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Handsome Johnny

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He hasn’t seen the teddy bear in, God, years, but he smiles as soon as his grandma produces it from somewhere and sticks it under his arm with a determined look. Its name was Herbie T. Honeybear, and she sewed it for him when he was a baby; he used to take it everywhere, no matter how much his cousins teased him. Now it has thin, delicate-feeling fur and the cross-stitching on its mouth is coming loose, but it still jingles when he shakes it. Aiden thinks there’s some kind of cat toy sewed up inside it.

“You should take it with you,” she says.

“Grandma, I can’t do that.”

“Of course you can do that,” she says, giving him a fierce glare, for lack of anyone more deserving to direct it at. “I’m sure plenty of the other boys will bring things from home, too.”

Aiden sets it aside carefully on his desk, leaning against the gooseneck lamp that burned out in his senior year of high school and has never received a fresh bulb. The thing is, he doesn’t think there will really be many other boys, where he’s going.

Dr. Weir and the Colonel made it pretty clear when they interviewed him that he was being asked in spite of his age, that if they had reservations about selecting him, it was only because he was so young. He might not know what he wanted yet. He might not be ready to make a choice that couldn’t be un-chosen afterwards. They said they’d understand if he wasn’t ready for a commitment like this, something so much more final than any ordinary tour of duty. There were other guys at McMurdo his own age, but he could tell from the way they talked that none of them would be invited on the Pegasus expedition. He figures that if he could tell his family that, they’d be pretty proud.

They’re pretty proud of him anyway, just out of habit.

His grandma picks up Herbie and acts like she’s inspecting the workmanship, but really she’s holding the teddy bear she made for Aiden and starting to cry again. He goes over to her and puts his arms around her from the side. “It’s okay, Grandma,” he says. What else is there to say?

“I only...wish I knew you were going to write to us.”

“Grandma, I can’t do that.” Grandma I can’t do that Grandma I can’t do that. She’s done everything for him, she’s carried him through everything all his life, and this is how he pays her back. “It’s a covert operation, I can’t do anything that could reveal our position.”

“But you’re going there, aren’t you? To Iraq.”

“Don’t, please don’t – ask me stuff,” he says, his voice breaking. “I can’t say anything.” No. God, if he could only just tell her that much, it would go so far. If he could just tell her, not even the whole truth, but no, nowhere near there, Grandma, word of honor.

“Florence,” his grandfather’s voice says sharply from the doorway, “leave the boy alone.” She swivels around, all set to turn that glare on her husband, but he doesn’t let it rile him, and she gives up quickly. He puts a big hand on her shoulder and extricates her gently from Aiden’s arms. He looks over her head at Aiden, a look that says, You and I know how it is. You and I are soldiers.

On his wall, Aiden has a framed photograph, four young soldiers with their arms thrown around each other’s shoulders. Across the bottom, someone else has written in black Sharpie, Burkett, Wiley, Miller, & Ford – Tokyo, 1999. It was taken in the same place as a black and white photo in Matthew Ford’s office, of four different young soldiers, Tokyo, 1955.

His grandfather claps him hard on the shoulder and says, “She just loves you.”

“I know.”

“I love you, too,” his grandfather says, and hugs him hard. Aiden hears what’s unspoken, which is that his grandfather’s love for him is complicated by his grandfather’s pride in him, more conditional in some ways than his grandmother’s. She wants Aiden to stay; he loves Aiden because he’s grown up to be the sort of man that won’t stay.

It makes Aiden ashamed, and he’s never been ashamed in front of his grandfather before. He’s never felt like a liar before.

Because he’s not going to war. Burkett, Wiley, and Miller did. Sometimes he gets postcards from Miller, who’s stationed in Fallujah. Wiley has a blog. There’s a war on, and his friends went because they’re U.S. Marines – first on the ground and never leave a man behind. Aiden took a bunch of officer tests, and then a bunch of other tests, and got transferred to Antarctica, where he stands in the snow with really big guns and makes lab geeks feel safe.

It was supposedly some kind of promotion. They made him a Lieutenant. Aiden is supposed to be really good at his job. The guys used to give him a hard time about it, called him the Supersoldier.

“Grandad,” he says, “can I be alone for a minute?” He still has to pick out his one personal item to take through the Stargate.

It’s a hard decision. He hasn’t thought about Herbie in a long time, but now he’s looking at that bear and remembering all the times he wouldn’t get out of the car unless he could bring Herbie inside with him, and he’s remembering that his grandma made it for his first birthday. There are pictures in the family albums of his pink-frosted cake with one candle, and Herbie sitting up at the table, and Aiden’s mother hovering over her baby boy, smiling over him at whoever is holding the camera. He doesn’t remember his mother, but he feels like he recognizes her smile whenever he sees it in pictures.

He’s got a foul ball that his grandfather caught at the first Cubs game he ever took Aiden to. He has his father’s Chicago Fire Department helmet. He’s got the Tokyo picture. How do you choose? What do you take with you that means home? At least he doesn’t have to pick a gun. He’s not limited to just one of those.

It would help if he knew what to expect. Nobody really does, but if anyone did know, it sure wouldn’t be Aiden. The whole thing, an entire galaxy on the other side of the Stargate, it’s just one big blank space in his head. Whenever he tries to picture it, the City of the Ancients just looks like McMurdo.

Not that his geeks haven’t done their damndest to fill his head with pictures. Aiden grins when he thinks about it; he was never really into science fiction, and for some reason a few of the scientists seemed to find that completely intolerable, and almost as soon as the depths of his genre illiteracy were revealed, he found himself being taken firmly by the ear by a stern-looking little Czechoslovakian man and frog-marched off to get schooled.

He doesn’t have any pictures of his friends from Antarctica, but he does have friends there. Bates and Stackhouse taught him to play Penalty Chess, and he’s led the Marines to three successive victories in the intramural Iron Chef competitions, where the secret ingredient is always whatever’s in the MRE when you peel back the foil. He has a lot of friends there, but strangely the ones he’s closest to are the science guys. Maybe it’s just because he really, really took to that first compulsory movie night – it was Blade Runner and it rocked. Whatever the reason, they expected him after that. Every time Major Sheppard flew in with new DVDs (even Aiden knew that the science team downloaded all their movies, but nobody seemed willing to hurt the Major’s feelings by mentioning how unnecessary his Netflix impression was), they seemed to expect Aiden to turn up for the viewing party, and at first he went because he got the sense he was expected, but then he started going because they were his friends. Also, they had pretty good taste in movies.

It scares Aiden a little how much he doesn’t need a photograph of them, how much he remembers and how good the memory feels. Dr. McKay, hogging all the popcorn and loudly debating with no one about the plot holes in Dark City while Dr. Z, Aiden is positive, threatens him with dire bodily harm in Czech. Dr. Grodin, busy writing yet another letter to the New York Times science editor about evolution or stem-cell research, in sonnet form. Dr. Gaul with his laptop on, bothering everybody by reading every actor’s IMDB biography out loud when they appear on screen. Major Sheppard sprawled out over the whole couch with one foot hitched over the back of the couch so that the baggy leg of his pants slides back across his bare ankle – yeah, that memory shouldn’t be so nice, but at least he knows (because he pays attention, and also, he has eyes) that he’s not the only one in the room who thinks it is anyway. Dr. Beckett, who always falls asleep fifteen minutes from the end of the movie and later on says he was just resting his eyes. Aiden still doesn’t know why they want him to hang out with them, but he’s glad they do. Maybe it’s because he makes the best popcorn. Probably it’s because he lets them bully him and bemoan the profound cultural ignorance and scientific illiteracy of today’s youth without getting offended. He thinks it’s pretty funny when they get all worked up, actually.

It still scares him. He’s home for the first time in six months, for the last time maybe ever, and he should be thinking about his family, maybe trying to track down his friends from high school, at the very least trying to figure out a way to smuggle chocolate cake through the Stargate. Instead, he’s thinking about Double Feature Night at McMurdo, and – almost – almost wishing he was back there. It’s not that he doesn’t have any secrets from them, but at least they’re secrets that he chooses to keep, and he thinks they’re secrets he could choose to tell, too, if and when he’s ready to, and they’d understand. That makes all the difference. That’s what makes it hard to know, now, when he’s going away and where he’s coming home to.

It may be a top-secret military installation where R&D on alien technology takes place, but inside the walls, the place is remarkably free of secrets, more free than anywhere Aiden has ever lived. Maybe it’s just too much hard work to keep secrets from so many smart guys, so everybody gives up early. But to Aiden -- Lieutenant Ford -- it’s something special.

He finally caught on the night that they binged on all three Matrix movies and then had to watch the first one over again to get the taste of sequels out of their mouths, the night they didn’t quit until they were all exhausted and pliant and drunk on companionable easiness. He watched the Major cant himself into the doorframe, just as much posed to show off the curve of his narrow waist as he was drooping from lack of sleep, and he thought to himself this is not a secret. Dr. McKay stepped up close to him, his head tucked down defensively, and muttered in a rush can’t very well sleep in the hallway, can you?, and the Major half-smiled and said in a low, sleepy-sexy voice, dunno, I’m really bummed about the popcorn, I may need a little time to get over it, and Aiden thought they know I can hear them, they don’t care if I can hear them, and the feeling of their trust in him.... It’s not something that Aiden can compare to anything else. He’s never had that anywhere else.

And then the Doc slipped his arm through Aiden’s unexpectedly, the warm burr of his voice startling Aiden as he said, Best walk me to my door, lad, I don’t think we’re wanted here, and it was clear that he knew and he knew that Aiden knew and nobody cared, none of it mattered, everything here was just what it was.

At his final interview for the mission team, Colonel Sumner said, “Could be there’s nothing there. Could be there’s something that’ll kill us all. Could very well be there’s no way to open the Gate a second time, and you’ll never see Earth again. This isn’t the kind of thing there’s a draft for, son. If you don’t want to go, you don’t have to go, and I don’t want you to be concerned about your career. I’ll send you where you want to go. You’re a good soldier, and there isn’t anyplace on this planet that couldn’t use a man like you.” Beside him, Dr. Weir’s mouth thinned, and Aiden watched her swallow down the bitterness of that, like she knew where he’d choose to go and she could hardly stand the thought of him wasting himself there. Aiden figured it was the kind of thing civilians couldn’t understand. He looked at Colonel Sumner, and he could see in his eyes that the old man understood.

He thought it all over right there at the table. He thought, Pegasus Galaxy. Never come home. No more Cubs, no more deep-dish with triple pepperoni, no more MTV, no more grandma and grandpa and Lucy and Steven and Larissa and Burkett and Wiley and Miller, no more life on Earth, and also, not to mention, he’d seen all four Alien movies now, and he was only 23 and never climbed a mountain, never taken his own kid to Wrigley Field, never come out of the closet to anyone who counted, never fallen in love. He thought about all of that, and he thought about the lumpy couch in Dr. Z’s quarters, and about how he could almost beat Stackhouse at Penalty Chess now, and about taking off his BDUs that one night and finding Dr. Beckett’s salty, buttery handprint right there on his sleeve, and he said, “I want to go. I’ve been here a year, I feel...protective. I feel like I should go with the others.”

He’s thrown out of the memory when his grandmother comes back in, carrying his uniform, washed and pressed and on the hanger. He hasn’t been able to get out of doing his own laundry since he was thirteen years old. He kisses her on the cheek and thanks her, but when she goes back downstairs to fix dinner, he folds it up and packs it in his luggage. He’s not wearing that tomorrow. He made the mistake of wearing his uniform on the flight home last week, and people stood up and applauded him in the airport. It was maybe the worst moment of Aiden’s life. He just kept walking toward baggage claim, pretending he didn’t hear, because the alternative was stopping every single person in the airport individually and explaining to them that he wasn’t a hero, that Burkett and Wiley and Miller were the heroes. They were in Iraq with sandbags strapped to their tanks for extra armoring, dealing with car bombs and riots and commissary shortages and asshole civilian contractors breathing down their necks for intelligence, and they didn’t go because it was an adventure or because it was the next leap forward in human knowledge of the universe or because they still hadn’t gotten all the way through the fourth season of Babylon 5 and it wasn’t the same renting it by yourself, they went because there was a war and because that’s where you go when you’re a Marine. Aiden got a promotion for test scores and target practice, and his grandfather was so fucking proud of him.

Burkett collected Wu-Tang Clan bootlegs, and he’d won open-mic contests back in Philly, and he used to fuck with Aiden by calling him the coolest white dude in the unit. Wiley had never met a commissary shortage he couldn’t shoplift his way out of, and he was the smartest guy Aiden ever hung out with until Antarctica, with a Jewfro that he had to get cut down to regulation length as often as some guys had to shave. Bryan Miller was– well, he was the only man in the world that Aiden thought he’d jog six miles every morning just to be next to, and if he’d ever been in love before it probably was with Bryan, and he’d never told him that, but he still knew that Bryan would have been startled but he wouldn’t have minded, and that somehow made it so that Aiden didn’t need to tell him, and he got postcards now sometimes from Fallujah that said the fucking heat and I’m pretty tired and deferred again, so I don’t know when and take care.

They were Marines. They were first on the ground and they were supposed to never leave a man behind, but Aiden is leaving all of them. He’s leaving everything behind and fucking off to play interplanetary explorer while his men are getting their legs blown off in the desert, and it’s not like he doesn’t know what his duty is, he just...doesn’t care. He wants this instead.

If it was fear, Aiden thinks he could forgive himself. Everyone’s afraid, that’s normal. What he’s done is just...childish and selfish and rotten, because of the way his heart opens up and he sees fireworks when he thinks about being first on the ground in a galaxy far, far away, because Dr. Weir and Dr. Zelenka and Dr. Grodin have made him honestly believe that knowledge matters and science can maybe save the planet when guns have never done much more than breed cooler guns, because he wants to be exactly like Major Sheppard when he grows up, so relaxed and on top of everything and sexy and fearless and so completely himself. He knows he has a duty, and he knows it’s not in the Pegasus galaxy; if he’s as good as they say he is, then he should be where it counts, where he could actually save lives from real enemies that actually, definitely do exist. But he doesn’t want to do that. So he’s not going to. He’s going to space instead.

And his family is so proud of their soldier. They think he’s such a hero.

“Aiden, dinner’s ready,” his grandma says from the doorway. He knows she’s made pot roast and broccoli drenched in melted Velveeta, just like she always does on the last night of his leave. He just sits there on his bed. Tonight will be his last night in this bed, and he feels like he’s not going to appreciate it enough, like he’ll be thinking all night long about what happens tomorrow, sleepless and excited like the first day of school. Someday he’ll probably be willing to give away everything he’s ever owned to have one more night in this bed, but right now all he wants is to dim the lights and start the show.

She picks up Herbie Honeybear off the desk and stares deeply into its eyes, like maybe she can find something there that makes her not angry and sad and hurt by this strange thing that her normally reliable little boy is doing to her. Of all the grandchildren, she probably never expected it would be Aiden who would disappear.

Aiden puts one hand on her back and one hand on the bear’s head. “Give it to the next one of the cousins who has a baby,” he says. Remember me, he thinks.

“Are you sure?” she says, and he nods.

He’s been childish for long enough. He’s doing this thing – breaking his grandma’s heart, leaving his friends in the field with one less man to watch their backs, saying no to everything he ever used to want because of this one thing he never once considered until it happened along – because it’s what he wants, he’s doing it for himself. Fine, then. It’s his life, after all. This is what it is, and this is where he’s going tomorrow, with no going back.

But if he only gets to take one thing with him, it shouldn’t be his past. It should be something useful, something people can count on. Because most of the time, Aiden is someone that people can count on. That’s just how he was raised.

“Grandma,” he says, “do we still have that popcorn popper?” She looks up at him, baffled, a little, tiny spark of laughter behind her bright eyes for the first time all week. Aiden gives her his best you know can’t resist your little boy look and says, “Mind if I take it with me?”