The “Christmas location” is Leper’s home in Vermont, to which Gene takes a train that very night. In retrospect, he sees this late-night train trip as the first of many that he ultimately ended up taking across the country that year, shuttling to and from various military bases once he finally enlisted. This kind of travel, he notes, comprised the entirety of his military service during World War II. This is because America’s enemies were already retreating by the time he finally entered the war. The young men just a year older than him were the last ones, he now recognizes, to see true action.
At the beginning of this chapter, Gene jumps ahead in time to retrospectively situate his trip to Leper’s house. This experience, he says, is what stands out in his memory as the beginning of his involvement in the war. Although his military career was rather removed from any actual fighting, he reveals in this moment that his resolve to ignore the war (like Finny) eventually broke down. In turn, Knowles confirms that it is indeed impossible for Gene and his peers to keep the harsh realities of the outside world from encroaching on their lives.
Gene hopes that Leper’s use of the word “escape” doesn’t meant that he deserted the military. Hurtling toward Vermont, he convinces himself that Leper has perhaps escaped not from the military, but from foreign spies who have made their way into the United States. When he arrives, though, he quickly learns that Leper did indeed desert in order to avoid facing a Section Eight discharge, which the military gives to people who have become mentally unstable. Sitting in Leper’s dining room, he listens to his friend speak in an unhinged manner, having trouble reconciling this version of Leper with the boy he knew before. Testy and fragile, Leper tells him that he fled because he didn’t want an official Section Eight discharge, which would make it hard for him to get a job after the war.
The fact that Gene hopes Leper escaped from spies who have invaded the United States suggests that he has yet to fully grasp how serious the war really is. If he truly understood the gravity of this conflict, he wouldn’t hope that spies had snuck into the country, which would be an incredibly serious development. As it stands, though, he’s more focused on how the war influences his friends than how it impacts the country at large. In turn, he doesn’t want Leper to have run from the military because he knows that this would mean that Leper is in quite a bit of trouble. Furthermore, it would also suggest that the military itself is terrible—a scary thought, considering that Gene himself is most likely destined to join at some point.
As Leper tells Gene what happened, he senses that Gene thinks he’s a “psycho.” This word deeply troubles Gene, making him uncomfortable because of its serious, clinical sound. Suddenly, he can’t bear to sit in Leper’s dining room and listen to him speak. Moreover, he begins to worry about himself—after all, the military is what made Leper a “psycho,” and Gene must face the imminent possibility of getting drafted. With this in mind, he tells Leper to stop talking to him about his experience, but Leper only suggests that there’s nothing Gene can do to avoid the military. This enrages Gene, but Leper only laughs, insulting him by saying that there has always been something ugly lurking at his core. This, Leper says, is why Gene caused Finny’s fall.
It’s clear that Leper is unwell, but this doesn’t change the fact that he has put his finger on something that Gene wants desperately to deny: that there’s a bitterness within him that causes him to act selfishly, a bitterness that caused Finny’s fall. In essence, Leper doesn’t allow Gene to simply ignore the things that make him uncomfortable—he forces him to acknowledge that he too will likely experience the trials and tribulations of military life, and he also forces him to recognize the very shortcomings that he has spent the entire year trying to put out of his mind.
Outraged, Gene jumps up, but Leper only laughs hysterically. He reminds Gene that he ruined Finny’s life, and Gene can’t stop himself from kicking Leper’s chair, sending him falling to the ground. Quickly, Leper’s mother enters and admonishes Gene for acting spitefully toward her sick child. Gene apologizes profusely and turns to leave, but Leper insists that he stay for lunch. After eating, the two boys go for a walk, and Gene tells Leper that Brinker has changed a great deal, becoming much less cruel. Leper responds that Brinker will always be a “bastard,” even if he turns into Snow White. Having said this, he bursts into tears, sobbing because the image of Snow White’s head on the body of a man troubles him. He then explains that these kinds of hallucinations are what caused him to face a Section Eight discharge in the first place.
Once again, Gene deals with uncomfortable emotions by violently acting out against a friend. This time, he does so in order to stop Leper from forcing him to consider the fact that he—Gene—purposefully injured Finny. On another note, the fact that Leper started hallucinating when he was in the military suggests that the daily life of a solider was simply too much for him to take. This, in turn, will undoubtedly cause Gene to consider what effect the military would have on him.
Gene begs Leper to stop talking, but Leper either won’t or can’t. Unable to bear it any longer, Gene tells Leper to be quiet, insisting that this story has nothing to do with him and that he doesn’t care. Saying this, he runs away, leaving Leper as he blurts his story out in the snow-covered fields. As he rushes back to the train, Gene thinks about how he never wants to hear such a story ever again.
For now, Gene is able to simply block out reality by running away from Leper. However, it’s clear that he won’t be able to ignore the harsh realities of the outside world for very much longer. By retreating to Devon, he hopes to reenter an environment of false innocence, but the truth is that he will soon graduate and be forced to face the war, regardless of what he wants to think.