The Unbound Realm: Vol.1, Chapter 1

Ever hear 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 when I turned nineteen.  I felt a surge of purpose during the pandemic, but bit by bit, things slowly 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 square in the face:

What’s it all for? 

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

Maybe I’m just an early bloomer.

Call me crazy, but I think a lot of people feel like me.  Not on the surface, maybe, but deep down, in their heart of hearts.  Whenever I talk about ditching the 9-5, I’m met with hearty agreement.  Hell yeah!  Screw meetings and color-coded spreadsheets!  Screw my timecards—I hate arguing with the dick in HR, making sure I’m getting forty hours a week!  (it’s more by the way, if you add in commutes, miscellaneous activities like shopping for business casual, and the fact that each day is actually 8-5 once you factor the unpaid lunch).

But when I press the issue—when I dream in detail about the road less travelled—I earn a rueful chuckle or a blank stare.  Yeah, like that’ll ever happen.  And if I push it further, I usually evoke some form of vague irritation.  Give it a rest, would you?  It’s typically accompanied by a good amount of side-eye, or a befuddled headshake.  What’s your problem?

I feel like an alien, cursed to live in a human body.  I’ve said as much to any who’ll listen.  When their eyes widen, I know I’ve resonated with their souls.

 

 

Today is Friday.  I’ve just finished classes.

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 get inside my cookie-cutter car.  Drive into a modest strip-mall, home to an Armed Forces Recruiting Center.  I poke around a stand of brochures, then pay a visit to each branch.  I listen to pitches from the Army, Air Force, Navy…they all seem fake as hell.  Despite their promises of a ripped body, lusty groupies, and the chance to be a Call of Duty hero, I can sense that none of them have whatever I’m seeking.

Looking back, I’d say it was a rare flash of empathic perception—I saw the endless cleaning and senseless chores, the meat-grinder system they’d had to endure, all so they could try and convince their younger selves—me, in this instance—to strike out on a distorted hero’s journey.

Lunchtime.  I receive a business card from the last one (Navy).  I prepare to walk out, but 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.  The black nametag—which would have been chintzy on anything besides a Marine uniform—reads ATRIYA.

“Hey.”  He returns my look with an open, honest stare.  Not like the others, who had the aura of used car salesmen.  “Sergeant Chris Atriya.”  He offers a hand.  I shake it.  “Looking to join?”

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

“Uh…thinking about it.”  My gut, for some reason, feels completely at ease.

“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 mounted on his chest.  “I’ve lived some dog years, if you couldn’t tell by these lego bars.  This isn’t for you.”

My heart cracks.  Not because I want to shoot guns or jump out of planes or live on a ship—I was hoping for the barest glimmer of higher purpose.  An escape from the meaningless life that stretches before me.

He sees it in my eyes.  He gives me a smile—half amusement (the gentle kind) and half knowing.

“Follow me.”  He opens the door into a darkened recruiting office.  The lights flick on, and he goes in the bathroom.  “Wait here.  Gonna change into something a little more honest.”

A minute later he steps out in a frayed pair of sweats.  With his low-faded hair, he could pass for a beefy college student or a young dad.  He offers his hand (again).  I shake it.

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

“Jon Dough.”

He walks to his desk and takes a seat, gesturing for me to do the same.  As I sit, he leans back and steeples his fingers above his chest.  “Wanna hear something funny?  I’ve worked here for almost two years, and I haven’t recruited a single prospect.”

“What?”  My brow wrinkles.

“Not a single one,” he says.  “My boss thinks I deserve a break—he thinks I’ve got an ‘impressive record.’ ”  Quote marks with his fingers.  “I’m okay with it.  If I’m being honest, chest-thumping, war-cries, and rah rah patriotism turn me off, and that’s what my peers have to peddle.  Been there, done that.”

“So if you were someone 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’re looking 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 write stories, crack jokes, ruminate on useless 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 or something?  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 crack jokes, then we’re truly lost.”  He leans forward.  “I’ve got something for you.  An offer.  If you want to sign it, go ahead.  If not, no worries.  We’ll go our separate ways and forget we talked.”

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

SOMETHING DIFFERENT.

Below the words are two blank signature lines.

“So what do you say, writer?”  He slides a pen across the desk.  “We have a deal?”

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

He shakes his head.  “Nope.  It’s the culmination of all you’ve asked for.”

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

“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 the details; that’s where people make a mistake.  They try and wait until all the info becomes apparent, so they can stay in their comfort zones.  It’s kind of ironic, because long-term, it only makes them more uncomfortable.  They try and control how it all unfolds and get cut off from the flow of possibility.”

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

“Nothing of the sort.  I know a bit more than you, but only from experience.  I don’t get details, not the kind you’re looking for anyway.  And trust me, you wouldn’t want to know them—they would 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 that’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 peer-pressure-molded identity, trained to interact with modern society, he’s talking to something deeper, something that doesn’t reply in words or language.  I don’t have a name for it.  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 with both hands.  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 paper.”  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 the best 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, Jon—you think you’d be happy with the 9-5?  Living for the weekends, an extended vacation once a year, praying 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’s next?” I manage.

“For you?”  He opens the door and stands to the side.  “Things’ll get weird, but that’s a good thing.  Trust me—working a job would have driven you insane.”

“Okaaay…”  I’m not sure of how to reply.  But still—I want to know more.  “Wanna get some food?  I’m caught up on my 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 walk down the hall, past the offices, out the main door and into the lot.  “We share the same name, believe it or not.  ‘Chris.’  Only she spells it with a ‘y’ instead of an ‘i.’ ”

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

“Yep.”  We head toward 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, it would add a side of drear onto my normal state of blah.

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

I don’t mind at all.