Sophia Kell Hagin, writer

 

 

 

Whatever Gods May Be by Sophia Kell Hagin

Whatever Gods May Be
is available in print and ebook
from Bold Strokes Books
or any bookseller.

Whatever Gods May Be
copyright © 2010 by Sophia Kell Hagin
all rights reserved

excerpt from
Whatever Gods May Be
by Sophia Kell Hagin

The chief part of human happiness arises from the consciousness of
being beloved.

—Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759

 

Chapter One

I cannot go back there


"Swamp’s got gators, y’know.”

She didn’t. Joe had never mentioned alligators. To her left, faraway small-town lights glinted off the vast expanse of black water, tempting her gaze away from the seatback in front of her. She’d heard about the swamp. A salt marsh, actually, now succumbing so fast to the Broad River tidal channel and Port Royal Sound that a few more storms would take what little was left of the island at the end of the causeway.

But alligators? Sure as shit I woulda remembered about alligators.

Flicking her eyes rightward, only her eyes, she glanced at the thick, blond, baby-faced boy-man next to her in the aisle seat who knew about the alligators. She noticed his nose first, how it heralded the fight that once broke it. His hands gripped his thighs and he stared straight ahead, still as a statue. Like he never whispered anything at all.

Somewhere on the bus in the seats behind them sat another blonde. Proud by the look of her. Strong. The only other woman on the bus, picked up at a stop in southern Virginia. Jamie had watched the woman come down the aisle, watched those dark eyes probe, assess, and then lock on to hers.

For just a second, her clit punched a double flip that reverberated into her belly. Maybe the woman would sit next to her and, once the drone of the bus engine resumed, murmur a name or a comment. Maybe they’d end up in line together, maybe go through the whole thing together.

But it was the boy-man who had taken the seat next to her, and the woman walked on.

Boy-man blinked. They had only seconds left now.

“I’m Arnoldt,” he whispered.

“Gwynmorgan,” she whispered. “Jamie Gwynmorgan.”

Whereupon what remained of Parris Island pummeled them. She couldn’t quite believe her eyes or her ears as she hurried to disembark. Backlit by assaultive klieglights, a small herd of mostly men wearing Smokey the Bear hats and combat utilities charged toward the bus screeching pseudo obscenities at the people ahead of her. Drill instructors in full rut.

Oh christ. Her stomach spasmed at the sight of so many DIs. This is what he meant.

Joe had warned her. Now his warning reverberated in hyper fast-forward. The rules of normal behavior will be suspended, he said.

Everything she was accustomed to would be ripped from her by the DIs.

“Ripped” was the word Joe had used more than once.

“Ripped” didn’t scare her then.

“Ripped” sounded okay then because, hell, she needed to be ripped from the way she’d lived since Alby left. And Joe had gotten her ready, right?

“Move your ass, maggot!” one of the DIs roared at the guy who’d been sitting across the aisle from Arnoldt. Now just ahead of her in the bus doorway, the guy winced but didn’t scamper, which provoked the DI to loom into his face, millimeters from his nose.

“You deaf, puke?” the DI shrieked.

“No, sir,” Puke answered, his voice too quiet, like he dared consider himself a normal human being. Still wincing, he started to run. But too late. Way too late. The DI stayed with him, nose to nose, toe to toe.

“Wha-at? You talking to me, puke?”

Puke hesitated, afraid to speak, afraid to move.

“Did I tell you to halt your ugly butt, puke?”

Hey! Behind Puke, forehead suddenly humid with revolt, Jamie jumped off the bus. Just wait one fucking minute! I didn’t sign up for this! All of Joe’s fearsome tales notwithstanding, these guys in their perfect uniforms and arcane hats weren’t at all what she expected. Her stomach wrenched its warning and she slit her eyes to see beyond the onslaught, to find its limit. Thirteen weeks, that’s all.

She counted in her head as if a refuge could be made of counting. Thirteen weeks—less than a quarter of the fifty-seven weeks sinceThirteen divided by fifty-seventhat’s twenty-two point eight percent

Off to her left, another DI approached, his animal eyes glued to her.

Oh shit. An intense band of heat tightened around her head. Just gotta make it to January twenty-eighth

She tried to ignore the No! rising from her gut and got ready to blindly obey. In her last second as a regular person, Jamie wondered why, why she didn’t feel this No! before now and understood her doom. It couldn’t be undone. She had signed her name on the papers, given up all rights to No! Now No! meant disobeying a lawful order. Insubordination. Now No! could be court-martialed and land her in a Marine Corps lockup.

“You eyeballing me, asswipe?”

“Sir-No-Sir!” This she shouted, just the way Joe taught her. Never look them in the eye, Joe had said more than once. She took a couple of steps, preparing to run. Certainly he wanted her to run.

“Who told you to move, suckface?”

“Sir!” She halted, riveted her eyes straight ahead, tried to remember what Joe had told her about assuming the position of attention. “I’m sorry, sir!”

Oh shit. Just one tiny word. How she wished she could grab it out of the air and squish it out of existence. Shit shit shit shit shit

“I?” the DI bellowed, eyes bulging outrage off to her left. “You are a worthless buttbrain attempting to become a United States Marine! How dare you speak the word ‘I’! You are less than human. You are less than maggot. You will get on your face and give me your pathetic excuse for pushups. Right now, Recruit Suckface!

Jamie dropped like a stone and pumped as fast as she ever had in her life while he screamed at somebody else. When she was at twenty or so, she felt his hot breath on her face. Onion breath. The brim of his hat bumped against her temple.

“What’re you doing down here, suckface? Get! Up!

Bawling sir-yes-sir, she leapt to her feet and attempted to obey the DI’s staccato of contradictory commands. Left suckface. Right suckface. About suckface. She messed up all of it. An eternity passed before she was ordered to join the other dazed recruits, each of them anchored to a pair of yellow footprints painted on the blacktop, all of them desperate not to be noticed.

“You are to stand at attention when you stand on my yellow footprints, fool!” The blare came from right behind her. “Shoulders back! Tuck that jiggly excuse for a chin!”

Twenty minutes ago, Jamie would never have believed anyone except a prison screw could legally behave this way. Jailhouse rule number seven: Never attract a screw’s attention. She stopped breathing and zombied in on the tree trunk–sized neck of the man in front of her; the DI passed her by with merely a snarl. She dared a surreptitious inhalation—god knew what one of these monsters might do if they caught her in the act of consuming oxygen without permission.

Guess Joe left a few things out.

“Gonna be really tough, Jamie Blue Eyes,” Joe had said when she boarded the recruiter’s van back in Hyannis.

He’d never called her that, never once gave a hint that he’d done anything so gushy as register the color of her eyes. She had tried not to show her surprise, her discomfort, and forced herself to gaze back at him.

“But the training’s a lot more righteous now than it used to be,” he continued a little too quickly. His words, his tone had apology in them while his eyes drifted past her and he repeated the warning she’d heard so often, the warning that sounded so jarringly different this last time he’d have a chance to say it. “Better by the time I was a DI. They’re not kind or anything, but…” He stopped to study his boots, his face in an almost-frown. No doubt about it—Joe never expected her to actually enlist. He was upset. Maybe even disappointed.

She almost asked him then, confronted him: Why’d you help me? He was just a guy from her part-time job, after all. This older guy who used stories from his days as a Marine Corps DI to get a smile out of her, to get her to talk some while they loaded packages onto trucks.

It had taken a lot of Joe’s time, all that help. Before they ever worked out together, she told him about Alby, about getting arrested, and he convinced her not to do a runner, reminded her that if she kept her head down until October twelfth and showed up in court, the judge would expunge her record and then she could join up. “You’re fucking smart,” Joe had said. “The GED’ll be a snap for you.”

She’d scowled, of course, and early on she’d had her suspicions. Hell, nobody ever cared if she talked, except that high school librarian who left after her sophomore year. But she’d run out of options and Joe always behaved while he showed her all that Marine Corps stuff. He’d been a straight shooter the whole way, and if there’d been more to his motives, he never let on. Not once in six months.

She figured he needed the good-bye to be done with, needed time to settle back into thinking of her as a friend, just a friend. So, reaching out to brush his forearm, she said only, “Yeah, more righteous now.” She watched Joe nod, watched his eyes tense with what she didn’t want to believe was regret. “You’ll be the one I call when I get there, Joe.” She offered him an it’ll-be-okay smile.

It seemed to her that his face smiled back. A reluctant smile, almost involuntary. She hoped he understood what she didn’t say aloud: I cannot stay here.

That was twenty-one hours and almost eleven hundred miles ago. Now, resisting an urge to flinch beneath the corrosive, caterwauling belligerence of the drill instructors, Jamie Gwynmorgan stood at attention on a pair of yellow footprints and reminded herself—I cannot go back there.

The memories fluttered before her, an inescapable gossamer over everything, each flutter carrying a different imprint to stamp on the moment. Meaty hands squeezed her throat, slammed fisted into her head. She yanked her mind away, but with another flutter, handcuffs compressed her wrists, sparked an inferno low in her gut, made her want to squirm and scream against the unyielding restraint.

I cannot go back there.

Jamie double-timed up the steps to the Recruit Receiving Center, chased by apparitional recollections spawned of the smell of ocean air, crisp now in South Carolina’s November as it mingled in her mind with odors of charred grass and gasoline. They said her mother crashed the car, and the smell of ocean made her wonder again: Did Alby die there? Or had it really been the mother of all her mother’s many pharma-induced debacles? Was Alby still out there somewhere, still lost in a fog fifty-seven weeks later?

Joining a crotch-to-butt line of recruits, Jamie shook off the haunts and waited for her turn to call “home.” As fast as she’d be able, she’d recite the words she was supposed to, the minimal script informing Joe that she’d made it to—

To the jaws of hell on Planet Mindfuck, that’s where. Just thirty seconds to tell him. Tell him what? That Woody here cuddled up to my backside needs some saltpeter and a shower? That I’m shit-scared?

Marine Corps landlink in hand, Jamie zoomed through the phrases on a placard tacked to the wall in front of her. “This-is-Recruit-Gwynmorgan-I’ve-arrived-safely-at-Parris-Island-in-a-few-days-I’ll-textmail-you-thank-you-for-your-support.”

She risked a furtive glance around. No DIs within fifteen feet, none of them looking her way. “Jeez, Joe,” she whispered, “you didn’t tell me they’re all infected with frigging rabies. And hey, what the hell does ‘fug’ mean?”

Joe chuckled. Yeah, good, he sounds okay. And she heard his “Ooh-rah!” before a DI materialized next to her. She squirted out the approved “G’bye-for-now” just as the DI ripped the landlink from her hand and passed it along to Woody.

Processing, they called it.

Examinations, questions, tests, more questions. “Have you ever been treated for an RNA virus?” “Were you or any members of your family quarantined during the pandemic?” “Have you ever resided in a nation other than the United States?”

Hours of being poked, pumped, berated, and quick-marched jumbled until Jamie found herself in a wide, glass-walled hallway.

An arm’s length between her and anyone else—proper marching distance—provided some relief, since Woody stood behind her still. The line of recruits executed a ragged left-face, and for a moment before being ordered about-face, she saw through the glass a lanky, bald stranger wearing a combat utility uniform. Familiar eyes gazed back at her. She risked DI wrath and hiked one eyebrow. The bald stranger’s own dark slash of an eyebrow anticipated her and moved, too. Yep, it’s a reflection. That’s me!

With the three inches of rowdy brown curls shaved away, her forehead seemed enormous, her cheekbones seemed bolder, her jaw squarer. During last night’s quickie medical exam, she measured seventy-three inches tall, a whole inch taller than fifty-seven weeks ago.

She’d been awake for more than twenty-four hours and had at least another twelve to go before she’d be allowed to sleep. But she stood a little straighter in her very own cammies, thinking she kind of looked like a marine.

The illusion didn’t last long.

Although she passed the Initial Strength Test with ease, the cred she hoped this would give her backfired. How much it backfired became clear once she and sixty-four men were formed into Platoon 2128, Echo Company, Second Recruit Training Battalion, and ownership of them
passed to the senior DI and his two assistants, the J hat and the kill hat.

Joe had called the DIs’ technique good-cop, bad-cop, worse-cop, and at the time Jamie shrugged. That’s twenty-something recruits per DI. How nasty can it be? But three days in, she already thought of the arrangement as dangerous-screw, demented-screw, diabolical-screw.

“Hey, Plah-too-oon! Looky, looky. We got us here a special sistah,” the kill hat sneered an hour after first laying eyes upon her. “Tested better than half you shrinking dongs. C’mon, sistah, lide your sistah ass over here on my quarterdeck and show me how special you are.”

Thus she devoted the evening’s precious hour of free time to lunges, pushups, side-straddle hops, double-time running in place, more pushups. But never fast enough. Never with acceptable form. The kill hat gleefully declared Recruit Gwynmorgan a maggot sistah.

Every day after that, at least twice a day, the kill hat fried her. For Jamie, the recruits’ daily hour of free time was theoretical only. And nearly every night, her name ended up on the firewatch list, ensuring she wouldn’t sleep more than three hours at a time, nor more than five hours a night.

It didn’t take long for Recruit Gwynmorgan to despise the DIs, especially the kill hat. Nor did it take long for her to notice that the only Echo Company platoon with but one female in it was hers. She’d hoped the dark-eyed blonde would show up in Platoon 2128, but the woman had disappeared among the hundreds of other bald would-be grunts, and none of the sixty-four guys around her inspired anything like a double flip.

She couldn’t help but wonder if some higher power—a god, a sergeant, a perverse computer program—had done this on purpose.

A parade of rules maintained discipline in the co-ed squadbays and dictated with excruciating precision who could be where and when. No matter. Every morning in Platoon 2128’s squadbay, sixty-four erect guys in their skivvies found ways to ape the roles their gravity-defying members would play in the care and feeding of a certain recruit’s underutilized female body parts.

“That’s it? That’s all you got?” Jamie scoffed back in those rare moments when the DIs weren’t crawling all over them. “Jeez, look—it’s starting to curl now. Like a itty-bitty pretzel.”

No one she targeted could prevent himself from checking out the state of his equipment, as did any others within earshot. This diverted them—briefly—from her to each other. Often it even elicited a laugh. But the men around her refused to buddy up. Not even Arnoldt, who was in her squad but acted like he’d never seen her before.

Jamie remained on the far side of a great divide, on her own. Sixty-four to one. She told herself this was what she’d expected all along. She told herself every morning, in the pseudo privacy of the F-head, where she got to shit and shower alone while a bullyragging DI always stood next to the doorway, counting her down.

“Ten…nine…sixfive…four…two…” She learned damn fast to be standing in the doorway at meticulous attention by the time the count reached zero, ready to grab the bar some sadist had put across the top of the F-head door frame and pop off pullups until her arms and back melted.

Thus began each training day. Every other day brought a new mindfuck. Like with the sandpits, those soggy, flea-infested hells just outside the barracks where bouts of physical training weren’t supposed to exceed five minutes. The DIs simply ordered recruits to scramble from one sandpit to the other twenty feet away for another five minutes of “incentivization.”

Not even the kill hat’s relentless demand for more pullups faster, faster galvanized Jamie’s No! quite like doing pushups in the sandpit. She, not he, would decide when her body hurt too much and when she stopped.

“Sir,” she’d croak. “Can’t.” And she’d halt just shy of the unequivocal exhaustion the DIs demanded, flattening onto her belly. I am not a convict. I am not a slave. That’s all you get!

Jamie tried to remember what she’d said to that damn recruiter back in Hyannis, because a couple of weeks in the platoon—during which she’d had maybe, just maybe three hours of free time and not one single night of uninterrupted sleep—had convinced her the DIs and the recruiters must be in cahoots.

She recalled telling the recruiter about how her buddy Josh would sneak off with one of his cop father’s guns and they’d go shoot up the dunes in Bodfish Park, about how she always did better than Josh, who was older than her, bigger than her, who called her Fucking Annie Fucking Oakley. She had hoped it would help her get in, even though the Barnstable County Wheels of Justice had almost made roadkill of her, even though she had only a GED, even though she’d be enlisting just a day after turning seventeen.

Those conversations, all informal and friendly, had gone fuzzy in the sandpit, in the squadbay. Of course she’d mentioned being asked by the coach to join the high school gymnastics team all the way back in sixth grade. And she must have bragged about that iron cross on the rings, about being the only girl so far at Barnstable High School to do
it.

Never attract a screw’s attention. But she’d done twenty-six pullups during the Initial Strength Test—about twenty too many.

That had to be it. Plus maybe she wasn’t so good at hiding the how-fucking-dare-you that burned through her chest whenever a DI voice called her maggot or fugger.

So, okay, she’d attracted the screws’ attention. But she wasn’t the only one. The guides, the squad leaders and scribes and other “special recruits” all got smoked plenty.

So, okay, it wasn’t entirely personal either. She grasped, at least in principle, the idea that the whole squad or even the whole platoon would be pounded for the fuckup of just one person. It was supposed to encourage teamwork.

But Jamie didn’t trust teams. Not the kind where your performance, your survival, depended on other people. Because other people couldn’t be depended on. Certainly the guys in her squad couldn’t be depended on.

Not even three weeks into training, and somebody had mucked up her weapon so it didn’t pass inspection, swiped her boonie hat so she wasn’t in proper uniform when it mattered to be in proper uniform. Both times the whole squad got slammed and she got the blame. If this is frigging teamwork, give me alone every time.

The DIs, however, were merciless—like sharks who smelled the possibility of blood in the water. Her blood.

Jamie came to Parris Island already too lean, too stressed to menstruate. She never even bothered with an ovu-suppress patch. Yet the DIs had other ways to make her bleed. Although even mild derogations like “pussy” and “bitch” had been banished from DI-speak, “bleed” remained acceptable, and it became the kill hat’s favorite word.

“How come you’re letting your squad bleed like this, Gwynmorgan? Whatsamatter, you got cramps? Need a lie-down, sistah?”

“Sir-No-Sir!”

“Squad, on your foul faces and gimme another bleeding thirty. ’Cept you, sistah. Recruit Gwynmorgan will rest her delicate little heinie right over here next to me and keep count for her squad. Sound off, sistah!”

 

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