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.
Cullen starts learning how to recuperate. And he finds a Moose.
Cullen is 24 when he stops attending weekly therapy sessions.
They were all but mandated by the program that tried to do right by military veterans. That is to say, they were fully paid for. Cullen wasn’t one for handouts, the child of a poor but proud family. But Mia thought it would be good for him, and after the passing of their parents, she became persuasively maternal—it was difficult to deny her.
So he went to therapy with some reluctance. He didn’t have any aggressive feelings against it, but he had never really seen the appeal either. The routine of it gave him comfort, however, and the therapist did as well: a gentle, grandfatherly type that had once served in the military himself and didn’t abide by self-pity. He trusted that something technically therapeutic happened during their sessions, but he preferred to think of it as a standing appointment to chat with pleasant company. Over the years, Dr. Livingston returned most often to Cullen’s philosophy on killing.
“Killing’s not pretty,” he said. “But killing happens. Not just dying. Killing. It’s a curse of humanity, this learned behavior, perhaps to balance the scales out for our gift to create things. We destroy ourselves. War is troubling because it trains us to relish killing. We should mourn it, avoid it at all cost, and be willing to suffer it ourselves if we even consider inflicting it. This is why your policy of looking your enemy in the eye comforts me.”
And Cullen would reiterate every time, like a mantra, “I’ll never kill again.”
They’d move on to techniques for calming yourself during a panic attack and ways to touch base with reality when PTSD convinced you that you were back in your darkest days. Cullen made use of these immediately and rather effectively, but Dr. Livingston reminded him for years.
And then Dr. Livingston retired—a hard thing for therapists to do, Cullen imagined. Being so invested in the lives of their patients. Cassandra suggested that being invested was his job, he had likely trained himself to detach at the end of the day. Cullen nodded, but doubted that about Dr. Livingston.
Regardless, without him to talk to, weekly therapy didn’t seem appealing in the least. And truth be told, he was doing well for himself. He started taking classes at the nearby university, once again at the expense of the military. Had they offered him cash as recompense for his traumas, he wouldn’t have taken it. But offering him a free education seemed less like charity—it was teaching him to fish, rather than giving him the fish, you might say. He started out generally, never having imagined himself to be an academic. History classes always drew his attention, but that came as no surprise—he’d been reading biographies and histories since he could remember, often in place of the schoolwork he was supposed to be doing. But it was an entry-level world religions course that gripped him without warning. So he started pursuing a history degree with a minor in religious studies.
It was invigorating to be learning again, but he did rather miss the mundane, unintellectual habits of his old life. He needed something to do with his hands, something to do with his body. Cassandra recommended all sorts of sports, and he tried them. In truth, no competition satisfied him as thoroughly as the simple tasks of working out. Repetition. Keeping count. Planning and making systematic compromises with himself. But it wasn’t enough.
“Get a fish,” Cass suggested. “Get a fish, keep it alive, take care of it. It’ll give you some temporary purpose while you get yourself thoroughly invested in those studies of yours.”
So he went to a pet store. He’d never had a fish. His sister had a rabbit once, but it ran away. His mother kept chickens for the eggs and the hobby of it, but they weren’t quite pets. But a fish seemed easy enough—a bowl, some water, some food. A steady, low-maintenance pet. And the store was filled with all sorts, small, large, and oddly shaped. But they all looked sad. He wondered if fish could get depressed, and if so, whether or not they could recover. Roaming around the store, trying to read the emotions of the flitty little creatures, he started to doubt Cassandra’s advice. Then he heard a bark.
The store was hosting an adoption event to find homes for old, rejected dogs. They all looked as morose as the fish, so Cullen figured he ought to give them a pet or two. A rambunctious pit mix flung herself at the edge of her cage, eager for attention.
The shelter assistant smiled at the dog. “It’s so hard to get people to look past the reputation, she’s really a sweetie.”
Her neighbor in the crate next door was a ragged mop of dingy, once-white fur with an under bite and runny eyes—ugly, in the most fundamental and endearing way.
“Another darling. A bit snippy with children and prone to separation anxiety.”
And then he spotted the source of the booming harrumph that had drawn his attention in the first place: a rather grumpy looking St. Bernard with loose jowls and a regal brow.
“He was a show dog. Not an accomplished one, mind you, but he’s of good stock. His owner passed and no one in the family could house him.”
He could see why—the hound was massive. Even lying at ease, it was clear he’d come up to the middle of Cullen’s thigh. He reached his hand in hesitantly, worried that his bite might be as fierce as his bark. But the dog merely eyed Cullen in evaluation and tipped his head forward for a scratch.
“I will warn you, he’s a lazy fella. A gentle giant, no doubt, but very much of his own mind.”
Cullen could respect that. Everything about him was respectable—richly colored shaggy fur, inquisitive eyes, and a voice that snarfled and boofed politely any time Cullen asked him a question.
“How much is he?”
“Well, the standard rate for an adult dog is $100. But this is a special adoption event, so today only, $75.”
He turned to hound. “Does that seem fair to you?” The dog stood then with a nearly imperceptible wag of his tail, before sitting with impeccable posture and boofing gently.
“You’re a young man, active, I assume. Are you sure you’d be happy with such a loaf? An adorable loaf,” the assistant added when the pup sneezed.
Cullen was sure. He filled out the paperwork, paid the fee, and led him through the aisles to pick up essentials.
“I take it you’ve got rich taste, being a show dog and whatnot?”
The hound paid no mind to whatever his new human was saying and nosed at a utilitarian canvas covered dog bed. And then to a plain, utilitarian black leash. Even his toys were traditional—a standard tennis ball and an un-dyed chew rope.
Cullen watched in awe. “A pup after my own heart. But come on, you’ve got to treat yourself to something.” He pointed him toward a bin of stuffed animals filled with squeakers. The dog hesitated until Cullen leaned into the bin himself. “Here, look. Choose one to keep you company during naps.” Finally, he buried his head in the mass of plushies, pulling back when he retrieved a large, stuffed moose, antlers and all.
“I suppose your name is Moose, then.”
As soon as he got home, he called Cassandra.
“Did you get your fish?”
Without directly answering her question, he responded anyway. “You should come meet him.” She sped over, pleased that Cullen had taken her advice. And then she saw the fish.
“This isn’t a fish.”
“No, this is Moose! Isn’t he great?”
She knelt down to scratch the new friend’s head.
“I know!” Pride filled his confirmation.
A shorter chapter, but it's meant to cover Cullen's transition into an academic career.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Cullen is 27 when he declines a job with the local police force.
He felt it a failing. It had been years since the military, thousands of nights of sleep he could have used to put his traumas behind him. But he couldn’t bring himself to embrace the career. Aveline had made a fine offer—ensured him that, in such a safe town as theirs, he’d likely never need to use a gun. And besides, the force could benefit from his dedication in other ways. But he shivered at the thought, and chastised himself for the weakness. He knew, logically knew that his traumas would shadow him for the rest of his life. But his gut recoiled at the thought of that sort of pain as a lifelong companion, told him that the indication of effective coping should be the ability to stop flinching at unexpected fireworks, to stop waking in cold sweats, to look his fear right in its face with detached stoicism.
He was angry with himself, simply and thoroughly, and wracked with guilt. But he was also angry at something larger, deeper that had facilitated so much horror in the first place. And he had atoning to do. So he continued his religious studies. He sought out further education, higher degrees. He moved with Moose, across the country to study with experts and to study in vast libraries. Graduate school comforted him. Trying though it was, his classmates were nearer to his age (instead of six or seven years younger), and his professors respected him (which was decidedly not the same as treating him like an afterthought who was old enough to teach himself). He had thoughtful discussions with the other aspiring scholars of his ilk, he went out for drinks without feeling like he needed to be the only responsible adult, and he was sociable, for the first time in a long time.
In the midst of his studies, he never abandoned his own faith. But he paused it, at times—wrapped it in a soft cloth and tucked it away in the closet to make room for others. He found something to admire in each of them, and as he read their texts and visited their churches, cathedrals, mosques, temples, and synagogues, his fascination with religion turned from something innocuous and novice into a deep-seated, vigorously simple understanding: each faith, each system of belief was a finger, and all of the fingers pointed at the same, singular moon. The trouble was that people could spend their whole lives staring at the fingers, missing the moon. And the tragedy was megalomaniacs, radicals, and demagogues exciting that distraction, twisting it into fear and xenophobia until the fingers forgot about the moon altogether.
Of course, it wasn’t his place to present any of those claims beyond his own understanding. He was young still, learning, and far from wizened enough to traipse around the world making totalizing statements about religion and fingers and moons. But he thought, just maybe, he could use his privilege to start making amends. He wrote paper after paper, essays, and articles about his experience with religious radicals. By some miracle, he had survived tortures; but before the tortures, he had seen the faith. The warm, accepting faith of people devoted to their god and to social welfare and neighborly kindness. Individuals—greedy, power-hungry, tyrannical individuals had manipulated pieces of an otherwise benevolent faith and preyed on the poor and uneducated. Indoctrinated them into an infected version of the faith, promised them riches and power in an afterlife that they’d never receive. And then members of his own faith had responded out of fear, content in their blindness to all things foreign. He wanted, he needed to write it all out, hoping that someone would listen to him. After all, he’d been a noble, British soldier. Fit and handsome, dutiful and devout, as white as the Queen of England; Cullen was the image incarnate of The Good Guy. He was worth listening to and he was trustworthy.
He knew it all to be a farce, of course—he was a battered, flawed, sometimes villainous man, as damaged as anyone else. But if he could just get people to listen, he’d wear whatever mask necessary. He thought that he could make some sort of difference. The scholarly pursuits started that way—philanthropic, almost. But in time, he realized it was his own penance. It was as selfish as it was altruistic and it tormented him. Was their any truly selfless act?
And then finally, during a gentle rainstorm that fogged the window of his study and kept Moose snoring at his feet, he found clarity: it wasn’t about him. That was a truth he had once known, had once been able to live in earnest. But somewhere, he lost sight of it. He had to dive into himself in order to heal, but now it was time to reemerge.
Thank you, as always, for reading! There will be one more chapter, and perhaps an epilogue a little bit later. Comments and kudos are immensely welcomed, as are convos about the different things touched on in here.
Cullen is 33 when he accepts a tenure-track position as an assistant professor of theology.
He teaches courses for the history, politics, and world religions departments. His office is modest, wedged into a low-traffic corner of the humanities building’s first floor. It doesn’t take him long to line its walls with bookshelves of every shade and shape. He finds one made of thick black oak at a furniture store near campus and splurges, certain that it will be the centerpiece of his office. But when he hauls it in and only manages to shove a couple dozen books within it, he starts sifting through thrift stores and local ads for larger, cheaper options. By the start of his first semester, the echo of the once empty space is replaced by the sweet smell of weathered wood and aged vellum. He keeps a kettle on top of the shortest shelf, along with a pair of matched mugs and a tidy box made of mahogany, full of loose tea bags. Beneath the window, a large plush cushion sprawls out, always beckoning Moose for a nap. The real trick was proper seating. But after a series of failed attempts that resulted in bruised knee caps and an aching lower back, he settles on a dark green leather chair with a rounded back and a wooden base. He keeps the lighting low with an old Edison bulb lamp that lends the space warmth, even when the thermostat is set to 68F.
He teaches undergraduates for the first few semesters, and laments his reputation as the department heartthrob. He starts wearing ungainly sweaters in the winter and unflattering blazers in the spring in the hopes that making himself less visually appealing will make his classes more intellectually appealing. The achieved effect is more akin to voluntary social banishment—a rumor starts that his awful style is a symptom of delusion brought about by his war traumas. He rolls his eyes at this but tolerates it; that is, until his colleagues join in. He then foregoes his crusade to be unfashionable and compromises with traditional, grandfatherly fashions: cable knits with elbow patches, houndstooth jackets, loose-fitting khakis and newsboy caps. The rumors fade, and as he finds a comfortable routine, he cares less about his appearance and status, and more about his lectures and his students’ projects.
He truly blossoms when he’s asked to design an introductory graduate course on the politics of theology. Completely unpracticed in what such a task requires, he uses what he knows and shares his own dissertation process with his students. They read what he read. They write what he wishes he could have written. When he sees perspectives outside of his own, his thirst for learning reawakens and he feels revived. One of his students asks him to serve on an exam committee, and suddenly, there’s purpose. He tries to play things off casually, but when the student passes and shakes his hand, he drives home that afternoon with a grin stretched across his face.
Eventually, the dean that hired him retires, and the interim dean removes Cullen’s course from the listing, leaving him utterly defeated. After some goading from Cassandra, he musters the courage to march into the dean’s office and defend his course—it received positive students evaluations, it fulfills requirements for multiple programs, it’s interdisciplinary. He repeats the list in his head as he takes measured steps toward the office. When he arrives at the door, he pauses to take in a breath and hears a flustered, unfamiliar voice, but knocks all the same. The door swings open an inch or so and Cullen begins his speech.
“Dean de Fer, may I have a moment?”
Rather than meeting the brown eyes and elegant form of the woman he had sought out, he found a pair of blue eyes staring out through tortoiseshell frames.
“Apologies, I was looking for the Dean.”
“Ah, well you’ve found her then. Eve Trevelyan, er, Dean Trevelyan, I suppose.” The unknown woman extracted her hand from the messy stacks of papers that littered her desk and stretched it toward Cullen, who shook it only briefly. “Can I help you with something, mister…?”
“Uh, Rutherford,” he said, clearing his throat. “Cullen Rutherford, with the theology department. A graduate course of mine was removed from the course listings, and I was hoping to talk with someone about it. About reinstating it, perhaps.”
The blonde’s eyes darted back and forth, skittering across the folders in front of her as she appeared to search her memory. “Yes! Dr. Rutherford, intro to the politics of theology something-something…?”
Cullen nodded, feeling increasingly out of his depth as he watched the waif dervish about, rattling off facts.
“Outstanding student evals, good enrollment, appeals to various humanities departments. I have no idea why it was removed. Mistake perhaps. I’ll look into getting it back on the register.”
“I—uh, thank you, I suppose…”
She stopped then, placed her hands flat on a thick layer of manila envelopes, and stared at him half in confusion, half in scrutiny. “You suppose?”
Realizing what he’d done, he rubbed at the back of his neck, feeling a blush rise to his cheeks. “No! I mean, yes, thank you. I apologize, I had an entire speech prepared to convince you. Well, not you, specifically, I’ve just met you. I—“
Her eyes softened and the corners of her mouth ticked upward, almost imperceptibly, and Cullen noticed a dozen things all at once, from freckles, to the slight askance of her golden hair piled upon her head…and the tiny shining paw-print pendant hanging from her neck.
“No trouble, Dr. Rutherford. Deep breath?”
I finished a fic! An absurdly short fic, that's shorter than some single chapters that I've written. But still. C'est fini!
Thank you all for reading and commenting. There may some day be more......