Two emotions war inside me. Excitement and Fear. No. It’s not fear, it’s closer to terror.
At some point today, I’ll be signing away the next two years of my life. When I put it like that, it doesn’t sound like a big deal. People in the military enlist for two or more years all the time.
It’s just that they know what they’re signing on for. I don’t. And they’re allowed to stay in touch with family and friends. Me? I’ll be totally isolated.
The words “totally isolated” ring in my head. That’s going to be difficult.
To combat the terror skittering through my body like a live wire, I focus on the positives. When I walk out of this super-secret program, my student debt of $98,371 will be canceled. That alone is almost worth the price of admission.
I wouldn’t have signed on, though, if they hadn’t sweetened the deal by offering me a salary of $100,000 a year. That’s more than twice what I could get as a chef straight out of school.
With free room and board, that inflated salary will be mostly intact when I exit the program in twenty-four months. I’ll be able to open my own bakery. I’ve been toying with a business plan and already have a name: The Sugar Rush.
Though this program is run by the military, I’m not scared for my life. They promised I’d have my own room and would never be in danger or even leave the US. When I told my parents, they asked I was being sent to Area 51. Very funny.
The program put me up at a decent motel in San Antonio, Texas last night. Right now, I’m boarding a van along with 19 other recruits. I imagine we’re on our way to what will be our ultimate destination.
Now that all of us are gathered in one place, my shit detector issues a red alert as I wonder why all of us are female. As my anxiety ramps, a petite blonde slides into the seat next to me and asks in a gentle Southern drawl, “Where do you think they’re taking us?”
I bite back my initial response, “nowhere good,” and shrug.
Our driver is a hulking two-hundred-pound guy wearing military fatigues and a pair of thick, dark sunglasses. He taps his finger against the “do not distract the driver” sign every time one of us steps forward to speak to him. It does not give a warm, fuzzy feeling. Just the opposite, it spikes my fear.
The little transport bus is quiet for the first half hour. We left civilization a while ago and are traveling through acres filled with scrubby bushes and occasional trees when the ice breaks and we all talk at once.
I’m not the only person who’s terrified about the contract we were told we’d have to sign the moment we reach our destination. It seems we’re all worried about where we’re going and what they expect us to do for the inflated wages we’re going to receive.
That old adage “beware of strangers bearing gifts” pops into my mind. It doesn’t bode well, especially since the government isn’t known for its warmhearted generosity.
“I looked into this as far as the Internet would take me, but I’m no hacker.” This is the woman who introduced herself as Riley.
Her bespectacled face is framed by a no-nonsense cut of straight, brown hair. Perhaps she’s a kindred spirit, because I sense a mountain of insecurity underneath her assured presence.
“Though the trail went cold no matter how hard I searched, one thing I discovered was that this is genuinely connected to the United States military. I not only read the contract they sent us, I had an attorney friend look it over. She confirmed they’re not allowed to harm or use us as medical guinea pigs without our consent.”
“Good to know.” My seatmate has introduced herself as Amber Dawn, which sounds even more charming the way she pronounces it—Ambuh. Wasn’t there an old country music song by that name? No. That wasn’t Amber Dawn. It was Delta Dawn.
We share a bit more about ourselves, then fall silent as the bus motors farther into what appears to be little more than wasteland. We’re traveling near-deserted highways that empty into two-lane roads. For miles, we’ve seen nothing but bushes, trees, and the remnants of dead towns.
I’ve squished my hands between my thighs to keep Amber from seeing them flutter. I don’t want to say anything gloomy in case all the women are feeling optimistic, but all the niggling worries that had been simmering quietly in the back of my mind have sprung up, larger than life.
It’s not like we’re all rocket scientists. I’m a pastry chef, for goodness’ sake. Riley said she’s a librarian, and Amber is a hairdresser. What does the military want from us? I don’t know, but the farther we travel, the more I believe I’m not going to like the explanation.
Find Chapter 2 here