Here’s what I learn in the first week I can’t do: Leave campus, walk around without my comms bracelet, shower during unscheduled times, make friends.
The campus itself is not huge – it’s probably the size of six casinos. I get up at dawn each morning, before my schedule dictates where I need to be, and walk the perimeter. I’m still getting used to my prosthesis and even though military running isn’t like real running – it’s a painfully slow march-hop that I could honestly do on one leg – I’m still holding out hope that someday, I can run again. It just won’t be on this piece-of-shit plastic thing that creaks when I walk, creaks when I sit, creaks if I sigh too heavily. It’s a quiet creak. I asked Zelda if she could hear it and she said, “hear what?” so I guess it’s some real tell-tale heart bullshit, here only to torture me.
I’ve warmed up to Zelda a bit but she hasn’t warmed up to me at all, which is making me sour on her all over again. I get 10 words a day from her if I’m lucky.
Classes begin next week. So I pace the perimeter each morning to kill time, sometimes hop-jogging until it becomes too painful, which is painfully soon. I’d say one full lap around campus is about a mile.
The campus is surrounded by a 10-foot cement wall embedded on top with razor wire and broken glass that somehow doesn’t manage to keep out the army of stray cats lounging around. There are two gates. The busier of the two is made of thick, wrought iron bars through which I can catch glimpses of the city stirring. It’s taken some getting used to, that this city sleeps at night and awakens during the day. It’s also supposed to be late summer here but it’s frigid in the mornings, and the air feels wet, like the world around you is breathing down your neck.
Through the gate I can see a world that more closely resembles the one I’m used to: even more stray cats stretching in the first rays of sun, families stashing their blankets and possessions, a small child chewing on an oversized We’re No. 1! foam finger to quell his constant hunger.
Anyway, I’m curious, so one morning, I walk up to the gate and try to leave.
“Stand down, cadet,” says an armed guard. “What in the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“I was going to explore the neighborhood,” I say, feeling suddenly self-conscious.
He laughs in my face. “On whose authority? Where’s your comms band?”
Nobody wears PO badges here, maybe because there aren’t any casinos. They wear these fancy watch bands instead.
“I didn’t know I needed someone’s authority…”
I had assumed the guards were to keep people out, not keep us in.
“Unbelievable. Get out of here before I report you for misuse of unstructured time.”
“This place is like a prison,” I mutter.
“No, prison is like a prison,” the guard barks at me. “You’ll find that out soon enough.”
Is that a threat? Is breaking the rules here punishable by prison? I remember Peasant’s words to me: “Prison is a death sentence – a very slow one.” I wish I’d paid more attention to her when I had the chance. I wish I’d asked more questions. I wish I knew my sister as well as I thought I did.
I head back to the dorms, feeling like an idiot. It’s early yet, and Zelda snores, so I decide to take a shower before anyone else can see me. I’m undressed and removing my leg when the door swings open and a dozen cadets swarm to the full-length bathroom mirrors in what I think of as our fancy uniforms – clothes I haven’t even tried on yet – vying for space to check their appearance.
This is my living nightmare: there I stand, naked and legless in the mirror behind them. They stare. I can feel my entire body flushing. I resist the urge to cover my stump. I won’t give these girls the satisfaction of knowing I’m ashamed.
“What are you doing?” One of the many blondes asks, while another girl checks her watch.
“Inspection in five,” the second blonde says to the group. I am forgotten as the flurry of activity resumes.
I whisper a quiet church curse. I don’t know what inspection is but I have a sneaking suspicion I will fail it. As quickly as I can, I restrap my leg and get dressed in my military joggers. I have just enough time to get back to my room to see Zelda in uniform, her hair slicked back into a bun, frantically smoothing wrinkles from her bedspread.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Where have you been?” she asks, simultaneously.
Neither of us has the chance to answer. The door opens behind me and in walks a pair of third-year cadets wearing white gloves and stoic expressions. They look at me. They look at each other.
“Demerit, uniform,” one says.
“Demerit, slovenly appearance,” the other says.
“Demerit, failure to stand at attention,” the first says.
It’s a nightmarish call and response. The feel up my furniture with their white gloves and bark “demerit” at me so long that it sounds like nonsense. Even though I know it’s serious and I’m in trouble, I have to stifle the urge to laugh.
Next, they turn to Zelda. They must’ve used up all their demerits on me because she escapes relatively unscathed – until the end.
“Demerit, failure to support a fellow cadet,” the leader says.
“What?!” Zelda responds. “But she –”
“Cadet, you were not asked for your opinion. The military is about teamwork. We are only as strong as our weakest link – our victories and defeats are shared by all. You failed to support your weak link. That, in turn, makes you weak. Demerit.”
“Yes ma’am,” Zelda says in a muted voice. I sense I’ll be blamed for this.
The older cadets turn their gaze back to me and the dread hits. The remorse. The recriminations. I seem to be doing everything wrong. How many demerits until they throw me out? What if I become the only cadet to be kicked out of officer school the first week? What will happen to me then? Is this what the gate guard meant about prison?
“We will be back at 0700 for a recheck,” the lead cadet tells me. “You’d better be in uniform and I want this room cleaner than a cat’s asshole.”
With that, she gently shuts the door.
I look at Zelda who is very purposefully not looking at me. I know I should say something but I don’t know what, so I just open my mouth, hoping for the right words to come. “I –”
“Shut up,” she says, heading to her closet. “Make your bed. Try to make it look like mine. I’ll iron your uniform. We only have 50 minutes to fix this.”
The minutes sprint by us. Zelda orders me around in a voice I used to reserve for Peasant. I make my bed, then dust every surface with my dirty shirt. She helps me into my freshly pressed uniform, shows me how to shine my shoes, and then does my hair in a painfully tight regulation bun. She checks her watch.
“We have two minutes,” she says, looking up. “Where’s your comms band?”
“Oh you mean my watch? I don’t know.”
“FIND. IT.” she hisses.
I find it under my desk and put it on. The face lights up with a message.
“48 unread alerts,” I read aloud. “Huh.”
Behind me, Zelda curses me and the gremlin womb that fashioned me in the exact image of her own personal hell. The door opens. There stand our third-year cadets. They look me over and take in the room. The lead cadet gives a low whistle and turns to Zelda.
“Well done, cadet,” she says. “This is exactly the kind of leadership we like to see.”
I suspect that somewhere on this campus, there looms a massive scoreboard and at its top Zelda’s name is written. At its base – below the scoreboard itself, in the grass – is a freshly laid cat turd and planted in it, a tiny flag that bears my name.