Hicks slid the keycard to his hotel room into the lock, waiting for the soft beep and a click before opening the door. He held the door open for Carlisle, who was still beaming with gratitude over Hicks allowing her to stay.
The Paris hotel room was large and lovely, made better by a window offering a view of the city skyline, and the Eiffel Tower, all of which glowed brightly in the freezing night. As soon as the two entered the room, the lights flickered on. Hicks dropped his duffel bag on the floor, and glanced into the bathroom, which smelled heavily of lavender. “I’m gonna take a quick shower, and go to bed.”
Carlisle nodded, carrying her bag over to the chaise under the window. While Hicks was in the bathroom, she unfolded the teal blanket sitting on the edge of the chaise, and covered herself with it as she lay down.
Hicks emerged from the bathroom with a towel around his waist, muttering to himself about how he forgot something in his bag. He unzipped his bag, rummaging around until he found a small tube of toothpaste. As he closed the bag, he noticed Carlisle was fast asleep on the chaise. She probably didn’t get a lot of sleep on the plane. Poor girl. Who knows what she’d be doing if I just left her at the airport? Hicks went back into the bathroom, and gave a sigh when he realized the shower doors were the clearest glass imaginable. So much for privacy.
The hot water came as a relief, as he hadn’t showered in over a day. He definitely would prefer showering at home, but this was leagues better than what he had on base. Hicks allowed his thoughts to wander as he tilted his head upward to get water on his face. Something was still urging him to get out of the bathroom soon. As he stepped out of the shower, taking his towel from a rack, he saw a tiny clock on the wide sink. It’s three in the morning. I should be in bed. Hicks dried off as quickly as possible, and threw on some dry clothes before walking out into the room. He pulled back the covers on the bed, and was asleep before his head touched the pillows.
It felt like only five minutes had passed when Hicks found himself waking up. He could hear the sound of Carlisle in the shower. Although he tried, Hicks couldn’t get back to sleep. He got out of bed, and began changing out of his shorts, exchanging them for his uniform pants. As he tucked in his T-shirt and put on his boots, the shower turned off, and a minute later, Carlisle entered the room, dressed in civilian slacks and a dark blue sweater.
“You know the brunch isn’t for a few more days, right? We can wear civvie clothes,” she said.
“I didn’t bring any civvie clothes,” Hicks replied.
“Do you like wearing the uniform?”
“Doesn’t matter if I like it or not. It’s what was issued to me, so, I gotta wear it.”
Carlisle frowned. “Suit yourself, Hicks. How’d you sleep?”
“Doesn’t feel like I slept at all. I’ll try to sleep better tonight.” He looked at the clock. “It’s only seven?”
Carlisle opened her duffel bag, and pulled out a heavy black coat, along with a knit cap and gloves. “I’m heading downstairs. You coming?”
“In a minute. Let me get my jacket. Did you sleep okay?” he asked as he pulled the jacket on.
“Yeah. That chaise actually isn’t bad.” Carlisle was quiet for a minute, then said, “I should probably get my own room and save you some money.”
“I don’t mind if you stay in my room.”
Hicks nodded. “I probably need to spend more time with people, anyway.”
Carlisle didn’t seem to have anything to say to that, but she gave a tiny smile, walking alongside Hicks down the hallway to the elevator. After calling the elevator, she looked up at him. “Thank you.”
As Hicks slowly became more awake, the feeling of dread he had in the airport was returning. A lot of feelings were coming back as he gradually got used to the fact that he wasn’t home, and in a different timezone. I’m here now, I can see Paulson later today. If something was wrong, someone would’ve told me already. He sighed as he followed Carlisle into the elevator, watching her press the button for the lobby.
“Everything okay?” Carlisle asked, adjusting the straps on her purse.
“Yep. Everything’s fine.”
“Something still bothering you?”
“A little. I . . . If something bad had happened, I would’ve been notified, one way or another. Right now, I guess it’s just remnants of that anxiety bugging me. My brain’s trying to catch up.”
The elevator stopped, opening up to the hotel lobby. There was a strong smell of baking bread and sizzling meats coming from a good-sized breakfast bar at the other end of the bustling lobby. Everything was bright and welcoming. Christmas lights were hanging from every surface, and three giant trees were glinting with decorations.
“Do you decorate for the holidays?” Carlisle asked as they began walking towards the breakfast bar.
Hicks shook his head. “Haven’t been around to do so.”
“What about on base?”
She knows what my unit is like, right? That was kind of a dumb question. “No one’s really been cheery on base in the last two years,” he replied. “Thought you knew that.”
“I know, but… you don’t set your differences aside for a few days?”
“No. There’s never a real break in the tension. That’s why I want out.”
“You’re not with them right now, though, so, you can be a little… happier.”
“Look, my plan for the day is this: I want to get something to eat, and then go find General Paulson or one of his staff members so I can talk to him. That’s it.”
“Well, you’re not gonna spend all day talking to Paulson, are you? Besides, I thought you said we’d go to the Eiffel Tower tonight. Before we do that, I thought we’d walk around the block and see what else is here.”
“You can go by yourself.”
Carlisle’s shoulders slumped. “Would it help if I said that I want to spend more time with you?”
“Let me think about that, okay?”
Carlisle opened her mouth to argue, but then paused. She sighed, and continued on to the breakfast bar.
Much like his earlier desire to stay home, Hicks was beginning to regret leaving Carlisle after they both had breakfast, but he needed to talk to Paulson. It didn’t take long to find a bus that would get him close to the joint base the USCM shared with the French equivalent of Marines, the Fusilier de l’Espace, or Space Infantry. From there, a short walk and a display of his papers got him inside. An android escorted him to Paulson’s office, and after thanking him, Hicks knocked on the door. “Come!” a young voice called. Hicks entered, and found a young man in a khaki uniform sitting behind a desk typing on a computer.
“You have an appointment?” the man asked.
“I’m here to talk to General Paulson,” Hicks replied.
“But did you schedule an appointment?”
“He doesn’t need an appointment!” a stern voice shouted through the open door of the inner office. “Is that Hicks?”
“Let him in.”
The man in the khaki uniform held open the door, allowing Hicks through.
General Paulson stood up at his desk. He was tall, clean-shaven, and well-built, with thick blond hair that was beginning to become streaked with silver. “You’re relieved, Serrano,” he said, sitting after Hicks returned his salute. “Go ahead, have a seat, my friend.”
“Thank you, sir,” Hicks replied.
“No ‘sir’ today. We’re all on vacation, technically. Now, if I recall, you had called yesterday about something bothering you. I would hope that feeling has since disappeared.”
“Not entirely, sir. I still feel like something’s gonna go wrong, or just something along those lines. I mean, I feel better now that I’m sitting here in front of you, but… I don’t know. I just feel like someone-maybe it’s you, or someone within my unit-isn’t telling me something that they really should. Maybe I’ve been away from them too long. I mean, if one of them… you know… hurt themselves, I would’ve been told, right?”
Paulson was silent for a few minutes. He broke eye contact with Hicks, and then said, softly, “Yes, you would’ve been notified. Travin can be a bit slow on that, though.”
Hicks rubbed his face, and shoved his boiling frustration with his sergeant back down his throat. “So something could really be wrong.”
“I think Travin would be more on top of something that serious.”
“I hope so.” A nervous lump was forming in Hicks’s throat. “Shouldn’t that… be enough for people to move faster on getting this unit straightened out?”
“This is the holiday season, son. Many of us are on vacation, and it will take longer for things like that to move through the works.”
Hicks thought about his conversation with Carlisle yesterday, about how she said he should be angry about not getting anything. He took a breath, trying to process his slow-burning anger into something wouldn’t explode if the wrong thing was said to him. “Sir, it’s been six months since I put in my transfer papers. By this point, most planet-side units would’ve seen it, right?”
“My power is far-reaching, but, unfortunately, I’m not God; I have no idea if any unit has actually picked up and read your papers.”
The burner his anger was on was suddenly cranked up. A lump was forming in his throat, but he tried to swallow it. “I hope someone picks it before New Year’s, sir.”
“I hope so, too. You have a vast amount of talent, and I feel like it’s being wasted here. You deserve to be placed within a unit where you can use those talents, and form very strong bonds with soldiers who will respect you, not only as a fellow soldier, but as a human being. That’s something you need. I’m very sorry that you had to be thrust into such a horrible situation not too long after you graduated boot camp.”
“It’s not your fault, sir.”
“No. No, it might be. I had seen Travin’s severe weaknesses while you were preparing for graduation, and I thought you would be able to help him.”
“I thought I’d be able to help him, too.”
“I see now I was wrong. Unfortunately, I can’t speed up the process of getting you out of there. Not legally, anyway.”
“Don’t feel bad about it, sir. It was a mistake, and we all make them.”
“In the military, mistakes can get you killed. While you have a knack of pulling your squad out of intensely difficult situations, those situations arose because your people are lacking in various communicative skills. It is good they have you to fall back on, but no unit should ever lean on one person. There’s always the risk of that one person getting injured or killed.”
Hicks nodded. “There’s that, and then,” He rubbed his face again, sighing. “I hope I’m not placed in a unit where everyone’s depressed and some people are potentially suicidal. I can’t deal with that again.”
“It’s a very hard thing that not many people can deal with. Learn to help them. It won’t solve every case, but it will increase the chances of you preventing someone from doing it.”
“I wish I had time to learn.”
“You’ll get that time, I believe. Maybe someone will thank you for helping them, some day.”
I guess it wasn’t Paulson I was worried about; it was the guys in my unit. Although he believed everything Paulson said, Hicks wanted answers from his sergeant, and so he looked around until he saw a person approaching with the sleeve insignia worn by android personnel. “Excuse me,” he asked. “Can you direct me to the nearest communications center?”
“I’m heading that way, sir,” the android replied. “If you’d like to follow me, I can show you myself.”
“Thank you,” Hicks said as he fell in alongside the android. They reached the communications center and while waiting for a phone to open up, Hicks’s thoughts turned to how he ditched Carlisle earlier. Deep down, you don’t know what she’s got going on right now. She could be hurting really bad, and you pushed her away because she told you to be more expressive.
Walking a large room full of phones, Hicks decided he needed to do more than just apologize to Carlisle. She wanted to go sight-seeing, so I’ll go with her. She even said she wants to spend more time with me. What’s the harm in that? Hicks sat in front of a phone in the corner of the room, far away from everyone else. After putting in the number for Sergeant Travin’s office, he drummed his fingertips on the table, waiting for Travin to pick up.
“Good morning. Sergeant Travin speaking,” a wavering voice said.
“It’s Hicks. I need to ask you something,” Hicks replied.
“Corporal! I thought you were in the States. Why does the ID say you’re in-“
“Took a little trip to France, sergeant. How are our men doing?”
“They’re the same as always. We’re getting by pretty well. Actually, two of them got sent to new units.”
“Good. No one’s hurt or anything?”
“No. No one’s hurt.”
“And absolutely nothing has changed? You haven’t even tried to be a better leader?”
“Corporal, I’m still waiting for my new assignment.”
Hicks resisted the urge to scream at Travin. His frustration was going beyond its boiling point. “So am I.” He sighed. “Let’s try to make our last few weeks or months or however how long we have together less of a strain.” When Travin hung up, Hicks wasn’t at all concerned that he had nearly exploded on his sergeant. More and more, he wanted to quit. Why did I even think that Travin was gonna change while I was gone? He leaves me in charge half the fucking time anyway.
He left the base hoping that his transfer notice would come that night. Or at least the next day.
Much to Hicks’s surprise, he found Carlisle in their hotel room, watching a French Christmas movie with English subtitles. She didn’t smile when he walked in the room, and said, “Enjoy your talk with Paulson?”
“It went okay. I don’t feel so tense anymore. Had to call Travin, though, make sure everyone was alright. I found out that was why I was a little on edge; I was worried about what’s going on at base, not Paulson,” Hicks replied.
“Ah.” Carlisle went back to watching her movie.
Alright, Dwayne, make your move. “So… did you still want to walk around the block?”
“Are you up for it? You didn’t seem like it earlier.”
“Well, I feel better now that I talked to Paulson and confirmed that everyone back on base is okay. I’m ready to just… relax.” As much as he wanted to smile, something was holding it back.
Carlisle was smiling, though. “Sure. Let me get my coat on.” She raised her hand to put it on Hicks’s shoulder, but stopped herself, slowly lowering it while taking her coat from the closet. Her smile began fading, and she remained silent until they left the room.
“Is there something you want to say to me?” Hicks’s thoughts wandered back to when he was waiting in the communications center and how he told himself to be more careful with his words to Carlisle
“Not right now,” Carlisle said, a bit too quickly.
“We’re alone. If there’s something you want to say, then say it.”
“There’s nothing I want to say.”
“I just want to know if you’re okay. Mentally, physically, emotionally, I want to know. I was an ass earlier, and… I hope I didn’t hurt you in any way. I didn’t mean to hurt you, if I did, and if something’s bothering you, I’d like to know, so I can fix it.”
“Hicks, there’s nothing wrong. You didn’t hurt me in any way. It’s pretty obvious you don’t like showing your emotions to anyone, and that’s fine. I’m the one who tried prodding in your personal space, so if anything’s wrong, it’s because of me. It’s not your fault, don’t take responsibility for it.”
Without another word, Hicks nodded. He looked down at the floor while Carlisle put on her coat, and continued looking down as they left the room. There were so many chinks in his armor starting to form, starting with the fact that no one had picked up his transfer papers, lumped together with Travin not attempting to improve himself while Hicks was gone, and finally mixed with his indecisiveness about opening up to Carlisle. Sure, she knew about what was going on, but she didn’t know exactly how it made him feel. Getting angry and spewing my thoughts won’t get me anywhere. It’d damage my chances of getting into a new unit. Any sergeant out there would think I was gonna carry that horrible attitude into their unit. They don’t need that; they need what General Paulson says I am. They need what I know I am. Standing in the elevator, Hicks looked away from Carlisle as he swallowed past another lump forming in his throat. I should tell Paulson. Just like I told him my exact thoughts in boot camp. He’ll understand. He won’t tell anyone.
Hicks glanced over his shoulder to make sure Carlisle wasn’t looking at him, and pretended to fidget with his jacket as he tried to cover up the tears welling up in his eyes. He felt obligated to keep going with Carlisle; she’d be upset if he ditched her again. I can talk to Paulson later. He’s probably got a lot to do. Hicks kept himself from crying, but the pain of wanting to do so wasn’t going away. He started feeling sick to his stomach as they left the elevator, returning back to the bright and crowded lobby.
It was bitterly cold when they stepped out into the streets of Paris, and it seemed only people with something really important to do were out in that awful weather. Snow was coming down harder every few minutes. Hicks was beginning to regret not bringing his heavy coat. The black jacket seemed flimsy now.