Cullen is 18 when he joins the military.
There wasn’t much else for an energetic, lower middle class boy to do with his life when his marks were less than impressive. But it wasn’t settling, in his mind. It was the culmination of an adolescence spent yearning to make a difference. He’d grown up with G.I. Joe and Captain America and Indiana Jones; superheroes and supervillains and above all else, a clear sense of right and wrong. He might not be a genius or a star athlete, but he could help the innocent fend off the bad guys.
So he enlisted, a tangled mess of lanky limbs, wispy facial hair, and incoordination. He wasn’t a runt of a boy, but he’d grown too tall too quickly, and no matter how much he scarfed down—to the lamentation of the cupboards—he remained all knobby knees and elbows. All the fat in his body was stored in his round baby-face, which his mother pinched with affection as he said his goodbyes. When he set off for training, his older sister lectured him on standing up for himself, and his little sister cried. Only Branson seemed sincerely excited, swore he’d join up some day too, just like his big brother. So Cullen’s heart swelled in his bony ribcage, thudding a steady beat toward what he was certain was destiny calling.
He arrived as green and gullible as the rest of the boys he shared quarters with—not just quarters, but showers, meals, the occasional confession, the constant hazing. He had a flesh and blood brother, he had friends in school, but only once he joined did he learn real fraternity. Boys his same age, doing their best to become men, just as he was. Testosterone filled the air, heavy and electric with passion and anger. He landed his first real punch, took a few too, and the next day, always embraced the men that he quarreled with—“sorry mate, just hot in the head. We’re in it together.”
He learned to eat more and faster than he ever thought possible. It was crummy food, indistinguishable at times, but it stuck to his ribs. Food and then exercise. A basic input/output operation at all times. Eat, digest, push-up, sit-up, pull-up, run up a hill, run down it faster. Eat, sweat, sleep. He never stopped moving, never stopped burning energy. In the first few weeks, his belly got soft and he lost sight of his ribs. Then weeks turned to months and the baby fat melted away, his shoulders rounded, his stomach turned from flesh to stone. One day he looked in the mirror and his face was squared. Gangly limbs had turned bulky, his movements had strength behind them—he didn’t look like a boy anymore. He could pass for a man, were it not for the mop of golden curls atop his head.
They could all pass for men. The squabbling matches of the first few weeks were few and far between, but now, there was power in the punches—noses broken, mouths bleeding. Cullen made himself scarce when fists got involved, except for the time when scrawny Parker took a blow to the gut from Shelby, a Private three times his size. Cullen swung at the giant’s temple until his knuckles bled, told Parker to stand up for himself, stalked off, and prayed until his body stopped shaking. God was a source of comfort, especially when the war came on.
“They say they did it for their god. What kind of god commands you to kill innocents? These are the men you’re saving the world from.”
The officers knew Cullen was bright, under the right circumstances. They wanted to train him, groom him for a military career, if he was willing. He followed at their tail, did everything they asked of him. Went above and beyond duty to make sure they knew he was serious. So they sent him to the mountains outside of Kabul, to the heart of the conflict, to test his steel.
He flourished. He strategized, he escaped impossible situations, he gathered intel, he saved people’s lives. But he took them, too. He was a crack-shot. They’d ask him why he didn’t train to be a sniper, and he’d tell them he wanted to be closer to the conflict. Closer meant braver. Closer meant self-sacrificing. Deep down, he knew closer meant fairer. Where was the honor in killing a man who never saw you coming? It was smarter that way, and safer, too. But he had to look the enemy in the eyes before he took their life. Anything else was cowardly. And he’d only take individual lives. Men known for the their explicit involvement in terrorist behavior, men who endangered civilians.
Then the incident in the Nuristan province. They had the right house, but it was the wrong time. The target was out of town. By mistake, Cullen ordered a strike on a dinner party. A whole family, terrorized at his command. There was a young boy, who he held dying in his arms. He thought it would be a step in atoning. If he forced himself to confront the horror of his actions, he’d be punishing himself, and he deserved punishment. But it was a turning point in the wrong direction. His closest comrades told him it was a normal consequence, a natural progression of attitude toward warfare—desensitization. But it was more like being tainted. After one stain, what great loss was it to soil the rest?
The superheroes of his youth faded, even as the villains became more sinister. Even as he watched himself do villainous things.