Author: TaltushMeiMei PM
Warning: Rating is between T and M. Readers who want to avoid stories with violence and swearing might want to consider. We young men, going off to war. Short story.Rated: Fiction T - English - Tragedy - Words: 6,792 - Reviews: 1 - Published: 02-26-08 - Status: Complete - id: 2481078
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Note: This is not a political statement, but rather a story. Any beliefs expressed are those of the characters. The story takes place in a near future. Thank you.
"Hoy there, darlin'. Leave a bit of puke for the rest of us, eh?"
I want to spit the remains of throw-up in his face and curse in French, Spanish, and Russian, but he's already moved on to use the urinal. I'm leaning over the bowl, shaking from top to bottom. Weak. Like a little girl.
"Up," a voice above me commands, and strong hands help me stand. The somewhat worried face of my good friend Jose hovers on the air in front of me. "What's wrong now?"
"Nothing," I mumble, snatching the water bottle out of his hand. I swish water around my mouth and spit. "Where's my gun?"
Jose looks at me hesitantly. "Com the commie took it. Said if you were barfing like some stupid baby, you didn't deserve to hold a gun."
I groan. Jose leads me out into the weak sunlight and we sit down on the bench right outside the bathroom. I can hear people complaining about the smell. I know they're just whining for the sake of it – the bathrooms smell like shit 24/7. That's why it's the shithouse.
"I just… it felt wrong."
It's been a few moments, and Jose looks up at me in surprise. "What felt wrong?" he asks, twirling his thick golden chain around his fingers. The chain twists and falls, twists and falls.
"Shooting them." I pause before adding, "Again."
I was fifteen when they first brought up the law change. In protest (mostly to please my friends), I flunked physical education.
My parents were pretty mad, I remember.
"It's so unfair," Chris hissed at me as we crept into the library one lunch period. "I mean, years and years without a stupid draft and now they're bringing it back! It's almost as dumb as when they brought back capital punishment."
"I don't know," I whispered back. "I mean, what if it will really help? We can't all be going to really dangerous areas. What if it was like… office work? Wouldn't you want to do it then? Serve your country, and all that?"
I already knew the answer. Chris was an idealist. For him, the country was flawed. Needed fixing. He would never consciously admit that he loved it, and would always, until the end, fight against it.
Sure enough… "No, I wouldn't. I'd stand up and make sure everybody knows just how incompetent this country is, and how many people are dying and—"
"Mr. Ingram, keep your enthusiasm at a quiet volume," the librarian called out just then, and Chris waved his hand in apology, leading me deeper into the maze of books. We finally dropped our bags in front of our shelf of the week – art history.
"Picasso?" I offered Chris. He accepted it and passed me a Monet book. We opened them, began to read, and then Chris slammed his book shut.
"All I'm saying," he continued in his breathy way, "is that it's just really unfair. This draft will kill hundreds of innocent young men. Maybe even you and me."
"Aw, hell Chris. Nobody will want us in the army. We're the biggest girls in schools. If you didn't have a girlfriend, we'd be considered the biggest gays in school."
"We're not gay," he replied, almost defensively. I grinned.
"I know that, you know that, and Marsha sure knows that, but those dumbasses don't. To them, we're two fluttery, weak, bookworm nerds."
"We're not bookworm nerds," Chris retorted, opening the book again. "We're scholars."
We read silently for a moment, and then Marsha dropped her bag next to us. She hugged Chris, grinned at me, and pulled a book off the shelf.
"What're you guys fighting about this time?"
"Whether or not this idea to reinstate the draft is a good idea," I explained, turning a page.
Marsha giggled. "You guys are so silly."
Jose swallows his sandwich in one bite. He inhales his black coffee in one gulp. He smokes his cigarette in one puff. I sit by silently. I nibble on my salad, sip my tea, and finally pull out a chocolate bar from my pants pocket. I don't smoke.
Jose snatches the chocolate off my lap and breaks off a row. "Good stuff, man," he says approvingly, waving his cigarette around in the air. I respond by grabbing the cigarette out of his hand and putting it out in the dirt. Jose makes a face. We've made a deal for him to quit smoking, but he doesn't really follow through. He's almost twenty years old and has been smoking for over seven years. It baffles me at times, but he was raised in a shitty neighborhood with a shitty family and little or no food. He says it's a god's blessed miracle that the draft snatched him up just when he started tripping, because otherwise he never would have gotten cleaned up. Nor would he have met his girlfriend. Or have gotten engaged.
"You promised," I remind him coolly as his fingers twitch for a new cigarette. I shove a twig into his hand. He raises his eyebrows, and I say, "Smoke that."
"You need better lines, man," he says, smiling slightly. "Here's my pack. Chuck it. Smoke it. Sell it. Whatever."
He hands over the pack like it's treasured gold, and in truth, around here, it is. Most guys don't get a lot of opportunities to buy shit for their lungs, so they're willing to pay monstrous amounts just to get a nicotine fix. It's disgusting. I wonder if I could sell the pack to some anti-smoking group who would use it to find out how to cure cancer. The thought makes me smile.
"Hey, darling." A figure slides in next to me at the table and flashes me a leering smile. "How's it going?"
"Hey Shawn," Jose says, smiling at the skinny boy. Jose's smile is sincere as always. Jose can't help but be nice to everyone.
"Fuck, darling, did you seriously puke after shots today? Again?"
My name here has turned to darling. Or bitch.
"Dunno what you've heard, but I bet it's more reliable than anything I'll tell you," I mutter. I'm in no mood to play Shawn's games. For a small, skinny guy, he's tough as nails. Also, he can shoot like a sniper, and nobody wants him pissed off at you.
"Bitch, don't give me that shit." I roll my eyes. No matter which answer I give, it's the wrong one. "Did you puke or not?"
"Well then. Why couldn't you have just said that from the start?" Shawn kicks my shin under the table. I clench my jaw in pain and in the single moment where my head looks down at my dust-covered pants, Shawn has jumped to his feet and has one hand resting on my forehead, pulling my head back. "Careful darling," he croons. "Don't want any accidents."
"Lay off, Shawn," Jose says.
His grip on my head slackens, and then he lets go.
"Whatever, bitch." He shoves me. It looks playful, but it hurts. "But if I hear you puked again, I'm going to kill you, you got that?"
His threat is entirely believable.
Chris dropped the folded paper on my desk. The teacher was busy calling roll. I unfolded the note curiously. Chris wasn't much for talking during class, and neither was I, for that matter.
It read: THE LAW'S BEEN PASSED. WE'RE GOING TO BE DRAFTED.
I turned to meet my best friend's eyes. We were both thinking the same thing: We're only sixteen. Goddamn, let us live.
Forty-five twitchy, shifty minutes later, Chris and I stood in front of Marsha's locker, waiting patiently. Chris tapped his foot nervously and I read and reread his short note. Finally I crumpled the piece of paper in my fist and jammed it in my pocket.
"Chris, this is crazy," I told him, trying to act confident. "We've got two years until then. Two years! Don't worry about it."
"You're not worried?" he snapped at me, tapping his foot at a quicker pace. "God, where is she?"
I hesitated and decided to tell the truth. "'Kay, I'm scared shitless. But that doesn't mean I should. I mean, it's two years away, man. What are we going to do – waste our whole lives freaking about this?"
Chris stopped his foot-tapping and leaned against the row of lockers. "I don't know," he admitted in a low voice. "It just scares me. Scares me that I could go one day away from this quiet, sweet little world and find myself in a strange new one where I'm expected to do things that I just can't do."
"Like kill people." His voice was practically a whisper or a whimper. He was an inch away from tears.
"Aw, Chris. We won't be forced to kill people. We're wimps." My voice sounded a lot more confident than what I felt.
"Can you be positive?" he asked. He sounded so pathetic I felt like crying myself, but then Marsha showed up and placed her arm around his shoulders.
"I heard," she told Chris quietly. "I'm sorry, babe."
I turned away as they pulled in closer together. It didn't particularly interest me what they did, and after a moment Marsha giggled. "You can look again," she said, her light tone teasing. I shrugged and turned back to them. Chris was tapping his foot again.
"Shall we go?" I suggested. Marsha twirled open her lock, swapped a few books, and closed the locker with a nod. Chris smiled tightly. "Library or lunch?"
"Lunch," Chris said quietly. "I've got a sandwich today. Plus, I've got venting to do."
The tent is cold at night. It's amazing to think that it's the same room that's always so stuffy in the day. Army-issued sleeping bags and down-jackets don't help much either. I shiver underneath my layers, wishing for the first time in my life that I was somewhat bulkier.
I share a tent with my friend Pishkin. Pishkin's a bit of an asshole at times, but he's a pretty good guy overall. He's huge and always complains that the tent is too warm at night. In the daytime, when the sun is burning through my skin, he shivers with cold. He's sarcastic and moody, but sharp as a whistle. He's twenty-one, waiting three months until his release day. Every morning he ticks a day off the calendar we have lying on the ground. My countdown starts when he leaves,
Com wakes us up at three in the morning. Emergency, he says. Suit up and meet him out in front of his tent.
Com's an ass, our commander, and I'll leave it at that.
I pull my boots on half-blindly. I always needed a lot of sleep, and the crappy nights I get here don't help me. I run out at first without my belt and without my gun. Pishkin steps out a moment later with his slow, lumbering walk and hands both to me. I hastily shove the belt through the loops and sling my gun over my shoulders.
"Thanks, man," I mutter to Pishkin as we head over to Com's.
"Am I set?" he whispers back. I check him in the dim light.
"You look fine." We reach the crowd outside Com's tent. Pishkin and I make our way over to Jose and Karl. Karl is smoking in the dark. He looks more like a serial killer than usual with the red glow below his closely shaved scalp. I'm not a big fan of Karl, but everybody else seems to like him fine. He kind of ignores me and I kind of ignore him. It's a friendly thing we have going.
"What's going on?" I ask Jose quietly. Pishkin shifts uneasily from foot to foot.
"Dunno. Com woke us up, all pissed off like. Said it was important."
"Bet he wants us to shoot in the dark," Pishkin says with a short laugh. "Wouldn't be the first time old Com goes crazy on us."
Karl, as usual, says nothing. He just smokes in silence. I wonder how he doesn't have lung cancer yet. I try to move away from the billowing clouds of purple smoke. I hate the smell and I hate smoking in general. Everybody knows that.
"Shooting in the dark is insane," Jose says flatly after a moment's awkward silence. "He probably wants us to run laps and then stay up four days."
We chuckle half-heartedly at the memory. Com hadn't even let us sleep six hours the night after that four-day… experience.
Finally, he shows up in front of his tent and claps his hands together. "Shooting practices, then twenty laps. Go!"
We barely have time to grin at each other in the dark before we're running off to the shooting range. Sprinting, more like. And guns aren't light.
Why we have a shooting range is beyond me. We shoot at normal people. Isn't that enough practice? Now in the dark, it's impossible to see the dummies. Bullets are flying everywhere. Some shoot blindly into the night without even trying to direct their guns in any direction and get yelled at. Those are the newbies. Only they would mess up so bad. I've been here three years now – I know to sit down, keep my mouth shut, and shoot.
No matter how uncomfortable it makes me.
The shout made me jump out of my reverie, and I quickly hurried over to the owner of the gruff voice. A sturdy middle-aged man glared down at me. He had that expression only war vets had. I suppressed a shiver and stood up straight.
"Dreamer beanpole shit," the man growled, rolling his eyes in my direction. "That's what we get? It was better when we didn't have you lousy shits."
I knew better than to argue, and simply nodded politely. The man looked down at his clipboard and started writing something. I stole a glance behind me. Chris still stood in line, looking at me with an expression of mourning and pity. I wondered why. He was about to go through this as well. A moment later I realized what it meant – the line next to me cleared up and he was ushered there, in front of a friendly looking young man who smiled at Chris kindly.
My guy looked up from the clipboard with an expression of disgust on his face. "Take off your shirt, beanpole," he snapped. "Bet you can't even lift your backpack, am I right?"
"No, sir," I murmured. The man rolled his eyes again. He inspected me with a sense of duty and distaste. I finally pulled my shirt on, awkward and uncomfortable. He pointed the clipboard in the direction of one line and barked, "There."
I went over to the line. A young woman stood there. She too held a clipboard. She consulted hers and then directed me to a small group of guys my own age. One shifted from foot to foot impatiently. He was huge – enormous really. I moved closer to another guy there who looked pissed off and bored. After a moment Chris came into the room and was pointed over to my group. I breathed a sigh of relief and smiled at my friend.
"Got lucky, I s'pose," I told him quietly, maneuvering away from the other guys. "I think this means we're going to be together."
"Forever and ever?" Chris's voice was bitter. Unsurprisingly.
"Listen, we'll deal," I continued in my low voice. "It's not that long. We'll do it, and then we'll be done. We'll go to college and never deal with this again."
"What about post-war trauma?" Chris shot back, shaking his head back and forth. I hesitated. I knew for a fact that we were going to dangerous places. Chris grabbed my arm and shook me hard. "Hell, forget about trauma. What if we die?"
"We're not going to die," I replied shortly, pulling my arm away. "Right?" I turned to look at the other guys. One looked away as though he hadn't been listening the whole time, but the big guy looked uneasy.
"I dunno, man," he said, jogging in place now. "I mean, we're going to be in some nasty squeezes. What if we don't come home?"
"Then it'll be 'cause we met some hot native chick," another guy said, laughing a bit, brushing back his thick brown curls. "And we just wanted to—"
"Jonah, shut the fuck up," the big guy snapped. "Nobody's in the mood for your crap right about now."
"I'm Jonah, by the way," the curly-haired guy added nonchalantly. "That jackass there," he continued, clapping the big guy on the back, "is Pishkin."
"Pishkin?" I asked curiously.
"Like this Russian author, Pushkin, but… with an i," Pishkin explained.
"You like Pushkin?" Chris asked, suddenly eager. Pishkin laughed.
"Yeah, but the name's just my name. I got a first name, but nobody bothers to remember it so I won't even mention it."
We laughed. Another guy came over from the line and joined us. He was short and skinny, built strong. "Mark," he said confidently, sticking out his hand.
Pishkin looked at the hand and let out a laugh. "Aw, hell. If this is who I'm going to be spending the next few years with, I hope to god I get killed in the first week."
Everyone except Mark laughed. His eyebrows drew together and he jammed his hand into his pant pockets. "You don't have to be an ass."
"Oh, Pishkin's always an ass," Jonah said lightly, smiling at Mark. "It's written in his DNA." I chuckled. Mark's expression didn't change.
"All I'm trying to do is be friendly."
"Yeah, whatever," Pishkin retorted, rolling his eyes. Another boy joined them. "God, how many more of them are we getting?"
"Forty for each basic training group," Chris said quietly. "We're eleven here."
"Well, gents," Jonah said with a smile, putting an arm around Pishkin, "looks like this is it."
Pishkin wakes me up late the next morning. Com decided to be nice and let us sleep in – for once. I'm relishing the few extra hours of sleep, but then Pishkin bounces in with his evil smile and I know I'm in for it.
"What?" I ask, already halfway to putting on my boots.
"Sec is here," he tells me. His voice is breathy and excited, quite unlike his usual sharp tones. His words send jolts of energy coursing through my veins. Sec is our nickname for the "second company". We're first. Our nickname is "Apple".
Sec. Sec means seeing old friends and buddies. Sec means two weeks of lazy days and peaceful night. Even Com chills when Sec is around, mostly because we're only ever together when things are calm. No wonder we got to sleep in last night.
I don't bother with buttoning up a shirt and just toss on a white T. Pishkin's practically jumping with glee. Last time he was this happy was the night he decided to play a prank on Mark. Pishkin dragged him out of his tent and stripped him of his clothes. Mark woke up, buck naked, in the middle of our camp. He, needless to say, wasn't particularly amused. Pishkin, of course, thought it was hilarious. The camp sided with Pishkin.
The sky is light blue out, that kind of blue that makes me want to sneeze. I do – several times. I stop to catch my breath, and spot Jose putting out a cigarette while Karl silently smokes beside him. I make a face at them, and Jose grins and blushes.
"I'm trying, man," he says, joining me. "I swear." Karl, of course, says nothing.
"Sec is here," I tell Jose.
"I know," he replies, playing with his chain. "I heard Com talk about it last night when I went to take a shit."
"Com's a shit," Pishkin says amicably from behind me. His tone is so chipper I actually smack him on the back of the head. It doesn't even faze him. "C'mon. They're all eating."
We enter the dining hall, shaking with impatience. It's been seven months since we last even heard from Sec, and now we'll finally get to see them. The last time we met, seven months ago, was under unpleasant circumstances, and I wonder if it will be the same. I scan the dining hall impatiently, and spot a boy with short, tightly coiled hair.
"PISHKIN!" he screams across the hall. Pishkin laughs. It is most unlike him. He runs across the room and literally lifts the skinny man standing there, squeezes him tight, and then drops him back onto the bench. I consider renaming Pishkin something like Bear or Viking.
"Pab, good to see you, man," I say, smiling at the dark young man sitting next to Jonah. Pablo stands up and hugs me carefully. He's very happy normally, but now he's subdued and quiet. Even Jonah seems almost sad. I'm sure my face mirrors this emotion.
"Wend!" Jose pulls a tall young man up and hugs him hard. "How's it going, man?"
Wend is from Jose's basic training. I vaguely remember meeting him the last time Sec came round, but I don't know the kid all too well. He smiles at me politely and I smile back.
Somehow, we exhaust all the greetings. All of Sec are wearing this hard, uncomfortable look on their faces. I know why. There's one greeting we missed.
I rubbed the piece of cloth against my shoe as hard as I could, and spit hard. Nothing. The shoe refused to shine. Desperate, I grabbed the cloth and twisted it around the shoe again and again, but the dust just didn't come off. After a moment of anger and frustration, Chris marched over, his boots shined to perfection, and grabbed the cloth out of my hand.
"This is our second year of doing this," he said with a wry smile, "and yet your shoes are still hideous."
"Ha ha," I shot back, pulling my boots away. To my distaste, they were suddenly sparkling clean. I shoved them on with a scowl and snapped on my heavy black belt. "At least Com doesn't think I'm crazy."
"Com's a lot more intelligent than we think," Chris replied calmly, checking to make sure his laces were tucked in right. "He may be a jerk, but at least he knows what he's doing. Can you imagine being in his position?"
"Of asshole?" I retorted. "No."
"Com is in charge of us all. That's got to be a helluva job." Chris brushes invisible specs of dust off of his shoes and smooths out invisible creases in his pants. "Just think about it."
I coughed horribly as we ducked into our tent. I sat down on my bed-like lump while Chris dropped his gun and collapsed onto his sleeping bag. I stared.
"Chris?" I asked hesitantly.
"I'm tired," he said, his voice muffled. "I just want to sleep."
"I know." There was a long pause. "Oh, god."
He was crying.
"One of the guys today… I saw him."
"Saw one of the guys."
"Which guys?" I asked, trying to remain calm and patient.
Another long pause. "One of the guys I shot."
A beat. "What?"
"He exploded… and the kid next to him screamed."
"Kid?" I felt my stomach twitch uneasily in my stomach and coughed heavily. "What kid?"
"The kid with him. The crying kid." Chris wiped away his tears and looked at me. "You promised we'd be somewhere quiet."
We stared at each other for a moment, and then chuckled sadly.
"Are you okay?" I asked softly.
"No," he mumbled.
"What was it this time?"
"My kid." Chris swallowed a large amount of water and coughed. "I mean, I think it's my kid. Marsha stood there, holding a baby. Next thing I know, they're both dead."
"It was just a dream," I reminded him kindly, helping him stand. "Just don't let them affect you." But it was too late for that. For the last three weeks, Chris woke up once a night to throw up from nightmares.
"I'm a murderer," Chris whispered, covering his face with his hands.
"No," I told him quietly, pulling his hands away. "You're a soldier. And this is what soldiers do."
"She said yes," he told us, sounding dazed. "We're getting married!"
"Congrats, man," I said, hugging him. "Set a date yet?"
"Yeah, how 'bout in, uh, two and a half years?" We laughed.
"Poor Jose's got two and a half years until his release," Pishkin drawled. "Oh me oh my, whatever shall he do?"
"You guys have got… what, a year by now?"
"Thereabouts," Pishkin replied cheerfully. "And unlike some lucky ducks, I don't have a lovely girl back home waiting for me. I've got my mom, but I try to avoid her as much as possible. Out of habit, you know."
Pishkin and I were the only two who hadn't bothered to make calls today. I had a fear of talking on the phones and preferred to send my family and friends letters. Pishkin had exactly five friends, three of whom he saw on a regular basis, while the other two were in Sec and we saw often enough.
"Where's Chris?" I asked a few minutes later. The food I'd just consumed rocked uncomfortably in my stomach.
"Dunno," Jose said, twirling his chain around his finger. "He was gone by the time I finished."
I stood up quickly and hurried out of the dining hall, ignoring Jose and Pishkin's cries of surprise. The day was windy and cold, dust flying at me from every direction. I closed my eyes for a moment and tried to reorient. Where was he?
I started running. My heart beat fast within my ribcage and when I finally stopped, I knew that it had been too later when Jose had come, elated with his new engagement.
Chris's final act was to pass along his nightmares and throw ups.
Jonah sits next to me. The rest of the guys are sleeping. We're on guard tonight and it's cold, bitterly so. Winter is coming. I think of the last time I saw Jonah. It was this cold then as well. I remember how I wished it would rain. I was kind of hoping it would rain now. But, of course, it didn't.
It's been almost a year since I last spoke to Jonah. When I last saw him, we didn't even exchange hellos. Nothing. Not one word.
Two hours of silence go by. Then Jonah whispers, "He was depressed, wasn't he."
I know it's not a question and that breaks my heart.
Com looked at me awkwardly.
"I know," I murmured. "I've already spoken to Pishkin."
"Oh, good," Com replied instantly. He already seemed calmer. "And… uh… his stuff."
"Sir, if I may."
"May I please just go?"
I folded my hands over my lap, and Com nodded. He met my eyes as I rose and placed a hand on my shoulder.
"We get one or two a year," he said quietly. "I was surprised he lasted so long."
"He was a smart boy," Com continued, voice surprisingly soft. "But this was too much for him. Why do you think I get pissed when you boys throw up? Because that means you're thinking too much. He thought too much. The army doesn't want thinkers – it wants doers. This draft has increased the suicide rates in ways nobody ever expected… except for me." Com let go and his eyes suddenly seemed to me less like empty pits and more like my father's eyes – hard with warm edges.
"Sec's here," he added. "We'll relax for a few days."
"Can we have a service?" I couldn't stop the words before they fell out of my mouth.
Com looked sincerely sad as he answered. "No."
"It had been going on for a few months," I explain quietly. "He saw one of the guys he shot at one day, and there was some kid next to him. It just kind of… hit him, I guess."
"So… what. He puked?"
I sigh. "More than that. He had nightmares. He worried about it. Every day after shots, he had to spend an hour throwing up. Crying. Saying he was a murderer."
"If there's anyone on this planet who isn't a murderer, it's Chris," Jonah mumbled, staring at his hands.
I let out an empty laugh. "I know."
There's a long pause, and then Jonah asks, "Why didn't you tell me all of this then?"
I feel warmth rising through my body. It starts in the center of my body and reaches every part, from my toes to my cheeks, to my lips, to my hands. I answer, "It was too soon."
"Too soon for what?" Jonah's voice is suddenly hard.
"Too soon for me," I whisper.
"Are you okay?"
I was sitting in the corner of the dining hall. I'd moved a table and bench over to the far corner such that nobody could actually get close to me. There was a comforting sense of closure to that. Pishkin, Jonah, and Jose sat across from me. I could see Pablo hovering somewhere behind them.
I didn't answer. I didn't need to. The answer was so obvious.
"You found him?"
Jonah's voice sounds far away. Horrified. I don't answer.
He shifts around for a moment, then asks, "Does Pishkin know?"
"Of course," I reply softly. "Pishkin found me. A few weeks after… I told him."
"I can't… oh man."
Jonah stops for a moment and then pushes back imaginary strands of hair. I look at my hands. They're lying on my lap quietly. I wonder why.
"I thought it was horrible that Com didn't let you guys… have… you know, something."
"He wasn't legally allowed to," I say quietly. "The body goes back."
"But… suicide? I mean, I still can't wrap my head around that! It's been seven goddamn months and I still can't believe that one of my best friends offed himself!"
"You're not alone in that feeling," I say, closing my hands around each other. "Imagine if it was Pishkin."
There's a pause. "Pishkin's been my best friend since third grade."
I felt strong hands holding my head back. After a final moment of spitting, I stood up shakily and held onto Jose. His eyes faced downwards, and I ignored them. I just brushed past him and hurried back to my tent. Before I entered, I could already see Pishkin sprawled across both of ours' sleeping bags. With a groan, I turned around again and walked straight into Jose.
"Just talk to me, man," he said quietly. "You haven't said a word in over a week. Pishkin says you're waking up every night to puke. Just say something." He stuck a cigarette between his lips and lit it.
"Quit smoking," I said, and turned away again.
Jonah rocks back and forth, twirling his gun in his large hands like a young girl might a baton. "Again," he says quietly. "Tell it again."
I swallow hard. "He talked to his girlfriend, went out behind the shithouse, and took one final shot. He left a note saying that he didn't want to kill anymore, and he'd calculated that his death would mean the saved lives and sanity of twelve people."
"Of course he calculated," Jonah says with a laugh. "He's always got to calculate."
I smile as well. It's true.
"Did you ever think this would happen?" I ask him. "When we first met, we were all cheerful and cocky. Look at us now." I wave my hand at our dark, dusty surroundings. "We suffer trauma. We've resorted to mocking our friends who reside amongst the dead. Pishkin actually skipped this morning when he heard you guys were coming. I have something that should probably be called PPS – Perpetual Puking Syndrome – that makes me the laughingstock of the company, and we count down days until we can go back to a real world that will seem so false and unbelievable when we do!"
My voice has risen to a shout by the time I get to the end. Jonah's eyebrow is raised, and his smile is slightly tilted. His eyes smile. "That's Chris, man. There you are. It's been ages."
I roll my eyes at him. "He influenced me a lot more than I can say."
Jonah stretches his arms. "Unsurprising. You two were best friends."
"Shouldn't I have realized, then?" I ask softly. "Shouldn't I have seen the signs and made him go see Com?"
"It's impossible to recognize depression if there are no signs," Jonah replies gently. "And there were none. Not in this situation. There were the markings of war trauma. How were you supposed to know that there was honest-to-god depression under there?"
"Shouldn't I have known?" It's almost a beg.
"No," Jonah says firmly.
"I can't believe we're almost done," I say after a few minutes of silence.
"Yeah, Mark and Shawn should be coming to switch us soon," Jonah says, peering at his watch. I chuckle softly.
"I meant with the army."
"Jonah, we're almost done."
"We're at the end."
"We can go home."
"Get married and have kids," Jonah adds with a laugh.
I look down. "And what? Have those sons grow up to come straight back here?"
"Shit," Jonah breathes after a moment. "Think of how cheated the next generation is, not realizing that they once could have had a choice."
"Is it better to know?"
A sharp intake of air. "No, I guess not."
I shrug and lift my gun awkwardly. "This thing. It's just so unfair. We can't even change it."
"We'll, we're just draftees," Jonah reminds me. "We're almost out, but we're still draftees. We're nobodies."
"We're regressing," I snap back. "Like Chris said. It's like bringing back the death penalty after canceling it."
"That's life, man."
"Yeah, I guess it is," I say softly.
The night is cold. I can see my breath on the air as I slowly breathe out. I wonder what my sister is doing back home. Hopefully sleeping. I remember the time-difference. Okay, maybe not sleeping. But doing something bright and happy. Warm.
I myself am ready to sleep when the sun peeks over the mountains and a distant shot is heard. In an instant, Com is there, yelling at us to get shooting. I snap on my belt, grab my gun and follow Com's commands. This is war. You do what you're told.
Even if it costs you everything else.
"Graduation," I said with a laugh. "Can you believe it?"
"We're free!" he cried in response, and then added, somberly, "For about ten more minutes."
His arm was around Marsha, and feeling slightly uncomfortable, I left them, heading off to find my family. I hugged my little sister, gave my mom a kiss, and hugged my dad.
"We're so proud of you, sweetie," my mom said, hugging me again. "Straight As. And Chris is the valedictorian!"
"Unsurprising," my dad said. "You two spend more of your day with your noses in books than on the computer. That's just wrong."
We all laughed, and I gave them one final hug. "There's the party now," I reminded them. "Mom, can I go?"
"Of course," she said cheerfully. "Just as long as we get to spend a lot of time with you before…" She hesitated.
"Before I'm drafted," I finished for her, smiling sadly. "I promise." I gave her another kiss and ran over to Chris again. Marsha was back with her own family. Chris' parents had already left.
"Well?" I asked him quietly. "Are we going to the party?"
"Of course not," he replied in just as low of a voice. "You have it?"
"Yes," I said. "God, I can't believe tomorrow is the last day of high school. I can't believe we just graduated."
"By the way, I looked at the lists," Chris said, looking around with his eyes narrowed and hands shaking. "We're going to be together."
I snorted. "Are we surprised? We've been together in everything since first grade."
Chris nodded. "True."
We waited quietly until everyone disappeared. Finally, only me, Chris, and Marsha remained. Marsha stood about awkwardly. We refused to tell her what we were doing.
"Hold the ladder," I told her.
"What ladder?" she asked stupidly. Chris smiled and pulled out a small key. He led us to the janitorial office, opened the door, and flicked a light switch. We blinked at the sudden brightness. Outside, the sun had set and the campus was deserted and ugly. I went to the back of the room and grabbed a small, light ladder which I carried out.
"You guys are stealing a ladder?" Marsha asked, smiling wryly. "That's your big senior prank?"
"No," Chris said. His smile covered only half of his face. "It's a surprise."
We carried the ladder out to the quad, finally placing it against the main building. There was a large board there where our school banner normally hung. Now a huge banner that read Congrats Graduating Class of ' //! hung there. As I was the tallest, I climbed up and ripped the stupid thing down. Then, slowly, slowly, Chris handed me a bundle, tape, pins, nails, and a hammer. In the dark it was difficult to see what I was doing. I finally pulled out a flashlight and checked to make sure it looked fine, and satisfied, climbed down.
"Well?" Marsha asked impatiently. "What'd you put up there? AFuck Mr. Hensley sign?"
"Chris? Lights please." Chris pulled another key out of his pocket, entered the main building, and a moment later dazzling lights turned on. We blinked for a moment, and then Marsha read was we'd written up there:
We young men, going off to war.
Our breath comes fast, our heart rates soar.
Soon we'll hold in our hands a gun
And be told to shoot, told to run.
Our freedom snatched without our say.
We never should have said okay.
At first we simply scoffed and laughed.
Oh, goddamn that stupid draft.