This month’s story of the month illustrates how some fall away from their beliefs and stay away because of their own stubbornness to see the truth. The setting is a military base, but the war is not with flesh blood. Enjoy! And let me know your thoughts in the comments. For more stories, check out my Story of the Month page.
“Sir!” Janice popped out of her swivel chair, grabbing my arm. I wanted to pin her to the wall with my hand wrapped around her stick-like neck, but instead I turned and pulled free from her limp grasp.
“Ma’am, mind your distance.” Nothing could merit her accosting me as I tried to retreat to my office. Imbeciles. I’m pretty sure I’m surrounded by a bunch of half-lit morons, of which, she has to be the poster child.
Backing away, she put her hands behind her back and kept her eyes down. “Um, sir. There’s a man in your office. He wanted to talk to you.”
Maybe if my morning hadn’t already felt like a hot poker slowly sliding through one ear and being yanked out the other, I could’ve thought of this as a teaching moment, but the picture of her eyes bulging out of her face and the air draining from her slight body still stuck in my head.
I took a deep breath. “And you thought it appropriate to escort him into my office?” I glanced at the empty chairs lining the corner across from her desk.
She caught my thought, but couldn’t quite hold on to it. “I thought he might be more comfortable in there.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “He’s not one of us and seems very uncomfortable with being here.” How thoughtful of her.
“Yes, well. We wouldn’t want to make some civilian uncomfortable about being in the heart of a military arsenal, now would we?”
“No sir.” I’m pretty sure she thought I was agreeing with her idiotic decision to compromise my private space. I didn’t bother to go any further. She’d be transferred before lunch. They can keep sending me these puffs, and I’ll keep blowing them back.
* * * * * *
He jumped out of the chair as I flung the door open. I think he realized the error. Older than what I had been expecting, he looked tired and used. He had been sitting in one of the chairs next to a side table as far from my desk as he could get. Dressed in jeans and an untucked button-down white shirt, he slouched a little, but looked me down with his grey-blue eyes.
“What do you want?” I should’ve thrown him out. I would’ve if he’d been a kid like I figured. I was always getting boys in here wanting to join up. They’d hear about the fight and be drawn in thinking it would fix their lousy lives, and I guess sometimes it would. But I’m not the recruiter. How do these guys get my name anyway? I don’t enlist. I don’t explain the war. I lay down strategy. Holding their hands is not my job.
He held out his hand. “Sir, I’m not exactly sure why I’m here.”
Great. I ignored the hand and went to my desk. “Well, I guess that makes two of us then, son. Why don’t you head on out of here and when you figure it out, you can make an appointment and do this through the proper channels.” I locked eyes with him then cut my glance toward the door, but the man took a few steps toward me. Something was bothering him. But I’m not his momma. “You can go now.”
He stopped, but didn’t turn away. “I don’t get it.” His voice cracked as he spoke. There was some anger in there, maybe a lot.
I don’t know why, but I was a little curious about his story, so I stayed quiet and let him speak.
“I don’t even know why I’m here. . .again. I don’t want to be here. I hate this.” He took a hand from his jeans pocket and waved it at my office.
I plopped into my seat. I already had about five questions for him, but I figured I’d let him speak his piece. Besides he probably had no answers. So I just waved him to one of the larger chairs in front of my desk. Why not? How much worse could my day get, anyway? He didn’t budge, except for his head which wagged back and forth.
“I hate you people.” Maybe he thought that would upset me, but I’ve heard that before. And I knew he wasn’t a threat, nothing about him indicated he could do anything more than complain. There’re two types you have to watch out for, those who can fight, and there’s signs of that in the way they move and look at you. This guy showed none of those signs, and then there’s the other guy, the nut. It doesn’t take much to pull a pin out of a grenade and blow yourself to bits, and this guy could maybe do that, but something in my gut told me he wasn’t that guy either.
He leaned forward. “Didn’t you hear me?”
“Yep. Get to the point. Why are you here?”
“I don’t know why I’m here. I bumped into an old friend, took a wrong turn and suddenly I’m having to revisit something I settled long ago.”
I’m not sure why it hadn’t clicked in my head at first, but now I could see it. “So you fought with us? When?” That was it. He was my age, maybe older and he didn’t look familiar.
“Ten years ago.” His eyes narrowed. “I gave you people fifteen years of my life and got nothing, just a bunch of pain, hurt, and emptiness. I don’t want to be here. I don’t believe in what you’re doing.”
“Fine. There’s the door.” I stood up. But the guy didn’t move. “Listen, I don’t care if you don’t like what we’re doing. You don’t have to be part of it.” I could make him leave if necessary, and after my morning, kicking his butt out the door would probably feel pretty good, entertaining even. But then the irony hit me. People who don’t want to be some place don’t usually show up right in the middle of it.
He must have read my mind. “I know. If I don’t believe in all of this, then why am I here? I don’t know.” His voice cracked again, more pain than anger. “I want some answers.” And then he settled into the large leather chair and waited. He glanced up at me but mostly fiddled with his hands.
I’ve heard this before, usually right before someone goes AWOL or asks for a reassignment. They want me to pull out the manual and explain to them exactly what’s happening and what their role is in all of this. Or they want me to give them a sign or something to help them hold on to hope. But that’s a joke ’cause they’ve already figured that the manual is archaic or messed up, and every sign has another explanation. Their minds are pretty much made up by all the pain.
It’s a rough world. I know that. I’ve been here for a while. It hurts, and it can be lonely and sometimes it takes everything from you, and that’s why few make it to the end. You’ve got to almost be able to see the end to not lose heart, and no one really sees the end. We all hope we do. We think we do. But no one really does. And that’s how it works. We run this operation, following orders, fighting battles, dying just hoping that there is an end.
Why can’t we see the end? “Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do and die.” That’s crazy when you think about it. How many good soldiers have followed some maniac, and if they’d only stopped to do a little reasoning an entire war could have taken a different direction.
My stomach started to churn. As if it wasn’t bad enough to have my morning meeting go haywire, now I was staring into the disillusioned face of what could one day be me. I hadn’t expected to have my resolve shaken.
I’ve been at this for thirty years, but all it would take is for me to make a choice. That could be it. I’ve seen it happen. One day, a good soldier comes in, and he’s done. Most of the time, no one ever knew he was struggling. He didn’t bother to talk to anyone about it. He just let one thing after another eat away at him– one question, one failure, one loss, one long stretch of nothingness, and eventually, he’s forgotten why he even joined up to begin with, and he quits. Sometimes he asks for a reassignment, a desk job or even to “retire”, and we let them go. But the truth is, you can never retire. Retiring is quitting, just lying about it. I almost like the types who come in, throw their badge down and say they’re done and want completely out. At least they had the guts to take a stand and not slink away.
I almost forgot he was waiting for me to say something. “How old are ya?”
My heart sank a little when he told me my age. My God, I was going to be this guy in another few years.
I glanced at the manual. But I knew he’d probably read it through and had his reasons for not trusting those words.
Behind him on the wall hung pictures of past war heroes and generals, but I didn’t figure someone else’s story would mean much to him either.
I had nothing to tell him. And that churning in my stomach seemed to be turning into a gaping hole. If I couldn’t explain to this lost soldier why I’m here, maybe I needed to reevaluate a lot more than my meeting this morning. How did this random encounter suddenly begin to chip away at something that ten minutes ago seemed crystal clear to me. I should just throw him out.
He looked up at me again with those grey eyes. “Well?” So he still expected me to say something.
“Well what? You want me to tell you why you’re here? How the hell should I know? I don’t know why you’re asking questions again that you already figured you had settled. I don’t know anything about you.”
He rolled his eyes at me, but he knew I was right. He just wanted me to throw something out there so he could shoot it down. That might make him feel better about his choice.
“If you’re looking for me to tell you, you made the right choice, I won’t do that. But it’s your choice to make. And you’re not the only one who’s made it.” I turned my chair away from him and tilted back a bit. “Some people say that once you’re a part of us, you’re always a part of us, even if you run away, hide, or even stand up and renounce what we’re doing, it doesn’t matter. But I think it matters. It all matters.” Plopping my seat back down, I turned back to face him. He was ready to go. “I think there’s something else that matters too.” I didn’t finish my thought, though. Did he even really want to know?
It took him a minute or two, but he finally spoke up. “What?”
“You’re here. I know you don’t care about what the book says or what other people say. You don’t believe any of it. All you know is the pain and emptiness that you felt the last time you were here, but you’re here now. And that just might mean something. It might not. But maybe it does.” I leaned across the desk to take a deep look into what could be me. “And maybe, just maybe, it means something that everything converged upon itself and brought you that wrong turn, your old friend and my moronic secretary all about the same time in your little life.”
He smiled slightly, annoyingly and stood. “Yeah, signs, right? Or just crap that happens and doesn’t mean a flip. I hate you people. You’re so lost in your own delusions and you try to make it out like we’re the messed up ones.”
“Yeah, we’re all messed up. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. And next time make an appointment.”
“There won’t be a next time.” He turned to leave but paused with his hand on the door knob. If there was one thing that I could say that would help him, I didn’t say it. I thought about yelling at him. Maybe he just needed someone to yell at him a little, but those tactics don’t usually work or last at least. So I said the only thing that came to mind.
“I’m glad you came in.” I meant it. “You’ve given me something to think about. And it’s good to question all of this. I forget that sometimes, think it’s all about me, and I forget that not everybody sees things the way I do.” It kind of scared me that maybe this little visit may have changed something in my life and not in his. But those are the kinds of battles we fight. “I’ll be here.” I kind of mumbled the last part, and he didn’t look back, but I thought the back of his head looked a little less angry as the door fell shut behind him.
Let me know what you think in the comments, and be sure to check out more short stories on my Story of the Month page. Thanks for reading!