-The Unbound Realm: Vol.1, Chapter 1

I had my quarter-life crisis when I turned nineteen.  I know that’s about ten years early, but why die slowly, when you can do it all at once and move on to your next life?  (If there is such a thing, that is.)

I rode a surge of purpose during the pandemic, but bit by bit, things returned to normal.  Peoples’ attitudes, specifically.  Gotta keep grinding.  Why, you ask?  No one knows, but ’round and ’round it goes.  Midway into my first semester, the mother of all questions hit me in the face:

What’s it all for? 

I never found meaning in pop culture-fads—in Kylie’s tweets or the hottest backside trending on Insta.  I know, I know—I’m a cliché.  The crotchety old guy cursing at the new-fangled youngsters on their new-fangled thingamabobs.  And yes—being nineteen, I know I’m technically a teenager.

Call me crazy, but I think a lot of people feel the same.  When I talk about ditching the 9-5, I’m typically met with hearty agreement.  Yes—YES!  These forty-hour workweeks are killing my soul!  (it’s more by the way, if you add in commutes, job-related activities like shopping for business casual, and the fact that each day is actually 8-5 once you account for the unpaid lunch).

But when I press the issue—when I go into detail about the road less travelled—I earn a rueful chuckle or a blank stare.  Half the time, I elicit some form of vague irritation.  Give it a rest, will you?  Often accompanied by a helping of side-eye, or a befuddled headshake.

I feel like an alien, doomed to live in a human body.  I say as much to anyone who will listen.  Every so often, their eyes widen with fear and surprise, and I know I’ve spoken to their truest selves.

 

———

 

Today is Friday.  I’m done with class.

I walk out of Arts and Humanities, taking the same route I always take.  Cut through the quad, past the food carts, and into the street where I parallel parked.

I drive to a strip-mall in San Mateo, home to an Armed Forces Recruiting Center.  I poke through a stand of glossy brochures, then pay a visit to each branch.  I listen to pitches from Army, Air Force, and Navy.  Despite their promises of lusty groupies, a ripped body, and the chance to become a Call of Duty hero, none of them have whatever I’m looking for.  I can somehow sense the mindless chores; the meat-grinder system the recruiters endured, all so they could try and convince their younger selves (me, in this instance) to embark on a distorted version of the hero’s journey.

I receive a business card from the last one (Navy) and step out into the main hallway.  Before I can leave, a voice stops me.

“Hey.”

I turn around.  Standing before me is the sharpest-dressed man I’ve ever seen.  Blue pants, khaki short-sleeve, and a stack of ribbons that starts at his left breast pocket and nearly touches his meaty shoulder.  His plastic nametag (it’d be chintzy on anything aside from a Marine uniform) reads ATRIYA.

“Gunnery Sergeant Chris Atriya.”  We shake hands.  “Looking to join?”

I study him closely, thrown by his attitude.  He doesn’t care if I sign or not—he’s genuinely interested in me.  Me as a person.

“Thinking about it.”

“Don’t.”  He gives me a rueful grin.  “You’re not cut out for it.”

“That’s your pitch?” I ask incredulously.

“Usually, we say it in a bet-you’re-not-tough-enough kind of way, but I’m over all that.”  He taps the ribbons mounted on his chest.  “I’ve lived some dog years, if you couldn’t tell by my stack of lego bars.  Take it from me:  this isn’t for you.”

My heart cracks.  Not because I want to shoot or fly or live on a ship—I was hoping for a glimmer of higher purpose.  An escape from the tedium that stretches before me.

“Follow me.”  He opens the door into a darkened recruiting office.  The lights click on, and he steps behind a folding screen.  “Gimme a minute.”  A short while later he steps out in a sweatshirt and jeans.  With his low-faded hair, he could easily pass as a beefy college student or a young dad.

He offers his hand (again).  I shake it.

“Chris Atriya,” he says, as if he hasn’t said it already.

“Jon Dough.  Good to meet you.”

He walks behind his desk and takes a seat, gesturing for me to do the same.  As I do so, he leans back and steeples his fingers above his chest.  “I’ve worked in this office for over a year, and I haven’t recruited a single prospect.”

“What?”  My brow wrinkles in confusion.

“Not a single one,” he affirms.  “My boss thinks I deserve a break.  He says I’ve got an ‘impressive record.’ ”  He makes quote marks with his fingers.  “I’m okay with it.  Chest-thumping, war-cries…it gets real old, real fast.  That’s the stuff my peers have to sell.”

“So if you were anyone else—”

“They’d work me to the bone.”  He laughs.  “Make no mistake—the Corps will get its pound of flesh.  I’m an anomaly—the dirty secret of the whole ‘warrior’ thing.”  His gaze turns distant.  “It’s all good.  Soon enough, I’ll be right back at it.  Not here, though—not in recruiting.”  His smile returns.

“Uh, not to be rude, but why did you invite me—”

“Right.”  He regards me again, and I see that his eyes are a strange shade of gray.  Rich and deep, but mild enough to go unnoticed unless you look directly into them.  “What if I said you were destined for greatness?  What if I said it was your natural state?”

I scoff without meaning to.  “I’d say you were crazy.  I go to school, write stories, and ruminate deeply on meaningless philosophy.”

“I see things, Jon.  Hidden things.”  A flash of light glints off his eyes.  “And I can see that everything you’ve done up until now—every thought you’ve had and dream you’ve pondered—it’s set you up for massive change.  And it’s coming soon.”

I’m taken by a shiver; I cover it up with a nervous laugh.  “You friends with Doctor Strange or something?  Let me know how to find that monastery; it looked pretty dope.  Look, Sergeant—”

“Chris.”

“Chris.  I think you’ve confused me with someone else.  And sorry for the Doctor Strange remark, I didn’t mean to—”

Chris waves a dismissive hand.  “If we can’t make fun, then we’re truly lost.”  He leans forward in his chair.  “I have something for you.  If you want to sign it, go ahead.  If not, we’ll go our separate ways and leave it at that.”

He opens a drawer, pulls out a single sheet of paper, and lays it on the desk.  It’s marked by two words, written in large bold letters:

SOMETHING DIFFERENT.

Below the words are a pair of signature lines.

“What do you say?”  He places a pen in front of my hand.

I pick up the sheet and turn it back and forth, making sure there’s nothing on the back.  “Is this a joke?”

He shakes his head.  “It’s everything you’ve asked for.”

“What?”  I can’t keep the ridicule out of my voice.  “You’re saying that I—”

“Doesn’t matter.”  I lay the page down on the desk and he taps it twice with his right index finger.  “Sign it or don’t.  Sorry, but you don’t get details; that’s where people trip themselves up.  They try and wait for all the info, so they can stay inside their personal comfort zones.  Which is pretty ironic, because long-term, they’re setting themselves up for maximal discomfort.”

“That’s kind of dickish,” I argue, now convinced he’s a grade-A nutcase.  “You’re withholding information using a philosophical sleight of—”

“Nothing of the sort.  I don’t get details either, Jon.  And trust me, even if I did, you wouldn’t want to know—they’d turn everything you see into a dusty shadow.”

“I don’t get it.”  (This guy is nuts.)  “You’ve seen combat, right?”

“Of course.  More than I care for.”

I open my mouth but nothing comes out—I’m trying to think of a polite way to recommend psychiatric help.

He sees right through me.  “Don’t worry—I’m stable.”  Now he’s amused.  “The question is:  are you?  You’ve graduated high school, started college, and you’re about to embark on a fulfilling existence.  Think it’ll happen?”

My brain grinds to an absolute halt.  You ever listen to someone, and your entire being responds to their words?  That’s how I feel right now.  He’s not talking to my surface persona, trained to engage with norms and traditions.  He’s talking to something way deeper, something beyond words or language.  It doesn’t have a name.  I don’t think it wants one.

Nevertheless, it needs to be heard.

I pick up the pen.  My mind is a storm of conflicting emotions.  My hand, however, is sure and steady.

I sign the paper.

He plucks the pen from my frozen fingers.  Scrawls his name next to mine.

“That was easy, huh?”  He slaps the desk and gets to his feet.  “Take it easy, Jon.”  He shrugs into a jacket.

I blurt, “Wait, that’s it?  Are you for real?  I just signed a two-word contract.”  The logical part of me—the one that worries about GPAs, scholarships, and getting enough hours at my part-time job—has taken back over.

He pins me down with those steady gray eyes.  “You took a step toward what you wanted.  Most of the time, that’s all you can do.  Doesn’t matter if it makes any sense, because a deeper part of you knows the angles—sees beyond the visible connections.”  He puts his hands in his pockets.  “I mean come on—you think you’d be happy with the 9-5?  Living for the weekends, an extended vacation once a year, hoping desperately that nothing derails your white-picket life?  There’s more to you, Jon.  You know it in your heart.  You know it in your soul.”

Chills.  Again.  “What next?” I manage.

“For you?”  He holds the door open for me.  “Life will get weird, but that’s not a bad thing.  Trust me—working at a job would have driven you insane.”

“Okaaay…”  I’m not quite sure of how to respond.  But still—I want to know more.  “You wanna get lunch?  I’m caught up on schoolwork, so—”

“Nah.  I’ve got me a date.”  His ageless face throws me a smile.  “She’d give me hell if I stood her up.”

“She sounds pretty gnarly.”  I walk through the door.  He locks up behind me.

“You have no idea.”  We stroll out the entrance and into the lot.  “We share the same name, believe it or not.  ‘Chris.’  She spells it with a ‘y’ instead of an ‘i.’ ”

Chrys.  I try it out in my mind.  “Funny—it’s easier to think of her as a woman, now that you told me that.”

“Yep.”  We head for his car, which is parked next to mine.  “When I was younger, it would have been weird if a girl was named Chrys, ‘y’ or not.  Funny how things change, huh?”

I feel obliged to agree.  “Yeah.  Funny.”

We get in our cars and drive off the lot.  It starts to pour—fat, heavy drops that clack against the glass.  Typically, the rain would add drear onto my normal state of blah.

But this time, for some reason, I don’t mind.

I don’t mind at all.