True Brothers

by K.C. Cooper

 

Hundreds of thoughts flooded Danny Russell’s mind when he saw his best friend, Michael Hart, standing on his doorstep looking like a rabbit running from a hunter, the most prominent being, “Aw, hell, Mike. You’ve really done something this time, haven’t you?” To confirm his friend’s suspicions, Mike said, “I’ve signed my death warrant, Danny. I’m a dead man.”

Mike’s face was too pale, his soft brown eyes too wide in the dim glow of Danny’s porch light. “Uh, hi Mike,” said Danny, unsure of how to respond to this statement. “Come in?”

Mike shook his head. “No. I’m endangering you and Missy enough just talking to you.”

“Ok,” Danny replied. “We’ll talk out here.” He turned back to the house, and called to his wife of only eight months. “Missy, Mike’s here. We’re going to sit outside on the porch.”

Missy popped her head into the hall. “Hi, Mike. You boys want anything to drink?”

“Sure, sweetheart,” said Danny. “I’ll take a Coke.” Mike shook his head, and she disappeared into the kitchen. Danny stepped out onto his back porch, just behind his friend.

“She’s beautiful,” said Mike. “You count your blessings, and take care of her.”

“That’s the easy part,” Danny replied. Missy brought him his Coke, and he kissed her hand. “Go on back inside, baby. You’re missing ER.

Third Watch,” she corrected sternly, then smiled. “I’ll be in the living room if anyone needs me.” She left the two men alone.

Danny followed Mike to the porch swing. He ran his fingers through his short black hair. “What kind of trouble are you in?”

Mike dragged a finger across the mass of white scar tissue along his outer left forearm, and Danny thought of the matching ones on his own hands, and just above his right eyebrow. The true symbols of their friendship. “You don’t want to know. It’ll put you in more danger.”

“Then who? Mafia? CIA? KGB?” Danny had been joking, so he was shocked when Mike shook his head solemnly and said, “Worse. But that’s dangerous information. For you and Missy.”

Flashes of their childhood together poured into Danny’s mind. Mike was always the more adventurous of the two, addicted to adrenaline, sledding down a steep hill onto the interstate, rock climbing without safety gear, driving too fast. He had come to Danny and Missy’s wedding with a broken leg from a skydiving accident. He would try anything once. It was just a matter of time before his amazing run of luck ran out.

Danny dropped his head to his hands. “Oh, man, buddy. How much trouble are you in?”

Staring off into the distance, Mike replied stoically, emotionlessly, “Big time.”

“How big?”

“Like I said, they’re gonna kill me.” He was unable to meet Danny’s eyes. “And it won’t be quick.”

“What can I do? I’ll help in any way I can, you know that. Anything.”

But Mike shook his head. “There’s nothing you can do. I came to say goodbye.”

“No way! There has to be something. We’ve been friends for nearly twenty years! I can’t just write you off! We’re Frank and Jesse James, Maverick and Goose, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday!” He paused, adding their childhood hero and his best friend. “Connor and Duncan MacLeod.”

Mike stood up. “Yup. Jesse James. Goose. Doc Holliday. All three of those pairs were split by death. Maybe, if I disappear, we won’t be. And you saw Highlander IV. Duncan took Connor’s head.” He paused, debating. “Do you remember where we first met Connor MacLeod?”

“Huh… Oh!” It hit Danny suddenly. Mike was telling him where he was going. He was going to his mom’s friend, “Aunt” Jenny’s farm in rural Massachusetts. When they were kids, they had spent a week with her. During that time, they had first seen Highlander, and were fascinated by it. They spent countless hours having “swordfights” with tobacco sticks, taking turns being the immortal Connor MacLeod. Hence, “Aunt” Jenny’s was where they had first met Connor MacLeod.

“I got it,” said Danny, then he fell silent. After nineteen-plus years of friendship, so much was understood, yet they both felt so much needed to be said.

“I–” Danny started.

“So–” began Mike.

Danny paused. “Go ahead.”

“You’re a brother to me, man. No less.”

Danny replied in the words of their favorite of the Highlander series. “Goodbye, Duncan. My true brother.”

Mike smiled. “You got that backwards. You’re Duncan, and I’m Connor, remember? I’m older.”

“Yeah, but two months isn’t fifty years,” said Danny, glad to have this moment of their childhood. He hoped it wouldn’t be the last.

Mike met Danny’s eyes and held them for several moments, like they were the last safe, stable, solid thing in his world, and Danny was reminded of the scene in Highlander IV just before Connor convinced Duncan to kill him. That was the expression on Mike’s face. “Promise me something?”

“Anything.”

“Never forget me.”

* * * * *

Danny lay awake beside Missy, his mind fighting to process what Mike had told him. It couldn’t be that bad. Mike was exaggerating. He had to be. But what if he wasn’t?

The fact that Mike’s greatest fear was fire suddenly occurred to him. He wondered if whoever was after him knew that. A look of pure and absolute terror crossed his face if someone even struck a match in his presence. This brought forth such terrible images of the kind of hell a sadist with this knowledge would put his friend through that Danny shuddered involuntarily.

“Danny?” muttered Missy. She clicked on the lamp to look at her husband, the tension and despair on his face wiped away the last traces of sleepiness. “Honey, what’s wrong?”

He briefly contemplated telling her, but realized that both of them losing a night’s sleep wouldn’t help Mike any. “I’ll tell you in the morning, doll. Don’t worry. Just go back to sleep.”

She wanted to protest, to say that if something bothered him, it bothered her too, but she knew that it would upset him more to worry her. “Ok, but first thing in the morning.” She snuggled up close to him, and closed her eyes.

Meanwhile, Danny was coping with his sudden knowledge of the frailty of life. For his tough, brave, arrogant friend to be scared, not just worried, but actually frightened, it had to be bad. Real bad. With the exception of his pyrophobia, Mike was fearless.

“Missy?” he whispered quietly, hoping she wasn’t asleep.

“What?” she asked.

“I–” The words solidified in his throat, and it was a moment before he could get them out. “I just wanted to be sure you know that I love you more than life itself. I would do absolutely anything for you.”

“I love you, too, Danny. More than life itself. Whatever’s wrong, we’ll get through it. Please try to get some sleep.”

“Ok.” He kissed her, then turned over. Miraculously, he actually did fall asleep.

* * * * *

Some time later, Danny woke to a large crash as their front door was kicked in. Sitting straight up in bed, he saw three strange men shoving their way into the bedroom. He grabbed for the Smith & Wesson he kept in the nightstand drawer, but one of the men pulled out a strange-looking pistol and fired. He barely registered the pain in his shoulder.

The last thing he heard was Missy trying to call out his name and being silenced in the middle. Then it all faded to gray.

* * * * *

Suddenly aware of his surroundings, Danny fought his way through the fog to come fully awake. The bare bulb that was the only illumination in the cellar-like room seemed too bright to his eyes. From what he could see, it looked like a typical unfinished basement room. The exposed beams of the ceiling held the light by an exposed wire. Dirt and dust covered the concrete floor. The worn, filthy gray of the cinderblock walls was interrupted by a series of cracks, and one large black spider crawling lazily up the wall.

He was tied to what felt like an operating table, wearing only the gray sweatpants he had gone to sleep in. He shuddered. Hospital equipment gave him the creeps. The ice cold metal against his bare back sent a chill through him. A deep ache filled every muscle of his body, and his mind involuntarily recalled the events that led to this: The crash, the man with the odd-looking pistol—Holy hell! He’d been shot!—Missy only being able to get out the first two letters of his name before she fell inexplicably silent.

Missy! Was she okay? Was she dead? Was she somewhere in pain while he was stuck there unable to help her? He tugged on his restraints, but there was no give. Thick, rough ropes held his arms over his head, and bound his feet at the ankles. He twisted and fought against them, but all he was rewarded with was exhaustion, and the unpleasant sensation of the frayed ropes abrading his bare skin. He had no doubt who had them; it had to be the people who were after Mike. His questions revolved around the immediate future: Is Missy alive? Is she hurt? Can I get her out ok? What are they going to do to us?

He didn’t have to wait long for an answer.

“Mr. Russell?” called a voice from the door. It was an older man, the type who would put one in mind of Anthony Hopkins. He had short white hair, and a rather evil grin that Danny hated instantly. Dressed all in black, from his combat boots to his t-shirt, he was the perfect symbol of evil. At least to a person tied helplessly to a table.

“Is my wife ok? I swear to God, if you’ve hurt her–”

“Your wife is fine, Mr. Russell. May I call you Danny?”

“Yeah. Sure. Melissa’s ok? W-what do you want?” he asked, his heart hammering.

The man held up a picture of Mike. “It’s very simple. Where is he?”

Hearing the words out loud drove home just how bad things could be. What would Mike do? he thought. Simple answer: Mike would bluff. “I don’t know. He wouldn’t tell me,” he stated, hoping his voice didn’t sound as weak and scared as he knew it did.

“I think you do.”

“No!” exclaimed Danny. “He was afraid of this, so he wouldn’t tell me!”

The man actually seemed to be considering this, then shook his head. “Nope. I have the tape right here.” He pushed the button on a microcassette recorder, and Mike’s voice filled the room: Do you remember where we first met Connor MacLeod? The man clicked it off. “Sounds like code to me. So you do know. Now, for future interactions, there are three rules. Rule number one: You WILL tell me what I want to know. Number two: You will NOT lie to me again. I still hold not only you, but your wife, and you will not be released until I have Michael Hart in my custody. And if you tell me the wrong location, well, let’s just say I doubt your wife would appreciate it.”

“He was just making a comment about our favorite movie! I started it, then he said that.” Danny pleaded.

The man looked at Danny angrily. “Didn’t I just tell you not to lie to me? If that was all, why didn’t you answer him.” Pushing the play button again, he allowed Danny’s recorded voice to fill the room: Huh? Oh!… I got it! He stepped back and smiled coldly as Danny tried to hide his wince. “We’ll give you a moment to think about it.” He paused. “Highlander, huh? Well, remember what they said. ‘There can be only one.’ That seems to apply here too. You, or Mr. Hart?”

They left Danny alone to his thoughts.

* * * * *

Time passed in a crawl. His wrists and ankles were torn and bloody from his struggle, but he was no closer to getting out. He knew he could never give in. He had to protect Mike. Because he was his best friend in the world, but it was more than that. Because fourteen years ago, Danny had established himself as Mike’s Angelchra n’etyel, his guardian angel.

* * * * *

“I am Connor MacLeod, of the clan MacLeod!” yelled ten-year-old Mike, launching himself forward with an attack with his “sword”.

Danny blocked easily, and launched his own attack. “I am Kurgan! There can be only one!”

For two ten-year-old boys, the hayloft of Aunt Jenny’s barn was the perfect place to play Highlander. It was about ten feet up, and there were rolls of hay on each side, if one knew where to jump. If a person was careful, they could jump into the hay and take falls just like the immortals in the movie. But as Mike countered his attack, he lost his balance at the wrong spot. With a terrified yelp, he fell backward. He was silent as he hit the ground two feet from the safety of the hay, and a sickening crunch resounded through the confined space. Mike screamed in pain. Scared and hurt, he fought to get up, but instead, he knocked over a kerosene lantern. Flames rose around him, and thick black smoke filled his lungs.

“Mike!” yelled Danny, leaping safely to the ground and rushing toward his friend, but a wall of fire separated them. “Mike, are you ok?”

“My leg hurts, Danny! I think it’s broken! I’m scared.”

“Look, it’s gonna be ok,” Danny replied, though he wasn’t sure how. Should I get Aunt Jenny? Nah, Mike would be a goner before she could get here. That only left one choice. The small bucket of water by the door wouldn’t even make a dent on the growing blaze, but it would provide Danny with a little protection. He doused himself with it, wetting his clothes and his hair. “Hang on, buddy!” he shouted, taking a deep breath, covering his face with his sweatshirt, and running through the fire.

Picking Mike up with a strength born of pure adrenaline, he told his friend to hold his breath and braced himself. His hands, the only exposed part of him, seared with second-degree burns, but he ignored it and sprinted for the door, shielding Mike as much as he could.

Once outside the flaming barn, Danny screamed for help. Mike was in pain, and they were both dizzy and light-headed from smoke inhalation. Danny collapsed beside his friend. Mike was badly burned, especially his left arm, and was still recovering from the terror. He would never look at fire the same way again. “Danny?” he said, with sirens screeching in the distance.

“Yeah?” he replied.

“You saved my life.”

Danny thought for a minute, then grinned. “Yep. Someone’s gotta try to clean up your messes.”

With all the seriousness a child of that age can muster, Mike stared off into the distance. “Thank you.”

Returning the tone, Danny replied, “Any time.”

* * * * *

They tortured Danny mercilessly for almost four hours, his screams of agony filling the small room. Through all the standard forms of interrogation, and a few unique ones, he screamed, and begged for mercy, but refused to divulge Mike’s location. Finally, realizing that no amount of physical pain would give them what they wanted, they left the room.

Danny’s entire body was one massive wave of pain. Each of his fingers was broken, as were his toes, and the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet were slit open and doused with Clorox. At least nine of his ribs were cracked, maybe more, and there were two more incisions down each side of his chest, with salt crystals kneaded into them. Most of the skin had been flayed from his stomach and lower chest by a power sander, and that had also been coated with bleach.

He squirmed, trying to ease the agonizing waves of pain that were coursing through his body, not even looking up as his tormentor re-entered the room.

“Well, Danny, we’ve decided that we’ve done enough to you. We’ve hurt you a lot, and you never even came close to giving up your friend. Quite admirable.”

“Who are you?” Danny spit out in the strongest voice he could manage.

The man smiled. “I guess we’re what most people would call terrorists. We are actually revolutionaries. Like Patrick Henry.”

“Why do you want Mike?”

The man leveled the gun over Danny’s heart. “He is a traitor.” He pulled the trigger. Missy’s face flashed through Danny’s mind just before the world went black

* * * * *

The world was still black when Danny came to, and only the pain convinced him he wasn’t dead. The fear, which had dulled his senses was receding, taking with it the mild anesthetic of endorphins, flooding him with anger, confusion, and of course, pain. Time was running out, he knew that. He had to be strong. Mike needed him, and he and Missy had just begun their lives together.

He was sitting up this time, tied to a chair with twice as many ropes as before. The rough bonds cut into the raw flesh of his stomach, making him hiss sharply.

“I see you’re coming out of it. That’s nice.”

“I-I’m not dead? You shot me in the heart! Point blank.”

“Tranquilizer dart. But don’t be too disappointed. Soon you’ll wish you were dead.”

“Why can’t I see?”

“You’re blindfolded, you idiot! Not as bright as I gave you credit for.”

“I’d love to see how well your intellect works while tied to this chair!” The cloud of fear temporarily replaced by anger, he yelled as strongly as he could, “Go ahead and kill me if you’re going to! I don’t care what you do to me, I’m not giving you Mike!” Drawing strength once again from a Highlander’s words, he said, “The bonds are all that hold us in this world, and I won’t break this one!”

“Aren’t you forgetting one thing?”

“Danny?” a terrified female voice called.

His heart froze in his chest. The receding fear flooded back in with such a force that it took his breath. “Oh my God! Missy!?”

Allowing a moment for this revelation to sink in, the man continued. “This is round two, and here’s how this one is played: You tell me where Mr. Hart is, and I don’t hurt her. You have three seconds.”

Danny’s mind barely had time to process this before the man broke in. “Time’s up.”

Missy’s scream tore into Danny’s soul. It was as if a ton of lead had been heaped upon his chest, and he couldn’t draw in a breath. The fear and anger were shoved aside by a new feeling: complete and total vulnerability. He couldn’t help Missy, he couldn’t help Mike, hell, he couldn’t even help himself. Another scream shook his concentration, and sent a stab of pain all through him. He had to think. Oh, God. What did these sons of bitches think he was made of?! How could he choose between his best friend of twenty years, and the woman he loved more than life itself? How could he choose, and how could he live with himself? Which life was more important? What would Mike do?

One more agonized shriek destroyed the last of his resistance. “Okay! Stop, please! I’ll do whatever you want!”

Missy’s scream faded to sobs, and it was difficult to tell hers from Danny’s own. He couldn’t let them hurt her. That was the only thing he couldn’t endure for the man who was more of a brother than a friend. “Please,” he begged through his tears. “Let me see her!”

“Not yet. You’ll see her when we have Mr. Hart.”

His mind racing, he called out to his wife. “Missy, honey, I’m sorry. Are you alright?”

“Danny?”

“Yeah, it’s me, baby.”

“Who are they? What do they want?”

“It doesn’t matter. I’m gonna give it to them.” His tears fell harder and faster. He knew he was killing Mike just as surely as if he cut off his head, and it killed him inside. “Rural Harmon County Massachusetts. Route 6. An old farmhouse, abandoned for years. He’s there.”

“Thank you,” the man said. Without warning, the tranquilizer once again hit his shoulder, and he was out.

* * * * *

When Danny came to, he was still tied to the chair, but the blindfold was removed. Missy was still tied to a metal platform, unconscious. The door was open in front of him, and he heard a struggle going on outside. Three men were shoving Mike down the hallway, and they paused in front of the door.

Mike and Danny locked gazes for the last time, and a million messages were exchanged in milliseconds.

“I’m sorry.”

“Me too.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“Forgive me.”

“I held out as long as I could.”

“Brothers.”

“Brothers.”

The men drug Mike away, struggling violently.

“We have him now, Danny. Do you still want to know why we want him?”

Danny nodded numbly, no longer sure at all.

The man leaned in close and whispered in Danny’s ear. “We want Michael Hart because he spoiled one of our… protests. He informed on us, and now he must pay.” He paused dramatically. “And yes, we know he’s pyrophobic.”

This hit Danny hard. The only thing keeping him sane was the thought that Mike had messed up, brought it on himself. But Mike had saved other people, and now, it would cost him his life. Danny tried to clear his head. Gotta get Missy out. I’ll worry about my conscience later. Maybe I can get help. “You got Mike, now let us go.”

The man smiled sadly. “You disappoint me, Danny-boy. I told you there were three rules. You never asked about the third.”

“What’s number three?” Danny asked, fear oozing back into him like half-melted ice.

The man drew out a real pistol. “Rule number three, Danny-boy, is common sense.” He walked over to Missy’s unconscious form. “Rule number three is never trust a terrorist.” He put the trigger to the young woman’s head and pulled the trigger.

“NOOO!!!!!!” Danny’s tortured scream echoed in the confined space as this final act of violence shattered his heart seconds before the next bullet shattered his brain.

 

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