Biggs decided the best thing about life in the cell was that he was no longer hungry. He looked down at the disgusting concoction one last time and was satisfied with just one bite. He couldn’t imagine eating again anytime soon. If he ever got home, he promised to find a way to get this repulsive recipe in print and sold off as the next hot weight loss routine. He tossed the bowl of misery into the corner where it came to a rest in a pile with several earlier dishes. It was incredible the muck hadn’t changed consistency over the past couple of days. More disheartening, the large cockroach-like creatures that shared the cell found the slop less appetizing than he did. Biggs figured if a roach wouldn’t eat something, he should steer clear with extreme prejudice.
The food may have been wretched, but in a strange way he found the cell kind of cozy. This reaction was probably just a defense mechanism against the insanity he’d been faced with since the assault on Rudolph’s compound. It was cemetery quiet and the lone guard barely ever checked on him. Even still, escape was unlikely as the walls were thick stone and the door was heavy iron. The jail was clearly meant to hold more daunting prisoners than him, so he was likely going to be in residence for a while.
After not eating another fine meal, Biggs reasoned it was time to rattle his cage. Unfortunately, the only thing to be rattled was a six-inch by six-inch barred window in the door. Maybe a little gusto would get some answers, he thought. Biggs screamed, “Hey! I need to know what’s up!”
A guard dressed in a dark leather uniform almost immediately appeared on the other side of the door. He somehow looked tired, annoyed, and bored all at once. Before Biggs could say anything further, he was staggered by a sharp shot to the face from a baton. He lost his balance and crashed to the floor, again. On this occasion, he didn’t bother getting up and just slid back against the wall. He pawed at his bloody mouth for a quick dental check. Thankfully, no teeth came loose, since his mother would be incensed if his doctor-built smile was ruined.
The guard spat, “Tamarrow!”
Did he just speak English, thought Biggs. Unfortunately, the guard was long gone before any small talk could be attempted. Now he could only wonder if “tamarrow” meant a trial, freedom, or perhaps something worse. If it was a trial, he hoped some sort of public defender could help with the language barrier. He was always good at talking his way out of trouble. All it would take was an opportunity to tell his side, but they’d have to understand him.
He respected his commanding officer, but Winter clearly needed to lighten up. Come to think of it, he thought, lack of a sense of humor was a real problem in the world. He remembered a time in middle school when a kid punched him in the nose without provocation just because of some constant ribbing. A similar incident happened in high school, but she beat him bloody. He rubbed his nose which was still crooked. He wished Winter and a few other people had a sense of humor. He’d have a lot less problems today if people could just take a joke.
The dilapidated bed would probably be slightly more comfortable, but he was pretty certain it would be a needless expense of energy. In the end, bleeding from the mouth and holding up the wall was the thing to do. Within moments, Biggs trailed off into fitful sleep.
* * *
Instead of dreaming, Biggs relived the past. Seeing the fist flying towards his face was bad, but the splatter of blood that shot all over the limo was worse. The blood gushed from his nose, ruined his tuxedo and splattered all over his girlfriend, Megan. Partying was out, and the rest of the night was all about hysterics and screaming. The prom was ruined and his relationship was over. Who would have guessed one little fat joke would have led to such a terrible moment! He had always found fat jokes pretty funny.
His mind flashed to a couple of days later. His father screamed, “What do you mean you enlisted!”
Biggs couldn’t believe how angry his father was.
“I fought in Vietnam and it was literally hell! I survived and built a life, so you’d never have to fight for a living.”
Biggs wiped a tear from his eye. He couldn’t help but wonder how he could be in the military when some yelling brought him to tears.
“You had so many options, but you’ve locked yourself into a path you can’t change! Did you do it because of that trashy girl?”
“Yeah, I guess. I screwed everything up and looked like a fool in front of my friends. It made me think about killing myself for a minute but that was stupid. I figured the military might straighten me out. Plus, I can think about school afterwards.”
Biggs’ dad nodded and his facial expressions softened a bit. He reached down and turned up the radio in the car. They both sat quietly listening to the ball game. This brought him back to the simpler days of childhood when they listened to baseball on the radio many summer evenings. Biggs’ father believed in the power of the radio to experience a sporting event. He felt like television stunted one’s imagination. Listening to the announcers break down the game and its strategies forced you to fill in the blanks. The tension dropped in the car as they focused on the action.
Finally, his dad broke the silence. “Phil, it was your reason for joining the army that ticked me off. The military offers opportunities but enlistment isn’t a decision you make spur of the moment. Your life is about to change—drastically!”
Biggs shrugged. “I realize that a hell of lot more now. I leapt into something, but I’m going to take responsibility for my choice.”
His dad nodded in agreement. “That’s all anyone can do.”
* * *
Biggs lifted his head as the iron door slowly opened. Two strapping guards made it clear he was to come with them. Biggs slowly pulled himself up and attempted to shake off the grogginess from last night’s fall. He rubbed at his nose and yelped as his sleeve tugged some congealed blood.
While they walked through the stone hallway, Biggs’ thoughts drifted to his father. They spoke on the phone the night before the mission, and he seemed proud of what his son had accomplished thus far in his short career. The last thing he told his dad was that he loved him. At least those weren’t bad words to end on, if they never were able to speak again. He was proud to serve, yet the longer he spent in the prison, Biggs was haunted by that decision made in depression.
As they neared a large steel door at the end of the hallway, he wondered if this was the end of the line. What was behind that door? Could it be a firing squad, gallows, or an electric chair? Was he about to be tortured? A couple of steps from the door, the guard on the right walked ahead and slowly pulled out a key. The ancient-looking key squeaked as it turned in the lock. With a mighty tug, the door opened and he was blinded by daylight.
* * *
Spratt couldn’t help but obsess over his inaction in the moments before Winter pounced on Biggs. The youngster had tested the major repeatedly. He saw her reaction coming, yet didn’t do anything to stop it. If he had, maybe his teammates wouldn’t be stuck in cells waiting for a sentence to be passed down. Spratt remained safely huddled behind an inn on the edge of town. He assumed the townsfolk didn’t arrest him since he wasn’t involved in the scuffle. He had essentially left him to his own devices. For two insufferable days, Spratt had laid in wait. He knew the area pretty well, but he didn’t see much chance in freeing his friends.
The people of Kiro built things to last. The houses were mostly wood and other plant-based materials, although some of the public buildings integrated a bit of stonework. The prison was a solid structure on the edge of the eastern side of the town. The area was surrounded by a fifteen-foot high wall of stone. He’d need some serious explosives or a bulldozer to get through. He thought about heading back into the forest and trying to find the giants that took their weapons. The thought of leaving worried him, since he didn’t want to miss his teammates’ releases on some sort of a fool’s errand.
The jail itself was difficult to see over the wall, but it appeared to be a small stone structure that was built into the side of the jade mountain. There was no telling if the structure stretched deep into the mountain, but the people of Kiro again showed their smarts by building a jail with a mountain as a backing. He could only wonder what type of monsters or people were housed inside of those walls. A couple of workers came from inside the walls each day, and there had been one small delivery of fresh food on a cart. Impregnable perhaps, but it definitely didn’t seem to be a massive operation.
He unobtrusively cased the area three times a day to pick up the routines. There were five-hour shifts and always two guards armed with wicked looking spears at the entrance. The guards were physically imposing and impressive looking, but the million dollar question remained: Were they well trained? The men were watchful and seemed to have an idea that Spratt was planning something. How much time did Winter and Biggs have? Would they be freed eventually? So many questions continued to weigh upon his mind.
Pondering plans that seemed doomed to failure forced a decided melancholy on him. Life felt as if it would never return to normal, and it made him think back to the death of his granddad. Other than his parents, there wasn’t anyone else he loved more than him. He remembered how hopeless life seemed to be when he lost the man that taught him so much. They’d never again get to spend time building in his workshop or plant the yearly garden in the backyard. Worst of all, Spratt knew he would miss his Granddad’s amazing stories of World War II. He didn’t grow up as a war buff, but something about the heroic stories kept him spellbound each time they were told.
His entire life was a vague morass of what-the-hell right now. Perhaps it was an overly simplistic view, but he longed for a time like his grandfather’s where a goal was so clear. The Axis was trying to take over the world and the Allies were all that stood in their way. It would be easy to look at it as a battle of good against evil. His granddad didn’t make the Germans a faceless group of evil. He once said many of those he fought were normal people from regular hometowns just like him. The loss of life was cataclysmic and many of his friends and relatives never returned from Europe. He was proud of his accomplishments, but his life was never the same once he set foot in Europe. His time overseas was a life-altering experience.
The many questions that Spratt asked were answered in an honest, but age-appropriate manner—All but one. When Spratt asked his grandfather if he killed anyone during the war, the question went unanswered. Granddad didn’t snap or become surly at the awful question. He stood quietly for a few moments in the garage and then simply changed the subject. Spratt understood that day that his granddad had taken lives during the course of the war, but it was many years before he was mature enough to understand why he wouldn’t talk about it.
Spratt did almost everything imaginable in the six years after he graduated high school and before joining the Army. He managed a toy store, worked as a courier, toiled in an office, and even did some computer work. None of it made him happy. A satisfying job seemed totally out of reach. Over the years, Spratt kept thinking about a career in the military, but fought the impulse because he didn’t want to kill people. He struggled to become an adult, and nothing made sense for a long while.
Finally, while visiting his grandfather’s grave, the reason for becoming a soldier crystallized. He realized all those years later, the taking of life during war wasn’t a joke to his grandfather. His grandfather wasn’t out to kill people; he only wanted to keep his country safe. The feeling gnawed at him for a few weeks and it developed into a calling. That’s what Spratt wanted to do. There was now a chance to have a fulfilling career and help change the world. If he was forced to kill, it would only be because it was necessary. He could live with that just like his grandfather had.
After nearly a decade, Spratt had engaged his share of enemies and ended the lives of a good number. Unlike some of his compatriots, he never spoke lightly of those he killed. Some, not all, of his friends bragged about the number of guys they’d bagged or offed. Not him. Not ever. Spratt knew, or at least he was pretty certain, of the deaths he brought about. In fact, most of the faces or at least the moments in time were forever etched in his psyche. It wouldn’t be hard to go back and count up the deaths and know the exact number. He never would, though.
He didn’t kill unnecessarily in combat, but each death still haunted him. There were times he wondered if some of the men he killed could have been his friend under different circumstances. More importantly, the lives he took kept him thinking, always ready for the next surprise on a mission. Spratt knew most of the people he fought didn’t want to die. The difference between life and death in a firefight was often thousandths of a second. He wanted every advantage possible when his job came to battle.
What made the situation in Kiro worse was having no clue who the enemy was. These people seemed like decent folk that cared about their community and only wanted the best for their family. Should he try to rescue his friends, people would more than likely die! He just had to bide his time and find another way.
A cracking sound took his attention from the jail to the outskirts of town. The Big Foot contained in the corral was smashing his massive fists into the wooden mesh. The creature was scary when it just stared at them, but in a full frenzy the beast was terrifying. Spratt hadn’t seen the beast this excited before. It growled at a traveler occasionally but generally lay about and did very little. He couldn’t fathom what could cause such madness in its eyes. The fence didn’t give way all at once; there were a handful of sickening seconds to watch, and know, what was about to occur. Finally, the wood started to splinter then erupted all around the town square. For a moment, the creature stood unsure what to do next, then freedom dawned on its brain.
The beast moved with far greater speed than Spratt thought possible. Unlike any animal he’d ever seen, it stood erect and bounded toward the town square. The two guards broke from their posts and intercepted the creature’s progress. Their tactics may have lacked military precision, but both men fought like banshees. They barked in their language then heroically waved the women and children behind them. Most importantly, they were preventing the Big Foot from attacking others. Spratt couldn’t fathom fighting against such a noble group of individuals. Several more men joined in and poked at the beast with their spears.
The chaos opened the entire area in front of the jail’s entrance. Spratt assessed the battle from a distance. For all of the creature’s might, the guards’ combined assault seemed to be gaining the upper hand. All eyes were on the conflict save one pair. A frail old man, dressed in a baggy white cloak, stood on the far side of the square watching Spratt intently.
“Why’s this old coot staring at me,” whispered Spratt. He then pointed towards the action while smirking at the old man.
The old man looked at the carnage and returned the smirk. He stretched his arm out and smiled warmly. Spratt followed the man’s arm position to the unguarded prison gate. It was almost as if the old man was beckoning him to go inside. Spratt thought it might be a trap, but there was no sense worrying about that. He wondered if the old man could be on their side. The opening was there and hesitation was not a viable solution.
Spratt darted fifty yards to the jailhouse door. He looked back and almost felt bad that the guards were still engaged with Big Foot. Everyone’s attention, except the old man’s, was on the action. He again made eye contact with the man who just smiled, nodded, and ambled away.
Spratt reached for the door, and suddenly was worried it would be locked. All worries faded and Spratt grabbed the door. It opened soundlessly. Spratt darted into the unknown.
* * *
Winter flipped the first guard over her shoulder and spun around catching the second with a perfectly placed elbow to the bridge of his ample nose. The guard that took the elbow was unconscious before he hit the ground of the hallway; unfortunately the other was just getting back to his feet. Winter ended his chances with a knee to the jaw.
Only slightly out of breath, she stared down at the unconscious men and thought she might have been a bit rough on the pair. The sorrow for the two faded when she realized her whereabouts were unknown and the destination these two were bringing her was in more doubt. They weren’t dead or even permanently injured, but they would be incapacitated long enough for her to get moving. It was most pleasing that the ruckus apparently hadn’t alerted anyone else. This had been the perfect beginning to her escape.
Perfection was something Winter was used to in her military life, but not in everyday existence. She hoped the craziness that was playing out would start to veer back towards the standard of her spotless career. Unfortunately, the way things were looking, her military and family lives were now equally imperfect.
The brief battle had happened at a t-junction, so she looked up and down the long corridor. There were no other guards, but neither direction looked better than the other. The area was lit by dingy torches, so she could barely see the iron door on either end. Her mind ran away as she became certain the corridor symbolized the divergent paths of life. A crossroads ran through her mind where one way led to perfection–her military side. The other door quite possibly would drop her into still more chaos–family life.
After a moment, Winter realized that she was acting exceedingly illogical. If that kept up, only chaos would find her. Not because she thought it was destined or anything silly like that, but because she was acting the fool. She had to trust Uncle Sam’s training and make a choice. Winter rushed down the corridor to the right. She had no clear reasoning for the decision with the exception that further contemplation would probably cause the opportunity to evaporate. She always believed the key to strength was never rethinking your decisions.
As she ran up the eerily quiet hallway, a decision she made a little over a year ago strained her focus. Although it was almost 365 days and an insane trip away, the screaming voice of her husband of fifteen years reverberated in her mind.
“Come on, Mary. Take the post at Fort Polk!”
“Don’t pressure me, Jesse!”
“Can’t deal with pressure that doesn’t involve killing people!”
Mary placed her hands on her hips and shot a defiant look at her husband. “Wow! Strong words for a writer.”
This was the age-old argument with the couple. Jesse Winter refused to give up his journalistic career to follow his wife around as what he deemed an “Army brat husband.” Jesse hated the gypsy lifestyle and the constant shift was preventing him from finding the big story. It was a copout of sorts, especially in the day of the information superhighway, but that was the way he felt. Blaming a spouse for your own issues, be it unfair, was easy. Jesse screamed, “You’ve put your life at risk enough! You promised you’d retire when you hit twenty years. This job as an instructor is a perfect common ground.”
“Are you insane, I’m thirty-eight! That’s decades before most people retire!”
“It’s not retirement. You’d be teaching.”
“I command an elite unit, so teaching would be retirement!”
“Our son deserves to settle in to one place too,” Jesse’s body language signaled he was about to give in.
The adrenaline was pumping through Winter’s body like she was on the battlefield. She couldn’t help feeling great because her husband was obviously ready to buckle. It made her sorry she always got her way in the end, but not too sorry. She was a natural fighter and decision maker in her vocation, so she thought it was her duty to make all the big decisions at home too.
At last, though, the conflict turned unexpectedly. Jesse was no longer willing to back down, and he wasn’t willing to offer up any compromise. “Then, it’s over, Mary.”
Winter was certain she hadn’t heard Jesse correctly. She played things coyly to give herself a moment’s delay. “I’m glad you’re ready to end this useless debate.”
Jesse’s face went pink with rage. “Not the debate!” He took the television remote and threw it across the room. “This thing we call a marriage! I’m not following you around anymore. Steven and I are moving to New York. Feel free to come back whenever you outgrow camouflage.”
They argued deep into the night, but nothing further came of it. It was the first life decision her husband had made in a long time. He kept his promise and Winter barely spoke to him since. She made an effort to stay in contact with her son, although she usually failed miserably. She even missed calling Steven on his birthday two weeks before the mission against Rudolph.
The familial isolation gnawed at her now that she was separated from her companions in this hellish place. The walls of loneliness were closing so tightly, it hurt to breathe. Whatever was beyond the iron doorway was going to be the start of a new life. She couldn’t continue to be completely cut off from everyone. Even if she reunited with Spratt and Biggs, that wasn’t enough anymore.
Winter grabbed the iron ring that served as a handle and took a deep breath. She solemnly promised to get back to Jesse and Steven. This place wouldn’t beat her and stubbornness wouldn’t ruin her life. It was time to have a life with the ones that she loved.
The other side of the door was the start of her path back, but it was going to be a very long one.