art by Billy Sagulo
by J.W. Alden
They tell you not to wear the uniform in public these days. Folks don't like to be reminded of the war. Not long ago, things were looking grim. Defense exercises lit up the night sky every other week. The skirmishes drew nearer to home with every engagement. Doomsayers were out in force everywhere you looked, screaming about imminent invasion. Things are different now. The enemy is on the run. We're winning. But the war has shaken the public's sense of security, maybe for good.
I feel the eyes on me as the hostess leads me to my table. I'm used to it. Half of them are regulars, but they still gawk like they're surprised to see me. The war had just begun when I first started coming here. People used to stare back then too, but the expressions were different. They didn't turn their heads when I looked. They smiled. Some of them would even shake my hand and thank me for my service. That doesn't happen anymore.
"The usual, Sergeant?" the waiter asks.
"Please. But I've told you to call me Paul about a hundred times."
"At least." He shrugs, and I understand. He's like the rest of them. He can't think of me as anything but a soldier. A walking reminder.
I'm halfway through my sandwich when I notice the little boy. By now, everyone else has lost interest; the chorus of clinks and murmurs has resumed. But the kid is still staring, eyes like silver dollars.
He smiles when our eyes meet, so I give him one back. He brings a chocolate-stained hand up to his forehead, threatening to spread the mess to his blonde tangles. He can't be older than six or seven. I return the salute just as his mom looks over. I try to smile at her too, but she's already looking away, scowling. I'm not close enough to hear what she says to the boy, but I can tell by his expression that it's not complimentary. He turns his attention to the coloring mat on the table, lips pouted, stealing the occasional glance when she's not looking.
I study the slow-moving ceiling fan in the center of the room, doing my best not to look in the kid's direction anymore. I don't want to get him in trouble, as grateful as I am to have found a pair of eyes unafraid to look my way. Still, I can't help but notice the blonde tuft bobbing up and down in my peripherals as he fidgets about. The second half of my sandwich takes a little longer than the first.
The mother is shouldering her purse to leave when the boy runs over. You'd think he was running into a burning building by the look in her eyes. "Jason, come back here!" she yells, and now everyone is watching again.
"You're a soldier," Jason says. It's not a question.
"How can you tell?" I ask.
"Your suit. I'm a soldier too, but don't tell Mom."