“A Late February Wish”

M.J. Downing

Paul Calhoun pulled a chair up to Brendan’s table at the coffee shop, flipped open his tablet, and brought up his school account.  Brendan’s eyes stayed on his screen.  He didn’t act like he knew his best friend had joined him.  He couldn’t.  Brendan stared at a report that a girl he liked had shared about a boy, Billy Doakes, who had just killed himself.  Brendan knew Billy from school. His whole circle of friends were at U of L, and Billy had died.  

            Paul shook him and said, “Hey, asswipe. You gonna say hello?”

            “Yeah. Hi,” Brendan said, glancing at Paul, who only pretended to pay attention to his emails from school.  Paul had struck a posture to draw the attention of the three young women who sat at a table not very far away.  Brendan knew them, and Paul wanted to.

            “So, can you set me up with Zoey, that blond two tables over?” Paul asked.  He wasn’t really looking at Brendan. He was watching Zoey, who was in chem with Brendan.

            “Billy Doakes killed himself,” Brendan said. 

            “Who?”

            “Billy Doakes.  Guy who has to—had to use crutches all the time. He’s—he was—in English class with us last semester,” Brendan said. “He’s the one who wouldn’t let you use all those articles he’d found.”

            “Oh, yeah. What a prick. You say he’s dead? Paul asked. “More importantly, was he a good friend to Zoey, because if she’s sad and shit about him dying, maybe I could—“

            “No,” Brendan said. “They weren’t close. I don’t think she knew him.  I did, though, well, sorta.”

            “Oh well,” Paul said. “Can you set me up with her? Cause she’s got a—“

            “Will you shut up about Zoey? I just told you that a guy we both know is dead.  That’s dead, man, as in no longer with us.”

            “Yeah, so? What’s that got to do with me hooking up with Zoey?  He die in some weird way that makes it look like she did it?”

            “No. No. No!” Brendan replied, each word gaining in volume.

            “Jesus, Bren. Control yourself.  Why you freaking out?”

            “Look, man, Billy Doakes was found this morning on a bench over in back of the Library, where those big trees are?  He froze to death.  He killed himself by freezing to death.  Shit!  Can you imagine?”

            “So, did he leave a note blaming Zoey?” Paul repeated his request. “You got to get me with her, man.  She’s all I can think about.  I mean, just look at her in those jeans.”

            “You mean when you’re not thinking of Cara, your fiance?” Brendan asked in a loud voice, which caused Zoey and her friends to stare back at them with wide eyes. 

            “Thanks, man,” Paul stated, watching the trio of girls pick up their things, shrug into heavy coats, and head out the door.  They let in a bitter wind that ran across Brendan’s back like an icy claw and made Paul cross his slender arms.  He shook his head. “Way to go, Dick.”

            Brendan closed his lap top and stared at it.  Paul stared at him and shook his head in disgust.

            “Billy left a note for his Mom and Dad, and it said how he couldn’t stand to live in a world where the only thing he could see in his future was hate. He said that people were so full of hate that it was all they knew.  He apologized to his folks in his fucking suicide note, man, and then he let the cold kill him.” Brendan said his voice an icy monotone.  He looked at the gray clouds in the sky.  They flew in broken rags on a stiff wind.  Brendan thought that they’d be gone by nightfall, and then the upper airs, the truly cold stuff, would sink down and have them all in single digits by morning. A guy would go quick on such a night.

            “Look, that guy? What a loser! He was a jerk and so stupid looking.  What’d you used to call him?

            Brendan closed his eyes and bent his head.  Billy couldn’t use his legs, except as props.  They’d grown thin through lack of use, but his heavy, short torso had gotten bulkier through Billy’s use of crutches.  At best, he was strong but shaped odd, sort of a round mass atop two—well, four—sticks. “Stretch McGillicudy,” Brendan whispered, and Paul laughed.

            “That’s it,” Paul said. “Old Stretch McGillicudy is dead, is he?”  He paused then, staring harder at Brendan, for he saw his friend’s hands shaking, saw a tear form on Brendan’s lower eye lid and slide down his cheek.  Brendan wiped it away with a rough gesture.  Paul finally said, in a low voice,

            “Hey, man. What’s gotten into you?”  Brendan wouldn’t say anything for a few minutes, and because Paul was staring at him so hard, he murmured, “Blade Runner thing,” under his breath.  Paul thought about it for a minute, and began to shake his head.  He sighed, stretched, and yawned. “You trolled his comment on Blade Runner last week, right? He was the one who added to that string that the replicants were supposed to be us, right?”

            “Yes,” Brendan replied, his voice husky. “With that slow clapping meme I got from you.” He lifted red eyes towards Paul’s. “I trolled him just to show off. You could see in the rest of his comments that it upset him.  He had something to say, and I stepped on it, like an asshole.”

            “And so you think you killed him?” Paul said in disbelief, his mouth hanging open, jaw slack, the picture of disbelief.

            “No—“

            “You bet your ass you didn’t.  Guy killed himself.  Did you force him out of his dorm and take his keys? No!” Paul said, slamming his hand down on the table. “Guy was a fucking loser, couldn’t take it, was weak, and killed himself.  If he’d been a brave man, he’d had offed himself with a gun.”

            “No he wouldn’t.  Don’t you remember his paper about needing some common sense gun laws?  He was against ‘em.”

            “So, what? Now you are too?  What’s your point, Brendan?  You. Did. Not. Kill. Him.” Paul said, adding finger jabs to Brendan’s shoulder with his last five words.

            “No, I didn’t kill him, and got no problem with guns. It’s just that I just took away his chance to say something he wanted.”

            “Something obvious.  Everybody knows that we are the replicants because they are the heroes of the movies.  Shit, man. That’s why they make movies, isn’t it,?” Paul wondered aloud.

            “Yeah, but I watched that movie again, and I think he was right for a better reason,” Brendan said.  “You remember the humans in Blade Runner, right?  They were all horrible.  Only the artificial things they had made to look like them had anything positive about them. The replicants were the only things that cared.  Billy just tried to say that the replicants were like us, trying to find something better, something…I don’t know…something to believe in, like…”

            “Like, what, Brendan? Like love? Like hope. Like God, maybe? God, how stupid can you get?” Paul demanded. “I thought you were tougher than this.  Weren’t you the one who told me that if we get these degrees we’re after, that we can loot the fuckin’ world?  Wasn’t that your master plan?”

            “Yeah, well, maybe that’s just more shit than I can swallow, alright?” Brendan demanded. Jen, the barista, had just wiped down the table where the girls had sat.  She hummed an old tune as she worked, but when she came by their table, she said, “Getting’ a but loud, there guys, and it’s really cold outside. I thought you two were tight.” She moved on, humming and cleaning tables, her auburn hair precariously pinned up in a bun that looked like it was about to fall in glorious waves at each turn of her slender neck.  Paul gave her a forced smile and muttered, “bitch,” under his breath.  Brendan turned to see if she heard, but she moved on, smiling, going from table to table, tidying up, smiling at customers.

            “I…I gotta do something…better,” Brendan said.

            “Like what?” Paul demanded, his voice bitter.

            “Like, I don’t know what.  I guess I’ll see.  And I’ll see you later,” Brendan said, pulling on his coat and dumping his lap top in his bag. His coat lay heavy on his shoulders and the bag suddenly weighed more than it should. Brendan didn’t want to go out into the cold. 
            “We still friends?” Paul asked, his arms crossed, foot tapping, and his voice shaking. Worry creased his brow.

            “Yeah. Sure we are,” Brendan said, though he did not know if that was true.  He stepped out the shop door, expecting the bite of the wind on his face.  It was cold, but the clouds had stopped moving fast.  They had piled up, seeming to come to a sudden halt, gray heavy banks rolling slowly above him.  A tang was in the air as he started down the sidewalk for the mile long walk back to school, and the first snowflake kissed his cheek.  Brendan stopped an looked up. They were falling fast, faster as he stood watching them.  Patches of grass began to turn white, covering the faded browns of last year’s dead growth. The wind fell and even the traffic noise seemed to hush. It didn’t seem so cold to him.  The cold that could kill a man could also do this, cover over the harsh, hateful world, as though something, someone, also mourned the loss of Billy Doakes with him.  With a tear in his eye and a smile on his face, Brendan walked away into a different world.

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