Road Runner, by Bianca Brutaldo
Chapter 11
Sometimes things change faster than a breath and when they do you find you can’t breathe

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The next morning, a nurse stops by our room.

“You,” she says, pointing at me. She motions to the chair. I’m irritated – this is the worst possible day to be late to PT.

“I have to get to PT,” I say.

“PT is canceled for you today. Get in the chair,” the nurse says. She’s not dressed like a nurse. I can see Shanna smirking as I get in the chair. In the hallway, we turn right instead of left, through steel doors, up an elevator, to another wing of the hospital. Through the last set of doors, the cracked linoleum floors give way to polished cracked tile, and the walls are a shade of white that is whiter than anything I knew existed. So beautifully white my eyes water. Doctors and important-looking military personnel stroll past me in conversation. I’m wheeled to a table in an alcove next to huge sparkling windows – windows without bars, large enough for a person to jump through. For the first time, I can see the skyline of Reno glittering in the hazy sunrise. I can see downtown! I can see –

A woman in uniform steps forward and snaps the curtains closed. I hadn’t even noticed her.

“Sign here,” she says, sliding a sheaf of papers in front of me and a pen.

“What am I signing?”

She rolls her eyes. “Your enlistment contract.”

“To be a commissioned officer?” I did it! I beat Shanna!

The woman laughs. “Oh no. The optics on that would be terrible. We went with someone else.”

“What optics?” I ask. “You mean my leg?”

She ignores me. They probably want a showpony that can walk on its own, I decide.

“Command is impressed with the progress you’ve made,” she continues. “You’ve been offered a spot at Officer Candidate School. Read and sign, please.”

I lower my gaze and start reading:

PRINCIPAL PURPOSE(S): To record enlistment or reenlistment into the U.S. Armed Forces. ROUTINE USE(S): This form becomes a part of the Service's Enlisted Master File and Field Personnel File. All uses of the form are internal to the relevant Service.

AGREEMENTS: Upon signing this contract I agree to enlist in Officer Candidates School (OCS), for which I will be required to participate in training for a minimum of three (3) years before any voluntary request for disenrollment will be considered. A disenrollment, whether voluntary or for cause, will fully void the enlistment contract and result in my discharge. I understand that, should I terminate attendance at OCS prior to the completion of the requisite training without the concurrence of the Commanding Officer of OCS, the U.S. Armed Forces are under no obligation to settle resultant travel expenses...

I don’t know what any of it means but I sign anyway. This is what I’ve been working towards, waiting for. I should be celebrating. But all I feel is confusion and dread.

I’m eager to return to my room and share my news – and watch Shanna’s dull brown eyes widen with envy – but I’m not given the chance to gloat, say my goodbyes, or even pack my meager military-issued things.

The woman sweeps away my paperwork and returns with a packed duffle bag – what my roommates called a ruksack. I’m wheeled to yet another room, where I wait. And wait. And wait. When the door finally opens, it isn’t the respite from boredom I’d hoped for: in hobbels Shanna on crutches. A nurse follows with a ruksack identical to mine. She takes a seat at the opposite end of the room. We wait. And wait. And wait.

“I got my papers for officer training school,” I say when I can’t hold in my gloat one second longer. “I leave today.”

“Oh really? I was awarded a battlefield commission today,” she says. “I’m officially an officer now, so technically you should salute me when I enter a room.”

They chose Shanna as their showpony. I feel my face flushing. It doesn’t make sense. I’m better than her, and her disability is worse than mine. Why would they choose her over me?

“I thought battlefield commissions were reserved for people who perform well in battle, not for idiots who get their legs blown off during peacetime,” I say. “But good for you, Officer Shanna! Pity points are still points!”

“You should crawl back to wherever you came from,” she hisses.

“I would if I could,” I respond, envisioning my bedroom in Reno. “My home, my family, is probably two miles from here. I bet I could make it, even crawling. I also bet no one’s worried about you or cares what happens to you. So you can suck on that until your face caves in.”

That shuts her up. We sit in angry silence until a nurse comes to collect me.

“You okay honey?” she asks. I realize she’s talking to Shanna, whose cheeks are wet with tears.

Shanna nods.

I won’t apologize; she started it. I feel vicious and victorious, and I’m not sure that’s right but it feels better than feeling guilty. But my good feeling doesn’t last. In a blur, I’m wheeled to an elevator and out to a military vehicle, which whisks me to a train station full of people in uniform, all of them healthy and whole. The driver helps me to a pillar, since I’m without wheels or a crutch.

A ticket is placed in my hand and suddenly, I’m alone.

“Marseilles Training Center, Illinois,” I read aloud. Oh shit. Illinois? I don’t know where that even is – it didn’t occur to me I’d have to leave Nevada. What about my family? Will they even know I’ve gone?

I collapse against the pillar to keep from falling over. Soon, a train will come and then it will go and I’ll go with it, onwards to a future I can’t quite envision. I fantasized about this from my room in Reno, so why does it now feel as if I’m being emptied out of every good feeling my body has ever held? My hand shakes. I try to control my breathing but the air cuts into my lungs. Everything is happening so fast. What have I done? I’ve never left Reno before. What have I done?

A train whistles and trundles into the station. It would be impressive if I didn’t feel like I was about to throw up my organs, starting with my heart.

“This your train?” a train person asks, picking up my ruksack. I look up; it is. I can’t speak, so I nod. He helps me board. What other choice do I have?

I claim a seat by the window, clutching the ruksack to my chest. The train ride takes three long days. At each stop, more people in uniforms embark and disembark until nearly every seat is taken. The train gets louder and louder as they strike up conversations with each other, laugh and jokes. I can feel them bonding around me but I can’t participate. Have you heard the phrase “paralyzed by fear”? All of these people are whole. I scan each body as it boards; unlike me, they all fill out their standard issue pants and shirts. I’m terrified of standing and watching them all turn to stare at my empty cuffed pant leg. I’m terrified of tripping over a foot or stray strap. I’m terrified of losing my balance as the train trundles down the track. They will wonder, whisper about my stump. I’m terrified of their questions. I’m terrified of the prospect of trying to make friends with strangers who aren’t broken.

So I stare out the window and focus on the breathing exercises Kate taught me for when I’m feeling depressed or overwhelmed. I call them my Katercises:

Plug one nostril, breathe in deeply, breathe out through the mouth.

Plug the other nostril, breathe in deeply, breathe out through the mouth.

Unplug both nostrils and breathe in deepest, breathe out through the mouth.

(Repeat for hours.)

I probably look like a freak but hey, at least I’m not hyperventilating or openly weeping. Each night, I wait with increasing urgency for everyone to settle down to sleep. Then I stand, stretch my kinked leg and wrecked back, and clinging to the tops of chairs for balance, I hobble through the dark to use the toilet. It is a rough three days.

We pass through cities: Salt Lake, Denver, Omaha, Des Moines, then Chicago. The conductor calls out each one. We stop. More people in uniform embark, the train slowly swells with Peacekeepers until not a seat is empty, and we trundle past buildings that look like they’ve been kicked in the teeth a few times. Corners crumble. Windows gape.

When we arrive in Chicago, a billboard greets us: “You’re never fully dressed without a smile,” it says above grinning red lips. It’s an advertisement for a lipstick on one of those old-timey billboards, the kind that sit there so long they could be called art, not the screens that flash government-approved news bulletins. But the red is peeling off. The lips look diseased.

It’s weird to think that there were once companies devoted to telling women their lips were the wrong color. Or that they should smile more. They’re probably still out there – those companies. They probably just don’t cater to my class of people.

In Chicago, the train mostly empties. I learned from train gossip that Chicago is popular with Peacekeepers. Not only does it take a small army to enforce the law, the city is ringed by hundreds of small casinos, each catering to a different predilection: bare knuckle fighting, dog racing, bare knuckle dog fighting.

“Final stop, Marseilles!” The conductor shouts as we slide past a skyline whose smooth skyscrapers have been replaced with cragged cliffs. Once towering buildings scarred by drillers, like me. Only these drillers were dropped from the sky by hypersonic missiles; missiles that traveled at 15 times the speed of sound. Vivian wears lipstick but I can’t remember the last time she smiled.

I’m starting to panic again. I look around the mostly empty car. Everyone left will soon be my peers. They all look bigger, stronger, wholer, than me. Even their clothes are nicer, cleaner than anything I’ve ever seen. If I wasn’t afraid to stand, I’d go hide in the toilet.

Another hour and the train pulls into a small station. On the platform, they’re waiting for us – the teachers or soldiers or teacher-soldiers. I duck down in the cracked leather seat. I don’t want to do this. The other students stream off the train. Orders are barked, students like up and march away, one by one. I don’t move. What’s the point? I can’t march. Maybe if I stay on the train, it will return to Nevada.

Eventually, I hear someone board. I still can’t bring myself to move. I close my eyes, the way children do when they don’t want to be seen. The way I expect prey does when a predator is close. Bootsteps approach.

“Cadet Gonzales?”

I open my eyes and see boots and legs. My gaze travels past a uniform, gloves, to a head that is almost completely hidden under a matte metal helmet. It caps his skull like a second skin, shielding everything but the tip of his nose and mouth. When he smiles at me, a polite “I won’t bite” type of smile, a slim, twisted ribbon of pink scar tissue next to his lips turns bright white. The scar looks like those that decorate my arms, palms and legs. This man has clearly been through some shit.

I take in a deep, shaky breath. “Yes?”

He offers me his hand and I take it; it’s surprisingly warm through the glove.

“I’m First Lieutenant Stewart. Please allow me to help you off the train.”

So I do.