The longer Hicks sat in the coffee shop, the less of an appetite he had. Again, that feeling of regret began stretching its tendrils, laced now with homesickness, deep into his chest. Why didn’t I stay home? he thought, rubbing his face.
“Are you okay?” Carlisle asked, setting her cup of coffee down.
“Yeah, I’m alright. There’s just this part of me that wants to go home. Mainly because I know when Christmas and New Year’s are over, I have to go back to my fucked-up unit. I’d rather wait for a new unit to accept my transfer papers at home rather than when I’m on duty.”
“Can’t you talk to Paulson about that?”
“I probably can. There’s a couple issues with that, though. One is going back and forth between the States and Europe. The other is I don’t want to look like I’m Paulson’s ‘favorite.’ If he starts doing me favors that no other Marine would get, we could both get in a lot of trouble. I already had to take the last month off because I have a lot of personal days, and I wish I didn’t use so many all at once.”
“You celebrate Thanksgiving with family?”
Hicks shook his head. “This is the first Thanksgiving I’ve had at home in years. Usually, I drive out to my parents’ place, but this year, I called and said I just wanted to be alone.”
“I can’t imagine that was easy for you to do.”
“Not necessarily. It was nice not to hear people arguing or my aunt telling me I should quit the military and go to college. It’s just the same shit every year.”
“I’m guessing Easter and Christmas are no different?”
“Yeah. Exactly. It’d be nice to have a holiday where I know the people coming are going to be respectful of me and not pester me with questions or flat-out piss on my job.”
“You and me both. I love my family, but they seem to think ‘family’ equals ‘talk about something embarrassing at the dinner table.’ I’m getting real sick of my brother talking about toilet training his kids at the same time said kids are throwing food all over the place and terrorizing my cat.”
“Nice,” Hicks said, sarcastically. “Hey, maybe you can spend Thanksgiving at my place next year. No embarrassing conversations, no arguments. Just real tranquility and some good old-fashioned Southern hospitality.”
A smile blossomed on Carlisle’s face. “I might take you up on that offer.”
“Where do you live?”
“Little town right on the Florida-Alabama border. If you want me to get technical, I was born in the heart of Oregon, and moved down here after joining the Marines.”
“How come? Seems like a pretty drastic change, if you ask me.”
“I got stationed there right out of boot camp. It seemed so much more… alive, if that’s the right term to use. It wasn’t cold or empty or just dead silent.”
“Ah. You were looking for something more mentally stimulating.”
“Yeah. I don’t live right in Mobile. I’m more on the outskirts, past the suburban area. It’s really quiet for most of the year. Even when it gets a little more active-Fourth of July, Halloween, days like that-it’s calm. Nobody bothers each other. Everyone has a good idea of who their neighbors are, and when they know that they’re not the kind of people who enjoy a lot of company, they stay out of their way.”
“You like your privacy?”
“Sure do. I’ve got a really nice piece of property, big trees around the house. Really old house, too. Couple centuries old, actually. 1910, I believe.”
“That old and it’s functional?”
“Yep. A few things had to be updated and fixed, but other than that, it’s the best living situation I’ve ever had.”
“I look forward to seeing it, then.”
Hicks weakly smiled. “I guess we should exchange addresses?”
“Oh, sure. Of course.” Carlisle opened her purse, taking out a pen and pad of sticky notes. “Address and home phone and cellphone. All there for you.”
Hicks wrote his information on a napkin. “Thanks. Here’s mine.”
Carlisle found Hicks’s use of the napkin charming, and folded it up before sliding it in her purse. As she did, she glanced at a clock on the wall. “We still have a lot of time. I say we have a real breakfast and then we start looking around. They have some interesting little stores I’d like to look at.”
The conversation died down after breakfast. By the time they got up and left the restaurant, it was quarter after six.
“When do you want to head back to the gate?” Hicks asked.
“Seven-thirty. We don’t want to be too early, or too late. A half-hour’s a good amount of time,” Carlisle replied. She paused in front of a toy store. “Do you mind if I look around? I’d like to get something for my niece and nephew for Christmas.”
“You don’t want to get them something from France?”
“They’re too young to understand.” Carlisle’s face fell. “Not to mention, they can be a little rough, and they have a very long way to go with manners.”
“How old are they?”
“My nephew is three. My niece is one-and-a-half.”
“Yeah, that’s really young. I was well-behaved at three.”
“So was I. My brother and my sister-in-law let the kids push them around for some reason. They’re awful at discipline.”
“They’re gonna want to start soon. I mean, I’m in no position to say anything. I’m not family, and even if I was, they’re none of my business. I try to stay out of other people’s business when they don’t want or need me involved.”
“If you could listen, that’d be a big help. I shouldn’t be talking crap about my family to strangers, though.” Carlisle stopped, and thought for a moment. “We’re not strangers anymore, right?”
“We exchanged addresses,” Hicks said, “I think that makes us friends.”
Carlisle smiled, and shrugged. “Okay. We’re friends. We can get deeper with our conversations.”
“If you want. I don’t want to look like an intruder, you know, in case you’re dating somebody.”
Another smile. “Thanks for the concern, but I’m single right now.”
“Oh. Hey, we’re still Marines. I’ll show you respect and vice versa, no matter your rank or status.”
Hicks waited outside the toy store while Carlisle went in to look for gifts for her niece and nephew. He paced a little, looking at his watch, and observing his surroundings. Something didn’t feel right. It was a weird feeling of dread, like something bad was about to happen. Just a little indigestion. Not used to the food here.
That feeling persisted as they continued exploring the airport, and it got to a point where Hicks was certain it wasn’t his breakfast disagreeing with him. While Carlisle was in a restroom, Hicks went to a payphone, sliding in his prepaid military card. He opened his wallet and took out General Paulson’s cell number while waiting for the machine to tell him he could put in the number he wanted to call. He tapped his foot anxiously, and breathed a silent sigh when Paulson finally picked up.
“General Paulson,” a stern, but gentle voice said.
“It’s Corporal Hicks, sir.”
“Ah! Good to hear your voice, Hicks. I trust you’re on your way to Paris?”
“Yeah. I’m at the airport right now, actually. I was… I was just calling to see if everything’s okay where you are.”
“Everything’s fine. Why? Did you hear something?”
“No. I… had a bad feeling, that’s all. How have things been going with what happened with the prisoner program?”
Paulson abruptly fell silent, then sighed. It wasn’t a major secret that Paulson’s attempt to implement a second chance program, where the Marines would recruit juvenile felons, had gone horribly in the beginning. The general hadn’t finished drafting the final requirements when buses began rolling into boot camp, full of ex-cons who had only undergone the most basic of screening. While some were genuinely looking for a second chance at life, others were looking to do more harm, leading a slew of violent and occasionally deadly incidents in the barracks.
Hicks wasn’t in favor of Paulson’s plan, and these incidents only solidified his position. Even after Paulson finally laid out the requirements, all of which were incredibly strict, Hicks wasn’t sure about it, feeling the program would put drill instructors and recruits in harm’s way. He was at least respectful about his feelings whenever he had the chance to talk to Paulson and his staff. Others, not so much. Paulson received threats for a period of time after the issues with the program had gone public, claiming he was doing more harm than good for both the Marines and their felon recruits. Hicks couldn’t imagine it was easy for Paulson to take it, especially since his wife and son were getting them as well.
“Things have been alright,” Paulson replied, after a short period of silence. “Nothing bad has happened.”
“Ok,” Hicks said. “I guess… I’m just tired, that’s all.”
“Pre-flight jitters, I suppose. I’ve been traveling for years, and I still get those from time to time. I wouldn’t think too much of it, son.”
“Still. I wanted to make sure nothing was wrong.”
“Oh, no, nothing’s wrong. I won’t hold you up too long. Wouldn’t want you to miss your flight. I look forward to seeing you in Paris. I’m afraid, though, that I have no news regarding your transfer. No unit has picked it up, yet.”
The feeling of dread was replaced by a feeling of disappointment.
“A shame. You have such a delightful personality and strong leadership that you’d be perfect anywhere.”
“Well, thanks for letting me know, sir.”
“Not a problem. See you in a few hours.”
Hicks stayed on the phone for about a minute after Paulson hung up, listening to the dial tone. He glanced up when Carlisle came out of the restroom, and but the phone back on its hook.
“Everything okay?” Carlisle asked.
“I guess. Just… been having a weird feeling that something bad’s gonna happen, so I called General Paulson to see if everything really is okay. He said nothing’s going on, but I don’t know why I don’t feel better.”
“Maybe it’s because you’ve been up since an awful hour.”
“Maybe.” Hicks took a breath. “I’ll try to relax, get some sleep on the plane.”
There weren’t a lot of people in the waiting area near their flight gate. Carlisle was reading a small book on Paris sight-seeing, and Hicks was staring out the window. The sun had finally come up, but that and two cups of coffee hadn’t made Hicks feel more awake or willing to face the day.
“If we have time, would you like to go to the Eiffel Tower?” Carlisle asked.
“I’m gonna want to go to bed. Not much of a night owl.”
“Oh, come on, you can break routine just a little.”
“Fine. I’ll do it once, but never again.”
“Is something still bothering you?”
“A little. It’s like… someone’s keeping something from me that they should probably tell me.”
“Well, what did Paulson say when you called him?”
“He said that everything’s fine and that no units have picked up and accepted my transfer papers.”
“Are you repressing your disappointment about that?”
“I think you are. Come on, with your reputation, your story, and your skills alone, how are you not disappointed that no one’s picked up your papers and said, ‘Yes, we want this man on our team?'”
“Because I know the process takes time. I’m a fire support specialist. You could get those right outta training.”
“You still have a right to be upset. Besides, regardless of your MOS, you’re important. When were your transfer papers accepted?”
“Six months ago.”
“You should be seething with anger. Every planet-side unit with an open position should have seen your papers by now.”
Hicks sighed. “I’m not going to get angry. I can’t. It’s unprofessional.”
“That might be why no one’s picked up. You’re not expressing any kind of desire for it. You need to; it’s good for your emotional health, and it lets people know that you care about where you go in life.”
Just as Hicks had thought Carlisle was somebody different, he realized she wasn’t. Sure, she had worded it differently, but she still gave the same speech that many, many people before her had given to him: he needed to be more expressive in terms of his emotions. At this point, he was tired of it, and when he was dealing with a squad full of people who were emotionally explosive, he wanted to be that calm in the center, even though that was getting more and more difficult. Biting his tongue, Hicks looked at Carlisle, saying, “I’ll let Paulson know that I’m disappointed, but I’m not going to act out on it. Please, don’t bring this up again, okay?”
Carlisle was silent, and stayed silent as they boarded the plane a half-hour later.
When the plane was taxiing slowly down the runway, waiting for another plane ahead of it to take off, Hicks was starting to regret saying what he said to Carlisle. After all, she had been nothing but nice to him this whole time, and he wasn’t returning that by abruptly shutting her out. Still, though, he didn’t want people he hardly knew nosing too deep into his life. He liked his privacy, and wanted to keep his problems to himself.
Hicks was shoved back into his seat as the plane sped up and took to the air. He closed his eyes, still debating whether or not he should apologize to Carlisle. Eventually, waking up early caught up to him, and he fell into a deep sleep.
Hicks was jolted awake by the plane landing against the runway. Slowly sitting up, he loosened his seatbelt, and looked out the window, seeing the glowing skyline of Paris. I managed to sleep a whole ten hours. That makes up for waking up so damn early.
It didn’t make up for the fact that was almost two o’clock in the morning here. Hicks was used to jet lag and jumping from timezone to timezone, but that didn’t make it any less irritating. Just focus on getting to your hotel room and sleeping a few more hours.
He walked off the plane with Carlisle, adjusting the straps on his duffel bag as he carried it out. The Paris airport was significantly nicer than the one in Mobile; it was much bigger, and looked more like a small city. His mind wandered back to when he was in Mobile, having a bad feeling. About what? Why do I still feel like something really bad is going to happen?
“The turbulence didn’t bother you at all, I noticed,” Carlisle said, yanking Hicks from his thoughts.
“Have you been in a dropship? I can sleep in one of those, too.” Hicks was glad that Carlisle had returned to random, but interesting conversation topics. Maybe I really am just extremely tired. I need to get some sleep. I’m going to look like a mess when I get to talk to Paulson. “You have a hotel booked, right?”
“Actually, I don’t. I was gonna do that here, but I didn’t really think through the whole time-change thing and realize how late it would be here.”
“Well, you can stay in my room. I’ll go call and tack you onto my bill.”
“Hicks, you don’t have to do that-“
“I’m not gonna leave you out in the cold, especially at this hour. I’m pretty sure my room’s got an extra bed or a couch or something.”
Carlisle seemed stunned by Hicks’s kind gesture. “I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything. You’ve been nice, and… I really shouldn’t have been snippy when you told me I should be more expressive. I’ve heard that speech a hundred times, and even when it’s said a little differently, I don’t like it. I mean, you didn’t know, and I shouldn’t be mad at you over it. It’s a bit of a complicated situation, so I’m sorry.”
Carlisle looked like she was about to cry. She dropped her bag, and threw her arms around Hicks. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”
“It’s no problem. You’re welcome.” Hicks felt a weight drop on his shoulders. Here was someone being extraordinarily kind to him, and he couldn’t make himself be a little bit more expressive? I can’t mess things up while my transfer is still in the air. The better I look, the more likely I am to get that pushed through. It’s very easy for somebody to squeal to the brass about me fucking up, and I don’t want to disappoint them, especially Paulson.
Learning to be more expressive would have to wait until he got a new unit. Getting that new unit was more important right now.