-The Unbound Realm: Vol.1, Chapter 1

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

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 like older stuff, but not just because it’s off-beat or vintage.  When I watch weird stuff from the ’80s or ’90s, something about the willingness to take risks and the courage to be strange calls out to my heart.

Anachronisms are my thing, which makes me one of them, I suppose.  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 hate the idea of driving a desk, raising 2.5 kids, or giving in to corporate doublethink.  Call me crazy, but I think a lot of people feel the same way as me.  When I bring up the idea of ditching the 9-5 slog, 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 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, would you?  I was just spitballing—I wasn’t serious.  Often accompanied by a helping of side-eye. 

I feel like an alien, doomed to exist in a human body.  And 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 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-280 is a couple blocks up.  I take the on-ramp and drive to San Mateo.  Twenty minutes later, I pull into the parking lot of an Armed Forces Recruiting Center, nestled in the confines of an unassuming strip mall.  After poking through a stand of brochures, I pay a visit to recruiters from Army, Air Force, and Navy. 

Despite their promises of lusty groupies, a ripped body, and the chance to become a Call of Duty commando-warrior, none of them interest me.  I instinctively sense the pointless ennui; 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 back into the main hallway.  As I turn to leave, a voice stops me.

“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 to me.  We shake hands.  “Looking to join?”

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

“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 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 and I walk in behind him.  As the lights click on, he steps behind a three-panel folding 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 said it already.

“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 into the chair, he leans back and steeples his fingers above his chest. 

“I’ve worked in recruiting for over a year.  Haven’t recruited a single prospect.”

“What?”  My brow wrinkles in confusion. 

“Not a single one,” he affirms.  “My boss lets me do whatever.  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 my coworkers 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 recruit m—”

“Right.”  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.  “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, I write stories I can’t finish, and I 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.”

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

“Chris.”

“Chris.  You’ve confused me with somebody else.”  (Whoops—just remembered he’s a gun-toting war-guy.  Better apologize in case he gets angry.)  “And sorry for 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 in his chair, 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 single sheet of paper, and lays it carefully on the desk.  It’s marred by two bold words, written in large stark 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 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.”  I lay the page back down 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 a little 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, 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?”

“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 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?  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 as a part-time dog walker—takes back over.

He meets my gaze with those rich 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—it sees beyond the visible connections.”  He shoves 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 over to the door and holds it 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.  “Wanna grab lunch?  I’m caught up on school, so—”

“Nah.  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.’  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 young, 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.”

As 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.