The Unbound Realm: Vol.1, Chapter 1

Ever heard of a “quarter-life crisis?”

According to Wikipedia, it means “a crisis involving anxiety over the direction and quality of one’s life which is most commonly experienced in a period ranging from a person’s early twenties up to their mid-thirties.”

I got lucky.  I had mine early, when I turned nineteen.  I rode a surge of purpose during the pandemic, 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, 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 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.  Not on the surface, maybe, but deep down, in their heart of hearts.  When I talk about ditching the 9-5, I’m usually met with hearty agreement.  Hell yeah!  Screw meetings!  Screw spreadsheets!  I hate arguing with my idiot manager, making sure I’m getting forty hours a week!  (it’s more by the way, if you add in commutes to work, 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?  Typically accompanied by a helping of side-eye, or a befuddled headshake.

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

 

 

Today is Friday.  I’m done with class.

I make my way 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 park.

I drive to a strip-mall, home to an Armed Forces Recruiting Center.  I poke around a stand of glossy brochures, then pay a visit to each branch.  I listen to pitches from Army, Air Force, and Navy.  They all seem fake and disingenuous.  Despite their promises of lusty groupies, a super-ripped body, and the chance to become a Call of Duty hero, I sense that none of them have whatever I’m looking for.

Thinking back, I’d call it a rare flash of empathic perception.  I saw the endless cleaning and mindless chores, the meat-grinder system the recruiters had 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 walk 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 black plastic nametag (it would have been chintzy on anything other than a Marine uniform) reads ATRIYA.

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

I study him carefully, thrown by his attitude.  He doesn’t care whether or not I sign—he’s genuinely interested in me.

“Uh…thinking about it.”

“Don’t.”  A rueful grin.  “You’re not cut out for it.”

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

He shrugs.  “Usually, we say it in a bet-you’re-not-tough-enough kind of way, but I’m over it.”  He taps the ribbons on 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 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 flick on, and he steps in the bathroom.  “Wait here.  Gonna change into something a little more honest.”

A few minutes later he steps out in a pair of sweats.  With his low-faded hair, he could 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.”

He walks to 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 been working here for a year, and I haven’t recruited a single prospect.”

“What?”  My brow wrinkles.

“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 alright with it.  Chest-thumping, war-cries…it gets really old, really fast.  And 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 eyes turn distant.  “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—”

“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’re crazy.  I go to school, write stories, and ruminate deeply on meaningless philosophy.”

“I see things.  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, 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.  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, we’re truly lost.”  He leans forward in his chair.  “I’ve got something for you.  If you want to sign it, go ahead.  If not, we’ll go our separate ways and that’ll be 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.

“So what do you say?”  He slides a pen across the desk.

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

He shakes his head.  “No joke.  It’s the culmination of everything you’ve asked for.”

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

“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 within their cozy comfort zones.  It’s kind of 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 know a bit more than you, but only from experience.  I don’t get details either, Jon.  And trust me, even if I did, you wouldn’t want to know 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?”

“Of course,” he says matter-of-factly.  “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 me.  “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.  He’s not talking to my surface identity, trained to engage with modern society and submit unthinkingly to group consensus, he’s talking to 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.

“Wait, that’s it?” I demand.  “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.  In a lot of cases, that’s all you can do.  Doesn’t matter if it makes any sense, there’s a deeper part of you that knows the angles, that 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 you’ll stay healthy so nothing derails your white-picket life?  There’s more in store for you.  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.  “Things’ll get weird, but that’s a good thing.  Trust me—working 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 classes and I’m not working today, 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 gnarly.”  I walk through the door.  He locks up behind me.

“You have no idea.”  We stroll down the hall, 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  “Funny—it’s easier to think of her as female, now that you told me that.”

“Yep.”  We head for his car, which is right 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 rain—fat, heavy drops that clack against the glass.  Typically, that 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.