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The Outsider



Part of the Enfield Undrowned universe

© 2020 by The Outsider

Edited by Graybyrd

Distributed by Lucky 13 Media

All rights reserved

Civil engineer Todd Rook feels he has little to show for his time on the planet other than a good job and a few possessions. It will take a former friend from his past to make him understand what he has, and what he still needs.

Tags: Romance, Military, Workplace, Alternate Timeline

See the man with the lonely eyes
Oh, take his hand, you’ll be surprised

– Supertramp


“So, Todd, what’s your first choice of branch again?” my friend Sam asked before sipping her beer. We were two serious party animals: a pair of ROTC nerds trying to have a quiet chat at a fraternity party on a Saturday night.

“Corps of Engineers,” I answered without hesitation; with an excellent rating after Advanced Camp this past summer I should get my first choice. “You?”

“Aviation, even though it’s a long shot.” She shrugged; Sam hadn’t done as well, but she still rated above average. “I’ll likely get my second choice, which is Ordnance; it’d be a good fit for a mechanical engineer, too. Of course we’ll be managers more than anything.”

I nodded while sipping my own beer.

Sam and I met at our ROTC battalion’s welcome events during Freshman Orientation. I was a four-year scholarship cadet and they expected me to be there; she was walking by outside and thought rappelling off the building looked cool. Events during Orientation were good for drawing in some who hadn’t considered ROTC; some stayed on to receive commissions four years later. Sam was one such student.

Once classes started we ran into each other again in Engineering 101; she stood out as a female engineering student, and as a very attractive six-foot tall female. We clicked as friends right away and decided to join a freshman study group together.

She asked me plenty of questions about the military and ROTC after our classes and early study sessions. I suggested she talk to my Battalion’s MS1 instructor -- the officer who taught the first-year ROTC class -- if she was serious. She could take the first two years of ROTC without obligation.

The others in our study group shook their heads when Sam decided to join ROTC two months into our freshman year. While her parents weren’t exactly thrilled with her choice, she won a two-year ROTC scholarship in December of our sophomore year. That paid for her junior and senior years and made her decision more palatable to them -- slightly.

“Your parents stop freaking out yet?” I asked.

She shook her head. “They’d just about accepted that I’ll spend four years in the Army after graduation before September 11th happened; they started freaking out all over again after the attacks and now they won’t relax until I get out.”

September 11th. That day two months ago changed more than the course of our Army careers. At the start of our senior years our futures became much more certain in a very unwelcome way.

“Yeah,” I sighed. “Mom’s not too happy, either. I’m not sure if Dad being a veteran helped her deal with the reality or made it worse.”

“And your dad?”

“More philosophical about it than she is, even if as a parent it has him nervous.”

“You once told me he’s the reason you want to join the Army, right?”

“Yeah, he commanded an engineer company during the Gulf War. My time with the Engineers will give me some practical knowledge before I hit the civilian job market, too.”

Someone stepped between us and the room’s track lights, blotting them out like an eclipsing moon.

That’s no moon, I thought to myself. My eyes adjusted and I looked up at the unhappy face of Dan Lonergan, Sam’s current boyfriend. His countenance didn’t improve even when Sam jumped up to hug him.

“When did you get back?” she asked.

“Just now,” he growled while scowling at me. Dan played linebacker on our school’s football team; at six-four, two hundred sixty-five pounds he was a highly mobile destructive force on the field.

Sam slapped his chest. “Danny, don’t be like that! We’ve been over this! Todd is just a friend, and we’re in ROTC together! Knock it off!”

“Yeah, fine,” he grumbled. “I’m going to get a beer.” He stalked away.

“And, that’s my cue...” I muttered as I put my beer down. “I’ll see you Monday, Sam. Have a good rest of your weekend.”

“Todd, don’t go...”

“Sam, he doesn’t like me. Never has. The team lost today and the last thing I want to do is hang around an unhappy, drunk, inside linebacker who can’t stand me.”

“He’s not drunk, Todd.” Left unsaid was her usual protest over my ‘he doesn’t like me, Sam’ comment.

“Not yet, he’s not. I’ll see you next week.” I caught a glimpse of her hurt look as I turned away and stepped onto the patio outside. The cool November night felt good after the heat indoors.

“Hey, shithead!” I heard when I reached the lower patio. My stomach dropped.

I turned to face a still-unhappy Dan Lonergan who now had four or five of his fraternity brothers backing him up. I stood an inch taller than him but he outweighed me by at least thirty or forty pounds, maybe more.

“You stay the hell away from my girlfriend!” he said as he stepped up to me and poked a finger into my chest.

“She’s just a friend from class, Dan, nothing more.”

“I don’t want you around her!” he growled, stepping closer.

“Gonna be kinda hard for me to stay away, seeing as how we plan shit together on the battalion staff.” Sam was the battalion’s cadet supply officer this semester and I was one of the company commanders.

My head snapped back and I landed on my ass; I never even saw his headbutt coming. Pain from my crushed nose blossomed under my eyes. Dan loomed over me and grabbed my shirt, pulling me up toward him.

“You ain’t gonna be doin’ shit together, asshole!” His fist struck again and again. I lost count of the blows before I passed out.

Soft beeping is what I remember hearing next. I tried opening my eyes, but I was only fifty percent successful: my left eye was offline.

Okay, systems check: left eye out of service, jaw wired shut, ears ringing, a nose which didn’t feel right, wrapped left arm, sore ribs, and an elevated left leg which was also wrapped. The beeping behind me was likely the vital sign monitor; the blood pressure cuff on my right arm inflated on some pre-set schedule. I reached for the call button near my right hand when the cuff deflated.

“Hey, Sleeping Beauty!” a nurse chirped as she stepped into my room. She looked to be maybe five years older than my twenty-one years, five-six, short blonde hair, a smile, and a twinkle in her blue eyes.

“Hey,” I mumbled through the hardware holding my jaws immobile. Damn, even talking hurt.

“I’m Kelly, your nurse. How ya feeling?”

“Like I got curb-stomped.”

“Yeah,” she said, her smile slipping.

“How long have I been here?”

“EMS brought you into the ER early Sunday morning. That was three days ago.”

I closed my eyes. Eye. Shiiiiit... Three DAYS? I opened my right eye again. “So what’s the story?”

“I’m really not allowed to...”

LOOK,” I spat, which didn’t help the headache I also had. “Can we cut the bullshit? I seem to have gotten the shit kicked outta me and lost three days. I don’t need you to call some guy still paying off medical school to read my chart when I know you can do it just as easily; my mom’s a nurse, so I know you guys really run the place anyway.”

Kelly gave me a sad smile before telling me how bad things actually were: broken left cheek, possible detached left retina, broken lower jaw, broken nose, a concussion, hairline fractures of the two bones in my left forearm, broken ribs, bruised kidney. She saved the best for last.

“The orthopedic folks are waiting for the swelling in your left knee to go down before they try to repair the damage.”

My stomach dropped. “Damage?”

“Your left anterior cruciate ligament is trashed, along with the medial and possibly the lateral.” Kelly shrank back when she saw my reaction.

All I heard after that was the sound of a toilet flushing, the giant sucking sound of my dreams disappearing. Even if only two out of the four ligaments in my knee were torn I’d be lucky to walk unaided before next spring, let alone receive my commission. The posting to an airborne combat engineer unit I once hoped for would never happen now.

“Do you need something for the pain?” she asked hopefully.

“Go away.” The hell with everyone and everything.

“Mr. Rook...”

“Get out!”

The twinkle faded from her blue eyes; I never saw her in my room again. The nurses who did come in were nowhere near as friendly. Apparently I didn’t deserve friendly treatment after the way I treated Kelly. I couldn’t argue their point.

Later that day others came by -- the guy bringing my lunch, my parents, and the orthopedic surgeon. I didn’t give a shit about any of it and it showed. My surgeon explained what he hoped to do during the repair; “whatever” was my grunted response.

Colonel Ruotsalainen, commander of my ROTC battalion and my MS4 instructor, came by the next day with more stellar news. Given the damage to my knee they would convene a medical review board. I would be released from ROTC and my contract.

To this day, I don’t know where my next question came from.

“Sir, would the civilian side of the Corps of Engineers take me as an engineer, even with a torn-up knee?”

“I don’t see why they wouldn’t, why?”

“Rather than the government writing off whatever they paid for me to get my degree, wouldn’t it make more sense to still pay it back? Even if it’s not with the Army as I intended? I’ll offer to stay with them a minimum of five years, sir.”

The colonel’s eyebrows rose. “It won’t cost anything for me ask, Todd.”

“I’d appreciate it, sir. Thanks.”

When he left, I held a glimmer of hope that my idea might pan out; my soul felt a little lighter. When my next visitor knocked and stepped into my room the weight returned.

Shit -- Sam. I really didn’t want to talk to her right now. Or ever again.

“Whaddya want, Porter?” I spat.

“I came by to see how you’re doing, Todd,” she answered in a quiet voice. “I came by yesterday but you were still asleep.”

“Oh, I’m just peachy! If they unwrapped my left knee my lower leg would probably fall off, I’m going to be disenrolled from ROTC, and I’ll be lucky to graduate on time! All thanks to your boyfriend!”

“He’s not my boyfriend, not any more. Not after what he did. It took everything I had to pull him off you.”

“Fat lot of good that does me now.” My head dropped back onto the pillow. “Get the fuck away from me, Samantha. Go ruin someone else’s life.”

Sam’s eyes filled with tears; I had cut her off at the knees without as much as a chance to talk. She bolted from my room.

It would be nearly two decades before we saw each other again.

<... ahOOOOga! ... ahOOOOga! ... ahOOOOga! ...>

The annoying klaxon of my alarm clock jerked me from sleep. I grabbed the clock and threw it to the floor, silencing it for nine more minutes.

<... ahOOOOga! ... ahOOOOga! ... ahOOOOga! ...>

God, I hate Mondays. Now I had to get out of bed and find that damn clock -- which is what a throwable alarm clock is designed to make you do.

I didn’t sleep well last night, but that didn’t change the fact it was time for work. All those beers watching football yesterday didn’t help, either. I shut off my alarm and sat back on the bed. I scrubbed at the heavy stubble on my face. No getting away without shaving today.

Putting weight on my left leg had been a joy. That knee wasn’t any happier than the rest of me -- in fact it hurt worse than usual. I knew that misstep at the job site Friday was going to come back to haunt me. Not doing my strengthening exercises didn’t help, either.

The forty year-old face staring back at me from the bathroom mirror looked as tired as I felt. I ran my hand through my thick but prematurely gray hair; I needed a haircut. I patted my stomach and grimaced at how it jiggled. I promised once again to get back into shape -- like I had every day for the past five or so years.

After a hot, leisurely shower I strapped my heavy-duty knee brace on and got ready for the day. I gave thanks once again for the baggy canvas work pants I favored. Unlike most pants I didn’t have to spend fifteen minutes trying to stretch them over my brace, or fighting in vain all day to get comfortable. I simply pulled these up and away I went -- albeit slowly.

Grabbing my work bag I limped out to my truck. Cliché, I know: a guy who works at construction sites drives a truck. Half the time I parked in a paved parking lot and worked in an office. It was the other half of the time when I needed it.

What I really needed today were my ultra-polarized prescription shades and maybe the sunscreen in my bag, depending how long I was on site. My backpack held those items along with my Corps of Engineers hardhat and my nifty inflatable PFD -- an inflatable personal flotation device or ‘life jacket’ for the uninformed in the audience. Working on the water you’d better slather that sunscreen on every place you have exposed places, and the higher the SPF the better. Reflected sunlight can cause sunburn inside your nostrils even on a cold fall day. Ask me how I know.

As a senior district engineer I didn’t really need to be out here checking on a project for the third day in a row. I was senior enough to have minions now, my minions all know their jobs, and I hate micro-management as much as they do. One of my minions was out here cutting her teeth as a sub-project lead, however, so I felt I needed to swing by.

Beth was good, just green. She worked her way up through the ranks in the district as a heavy equipment operator; she had the knowledge to manage this job, as well as the people skills, but this was also her first project and it was entirely on the river. The Mighty Mississippi wasn’t very forgiving. I knew the rest of the guys would watch out for her, but you can never underestimate Old Man River.

Standing five-foot-four in her steel-toed work boots, I dwarfed Beth at six-six in mine. The thirty-four year-old blonde cutie made jeans, a twill work shirt, and her float-coat look damned good; if my heart wasn’t a cold, dead cinder -- and if I wasn’t her boss -- she’d have more than my professional attention. Her husband might take issue with that, too. Still, it was hard not to smile around her.

A face that used to get me to smile -- one I hadn’t seen since college -- surfaced from my memories. I shook off the unwelcome ghost.

“Hey, boss,” Beth chirped as I stepped onto the barge waiting to take us to the site.

“Hi, Beth. How we looking?”

“Good. The other groups finished up with the new lock gates last week and will have them operational late today or early tomorrow. That’s freed up the equipment we need to place the rebar and forms inside the cofferdam today. We should be able to pour the foundations for the powerhouse mid-week. Give the hydraulic cement a week to cure after that and the crew will start placing the generators inside and putting up steel.”

“Sounds good. That’ll put the project a week ahead of schedule. Nicely done.”

She shrugged as the barge left the shore. “The crews know what they’re doing, and haven’t given me or the other supervisors any grief about getting stuff done. Especially not since I took care of Dolan that first day.”

Ah, yes, Tom Dolan. Asshole Extraordinaire. He’d been a thorn in my side since I reported to the Rock Island district office six years ago. A gifted heavy equipment operator like Beth, he wasted that well-earned reputation by being the most disagreeable person possible. He never started a job without bitching about it for ten minutes, then bitching about it the whole time doing it, or bitching about it to his buddies at the bar later. Usually it was a combination of all three.

He grabbed Beth’s ass the first day of the powerhouse job. Without blinking she raked her boot down his shin and smashed her forearm into his face when he bent over in pain; she hadn’t made it to site supervisor by being timid. Dolan flopped to the ground with blood streaming from his nose. She woke him up by dumping a five-gallon water cooler on him.

“Get this piece of shit off my job,” she growled before walking away. Four guys grabbed his arms and legs and tossed him in the back of his truck. I know he’d been crowing long and loud how he had seniority over Beth, and should be a supervisor instead of her; he now faced a constructive dismissal hearing.

Beth got a not-so-stern talking to from our boss, and a bouquet of flowers from the rest of the people on her crew. Anyone in our district would have done anything Beth asked even before that -- because she earned her position by working hard, and she asks. She also takes every opportunity to praise people’s work, though she won’t shy away from telling them when they messed up. She does it in a nice way, like a coach trying to teach and not as someone trying to embarrass them. People eat it up and treat her like their favorite kid sister. Doesn’t work for everyone, but it does for her.

That was a preview of Skyscrapers. To read the rest purchase the book.

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