It was waiting for him when he walked in the door. Josie had put the mail on the small table in the entryway as if it were a normal day and, like any other day he passed it by. It was his sister’s eyes that told him something was different.
“You’ve got mail,” she said, her voice almost too calm. She was standing at the end of the stairway, and for a moment, he thought she was their mother. It was her hand fluttering up her blouse to rest at her throat that reminded him too clearly of what she’d do when anxious.
He tried to smile but knew by her expression that he wasn’t going to like whatever it was. “Groovy,” he forced out anyway, using the slang he knew she’d have a fit over. “Hope it’s something from Relena. I could use a laugh.” She didn’t rise to the bait, but only pressed her fingers deeper into the skin at her throat. He went to retrieve his mail.
Turning the envelope over in his hand didn’t change whom it was from or whose name was addressed on it - Mister Quatre R. Winner. It made him feel suddenly the adult his father wanted him to be and afraid of being that adult at the same time. He used a fingernail to peel up the sealed edge and then ripped it open with a finger.
In a half page of typed text, the letter drastically changed his life and the words jumping out at him could end it. His number had been called. He had less than thirty days to report. Vietnam. Two years active service. Mandatory conscription.
“Wha-what does it say?” Iria asked, moving into the hall properly.
He looked up from the letter and gave her a shaky grin. “It looks like I get to see parts of the world I’ve never seen before.”
“Oh, Quatre.” She had her fingers pressing into her mouth as to stifle the words she wanted to say. “But, I thought you were,” her other hand did a quick flutter in the air. “Exempt or something. For being a student.”
“No,” he told her taking the final two steps between them. “When I dropped out, I went back into the lottery system.” He was surprised she hadn’t started to cry yet, though he could see the welling in her eyes. “It’s going to be all right, Sis. No matter what happens, it’s going to work out.”
Her answering smile and tentative hug helped. With the letter still wadded in his hand, he gave her a quick embrace and backed away. “Does Dad know?” he asked softly, not looking at her.
“He hasn’t come home yet.” Iria pressed her fingers to her throat again. “He’s going to be upset.”
Quatre flashed her a glance and barely avoided snorting at her. “I think upset is putting it mildly.” Looking at the letter in his hand again, he said quietly, “Don’t tell him anything just yet, okay? I need to think about this first.”
“I really think he...” she trailed off when he gave her another look. “Okay, I won’t say anything for now. But, Quatre, you really need to discuss this with him. You know how he feels about this war. There are actions he can take to keep you from it.”
Already shaking his head, Quatre moved towards the stairs. “I know what sort of things he can do but for now, just let me think about it, okay?” He stopped before climbing and looked back at her. “Could you tell Josie I won’t be home for dinner tonight? I’m going to head over to Duo’s.”
Iria nodded, her eyes cloudy. “I’ll let her know. What do you want me to tell Dad where you’re at?”
Quatre smiled. “Tell him the truth. It’s not going to matter much one way or the other soon anyway.” He gripped the letter tighter in his hand and walked up the stairs.
Once his bedroom door closed behind him, he smoothed the letter out on his desk. For a moment, he wondered where Fort Riley Kansas was located. Resignation would come later, but for now, he read through the short note once more, looking for the mistake that would take away the unsettled flutter in his stomach. His thoughts were as hamsters in a wheel, jumping from word to word and back again.
When he left college last fall, he knew it would only be a matter of time before he was called up. It had been a necessary risk; one he wished could have been delayed another couple of months. Closing his eyes, he drew a deep breath, held it a moment and then released it slowly. He repeated the action twice more before he felt calm restored. Picking out specific words from the brief, he began to organize his thoughts.
Thirty days, he thought. That should be enough time to get things settled. Pulling out a sheet of paper, he began to jot down a list.
Car – Duo will take care of it for me. Can’t leave it for Iria. She has so much going on already.
His thoughts drifted back to when he and Duo had gone looking for just the right car. It’d been a warm autumn day, right after school during the start of their junior year. He’d been looking at a Cuda, but Duo suggested the Goat instead. In the three years he’d own it, he never regretted changing his mind. Dark red with black race stripes and a roll top, it was the best on the lot. When the salesman saw the wad of cash Quatre carried, he tried talking him into another car – one carrying a higher price tag. He might have been sixteen at the time, but the man found out how determined he could be.
The fact Duo eventually bought a Cuda never failed to amuse him.
Duo. He frowned and tapped his pen on the paper. What will I tell him? He’s not going to like it.
Years flew backward, giving the images a mutoscope feel. From the time his family had moved to the small city, Duo had been a part of his life. His first day of third grade in the middle of the school year, he was the new kid, and banished to eating his lunch alone. Duo had taken a seat beside him, and then made himself at home with his apple and potted meat sandwich, talking to him as though they’d known one another for years rather than hours.
It had taken Quatre almost a month to out-bargain Duo’s cagey trading practice. But by then, he’d begun adding a little more in his lunch-box to share.
Looking at the letter again, he tried to phrase what he would say, how he could relay the news. It didn’t matter; none of his close friends were going to like it. Relena, with her pacifist ways, the original hippie girl with flowers in her hair, granny skirts and talk of peace marches, rallies and sit-ins. Dorothy, her cynical side-kick, loving every minute of the dissension but he knew despite her words where her heart lay. The others from school had already distanced themselves; their lives continued when he left their inner sanctuary. And those who he’d left behind last fall had new cares and responsibilities. He could almost visualize the telling, and watch as the alarm turned into apathy. Most would view him as dead already for all the luck they’d wish.
Of the five he knew personally who’d been sent to Vietnam, two had died, two were still fighting and one returned home to never be the same.
Will - he added to the list. At nineteen, he never would have thought making one would be a requirement. His personal things he would leave to Iria. She would know without his saying who would benefit from them. His trust he’d leave for Duo, though he’d never tell the guy.
Quatre pushed the paper aside and rubbed at his eyes. He’d have to go through some stuff, box it up special so no one would find it. The thought of packing her letters and sending them back to her - at least for the duration - crossed his mind. It wasn’t something he wanted to think about, but he didn’t want to take the chance of his father finding them. His journals, he’d leave in Iria’s care. The other odds and ends of his childhood didn’t matter so much.
Telling his father of his decision would be the hardest. To be born short years prior to the loss of an older brother in the Korean conflict, Quatre had lived most his life with a father embittered by government policies regarding war and foreign affairs. Speaking out against the country’s lawmakers had earned him a reputation, and a spot on the McCarthy tribunal. Moving had helped. Public opinion mellowed, allowing life to return to more of a semblance of normalcy.
Like the paper he was writing on, he shoved thoughts of telling his father aside. A quick glance at the clock, and he rose to his feet. He would spend the day Saturday figuring out what to do, but for now, he had to get ready to pick up Duo. A typical Friday made atypical with two typed paragraphs and a rubber stamp signature.
He was going to war.