Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Farm

Jack Wilson bought the farm today.

That’s what he said right before he died.  The strange thing was that he was really happy to die.

No, he wasn’t suicidal.  In fact, he was anything but.  He really cared about the men under his command as the company’s senior NCO.  He genuinely wanted to make sure as many of them as possible got back home safely.  He just didn’t care what happened to him.

Jack and I had been friends since elementary school back in Medford, Massachusetts.  We hung out together right up until college.  I became an officer through Navy ROTC.  Jack enlisted and we both ended up in Korea, as part of a joint command when the war started.

We were part of a recon unit that operated remotely piloted vehicles or RPV’s that took off from ships along the coast and could fly over the head of the enemy silently, without the noise of a helicopter rotor or a jet engine.  We sometimes fired Hellfire III missiles from the drones to take out high-value targets or heavy concentrations of insurgents.  Jack’s job had been to go into the field to retrieve downed drones before the North Koreans could get their hands on the technology. 

Jack’s parents had died a few years ago, he had been an only child and had no immediate family.  Add in that, thanks to his mother and the after-effects of her horrific divorce, he had been an agnostic since grade school and no one could really blame him if he’d lost all hope.  He didn’t, though and I knew the reason. 

The day after Jack died in the ambush set near the wreckage of one of the drones, I sat in the command building that had once been a police station.  As the company commander, I had the unenviable task of getting the company past his death.  He’d been a tough NCO but also one who genuinely cared about those under his tutelage

As I sat there behind that desk and thought of Jack’s last words – “I bought the farm” -- I thought of the one reason why he’d say such a thing -- Suzette Lincoln. 

I hadn’t thought of Suzette in more than 10 years, but it appeared Jack had thought of her a lot.

She had been a school mate of ours back in Medford and Jack had this crush on her. But, Jack was a jock who was supposed to stay away from a plain Jane like Suzette, with her mousy black hair and her average figure that blossomed much later than the other girls. 
She hung out with us – me and Jack and my girl at the time Alicia – only because we all lived on the same block.

I knew she desperately wanted friends.  That was because her dad was an inventor and so eccentric that most of the neighborhood laughed at him.  The kids rarely went to Suzette’s house because we didn’t know if her dad was going to accidentally blow it up like he’d doe to his garage.

So, we maintained the status quo until our senior year.  Suzette pined for attention and Jack hid his affection.  When we were all together, he pretended not to pay any attention to her.

That was, until she began missing school.

I was shocked when I found out that Suzette had a mutant cancer strain.  Medical science had done wonders in the previous 20 years to wipe out cancer.  I thought God really had it in for some people.  Being an avowed agnostic, Jack disagreed with me and chalked it up to fate.

Jack really changed after that hard news.  We all did in a way.  Suzette was an outsider to us, someone hanging on our coattails, but she was a classmate.  We all thought we’d live forever.  We weren’t supposed to die.  There were things we still had to do – graduation, class reunions, weddings, college.  And why did it always seem to happen to the nice ones? 

It was like he’d changed overnight in his sleep.  I missed him on the bus home from school one day in the fall of our senior year.  Lo and behold, when I reached our street, I saw him laughing with Suzette on her porch.  She blushed a little when she saw me looking at the two of them.  Down deep inside, though, part of me was both glad and sad to see her like this.  Glad that she was finally opening up and sad that it had to happen when she was so sick.

Thanks to modern science, she was able to keep her hair and not get nauseous from the new chemotherapy.  That allowed Jack to spend more time with her.  He helped her with her small garden, a precursor to the farm she’d always dreamed of.  He volunteered his free time with her at the hospital helping other patients whose cancers had not yet been conquered by medical technology.  He grew into a man those seven months.

I still remembered their drives.  He’d take his grandfather’s rebuilt Pontiac muscle car and cruise around town with Suzette, showing her off to everyone.  They’d both wear their parents’ old leather jackets and would be laughing like no one else in the world mattered.  They’d look so odd together -- her with a full head of jet black hair despite being sick and him with some fuzz on top of his dome because he’d promised to shave his head if we won the state football championship.

I don’t know how Jack got through graduation.  He should have broken down, but he kept it together.  We all sat in that auditorium watching Suzette make her Valedictorian speech.  It was on three-dimensional video because she’d suddenly taken a turn for the worse right after final exams (she’d been having so much fun with Jack that she’d kept news of her relapse secret from all of us).  I was never one to cry, but I felt myself close to losing it that day.

The funeral for Suzette that June was the largest I’d seen in Medford in a long time.  The entire graduating class, plus most of the school staff and half of our neighborhood crowded the street of her church.  Jack had the honor of making the eulogy.  I wrote it for him, based on his words.  He delivered it flawlessly, which surprised me since he was an agnostic who hadn’t been to any kind of church since his parents’ messy divorce.

I didn’t see him much after that.  He spent a lot of time at the hospital, continuing to volunteer like he’d done with Suzette.  Then, he became withdrawn and was always at Suzette’s house, talking to her dad.

One day as I came back from an errand, Jack called me over to Suzette’s house.  He wouldn’t explain; he just motioned for me to follow him, so I did.  We went to Mr. Lincoln’s basement where even my furtive imagination was stunned by all the advanced computers and technological equipment.  Jack led me over to a machine that looked like an old DVD/CD-ROM player connected to an advanced EEG monitor.  He handed me a pair of what looked like ear buds attached to oversized sunglasses, while he took another pair for himself.

“Come on, let’s talk to Suzette,” he said.

I knew people reacted differently to death, but I’d never expected Jack to go off the deep end.  He was insistent, so I followed his lead and put the contraption on.  He started talking about how Suzette and something her dad had built.  For my part, I thought of some vague Peter Cushing and I seemed to recall that Cushing’s character was Frankenstein.

Jack pushed some buttons and it was like my whole world changed.  One minute, I was in a laboratory; the next, I was on a farm.  The sun was shining brightly and we were in a field of tall green grass that swayed with a cool, gentle breeze.  I heard some cows moo and when I looked ahead, I saw a large red barn in the distance.  I thought I might have been hallucinating until Jack tapped me on the shoulder and pointed.  I looked and I saw someone leading one of the cows.

It was Suzette!

She turned to us and waved.  I was stunned.  I started to wave but then my vision blurred, I became nauseous and had to rip the glasses off.  When the world stopped turning, I opened my eyes and saw that I was in the basement again.

I noticed that Jack didn’t appear to be in any discomfort.  He had obviously been using this device for a while, enough to be trusted with it.  He’d walked right into the lab without Mr. Lincoln being home and hadn’t set off any alarms.

“It was Suzette,” Jack said, his face giddy and flushed.  “You saw her yourself, so you can be a witness.  Mr. Lincoln hooked her up to this machine just before she died.  She’s in a better place.  She’s in Heaven.”

Maybe Jack had found God again.  If Suzette had imparted that to him, I was more than glad.  But, I was worried more about his mental condition.  Suzette was gone, yes, but he still had a full life ahead of him.

“Jeez, Jack, it’s one of those new encephalographic recordings the Catholic Church is up in arms about,” I told him.  “They use them for terminally ill patients so that their loved ones will see them in better days.  But, the government hasn’t approved them yet because they make you wanna' puke.  Probably never will.  You could get into big trouble for using this, man.  So could Mr. Lincoln for creating it.”

“So what?” Jack snapped.  “Why can’t they understand?  She’s in a much better place.  I just had to know.  She’s on the farm we both wanted to own.  She’s there now and I’ll be there, too.”

I gasped audibly and looked at Jack.  I’m sure my expression was one of horror.  Jack suddenly grinned and slapped me on the back hard enough to make me cough.  He led me out of the basement.

“Don’t worry, Jeff,” he said, wearily, along the way.  “Suicide’s a sin, remember?  I just see this as something to keep me going.”

I didn’t tell anyone about the experience.  I didn’t need Jack cracking up on me if I brought down any condemnation on him.  What he saw wasn’t really Heaven, but if it kept him sane then it could be whatever he wanted. 

“Heaven’s what you want it to be, Jack,” I said to cheer him up.

Jack and I talked a few more times after that but I never mentioned Suzette or the machine again.  We eventually went off to college and then graduate school, occasionally trading phone calls, e-mails and a few letters in which he sounded sullen.  We didn’t see each other again until the war found him as my senior noncommissioned officer.  He looked good, as if the war had somehow propped up his flagging spirits.

I brought myself back to the present and looked around.  I was still alone with my memories.  I thought of Jack’s encephalograph.  They were commonplace now, especially because of the war.  Was his the same as Suzette’s?

I didn’t know if Heaven would be like Suzette’s thought patterns.  Then again, I wasn’t God and maybe Heaven really was what a person made it.  Maybe that thought had kept Jack going all these years. 

I had to admit I really didn’t know much, but there was one thing I did know.  All puns aside, I knew Jack.  And I knew where he’d be now.  On a farm with eternal sunshine, tall wavy grass, a giant red barn, some cows and, most importantly, the only girl he’d ever loved.

Gregory Marshall Smith

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Copyright © 2010 Gregory Marshall Smith

All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, locations, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination, or have been used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, locales, or events is entirely coincidental. No portion of this work may be transmitted or reproduced in any form, or by any means, without permission in writing from the author.

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