In the five or so months I’ve been in PT, some patterns have emerged. For instance, you can tell when the brass is scheduled for a walk-through because the floor becomes slick with clean, and even the handprints on the walls look slightly buffed. This morning is one of those mornings. It amazes me that so many years after the war, the hospital is still so full. Many are vets with shaky hands and haunted eyes, but many others are young, like me. And their wounds are fresh, like mine.
I didn’t expect to see brass in the Pain Cage but there they are when Shanna and I arrive at 0600. Six of them but no Richards, which is a disappointment. I’m sure he’d be surprised by my progress.
The PTs avoid looking at the brass the way you ignore someone you want to impress. Their chests are extra puffed as we line up in three neat rows of 10 to take our assignments. You’d think the Pain Cage would be segregated by rank but it’s not – it’s segregated by injury. Those with leg and torso injuries – the majority of us – are up front. Some sit on the ground, although I’m good at balancing now, with or without my crutch. The walkies – those with eye, arm and hand injuries – are in back. I’ve seen people flit in and out of the Pain Cage in as little as a week before they go to wherever they’re headed. Kate says most are discharged.
“You aren’t much use when you can’t hold a gun anymore,” Ruth says, laughing like her mouth is full of cut glass.
“So what are you going to do when you get out of here?”
And I’ve heard there are still others whose scars and trauma are internal. The are in a different ward of the hospital. Kate says their stays here are much, much longer.
PT Schultz heel-toes forward.
“Servicemembers, listen up! It is my privilege to introduce Major General Howard Lee to share some remarks with you! You will give him your full attention!”
Around me, the lines of mangled bodies stiffen and salute as best they can, so I do, too, but I feel like an imposter; I’m still learning the language of the military. Ruth says not to worry, they’ll drill it into me soon enough.
One of the brass, an older gentleman, steps forward. He is fat – the first truly fat man I’ve seen since the war. His neck is head-sized. His starched uniform struggles to contain him, let alone give the illusion of angles. The head brass squints his tiny eyes in the bright lights of the Pain Cage. Then he speaks:
“At ease,” he says, but no one is. “We, the United States Government, first do thank you for your service and sacrifice to our great nation. The hardships you are enduring are echoed in our fight for a free world – a free world that may be fractured but will never be defeated….”
He continues talking but it’s boring so I stop listening. I realize with a jolt that all the brass in the room are big. Not as big as the man in front of me, but larger than all the soldiers lined up and everyone back home. Why is that?
“... in a nation full of known unknowns that now rests uneasy in a world full of unknown unknowns, you have persevered to…”
I squeeze my left thigh. I’m not the strongest here but I’m getting strong. Some days, my bones ache with the weight of all this new muscle. My PT says I have to be careful of shin splints – or rather, shin splint.
“... which is why it is incumbent to evaluate your unique competencies for the following seven days in order to maximize our diversification, pursuant of Title 42 of the United States Code, section 12101. Thank you, dismissed.”
Wait – what did I just miss?
“They’re scouting for leaders with different abilities,” Kate tells me that night, when we’re all back in our room, waiting for the nurses to bring us our nightly dinner packets. The brass had stayed all day, watching us. “Having people like us represented in higher ranks proves that being differently-abled doesn’t mean you’re broken – it just means you’re unique. You can still have a thriving career in the military.”
“That’s a rosy way to spin a turd sandwich,” Ruth interjects. “We were all injured on duty – all of us except you, I suppose. And most of us are grunt soldiers. So they throw us a bone and promote a few of us to officers, while the rest of us will end up giving out boxes on ration patrol or whatever else useless shit job they can find. And we’ll take it. It’s either that or end up discharged and homeless.”
Ruth’s eyes slowly appraise me – my scarred arms, small frame, half a leg. “Which is why it’s so strange that you were given a Peacekeeper contract after getting your leg blown off. It’s weird they’d promise a good job and a new leg to some nobody like you. No offense.”
Everyone is staring at me now. My face flushes and pride nearly prompts me to argue that I’m not nobody, but nobody’d swallow that lie. Like them, I don’t know why I’m here.
“I’ll tell you another thing, Kate and I are too old to be showponies,” Ruth says, lifting the stump of her arm as if admiring the way the light glints off its shiny new scar tissue. “And Rio, why would you go to officer training school when you can bypass school and get the same result? You’re only about a level 2 abnormal. Level 5 is worthless. Both you legless girls, you want to dance again, you better wow them in therapy and pray for a commission. The prosthetics they put on grunts like us – they pry them off the corpses next door. Some of those limbs are older than you. Some have been through war. You’ll be lucky if yours even fits. Those officers, though: the military pours money into showponies like them.”
That night, I lay in bed, staring out our single milky window and listening to Shanna snore (another reason to dislike her). Not even the indignant caws of lusty roosters can lull me to sleep. Ruth’s right: why go to school when I can get an officer’s commission now, without even really trying, just for being myself? I grew up on stories of the American Dream; this is the American Dream come true. I need this because I’m sick of hobbling. It’s not enough to someday limp on a dead man’s leg – I need to sprint again. I need to stroll into Circus Circus and see Vivian fall to her knees – her only child to achieve the rank of officer! I need to outrank Phillips and Franks. I need to see them salute me while choking on their fear. I need to outrun the road runners. Perhaps, some day, I’ll even need to arrest them.
I’m still awake when the sun fills our window and my roommates stir. Ruth straps on her prosthetic foot, an oversized plastic thing that dwarfs her other foot by two shoe sizes, and that cuts and blisters her ankle. Watching her morning routine makes me more resolute. My only goal becomes beating Shanna at every exercise they throw our way. Maybe that’s not enough to earn a commission, perhaps I’m being petty, but it would be unbearable if she got one and I didn’t.
Over the next seven days, I embrace the Pain Cage. My one-legged squats – called pistols – are the lowest and tightest they’ve ever been. I manage my first pull up. I do not rest. I do not complain. I work and it works: That week, I finish nearly every set of exercises before Shanna. People with clipboards take note. Shanna’s eyebrows twitch. We both know I’m spanking her freckled ass watermelon red.
Then one of the brass returns – not the well-fed one. This man has a blunt gaze that assesses and dismisses you in an instant. I don’t know his ranking or anything, he’s clothed in the same sweatsuit we all wear, but our small cadre of PTs stand in rigid attention beside him. I notice he’s missing his right hand. Captain Rodgers, the head of our PT unit, steps forward.
“Listen up! Colonel Summers will be leading you this morning! You will give him your full attention and physical effort!”
Instead of the usual drills, the colonel directs us to the three-foot wrestler’s circle. My heart sinks. Here, it doesn’t matter how perfectly my good leg works. It doesn’t even matter that it takes everyone longer to beat me now. Eventually, they still push, roll, kick or throw me from the circle. Here, I have an unbeatable record for losing.
The colonel gestures for a fit, one-armed guy named Clarks to enter the circle with him. I assume he’s going to let Clarks pick his opponent like the PTs normally do until I realize that he is the opponent. Clarks has two inches, 20 years and at least a few pounds of muscle on the guy. But none of that matters when power’s involved.
“Attack,” the colonel orders quietly but Clarks just stands there, like he’s not sure what to do.
“Go on, soldier,” says the colonel, so Clarks takes a halting swing at him with his arm. The colonel ducks the punch and pivots to push Clarks forcefully behind, causing him to stumble out of the circle.
“Try it again, this time like you mean it,” the colonel says.
This time, Clarks takes a defensive stance, one foot in front of the other, his body turned sideways, left hand fisted near his lightly scarred face. He lost his dominant arm in a driller blast. He says he’s lucky; his best friend was blinded. Another soldier lost both legs.
Clarks shuffles forward and fakes a punch while the colonel lunges for his middle. They parry in a clumsy, entrancing harmony until the colonel ends it, beating him for a second time. After he helps Clarks to his feet, he utters a few low sentences and claps him on the back.
Then he looks back at the rest of us and chooses his next opponent. His fighting style is different than what I’ve observed here – it’s a combination of the regular military holds and regimented punches that I’ve borne the brunt of, plus something else. He fights using his whole body, not just his arms and legs, like the street kids I used to watch from my window in Reno. I wonder if that was their way of training to fight Peacekeepers.
The fights are fun to watch until I realize that he aims to wrestle all of us – including me.
He saves me for last. Maybe he’s heard it’ll be his quickest fight. And it’s true, I am one of the least able bodied, and by far the least skilled. But I’ve had two hours to watch the colonel and how he operates. I know I can’t beat him but I think I can put up a fight.
I limp into the circle on my crutch.
“Attack,” he tells me from the other side of the circle.
I shake my head. “You attack.”
I hear a few snorts of laughter behind me. The colonel gives me a small smile, squares up, and runs at me. I take a deep breath and scream. It’s loud enough, shrieky enough, to stop him in his tracks, if for only a second. That’s all I need – I pick up my crutch and swing it with both arms at his knees. I feel the soft crunch of his kneecap reverberate up my arms.
“Ow!” I hear cursing, then I am tackled. The crutch is ripped away. I open my mouth to scream again. While he’s struggling to cover my mouth I try to knee him in the balls. (This is not a military move but I’ve seen it executed with sickening accuracy on the street.)
He grunts. I missed my target but got close enough. He removes his hand from my mouth to cover his crotch and I scream again, a real high-pitched stunner that would make a banshee sing my praises.
He throws his torso back on me, sideways this time, using his hand to apply pressure to my windpipe and suddenly, this doesn’t feel like a game or a teachable moment. My vision goes blurry as I choke and cough, my arms pinned at my sides. I heave my body up with my good leg, trying to buck him off, but he’s heavy and I’m unbalanced. Just as I’m about to lose consciousness, the weight is lifted and I feel my body rolled twice, like an ungainly log, out of the circle. Once again, I lose.
I can hear the other soldiers clapping, whistling, even cheering as I lay there gasping for air.
“Helluva fight, legs!” someone shouts.
A gentle hand on my shoulder rolls me onto my back. The colonel’s face comes into focus. He’s crouching beside me.
I nod and sit up.
“That was some very, uh, imaginative fighting. Fantastic job catching me off guard and great use of your crutch. You’re feisty and you fight vicious, that’s good. People will underestimate you, which makes them easy to beat. You want to know how to take down anybody who’s stupid enough to take you on?”
I nod again. He smiles and in a few sentences, teaches me more than months of getting beat on the mat ever did.