Standard disclaimers...(yadda yadda)
Thanks to Shelly, without whom this missive would have a lot less commas...
"Jimmy, quit dawdling! You’re wasting our first ever Leave!"
James Ellison brushed at the non-existent spot on his pristine uniform; non-existent to his boot camp buddy, that is. Jacob waited impatiently at the corner of Forth and Main, rocking from foot to foot. Silhouetted under the glow of the street lamp, his friend grinned an impossibly white, toothy grin.
"Coming," Jim drawled.
‘Maybe I’m imagining it?’
He wiped at the shirt front and then tried to ignore the spot. Catching a glimpse of his long frame in the store front window, he stopped.
‘Any rate, judging by the way I’m bulking up, stores will have to issue me with another, larger shirt in a couple of weeks.’
The gangly frame had been replaced by a lithe, muscled body. He liked the changes that weeks of training had wrought on his body. But the hair. The boot sergeants had inflicted a shaven scalp on him during the first day. Only now, the trainees first weekend off camp, had tuffs of hair finally started to show. Jim viewed the slow growth with some trepidation. It heralded early baldness and acute embarrassment.
‘Dad wouldn’t recognise me.’
"Jimmy, get a move on!"
Jacob interrupted his train of thought. Jacob was determined to experience the three W’s - wine, woman and wickedness. In fact, Jacob was not bothered about the wine, but he had assaulted his fellow officer with his other plans for this evening for weeks. The local bar was the pinnacle of Jacob’s evening and the nebulous hope of finding a woman and, of course, a beer. Jim crossed to Jacob’s side and submitted to the man throwing a beefy arm around his neck.
"There it is," Jacob said with the air of a sycophant approaching a temple.
The flashing blue neon sign above the bar told Jim all he needed to know - tacky, down market and cheap. Jim allowed himself to be propelled to the bar. This was what trainee officers did when they were ‘free’ - escaped into the town. Jacob had wangled himself and Jim a lift into the town with the wife of a captain to beat the other officer trainees. Eventually the whole camp would end up in the ‘Happy Moon’ bar but Jacob was determined to be first.
Jacob pushed open the squeaky door of the bar.
The odour of smoke, beer and perfume washed over Jim. He took a deep breath and stepped over the threshold. The bar was practically empty, only die hard drinkers and a couple of early starters were knocking back the Budweisers and Millers.
Jacob arrowed to the bar demanding a couple of beers in his loud southern drawl. Jim ambled in his wake. This was Jacob’s evening - the man was looking forward to it so much. A few of their comrades had gone home for the weekend, but Jacob’s sprawling family were all far down south. If he had gone, he would have spent the whole weekend travelling without spending any time at all with his loved ones. Jacob had sublimated his homesickness into plans for a wild night. And to be honest, Jim didn’t see anything wrong in having all of the three W’s either.
Jim slipped onto the barstool beside Jacob and knocked back the bottle of Bud in one smooth stroke. They had been ‘dry’ for weeks; no alcohol during boot camp. The ice cool beer was like heaven as it slipped down his throat, cold and warming on his stomach, sending tendrils of relaxation to abused muscles and taut tendons. The bartender set down another beer, with condensation frosting on the glass, before he could even order another round.
It tasted as good as the first one.
Jacob ambled over to the juke box and began to feed coins into the machine - choosing music track after music track. When the other boot camp survivors arrived it would be midnight before they would get a chance to choose.
Jim started on his third beer.
"Hey, man," an indignant, childish voice disturbed Jim’s attempt to get to the bottom of the bottle as soon as possible.
‘Not childish,’ Jim realised, ‘a kid.’
A small, weedy kid looked up at him from under a mop of brown, curly hair.
"What?" Jim growled.
"You’re sitting in my seat, man."
The kid crossed skinny arms over an equally skinny chest and glared up at him.
"I don’t see your name anywhere."
"Yeah, well, they’re my school books."
A note book and a handful of text books were sitting beside the ice bucket. One was an introductory mathematics book and another looked like a book of Greek Myths and Legends.
"How old are you?" Jim demanded.
"Thirteen." The high pitched voice belied the age.
"Nine," Jim contradicted.
"Hey, kid--" the bartender leaned over the bar and fixed a calm eye on the midget, "--quit bothering the customers."
"I’ve gotta do my homework," the kid protested.
Jim gathered up the books and offered them to the kid. He took them with a sullen grunt and clasped them to his chest.
The bartender lowered his voice. "Look, go to the booth in the corner - you can work there. It’s quiet and you’ll have a whole table to yourself. When it’s busy you’ll have to go into the back, okay?"
Nodding once at the burly bartender, the kid mooched over to the booth, dragging his heels all the way. As he slipped into the seat he shot a reproachful glance at the young officer.
‘He deserves an Oscar for that performance.’
"Belongs to one of the bar staff," the bartender said by way of explanation. "‘nother beer?"
"Nah." Jim waggled his half full beer bottle in the man’s face.
The bartender pushed a bowl of peanuts under Jim’s nose and then wandered further down to bar to serve an older man who was busy propping up the table. Jim turned around on his stool and revelled in the relative peace and quiet. The last few weeks had been the most gruelling of his entire life. The discipline that his father had forced on his brother and himself had provided him with the methods to cope with the abuse the sergeant had heaped upon himself and his fellow trainees. The mental cruelty, which he had figured out early on wasn’t malicious (unlike his father’s ‘ways’), had been designed by sadists to test his mettle. Unlike Morris and Ashbrook, he hadn’t quit, but that didn’t mean that he liked being treated like dirt.
He had handled the pure physical strain of training with panache. During assault courses he would catch the Captain watching him with a weighing eye. Scuttlebutt in the camp was that he and his friend Michael Gynt were going to be tapped for extra training. Despite that honour, however dubious, he wasn’t going to think about the Army tonight. Tonight he was going to have fun.
He felt as if he could feel every muscle and tendon in his body. What he really wanted was a good lay. Feeling pleasantly mellow, Jim checked out the room - there were no candidates. Momentarily stymied, Jim concentrated on stuffing his face with peanuts and getting to the bottom of the bottle of beer. Jacob was still playing with the jukebox - so there was no entertainment coming from his direction. A couple of older men were involved in an amiable argument, something to do with a Mrs. Jenkins in the supermarket. All in all, it looked like it was going to be a boring evening.
The skinny kid was hunched over his school books, tongue peaking out between his lips, as he laboriously wrote in his notebook. Ruefully, Jim finished his beer and then beckoned the bartender to his side. Wise to the ways of trainee Rangers he already carried a beer.
"Give me a coke, too."
The man raised his eyebrows and passed over a bottle of coke. Jim nodded, and snagging another bowl of peanuts, he crossed the sticky bar room floor to the kid’s table.
"Hi, kid." Jim placed the bottle beside a mathematical textbook.
"Mom says I can’t accept drinks from anyone in the bar." The kid said without looking up from his homework
"It’s only a coke," Jim countered.
The kid peered at the curvy bottle then into his face. Jim guessed that he passed inspection as the kid took the bottle and drank with a strangely impish grin on his face. The kid read his mind.
"Mom doesn’t like me drinking coke. ‘Too many weird chemicals in it’, she says."
Jim took that disclosure as an invitation to sit.
"Your Mom work here?"
"For a while," the kid shrugged easily.
Jim searched for a topic of conversation. He didn’t know what possessed him, but here he was talking to the smallest, weediest kid he’d seen in a long time.
"What’s your name?" Jim asked.
"Mom calls me ‘Free’."
Jim blinked. That struck him as a freaking stupid name. The careful way that ‘Free’ had said his name suddenly registered.
"What’s your real name?"
Jim could have sworn that the kid had said ‘Bear’, it was an equally stupid name to inflict on your kid.
"What do you want me to call you?"
The kid perked up as if he had been electrocuted. A wide, goofy grin crossed his face. He was practically jumping up and down on his seat.
"Obi Wan. You know, Obi Wan Kenobi?" the kid asked eagerly.
Jim sucked on the end of his beer, drawing out his answer. The kid was as animated as Hell.
"Yeah, Star Trek..."
With a disgusted expression, the kid shook his head.
"Okay, I remember it was ‘Star Wars’. He was the old guy wasn’t he?" Jim said with a teasing grin.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," the kid grinned further. "He’s this old Jedi Knight who teaches..."
"Okay, Obi Wan," Jim interrupted. He had seen the film several times, he did not need to hear the whole story again, especially from a kid. "You can call me Luke."
"Is that your real name?"
"Today it is."
The kid... no, Obi Wan, ...hoisted himself up on his elbows and leaned over the wooden table. Jim was struck by the depths in the clear, blue eyes.
"So, like, you’re in the army?" the kid asked.
Jim took a swig of his beer before answering. "Yeah, I’m gonna be a Ranger."
The serious tone of the question took him by surprise. This wasn’t his little brother who was overawed by Big Jimmy standing up to Daddy and joining the Rangers. This was a kid that sounded as if he did not approve.
"Why are you asking?" Jim countered.
"When you’re in the Rangers you learn how to shoot and kill people. My mom says that’s bad."
"Ahhh," Jim said intelligently.
There was an infuriating, smug grin forming on that pointed, little face. Jim rose to the challenge.
"If someone attacks your home you have to protect your home, your family and friends. To do that you have to be able to defend yourself. I am going to be a Ranger so I can protect... Protect people like you from bad people." Jim scratched the side of his head wondering if he had made his point clearly.
Mulling over the words the kid waited a moment before speaking. "Who are the ‘bad people’?" he asked, clearly mimicking the young, trainee Ranger’s words.
‘How did I get into this discussion?’ Jim wondered.
"The people who want to hurt you."
"And you’d stop them?"
"Yes," Jim said emphatically.
The kid appeared to give the simple statement deep consideration. "You shoot them and kill them dead."
Jim took yet another swig of his beer - if he kept this up he was going to be pleasantly ‘rat arsed’ as Jacob would say in best British impersonation.
"Most of the time just being there stops the bad things happening," he said carefully.
The indirect answer almost went over the kid’s head. "The ‘bad people’ are scared of you?"
"Has someone been trying to hurt you?" Jim responded. He scanned the bar looking for someone, anyone who might hurt a kid. Then he looked at the kid - too skinny by half, a good few pounds under his optimum weight - he noted. The tousled hair, and the big blue eyes could be called ‘waif-like’, if you were romantic but ‘half-starved’ if you were practical.
The kid was clearly confused by the question, then he shook his head, mutely.
"Are you sure?" Jim asked.
The kid nodded slowly. Jim sighed inwardly. He didn’t even know the kid’s proper name. Obi Wan was hardly going to blurt out to an absolute stranger that ‘bad things’ had, or were, happening.
Jim sought refuge in adult questions.
"What do you want to be when you grow up?" he winced at the banality of the question.
"Marine biologist or maybe a brain surgeon or a witch doctor. What would be really good? An astronaut? Or a librarian? If I was a librarian, then I could read books all day and talk to people who’ve read everything. I wouldn’t mind being a’ explorer going to the deepest, darkest Africa and finding lost cities."
Jim grinned. Obi Wan was flicking his fingers with each possible career choice - a surprisingly adult gesture. He paused at six - all fingers and thumbs.
"I don’t want to be an accountant," Obi Wan continued, "or a lawyer or a pig."
Jim blinked at the phrase which came so glibly to a kid’s lips.
"You see, if I was a marine biologist or an explorer, I could go all over the world. But I need to read, ‘cos there are things in books, that I don’t know yet. I’ve gotta travel, ‘cos sometimes people know good stuff that isn’t in books. The last place Mom and I stayed, I met this old man....who....’poached’?" Obi Wan struggled with the unfamiliar word. "Old Ted called what he did ‘poaching’. We went out late at night and caught rabbits for the stew pot. That was good. I can make a snare. "
The kid shook his head, apparently at a loss with all the different careers pulling at him.
Jim waited until he had the kid’s attention and then stated: "So really you want to explore strange, new worlds and meet people."
The kid’s smile was incandescent. "Star TREK!" he said gleefully.
"You want to be Captain Kirk?"
"No, no. You could be Captain Kirk. I want to be me...," the kid searched for the right words, "being me - meeting the Aliens. Did you see that episode when Kirk and Spock and McCoy went to Spock’s planet? Vulcan was very hot and there was not a lot of air - like when Mom and me were in the Grand Canyon."
Awed, by the breadth of the kid’s imagination, and the capacity of the kid’s lungs, Jim could only smile.
"I liked that story ‘cos you saw the clothes and they were different and had," he was clearly paraphrasing another person’s words, "a matriarchal society. I like finding about different places; it’s cool."
"You can do that, you know," Jim interjected into a breathing space.
"Do what? Go on the ‘Enterprise’? It’s not real," Obi Wan said with the air of humouring an idiot. "I thought it was, but Alan, the guy that Mom was with, said that it was stupid and it was only fairy tales," he finished sadly.
The boundless enthusiasm disappeared as if a bubble had been popped.
"Hey, kid...," Jim began, but the kid continued ruefully.
"Alan said that it was silly and I had to grow up and my time would be better spent doing math than watching television and reading books. Alan was a’ accountant." The kid pushed the mathematics text book listlessly across the table. "I don’t want to be an accountant, but Alan said that being a’ accountant was the best."
Jim leaned forward bringing himself down to the kid’s level. "You’re right - you can’t go on the ‘Enterprise’, but that doesn’t mean you can’t explore your strange, new worlds and people."
Obi Wan looked up at him with frank, curious eyes.
Carefully, Jim pulled out the book of Greek legends from the stack of text books. He opened the book, letting it fall where it wanted too. There was, on one page, a colourful picture of the Minotaur in the maze and virgin sacrifices being pushed into a dark hole. On the opposite page, a king, all decked out in golden robes and a high cylindrical hat, pointed at the hero who was wearing a tabard and a short toga.
Obi Wan’s brow furrowed with confusion.
"These aren’t just stories, they’re legends," Jim tried to explain.
He didn’t have a way with words, but he felt that there was an opportunity, in this moment, to show the kid that this dick called Alan didn’t have all the answers. He remembered the old, fuddy duddy lecturer who had bored him for months in ‘Religious Studies: Ancient Myths & Legends (101)’. That was until the old guy had pointed out that the people that he had studied lived lives. Myth and legend were steeped in truth, they weren’t written the day before yesterday, they were about people, regardless of the spin inflicted by the passage of time. Tales of gods and avatars were about belief, not made-up stories. Gods were real to the people that believed them. It had been a moment of epiphany - the final nail in the coffin to his father’s bigotry. Different belief systems were just different - not wrong - regardless of the millennium, country, religion or culture.
The child’s eyes were luminous, hanging on his every word. Jim did not need to tell him about bigotry and intolerance, only that there were options...that he need not live someone else's life...that he could live his life.
"People lived in this world along time ago. It’s a different culture. There are lots of different cultures all over this world right now, and a long time ago. You can find out about them and it is okay."
"And that’s a job like an accountant? But it sounds like fun."
The kid was flipping through the pages, passing by Icarus, Hera, Zeus and grimacing at a lurid picture of Prometheus. He cast a half curious-half frustrated expression at Jim and then rooted through his pile of books and pulled out a storybook of tales about Chinese Ghosts. Rapidly he flicked through the pages, stopping on one that showed a young woman wearing traditional dress having her feet bound by an older man.
"Kid, find a job that you’ll enjoy. You’ll be a lot happier."
"Reading stories and finding out about people is a job?"
"Yeah, I think that it is called Anthropology."
There were thoughts plainly fermenting behind his mobile face. He chewed absently on his bottom lip, considering Jim’s words. Then he stared directly at the trainee Ranger.
The large blue eyes gathered him in. Jim felt himself being pulled apart brick by brick and all his facets being weighed against an omniscient standard. As a mere watcher, he had no sense of what part of his soul was being judged. A blast of hot breath and warm caressing fur rocked his body breaking the spell. Setting his beer bottle aside, Jim decided that he had drank too much, too fast.
"Hey, man, are you all right?"
The kid was no longer an avatar of an unknown deity, just a scrawny brat with an impish smile.
"Too much beer," Jim said monosyllabically.
"Yeah?" with an eager smile, he reached out and gripped the neck of the bottle.
Jim came back to his senses as the kid lifted the bottle to his lips.
Jim’s large hand closed over the small hand around the bottle. He could feel bird-like bones moving under his palm. They sat, poised, holding the beer - warring without moving. Jim was determined that the kid was not going to have a drink. The kid was equally determined that he would try the forbidden elixir. The young Ranger won. Reluctantly the kid pulled his hand free and glared balefully at the trainee.
"I just wanna taste," he said sullenly.
"Yeah, well, ask your mom - or wait until you’re twenty one," Jim snorted. "You know I’m right don't you?"
"Yes," he said reluctantly.
"Come on, Free."
Suddenly, the bartender stood over them. Jim tried not to look abashed - he had merely been chatting with the kid. The man nodded at him, a hidden smile playing at his lips - the guy must have seen the battle over the bottle of beer. Jim tipped the beer, in salute, at the older man.
"Benny," Obi Wan whined, a hangdog expression on his face.
The man made a show of looking at his watch. "It’s almost ten o’clock; the sheriff and his deputies will be coming ‘round soon. Take yourself and your homework into the back office. You can sleep on the couch - I put a blanket there - if you get tired. Your mom finishes just after midnight."
Benny nodded at Jim and returned to the bar.
Grudgingly, the kid packed his books into a haphazard pile. There was quite an eclectic collection of story books and tales. Sighing and overacting, Obi Wan shifted off the bench and then took the stack of books into his arms. Nearly bowed under the weight of the library books, he paused at the end of the bench. Uncertainty exuded from the skinny form.
"Yeah, Obi?" Jim said easily.
"Luke, it’s been nice talking to you. Maybe we can talk again?" There was a hint of eagerness in the little kid’s tone.
"Yeah, sure, kid." Jim smiled. "I’m trapped in Boot Camp for a while longer -- I’ll be back in the ‘Happy Moon’."
"Free, back room!" Benny yelled from the bar.
"Gotta go," Obi Wan shook his head, "Benny really doesn’t like it when I’m out here when it’s late."
Free trekked across the bar room floor, weighed down by pile of the books. He stopped at the doorway to the office and paused for a moment. Then with a downright cheeky grin, he scampered into the office - the books apparently weightless. Jim shook his head - that was pretty much how he imagined that his little brother Stephen should have acted.
‘Now what do I do?’ he wondered.
There was a pert little redhead serving the tables in the back of the bar. Jim debated his options, he could call her over and start a ‘conversation’. The doors of the bar banged open and four of his fellow trainees rolled in laughing, and already half drunk. Jim grinned widely - the evening was beginning to look up.
"Jimjo!" Gynt yelled. "Beer!"
Jim nodded waved the bartender over to the booth. Four full bottles were already in the process of being lined up on a tray. Jim looked at them sideways on the bar - there was a weird, blurry effect starting. Gynt slipped onto the bench next to him.
"Hey, ma man, you’ve got us a comfy seat."
Gates and Rhudhi slouched into the seat opposite them. Rhudhi’s face cracked with amusement.
"How many beers have you had?" Rhudhi’s voice was slurred.
Jim held up four fingers, shook his head and added two more fingers and then shrugged. He had lost count. The world was definitely getting a tad cosy. Rhudhi was giggling. Jim decided to ignore him. He had asked for beers, he realised, but they hadn’t arrived. Blearily, he looked up. The bartender had finished popping the metal caps of the glass bottles and was waving at the waitress. Jim perked up, she was going to come over to their booth.
"Mine," he muttered under his breath to his companions. "I saw her first!"
Grinning, Gynt raised his hands. Jim knew that the battle lines were being drawn. The redhead was carrying their beers in their direction. Jim glared at Gynt and then fixed a fatuous grin on the nymph before him. As she came closer, Gynt chortled and then reached. Deftly, the redhead slipped out of Gynt’s drunken grasp and placed the bottles on the table. Gynt made an abortive grab for the redhead’s derriere. Jim brought his foot down on Gynt’s smaller foot and pressed until he could hear small bones grating with a nice, musical sound. A little smile played across the waitress’s features.
"You’re pretty," Jim blurted, and then kicked himself for such a gauche comment.
"No, I mean that. You’re really pretty," Jim tried again. He knew, he just knew, that the tips of his ears were turning pink.
"I hear that," she smiled and picked up her tray.
Sauntering, with a deliberate swing to her hips, she carried the tray in one hand. Jim could see opportunity oozing away.
"Are you doing anything later?" Jim deliberately deepened his voice.
She cast a coy glance over her shoulder. Rhudhi and Gates were almost on the floor laughing at him. Gynt was about to pass out from lack of air, he was laughing so hard.
She turned, and waited for a pause in the hilarity before speaking. "I’m going to take *my* young man home and tuck him up safe in bed."
Laughing, but not nastily, she left them, returning to the bar and another tray of beers.
"Did she say no?" Jim asked confused. He clung to his beer bottle as if it was a life line. He took a few mouthfuls. Judging from the slow circling of the room there was a definite possibility that he wasn’t going to remember tonight in the morning. At this precise moment in time, that didn’t seem like a bad thing. He was fairly sure, though, that the hangover was going to be of biblical proportions.
Rhudhi uncurled long enough to chortle. "Oh boy, did she say NO."