the American Soldier
Thomas was on the front porch, smoking his pipe, when the truck pulled up the dirt road, to park in front of the cabin. He sucked deep one last draw, before stamping out the bowl next to his rocking chair. It was good shire-leaf, from away, and he didnt want to waste it. He felt the last rush to his head from the smoke, the elation making him slightly dizzy, before he looked in regret at the pile of ashes next to the rocker chair. A bit of the other world, wasted now. Impossible to get back.
The man from the truck walked up to him. He was ex-military, that was impossible not to judge, by his walk, if not his general frame. Thomas sighed. It had been a long time since Vietnam, and one hip replacement later he didnt walk so straight. When the kid got closer, Thomas could see the inconsistency, his right leg was prosthetic. A deep shiver passed through Thomas. An ounce of regret, for what was about to happen. Then he forced the smile.
"You must be Conner." He said. "I'm glad y'all could come out."
The kid offered his hand, close enough so that Thomas could see the colorful tattoes, extended from his wrist and dissapearing beneath his t-shirt. "Conner James, sir." The kid said. His grip was firm. "Are you Mr. Cowens?"
"Ya'll can stow that sir crap." Thomas said. "And Mr. Cowens was my daddy. Im just Thomas, if that's all right."
"That's cool, Thomas. I'm Conner James, then." The kid grinned. At one level he was starting to make Thomas sick. The kid was young, tan, and healthy, with dark blonde hair and green eyes. Thomas was pale white these days, with only the occasional blue vein giving him any sort of added color, and what hair there was on his head and chin had faded from grey to white long ago. Was I ever so young? He thought. Maybe. Before sixty-eight, maybe. After that I was old inside, until I matched it out.
"Put your stuff inside." Thomas waved, in the general direction of the screen door. "And get changed up. After that we'll have a little sit-down, you and me, and I'll tell you what's what. And you can tell me about yourself."
"Did you get my facebook messages?"
"That the new internet thing?" Thomas said, and laughed when the kid's face fell. "Ayuh, I got what you wrote. Someone printed the thing off for me, and I read it. I'm not one for computers, mostly. Dont have one in the cabin, and cell phones down work either. Its more or less a dead zone. But I read what you wrote, and I liked it. You wouldnt be here if I didnt."
The kid walked off to the truck, good mood restored. "If I didnt think you had a chance." Thomas continued. He hated himself, for a moment, watching the kid grab two green duffel bags, and hoist them up on his back. Then he turned to go inside.
The kid came out fully dressed in the period attire, which wasnt exactly what Thomas had in mind, but damned if he didnt look the part. "How do you feel?" Thomas asked.
"Not bad." Conner said. "How do I look? I mean, will it pass?"
"Not bad either." Thomas said. "You bought everything from our distributor? Special order?"
Conner nodded. "Jenkins had some of it tailored." He said. "To make it- to make the fit right."
"Ayuh." Thomas nodded. "They see a lot of travel over there-a lot of foreigners. You dont have to look absolute perfect, and you wont- too clean, for one thing, but it wont matter too much." He switched to the common tongue. "But you have to speak the language."
"I'm okay with it." Connor replied, in Common. "I've studied for a year, on your program."
"Have you now." Thomas said, in english this time. "Thats good. You've got an accent, but there are a lot of accents out there. You should fit right in." Thomas looked him up and down again, at the medieval-ish attire, down to the cape, and the sword in its scabbard, at the belt. "How are you with that pig-sticker?" He asked.
Conner drew it with a flourish. Thomas was pleased with the look of the blade, a mostly traditional longsword, with a plain hilt and no ornamentation. He had a fear initially that the kid would bring some guady thing with etchings and dragons that belonged only in a video game.
"I've spent three weeks going over it with Jenkins at..at your farm." Conner said. "Before that, I was part of a medieval reenactment group, back in Texas. I thought I was pretty good, until I met Jenkins, and he kicked my butt all over the place."
Thomas grinned. "Thats what I hired Jenkins for." He said. "He was a military man himself, before spending all his time with a sword. British special air service. I dont know if he mentioned it."
"He didnt." Conner said.
"I didnt find him myself." Thomas said. "The video game people did, but when I got a hold of him, and got my little plan together, I thought how useful he would be. Its paid off in spades."
"Speaking of video game...." Conner brought out a plastic sleeve, and laid it on the table, next to the remains of dinner. Thomas picked it up. He recognized the copy immediatedly. Worlds of Mourn, for the Playstation 3. Game of the Year edition. "I was hoping I could get an autograph."
Thomas did so, signing the cover with a flourish of his pen. "You realize, of course." He said. "That you cant bring this with you."
"I wasnt going to." Conner said. "Its for my nephew. He's an addict."
Thomas handed the game back. "Well, tell him thanks for playing." He said. "Then tell me a little something about yourself."
He had heard Conner's story before, of course. It was why the kid was here, why he had been chosen, out of all the possible applicants. It was still something to hear him tell it. He started with the parents, both dying when he was a teenager. From there it was the perrenial pit stop in a millenials history, nine-eleven. An enlistment in the Marines. A roadside bomb, ending a five year career, on the third tour of Iraq, and taking off Conner's right leg just above the knee.
The story got better and worse. Conner got depressed. Did something stupid with a gun, and a quick call from his wife landed him in a brief stay in a psych ward under suicide watch. Conner got divorced. Got broke. Went to college, and it didnt take. Got into something called Crossfit, and something else called MMA, some sort of fighting and exercise, and both of those did take, but the injury tempered any real competetive drive. Found out about the video game from a website, after wasting most of a month playing World of Warcraft. Loved it. When the "Learn Common to Win." Contest came out, studied for months, before submitting the Youtube vid.
"And what do you think your winning?" Thomas asked.
"Jenkins said it was the real deal, the one time I asked." Conner said.
"And what do you think that means?"
Conner scratched his head. "Ive been thinking about that." He said. "And I think either you've got the greatest LARP group of all time, out here, or you've got some sort of virtual reality stuff. Either way, its an experience, right?"
Thomas nodded. "That it is." He said. "And experience."
Conner's eyes dropped to the table. "I've had a lot of shitty ones." He said. "I dont know if thats normal, at thirty, to look at your past and see a pile of shit. Pardon my language."
Thomas got up to get in the cabinet. "Dont worry about the cussin'." He said. "I was in the Army myself, and it doesnt bother me none. As for the pile of shit, you'd be suprised. I saw things about that way, at your age, and I'll bet you'n me werent the only ones. A couple of them young rock stars, that died out when I was comin up, Janis Joplin and them. They prolly saw it too."
He found the bottle of Jack Daniels and two tumblers, and poured them each two fingers. And then he went into his own story.
In some ways it was a mirror of what the kid had told him. There was Nam, and a divorce, three of them, to be exact. There were jobs that didnt work out. Finally there was the big C, cancer, eating out his lungs and bones after twenty years of cigarettes at two packs a day. Then there was this very cabin, and a loaded shotgun, with no hope left...
"And then I went through that very door there." He pointed to the back of the cabin. "And when I came out, I was in Mourn."
To his credit, the kid did not fall over laughing, or even smirk. It might have had a little to do with how Thomas was looking at him hard in the face. "What do you think about that?" Thomas snapped, despite himself.
"Its..." Conner was struggling. "I guess..its the kind of story I wish I could tell, right now."
"Are you ready, then?" Thomas asked. A thrill of excitement ran down Conner's back.
"Sure." He said. "Lets do it."
Thomas brought up the leather bag, that had been sitting next to him. "This should be enough to get you started." He said. He brought out a small book, with parchment pages. A map was folded up in the front. Thomas drew it out. It was Mourn, beautifully detailed. Thomas brought out a coin purse, and shook several pieces out. He held up a small bronze piece. "An urn." He said. "Ten urns to a jot." The next piece was square, and square. "Ten jots to a talent." He said. "If you get one, make sure its silver, and not tin."
"How can I tell?" Conner asked.
"Bite it." Thomas said. "Tin will bend, and silver wont." He held up one more coin. It was unmistakably gold, circular with a square hole in the center. "A talent." He said. "Never pay in talents for anything besides horses, property, or well made weapons. Try not to pay that much at all. Haggle whenever you can. Most vendors expect it."
Thomas took out one last item. It was a letter written in parchment, sealed with red wax. "When you come out on the other side of the door, walk straight until you get to the road." Thomas said. "If you take it left, its ten miles to Winterhill, a good mid sized city. If you take it right, its forty miles that leads to wilderness, and forest, and cold, frozen tundra." Thomas shivered. "Its a long way, if you go right. So take it left. When you get to the city, head to the Carls seat and ask to see Octavian. You wont be admitted right away, but my letter should get you in. Your story, when you see Octavian, is that your Lord Griffen's natural son, from the southlands, and you seek to make your fortune. Have you got that?"
"Griffens son." Connor said. "Turn left. Carls seat and letter. Got it."
"Remember." Thomas said. "His natural son. Make sure you put that bit in." He got up, and took the bottle of Jack with him, taking a long swig. When he came back it was with a piece of greyish brown fur.
"Put this under your cloak." Thomas said. "Mourn gets cold, dont forget."
Conner grimaced. "It got cold in Iraq, once or twice." He said. "It actually snowed, if you believe it. I havent seen a lot of snow, since I moved to Texas."
"You'll get your fill." Thomas rubbed his eyes. "Shit. What am I forgetting? Oh right, your leg."
"What about it?" Conner asked.
"Modern things dont work." Thomas said. "Not on the other side of the door. I tried it once with a gun, and it didnt fire. I took the bullets apart and tried to light the powder with a match, and it just fizzled."
"My leg isnt a gun."
"No." Thomas said. "But theres a chance that- I dont know- the springs could burst apart. The frame could rot out. I'm not sure.
Conner looked thoughtful. "There isnt really anything complicated to it." He said. The frame is carbon fiber. I'll risk it." Thomas felt guilty for bringing it up. Of course he would risk it. What other choice did the kid have? Hobble ten miles on a wooden crutch?
"Right." Thomas said. "Are you ready?"
He hobbled over to the back door of the cabin. Bringing out the small, metal key. Putting it in the lock. Already he could feel the chill coming from the door.
"Wait." Conner said.
A sinking feeling came over Thomas' stomach. He's going to say, dont do it, he thought.
"What happened to your cancer?" Conner asked.
"Cured it." Thomas lied. "Full remission." He turned the key and swung open the door, and Conner's eyes went wide. The woods painted white with snow. Everything large and in color, somehow more of it, then through the front door. The world of Mourn.
"Good luck." Thomas said, and, resting a hand on Conner's shoulder, pushed him through, the kid staggered, and then Thomas swung the door shut, and locked it. He walked away as quickly as he could, hating himself. He poured Jack Daniels into the tumbler until it overflowed the brim, and then he tossed it back, down his throat. Whiskey spilled down the front of his shirt. How much time had he bought with this? Another year? Three months? He shivered, waiting.
Out of the corner of his eye, a shadow moved, with a pale face.
"Its done." Thomas said. "He's on his way."
"we know." The shadow hissed. "We see everything."
Thomas grew angry. "This ones good." He said. "He might make it."
The shadow laughed, and the sound made Thomas sick to his stomach. "Is that what you think?" It said. "Doesss that help you ssleep at night?" It moved behind his chair, and the presence made Thomas want to run outside, screaming. "Iss he asss good as you, Thomasss?"
"How much longer do I have?" Thomas whispered, afraid. He turned around, and screamed, "How much longer!" But the shadow was already gone, and the kid was gone, and he was alone, in a cabin in the woods.