Ya know, I've gone through my whole life without ever once needing to look back. Live in the moment, make mistakes. Then learn from them, and move on. Makes things easier in a way.
But there are some things I just can't help but look back on. Like right now.
Christ, the Beast.
The boat just keeps on chugging, chugging away from New Marais. I don't think I'll ever come back here, no chance in hell. Even as that town fades in my peripherals and a storm start's brewin' over my head, the nightmare of what happened just kinda follows.
Far off, I hear good old mother nature preparing to unleash her fury. Lightning stopped scarin' me a long time ago; with Cole around, I hardly ever payed attention to it anymore.
Except when it strikes right in front of my face. Now I've been shocked plenty of times in my life, but this just sent my heart racin' faster than a horse on steroids. The pure energy from that bolt had me stumblin' back a few feet and shuttin' my eyes tighter than a screw. I almost expected a second strike to come, for some electrical all powerful punch in the gut - hell, maybe to even be hurled out to sea. And when I opened my eyes...
The lid on Cole's coffin had been blown clean off. Almost looked like someone had forcefully flung it away instead a' hittin' it with a jillion megawatts of energy or whatever. I could hear the cabin door being banged open, and footsteps hurryin' my way, but a stupid idea had gotten the better of me.
I couldn't help it. A couple hours later or something I'd probably call myself the biggest idiot in America, yet here I was gettin' my hopes up over a dead man. So I walk over to the coffin, wondering whether or not my best buddy's body's been fried to a crisp, praying some act from above made him breathe again, and lo and behold...
Nothing happened. He was still laying in that casket with his eyes closed, not a (new) scratch on him. Not a pulse, not a single little twitch. I step back a bit and get angry and disappointed all at once. But I mean, what had I been expecting? Miracles just don't happen like that.
"Christ, are you alright?" one of the boat fellas asks me. I think he was the captain, but it didn't really matter.
"Yeah," I said, pointing at Cole. "He's alright too. Just blew the lid off is all." I see him and another guy exchange looks before they go haul the lid over Cole's face again. I turn away and lean on the railing before they even finish, not a thought in my head.
A couple minutes later they're heading back inside, and one of them claps me over the shoulder. Trying to comfort me, I guess. Without a word the guy heads inside, and I go back to starin' at the sea. It had gotten so dark, and the waves were fiercer than I'd ever seen 'em. Probably would've been a smart idea to head inside, but shit, at this point I couldn't care less.
For some reason right then, I had to ask out loud what I'd been wondering to myself since I left New Marais. "What happens now? What exactly's left for me?" Hell, I could've been talking to the waves or the rails or even the air, I didn't know. Either way, I wasn't gonna get an answer.
The thunder kept on rumbling as our little boat kept on churning through the sea. I headed inside and tried to sleep off the numb feeling in my chest.
We took port in Fort Walton Beach; storm had hit towns like these pretty hard. For miles everything was just black. Nobody went outside unless their house was on fire. You knew shit was serious when a 24/7 burger joint was closed.
Time must've been around 6 or 8, but I wasn't checking. Pretty obvious that the sun had gone down, though.
Captain dude was already asleep in some makeshift hammock, so I decided to step outside and clear my head. Shaking out my sea legs was harder than I thought, 'cause the minute I got off the boat my knees started wobblin'. I had to use the dock like a handicap rail, but it wasn't long 'till I was walkin' on my own two feet.
It felt weird bein' out here, all alone. I just stood there thinkin' about how Cole and I used to watch storms like these together. How we used to enjoy shit like this before New Marais, before the explosion at Empire City. There was no Conduit bullshit, no plague. No stupid friggen' RFI.
Something bitter was rising in my throat, but I had to swallow it down. No time for this; wind was picking up. I headed back to the boat and hopped on board, noticing that the coffin lid had slid open partway. What kind of shitty casket had they stuffed him into here? It wasn't even a day and the thing was already fallin' apart.
I slid it back into place and muttered, "Tomorrow. Worry about it tomorrow."
That night the boat rocked and groaned, but that's not what kept me awake. I was anxious; about what, I don't know. Wish I had some sleepin' pills or somethin.'
Outside, I could feel lightning hit the deck again.
Next day the storm wasn't nearly as bad, but it still looked moody out there as ever. Some people had been guessin' a tornado was gonna hit the coast. From what I had seen, that didn't seem likely.
Suddenly I was cryin' and laughin' at the same time, grippin' that handrail 'till I thought I was gonna break it. Fuck, my best friend in the whole world was dead and all I could think about was the weather. Weather, storms, lightning, Cole. It all just came back to Cole. It seemed ironic, it seemed drop dead hilarious, so I threw my head back and laughed for god knows how long. The tears, man, they just kept comin'. Reality had punched me hard in the gut and was letting it all sink in.
If the crew heard me, they were smart enough fellas not to check.
I don't remember when I stopped laughing, but by the time we hit Horseshoe Beach my glasses were back on and my throat was drier than the Mojave. The sea, the boat, everything was quiet. It was kinda peaceful in a way.
I just wanted off.
This was our last stop by boat, thankfully. They were gonna get him to a coroner here in Horseshoe Beach, then ship him back up to what was left of Empire City, way back home. Outta respect they told me I'd be making the flight with 'im. At least they were kind enough to ask.
Shops were open by now, so I decided to get something to eat since I hadn't had a bite in days. For the first real time in my life, I wasn't hungry. I had no money, but the guy workin' the seafood joint gave me a meal for free. Apparently, news about New Marais had traveled fast. I was being given a title among the common folk: the saviour's brother in arms, his right hand man. Honestly, I didn't wanna hear about that shit just yet.
The guy set down on my plate the damned biggest lobster I've ever seen. Thing looked like it was sweatin' butter, and on any other day I probably woulda been wolfing it down faster than a bat outta hell. Instead I stared at it and played with my utensils 'till the guy started talkin'.
"My sister died with the others."
Well, now he's grabbed my attention. When I look up I notice this fella's probably about 40, maybe 50. He's got these crazy intense blue eyes, but you can just tell they've seen better days. "I'm sorry to hear that, man," I say.
He looks away at the window. His adam's apple bobs up and down. "I still don't understand why. Why so many people died. The news hasn't told us shit." His voice is loaded with raw emotion, pure grief I've only ever heard in Empire City.
It's only then I realize that nobody except a few on this planet know exactly what the Conduit gene is. Or rather, was, since nobody alive has it anymore. What could it hurt to let 'im know? So I say, "People like Cole MacGrath, they had this thing in 'em. The Conduit gene. Its gives 'em the potential for super powers. And when he used the RFI, it...it killed anyone who had it." He doesn't once look back at me as I explain. It's like the guy's on a whole other plane of existence yet still here. Might as well go on. "Your sister musta been a Conduit without realizing it."
He looks back at me after a few seconds, hands me a glass of water. He's smiling now, just a little. "Thank you. It's a lot to swallow, but I can tell you're not lying somehow." There's a pause. "I suppose that if she and the other thousands had to die for us to live, well...it was worth it." He walks away and I eat my lobster in peace.
I sincerely thank the guy before I leave, clap him on the shoulder, and head back to the boat. Sun's peakin' out a little, finally. I hop on board and check the cabin; nobody's in there. Must've gone into the city for a little break. Couldn't blame 'em. After all, in a few hours they'd have to haul a ton's worth a' stone and corpse into the city.
Outta paranoia I decide to check on Cole again, just look at him one more time. The damn lid's slipped open again, so I go to pull it open farther and my heart damn near skips a beat.
The coffin's empty.
Next thing I know I'm racing off the boat and all I can think about is body snatchers. Of course, Cole would be worth millions, why didn't I think about it earlier? Why didn't we watch him closer?
I need to tell somebody, anybody. They couldn't of gone far, it'd only been an hour after all. My feet stomp so hard on the dock I expect I'm punchin' holes in it with my heels.
Suddenly I stop on a dime and my jaw just about falls off. Mind must be playin' tricks on me after all this time, 'cause what I'm seein' is impossible. I rub my eyes, try to convince myself it's only a mirage, but it's still there. My heart just about leaps into my mouth as I realize what I'm seein'. On the beach not a hundred meters away, starin' at the sea lookin' lost as hell, is -
He doesn't hear me, but that's okay 'cause I've got a pair of legs and damn, I sure am puttin' them to use. My mind turns into a narrow tunnel, and all I see at the end a' that tunnel is Cole. Runnin' down that beach feels like forever and a day. Everything feels like it's slowed down. Even Cole's brisk pace isn't enough to outrun me.
"Hey! Hey, stop! Cole!" I'm huffing and waving my arms around like a lunatic. He actually jumps when I yell at him. Well, that's a first. When he turns around he looks confused, but that's okay. Because he's alive, Cole MacGrath is alive! My best friend is back from the dead. I'm so giddy I even try to hug him, but he freaks and looks about ready to clock me in the face. So I step back a bit and my mouth starts runnin' faster than my legs just did.
He makes a face and raises his hands to shut me up, eyes buggin' outta his head. "Whoa whoa whoa, slow down you fuckin' nutjob. Just who the hell are you anyway?"
My heart at this point had had enough. I can feel it quittin' on me a second before I black out.
He doesn't remember me. Hell, for awhile he doesn't even remember his own name.
We're sitting on the beach now, him and I. Just talking. He was nice enough to wake me up with a couple a' kicks to the side. He looked about ready to take off anyway, but I got him to calm down a bit after I tried to explain things. He doesn't trust me just yet - I can tell - but for a man with no memory in his noggin it's better than nothing. He's tryin' to digest it all, so I'm patient. I tell him what happened again and again, and each time I can see the gears in his head workin'. He finally starts to ask questions. He's considering the possibility, the crazy, crazy truth. Maybe he's even beginning to believe me.
Suddenly he gets up and walks on over to the shoreline. Alarm bells start ringin' in my head and I stand up too, callin' out, "Ah wait, Cole-!"
He looks back, and for a second I can see Cole as a kid again: blue eyes ready to take on the world, permanent scowl ready to beat that same world into submission. Assholeish smile ready to laugh while he's doing it. His fists are clenched tight, but he looks calm. For the second time that day I can't believe what I'm seeing; water's lapping at his shoes but there isn't a single spark.
"Yeah, Zeke?" he says.
"...Ah, nevermind." If his ass wasn't gettin' fried, what point was there in remindin' him. And hey, at least he used my name instead of "fuckin' nutjob." It was progress, ya know?
I don't honestly know what he was thinkin' as he stood there; maybe he didn't even know himself. Hell, I was still trying to grasp the fact that he was alive here. He probably was too - 'cause let's face it, most folks don't wake up one day finding themselves in a coffin.
Sun's comin' out a bit by now and his entire profile's one burning red outline. Time just seemed to have raced on by while we were sitting here, and in the same token it feels like it stopped. It was probably on a count a' Cole just standing there, looking like some scarred up war statue as the sky gets brighter and brighter.
Alluva sudden, he says, "Tell me what happened, one more time."
"Well, alright," I say. I lift up my glasses for a better view of the sun settin'. Damn, it was beautiful.
"Yer name is Cole MacGrath. And you and I, we're like brothers, see? We've been friends longer than I can remember. You had a girlfriend too, Trish. But she died a long time ago.
"You've done some good things and some bad things, but hell, I have too. For a while, you hated me for it. One time ya even tried to kill me, and well, that's all water under the bridge now.
"Then something real big happened. The Beast, this large...thing, it tore all the way through the east coast. Empire City was our home way up north, and in seconds of that thing materializin' it was just gone. So we ran south, south to New Marais. You wanted to stop it.
"On the way you made a couple a' friends. And when the Beast finally came, well...They died. You died too, stoppin' it. And then...
"The whole town made you their hero. Hell, it's not just them anymore. People in the west caught wind a' what went down too. Up and down the coasts, they're chanting your name. Cole MacGrath, slayer of The Beast, the Saint of Humanity, shit like that. You're a god damn hero, man."
He just snorts, then barks out one of those little laughs of his 'fore he turns back to me. "A Hero, huh? Better than infamous, I guess," he says, shruggin' his shoulders. Even though it's gettin' dark I can tell he's got a smile on his face, and I feel better just lookin' at him. He's happy, with or without powers.
But my heart, it's dropped to my toes man. Ya see, the lightning slingin' Cole I once kicked ass with was gone, and I knew now without a doubt he wasn't ever comin' back. Whatever that RFI did, it took everything he had been with it.
It musta been obvious I was pretty down, 'cause when he came over he sat right next to me and clapped me on the back. It was the first friendly thing he'd done since he came outta that coffin.
"Well then, Zeke. If you're the buddy you claim to be, how about we head back into town for a drink?"
Well he knew how to cheer me up still, at least. I raised by hand for a fistbump and without thinkin' said, "Half as long, brother."
"And twice as bright." When his fist connected with mine, you could tell he was confused about what just came out of his mouth. I didn't bother explainin', but hell if I didn't have a grin that stretched from ear to ear. Looks like there's some things death just can't erase.
"I'll race ya to the nearest titty bar."
"Deal. Think your fat ass can keep up?" Good old Cole. That got a laugh outta me.
"Brother, I've outrun four legged hellbeasts and ice freaks with machine guns. Don't think I can't keep up with your musty butt."
He extended a hand and, still smilin', said, "We'll see."
As he was helpin' me up, I considered that maybe things were better this way. 'Cause let's be honest; there are some parts to Cole MacGrath that are more selfless, more courageous, more human than any other human being on this planet, and there are some parts better lost than found.
And from now on, that's the way they'll always be.