A trail of cigarette smoke followed Hicks as he walked around the empty house, looking down at a message sent by General Paulson. “I hope things have been going well for you back in the States. It’s been bitterly cold here in Paris, but certainly not the worst winter I’ve ever seen. Christmas is fast approaching, and if it doesn’t conflict with your personal schedule, perhaps you could stop by and spend the holiday here. Thought it might give us a chance to talk about something other than work.”
It wasn’t that hard of a decision to make. Over the course of the last two days since receiving the message, Hicks had booked his flight to Paris and packed what he needed, which wasn’t much.
Deep down, he wasn’t looking forward for his break to end. It meant going back to his unit, still waiting for his transfer notice to come through. At least his request had been accepted, but there was no way of knowing how long it would be before a different unit was ready for a new corporal with his talents.
There was something deeply wrong with the authority structure of his current unit. Sergeant Travin had an overall poor grasp on his people, oftentimes leaving Hicks in charge while Travin rushed into his office to read from a manual. This type of leadership had led several of the guys to resent Travin, and Hicks in the process. After two years, Hicks decided that enough was enough. He wanted out. He wanted to be part of a more functional unit.
It was three in the morning when Hicks got up to make the final preparations for his flight out of the states. It was mid-December, and pitch-black. For southern Alabama, it was pretty cold. He groped around for the tiny chain on the lamp on his bedside table, and blinked when it was turned on. His passport was on the table, along with his plane ticket and wallet. His duffel bag was in front of the closet, which had nothing but a few pairs of jeans hanging in it. There were some items on the closet shelf he kept for memory, and he probably wouldn’t see them for a few months, maybe even years.
The last thing he did before leaving the room was close the black jacket bearing the USCM emblem on his left shoulder. For a moment, he paused, a sudden feeling of regret taking root in his chest.
Home was incredibly lonely at times. He had bought the house not that long ago, and quickly found that living alone wasn’t always a good thing. However, it was nice whenever he was on leave. Partly, Hicks wanted that balance between being completely alone and being so surrounded by people that his thoughts were never in a row.
Today, something deep down was telling him that it would be better to just stay home. Stay home, and do nothing. But he had made a promise to Paulson, he already booked his flight and hotel room. He had to get out the door and get to the airport.
Slinging his duffel bag over his shoulder, Hicks made some last-minute checks around the house before leaving. Everything was turned off. Nothing would spontaneously catch on fire while he was away. There was no food in the fridge. Inside and outside, it would look like no one was living there.
It’d still be nice to just cancel and stay home. I feel like I need more alone-time. Maybe my transfer would come through and I’d finally get a notice about my new unit. That’d be nice. Hicks closed the front door, locked it, and sighed before turning to his truck. The 2168 Chevy K10’s engine came smoothly to life, the steady rumbling calming him a bit.
It was too early in the morning for other cars to be out on the road. The garbage truck was out, a few insomniacs were sitting out on their porches. It was nice and quiet.
The highway to the airport wasn’t. After merging with traffic, Hicks turned on the radio. He had a good thirty minutes before reaching the airport in Mobile. Some stations were playing 24/7 Christmas music. After another round of “Frosty the Snowman” ended, a gentleman began reading off the daily weather report.
“Clear and cold today. High’ll be around forty-five. Tonight looks like it’ll be colder, around twenty or so. Good time to get the fireplace and a bowl of hot soup going.”
I won’t be here tonight. I’ll be on a plane to Europe. Hicks sighed as the report was finished, and a lady started talking about traffic. He nodded a little as the woman said that traffic looked good, even near the airport. The early, early morning show began. Just a couple of guys talking about events going on in the Mobile area, all of which Hicks wouldn’t be around for.
He changed the station when that got boring. Miraculously, he flipped to a station not playing Christmas music. Instead, they were playing old and new country music. He happened to land on a song he had heard when he was younger, around the time he entered his senior year of high school, around the time he made his decision to join the Marines. It was a song he usually equated with the late afternoon, rather than the dawn, but he still whispered along with the lyrics, his mind wandering to that late September not that long ago.
Somehow, those memories made him feel better about choosing to go to Europe. After all, he met General Paulson (who was then a colonel) while he was in the recruiting program. He could distinctly remember Paulson shaking his hand and saying, “You have all the looks of someone who is going to make a wonderful life for himself here. You might not think it now, but I can see a leader behind your eyes.”
Hicks definitely didn’t think he was a leader at the time. He knew how to follow directions, but he didn’t think he could ever create directions. The majority of his time was spent following somebody else’s directions, whether it be his parents or teachers or a booklet or computer program. Yet, Paulson felt like Hicks had the potential to lead.
It was still very dark when Hicks arrived at the airport. After parking in a long-term lot, he took his duffel bag out of the back, and walked inside, knowing it would be a week or two before he’d see his truck again.
At the security station, Hicks removed his boots, belt, and jacket, and placed those in a big plastic bin alongside his duffel bag, which were promptly shoved through the X-ray machine. While that went on, he was ordered to step inside a metal detector. All that lasted about two minutes.
“Good to go. Enjoy your flight.” A gloved man handed back Hicks’s bag, letting him step aside to put his boots back on.
I still got four hours till my flight. Hicks walked into the central part of the airport, with all the shops and restaurants. He slung his bag over his shoulder, curious as to what to do first. It was too early for breakfast, but he made a mental note of where to go when he was ready.
Out of curiosity, he decided to head up to a room designated for service members. Just about every airport had one, and he remembered waiting in one for his flight out to boot camp. He walked up a spiral staircase to a floor full of tiny entertainment shops, heading past them until he came to a door in a corner, with a sign that read “USO” above it.
After showing his active duty card to the two ladies at the desk, Hicks turned to find a place to sit in the room. There were mainly fresh recruits, all waiting to ship out to boot camp. Hicks grinned a little. “I was in your place once,” he said, sitting in a chair next to the kitchenette.
A few of the recruits looked at him. “Is it true you get a shot in the butt?” someone asked.
Of course that’s the first question they ask. “Yeah, it’s true. It’s a penicillin shot. If you don’t massage your ass afterward, you’ll get a big lump that doesn’t go away for a week or so.”
“How long you been in?”
“Three years. Best advice I got for boot camp is keep your head up and your mouth shut. Try not to take anything the damn instructor says personally.”
“They yell at you all day?”
“If you piss ’em off, yeah. They’ll say a lot of things that’ll scare the crap outta you, but, know this; boot camp is a tiny fraction of what your career in the USCM is gonna be. When you leave the gates after graduation, that’s over. Their goal is to mold you into a better person, teach you how to fend for yourself physically and mentally, as well as make you a team player. If they tell you that they’re gonna change you, that’s generally what they mean. They just don’t make it sound that way. It took me awhile to figure that out.”
The recruits were silent for a minute, but they all eventually asked questions. Hicks answered them as best he could, and killed almost an hour doing so. He glanced at his watch, and got up to leave, figuring he needed to find his gate, and plan out the next three hours. This is gonna get boring real fast.
He began to walk away and then felt a touch on his shoulder. He turned to see a young woman with close-cropped, dark blonde hair behind him, carrying a duffel bag. “Can I help you?”
“Corporal Paige Carlisle, Whiskey Company, 17th Battalion. I was on the other side of the room, on the couch. You did an okay job talking to all those recruits. Told them what they were in for without going into too much detail.”
“Yeah, well, I didn’t want them jumping ship, because I’d probably get in trouble for it somehow. 17th Battalion? What are you doing here?”
“Didn’t feel like spending Christmas with my family, and I’ve always wanted to see Paris at Christmas-time, so I figured now was as good a time as any to take a little trip for myself. You?”
“Actually, Paris as well. I’m meeting up with… a friend.” Odds were she wouldn’t believe him if he said he was a personal friend of General Paulson.
“Well, that’s a strange coincidence for sure. I guess… we can keep each other company?”
“I have no problem with that. Did you find your gate?”
“Yeah. It’s gate D5. I’ll walk you down there.” Carlisle walked ahead of Hicks, occasionally glancing over her shoulder at him. “So what unit are you with?”
“India Company, 21st Battalion. For now at least. I’ve been looking to get transferred.”
“Mind if I ask why?”
Hicks hesitated, not sure if it was a good idea to tell her, before deciding it didn’t really matter. “My unit has a lot of problems. Poor leadership. Poor behavior from subordinates. General Paulson and Colonel Russell have been working to get things under control. So far, their best idea has been to disband it and send the guys out to other squadrons, get some mental health professionals involved. Sergeant Travin is supposedly gonna get sent to a six-week training class to get himself straightened out.”
“How did this all happen?”
“Not really sure. Travin… just doesn’t know how to be a fluid leader. He reads from the manual for literally everything, because he’s so scared of screwing up. I’ve really tried to convince him to adopt his own style, and it hasn’t been working out. The guys below us are mad, they’re upset, and I understand, but they’re not taking it the right way. One of them, Jenzi, has been pretty pissed, and he’s threatened me and Travin on more than one occasion, so, I’m hoping something is done soon. A lot of them just need help, and a chance to be in a better work environment.”
Carlisle nodded understandingly. “It sounds like it.”
After showing Hicks the way to the departure gate, Carlisle turned to him, saying, “Did you have breakfast?”
“It’s too early for me. I’ll wait another-” Hicks looked at his watch, “hour or so.”
“How about some coffee?”
Hicks thought for a moment. “Yeah, I guess coffee would be alright.” He followed Carlisle back to the dining area of the airport, where they browsed around before sitting at a small table in an Italian-style coffee shop.
“How many times have you been off-world?” Carlisle finally asked. “I mean, besides in action.”
“A few times,” Hicks replied, not looking up from the menu. “LV-510 is the only place where I kind of enjoy going, because it’s really developed and there’s a lot to see and do. Everywhere else… not so much.”
“I get that. I know a couple people that moved there, and they love it.”
The small talk was definitely getting boring. Hicks occasionally glanced at Carlisle when they retreated back into their own heads, pretending to be engrossed in the menu. He set the laminated sheet down, and said, “Why’d you approach me when I walked out of the USO room?”
Carlisle looked a little taken aback by the question. “What?”
“When I left the USO room, you came out after me and approached me. Why?”
“Why not? That’s kind of a silly question. Is it wrong that I saw someone wearing a USCM jacket and was curious?”
“No, it’s not wrong. Just wondering.”
Carlisle narrowed her eyes, smiling as she closed her menu. “You’re an introvert, aren’t you?”
“Damn right, I am.”
“Knew it. That’s why you asked that question. You hate small talk and you’d rather go one layer deeper into the conversation.”
“I don’t hate small talk, but it does get boring pretty quickly. It’s not very often that I fully get to know someone, considering this is a team job, and it’s both nice and strange when I get the chance to sit down with one person and talk to them about more than just the weather or their job or shit like that.”
“So, you’d rather be with a unit where you can talk to every member?”
“I’d prefer that, but I know that’s not my choice, period. I’m also hoping that the unit I get placed in doesn’t have a lot of issues.” Hicks took a breath. “The first unit I was in, right outta boot camp, I remember this guy who was about my age, and really wasn’t doing too well in terms of transitioning to the routine of a regular unit. It’s more relaxed in a regular unit, you know, we’re allowed to talk to each other and take on our own responsibilities. This poor guy wasn’t getting it. My guess is that there was something else going on in his head, his life, and he didn’t really say anything. He got up one night, and… used his combat knife to slash his wrists.”
Carlisle was silent. She looked down at the table, and said, “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. Wasn’t your fault.” Hicks sighed. “I didn’t really know him, but, I wish I could’ve done something. I’m really hoping that I don’t have to deal with that when I finally get transferred.”
“Might not have a choice with that,” Carlisle replied.
“If I do have to deal with someone hurting like that, I’m gonna do whatever I can to get them help. No one should have to suffer like that.”
A weak smile crossed Carlisle’s face. “You’re a good man, Hicks. You’ve got a strong heart and a good head on your shoulders.”
“That’s what General Paulson said the day I got shipped out. ‘Course I didn’t believe him at first-“
“Wait, you know the General?” Carlisle was clearly surprised.
Hicks winced. That had slipped out accidently. “Yeah… He’s actually who I’m going to see in Paris.”
Carlisle shook her head. “I shouldn’t believe that, but you don’t seem like the kind of person to lie about something like this. Okay, then. Well, I’d say he was right about what he said about you.”
“I like to think so.” Absentmindedly, Hicks picked up the menu again. “I’m really grateful that Paulson set some time aside to teach me a few things before I went to boot camp. It was nice to go in feeling a little prepared.”
“Your experience was probably shit regardless.”
“Everyone’s experience in boot camp is shit, up until the last two weeks or so. You should’ve seen the drill instructors every time Paulson walked in the room.”
“Wait, Paulson would visit you?”
“Not in the typical sense. He would observe. I would get a chance to talk to him on Sundays. Anyway, he’s so gentle, but he has such a commanding presence. People respect him. The drill instructors made us all stand at attention, and sometimes they’d push through the formation to yell at someone not standing correctly. Paulson would walk to the front, and say something along the lines of, ‘I don’t see an issue with that Marine standing at attention.’ The drill instructors never referred to us as Marines until we passed our last field test. When you hear an officer-a high-ranking officer-say you’re a Marine, you feel something good start lifting inside you.”
“But, he saw something kinda special in you.”
“I wouldn’t say ‘special.’ I guess he felt I had the potential to be a good leader, so he’d take me aside, and he still takes me aside, to talk to me and teach me what he knows.”
“Hey, that’s impressive, in my opinion. You’ve got a general for a friend.”
“He’s a human being like me and you. Rank is just an added bonus.”
Accompanying Music: Walk Through Fire – The Everlove (feat. Stella And The Storm)