They give me a roommate and a leg, but neither is quite what I wanted. The leg is a simple plastic peg-like thing that straps to a girdle-like harness I wear around my waist. I’m disappointed; it is nothing like the intricate machinery of First Lieutenant Stewart – or FL Stewart, as I hear others call him. I can’t run with this leg.
The roommate’s name is Zelda but she looks like a Martha: a bag of bones topped with freckles and frizzy hair that would be a color if brown could yawn.
“What kind of name is Rio?” she asks straight off. It’s not my real name but I don’t tell her that – no one calls me Roberta.
“It means river in Spanish,” I say. “I liked to swim when I was a kid.”
That’s not quite true. Reno’s rivers dried up ages ago, but as a kid, I was convinced they were simply buried, like the underground rivers of Mexico in the nature books Pops read to me at night. Like treasure. Before the war, I spent hours digging for rivers in our arid backyard.
But I don’t tell Zelda all this. She’s looking at me like I’m an idiot.
“Yeah, I know ‘rio’ means ‘river,’” she says. “It seems weird to name a person that, though. They couldn’t even name you after a specific river? It just seems a bit lazy.”
How dare this stranger, this nobody, call my family lazy. She knows nothing about my family.
“My uncle had a swayback old nag named Zelda,” I respond. “It always used to have a bouquet of flies gathered around its anus. I haven’t thought about that nag in years.”
That shuts her up. Our room is silent the rest of the evening. Zelda ignores me to read on her bed. I want to take my new leg out to practice but I’m unsure of the rules of this place and I’ll be damned if I ask her. So I pace our tiny room, getting the feel of the leg’s weight and balance.
We have two beds, two desks loaded with books, two closets full of military issued clothes, and two bracelet-like things that everybody here seems to wear. At the head of our beds is an expansive window that overlooks an empty courtyard and beyond, green – so much green – and a glimmer of blue. River? Lake? Maybe the ocean? One of these days I have to find a map but in the meantime, I pace until my limp is only lightly discernable and the straps have rubbed my thigh raw.
I don’t sleep that night. It’s August here but the air feels frigid compared to what I’m used to and I hear no roosters. Do they not have roosters in Illinois? I practice my breathing and try not to think of all the things I’m missing: like the smell of my bedroom, and eating mystery chips with Peasant, and watching Vivian water her dirt garden, and hearing Pops snore on the living room floor, and irritating Los like younger sisters just naturally seem to do. I used to believe “homesickness” meant that you were home so much you got sick of it but I understand now: it is the feeling that overtakes you when you miss home so much, your body aches for it.
I hope someday I’ll stop aching for home.
My new default setting seems to be “anxious.” That’s alleviated somewhat the next day when I find out I’m smarter than basically everyone else here – the first-year cadets, at least. Zelda and I, still not speaking to each other, are summoned to the canteen. It’s filled with hundreds of other cadets – 350 of them, if what I heard about this place is true. We line up and are given our class schedules for the year.
It’s a lot to take in – both my towering intellect and the crowd. I’ve never been surrounded by so many people near my age before. It thrills the pulse. We’re all dressed alike – black shirts, khaki pants – but there are subtle and obvious differences. Most of these kids have shiny hair that doesn’t appear to have been cut by a rabid raccoon, like Zelda, or their drunk Pops, like me. And many seem to already understand the military rules and mores I find nonsensical and overwhelming. They’re also a very white bunch and all much larger than me, even with my added weight and muscle. I’d guess that many of these kids come from entrenched military families – the kind of families that haven’t had to skip meals or stand in ration lines for the last decade.
I suppose you could call us a military family – Pops and all three of my dead siblings were military, and look how well that turned out. But they were just grunt soldiers. Ours was a family without means or power. I may not have left the house much in the last decade but you get an eyeful from an open window. In Reno, Peacekeepers are people with power.
Zelda looks as uncomfortable as I feel. I appreciate her unkempt hair more now; it’s relatable. Maybe I shouldn’t have compared her to an old nag with a dirty anus. She might be my best shot at a friend here. I throw a smile her way, which she ignores.
First Lieutenant Stewart stands up front, his helmet a gleaming metal beacon under the fluorescent lights. I wonder if he sleeps in it. I wonder what color his eyes are. I wonder if he still has ears or if they’ve been blown clean off.
The man next to him turns to address us.
“Cadets, welcome to Marseilles Military Academy,” the man says without raising his voice. With the first word he speaks, everyone turns to attention. “My name is Captain Robert Saunders, and it will be both my duty and privilege over the next year to…”
I try not to smirk as I glance back down at my schedule and its accompanying letter. When I said I was smarter than basically everyone here, I wasn’t exaggerating. Apparently, I tested out of a bunch of first-year classes – reading, writing – without even trying. Public schools shut down during the war and a lot of my peers need practice with the basic stuff. I’ll be an officer in no time, as long as I remain smarter than at least half the people I’m in class with. This year, I’ll be taking two second-year classes: Understanding the Enemy and The Art of Restrainful Restraint. I’ll also be in PT every day on top of normal drills with the other cadets.
“... most important duty you or any American will be called to face…”
Zelda is listening intently, like everyone else, so I try and sneak a peek at her schedule. Huh. She’s got some kind of letter, too.
I study the row of cadets and wonder again how many more people like me are on base – people with missing parts. I don’t know what to call us. Kate and Ruth called us broken, gimps, limpy-gimp monsters. They said it jokingly, the way Pops joked about the best cure for nightmares being a belt around the neck.
I caught Zelda looking at my stump last night when I took my leg off. I couldn’t tell if she was curious or repulsed. I don’t know if I’m supposed to talk about my accident or not. There’s just so much I don’t know.
My eyes are drawn to First Lieutenant Stewart again and even though I can’t see his gaze, I would swear he’s staring at me. His helmet looks judgy. The square inch of mouth that’s showing looks pinched and frowny. I try and look contrite, like I’m paying attention to the guy talking. The thing is, he’s talking so damn much. I’m sick of all the talking and sitting and waiting. I want classes to start. Now that I’m here, I’m anxious to prove what I can do.