“Flynn, you’re late.” Sitting behind a desk in his spartan office, Colonel Pick frowns at his watch. Bright sunlight illuminates the room.
Confused by this greeting, I stammer, “Yes Sir.” Then, with barely a moment’s hesitation, add, “No, Sir.” I straighten, confident that I’m actually five minutes early.
“Are you calling me a liar?” Pick stands up, towering over me even though I’m no slouch at six feet. “Because if you are, that’s insubordination. Do you know what happens to soldiers who are insubordinate?” He walks around his desk, ready to give me a full grilling.
“Sir, my watch must be wrong.” I know it’s not because I’ve become a clock watcher lately, ready to quit as soon as my shift hits the hour. “I’ll make that correction.”
Pick grunts in response. I don’t like the way he’s scowling and attacking me. He must know about my dynamite or the HCL. My neck knots up and stomach twists.
“Flynn, I get the feeling you don’t like being in the Army.” Outside the office, drawers slam, no-nonsense voices chatter, and feet retreat, but the Colonel seems oblivious to anything but me. “I had a little chat with Captain Schmidt.” He checks to see how I react. It wasn’t a question, so I stand erect, looking straight ahead.
“What do you think of Schmidt?” he asks, his tone encouraging me to trust him.
I hear every miniscule noise: the fan blowing behind his desk, the swish of a gecko’s tail climbing up the wall, my watch ticking. I swallow to clear my throat and say, “Captain Schmidt is the SOS field director. Sir.” And he’s a fucking bastard, I think to myself.
Inches from my face, Pick circles around me, inspecting my uniform as though any crease out of place will be reason enough for me to get slammed. “That’s not what I asked,” he whispers a hair’s width from my ear. “Soldier, go ahead. You have my permission to speak freely.”
The sun streaking in from the window practically blinds me. What the hell is going on? My mind spins like a whirling roulette wheel waiting for the ball to drop into place. Pick knows how to push my buttons, and he’s jamming them right now. “What do you want me to say? I don’t like the guy. But I’m doing my job. Okay?”
“Not according to Schmidt,” Pick shoots back. “We need soldiers who are team players, not loners.”
I throw my head back a little too defiantly, wanting to brace myself with both hands on my hips in preparation for the next punch, but I don’t move. “Well, if I want to live through this war, it ain’t gonna be because of the likes of Schmidt. Sometimes you just gotta take control of things; otherwise, you’re stuck holding the bomb they’ve left ticking in your hands. Schmidt’s in it for Schmidt. And if there ain’t anything in it, there’s no Schmidt.”
“So you’re the kind of guy who goes off half-cocked, not giving a damn what your supervising officer or anyone else thinks.” Pick mirrors my stand off, still not explaining why exactly I’m here.
I slap the back of the chair in front of me; it tumbles over onto the desk, “If it means survival, yeah.” I wait for another smart-ass remark from Pick, but he just studies me. “I may not always make the right decisions, but I make them. And I own up to them.” As soon as I say this, I think of the girl with the bamboo basket and pray that she’s still alive.
Pick knows he’s got my goat. His thin smile tells me he’s toying with me. “You’re the kind of guy who calls himself a leader, but you just like to defy authority to get attention. If…”
“That’s not true,” I interject. “There’s something wrong here, but nobody cares enough to notice. I like to make things right. I’m good at it. I’ve had to fix problems my whole life.”
Images of the past hit me: my mother hunched over the table so we couldn’t see her fears of eviction; peddling newspapers to condescending businessmen; scrubbing toilets in military school before all my friends, who didn’t have to work for their tuition, arrived.
“So you’ve been in tight spots before?” Pick’s gaze softens; the caring grandfather side of him baits me. “Doesn’t seem like a good place to come from.”
“No, it’s not. But our bad luck is what pushes us forward. And I’ve come a long way.” My jaw clenches; I’m determined not to be trapped.
“Seems to me you have a little difficulty deciding who’s right and who’s wrong. Whose side you’re on and whose head you want to bust open.” He leans against the edge of his desk.
“You’re right. I don’t always know who I can trust. So I don’t trust anybody.”
“Well, then I’m glad we haven’t put a rifle in your hands. You’d probably shoot anything that moved.” The Colonel resumes his authoritative stance and begins circling me again.
“You’re wrong. I respect a gun. It isn’t a toy. It’s a tool.”
“So you’ve used a gun before? How many Japs have you killed?”
“None, Sir. But I grew up on a farm. So I know how to use a gun.” I close my eyes to find strength; memories of dried leaves crunching underfoot as I hunted pheasants back home flash before me. But never have I shot a man.
“You know how to use it, but are you any good?” “Some say I’ve got a talent.”
“They’re jealous.” I grab the fallen chair and slam it back upright. “You sound like you’re a crybaby if others don’t see things your way.” “I don’t cry.” That’s a lie.
“Well, we’ll see about that after I tell you what Schmidt’s recommended.” Colonel Pick’s steely eyes tell me the other shoe is ready to drop. “Got a talent for cleaning toilets? What about digging out latrines, shoveling manure? You’re an old farm hand, after all. Or would you rather be doing what we came here to do: win a war?”
“Give me a gun and the enemy any day. And get Schmidt the fuck out of my life.” “Son, I have always thought I could do everything ten times better than any boss I’ve ever had, and that’s the way it should be. But orders are orders. I’m not sure who you’re fighting, but it should be the Japanese, not us.” The Colonel sits and swivels in his chair, his back facing me. “Pack your bags and get out of here.” I’ve just been dismissed.
“Sir?” I feel like I’ve been pummeled.
He turns around and looks up, extending a paper in his hand. “You have fifteen minutes to get your gear together. They’re waiting for you.”
“Who? Where? Sir.” I reach for the paper, but I can’t focus to read.
“Hunter told me he had a little chat with you on the road.” Pick checks for realization in my eyes. “You just volunteered to join the 53-07th.”
“Provisional?” It comes out as a whisper, a question, disbelief. I don’t know whether to be happy, mad, or scared.
“Their SOS man broke down sobbing, and they haven’t even seen any action. We can’t send them out with somebody they’ve got to babysit. Everyone has to hold his own.” The game’s over. Pick’s smile tells me I passed the test. “Soldier, you’ll have to learn to trust Galahad, or you’ll go home in a box.”
Stilwell bursts into the room—no knock or cordial interruptions—and strides over to Pick, ignoring me like I’m a fixture, not a person. I salute, then turn to leave. As I walk towards the door, I glance back and hesitate.
“I just got the dope on our airboys,” Stilwell says. “They got pounced because the Chinese X Force was caught napping.” The General grimaces, then swipes his fist at an invisible opponent while looking out the window for the next taker. “The Peanut’s men have got a lot of pep when they talk, but they’re cautious movers. What saps. I bawled them out and told them to buck up or get out.”
“So now what?” Pick stands up. Stilwell takes a seat, crosses his legs, then throws back his head in reflection.
“We wait for Galahad.”
The door clicks softly in place behind me.
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