Three days after what happened at the hospital (and a lot of thinking about the consequences of my actions), I found myself driving out to some complex in the western part of the state of Virginia at ten pm at night in my Ford Focus. We drove long into the night as we went west. First, using the highway, then going through the back roads of Virginia.
The place was out in the countryside: nothing but forests, farm towns, the occasional industrial center, and ridges. The aforementioned back roads are shittingly windy in some cases, in others not so much. From what I saw, it was far west of Ralton. Of course, I’d do anything to make sure the family wouldn’t go broke. I’d go anywhere, anyplace, at anytime just to do it.
Charlie, if you’re wondering, gave me the week off as compensation. I told my family about the job offer from Bjorn, minus a few details.
“So, let me get this straight:” My little brother said from the back. “You’re being recruited after killing three guys that tried to rob the store… even though you never served in the military.” My brother’s upper body leaned forward between Uncle Dave and myself as he spoke. I glanced at him as i drove.
“Ishi: get your arse back in your seat!” Uncle Dave scolded with his aging Irish lilt. The moonlight reflected off of his face as he spoke. Thinning red hair bespoke his age as did his frowning wrinkles.
“Do you want to fly fifty meters out the bloody window?!” He continued his scolding.
“I have my seat-belt on, y’know.” Ishi retorted, crossing his arms after getting back into his seat.
“Oh, so now you’re asking for a-” Uncle Dave paused at this. Then, he turned to me and quietly asked in Irish. “Folks call it a ‘whupping’ in certain neighborhoods, aye?” He asked me for clarification.
“Aye,” I affirmed, nodding while I drove. Uncle Dave turned back to my brother.
“A whuppin’! Is that what you want, boyo?” He asked, angrily.
“Uncle Dave, I’m grown!” Ishi told him flatly. I slammed my foot on the brakes in response, the car stopping fully on the road.
“Ben, what the hell?!” Uncle Dave asked in shock, rubbing his neck. Without answering him, I turned to my brother with a glare.
“Ishigurama Brendan Valin! What have I told you about saying that?!” I roared at him. Ishi shrunk as he answered quietly.
“To not to,”
“Where were you raised?” I asked him angrily.
“Ralton,” He answered.
“Were you raised in Compton?” I asked him, sarcastically.
In the back of the car, Ishi shook his head. The darkness his face as he looked at me in shock with the exact same eye color my family had for generations.
“Yes or no?” I asked.
“No,” Ishi answered, softly. I nodded at this.
“Good,” I began. “Because, I guarantee you that if you talked like that in the ghetto, you’d be on the streets for the rest of your short, miserable life.” I harshly scolded him. Uncle Dave blinked at this while tilting his head in shock.
“I love you, Ishi.” I said, softening my look. “But, you need to quit acting like a gang-banger. You’re all I have left of Ma, understand?” I told him, reminding him of the mother that he never knew. Ishi sighed at this and nodded.
“Hai,” He confirmed my orders. I nodded at this as well and then continued driving.
Uncle Dave then started speaking Irish to me about a few minutes after my scolding.
“You’re not his father, Ben.” He told me, sagely.
“I”m the only man in the house. That, and he’s been acting up for years now.” I told my mother’s brother in Irish as well. We conversed in the old tongue a lot over the course of my life. Ma had taught it to me while Dad, Gramdma May, Great-grandma Aiko, and all of my aunts had taught me how to speak Japanese.
Ishi gave up on learning Irish after he found out that a lot of words could mean the same thing in Irish. That, and the pronunciation was different than what was written or typed. I planned on teaching him when he was older. Other than that, he’s fluent in Japanese, like the rest of the house.
One of the reasons why I brought him along was because he and I were the only dudes in the house and it drove us nuts.
“Ben, as I said before: ‘you’re not your father’.” He told me again.
“He’s all I’ve got left of Ma and Da,” I retorted at him. Silence filled the car.
When I was ten years old, my Ma was killed in a drunk driving accident. Ishi had been a baby back then. That, and both of us had been in the car when it happened. The worst part was that I actually saw my Mom die right in frotn of me as soon as that pickup truck hit the driver’s side of Mom’s sedan.
I will never forget hearing the bone-breaking sound of Mom’s neck snapping on impact and how her eyes went lifeless as soon as her head landed on the steering wheel. Occasionally, I still get the old nightmares about it. At least the guy that did it is behind bars. That, and to this day, I seldom have alcohol.
“She’d be scared for you two if she was still with us.” Uncle Dave told me with a solemn tone in Irish.
“That, and give Granddad hell about the drinking.” I told him in the same language with a smile. My uncle chuckled at this.
“Yeah,” He said, nodding. He nudged me while I drove. “She’d be proud to see you’ve grown up.” He told me. I smiled, thinking about her warm smile.
“I’m sure she is,” I said, thinking about her. Unfortunately, neither of us kids inherited Mom’s straight red hair or her blue eyes. I remembered her lessons well about her side of the family along with Granddad’s talks. Of course, what cracked me with a chuckle were her and Granddad Seamus’s arguments. Most notably, one in which my Ma had tossed a perfectly good bottle of Guinness out of our house’s window followed by a whole case of whiskey Granddad snuck in. His look of horror had been a real treat.
After a bit of silence as we drove through rural-forested Virginia, I had to ask Uncle Dave in Irish something that Ishi shouldn’t know.
“Hey, uncail? Does the name ‘Bjorn Valkyrsson’ sound familiar?” I asked him in Irish. He looked at me with a serious look. A look I’d seen many times before a fight happened.
“Where’d you learn that name?” He asked, still speaking in Irish with a serious tone.
“He’s the guy that recruited me,” I confessed.
“Describe the fucker,” He spat in English. I winced at the tone. That was a bad sign. I wanted to crawl under my steering wheel for cover at the mere sound of his tone. THe last time I heard that tone had been in a pub in Monaghan. Let’s just say the last five guys that heard said tone were either crippled for life or still in a coma. If there’s anything one should know about my uncle: It would be to never mess wit him. Period.
I described him as best as I could and explained the whole story in Irish, hoping to God that he wouldn’t blow up in front of Ishi. Not a chance.
“That bastard’s still alive,” Uncle Dave angrily muttered to himself in English, then proceeded to pound the door next to him hard. I swore that I heard the metal dent from the sheer force of the blow. I dared not to ask about how he knew that name either.
“What’d he say to you?” He angrily asked, glaring at me. I gritted my teeth before I explained in Irish what Bjorn said, still vainly hoping.
“That piece of shite!” He roared in anger, making me wince again. “He told you that?!” He asked. I nodded, scared. “He lied about that!” He yelled, his voice rising as he ranted. “Your great-great-grandmother gave that house to your great-grandmother for free! And the money came from you side of the family when it still had men! Who the fuck is he to say that kind of shite… and live?!” Uncle Dave raved in English. A feeling of dread washed into the car like a tidal wave.
Earlier, Uncle Dave had insisted that he come along. Ishi wanted to go too as this was one of the few times that he was able to be out of the female-dominated house with two other men. Usually, it was just Ishi and myself. Now, with Uncle Dave shouting, it was possible that bringing Ishi along was a bad idea.
“Uncail, you’re scaring us.” I bluntly said, a bit nervous.
“That Nordic bastard’s been harassing your family for years! He’s been saying crazy shite to them every time one of your relatives dies! Gak! He told your mother he’d come for you two next after your father passed, God bless him!” My uncle ranted. At this, I wondered how that was, if what what Uncle Dave was saying was true. He definitely wasn’t drunk. But, to me, what he said was just too insane to comprehend.
That, and the sheer venomous tone made me uncomfortable to say the least. Before, I was worried about what would happen to my family once I had the interview. Now, I was worried that my uncle was going to kill my recruiter and then got shot right in front of me.
My worries increased a thousand-fold when I heard the sound of a magazine being dropped. I don’t mean a thing containing articles, I’m talking about a clip for a gun! My head turned to see my uncle checking how many rounds he had in a standard clip for a pistol. More accurately: a Sig Sauer used by Navy SEALs as a side arm for a few decades now.
“Aw, shit.” Ishi muttered under his breath in horror.
“Ishi: shut the hell up and watch your mouth.” Uncle Dave said without looking. not wanting to start an argument, I simply drove silently through another forest. The fauna wandered and devoured each other or slept as usual. I never did like dark forests. Growing up, the old women of the family told me stories that they had heard as children about Aokigahara and similar dark forests. Grandma Nancy told me stories about the fairies, the fae, the old Celtic gods of Ireland, the druids, and everything else that was Irish and spooky. For the longest time, that was the main reason why I said my prayers at night and I kept the night-light on. When I got older, I put that crap away. I still pray, but I never did like dark forests. Besides, too much crime happens at night.
After we exited the forest and turned around a hill, I was greeted with the sight of a four-story building that was about two miles wide as it was long: completely square by my reckoning.
A large parking lot was around its front entrance with a guard post outside and a fence around the whole perimeter. At the very least, there should be an article about them in Soldiers of Fortune. Instead: nothing. Weird and shady, if you asked me. None of this felt right. But, the threat still held power over me. So, in essence: fuck it.
I turned my head to Uncle Dave before I drove up tot he guard-post at the bottom of the road leading up to the Aesir building. Where he hid his gun, I didn’t even want to know. A calm mask came over my face as I drove up to the post.
Two guards came out in serious-looking attire: kevlar vests, holstered sidearms, knee-pads, combat boots, and everything, save the helmets. Thankfully, they didn’t have shotguns or assault rifles.
Both of them walked up to either side of the sedan as the guy on my driver’s side asked for my ID. Uncle Dave showed the guard on his side his own ID and answered his questions while I spoke to the guard on mine.
As I showed him my ID, I noticed that he lacked a name-tag. That,a nd he was wearign sunglasses in the night. What the hell?
The man looked at my ID, then back to me. He only gave it a brief glance… weird. You’re supposed to inspect the ID through either sunlight or with overheads. That, or digitally scan it if memory serves.
“You here for an interview?” He asked with a Virginian accent. For some reason, he looked familiar to me, like I knew him from somewhere.
“Yeah,” I answered, nodding while taking mental notes. He was suntanned, Caucasian, clean-shaven, but also kind of slim and athletic. That, and the fact that he had no name-tag bothered the hell out of me.
“Who’s he?” The guard asked me, jerking my head to Uncle Dave.
“My uncle. He’s my Ma’s brother over from Ireland.” I answered before said uncle could reply. The guard’s eyebrows rose in surprise as he smiled with semi-yellow teeth.
“No kiddin’, I knew some micks that came over myself.” He said, jerking a thumb back. I ignored the racial slur while I spoke.
“Yeah, my Ma was from Monaghan and Dad was in the service, Army.” I explained.
“Why didn’t you join?” The guard asked, frowning.
“‘Cause every last dude is dead, bruh.” Ishi’s voice said from the back. I kid you not, the man’s face drained in color as soon as he heard Ishi’s sarcastic remark. With no emotion in his face, he asked me something.
“Sir, can you please step out of the car along with whomever’s back there?”
I stared at him for a second in shock as I tried to comprehend the reason why he woudl ask that.
“Ishi, get out.” I ordered my brother angrily.
“Aw, come on man!” He groaned.
“No arguments. Get out now.” I ordered again in Japanese.
“Want me to come out?” Uncle Dave asked.
“Sure, why not?” The other guard sighed as well.
So, as a result of my kid brother’s sly remark, we all got out of the car to get searched and interrogated.
As I stood up, I noted that the guard I was talking to was about 5’8. Not that tall, mind you. Ishi only came up tot he guy’s chest. He tilted his head as soon as Ishi exited the car and stood up in the artificial light. His jet black hair was in a Beatles’ bowl cut as it shone. A t-shirt with the four members of the now-defunct N.W.A reflected his antiquated love of gangsta’ rap. He also wore baggy jeans and Nike sneakers. He’d been begging Grandma May to get him some Air Jordans. Her response had been, and I quote: ‘And turn you into one of those sneaker fanatics? Hell no!’. The guard frowned at what he saw as I did my best not to give Ishi the stink eye while we stood under the harsh glare of the guard post’s light.
The guard that spoke to me then looked from me to Ishi and back.
“You his Dad?”
“Yo, I’m his brother, five-oh.” Ishi snapped angrily. I squinted my eyes at my brother as he said this. The guard gritted his teeth while he walked up to my brother and then knelt down to look Ishi in the eye.
“How old are you, boy?” The man asked.
“Ten,” Ishi defiantly said.
“Ten,” The guard repeated. “At ten years old, I could hunt bears and killed a man for insulting my sister’s honor.” I tilted my head as he spoke this. Ishi’s eyes widened.
“You’re Japanese, ain’t ya’?” He asked. Ishi nodded. “You believe in honor, right?” The guard asked as well.
“I-” Ishi started to say before he was cut off.
“What are you trying to prove? That you’re a man? Or you’re a low-life thug?” The man said, harrassing my brother. My veins pulsed with rage as I clenched my fists.
“Hey, jackass.” I told the man with barely controlled rage. He looked at me in response with an angry expression. “I’m here for an interview, not to have my brother get NJPed.” I lectured him.
“The hell you say?” He indignantly asked me.
“For God’s sake, Pete. Let it go.” His fellow sentry told him as he searched Uncle Dave while his arms were stretched out. I suddenly remembered the gun he had. Oh, gak. Where’d he hide it?! I tried to hide my sudden fear.
“Can I talk to you for a minute?” ‘Pete’ asked me. I gave him a weird look.
“Uh, sure.” I warily answered. He gestured for me to follow him to behind the guard station and out of Ishi’s view. He crossed his arms while he looked at me.
“Why in the hell is that kid here?” He bluntly asked me.
“He’s my brother,” I explained, not sure of what the problem was. “He wanted to tag-along.” I answered.
“Why can’t your uncle watch him or at home or your Ma? Or someone else?” He asked.
“Because he’s tired of being in a house full of women, sir.” I told ‘Pete’. The man’s arms dropped.
“Pardon?” He asked for clarification.
“All of my family’s men are gone. Me and Ishi are the only ones left.” I flatly told him. He looked at me as if I were stupid.
“You were raised in a house full of women?” He asked. “Everyone else is a woman? Besides your brother.” He asked as well. I nodded as he scoffed. “Unbeleivable. Not one other boy or man in your family?” He asked.
“Not since my Dad went MIA in Afghanistan.” I answered. He frowned in confusion when I said this.
“Where in the hell is that?” He asked. I gave him a look.
“How in the hell do you not know where in the hell a foreign country we’ve been trying to stabilize for nearly two decades now is?!” I asked in disbelief.
The man sighed, turning around as he took off his sunglasses. He looked up at the starry sky muttering something under his breath. I looked at him warily. Not every former serviceman knew where we were fighting, I guessed.
The name ‘Peter’ and the way this guy looked rang some kind of bell in my head, but I just didn’t know where. It kept coming up over and over again whom this guy looked like. The man then turned back to me after putting his sunglasses back on.
I spread my legs as the man walked over to me. My hands briefly curled into balls. I didn’t know if this guy was going to hurt me or my brother or if he was going to talk. Too many things weren’t adding up. The guy didn’t yell or charge me. He simply walked up to me.
“How old are you? How old is your brother again?” He asked me, curious. His expression had softened.
“I’m twenty, he’s ten.” I answered.
“Look, I’m going to be frank with you.” The man said to me.
“We weren’t expecting children to tag-along for this. If anything, shit like that’s never happened before by my reckoning.” The man said, shrugging. What he just said felt weird to me and my estranged look proved it.
“What the hell are you talking about?” I asked him.
“I’m saying that things from here on out are going to be tough.” He told me, sounding as if he were a father. “I know things were rough on ya’ before, hell-things were rough on the rest of us before we all got-” He paused. “Well, let’s just call it ‘being recruited’ and leave it at that for now, alright?” He asked, grimly grinning at this. I raised a questioning eyebrow. What the heck was going on in that building?
“I know what you’re thinking right now,” The man sighed. “Believe me, I thought much like yourself in another time and place.” ‘Pete’ told me. He shrugged afterwards. “Then again, I got taken during a battle and not in this part of Virginia.” I shook my head while he said all this. Did Aesir recruit crazies? Were things so bad for them that they had to recruit mentally ill liars? Or were they just Equal Opportunity Employers? Pete laughed at my expression.
“You’ll understand later. My point is: things’ll be rough from this point on as well as strange.” Pete said, putting a hand on my shoulder. He looked at me in the eye while he spoke next. “The only ones that you’ll have at your back’ll be close as family to you.” He said, emphasizing ‘family’. I blinked at this. What kind of message was he sending to me? I didn’t understand, even as he gestured for me to get back to my car.
“Y’all can head on through,” He announced as I walked back to my car, frowning at what just happened. By now, Uncle Dave appeared to have evaded capture, judging by how relaxed he was. I was praying to God in my head that he wouldn’t try to kill Bjorn in the middle of a mercenary corporate branch building.
We got back into the car with ‘Peter’ telling us which section of the lot to park in.
“Hey, what did that fella’ say to you in private?” Uncle Dave curiously asked as we drove away from them.
“And why’d he freak out over me?” Ishi asked, concerned.
“Nothing,” I said, hiding my feelings while I drove into the lot. As I drove, I looked at my rear-view mirror to see the two guards watching our car with a sad look on their faces. It was as if we were going to die. In a way, I found out later, we would.