23 May 2024

6 – Initiatory journey

That night, Jacob went to bed proud of the work he’d accomplished. He was confident of what lay ahead and had no doubt that the Whitetails would try to enlist the female deputy, much to his delight.

He slipped into the tiny camp bed that alone furnished his small room. Pulling the cool blanket over his chest, he pondered his next move.

Once this woman would had been enlisted by the Whitetails, it would be easy for her to gain their trust and approach Eli Palmer, their leader. Once contact had been established, it would be all the easier to condition her to rid him once and for all of this pseudo militia which, even if it wasn’t enough to stop the cult, was nevertheless jeopardizing the Project and slowing its progress.

A smile spread across the veteran’s face, as his eyelids grew heavy.

* * *

A hellish heat envelops him. The air is stifling and oppressive. Jacob hears nothing, but he can feel someone violently shaking him. He opens his eyes to see Miller leaning over him. He’s shouting something at him, but Jacob can’t make out what it is, deafened by the blast. His comrade grabs him by the shoulders and pulls him forward, forcing him to stand up. Jacob is weak but still manages to stand feverishly on his feet. He looks down to see the damage. Both his legs are there, as are his arms, and no mortal wounds are visible. However, numerous small splinters seem to have penetrated his fatigues. Deafness now gives way to a shrill, incessant whistling.

He examines his torso more closely, running his numb fingers over the surface. Despite his shock, he realizes that shrapnel has pierced his uniform’s thick fabric, penetrating his skin and embedding themselves. He feels no pain. He knows that adrenalin keeps him in a state of alertness and survival, and he must take advantage of its effect.

Miller pulls him out of his torpor by the sleeve. The explosion could just as easily have been caused by an old mine buried and forgotten as by a bomb deliberately planted there. Or worse still, by a radio-controlled explosive device deliberately activated as the two men approached. Jacob doesn’t want to know. He painfully activates his aching muscles to follow his comrade and get as far away from this inferno as possible.

Now all around him is black, dark and silent. A bright light dazzled him. As his irises adjust, he remembers the place. He’s at the cinema with the whole elementary school. The teachers have taken the children to watch Gone with the Wind. Joseph is also there.

The screening has been going on for twenty minutes or so when Old Mad Seed, beside himself, bursts in and violently explodes the theater door, howling with rage. Horror clamors rise up in the room. Old Mad Seed grabs Jacob and runs through the seating rows until he finds Joseph, whom he in turn violently lifts. As he leaves, his two sons under his arms, he curses and threatens teachers and school officials. Only the Bible is allowed in the Seed home. The crazy old man doesn’t tolerate television, music or even comic books.

Once home, Jacob knows what he has to do and doesn’t object. On the old shabby house’s porch, he slowly removes his jacket and T-shirt, folding them carefully before laying them on the flayed floor. He falls to his knees to offer his pale back to Old Mad Seed, who has already undone his belt. Jacob says nothing. He knows he’s responsible for Joseph too. A shrill hiss tears through the silence before crashing down on him.

Old Mad Seed strikes. Again and again, until there’s no room left on the child’s scarred, blood-red back to carve new marks. Only tears beading at the corners of his eyes bear witness to Jacob’s suffering. He turns his head to meet Joseph’s gaze, standing back and watching the scene with a terrified expression, tear-soaked cheeks and flailing arms. He smiles at him, as if to say “Don’t worry, it’ll be all right”.

* * *

A scream tore through the silence of the night, waking Jacob. His own scream. He sat up in bed, sweating. Another one of those cursed nightmares that haunted him more and more often.

When he’d been discharged from the army, his life had become a living hell. He’d attended the veterans’ center for several months, but no one had been able to support him enough to make the feeling of uselessness he’d felt since returning from the war go away. He resented being back home while his brothers-in-arms continued to fall in the Middle East. He felt he met the necessary conditions for a new deployment, but the doctor had decided otherwise at the last medical check-up, compulsory for all Airborne 82 soldiers.

The psychiatrist had detected what he called PTSD in Jacob. He’d explained that this happened to many soldiers who had served in particularly hostile environments, or had undergone extremely stressful and traumatic situations. Jacob didn’t feel bad though. He felt ready to immediately return to the battlefield. He lived to defend the weak, it had always been that way, ever since he was a child. Even so, permission to return to duty was never granted.

When the veterans’ center’s staff could do no more for him, he was invited to reintegrate into professional and social life, to return to his family and lead a normal life. However, this was impossible. He had completed his compulsory schooling, then been placed in a juvenile reformatory. During his years there, he constantly confronted other children, often in defense of a weaker one, and defied his teachers’ authority.

They saw him as an intelligent and resourceful child, but he was brash and his behavior earned no respect. When he finished school at the juvenile detention center, he was faced with two choices : join the army or become a delinquent with no diploma in his pocket. He opted for the army. He had no family, and no idea where his brothers had been placed.

Recruit school had been much harder than he’d imagined. The physical training sometimes bordered on torture, and nothing was left to chance to eliminate the weakest from the start and keep only the elite. But Jacob put up with the pain and suffering that had made up most of his childhood, and fed off it to grow stronger.

Exemplary recruit, he quickly enlisted as a paratrooper with Airborne 82. When basic training was completed, he specialized further, joining the sniper team. Training in this section was far more difficult to assimilate than that of the paratroopers.

Indeed, hitting a target hundreds of meters – or sometimes even almost a mile – away required skills he’d never experienced before. Jacob had always had trouble managing his emotions. Calm, controlled breathing and freedom from distracting thoughts were, however, essential to the success of every shot. The slightest salvo required absolute concentration.

An owl’s hoot brought him out of his thoughts. He wiped his sweat-soaked face and stood up to pour water into his old metal cup. He contemplated his livid reflection in the mirror. Lack of sleep due to recurring nightmares had scarred his features. But curiously, the gleam in his steel-blue eyes had awakened as soon as the strangers had entered the chapel to arrest Joseph.

The flame had been further rekindled when he’d learned that the female deputy was in his area. Her recent capture and the start of her conditioning had further galvanized his emotions.

He downed his water ration in one gulp. He couldn’t wait for her to come back, for her to be captured and for the rest of the ordeal to pay off. He could already see himself announcing to his brothers that she belonged to him, that she had killed for him and that she would support him in every tactical maneuver he would undertake in the Project’s name.

He couldn’t wait to confront John. Even if envy was a sin, the thought of contemplating the disappointment in his eyes when he would realize he’d gotten his hands on her before he did excited him. He looked forward to the pride Joseph would feel in him, a far greater reward than the many medals he’d won in battle.

When his thirst was quenched and his pulse calmed, he went back to bed, something he rarely did. But tomorrow, he was determined to be in shape for the plan ahead. He had to be ready to face that she-devil if she showed up again in the Whitetail Mountains. He couldn’t let her get away from him, and certainly not leave her in John’s or Faith’s hands to be tortured or turned into a lobotomized angel. She was his soldier and, as such, he was responsible for her life and her destiny.

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