The Forever Man

Pierre Ouellette
New York
The Forever Man is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of
the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events,
locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
An Alibi eBook Original
Copyright © 2014 by Pierre Ouellette
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States of America by Alibi, an imprint of Random House, a
division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
ALIBI is a registered trademark and the ALIBI colophon is a trademark of Random House
eBook ISBN 9780804177191
Cover and art design: Scott Biel
Author photograph: Justin Ouellette

I have no plans to die.
—Rupert Murdoch, as quoted
in The Wall Street Journal,
December 10, 1997
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
—William Butler Yeats,
“Sailing to Byzantium”

At 127 years of age, Thomas Zed is forever cold, with the capillaries in his skin
continually screaming for the blood his frail heart cannot provide. The walls of the
ventricles are severely thickened, and the various chambers hopelessly compromised. The
arteries that feed the cardiac muscles are fat with collagen and calcium, so they no longer
stretch and recoil with enough vigor to power a strong pulse.
Zed moves forward on wobbly legs, with small, careful steps that measure
the safety of the ground beneath him. His bones have ossified into brittle relics, leached
of minerals and ready to snap during the slightest fall. The shovel that he drags with his
right hand skews his gait and leaves a tiny furrow in the ground as he moves forward.
Through eyes with bloated lenses and constricted pupils, he searches the grass ahead for
the right spot. Even in the glorious blaze of prairie light, all is dim, and he must search
very carefully. Then he sees it. A single stone, an aberration in the local geology, a rock
too large for the earth around it.
Zed grasps the shovel handle with swollen, arthritic joints and winces at
the pain they radiate. He could have asked for help, could have avoided the ordeal ahead.
The security people are young, strong, resilient. They would have perspired freely as they
dug with strong backs and thick shoulders and flung the prairie sod into the wind. But
when they reached the target of the dig, they would be repulsed by what they saw, and he
would be obligated to explain, which was simply not possible. He must suffer the pain of
his labor, no matter what the physical cost.
He raises the shovel and plants his foot on the curled metal at the back of
the blade. He gingerly puts his weight on it and feels the steel tip punch into the ground
through the dry thatch. He removes his foot, pries the dirt loose from the earth’s stubborn
grip, and throws it to the side. The volume of his excavation is pitifully small, and the
magnitude of the task becomes sadly clear. He has only half the muscle tissue of his
youth, and it will be severely stressed as it runs a large deficit in oxygenated blood.
Nevertheless, he must go on. He raises the shovel and bites the cold ground once again.
Already, he can feel pain where the back of the blade traverses the sole of his shoe.
As Zed digs, his heart heaves about in his chest and does its best to meet
the cruel demands put forth by the muscles in the limbs and the back. His pulse clambers
up to ninety beats per minute, and its rhythmic components begin to collide with each
other in a silent scream of protest. The orderly pattern of 127 years is being pushed out
onto the far frontiers that define the border with chaos. Still, he digs.
Zed can feel himself on the precipice of physical catastrophe, but he must
go on. He dips the blade in for one last gouge of earth and thrusts down feebly. Then his
shovel hits something solid, and he knows instantly what it is. He drops to his knees in
exhaustion and relief. His heart pulls back from the boundary line of disaster. Then he
stops and looks up and over to the knoll, a small swell of earth pushing up against the
enormous weight of the prairie sky.
Zed feels a small measure of relief as he claws at the loose earth and parts
it with his impossibly wrinkled hands. He feels the rough surface of rotting canvas, and
knows he has found it. He goes back to the shovel and gingerly widens his excavation,
and the canvas is revealed to be a small, lumpy bundle tied with several turns of twine.
Throwing down the shovel, he fishes a small penknife from his pocket and cuts the twine.
Next, he makes a small incision at the base of the bundle, and feels the decaying material
yield easily to the touch of the blade. Impatiently, he inserts his fingers so he can rip the
bundle open in a single motion. He tears at the incision, and a thin cloud of dust rises as
the fabric disintegrates, followed by a strange and musty smell. The skeleton of a small
infant looks up at him, with arms held tight to the rib cage and the hands open with palms
out, as though defending against a coming blow. The jaw is open and the toothless mouth
seems caught in mid-scream.
Zed’s face collapses into a grim facsimile of a smile, his cheekbones
scarcely concealed beneath the desiccated flesh with its wildly distorted matrix of
wrinkles. “There you are,” he says in a hoarse whisper. “It’ll just take a minute. That’s
all. Just a minute.”
He reaches down and grasps the midpoint of one of the femur bones, and
gently begins to twist. “You’re giving a most magnificent gift. I promise to use it wisely.
I promise,” Zed whispers as he works the bone loose from the hip socket and knee joint.
He winces slightly at the cracking of the dry cartilage, but pushes on. Then the bone
comes free, and he rises to his feet. It is colored a dirty ivory mixed with a faint yellow,
but to Zed’s ancient eyes the yellow is only a vague mustard gray. He reaches in his
overcoat, pulls out a plastic bag, and carefully inserts the femur. Then he turns once more
to the skeleton.
“Goodbye, now.”
He picks up the shovel and begins to close the grave. Its tiny occupant
looks up at him with hollow sockets and seems to give a mute howl as the dirt rains
down. Zed avoids looking at the infant directly and gazes into the distance, where a far-
off squall line paints a band of dark purple a single degree above the horizon to the south.
Tiny fingers of lightning flick out and silently stab the earth. The immense distance eats
their thunder.
Arjun Khan comes off the fender of the utility vehicle and he out a cigarette butt
beneath his heel. He walks to the top of the road cut, where can see that the old man is
back on the shovel, but filling instead digging. He must have found the source material.
Arjun methodically checks the defensive posture of the men, the vehicles.
There’s little chance of trouble out here, but his action has become automatic, a habit
ingrained from years of service. He turns back and sees Zed moving toward him in that
slow, wobbly gait that sorely tests his patience. Khan is an engineer by training and
admires precision and symmetry. The old man has lost both, and is rapidly descending
into physical anarchy.
Khan calls out to the men, who rise like russet ghosts from the prairie
grass and drift back toward the line of three vehicles, all painted in camouflage tones that
match the soiled beige and gold of the ground and the grass.
Zed negotiates a small incline down to the gravel road, using the shovel to
maintain his balance. Khan approaches him and takes the shovel, which he gives to one
of the men to stow.
“We’re done,” Zed announces in a raspy whisper. “Let’s go.”
Khan goes around and opens the passenger door of the middle vehicle,
whose classic utility style is augmented by military trappings. Bulletproof windows.
Armor plating. Emergency ventilation system. After Zed carefully plants his foot on the
running board, Khan helps him up into the interior. The old man lets out an involuntary
grunt of pain as he exerts himself.
Khan returns to the driver’s side and motions the lead vehicle to move out
as he climbs in. The old man’s mouth is open and his unblinking eyes stare out the
windshield. Khan turns to the embedded microphone and orders the other vehicles to start
out. He looks down at the map display and mentally calculates their transit time.
“Slowly,” the old man murmurs. “We must go slowly.”
“Of course,” Khan replies. Zed is paranoid about accidents, among other
things. Even a minor one would plunge him into untold agony or even death. In spite of
therapeutic effort, he is now an utter prisoner of his physical decline. And watching him,
Khan has come to realize how the periphery of one’s personal world shrinks in the final
years, during the final age of aging. Khan himself is nearing seventy, and finds his
observations depressing. He’s fastidious about his health, except for the cigarettes, which
will probably be his ultimate undoing. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe he will have no
final age to struggle through.
“We were out here a little longer than I expected, but we should be back
before dark,” Khan tells Zed. After nightfall, the roads become perilous, and Khan’s job
is to continually minimize all risk in the immediate vicinity of the old man.
“That’s good.” The old man nods. “Turn the heater up.”
Khan punches a button to activate a propane-fired auxiliary heater that
will elevate the vehicle’s interior temperature until the engine-driven heater warms up.
The old man likes the temperature in the high seventies, which Khan finds oppressively
hot, but he has no say in the matter.
They lapse into silence and hear only the gravel chewing at the big tires as
they head west, where the Gallatin Mountains reach out to grab the afternoon. Ten miles
roll by.
“There were four men out here today,” Zed says abruptly. “They need a
change of scenery. I think it’s time you rotated them out of service. For a vacation.”
Khan nods. “Yes. For a vacation.” He understands. Absolute security
requires absolute silence, the kind found six feet under.
By the time they reach the airstrip, the sun has dipped behind the
thunderheads creeping over the mountains to the west. Two men with slung combat
weapons have come out to the gate, where coils of barbed wire wrap around a hinged
wooden frame. The transponders in the vehicles have already identified them to the guard
post, and the encrypted identification signals have passed through the finest of algorithms
on the fastest of machines. Still, you can never be too careful. The lead vehicle stops, the
sniffer scans are completed, and one of the men trudges back toward Khan and Zed. A
neural-trained camera mounted on an armored vehicle tracks his motion.
The approaching man wears mirrored sunglasses that present twin
microcosms of the prairie’s cold brilliance. “Afternoon,” he says and scans Khan. Then
he moves to the third vehicle. Zed is exempt. Nobody scans Zed. No RF device is
allowed anywhere near him. Besides, he doesn’t sport the lobe.
The black man completes the third vehicle, and signals to the other man,
who opens the gate. The vehicles move on through and head toward the small jet parked
at the far lip of the runway. Khan notes the additional guards and vehicles that surround
the plane. The rule of law is a hollow, desiccated shell out here. No sheriffs cruise the
county roads. No state patrolmen monitor the highways. The rural West is once again the
West of the old American cowboy movies; only, the armament has vastly improved.
Zed sinks into the thick padding and looks out the plane’s window at the
parched hills as the turbofans whine to life. He reaches into his overcoat, pulls out the
plastic bag containing the tiny femur, removes it, and holds it in a slightly palsied grip
with a hand densely speckled with liver spots. Without the bone, this entire undertaking
would be completely in vain.
From down the aisle, Khan watches Zed rotate the bone with his thumb
and forefinger. Everything depends upon it.

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