Staff Sergeant James Hollister was already having a long day. Weaving through the network of Vienna, New Hampshire’s back roads that morning, searching for a path to the Army’s recruiting station that was plowed clear from the night’s storm, he’d gotten lost. Bored teens had been stealing the street signs all winter. Three-foot snowbanks hid all landmarks. Under a blanket of new snow, everything looked the same. It was like driving across the surface of the moon. It was nothing like Brooklyn. His rear tires slipped into the shoulder during a three-point turn. Now he would need to stay at work until nine to make up for the time he’d spent considering the latticework of frozen branches above his car, waiting for a tow.
Filling out his log a half-hour from leaving, Hollister felt something in the room shift. It was as if the air pressure had changed. When he looked up, she was standing in the doorway. The doorbell had not chimed. She was already inside, already watching him.
“Hello,” the girl said, scanning the office. Two American flags stood in the room’s corners. A muted television looped recruitment commercials by the door. The banner pinned to the back wall read “Proud to Protect.” Life-sized cardboard cutouts flanked Hollister’s desk, as if guarding him. She wore a blue ski jacket with black shoulders. Night turned the storefront’s plate-glass windows into mirrors: in the reflection, he read Vienna High Ski Team in white across her back.
Of course Hollister recognized Samantha Grady. She was slim, with large brown eyes, skin the color of sweetened coffee, and one freckle set in the center of her left cheek like a maker’s marking. Her black hair, straightened into a long poly tail, curled from underneath a knit ski cap to fall across her heart. A breath of cold air rushed over him. She looked the same as before.
“I’d like some information,” Samantha said, combing her fingers through her hair. “I’m thinking about signing up.”
Hollister glanced to his desk, which was covered with piles of handouts and tri-folded brochures. His mind felt numb. He collected one brochure from each pile and held the stack out for her. Samantha walked to the desk and took the papers. Squinting to read the small print among the pictures, brow furrowed, lips pressed together in concentration, she looked like a student studying for a quiz.
“What can you tell me about this one?” she asked, as if military service was a menu item she was considering for lunch. She held an Active Duty brochure.
“What do you want to know?”
“What will I do? Where will I be sent? That’s what I really want to know, I think. Iraq? Afghanistan? Maybe Iran or North Korea?” She stared at the brochure. Tracing the photos with her index finger, she dreamed of becoming a soldier. “How soon can I start?”
She first came to the recruiting station a year and a half earlier, soon after the Army sent Hollister to Vienna. The building was new then, and nothing worked. The heat came and went, the fluorescent lights flickered overhead, the doorbell did not work when pressed or rang for no reason, announcing no one. She asked the same questions then. He told her she could be a driver and spend her days chauffeuring generals to and from meetings. It was a good line, and it worked: he signed her up. After basic she started driving a truck through Iraq, one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.
“What do you want me to say?” Hollister asked. He waited for her answer. She only stared. “Do you want me to tell you something different? Or apologize? I am sorry. I am. But that won’t change what happened to you.”
Samantha opened her eyes wide, let her jaw fall slack, and held her hands to the sides of her face. “Oh no!” she said. “What happened to me?” She winked.
Hollister rested his elbows on the table and cradled his head in his hands. “You went to Fort Jackson for basic,” he said, “then the Third Infantry in Iraq. Your unit was hit in Kandahar. You were thrown from the truck.” He’d read about the attack online. An IED, a crowded market. Both legs gone above the knees, a shattered forearm, a severe concussion, and she was one of the lucky ones that day. She was air lifted to Landstuhl, and should have lived, but an allergic reaction to medicine meant to cure an infection took her life instead. Next came the escort home, the flag-draped coffin, the old-timers of Vietnam, Korea, even World War II saluting her funeral procession from the sidewalk downtown. Her name joined the others scrolling across the bottom of the public access channel on Memorial Day. All less than a year from signing.
That winter, on the anniversary of her death, Samantha Grady returned to Hollister after the sun went down. She asked which option was right for her. She choose Active Duty. She asked him what would happen, and he told her. She encouraged him to sign her up. She came back again and again to ask him the same questions, to hear the same answers. To remind him, to make him explain.
Hollister knew the dangers those enlisted faced. He knew the benefits, too, the careers they led, the path out of poverty service offered in areas short on opportunity. He remembered every name. Hands over his eyes, he could see each face.
The recruiting station’s doorbell chimed. Hollister looked up from the desk. No one was there. He felt as if hours had gone by; his watch told him five minutes had passed. His pamphlets lay scattered across the floor. Samantha Grady’s last words, her soft, “Thank you,” echoed in his mind long after, dissipating slowly as a frozen breath.