Chapter five – A day at the base
One more chapter after this and then things are going to start getting really very serious!
The little ball soared across the table, through the rows of wooden mini-players and fell into the hole with a loud clattering sound. Yurick, standing on one end of the football table, let out a cheer for himself.
‘Oh, yeah! I rock at this game!’
‘Aw, fudge. I lost again?’ Derek sighed, pretending to be annoyed. ‘There’s no way a rookie like you can beat a pro like me at this. You’re cheating, aren’t you?’
‘What’s with the rookie phrase, oldtimer?’ Yurick snickered. ‘I’ll have you know that I used to be the king of football tables. Don’t play the game if you’re a sore loser, Derek!’
‘Ha! I’ll show you,’ Derek laughed. ‘Prepare to be grinded into the dust!’
He fetched the ball from the hole in the table and threw it back in, resuming their game. Soon the two were completely drawn into their fight, kicking the little wooden ball around with such strength that it almost flew out of the table a few times. At the other end of the room, Tybalt and Hao were entwined in a much less violent game of chess. They paid little attention to what was happening at the football table, until Derek spoke up again.
‘Dude, what’s with the fancy suit, anyway? I thought we had the day off to relax. Why’d you squeeze yourself into something like that?’
Yurick frowned and looked up from the game to answer his question.
‘I didn’t “squeeze myself in”. The army uniform is nice and all, but it’s too baggy! Every once in a while I just want to look like a proper gentleman.’
‘Right,’ Tybalt grinned from the corner. ‘And that’s why your shirt is buttoned wrongly and your sleeves aren’t rolled up to the same size. Because you’re so used to being a gentleman.’
‘Oh, shut up.’
Yurick made a face at his squad mate. He then tried to secretly pull his right sleeve up a bit, failed utterly and eventually decided to direct his attention back to the football table, where Derek was busy catching up with his score.
‘Hey, man, no fair! I was distracted!’
‘Ha! If you’re a sore loser, don’t play the game.’
‘Really though, Yurick,’ Tybalt said with a grin, not taking his eyes off the chess board, ‘what’s with the dress-up? Do you have a date, or something?’
‘Of course not. I told you, I just want to wear a suit every once in a while!’
‘No man wears fancy clothes without wanting to catch someone´s eye,’ Hao said. ‘Who are you trying to impress, Yurick? The girls over at the infirmary? Or… The captain, maybe?’
Yurick’s cheeks turned a shade of pink almost instantly.
‘Bull’s eye, eh?’ Tybalt snickered, moving another piece on his side of the chess board. Yurick’s cheeks turned from pink to dark purple.
‘I wish you good luck with that one, though. She’s not like the other women around here. It’s like trying to flirt with a brick wall! No response at all.’
‘You’ve noticed it, too?’ Hao said, in a much more serious tone than he was talking a few seconds ago. His face was stuck in a frown and his hand grasped a single chess piece, but he let it hang in the air motionlessly.
‘What do you mean?’
‘The captain- she never shows her emotions. And I don’t mean responding to Tybalt’s lousy pick-up lines. She doesn’t show any emotion at all. Just think about it- when is the last time you’ve seen her smile in the last six weeks?’
Tybalt put his own chess pieces aside and frowned as well, remembering their last few missions and training sessions. They’d been sent out in the field a lot, for hunting missions as well as cover-ups and break-ins into possible hideouts. Raven Adams had led them splendidly, but more and more Tybalt was getting the feeling that the young woman was missing something… Something important.
‘Well, that would be…’
‘Never,’ Hao finished his sentence. By now, none of them were playing games anymore. ‘There’s something weird about her. Do you remember the time when that vampire came at us from the tiles in the floor? She was the one closest to it, and she didn’t even flinch. It’s like the woman isn’t scared of anything.’
‘Oh, but that’s just not true,’ Tybalt said, getting up from his chair. His mouth was wrapped into a smile and there was a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. ‘Everyone’s afraid of something. You just have to find it.’
He was about to divert his attention back to the chess board, when his eyes seemed to light up and a much bigger smile crossed his lips.
‘I just thought of something fun. Do you guys feel up to a challenge?’
‘Oh no, not me,’ Hao said, who knew where his squad mate was going right away. ‘I’m out. She’ll skin us alive if we do that.’
‘Do what?’ Yurick and Derek said, walking closer with curiosity on their faces. ‘What did you think of?’
‘Let’s play a game,’ Tybalt continued, still grinning. ‘We have one more day off after this. Plenty of time to give it a try. We’ll call it… “Find the Captain’s weak spot”!’
Derek walked around the football table and joined the two men near the chess board. On his face, too, was a mischievous smile.
‘That must be the worst idea you’ve had in weeks, Tybalt. I’m in. This is going to be great.’
‘Leave it to you to think of something like that,’ Yurick said, disapproval overflowing in his voice. ‘Just so you know, I’m not doing this.’
‘Such a shame,’ Tybalt snickered to the other two, as Yurick turned around and walked away. ‘He’s missing out for sure. Seeing how a person only show weakness to the people they’re close with…’
He stopped dead in his tracks when Tybalt said that. Eventually, after which seemed like an eternity, Yurick turned around.
‘Fine. I’m in. What are the rules?’
And that is how it happened. While Hao retreated back into the barracks to stay out of trouble, Yurick, Tybalt and Derek put their heads together and started thinking of ideas. Before long, a whole plan of action was conjured up.
And with that, the game began…
‘I still don’t understand why you want to go with me.’
It was sundown, and I was on my way to the armoury to check on things there. A group of new recruits had been training near the armoury for most of the afternoon, and new recruits tended to leave things behind in a mess. I’d just passed the front gate when Yurick and Tybalt, both in casual clothing, had come up to me and asked if they could join me on my walk.
Behind me, I could see Tybalt and Yurick briefly looking at each other. Tybalt made an almost invisible nod to his squad mate, after which they both sped up their walking a little until they were right behind me.
‘Did you know, Chief?’ Yurick said, in a soft and low voice that was a complete opposite of how he normally sounded. ‘Before the army built its base here, this place used to be a cemetery. Apparently, the people that were buried here, date all the way back to the time when pyramids were built.’
‘Some say that, as a punishment for defiling the holy burial site, a witch has cursed this land just after the army came here,’ Tybalt continued to my right. ‘They say she connected with the Gate between Life and Death and allowed the souls of the dead to return to the place they were buried once every few years… at sundown.’
The two men got even closer to me as we walked down the path to the armoury, with the last glimpses of the setting sun in our backs. Soon, the last light of day had disappeared behind the hills and the darkness of night closed in.
‘They say that, during that time, the souls of the dead people come back looking for victims… to drag back into the realm of the dead with them forever!’ Tybalt finished, speaking with a spooky voice. I sighed and shook my head.
‘You guys don’t think there’s actually people believing in that story, do you?’ I spoke back over my shoulder. We’d finally reached the end of the path; the two iron fences were all that separated us from the armoury.
‘I’ll tell you right now. Ghosts and people returning from the dead don’t exist.’
With that, I stepped further firmly and pushed open the fenced gate in front of me. I was just about to walk through and enter the armoury, when something moved to my left. Before any of us could flinch, something big and grey jumped out at me.
My body reacted before my mind had time to think. In a reflex, I launched my right foot in front of me and stomped against the chest of the thing that had come out of the corner. My hard, heavy army boot came into contact with the thing and sent it flying into the back fence, just before I realized it was Derek, wearing a thick layer of make-up and a very fake-looking mummy outfit.
He slammed into the ground with a loud THUD that sounded like it really had to hurt. I stared at him, baffled. What on plumbob was he doing in clothing like that?
Then I remembered who had wanted to come with me so badly. I slowly turned around to them, giving the two men a deadly stare.
‘What is the meaning of this?’
‘We… we just… this is not what you think, Chief,’ Yurick said nervously.
‘No? Then what is it?’
‘Ah… well, this is… uhh…’
‘He’s just… practicing his act for… the play?’ Tybalt mumbled. Derek shot him a deadly look.
‘Yes… a play, for the, uhh, annual military theatre show… or something. Right, Yurick?’
‘R-right!’ Yurick said, trying to laugh naturally but utterly failing. ‘That’s what it is. See, Chief?’
‘Oh, I see. You’re all cleaning the barracks tonight.’
After that first failed try, the men became more subtle with their attempts at scaring Raven. They were in a race against the clock, but also against each other, and tried everything they could think of. It all came by.
Acrophobia was first on their list.
‘So, umm… Chief, do you… mind standing here?’
‘I don’t. Now go away. I’m sure you have something better to do than follow me around like this.’
Yes! Let’s leave. Quick. Please. Let’s go down!’
Then, as the fifth try, came Ophidiophobia…
‘GAH!! KEEP THAT HORRIBLE THING AWAY FROM ME!!!’
Followed, as the thirteenth and final try, by hoplophobia.
‘Derek Mitchell. I swear, I will break your neck if you do not lower your weapon. This. Instant.’
In the end, none of their scaring techniques worked. Derek, Tybalt and Yurick slowly got more demotivated as time went by, and eventually, on the second evening, they just gave up. Defeated, all three of them retreated into the recreation room. They let themselves sink down on the couch and sighed. No one even thought of turning on the television. A long silence fell among the three men.
‘…well, this sucks,’ Yurick said, eventually.
‘What a waste of time.’
They sighed again, simultaneously.
‘I guess we found out why she’s such a good captain, though,’ Derek shrugged. ‘She fails as a woman for not having any fears.’
Another silence. Eventually, Tybalt was the one who spoke up.
‘So… what do we do now?’
That evening, I went out on my final walk of the day. Not another patrol, but a regular walk around the base. Yurick, Tybalt and Derek had stalked me around all afternoon, behaving as anything but themselves, and it had gotten to be quite annoying after a while. Just an hour ago I’d finally gotten rid of them, after less than subtle hints for the men to get lost.
Now the sun had set, the military camp was at peace now that everyone had either gone to sleep or was at the recreation building. The ground were pretty much abandoned.
I was on my own again.
Or maybe not. Just as I turned the corner and wanted to head back to my barrack, I saw Hao standing close to the barracks entrance, next to a group of bushes. He was facing away from me and the way he had his arms positioned hinted at the fact that he was carrying something.
‘You’re out late, Hao,’ I said, walking up to him. ‘What are you doing?’
I walked up next to him and cast a glance over his shoulder. A middle-sized, brown-spotted snake was curled around his wrist. I backed up a little, wary for the chance that it would start biting, but the snake seemed perfectly comfortable on Hao’s arm.
‘Evening, m’am,’ he greeted me.
‘What are you doing with that snake?’ I asked.
‘Tybalt gave it to me. He said he’d found it near the camp and wanted to try scaring- I mean, to try and sell it at a pet shop. But I felt sorry for it, so I let him give it to me.’
He brought his hand up to the creature’s head and gently stroked the snake skin. The little snake seemed to like it; its tongue came flashing in and out and when Hao pulled back his fingers, the snake followed.
‘You’re pretty good with animals,’ I noticed.
‘You just have to know where to pet them. But I’m more impressed by you, m’am. I thought women hated snakes, honestly.’
He sunk through his knees and brought the hand with the snake to the ground, allowing the creature to slowly slip off his wrist.
‘There you go, little guy. Don’t get caught again.’
Within seconds, the little snake had reached the bushes and disappeared between the leaves, leaving no trace that it’d even been there. Hao stood up again and brushed the dirt off of his pants, after which he diverted his gaze back to me.
‘Say… would you mind if I asked you a question, m’am? Speaking off-duty, I mean.’
‘I’ll allow it. Go ahead,’ I said giving Hao a short nod.
‘The truth is… we’re a bit baffled by you, m’am. We have been since the beginning. You’re a woman, but you’re also our captain, and you have more man in you than most of the regular soldiers I know.’
I bowed my head slightly, accepting his compliment.
‘But,’ he continued, ‘because you’re all that combined, it’s proving really hard to figure you out. You never show us any emotion, m’am. I don’t know why, and it’s really not my place to ask. But I can’t help but wonder… we want to get to know you, m’am. You’ve told us to trust you before, but how can we do that if you never show us who you are?’
I looked at Hao. Really looked at him. In all of the years that I’d been in the army, no one had ever approached me as personally as this. He was out of line, quite a lot, actually, but for some reason it didn’t bother me. He was not being disrespectful. Hao genuinely wanted to know more about me.
That’s when I noticed. He reminded me of something… or someone. They all did, even Derek. I frowned and tried to think of who, but the wall I’d built up in my mind blocked me from finding out.
‘It’s really bothering us, m’am. We don’t know anything about you, and you never lower your guard so we can let you get to know us. That’s why those three have been following you around all day. They- no, we… tried to find something that you’re afraid of. At least then we could get to know you a bit better. But I guess it’s impossible, after all.’
I diverted my gaze from Hao to one of the bushes around us, wondering how I should respond. That was right. My defence was too tight after that early spring. People hadn’t gotten close to me anymore since then. But, even though all that had happened… just letting them know a little bit… wouldn’t hurt, right?
‘I’m not an open person, Hao. Not anymore. I can’t be, with the direction I’ve taken in life. But, if you want to know so badly-‘
‘I guess you can go back to those three and tell them I’m afraid of thunderstorms.’
With that, I turned my back on my underling and walked away.
‘M’am… thank you.’