-The Unbound Realm: Vol.1, Chapter 1

1

I had my quarter-life crisis when I turned nineteen.  It came a decade early, but hey—why die slow, when you can do it all at once and move on to your next life?  (If you believe in that sort of thing, that is.)

During the pandemic, I rode a surge of purpose, but bit by bit, things went back 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 at SFSU, 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 prefer older stuff, but not just because it’s off-beat or vintage.  When I watch weird movies from the ’80s or ’90s, their courage to be strange calls to my heart.  

Anachronisms are my thing, which makes me one of them, I guess. 

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.

I loathe the idea of rotting at a desk, raising 2.5 kids, and assimilating into a world of corporatized doublethink.  I think a lot of people feel the same.  When I bring up the idea of 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 after you account for the unpaid lunch). 

But when I try and elaborate—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?  I wasn’t being serious.  Often accompanied by a helping of side-eye. 

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. 

———

I exit Arts and Humanities, taking the same route I always take.  Cut through the quad, past the food carts, and into the street where I’ve parallel parked.  

I-280 is a couple blocks up.  I take the on-ramp.  Twenty minutes later, I pull into the parking lot of an Armed Forces Recruiting Center.  I poke through a stand of glossy brochures, then pay a visit to recruiters from Army, Air Force, and Navy. 

Despite their promises of lusty groupies and the chance to live out Call of Duty, none of them resonate.  I instinctively sense the pointless ennui; the meat-grinder system the recruiters endured, all so they could 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 back into the main hallway.  As I turn to leave, a casual voice stops me in my tracks.

“Hey.”

I turn back 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 other than a Marine uniform) reads ATRIYA.

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

I study him carefully, thrown by his attitude.  He’s interested in me.  Me as a person, not as a number.

“Thinking about it.” 

“Don’t.”  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 atop his chest.  “I’ve lived some dog years, if you couldn’t already tell by my stack of lego bars.  Take it from me:  this isn’t for you.”

My gut twists.  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.  As the lights click on, he steps behind a three-panel screen.  “Gimme a sec.”  A couple minutes later, he steps out in a sweatshirt and jeans.  With his low-faded hair, he could easily pass as a beefy college student. 

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

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

“Jon Dough.  Good to meet you.”

He angles behind a desk and takes a seat, gesturing for me to do the same.  As I lower down into the chair, he leans back and steeples his fingers. 

“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 lets me do what I want.  Says I’ve got an ‘impressive record.’ ”  He makes quote marks with his fingers.  “Fine by me.  Chest-thumping, war-cries…it gets real old, real fast.  And that’s the stuff that recruiters gotta peddle.”

“So if you were anyone else—”

“They’d work my ass off.”  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 eyes refocus. 

“Uh, not to be rude, but why are we talking if you’re not trying to recr—”

“Bear with me.”  He regards me again, and I see that his pupils are a strange shade of gray:  rich and deep, but mild enough to go unnoticed unless you look directly into them.  “I’m curious…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 half-finished 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—every thought you’ve had and dream you’ve pondered—has set you up for massive change.”

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

“Chris.”

“Chris.  I think you’ve confused me with somebody else.”  (Whoops—just remembered he’s a gun-toting war-guy.  Better apologize before he gets angry.)  “And sorry about the Doctor Strange remark, I didn’t mean to—”

He waves dismissively.  “If we can’t take a joke, we’re truly lost.”  He leans forward, pinning me down with those strange gray eyes.  “I have an offer for you.  If you want to sign it, feel free.  If not, we’ll go our separate ways and leave it at that.” 

He opens a drawer, withdraws a sheet of paper, and lays it carefully onto the desk.  It’s marked by two bold words:

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 flip it over, making sure there’s nothing written on the back.  “Is this a joke?” 

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

“What?”  I can’t keep the ridicule out of my voice.  “What are you talking abo—”

“Doesn’t matter.”  As I lay the page back on the desk, 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 maximum 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—”

“I don’t get details either.  And trust me:  even if I did, you wouldn’t want them—they’d turn everything you see into a dusty shadow.”

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

“More than I care for.”

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

He sees right through it.  “Don’t worry—I’m stable.”  Now he’s amused.  “The question is:  are you?  You’ve graduated high school, started college, and now you’re ready to quest for fulfillment.  Think you’ll get it?”

My brain grinds to an absolute halt.  You ever listen to someone, really listen, and your entire being responds to their words?  He’s not addressing my surface persona, trained to navigate norms and traditions.  He’s engaging something 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 steady and sure.

I sign the paper.

He plucks the pen from my frozen fingers.  Scrawls his name on the line 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?  I just signed a two-word contract.”  The logical part of me—the one that worries about GPAs, scholarships, and getting enough hours as a part-time dog walker—takes back over.

“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—it sees beyond the visible connections.”  He put his hands in his pockets and gives me an exasperated look.  “I mean, come on—you think you’d be happy with the 9-5?  Living for the weekend, an extended vacation once a year, desperately hoping 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 walks to the door and holds it open.  “Things 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.  “Wanna grab lunch?  I’m caught up on school, so—”

“Nah.  Got me a date.”  His ageless face throws me a smile.  “She’d beat my ass 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.’  But she spells it with a ‘y’ instead of an ‘i.’ ”

Chrys.  I try it out in my mind.  “Huh—it’s easier to think of her as a girl, 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 called 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.  A second later, 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.