was quick. He swung first and I felt my nose pop broken under his knuckles. I stumbled and swung blindly, but then he had me by the collar, dragging me back.
I fell against metal. A door slammed. I was in the back of the van.
"You hit like an old man," I said.
Varner's eyes went to my nose and the blood streaming out of it, and he smiled.
And then he reached up, lifted the companion off of his head, and set it next to his right foot. My mind raced--it was some kind of prop, not a real companion, which meant that Tarifa must be bareheaded too--they must be rebels, like those scientists Ott and I killed years ago.
Varner had a pistol aimed from the hip and I had just enough time to wonder what he planned to do before he fired. It felt like getting hit by a truck. I lay on the floor of the van, wondering what it would feel like to die.
And then Varner helped me up. There was no pain, and the inside of the van had the oddest light to it.
Varner tapped the top of his skull and I felt my own head: my companion was gone.
"Relax. I didn't shoot you. The impact you felt was me shooting your companion, and when the mind bond breaks, it can hurt. It takes a couple minutes for the venom to fade," Varner said. "Once it does you'll have to meet somebody."
"Who?" I asked.
"You," he said.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, July 14th, 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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