There I was, sitting by some cargo that came in a few hours ago, reading a letter I received from my brother and enjoying my moment of peace before afternoon patrol duty. A week – or maybe more. Time was beginning to meld into one large blur – had passed since our assault on the two Korean bases close to the river. I remember counting the dead, collecting dog tags and not sleeping the night that followed. I also remembered the way Nick looked. I've always noticed how grave the captain became after each death the squad was afflicted with, his change of behavior was not surprising. Confusing for Judd and I, yes, but not surprising.
I've lost people before the war. Uncles, aunts, a cousin, and grandparents on both sides, and the difference was that I lost them to sickness and old age, never to a bullet. When I think about how each of them passed away, I never felt the way I did when I actually stared down at the dead soldiers. Eyes hollow, mouth agape, and the sick smell of death – that's how it was. Nick got the full impact of it I suppose, being our leader. And when the captain began to be less like the way he was, it was though a whirlwind had swept through the squad, leaving everyone confused and disoriented. But I realized it was something that came out of war. It changed people in ways I couldn't even comprehend.
Judd was affected by it; Nick was affected by it. Even I was affected by it. War was a terrible, cruel thing.
When I finished reading the letter, I folded it neatly and tucked the paper into my front pocket. That's when I noticed the troops running past me, to Sully's tent. They were all crowded around the opening, talking loudly amongst themselves and watching whatever was happening. When Adams, a private with blonde hair and a round face, passed me, I grabbed her. “What's going on?” I said.
“Jeez, Gwen, can't you hear it? Judd's going berserk on the captain!” Adams yelled, her volume unneeded and snooty as always.
“What? You're kidding, right?”
“No, Gwen. I mean, come on, we're all going crazy if you haven't noticed. I mean, expect you. You're just...uh, you.” she said. Adams shrugged my hand off and trotted to the little crowd, me following her quickly.
During enlistment and training, I remembered the drill sergeant reminding the recruits over and over again to watch our teammates' backs. That, when in a squad, we need to keep our eyes open for hostiles going for friendlies and comrades alike. But what he failed to mention was what to do when we started fighting amongst ourselves. I mean, seriously, what the hell?
Pushing through the crowd, with Abrams shouting in the background to move so she could watch, I finally came face to face with the situation. Yes, I decided to dub it as such. The situation.
Judd was standing before Sully, looking nothing like the guard dog I often saw. Instead I saw a bull. Overpowering in his demanding stature, and ready to charge the man holding the red flag, even if he should have been waving a white one.
There was one rule I learned about being apart of Nick's squad soon after joining (aside from the one about not getting shot): Stay out of Judd's way. And, honestly, that went out without saying.
“A leader is supposed to lead, not let his soldiers do whatever the hell they want!” The lieutenant had yelled a second after I stepped forward. Judd's anger boiled under the tension in the tent; it was so visible and vibrant that I felt like a little girl in the presence of her father again. Bloody hell, Judd was usually so damned reserved.
Whether Captain Sullivan was going to actually try and fight Judd was beyond me. “You don't understand.” was all he said. What was there to understand? That the lieutenant was crazy? It was
Judd took a step forward. He was ready to charge and I began to panic. He wasn't going to hurt the captain, was he? Crap.
God, I was actually frightened of the man.
He took another step. “Oh, yes I do. I understand just fine! You're a spineless coward who can't even –” I did the first thing that came to mind. Stop Judd before he managed to harm the captain, I stood before him, my hands on both heavy, muscular shoulders, and my knee rose sharply.
I had terrible aim. Or maybe wonderful aim. Not sure.
My, partly unintentional, crotch-shot at Judd left him stumbling backwards and falling to the ground. He got up just as fast though. Good, it meant I didn't kick him hard enough. That would've been...bad.
He looked at me, a little more pissed than he was seconds ago. I thought he was going to tackle me, scream, punch or anything that bordered on full-out violence. I was the first to react. “Leave him alone!” I screeched, loud enough to surprise even myself. “Get out of here!”
A few swear words were practically ready to spill out of my mouth right then and there. I clenched my fists, ready for whatever he was about to do. I wasn't even able to process what exactly I had just done, though, not until Judd scowled and looked back at Nick. “Now that's how a leader should behave.” He said, “If you want to continue being a little girl, I suggest you hand over your leadership to someone else.” Judd marched out of the tent, nearly limping and in pain. The soldiers watching paved a silent pass for him, but he didn't acknowledge them. Jesus, did I hit him that hard?
The sickening shame sunk in then; the repercussions of my actions dawning on me as Judd walked away. The other men stood surprised and speechless, but I wouldn't hold it to them for very long. A few snickers would follow later, I imagined, and there would be a few directed at me. I had just kneed the lieutenant in the groin, so why wouldn't there be? Causing physical harm to someone who out ranked me was a little – how to put this lightly – oh yes, “unusual” for me.
Physical harm, Gwendolyn. Please. Kneeing a man in the crotch wasn't physical harm. It was bloody ridiculous, that's what it was.
“Damn, Churchmen. Just...wow.” Adams had said. Better late than never. She, and the others, were staring at me. I stared back, unimpressed and flustered. My face felt hot. “Aren't you supposed to be on patrol duty in an hour, Jennifer?” I spat at the blonde woman. “Now that I think of it, aren't you all supposed to be doing something other than standing around?”
They looked amongst each other as though the captain was speaking to them. “Bugger off!” I barked and they scattered.
I shook my head as each and every soldier disappeared. I felt light-heated and impatient, as though I wanted to punch something. Preferably Judd. Or myself for what I had just done.
“You're snarky when you're angry.”
I turned around and glanced down at Sully. He was still on the ground and made no effort to move. He looked relaxed too, or just a little more calm since Judd walked away. Still....
I shrugged once I realized he had said something. “Here,” I muttered, reaching out to offer him a hand. He gripped my forearm and pulled himself up. Letting go of my arm, he ran his hands down the front of his pants, patting away the dirt of his fall.
“You didn't need to intervene, Gwen, but thank nonetheless.” He said, sounding annoyingly content with what just occurred.
I only half-believed him. “Right.”
He frowned, his captain persona slowly coming into place, if only briefly. “Like I said: snarky.”
I became frigid at his words. It was one thing to hurt a man who out ranked me, but another thing to start getting lippy with my superior. “Sorry, sir,” I muttered sheepishly, “Get it from my father.”
“Then you don't get angry very often.”
“I've always been, uh, tempered, sir.” And compared to Judd, I might've been a mouse. “What was that about, Captain?”
He sent a look my way, as though I had asked the most obvious thing he had ever heard. “I think you know,” he said, “Weren't you apart of the audience?”
“I was reading a letter when the whole thing started, so no sir.” Although, I had a guess. Nick's change of behavior was new and unfamiliar for the squad, but Judd's reaction was a shocker nonetheless. I expected him to stay at bay when it came to his anger, and never to actually go after someone who's on his side. Especially the captain.
“It's obvious, Gwen. He thinks there should be someone else in charge and I can't blame him.
“But this is Judd we're talking about, he's always been –” Sully holds up a hand to stop me. My mouth clamped shut.
“Doesn't matter. We've already lost McGuire and Ramirez and so many others. Another soldier questioning my leadership would lead to more deaths, maybe his own.” He pauses. “Perhaps...”
“Perhaps you shouldn't be the captain?” I crossed my arms, and looked start at Sully and he stared back at me. I had no doubt that I looked like my father right then and there; I certainly sounded like him. “Is that what you meant, sir? That you shouldn't be captain?”
Whether he was actually going to say such a thing or not was unimportant. It was clear that the captain was questioning himself. Men and women die because of war, I knew that and expected it, but with our numbers dropping over the past few days, everything seemed unsure and bleak. Our future – whatever it may be – was not bright on our side. And yet, I did not expect Nick Sullivan of all people to begin asking himself whether he was capable of leading his men. Since enlistment, I knew that I was marching into a fog of death with no direction of my own expect the orders handed to me. I wondered if all the rest realized that death was almost certain now. Perhaps Sully realized this and felt...unfit to be the one leading us into the fighting, and straight into the embrace of the Grim Reaper.
“Gwen, I didn't say that. I didn't say anything at all.”
“Then what is it, sir?” I said, pressing on despite my doubting thoughts. “I may never lead my own squad, but I understand that the position you're in is...difficult. But frankly, sir, I think you're more than capable of being a leader – A captain.”
He smiled, small and bittersweet but it was better than seeing him slumped on the ground, about to be attack by a subordinate. Not that Judd would agree, I'm sure.
“You're pep-talk really isn't mandatory, but thank you, Churchmen.”
I saluted, out of habit and rank. “Glad to be of service, Captain,” I said, dropping my hand to my sides again, “I'll be going then. My therapist-skills have been used to their fullest and I have patrol duty with Adams in an hour.” He almost laughed at that.
Turning away to leave, I had one last thing to say. “And, Captain, all I said was completely off the record, right?”
He nodded, grinning. “Yes, yes, completely off the record. And also off the record, Gwen, don't knee your lieutenant in the groin. It's a very bad idea, even if it's Judd.”
I rolled my eyes, but only before exiting the tent. I took his advice to heart.