Clara brushed her hair away from her face, looking Lewis up and down.
"Your tie is loose," she said. She reached out and tightened it, straightening out the striped fabric. Lewis smiled.
"Thanks, Clara. Are you ready?"
"When am I ever ready?"
She took his arm and a deep breath. They started walking down the long carpet that had been laid out for the graduates. Molly was right behind them with her boyfriend, Owen. The two of them had been on and off for years, but apparently they were on good enough terms to walk together for graduation.
The entire graduation ceremony was terribly boring. Clara finally heard her name called and walked across the stage to get her diploma. Get the diploma, pause for the picture, walk off, and then it was over. She'd officially graduated. Yay me, she thought.
She had always wondered what the big deal with graduation was. Everybody said it was one of the most important days of your life, right up there with your wedding and the actual day of your birth. She found the whole thing dull.
"Don't fall asleep," Lewis whispered, elbowing her with a grin. She just rolled her eyes at him. "Come on, Clara. Don't worry about it. Soon enough we'll be off to training. We'll probably get put in the same troop, so you're going to be stuck with me and Molly for a while longer."
"Oh, joy," Clara muttered sarcastically. Lewis laughed.
"Come on, you know you love us."
Clara's life was fairly boring between graduation and her first day of training. She, like Lewis and Molly, had enlisted in the Castovene army. They were all starting training at the same facility. There were times when Clara wondered if she'd made the right decision. Everybody heard the stories, of course- soldiers dying at the hands of the anti-establishment movement. Soldiers dying at Castovene's borders. Soldiers dying in service of their country.
She remembered what she had to fight for, though. She had her friends, Lewis and Molly. The three of them had met in middle school and had been inseparable ever since. She had her family.
"Clara?" Her mom knocked on the already open door. "How much longer before you have to go?"
Clara looked up, a grey t-shirt in hand. Her mom's hair was pulled back into a messy bun and she wore a haggard expression. Clara wondered if she would look like that when she reached her mom's age – exhausted and worried with permanent wrinkles around her eyes. She looked a lot like her mom already – light brown hair that Clara would often keep in a ponytail, large brown eyes, a small, slightly pointed nose, and a spray of freckles across their cheeks.
"I'm not leaving until tomorrow morning," she said, stuffing the shirt into her duffel bag. "I'm just finishing up packing."
"I still wish you would stay. You can serve your country in other ways, honey, you don't have to join the army–"
"Mom," Clara said gently. Her mom pressed her lips together in a thin white line, her eyes shimmering with unshed tears. "I promise, I know what I'm doing."
"I just want you to come home."
Clara wrapped her arms around her mom.
"I will, Mom. I promise."
"Well," Lewis said, setting his bag down. "We're here."
Clara nodded, looking around. Molly was already sizing up the new recruits around them. There were a few barracks off to the left and a group of people jogging past them. She breathed in the crisp air. She was starting a new chapter in her life. She was going to protect and serve her country.
"Clara," Molly snapped. "Stop spacing out. We have to register and get assigned. Come on."
"Right." Clara followed Molly and Lewis towards the registration office. While all of them were expected to be there, registration was required. That was where they'd get their barrack assignment and their CO assignment.
Clara stepped up to the counter.
"A-35. Your commanding officer will be Smith. Next!"
Clara let out a long, shaky breath, stepping away from the counter with her form. She tucked it in the side pocket of her duffel, stepping to the side to wait for Lewis and Molly. Lewis got done first. He walked over with a pale face and shaking hands.
"A-35," he said. Clara felt a weight lift off her chest. "And Smith. You?"
Molly was shaking too when she joined them.
"A-35 with Smith."
"We're in the same barrack," Clara whispered, relieved. "Why am I so nervous all of the sudden?"
"Yeah, I feel it too," Lewis said. "It's like the whole place is designed to make you nervous."
"I'm sure it's just first-day jitters," Molly said dismissively. "Come on, let's go."
Clara felt like there was something more going on, but she ignored it and stepped out of the registration office, not realizing just how much her life was about to change.
"I'm going to be late," Clara grumbled, half-jogging down the road. "I hate these exercises."
Their group was going to the border to run training exercises. That meant that Clara had to get on a plane and she hated planes. She really hated planes. They were tiny tin cans from hell. As a result, she'd said so out loud in the morning and Smith had made her do fifty push-ups. When she was finished with those, he ordered her to clean the bathroom. She'd taken a little too long to do so and was now running late.
She cursed herself when she reached the empty sector. She hoped Lewis would delay the plane, even just a little. Maybe he could spill something and hold them up. Or maybe she could just keep her mouth shut next time. She smiled a little at that one.
She was straightening the tie of her dress uniform, hoping she'd done the knot right, when the big doors to the storage units around her began to slide open. She froze. She'd thought that this sector was empty. Everybody did!
Soldiers marched out in perfect formation. Clara noticed with a shiver that their faces had no emotion, no expression. She started to run. The plane was just past this area, on the airfield. She needed to turn left at the end and go around the little stretch of trees between the airfield and the rest of the camp. Soldiers like her weren't allowed in those trees. A couple of the others joked that there were rabid raccoons or something in there.
The soldiers were giving Clara the serious creeps. They didn't even notice her, just walked stiffly down the main road. She noticed that they were all the same height.
She was nearing the end of the main road when one of the soldiers turned his head and looked right at her.
"Intruder!" he shrieked. She started to run faster. The cry was taken up by more and more of the soldiers. Clara chanced a look behind her and screamed. One of the soldiers had transformed, and what he had turned into was horrible.
The monster was green and vaguely dog-like. It had red eyes and fangs that dripped with saliva. It had leathery-looking skin and claws that Clara imagined could shred right through her. Two more soldiers turned into those things. She sprinted for the airfield, tears starting to run down her face. She was going to die.
Why would the army have those monsters? What were they doing there? Why would they call an MP an intruder? She didn't understand.
She found herself running through the trees separating the airfield and main road. She didn't want to look behind her again. She could hear the beasts panting.
Clara reached the tree line and sobbed when she saw that the plane was still there. Lewis had delayed them. That boy was a godsend.
Her foot caught on a log in the grass and she found herself hitting the ground. She rolled over onto her back, sure that she was about to die, but she didn't see the monsters at all.
She sat up, wincing at the complaints of her already bruised body. The beasts were pacing at the tree line, growling and sniffing at the edge of the field. She half-laughed, half-sobbed in relief. One of the monsters growled at her. She flinched away and scrambled to her feet, running for the jet. The monsters didn't stray past the tree line.
She climbed up onto the jet, saluting to the officer at the top of the stairs.
"Clara Petrov, reporting for duty, sir," she said, her voice trembling. He gave her a weird look, but let her go on.
"Clara!" Lewis grinned. "Here I was thinking you were going to be late!"
Molly stood too, saying something about it being a miracle that she was on time at all. Clara barely registered it, though. Her eyes were drawn to Lewis and Molly's heights.
They were the same.
Clara felt her breath coming in short gasps. They were going to turn any second. She shoved past them, heading for the back of the plane. She scampered under a table in the little kitchen area. They were going to kill her. They'd disguised themselves as her best friends and now they were going to kill her. The whole plane was probably secretly those monsters.
"Clara?" The door creaked open. "What's going on?"
"Monsters!" she screamed, curling in on herself. "Get away from me!"
The one that looked like Lewis crouched down by her. She screamed again, squeezing her eyes shut.
"What's happening to her?" Molly's voice asked. Not Molly, Clara's brain reminded her. They're not your friends.
"I'm not sure. Clara? Can you tell us what's going on? Are you okay?"
"She's not okay, you idiot! Look at her!"
A warm hand touched her arm. She flinched and the hand withdrew.
"She keeps saying, 'monsters.' Myabe she saw something that scared her."
"You're monsters!" Clara screamed. "Monsters disguised as soldiers! Stay away from me!"
"Monsters disguised as soldiers? What the hell did she see?"
The plane rumbled. They were taking off.
"Clara?" Someone took her hand. "Clara, what's going on?"
She felt them reach out and touch her shoulder. If they were monsters, they would have killed her by then. She opened her eyes. Lewis wore a concerned expression. She started to sob even harder, letting him draw her out from under the table. He gathered her up in his arms and let her cry into his chest.
"Clara, whatever you saw, we'll protect you," he said. "I promise."
She closed her eyes, curling into him. She could still see the monsters in the back of her mind. She shuddered.
"We'll protect you."
Clara managed to calm down within fifteen minutes. Lewis wondered what the hell had happened to her. He'd never seen her like that.
She finally sat up and wiped at her face, standing up. She looked at her uniform. Her tie was crooked, her hat was gone, there were grass stains all over her pants, and her shirt had what looked like tree sap on it. Lewis wondered again how she'd managed to get herself in such a mess.
"I need to change," she muttered, brushing off her shirt. It didn't do much. "You've got my bag, right?"
"Yeah, but you need to be in your dress uniform."
"Don't be stupid, Lewis," she snapped. "I have an extra."
"I'll get it," Molly said. "Just… don't do anything else."
She left. Clara softened.
"I'm sorry for snapping at you," she said. Lewis shrugged.
"You've had a hard fifteen minutes. You're fine."
She laughed a little.
"Ah, there it is. There's Clara." She rolled her eyes at him, pulling her tie off. "Come on, could you just tell me what happened?"
She stared at the opposite wall. Her eyes reminded Lewis of broken glass. Something inside was shattered.
"I don't want to talk about it. Not yet."
Lewis nodded, a little frustrated, but let it go. She'd clearly seen something seriously traumatic. She need time.
Molly came back with Clara's bag and Clara disappeared into the bathroom to change. Lewis sat down.
"Did she say anything to you?" Molly asked. Lewis shook his head. "Huh. Weird."
"She seemed… distant when I asked about it. Like part of her was a million miles away."
"Whatever happens, I hope she pulls it together before we land. If she doesn't do well on this, Smith could have her transferred. He's already pissed at her."
"She's one of the best soldiers we have," Lewis protested. Molly shrugged.
"It's not up to us. If Smith wants her gone, he has the power to do so. We just have to stick with her and hope that things get better. If they don't, there's nothing we can do about it. Look, I'm not happy about it either. I love Clara, but Smith is a complete asshole. If she doesn't watch her step, he could transfer her and we would probably never see her again."
"I know. You just want to keep her safe. I do too, Lewis. That's what we do. We protect each other. She'll talk when she's ready. Don't push her."
Clara came back in, dressed in a fresh uniform. She still had that odd look in her eyes, but smiled at Lewis and Molly like nothing was wrong.
"All right. How long is the flight again?"
"A couple hours," Molly answered. Clara nodded.
"Okay. What do we do in the meantime?"
"This was a terrible idea," Lewis groaned. Clara laughed, pulling the stack of coins towards her. Molly kept her poker face, setting down her cards and dealing again.
"Come on, Lewis," Clara said. "Don't be a sore loser."
"That was 600 units!" he protested. "Half my savings!"
"Stop being a baby," Molly told him. "You can win it back."
"Fat chance!" Clara crowed. "You suck at poker!"
"Whatever," Lewis said, sticking his tongue out for emphasis. Molly laughed.
"It's your draw, Lewis," she said. Lewis picked up his cards and struggled to keep his poker face.
He was almost holding a full house. He just needed one more card.
"I'll take two," he said, pulling two out. He prayed he would get lucky, just this once.
Oh great Poker Gods, please take mercy on me. This girl is cleaning me out. I'm saving up. Please take mercy on me.
He held his breath and looked at the two new cards. They completed his full house.
"All in," he said. It was stupid and he knew it, but finally having a good hand had filled him with confidence. There was no way Clara or Molly could possibly have a better hand this time. Clara's luck had to be running out.
Molly raised an eyebrow but said nothing. Clara, for once, had a completely blank face. Lewis took that as a good sign. She always had a ghost of a smirk on her face, the kind of expression that made Lewis want to kiss her and hit her all at the same time.
"All right. I'll match that," Molly finally said. "Since you have nothing left to bet."
Clara said nothing as she pushed in her amount. Lewis finally let himself grin, laying down his cards.
"Full house," he said. Molly tossed hers on the table. She'd had a flush, all diamonds. Not bad. The two of them looked at Clara.
Clara looked up from her cards, that smirk starting to appear. She set down her hand of cards.
"Four of a kind. Aces."
Lewis swore loudly as she cackled and pulled the coins to her side of the table.
"There goes your savings, Lewis!" she cried. Lewis threw up his hands. Molly started to laugh. Clara grabbed her moneybag and pushed the pile of coins in. When she was finished, she looked up at Lewis and grinned. He rolled his eyes. She wasn't always the kind to gloat, but when she cleaned him out like this, she would, just a little.
He spent the rest of the flight trying to ignore her.
Clara was still laughing a little when the order was given to get off the plane. She hauled her duffel bag up onto her shoulder,following the line of soldiers off the plane. Lewis and Molly were right behind her. She was glad that they'd found a way to distract her. She could still see the monsters in the back of her mind, but the image was faded, almost like a memory from a dream.
The plane had landed in the mountains. Snow covered almost everything. Clara shivered a little, wishing they'd given advance warning as to what kind of conditions they'd be training in so that she could wear extra layers.
Had she said anything to Smith, of course, he would say that the point was to teach them to be prepared to fight in any circumstances, any weather. He would have then ordered her to drop and give him fifty more push-ups for questioning orders.
They marched towards a grey building past where they'd landed. Clara looked around for any empty-looking warehouses. She didn't spot any and relaxed a little. They didn't have any of the monsters up here. The northern border was doing pretty well anyway. Why would they need the monsters up there?
Though the real question was why they needed the monsters at all…
"Petrov! Stop daydreaming and pay attention!" Smith snapped. Clara snapped her head up and followed the line to the barracks.
The training exercise was going to last a week, meaning Clara had a week to think about what those monsters and why they existed before they went back to their training facility. She had time.
She pulled Lewis and Molly aside that night to talk to them. The exercise started in the morning. She wanted to talk to them before they were too tired to even think.
"I want to tell you what I saw," she said. Lewis's eyes widened.
"Yeah. It's going to sound crazy, so please just hear me out."
She explained to them what she'd seen. When she was finished, Lewis's eyes were as wide as saucers and Molly looked like she was going to throw up.
"You're saying that those empty warehouses are full of monsters?" she asked. Clara nodded.
"I think the reason we're not allowed to go into that strip of trees is because they release the monsters in there. I remember that they didn't go past the tree line, even when I was easy prey. Maybe there's something there that keeps them from straying from the trees. Something to keep them contained. They sniffed at the edge like it was something they weren't familiar with. It was weird."
"Okay, sure," Molly said. "Let's say your crazy story is right. Why would the military have those creatures? What kind of tactical purpose would they serve?"
That was Molly. Always trying to fit everything into what she thought was right.
"I don't know," Clara said. "All I know is that they exist and they tried to kill me."
"Well, that kind of makes sense," Molly said. Lewis threw her a sharp look. "I'm serious! No offense, Clara, but you weren't supposed to be there. You were an unfamiliar person in their territory. It kind of makes sense for them to consider you and intruder and attack."
Clara felt even more frustrated. Molly was right, of course. She wasn't supposed to be there.
"I just don't understand," she finally said, drawing her knees up to her chest. She sat there for another second before she said, "I'm going to bed." She got up and climbed into her bunk, pulling the covers over herself. Even once she was curled up comfortably, she couldn't fall asleep. Talking about the monsters had brought the memory fresh into her mind again.
She slept restlessly, waking up screaming from nightmares more than once. She finally gave up on sleep an hour before she was supposed to get up and sat in her bunk, staring at the opposite wall. She flinched when Smith slammed the door open and yelled at all of them to get up and get ready for training.
Lewis's mouth turned into a deep frown when he saw Clara sitting up in bed but said nothing. Molly just placed a comforting hand on Clara's shoulder as she passed by. Clara knew they'd both heard her screaming in the night. Everyone had. She'd heard a few complaints every time she woke up.
She grabbed her uniform and pulled it on quickly, tucking her handgun into her pocket. She wanted to be prepared. She pulled her hair into a bun with a practiced twist and stuck a few pins in to keep it in place. Her movements became automatic, the routine she'd spent months of training perfecting taking over. She kept herself focused on each task as it came up. Everything was automatic.
Their first training exercise was an obstacle course that the hosting soldiers had set up for the trainees. They had to crawl under barbed wire, climb over walls, and do a number of maneuvers. Clara was glad for the distraction. She needed to keep her mind off of the monsters still hovering in the back of her mind.
She was almost fully through the course when Riley, one of the other soldiers, decided it would be funny to jump out and scare her. He roared like some kind of animal, holding his hands up as if they were claws. She screamed, reaching for her gun. Lewis saw and tried to stop her.
"Clara no no no!"
She fired, hitting Riley in the leg. He screamed, falling over. Lewis grabbed Clara by the arm. She kept screaming, struggling like her life depended on it. Lewis wrapped his arms around her, trying to keep her from doing more damage, probably.
"Clara! Calm down!"
She fired again and again, most of her bullets burying themselves in the muddy ground. One found its way to Lewis's foot. He shouted in pain, his arms yanking away. Clara ran for the edge of the training field, her gun out of bullets. She tossed it aside and sprinted towards the trees. She heard shouting behind her and ran faster, harder. She couldn't identify where the terror was coming from. It was just Riley. He'd done that a million times. She had no reason to be afraid of him. Why was this time different?
Because you have something to be afraid of, her brain whispered.
She finally stopped at the base of a large pine tree. She curled up beneath it, her breath coming in short gasps. She had a reason to be afraid. There were monsters. The country she loved, the country she swore to protect, created an army of monsters.
It took a few minutes before Molly and a few other soldiers found her. The soldiers picked her up, putting her down on a stretcher. Molly said something like, "Be gentle. Don't startle her. She might freak out again." Clara curled in on herself, closing her eyes. The cold had crept through her uniform, chilling her to the bone.
After a little while, she found herself in a warm room. She looked around. There was a simple cot, a sink and a curtained-off toilet, a table with two chairs, and a large mirror on one wall. She figured the mirror was probably a one-way mirror. Everything else was made of a silvery metal. She sat up, rubbing her arms.
"Miss Petrov," a voice said. She looked up, searching for the source of the sound. There was a speaker in the corner by the mirror. "Please remain calm. Feel free to make yourself comfortable. Be assured that you will not be harmed while you are here."
The speaker crackled and the voice was gone. Clara wondered what she was doing there and when she could go back to her training.
She figured that she probably wasn't going anywhere anytime soon and stripped down to her grey tank top and cargo pants. She checked all the pockets of her uniform. She didn't remember anybody searching her. She still had everything she'd started the day with, except her gun. She pulled the picture of her mom and sister out of the left breast pocket.
Clara remembered that the picture had been taken while they were on vacation in the south. They'd never been outside of Castovene, but the south had a reputation for being beautiful. Her mom and her older sister, Melody, were standing on the beach, in front of the Iris Sea. Her mom didn't have those worry lines all over her face and was instead smiling brightly, her arms wrapped around Melody. Melody had been about nine at the time and was holding up a crab with a smile that seemed to say, "I discovered this new species." Clara smiled at the memory. They'd spent the whole day on the beach, collecting shells and playing in the water.
The door to the room she was in opened. She looked up from her picture. A tall man in a neat suit and tie smiled at her, setting a brown briefcase down on the table.
"Hello, Miss Petrov. Could you have a seat?"
Clara tucked the picture into the pocket of her pants and sat down at the silver table.
"Why am I here?" she asked. The man chuckled.
"I thought you would ask that. You're probably here because you injured two soldiers and then fled the scene. We're just making sure that you're okay before we let you go back to your training."
"Will I go back?" Clara asked. The man's smile faded a little.
"That depends," he said. He sat down across from her. "So tell me, Miss Petrov-"
"My name's Clara."
He smiled warmly.
"All right then, Clara. Tell me something. What happened back in the obstacle course?"
Clara stared at the table, playing with her fingers in her lap.
"I don't know," she finally said.
"Are you sure?"
"Are Lewis and Riley okay?"
The man seemed taken aback by this question.
"I don't know. I can check, if that would help you."
"Yeah, it would." Clara fiddled with her dog tags, a habit she'd grown into.
"I'll be back in a minute," the man said.
"Hey, what's your name?" Clara asked. The man paused, his hand on the door.
He left, shutting the door with a snap. Clara pulled out her picture again, staring at the smile on her mom's face. She reached up and touched her dog tags again. There was one that wasn't hers.
Clara had never met her father. Her mom said that he had left before Clara was born, during the war. He'd been deployed to the western border. According to her mom, he hadn't known that she was pregnant when he left. She'd sent him a letter when she found out. She'd never gotten one back, though, and two weeks later he came home in a box.
Melody had met their father. She'd been five when he left. She said that he was warm and kind and always smelled like cinnamon. Clara wished she could have met him.
The door opened again and Dr. Halversten came back in.
"Your friends are fine. The one you got in the leg-"
"Yes, Riley, he's going to be fine, but he'll be out of it for a little while. They'll have to leave the bullet in."
"The bullet went straight through. He'll be on crutches for a little while, but both of them should be back to active duty soon."
Clara relaxed, slumping in her seat a little.
"So, Clara." Dr. Halversten sat down across from her. "I noticed that you have an extra dog tag. Is it your mother's? Your sister's? I noticed you had a picture of them."
"It's my dad's, actually," Clara said, staring at the picture of her mom. Staring at her mom's smile. "He died before I was born, back when we were still at war with Bamrian. My sister barely remembers him and I never met him. But he was a soldier and he loved this country. He fought for it. I guess… I guess that I thought that if I was like him, if I fought for the country he died protecting, maybe he'd be proud of me. Wherever he is. Before I left for training, my mom gave me his dog tag. She said it would keep me safe, wherever I went."
The room was silent for a minute. Dr. Halversten smiled.
"That's a good reason to join the military. How long have you been in training?"
"Do you like it?"
"I like that I'm almost finished training."
He smiled again, crinkles forming around his eyes. Clara was starting to like him.
"Tell me about your family."
Clara spent probably about an hour talking to Dr. Halversten. He was kind and never pushed her if there was something she didn't want to talk about. When he left, he told her to get some rest. She did what he said and curled up on the cot in the corner, closing her eyes. She hoped that she might get some actual sleep, preferably nightmare-free.
That wasn't the case.
The next time Dr. Halversten came in, Clara was sitting up on the cot, her arms wrapped around her knees. He frowned, setting his briefcase down on the table like before.
"Clara? Did you get any sleep?"
She laughed bitterly.
"No. I had nightmares. Didn't get a wink."