Former Private Willy Jessup sat on the edge of his bed, naked save his dog tags, his heart racing and his eyes darting around his mother’s living room. He’d always been paranoid, that was nothing new. But, this. He grabbed his pants from the floor, slid them on, and buttoned up while looking for his shoes. He’d never understand where shoes walked off to when he deliberately sat them down out of the way. He retrieved his shirt via his left shoe and his socks via his right. Then fell into his grandpa’s recliner, where he groggily shoved one foot after another into his socks and shoes. Half-awake and half-dressed, he stumbled over to the coffee table where he’d fallen out with a mostly full beer and a half-smoked joint. He shoved the joint tip into his mouth as he clumsily patted around on the coffee table until he found the lighter. Once he was smoking, he picked up the beer and raised it in salute to a mantel filled with pictures featuring his uniformed forefathers. After swallowing warm, flat beer, Jessup took another hit, and then stood up in a fog. Somehow keeping his balance, he waited for the fog to pass, and then crossed the living room to the mantel where generations of uniformed Jessups stared at him. He frowned, the proud, brave Jessups never had a military fuck up before me. What’s my legacy? With the joint between his lips and his beer in one hand, he managed to get his dog tags off and hung them from his own military picture. He stared at his reflection, ran a hand through his slightly grown out hair, pulled deeply on the joint, and then laughed, “aw, fuck it. An oath’s an oath. Ain’t it, Commander?”
“Who you talking to?” his grandpa, Elliot Jessup, asked from the apartment’s hallway.
“Uh? No one, Gramps,” Willy turned from the mantel, but avoided making eye contact with the patriarch of his family.
“Smoking, drinking, kicked out, and now talking to hisself,” old man Elliot shuffled into the living room, right up to his grandson. When he was close enough, his old hands darted out, taking the joint and the beer from Willy, who stepped back in shock watching as gramps shuffled to the recliner.
“Gramps,” Willy whined.
“What? You know it helps with my PTSD.”
“You don’t have PTSD,” Willy reminded the old man.
“Yes, I do. Have you met your grandmother?”
Elliot leaned back into the recliner, took a deep drag from the joint, and said, “you should roll another. I’ve gotta treat my whatsit.”
“Your ‘whatsit’?” Willy repeated skeptically.
“Exactly. Now, are you gonna roll or whatsit?”
Picking up the clock, Jessup stared at the hands, attempting to access whatever area of the mind timekeeping was kept at. Three hours. “I can roll and smoke it with you, if you want,” he said when his hung-over brain had managed the minor calculations required to tell when he’d need to leave to make it to the Stadium on time. He was more afraid of being late to a Hellions meeting than he’d ever been of being late when he was In. When I was IN the service. I was in. I’m not anymore. Now, I’m out. A vet, he glanced over his shoulder at the mantel, then looked at his kicked back grandfather, different times. It’s different times, now. “Hey, Gramps,” he began cautiously, “I didn’t mean…”
“Oh, don’t worry, boy,” his grandfather said while staring at the coffee table, “none of it matters. Just roll us a fattie.”
Staring at the requisition form, Captain Randle Dante, Jr. sighed. Deep inside, he knew he wasn’t supposed to be chained to a desk processing supply requests for the Front Depot. This was precisely the type of task that was forced upon officers who’d found themselves in the proverbial doghouse. He flipped the requisition form over, signed his name, stamped the page, and then dropped it onto the stack. With every new form he resisted the urge to rip the papers up, throw them into the air, and then run screaming out to the parking lot where he’d escape on his bike. If he was feeling froggy, he might even make a quick pass through the building, certain to run over his temporary cubical. Little videos of some of his recent cruises, played out behind his dulled eyes as he flipped another form over. Sometimes he regretted following in his dad’s military footsteps, well, sort of… he longed for his bike, his crew, the feel of the wind rushing over him. Sitting there, he’d realized that he was a victim of the military’s ‘Sins of the Father’ mentality that was so reliable his father had plotted to use it to their advantage. If it weren’t for their long term goals, he might very well lose his shit on the next pompous paper pusher who passed through to patronize his process. As it stood, he’d narrowly held his tongue when that cocky, rat-faced Major had smugly dropped the pile of papers onto the desk.
“Hey,” Captain Dante leaned over his desk toward the staff secretary’s cubical, “hey!”
“Sir?” the bored looking enlisted soldier asked over her mug of hot coffee.
“That smells great. Where’d you get it?”
“The coffee, sir?”
“Yes, soldier,” Captain Dante said, “the coffee.”
“I bring my own,” she took a long drawn out drink from her mug.
“Oh,” he pushed himself back from the edge of his desk and leaned back in his chair, stretching his upper back against the top of the chair. Carefully rolling the chair out from under the desk, Dante, Jr. shuffled out of his cubical, inhaling deeply as he passed by the soldier’s desk. Her coffee smelt great. He loathed the idea of teasing his nose with roasted aromas from her kitchen heaven, only to slap his tongue and throat with the reality of the burnt crap he was about to pour himself from break room hell. No matter, he thought as he marched through the Front Depot’s warehouse to the break room. When set on a course: weigh anchor, make sail, and follow the stars, as Dad always said. He pushed open the last door on the left wall of the nearly full warehouse, which triggered the break room’s motion detecting light to slowly brighten.
Directly across from the door sat a dilapidated old blue couch upon which a completely laid out rat-faced Major groggily blinked and yawned. It took every ounce of effort in Dante’s body to refrain from smiling at the smug bastard. Instead, he directed his energy at his original purpose for coming: coffee. In two steps, he stood before the counter with the coffee pot, cups, and all the fixings required to mask the bitter, burnt flavor. While he fixed his cup, he listened carefully to the rustling of the Major’s uniform and the squeak of the couch’s springs as the senior officer groaned his way to an upright position.
With the deliberateness of one born to politics, Captain Dante turned to face the Major. In each hand he held a cup of terrible coffee. Offering one, he sipped out of the other, but never let his eyes leave the Major who hesitantly took the proffered coffee. When the Major took his second drink, Dante asked in all seriousness, “how was your nap?”
The Major coughed.
“I never would have thought that you’d fit comfortably,” Dante, Jr. glanced around the Major to the couch, and then made a show of scanning the Major from head to toe. “You seem a bit tall for it, sir.” Dante, Jr. smiled, “just my opinion, but you were awfully cute curled up like that, Major.”
“Thank you, Dante,” the Major held up the coffee cup. “That’ll be all.”
Stepping outside the safe house, for the first time in days, Clara Darin stared at the brilliant blue sky and perfect fluffy clouds. Remarkable day, considering… she tightened her shawl around her shoulders, and then began the slow, wandering descent that would eventually take her into Merced. Though the well-stocked cupboards were overflowing with variety, there were some goods men rarely think of stocking that she couldn’t live without. After an hour of walking, Clara reached the western edge of Merced, where she saw a handful of rubble piles attesting to the existences of long forgotten commercial ventures. The street was practically devoid of all life, except the occasional leaf or bird that’d blow by on the wind. Though she’d grown accustomed to the lone sound of her footsteps on the cobble stone, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being followed. Cursory glances over her shoulders, at varied intervals, had not revealed anything. At the intersection of Shoemaker Ln. and Port Askance Blvd., Clara hung a right onto the much wider boulevard, followed by another right into the first door on the block. The sign read: Chang’s Bazaar. It was the third shop she’d been inside since her arrival in Merced, and thus far the only one likely to have what she needed. The other two stores, a tombstone engraver and a flower shop, had provided her with the directions to Chang’s.
Uncertain as to where the feminine hygiene products were located, Clara stopped at the cashier counter and asked the youth monitoring it, “where’re your tampons?”
The kid—obviously not Chang—resisted the urge to point out that the tampons were not now, nor would they ever be his. Without looking at her, he said, “aisle four. Right side. Midway down.” His sisters had taught him the value of not fucking with women when it was ‘that time.’ As a rule, he’d made it a point to stay out of their way, generally by leaving the house. He glanced at the clock, six hours until shift ends. Still early. Shit. He ran a hand over his face, pinched the bridge of his nose, and shook his head. Recalling the pre-party, the overrun house, the nude ice sculptures, and the full bar, he thought, shouldn’t have drank so much. Checking the clock again, he exhaled sharply, I can’t believe they’re letting Kish… His oldest sister was a nut when it came to family traditions. She’d volunteered for every family event that might put her in proximity to the…
“Hey!” the tampon woman interrupted his reverie by yelling, “I don’t see them.”
“Aisle four, right side, midway down,” he said, projecting his voice into the store.
“I heard you the first time,” she growled.
Reluctantly, he climbed off his stool, and dragged his feet to the aisle where the tampon lady stood reading labels. When he saw her, he said, “this is Aisle 3. Over here,” he didn’t wait for her, rather he trudged to the next aisle over. Stopping midway down the aisle, he stared at the tampon selection while he waited for her. Once she was next to him, he said, “let me know if I can help you with anything else.” Then, he moseyed his way back to the cashier’s counter and his stool. He’d just about forgotten that she was in the store, when she dropped an armful of goods onto the counter. “Is that everything?” he asked.
“Oh. Uh. Yes,” she replied distractedly nodding her head.
“Cash or chip?”
“How are you paying? Cash or chip?”
“Does it matter?”
The cashier’s attention came full around to her; he stared directly into her eyes, “where’ve you been? Under a rock? Of course, it matters. There’s a world of difference.”
“Oh. Yeah. I knew that,” she muttered.
He waited impatiently for her decision.
After digging through her handbag, she said, “I guess…cash.” The kid took out a calculator, added up the prices, and then added in the tax. He showed her the price to which she coughed, “why so much?”
With narrowed, inquisitive eyes, scrunched brow, and tightened lips, the kid looked around the bazaar before saying, “where are you from?”
“Because everyone knows cash purchases come with hidden fees.”
“Well, how much would it be with the…what’d you call it? The chip?”
Shaking his head, he said, “half that.”
“Okay, then let’s do that, then.”
“Sure, lady,” the kid said, pushing a chip reader towards her.
Digging through her handbag, she shuffled the identity papers, cash, and other tidbits around. Finally, she said, “I must have left it at home.”
“Left it…left it at home?” The poor cashier nearly fell off his stool. He’d seen all kinds of people since taking this job, but this crazy lady had to be the kicker. “You can’t leave it at home,” he snickered. Unceremoniously, he grabbed her left wrist and swiped her hand across the reader, which did not react in any way. He swiped her hand again, also without reader reaction. Snapping his hands at her right arm, until she lifted it towards him, he ran it across the reader. Puzzled, he picked up the device, turned it over a couple times, and then stared at the woman. Finally, he ran his own hand over the reader, which promptly beeped normally. He cancelled the transaction, dropped the reader onto the counter, cocked his head to the left and asked, “why don’t you have a chip?”
“Uh,” she backed away from the counter, “I don’t know.”
“Well, you better stick to cash,” he shoved her goods into a sack, and stuck his hand out.