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.
VIOLENCE AHEAD. GUNS FIRING AHEAD. PRISONER-OF-WAR TORTURE AHEAD.
Depending on your triggers/tolerances, this could be upsetting, so please consider yourself warned.
Not explicitly gory or bloody, but there are specific parts of the body mentioned and the torture is pretty graphically depicted, so I'm ratcheting the rating up to "Explicit" just to be safe. There's a level of psychological trauma as well.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Cullen is 21 when he leaves the military.
They wanted to honorably discharge him, they tried to pin medals to his chest, but he found it revolting. They did their best to dress up the honors—this one for bravery, that one for protecting freedom. They were little more than reminders of the death wrought by his hands. He had a neighbor, long ago, who told him all about Vietnam. Stories of men cutting off the ears of their victims, stringing them about their necks to keep tally of how many times they had played God. He woke, that night, from a horrifying dream about earless apparitions and spent hours with his head hung in the toilet. Still, he’d rather string ears about his neck than medals of honor—at least then, no one would be able to pretend that he wasn’t being rewarded for killing.
So he left of his own volition, battered and traumatized. But he couldn’t pretend that it was all because of the killing. At times, he had relished in it. He felt he was doing right by his country, by his faith. Every morning with breakfast, the highest ranking officers on site would remind the men of the atrocities that the insurgents were capable of—beating children, tormenting women who dared to leave their homes, torturing anyone who indulged in the smallest pleasures of playing cards or owning a songbird. Every morning they went on duty eager to destroy these men by any means necessary. And when he killed one of these terrorists, or when he gave the command for their execution, he felt vindicated. He had rid the world of one more oppressor.
Names, faces, accents had begun to blend. It took so little time to turn to hate. It was safer to assume everyone an enemy than to risk your life giving the benefit of the doubt. He had been careful, so painstakingly careful after the first six mistaken deaths of the Nuristan airstrike. But his caution got a close friend killed, and suddenly, caution seemed like a luxury. He wasn’t owed such a luxury. He had been trained, molded into a tool. It was a job. A duty. Caution and compassion were for civilians. Cullen was a soldier. An officer. And above all else, it came down to this rule, this fact laid out by his ranking superiors and all of Western civilization: it was more imperative to preserve the life of a fellow soldier than to spare that of a foreign innocent. A blessedly black-and-white imperative. A monochromatic reprieve from playing judge and jury at all times in the court of execution.
It only got clearer after the capture. Cullen, another officer, and three privates were taken. Canvas bags over their heads, zip ties dug into their wrists, assault rifles pressed between vertebrae until their backs arched. The other officer was shot the first day. He had assumed they were taken for ransom, boasted his ranked status.
“Keep me alive, keep me alive. They’ll want me. They value me more.”
The captors didn’t care for ransom. They wanted to strike fear, to break spirits. So they shot him in the head.
“You’re all of the same value. Precisely nothing."
They took a liking to Cullen—or rather, they developed a particular fondness for torturing him. They called him The Aryan. Shaved his pretty golden curls with a dull razor and left the cuts it inflected to fester. His initial indifference bolstered the spirits of the other captives, so they put him in his own room, little more than a crumbling broom closet. Every few days, perhaps every week, he heard garbled begging, pleading, shrieking, and then a single shot. He assumed his compatriots were dead, but he counted the shots over the weeks, and when the tally surpassed three, he began to wonder. Perhaps they captured others, perhaps they were staging theatrics. He tried so hard, for so long, to remain stoic. But in time, every gunshot made him flinch—at first just the twitch of his mouth, and then his hands into fists.
When they were satisfied that his mental fortitude was compromised, they started in on the physical torture. He’d always thought it was meant to go the other way around—break someone down physically first, then psychologically. But this method was far more sinister. Without a steady mind, his threshold for pain plummeted. They drug knives across the tenderest parts of him—his flanks near his armpits, the insides of his thighs, right where his waistband rested, the soft pillow of his lip. When he went too quiet, they’d rub sand and salt into the wounds. It seemed they didn’t even want information—they just wanted to watch him writhe and laugh at the sight of it. They starved him too, and much of what they gave him had gone off or was hardly edible.
Sometimes, they’d toss a bag over his head and usher in others—an audience, occasionally, or more often, young boys training to become torture artists themselves. He could only pick out occasional words, but he knew they must have been green, scared little things. They were encouraged to hit him, learn how to throw a punch. Most made contact lightly, hesitantly, and he knew they had only spindly arms. Likely, they had been taken from their families—a forced sacrifice, at the end of a gun barrel, for the success of the cause. These boys didn’t want to fight, and he could feel it in their timid assaults. But some were more zealous and wrought muffled cracking sounds when their fists hit his body. If the young recruits failed to inflict enough punishment, the guards would take turns punching groans out of him.
He spent seventy-one days in captivity. The saving was hardly as glorious as he had expected—some smoke grenades, a rush of special-forces operatives, and a medical evacuation. He was treated for severe dehydration and malnutrition. Two of his ribs were cracked, his left clavicle fractured, and one of his toes broken—though he had no clear recollection as to when the latter could have happened. Most of the salt-rubbed wounds healed into thin pink scars, but one on the inside of his leg had become so infected that it left behind a patch of shiny purple scar tissue the size of his handprint.
“Lucky,” they all said, more than once. The others had been killed, but he made it out alive, a testament to the will of the hero. Others said he was blessed, a reminder sent from God Almighty that the fight was not futile.
He fell asleep at night thinking about the men who beat him and claimed the same God for their side.
Okay, so you've made it past the really angsty parts! After this chapter, Cullen starts to find ways of recovery of contrition.
If you made it through this and don't hate me, you're a champ. I mean, you're a champ no matter what, but....ugh. This was a hard chapter to write, an absolute pain to put poor Cullen through, and absolutely terrifying to post. Thank you for bearing with me.