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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Is there a Heaven? Don't know. But ask Gunner Harden, and he sure as hell will say there's a Hell.
On a cold dark late afternoon, Gunner dials in the worst program of his life.


 A Short Story

 Nicholas Cochran


For a moment, Gunner Harden thought the noise was inside his head. He trashed the idea as the notion of a numbskull who drank too much Pinot Noir. He immediately looked about for the source of the incredible cacophony. It stopped. Gunner unscrewed his face while he revisited the minutes when the noise began. ‘Not really a noise; but what then? Well, what the hell, it’s stopped.’

Gunner lowered his shoulders in a stooping motion, as though he were about to block a defensive end or dive into a pool. Gunner Harden had years of experience in both sports, which earned him letters in high school and university. He was not a huge man; rather the longish sinewy type who don’t advertise the remarkable strength in their elongated ligaments and muscles. The boxing and wrestling teams invited Gunner to join at all levels of his education. Coaches recognized the familiar structure and power patterns hidden in those ‘long drinks of water’.  

Gunner discovered his true strength while passing a summer on a telegraph pole gang toiling along the most northern line of the CNR, a four-month tour exhibiting the marvels of Lou Witty.

 Lou was, to all observers, a weedy dude of maybe five feet ten and a hundred and sixty pounds. He wore a slanted face. Observers imagine the edge of a hatchet, or a falling chunk from a glacier. Lou’s eyes were blacker than black. No one could determine if this was a permanent black-marble look, or if some mysterious inner self-possession seriously dilated his orbs. Lou possessed floppy ears. When the crew was on the gas cart, scooting along to the nearest waist-deep hole in the muskeg, Lou piloted the rail-craft, wearing a watch cap stiffened by dirt, dead black flies, and some wicked hair oil. This nauseating combo held the jumbos pretty much flat, leaving him with all his concentration—and one free hand—to roll and light a cigarette while the merry pole-pushers sped along.

Gunner received his first hint about the possible strength idling in his own body on that certain day when Lou was in a hurry, with his breakfast sausage misbehaving in his stomach. The gas cart weighed about five hundred pounds. Normally, five or six guys lifted the cart from its parking spot on about twelve feet of rails, perpendicular to the main railroad tracks, onto the main line.

That day, Lou grabbed the front of the gas cart, yanked it up, and led it to the main line. Before any of the crew could lean over and grab a portion of the cart to help Lou lift and place it on the main line, Lou twisted it about and set it flush on the rails, headed for our day’s work. The other eight members of the telegraph pole installation gang watched, chuckled, and passed remarks about the singularity of Lou’s ill temper.

An invisible tent of silence enveloped Gunner. He talked to himself in rapid demi-phrases. ‘Man; really heavy; and Lou; the whole thing; Jesus; that guy’s strong; whodathunk it?’ Clearly, Gunner was not an English major. The visual taught Gunner everything he needed to know about appearances, strength, and long sinewy guys with beaucoup gas in their innards from Scotty’s patchy—some would say edgy—culinary efforts.

Gunner Harden wore black hair in a modified Godfather crew cut. His facial structure complimented the haircut: solid, confident—perhaps menacing. Sloping Gordie Howe shoulders topped the sinewy frame of six three. Gunner’s hallmark, if that is not too quaint a term to indulge here, was his smile. Despite the threatening overall bigness of Gunner, there was rarely a time when he was not smiling, or fighting a host of inner demons in an attempt to hatch one: broad, shining, the whole thesaurus of words evoking beaming. Women found themselves unconsciously edging closer to him in bars or in bookstores; also when they felt put out—or suicidal. In their calmer calculating moods, they wanted to sit on his lap and have him whisper—shout—whatever—in their ear, but only if he smiled at them for ages on end. Which, not being a fool, he did. He never filtered his sitters by comeliness. He was the perfect gentleman. He treated all women with courtesy. Otherwise, his mother and sister were disappointed and extremely chastising.


Gunner stood straight. He thought he imagined the horrible, haunting cries lying submerged in the general roaring of the cascading racket. Noise was noise: ‘But I’m sure I heard something else in there . . .  Hmmmm.’ He sucked in a bushel of icy air. A sickly sun vainly tried to part its way through grayish spilled milk, masquerading as sky. No blue or distinct horizons on this doughty autumn day, not far from Lake Placid in the Adirondacks of Upstate New York.

With the temperature falling rapidly from thirty-seven degrees, the air quickly morphed into veils of invisible ice. ‘ Damn; why the hell did I let Natalie talk me into this? I left this crap years ago. I’m a sun addict; well, whatever; at least, an ex-snowbird. Man, I could be watching the volleyball women at Mission Beach right now, inhaling a Ruination 2.0 Double Dry Hopped, and soaking in the rays. Then a swim; a body surf; cracked crab; Natalie . . . He smiled when he understood he could be a self-hypnotist on demand—if the weather was right for ‘California dreamin’.

He expelled his bushel of breath before starting again down the deserted fire road, a shortcut to Joanie and Ken’s place in Blue Mountain. Their A-frame was large, at the same time cozy. It sat twenty yards behind the museum where Joanie managed the exhibits as well as the visitors to her baby: the Real Old Time Adirondack Museum. Admission free to kids under four.

A north wind spilled down the forested corridor of Gunner’s homeward path. Although not yet four o’clock, the day acquired the aspect of midnight, with neither moon nor stars. Its attitude overwhelmed the reality of an almost-sunny afternoon. A rush of thoughts about his childhood rambles through these same surrounding woodlands briefly warmed his spirits.

Without warning, the hideous bone-chilling clamor returned. The source seemed to be swelling up from some spot along his route. Gunner stopped, crouched, and listened. Very slowly, he unconsciously lifted onto his toes and stepped cautiously toward the suspected lair of the brutal bedlam. He quickened his pace. Now he was sure that he was very close to the outlet of this grinding sonic menace.‘Damn. What the hell is that? There; there; it’s coming from there. He began to run, positive now that he was practically upon the spout of what was now a blasting volume of shrieks and moans, so loud the endless forest surrounding him received and passed along the terrifying sounds of utter despair throughout the autumn land.

‘Right now, you bastard; right now you miserable son-of-a-bitch.’ The Harden sinews swam in boiling blood. Green eyes and tanned clenched jaw coalesced with testosterone, hate, and adrenalin. Gunner pumped his arms and legs as fast as they would allow. ‘Now I’ve got you, you rotten mother.’ He spurred on his body.

Abruptly, the articulation and syntax of the garbled shrieks of panic and terror translated the ghastly babble into gender and circumstance, drowning in bottomless wells of grief and venom.

Faster, he told himself. He heard himself, and went faster. Quickly, the trees of his forested lane were now only blurs of racing-green. All the trees on his horizon slipped into his shapeless deep-green channel. Squeezed between slices of bedlam and chunks of misery, came a signal to turn left. He did.

Without reducing his sprinter’s speed, Gunner pushed himself to the max, toward the familiar outline of the A frame. ‘Is that it? Holy Christ . . . I’m chasing . .  God. That goddamned noise. Bloody unbearable; where the bloody hell is it?’ The malevolent pandemonium remained before him, encircling him. He sprinted with elevated chest and chin toward the end of the road. ‘Joanie and Ken. And Natalie . . . and. . . what; oh yeah, Natalie, and . . . well; home; safety; relief; and a few beers, that’s for sure. Aw, nah; later. First a swim with Natalie; into the surf; and maybe some dancing along the highest water line for a mile or so to that new stand near Pacific Ave. Ahhh . . . but for now; just some solid ray time; yeah, just a lot of sun; some real heat. There. Yeah.’ His mind slid into clear surrealistic visions of beach life, while his legs, arms, and sinews continued the endless chase with more ferocity. Shortly, the anthropomorphic  howls and screams of agonized calamity surrounded and choked  Gunner’s visions of California. He crashed full speed into the side of the A frame and went down.

Joanie reached him first; Ken and Natalie were immediately behind. All three tugged at Gunner’s battered deflated body. Blood gushed from two cuts on his forehead and a deep gash on his right knee. Ken felt for a pulse while Joanie ran to call 911. Natalie stared . . . and listened. Something was . . . some sound was . . . she leaned tentatively over her husband and took up his right hand. She instantly dropped it when she heard piecing screams of agony and pain flowing through her arm to her brain. She stiffened.  Her breath shuttered. Shock flickered her eyes with a rush of vertigo. She fell into a leaning position against the wall of the house, never moving her widening eyes from the bleeding frame of her lovely man. 

Ken and Joanie returned to Gunner’s side where they stanched the flows of blood from Gunner’s wounds. They looked over their shoulders at Natalie. An agitated, questioning stare of confusion and alarm froze her face in a patchwork of deathly dread. Natalie felt shades of unconsciousness slipping across her awareness. Her breathing became ragged. Her love for this fallen man pushed her slowly forward. She stood behind Ken where she focused on Gunner’s right hand. Her inner voice warned her; loudly cautioned her not to do it. ‘You love him with no boundaries; he is your man—and he is a wonderful man, but don’t touch him . . .  I said don’t . . .’  Natalie shot out her hand and grabbed Gunner’s limp limb. This time, the screams and cries were deafening. She gritted her teeth like a person grabbing a high-tension wire. She shook and screamed while she tore at her own flesh with her other hand; but she held on. Ken finally disconnected her. She fell in a dead faint. Ken carried her inside, placed her on the couch, and bolted back to continue efforts to revive Gunner.

Joanie massaged Gunner’s neck with one hand and stroked his hair with the other. They immediately agreed not to move him.

An ambulance slid to a stop in twenty minutes, A fire engine pulled up two minutes later, complete with respirators, as well as additional lifesaving equipment. Emergency personnel swiftly and expertly diagnosed, boarded, and slipped Gunner into the ambulance. With remarkable speed and agility, Natalie dashed from the A-frame and launched herself into the back of the ambulance, where she knelt beside Gunner and began to sob.

Following a few words with Joanie and Ken, the ambulance crew—a young man and a motherly woman—locked, belted, and hit the gas. Within seconds, short, blackening shadows of evening and whirling red dust from the fire-trail swallowed the ambulance. For the first ten minutes of the route, Natalie didn’t touch Gunner.

Somewhere near mile eighteen, she carefully nudged the sedated form and . . .’no screams. Oh, Jesus, can it be?’ She slowly traced the outline of his thigh with an index finger.


The other thigh.


Natalie trickled her fingers along his arms and was greeted with: . . . a serene silence.

‘Now for his hand; hey, maybe I should wait until the hospital . . .no . .  well . . but I have to know; will he be like that . . . forever? I mean . . .’

Despite a crushing reluctance, Natalie eased her trembling index finger toward Gunner’s right hand. The tiny glacier of flesh edged to within a millimeter of her lover’s grey extremity—and halted. She squeezed her eyes as tightly as she could endure, gritted her teeth almost to the cracking point, while willing herself to withstand the worst.



Natalie completely unraveled. Tears from an eclectic combination of emotions cascaded through her makeup to the floor. Gunner breathed quietly and evenly. Her heart bounced around her ribcage in a flurry of happiness and relief. She smiled through the rivulets; laughed out loud, grabbed his hand and,

Holy Christ! What is th . . .’ in a scream so deafening, so seething with terror that the motherly driver slammed the vehicle to a dusty stop and raced for the back door. The two paramedics grasped, tore, and frantically yanked at Natalie’s arm for over five minutes. Sweating—almost in tears—the two EMTs eventually managed to disconnect the two searing hands. All three instantly fell into positions of exhausted collapse. The older woman hugged the young ones and wept. Natalie continued to scream while the older woman pressed the hysterical young woman to her breast. Two minutes passed before the vehicle resumed its speeding journey.

Finally, the hospital came in view. The ER crew swiftly lifted out Gunner and rolled him into the ER. A husky white smock carried Natalie—who continued to scream in subconscious horror—to a gurney in a cluttered corner of the ER. Her eyes rolled back in their sockets. What should have been the whites were a blood red. Natalie had not stopped screaming from the moment of her disengagement from Gunner. She was still screaming when the ER doctor stabbed a horse-sized hypodermic of Thorazine into four spots on her arms.

Gunner drifted along on a beach in a Southern California heaven. 


The next day, following a bank of concussion tests, a coterie of curious medicos surrounded Gunner. 

How is your memory; what happened; where were you coming from; what made you start running so quickly; what happened there? Gunner silently shook his head while he wrestled with attempts to recall anything he saw, which could be the reason for his sprint into the A-frame. He told the doctors about daydreaming about Southern California; about the beaches and the ocean; about the hot sand on his toes.

“Other than that, I can’t remember anything.” He inhaled and raised his palms as a sign of conclusion; he was dry; that was it. 

“Any idea why your wife freaked out?” said an earnest intern. Gunner drew his lower lip over his top one; his brow creased. He nodded in the negative.

“How is Natalie; is she okay; was she injured somehow?”

“No, she’s all right,” assured a young comely nurse, “but she’s not ready to leave yet. We’ll call you just as soon as she’s well enough to talk. However, it could be some time before she’s able to travel; especially on such a long plane ride as California. Anyway, we’ll see; we’ll make every effort to get her back on her feet and home as soon as we can. You know, we are not at all sure about what is bothering her –and why she was screaming all the way to the hospital, and right up to Doctor Randle giving her that heavy dose of tranquilizer. We must be patient. I know you understand. Also, we want to see you again in two days—or sooner, if you begin to remember anything more than what you’ve told us. It could give both you and us some clues to why you ran into the side of that house.”


When Gunner finished answering all the questions, he followed the female physician along a short white corridor to the special room where they were tending to Natalie.

Gunner pulled his head back in surprise at the sight of five people dressed in white gathered around his wife. They introduced themselves as doctors of psychiatry, neurology, neuropsychology, and neuropsychiatry. The fifth man was a priest from Lake Placid. Although Gunner could not remember any of the terrifying, unhinging screams of agony, which drove him to delusion and injury, one psychiatrist agreed with the priest that through some quantum entanglement between ‘here’ and ‘there’, through Gunner, Natalie’s hand had become the coupling to Hell.


Six months following her admission, Natalie shot upright from her supine position in the nursing home and cast a slow glance of confusion about her room. Several hours later, they released her--with a warning. Gunner arrived to take her away to San Diego, sunshine, Ruination 2.0—and a house a block from Pacific Beach. They never talked about the Adirondack experience because neither could remember anything later than four o’clock on that day with Joanie and Ken.

Father Morgan wrote a piece about Natalie in the Vatican daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, wherein he related the astonishing events in the Adirondacks.

Two of the three psychiatrists wrote up their encounter with Natalie as nothing more than a female hysteria of unknown origin.

The third psychiatrist correctly surmised that by some bizarre galactic quantum-string wire crossing, Gunner—and then Natalie—had their brain dials flipped to Radio Hell.


Submitted: February 25, 2016

© Copyright 2022 Nicholas Cochran. All rights reserved.

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Add Your Comments:



An enjoyable, well written, story.

Thu, June 24th, 2021 3:24am


Hey Rob, thanks for reading and reviewing.
Jonathan Franzen says above all, writing should be fun.
Writing tales like this one was just that.

Thu, June 24th, 2021 11:05am


Mark-twaining, 'ripen-composted, 'can simply enjoy the retrospected mood of priestly inherent mono-adult men's super diluted ideas:'locomotives of sun-quantums,horizonal perceptions, 'dearly love enigma fermentation, superbly knit into one, as to one take recipe, wine.

Thu, June 24th, 2021 12:43pm


Well said.
Thanks for reading the story.

Thu, June 24th, 2021 11:07am

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