Hindsight: Part 3

Hindsight is a work of fiction written by Jamey Stegmaier, released in 9 short segments (1 per week). 

Read Part 1 here first.

Then read Part 2.

Part 3 of 9: The Young and the Restless

“Did you date?”

The bartender was watching Stew with one eye and keeping the other focused on unruly patrons. Despite his intoxication, Stew had a sharp memory.

“Theresa and I? Damn, that was a long time ago. I feel old.”

“You don’t look that old.”

“I’m 43.”

“You don’t look a day over 42.”

Stew smiled. A sad smile, but a smile no less. “Yes, we dated. But her family moved after the fall semester—her father was in the military. We tried the long distance thing, but you know how those things go. We were so young. And there were so many pretty girls. I’d go back to high school in a heartbeat.”

The bartender scanned the pub for any younger women, but the crowd had thinned to townies and a few college boys. His instincts told him that he had to make sure that Stew walked away from the bar in a good mood, just in case he actually held the fate of the world in his hands.

He hadn’t mentioned the envelope again, nor the piece of paper he had received earlier from the “tourist.” So the bartender reached across the bar to the envelope and said, “Should we go ahead and take look-see at the message in here?”

The man slammed his fist down onto the envelope, narrowly missing the bartender’s hand. “Don’t fucking touch that.”

The bartender took a step back and held up his hands. “Hey, mate, don’t want any trouble here.” He walked to the far end of the bar and asked if anyone needed a drink. After a few minutes, he looked over to see Stew gesturing to him.

“What can I get you?” he said, drying his hands on a towel.

“Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that. Let me buy you a drink.”

“No worries. I appreciate the offer, but you don’t need to do that. I’m the bartender. I drink what I want.”

The man pointed to the premium liquors. “Even top shelf?”

“Well, no. Owner doesn’t allow that.”

Stew pulled a bill out of his pocket and slid it across the table. “Grey Goose, as much as you’d like, on me. Really.”

“Well, thanks, mate. Awfully nice of you.” Stew didn’t respond, so the bartender felt he was obligated to ask him to continue with his story. He poured the vodka first, then asked, “So, what brings you to Brisbane?”

“I’ve lived here for 20 years.”

The bartender stopped short. “20 years? And this is your first time in my pub?”

Stew laughed. “I live on the other side of town. Plenty of bars to go around. I knew I’d be here for a while, so I’ve taken my time sampling the goods.”

“Who have you been working for all these years?”

“A shaved ice stand on the university campus. Oh, and the CIA.”

***

Stew’s father urged him to join the military right out of high school. “Put in your service now, go to college later,” he said. “That’s how we did it back in the day.” His father used the collective “we” about his entire generation, even though he himself had joined the seminary during the Vietnam War before dropping out and attending Berkeley. Stew suspected there was some residual guilt left over from avoiding his civic duty.

Not that Stew needed much convincing. The Army seemed considerably more interesting than sitting in class for another 4 years.

He soon realized that the structure of Army training wasn’t for him. There was no skipping classes or drills, no time to challenge the authorities, no opportunities to corrupt the other recruits.

But he loved the physical nature of what they were doing. They pushed their bodies to the limits of exhaustion, subjecting themselves to brutal conditions and tests. Stew was always the first to volunteer to be used as an example for any drill. He didn’t care what it was. It was the thrill of the unknown that motivated him.

Stew knew that he had caught the eye of his commanding officers after only a few months. He was pulled out of standard drills to participate in elite training exercises, the types of things you see in Army commercials. Mountain climbing, cliff jumping, penetrating impenetrable fortresses. Anything that involved the unnecessary risk of bodily harm.

He made his first kill without hesitation. There came a time when their missions blurred the line between training and true action, and this was one such scenario. Stew was part of a group of five men who were subjected to the extreme conditions of the Amazon jungle. What started out as a chance to push their bodies to the limits of survival turned into an actual fight for their lives when they stumbled upon an insurgent camp with several American hostages.

While he huddled with his team to determine their plan, Stew spotted a man crouching 30 yards away with a machine gun on his shoulder. Without a word, Stew raised his rifle and dispatched the man. It didn’t feel right, but it didn’t feel wrong either. It was just something he had to do to keep moving.

Three years into active duty, he was transferred without notice to a facility in Northern Virginia. He was told not to inform anyone of the change of location.

Stew waited in his room—fully furnished, a huge upgrade over the cots and tents he was used to—for six days. He had limited access to the gym and cafeteria, and he didn’t see a single other person during that time. He suspected that he was being observed.

When he could barely take the isolation and lack of physical activity any longer, he was summoned to a part of the facility he hadn’t seen before. It was nothing fancy—just a series of offices and conference rooms, as well as several observation chambers.

An attendant led him to a room where a dozen other men and women in uniform were seated. Air Force, Navy, Marine Corp, Coast Guard—there were a few from each division of the U.S. Military. Most were fidgeting, tapping on their desks, as anxious as Stew to do something.

An older woman walked down the aisles, passing out sealed envelopes and pencils to each person.

“I’m Parker,” she said. “CIA. When I say it’s time, pick up your pencils and begin. You have 30 minutes. Do not talk to each other.”

A naval officer to Stew’s left raised his hand. “What’s this all about?”

The woman glared at him. “Shut up and take the test. The highest scoring officer gets a $2,000 cash bonus. If you say another word, you’ll be disqualified. You may begin.”

***

Part 4