The mist lay heavy on the island. It wasn’t even possible to see if there was an island, only big great blur on the ocean. He was an army man, relatively young officer compared to the other who stood next to him. The older man lighted a pipe and stared listlessly into the mist, as if he hoped for it to part or that he actually saw what was happening, he found that unlikely. After a long while of silence, the old man said. “How long have you been in service, Harry?”
“Sense the war started, sir.”
“Four years then… I heard you were very brave out there.”
“Thank you, sir…”
He recalled the battle that made him limp in one knee. He really wished he was out there on the battlefield again, but he would just be a hindrance at that hurt more than anything. Suddenly, there was a faint shriek that jittered him to the present and made him focus his eyes where the sound came, though it was impossible to know for sure, the mist distort even voices. After a while, he glanced at the old officer who stood motionless. If he felt something, he didn’t show.
“Do you think he got away?” the young officer asked. The old man didn’t bother to answer and stuck his head through the hatch by his feet. “Bring up the other one,” he said.
A man in prison uniform came out. Up until now, they had struggled as they were forced up on deck. Not this one. He was calm, almost content with his fate, he’d say, if it wasn’t for those eyes that told a different story; wide and sharp, picking up anything to his advantage. He didn’t ask questions either, not that they would give him any. They put him on a small rowboat, accompanied by three soldiers, and disappeared into the mist. “How many do you think we need to send, sir?”
“How many as it takes…”
“Is the island really that important?”
“It is… Besides, what self-respecting military man would accept defeat?”
A wise one, he thought to himself. They stood motionless and continued to peer into the mist, hearing only the paddles pierce through the calm water, too calm to be so far out in the ocean. This was a strange place… He’d do anything to be with his comrades on the battlefield again…
Banks was just 18 when he joined the war. Conscriptions were common, but the very young was mostly spared the drafting, unless the war went really bad. So far, the conscription age was 21 but Banks insisted to join the effort. How could he not? Propaganda was everywhere, spewing its patriotic rhetoric on the radio and town meetings, urging the country’s finest to join the cause. Banks father was a veteran: Lt. George Fair, was his name, and he was infamous among his peers to be ruthless to his men, but most of them also came back home alive, which couldn’t be said for most Platoons. George was a revered leader for those that knew him in the army. Those that knew him in civilian life would not say the same. Away from the frontlines, he was quiet and a loving father and husband, patient and not prone to violence even when confronted by it. It was strange how somebody could change that much in a couple of years, but then again, the battlefield was a different world entirely, something that those that had been to war knew all too well.
When Banks learned about his fathers reputation, which was much later in life because George didn’t like telling stories of his time in the trenches, Banks felt the need to prove himself. But to whom? His parents? The last thing they wanted was to see him sent off to war; to his friends? They didn’t want to go anymore than other kids, his age; to himself? Most likely, why? Even his father couldn’t figure that out. He tried to convince him every which way, telling his son in minute details what war was about, but he couldn’t see the horror that awaited him, as any that had lived their lives is the safety of their home. But Banks was no fool. He knew the risks involved, as much as anyone that hadn’t been to war themselves. But there was one thing he wanted to change about himself, and war seemed to be the only way he could. He was a coward, plain and simple, he had been all his life, it seemed, he remembered being called so on several occasions. He would rather run than to face danger, but the war seemed distant enough that he could muster the courage to take the leap into danger where there was no return. It was cheap, and delusional tactic, but it would work all the same. He would come back from the war a man, he promised, and become his father’s son. To prove he could be just as brave.
But things rarely turn out the way we imagine. The first weeks on basic training was hard on him. He had trouble following basic directions, his mind had a tendency to wander, but he wasn’t weaker than anyone else and could keep up well enough during training. He was a decent marksman too, that is, until tragedy struck. They were having a mock battle in the forest and they were running from one point to where the enemy lay hidden. They used live ammunition for this and they would pretend the targets set out for them were real people, simple enough, tiering, but simple. It had been raining the day before and one could easily lose their entire boot in the mud. Banks was careful not to put his entire weight down as he ran with the others, while still trying to keep up, it worked somehow and they were almost at the flashpoint when somebody in front tripped and there was a bang, and then there was blood. Banks didn’t comprehend what happened at first, but as his comrade fell like a sack of potatoes in front of him and he bent down to help him up, he saw red gush out of his head. He was dead. The comrade that had tripped had forgotten to put the safety on and had pulled the trigger. He was reprimanded afterwards for negligence. He didn’t go to prison, these things happened and it would be a strain on the system to jail every which mistake which would otherwise land you in prison if you were a civilian. He was forced to leave the army, however. He wasn’t sure if that was punishment or not. It didn’t matter, however, because it was the first time Banks saw death, hell for all he knew, it was the first time he saw blood! Something changed within him, then. He first noticed it at the gun range. The targets were formed like people but they didn’t look anywhere near human enough to spark anyones imagination, but his did. He saw a person before him and he saw what he was about to do with him, fill him with holes. No matter how much the captain barked at him, he couldn’t pull the trigger. He was punished for it, and he would have gun to jail for it if they weren’t in the middle of war. That’s something strange, isn’t it? You don’t get punished for killing your comrade but you do get punished for not killing the enemy, an imaginary enemy, that is. After a while, he was able to fire a couple of shots, but only because he closed his eyes right before. He didn’t hit much with this tactic but the captain was pleased, saw it as a step in the right direction, but Banks wasn’t sure. Something had changed inside of him, or maybe seeing death truly brought out the person he really was, a coward. He knew then he would never fire a gun at another human being, not to save his life. Would he to save somebody he loved? He wasn’t sure, it was possible, though, he didn’t see how this changed anything.
Every morning at training, they passed a pay phone at the kiosk near the gate. He stared at it as they passed, increasing his lung capacity for a mission he would be unable to do. His father had told him he could call any time, that he could get him out if he changed his mind. He apparently still had connection within the military. “I’ll figure it out,” he had said. Looking at the pay phone brought him a pang of disappointment as he considered calling, but every time he decided not to. He would break through this curse of his, he thought, but as the months passed and the only thing the captain complained about was his aim, he realised he would be good for nothing on the battlefield and he refused to be a burden, on top of all else. It was evening when he reached for the phone and called the number. His heart beat faster as the tone beeped and he wondered what he was going to say. He could hang up right now and try again tomorrow, he told himself, somehow, admitting defeat was harder than trying to shoot somebody. It’s always hard to face the truth and hope always lingers and drives you to do crazy things, like joining the army even though you are a coward…
As he waited for the phone to ring, he noticed a poster on the billboard. It was large and colourful and he wondered how he could’ve missed it until today: It called for people of special talent. It didn’t say specifically what that talent was but it said that anyone who signed up was to be sent on a special mission off the coast of Gordige, which, incidentally was far from the frontlines. A top secret mission, it said. Banks hung up the phone, even as he heard his father answer on the other end and felt bad about it for a second before hope spurned within him. He could not possibly encounter the enemy so close to our border, could they? He tried to picture the great ocean between them and he came to the conclusion that it was unlikely. Would they take him even with his bad track record? He wondered and noted down the time and place. He decided he didn’t even care what sort of mission it was, if he could serve his country with little risk in seeing actual combat, he’d do anything.
He was in high spirit until he came up to the building the meeting was held and waited in the hall. He was sure they wouldn’t take him, a special mission demanded special people and he wasn’t extraordinary in anything the military held value, he was certain. There was a few other people waiting in the hall. They kept to themselves, long distances between them and Banks held his gaze to his feet, only glancing slightly as he passed them one by one, hoping to get a glimpse of the kind of people they were. But he couldn’t discern anything. They seemed confident, though, loners, dangerous people, he decided and he waited furthest from the other end of the hallway. One by one they were called inside. Their reaction didn’t reveal if they had passed. Perhaps it would be decided later? He was the last person to be called in and he was greeted by three military men, officers, by the looks of it, sitting behind a table with one stool placed in front for him to sit on. He placed himself nervously. “State your name and rank, soldier,” a voice said.
It was hard to distinguish them from one another with the sun at their back. “Bank’s, Fair Bank’s, he said. Private in training.”
They scribbled down his name. The one in the middle leaned to the one on the right and whispered something he couldn’t hear. They were discussing something, then they said. “Why do you want to be on this mission?”
Banks had prepared for this, if anything, they would ask his reasons and he had practised. “One should do what they can to the motherland. No matter what you ask of me, I’ll do it without fail.”
They seemed to like the answer as they murmured amongst themselves. As it seemed the interview was over, the one in the middle leaned forward and said. “Does your father know you are accepting this mission?”
Banks swallowed. To think he would encounter a friend of his fathers! “Y—Yes! He’s very proud of me for doing it,” he lied.
The officer didn’t seem to buy it as he hesitated, but the one on the right said something in a low voice and the middle guy nodded. “You can go,” he said.
Banks stood and hesitated. “Did I— did I make the cut?”
A short, “Yes,” was the only answer and Banks took a breath of relief and headed back to the barracks as if a large boulder have been raised from his back. He was in much higher spirit then. The rest of the training he performed well in everything, except the gun range, which he still closed his eyes at every shot. The captain was pleased with his progress and told him he would do well once his life was in danger, he would make his first kill. It was remarkably similar logic to that he had had before joining the army, he thought, and he wasn’t so sure it was true anymore. In any case, basic training was over and they would be shipped off to their destinations within a few days and Banks decided to head home and share the good news.
His parents greeted him warmly, but soberly, they knew his time for battle was soon but they were remarked how calm he was. Banks revelled in the praise and held his information to himself for a couple of hours before he told where he would go. His father stared at him, expressionless but his eyes wide, as if he remembered something. “What’s the island called?” He asked.
“They wouldn’t say,” Banks stammered.
George went quiet and left the room. Banks could hear him pick up the phone and was talking with a muffled voice through the walls. His mother sat and tried to be friendly, offering cookies and tea but she couldn’t pretend that something hadn’t upset him. They suddenly heard a loud thud and his father came out breathing heavily. “Ungrateful fool,” he snarled beneath his breath.
Banks had never seen his father so angry, he had very rarely seen his father even furrow his brow, and he was struck with uncertainty, he didn’t know how to handle him when he was like that, Banks realised.
“What’s the matter, honey?” His mother said.
One look at his wife George soften his expression. Banks had always wondered how his father kept calm during his many shenanigans, now he knew.
“It’s nothing… Would you mind going into the kitchen for a while? I need to speak with our son.”
“Oh, okay,” she said and left. They had a remarkable trust, Banks noted, they complemented each other perfectly. Then he turned his attention at his father who placed himself in front of him, looking grave.
“I want to tell you something. I hope to god that I am wrong on this, but if it turns to the worst, you should know about it.”
Banks froze, all his attention were on listening.
“When I was in the military, before I was shipped off across the ocean, there was a rumour floating about about ship full of men being sent to somewhere off the coast of Gardige, the boat always came back empty and it would be restocked with new men the next day. Several rounds of people disappeared that way. At first we believed the were sent to do labour somewhere, they were convicts after all. I didn’t think much of it then because I was sent shortly after to the war. When I came back home, I encountered a friend who was the happy go lucky type, friendly and full of energy. But when I encountered him back on land, he was different. His eyes were sunken in, like they were trying to hide inside his head. He slumped and though a smile crept up when he saw me, it was a meagre smile for him. The war had changed him, I thought, I was only half right. He told me that he had been in charge of the ferries that took those prisoners to some island off the coast. He didn’t know what they were sent for, but they all came back in body bags. He had had to collect them. It took several rounds before they were all collected. “They are all dead,” he said. “Every single one of them, well, except for one. I forget his name but I didn’t try to find out. The less I know about this the better.”
“I agreed with him and spoke nothing of it to anyone, I hadn’t even made the thought until the Gardige coast jiggled my memory… The point is, my son, I thought you should know and if anything feels strange, anything at all, I want you to prioritise your life and get back home, you understand?”
Banks thought it was a pitiful to try and scare him like that. His father truly didn’t think highly of him and it made him sad. But he saw real concern in his father’s eyes and smiled softly, promising that he would be careful. His father didn’t seem all that convinced, but he nodded and called back his mother who brought a tray of cookies with her. Banks pitied his parents, it must be hard to have children to always concern about. He wondered how he would’ve handled if his future son would go to war, would he try to stop him? But no matter how much he thought, he couldn’t picture this imaginary boy and thus couldn’t not understand the feeling of a parent. Incidentally, the conversation changed to the good times of his own childhood, which there were many. He had been fortunate to have such good parents and a pleasant childhood he almost regretted to leave. But that was exactly why he had to. Though he had a good childhood, it had not prepared him for the real world. He would make a man of himself, he promised, in any way that didn’t result in another man’s death… He went to bed, imagining what kind of assignment he would have, but he couldn’t picture it. Probably guard duty of some kind. But what could be so important it needed special guards so close to the mainland? Did they really expect the island to be attack or were they just cautious? Banks knew too little and couldn’t figure it out and he instead watched as the sun moved across the room until it disappeared to announce that it was time to sleep. And so he did, without fault, like he had always done, in this room, all his life.
The last day came quicker than he imagined. Time flies when you enjoy yourself and he had planned to do many more things before shipping off. All of this would have to wait for when he returned, which he would eventually, the war couldn’t last forever… He stood at the entrance, uniform and all, with bag and gun on his back. His parents stared sadly at him, yet they were smiling. Mustering every ounce of strength to keep a straight face. They didn’t want to let him leave on a sad note, and considering how long the hugs lasted, they didn’t want him to leave at all! Banks was sure if his mother could have her way, she would’ve held him for as long as the war would last if it meant that he would be forced to stay. She only let go after some reassuring word from his father, and even then, just reluctantly. They waved goodbye and he felt their gaze on his back as he disappeared down the hill. He had always had a good view from where he lived. Their house overlooked the docks, not the same docks he would be shipped from, but a smaller one he remembered often visiting as a child. His father would always take him there, chat and buy the latest catch. He would run off and play with the sailors kids who had to work with their fathers but found break whenever Banks father visited. They liked him for that and sometimes he wondered if that was all they liked about him. They were different from him, Banks knew already at that age, talking in a different manner than him. He tried to emulate them, be more like them because they seemed so free and fearless. If he emulated them, perhaps he would be fearless too? Banks shook his head, knowing he was already insecure at that age, but it would change now, he promised. There was a few people waiting at the buss stop, that would take him down the coast. Nobody wore a uniform as most had already been shipped off, and nobody was going where he was. The civilians shot awkward glances at him as they waited, they had many questions but were too polite or respectful to ask. Civilians admired those that took on service and Banks felt proud of wearing the uniform, even if it was the uniform that did all the work. He was a soldier, and he did his best to look the part, staring sternly ahead, back straight and shoulders back. Next to him, he noticed a kid gawk at his gun and he considered showing it to him, but despite the fact that it would be improper and that their parents would surely disapprove, he didn’t want children to idolise weapons. He held it on his back because he had to. It was not loaded, of course, they weren’t allowed to carry ammunition and it was the way he liked it.
The buss came and he placed himself at the front, like he used to. He enjoyed watching the scenery as they drove and perhaps chat with the driver, if he was up for it. This one wasn’t and he kept quiet, letting the bumping and the swaying lull him into an imaginary world in his mind. He almost fell asleep, but the driver pushed the breaks hard as he almost ran over somebody on the road and jerked him to his senses. The driver yelled at the pedestrian and the pedestrian scurried like a frightened rabbit, raising his fist once he was out of harms way. Banks chuckled, even the war could not change day to day life here, it seemed, and he was glad for it. A couple of minutes later he got off. It was a busy port with a lot of people bustling. Large ships lay docked, as well as smaller fishing boats. Crates of different kinds were rushed and stacked, hauled onto the deck of the massive ships. He was taken in by all the activity and had a hard time finding where he was supposed to go. He followed the shore line and scanned the ships until he saw green amongst the blue and white dressed sailors. Banks could see from a distance that it was a scruffy man with a large beard, but he wore the uniform along with the officers cap. He held a piece of paper and was peering as if looking for somebody. As Banks approached, he noticed him. Banks felt his gaze draw him in and he hurried towards him. “Name,” the scruffy officer said.
“It’s Banks, Fair Banks, sir.”
The officer scanned the paper and ticket off his name. “You’re late,” he said and gestured to go onboard.
“Sorry, sir,” Banks said and hurried up the ramp. The ramp swayed at his weight and he was glad to stand on deck. A sailor reached out and took his bag and left the gun on his shoulder. He would have to carry it still. As he found his bearings, he looked around. There were many on deck, leaning against the railing or the stern, or whatever the side of the boat was called, everything had different names in boat lingo… Some where in groups, others were alone in their own thoughts, gazing, or snoozing. Banks corrected the gun strap over his shoulder and walked awkwardly around. He wondered if there was anyone else from his regiment that had taken on the same mission? As he walked along the length of the boat, finding nobody, he ended up at the front. He stood and watched the sea as the boat cast away. The weather was clear and the ocean calm. It would be a short, pleasant trip and he smiled, taking it as a good sign for the mission to come. As he stood and watched, in a distant mind, somebody stood beside him. He didn’t notice him at first and he almost jumped in surprise as he noticed. The man beside him looked young and stern, frowning and squinting his eyes, as if he tried to emulate a weathered sailor that had too many bad memories to ever smile. Banks turned his gaze away, finding the silence awkward. “Fine weather we are having,” he said.
“Is it?” The man said and looked to the clouds. “I suppose it is…”
The talk didn’t break the awkwardness and Banks backed away. There sure were some strange people onboard, he thought and wandered aimlessly until he decided to check what was inside. There was a door and a small hallway that lead to a room where a bunch of people had gathered. Unlike above, voices were booming and Banks considered going back out when he heard his name being called. “Banks! Banks! Over here.”
Banks looked around the dim room and saw somebody waving. After a few steps he noticed who it was and a smile crept on to his lips. “Hjalmar…”
“Banks! You son of a gun, should’ve known you’d take the opportunity come come here too!”
Banks blushed, knowing full well what he meant. It hadn’t crossed him that other people had joined for the same reasons he was. They all seemed so confident and brooding that he was sure they were battle hardened already. Though it shouldn’t surprise him that a few had the same idea as him, especially Hjalmar. Hjalmar noticed him blushing and he smacked his back. “Oh, don’t be coy,” he said. “It is no secret.”
Banks was about to protest, why, he didn’t know. Perhaps he wanted to tell himself that he was going to do important work regardless, but before he could, Hjalmar was already introducing him to some of his friends. Well, friends might be a strong word because Hjalmar had already just met them, but that’s the thing with Hjalmar, he could make friends instantly and with everyone. Banks could not recall any time he’d seen Hjalmar alone. The closest had been during physical training, when they were jogging and Banks was slacking behind, Hjalmar would join him in his tempo, a tempo he could easily match, Banks suspected, yet he kept his pace and they talked, well, Hjalmar was talking and Banks was gasping. Either way, even if it was because he valued his friendship or because he wanted a reason to slack off himself, Banks sured valued his company and he was glad that he had joined as well.
Hjalmar introduced him to some names he had already forgotten. Except one, which was James. He was a bleary eyed man who was as quiet as he was, but he didn’t ooze insecurity, rather, he was quiet because he wanted to, not because he wasn’t brave enough to do so. “I’m Banks,” he said, offering his hand.
James took it politely. “So I’ve heard.”
Banks blushed again, knowing it was redundant to say but he wasn’t used to this and kept quiet. Hjalmar smiled and said. “Don’t be so awkward, we are all friends here. Have you seen anyone else from the regiment?” he asked.
Banks shook his head. “I’ve been up and down the length of the boat but have seen nobody.”
Hjalmar shrugged. “I’m not surprised. They were a zealous bunch, weren’t they?”
Banks remembered. Even those that had been rather weak, at least physically, became well drilled soldiers, hungry for battle. For some reason, he was different… He was not suited for war, was he? “Still,” he said. “Why shouldn’t they be here, it’s an important mission, isn’t it? I’m sure not anyone is chosen.”
They looked at Banks as he was stupid and Banks stammered to explain himself. “I — I mean, surely, the interview wasn’t for nothing… And —.”
“You know full well why we are here,” James said.
Banks was taken aback by the force in his voice, so different from the expression he presented. “You are a coward, like myself, or anyone else onboard. Don’t try to act as if you are in any different,” he said almost with a growl.
Banks was at loss of words.
Hjalmar put his arm around him.”It’s true; a voluntary mission to a cozy little island far from the battlefield. They pick only the most useless people for those.”
Banks started to flush, he had been found out.
Hjalmar punched him in the arm. “Don’t be ashamed, you are amongst friends here, watch,” he said and grabbed somebody who was passing by. “What’s your name, friend?”
His eyes darted between the three of them. “Harry, Harry Gallon.”
“Greetings, Harry! This is Banks and James. Do you maybe know where we are heading?”
Hjalmar had released him. “T— to an island?”
Hjalmar laughed. “Yes, that’s the extent we all know, isn’t it, but which one?”
“I saw on a map that there are hundreds off the coast, it’s impossible to know,” Banks said.
Hjalmar smiled creepily. “Well, I happened to talk to one of the sailors and though he didn’t say where we are going, he mentioned that one of the islands was haunted!” He said and waved his hands as if to imitate a ghost. “Ooooo.”
Banks and started laughing and Harry chuckled uncertainly.
“Shut up, Hjalmar,” James said.
“Oh, looks like somebody is afraid of ghosts!”
They laughed and more people started to gather around them, talking lively about where they came from and which regimen they served under. Banks was content to stand on the sidelines and watch as Hjalmar worked his magic. Even if he was a coward he was among friends, as Hjalmar had said. But in his mind, he couldn’t shake the feeling that there must be another purpose to the mission than to keep them out of the war. Where they really that useless as they suggested?