Jared stared at the television in disbelief. Surely he was hallucinating. Surely he was misreading the letters on the screen as “Jared Henderson” when really they meant someone else. Surely his mother’s cries and screams were an overreaction to this mistake. It was a mistake, wasn’t it?
Jared had been drafted.
“Th-that can’t be right,” his mother sobbed. “It can’t…”
Mary leaned over, a look of sad calm on her face. Without her, mother would have gone to pieces long ago. “It is right, mom. I’m sorry, but Jared’s been drafted.” She shot him a pitying look. He was too numb to respond. “He’ll be fine. He’s fit and smart. He’ll be okay.”
Jared barely registered his mother’s response as he stood and headed to his room. He moved as if in a daze, not fully registering what had happened. He had been drafted. Jared’s room was dark and cold as he stepped inside. He didn’t bother with the lights. He was moving on autopilot.
Slumping down in his desk chair, Jared flipped open his laptop. His fingers moved without conscious thought, opening QuestMaster Pro. He didn’t load the game, but, instead, opened the message board for his small company of friends. He didn’t want to audio chat. Not now.
Jaaran: I’ve been drafted. I’m to report tomorrow morning, so I guess this is goodbye.
Koromosa: Same… Sorry, Jaaran.
Gailik: Me too.
Jaaran: Sorry, guys. I was hoping you’d say differently.
There was a brief pause before a new message came in.
Noir: Um… I was drafted too.
Noir: I…I don’t know. I guess I’ll report tomorrow and they’ll sort it out? It has to be a mistake.
Jaaran: Yeah, probably. Hopefully.
Gailik: What do you think it’ll be like?
Koromosa: Like real life QuestMaster. Only with guns instead of swords. And people as the enemies.
Jaaran: Sounds like hell.
Gailik: Probably will be.
Noir: Even if I don’t go, I’ll miss you guys.
Koromosa: Yeah, same.
Jaaran: You guys are my best friends. I hope…when we all come back…
Gailik: Yeah. We’ll come back. We’ll come back just for this.
Jaaran: I have things to get ready, I guess. I probably won’t be able to come back on… So I guess, goodbye?
Gailik: For now.
Koromosa: For now.
Noir: For now.
Before he could change his mind, Jared closed his laptop with a snap. The glow which was lighting up his face was gone, and he sat in darkness. He smiled softly. “Goodbye, for now.”
╼ ╽ ╾╼ ╽ ╾╼ ╽ ╾╼ ╽ ╾
Jared’s palms were sweaty as he inched forward in line. One more step. One foot in front of the other. Jared glanced around at the other boys, some looking nervous, others just sad. It suddenly hit him that half of the people in this room might not make it back. His breathing turned shallow as he compared himself to the others. There were some obvious athletes, muscular and strong, who looked tough and ready. They were the army type. Then, there were the tiny boys whose eyes darted around apprehensively, avoiding contact with the bigger, older boys. They’d be crushed in the war.
Jared didn’t know where he fell. He wasn’t muscular by any means, but he was the wiry sort of strong. He wasn’t exceptionally tall or exceptionally short. He was thin, average, never excelling athletically, but never failing either. Maybe he could just blend in, fly under the radar, and avoid getting killed. Just maybe.
A tall, scrawny kid at the front window moved away, leaving Jared next. He gulped and stepped forward. His mom’s crying face flashed in his mind for a brief second. He pushed it away and focused on the formica countertop in front of him.
“Identification?” a tired sounding woman asked from behind the glass.
He presented his driver’s license and birth certificate. The woman squinted through wire-rimmed spectacles and then typed a few things into the computer. She waited a beat until the results came up, then looked closely between the screen and Jared’s face, comparing them.
She slid the paperwork back to him. “Fill this form out, please.” Jared did so as quickly as possible. It was all basic information. He pushed it back to her. “Thank you. Alright, your draft station is going to be…” her brow furrowed as she stared at the screen. “Hold on, this can’t be right.”
“What?” Jared demanded.
She glanced at him briefly. “Hang on. Let me get my supervisor.”
“What’s wrong?” he called through the window, but she had already turned away. Jared’s mind raced. His head spun. He felt a little woozy. So much for flying under the radar. Maybe there was a medical defect that would get him out of serving? Probably not. He wrung his hands as he waited for her to come back. The woman appeared back at the window just as a older, friendly looking man showed up at Jared’s elbow.
“Jared Henderson?” the man asked.
“Yes?” he replied. It came out far less certain than he had intended.
The man smiled kindly. “Come with me, please.”
Jared glanced around. Everyone was staring at him. He could feel the sweat trickle down the back of his neck as he followed the man down a hallway and into a nearly empty room. “I’m Dr. Burey,” he said. “Have a seat.”
Jared sat stiffly in one of the white vinyl backed chairs. He tried to slow his breathing. “Why am I here? What happened?”
“What happened is that you’ve been chosen for a special unit,” Dr. Burey said. “Whether or not you agree to it is your choice, though be aware that you were specifically selected for this.”
“What is it?” he asked nervously.
“You will find out in time. I can’t explain everything to you, not here, not now,” the doctor said. “What you basically need to know is that it would keep you away from the line of fire. You would be guaranteed safety in return for your cooperation, and would still be servicing the country - no different from any other soldier.”
Jared frowned. “So what’s the downside?”
Dr. Burey knitted his fingers together. “The preparations are not yet in order. You would have to wait quite a while, but you would do so in our facilities. We would like to have you on hand in case any emergencies arise, or there is a threat to your safety, do you understand?”
“Why would there be a threat to my safety?”
“It’s just a precaution right now,” he was assured. “Initially, you will be waiting alone in a furnished apartment in one of our underground labs. However, we are rounding up a small crew of people recruited, like you, so eventually they will join you there and you can wait together.”
“What will I have to do when the waiting is over?” Jared asked.
“Nothing too difficult, I can assure you. We can reach that when the time comes,” Dr. Burey said dismissively. “Now are you in or out?”
“Can I have some time to think about this?”
He shook his head. “I’m afraid not. We need your answer immediately.”
Jared chewed on his lip, his annoying nervous habit. It was raw and bloody by now. He didn’t know what he was signing up for, not exactly, but if he could call his mother and tell her that he was ensured safety… It would make all the difference to her. She had a hard enough time as it was after dad had gone.
And then he had himself to think about. Jared didn’t want to die, no surprise there. Even when his name had appeared on the TV screen, he didn’t honestly consider the fact that he very well might not come back. It was foolish, but he thought of himself as different. Surely he wouldn’t die. Other people might, but not him. Right?
It hadn’t really hit him until he was standing in line, waiting to approach the call window. Jared had finally realized that this could be the last time he stood on the soil of his hometown. He might have exchanged his last words in person with his mother and siblings. He could die out there. He could come back maimed or broken. Though Jared had told himself that he was okay with that, that he was honored to serve his country, he knew it was a lie. He didn’t want to die. Jared made up his mind. Whatever this path entailed, he wanted to live, to be safe. He looked up at Dr. Burey.
“I’ll do it.”