Road Runner, by Bianca Brutaldo
Chapter 14
I don’t want to jinx it but I think I made a friend

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The comms band is how they keep track of us. It’s also how they communicate with us and how we can communicate with each other. (It also tells time, so I wasn’t totally wrong.) It still feels weird to wear it, though. When we went to war with China, it became patriotic to hate technology, since they made all of it. Once their government began using our phones like homing beacons for their bombs, the smashing parties started.

But these bands proudly scream “MADE IN THE USA” so I suppose it’s just our government that can spy on us. I learn that each cadet is assigned a service number. You can send and receive direct messages to individual numbers or groups through the band. There’s also shorthand code for when you see and want to report a violation, and when you are in an unsafe situation and need backup – it’ll send out a signal kind of like a group bat signal. Turns out, everyone on base wears one.

I learn all this from finally reading my cadet training manual, “Manual of Rules and Regulations for Manually Regulating Rules in a Civil Society.” Zelda practically has it memorized. Each day as I’ve flounder a bit more, she’s thrived a bit more. It’s like watching a ragged little ditchweed flower bloom before your very eyes – her face lights up with answers to unasked questions and at night she busily makes notes in books we haven’t even been assigned to read yet. I learn from eavesdropping that she’s enrolled in a few second year classes, like me. I want to know why but don’t know how to ask, so on our one-week anniversary, as we get ready for lights out, I just blurt out the question.

“How’d you test into upper-division classes?”

“How’d you test into upper-division classes?” She immediately counters in a tone I find very insulting. I have to remind myself that we’ve only just met and this week hasn’t been a parade of my strengths.

“Our house was full of books,” I say. “My dad was a teacher before the war and he really liked to read. And I had four older brothers and sisters growing up, so we had a lot of their old textbooks all over the place. We couldn’t really leave the house and there wasn’t anything else to do, so I read a lot.”

She stares at me. “You have four siblings?”

I breathe deep. “I actually had five. But now I only have two. Peasant – my sister – is the youngest.”

I’ve never had to explain that before. It hurts a bit. Every time one of them died, every time the front door opened to reveal another urn and a flag, it killed us in tiny doses. Now it feels like our family is just a shadow family. Counting my uncles, the dead outnumber us. It’s weird to say but sometimes I’m jealous of them. They aren’t mourning themselves or watching our parents fall apart. I imagine them reunited, living in another dimension, eating meals together and making jokes and fighting and playing pranks without us. Maybe they’ve even pulled up a chair for my leg.

“You must be from the south or the west,” she remarks, snapping me out of my kiddie pool party of self pity. “Nobody keeps books this far north. The power cuts out pretty often and they get burned for warmth.”

“I’m from Nevada. It gets cold there in winter, but not nearly bad as my Pops said it used to,” I respond. “Even our winters aren’t as cold as the mornings out here. Maybe other families back home burned their books, I don’t know. Did your family?”

“I don’t have a family,” Zelda finally says, her voice emotionless. “I was raised by priests.”

“Jesus,” I say, then: “Oh, shit, sorry?”

“It’s fine. I don’t really believe in that stuff but even if I did, saying his name doesn’t invoke him. He’s the son of God, not a nosy ghost.”

We’re each in our bed – tiny twin beds like me and Peasant used to have growing up, for the few brief years we shared a room. Six kids packed into a four bedroom house. I stare at my chunk of ceiling as I wait for her to say more so I don’t have to ask, trying to imagine the cracks in my old ceiling, trying to imagine the color. The smell. It feels like we’re getting along. I don’t want to ruin it but I can’t help myself: I try anyway.

“Can I ask what happened to your family?” I say.

“Can I ask what happened to your leg?” she responds.

No one has asked me that here. It’s like the shower never happened, except it did and I know people talked about it because people are people. I wasn’t sure how it would feel to be asked. I wasn’t sure what I’d say.

“I was out in the desert,” I begin. “I found these shoes and I was practicing running. A lot of my siblings ran track when I was a kid – my dad was the track coach – and I remember going to meets and how exciting it was. I’ve always wanted to run. So I started sneaking out at night and practicing. I got faster and faster, and ran further and further. Until one night, when I stepped on a driller. Why were you raised by priests?”

“My parents had a peach farm near Savannah. It got bombed like everywhere else. Soldiers found me in the rubble – I was about four. So they brought me to Atlanta. The Jesuits set up an orphanage in the city library. I was raised there.”

“Jesus,” I say again.

“Pretty much.”

“Did you ever go back home?” I asked. “Just to see?”

“No. We can’t, can we? Because of the drillers. Because somehow, they’re still everywhere. Even after all these years.”

CHAPTER 15: Do not underestimate me, for I am the bringer of Pain

Fortunately for me, my second week on base went more smoothly than the first. Weirdly, I have my stump to thank. Whereas in the first week, we were drilled on basics like marching, run-marching, and pushups, week two was a dive into tactical and hand-to-hand combat. Since we’re training to be and lead Peacekeepers, who aren’t equipped with lethal weapons, we have to know how to subdue people with just our hands (and, you know, tasers and rubber bullets and tear gas).

At 0600, a selection of base officers and third years lead all 200 of us newbies to Medic 13, the building where I’ve been assigned my PT exercises. The gymnasium looks a lot like the Pain Cave – it’s got a lot of the same equipment – but without the acrid smell of sweat I’ve come to associate with physical therapy. This place just smells like cold rubber. In the center of the room, on the floor, are four wrestling circles like the ones in which I learned to take a beating in Reno. A few of the third years, including FL Stewart, show us some basic moves to subdue an attacker: how to block with our hands; the “penetration step,” which means crawl/lunging on your knees to tackle someone in their midsection; and something called a “sweep single,” which basically means grabbing at someone’s leg until they fall over. 

“Alright, we’re going to give you a few minutes to practice the mechanics of these moves on your own,” FL Stewart calls out.

I watch as the other plebes hesitantly begin crouching and lunging. It appears that I’m the only one with experience on the mat.

“You can sit this exercise out if you want. The moves are kind of tricky.” It’s FL Stewart. 

“You just did them.”

“Yes, but I didn’t do them for the first time, or even the twentieth time, in front of an audience.”

I shake my head. “I’ll be fine. Thanks, though.”

“I’ll wrestle you,” Zelda says. “I’ll go slow.”

She and FL Stewart are just trying to be kind but I feel a flash of resentment. They’re only seeing my stump right now, instead of the whole of me. They’re not considering that I have a brain, or that I might have experience in wrestling. My potential is overshadowed by what they think I’m lacking.

But as I stand and watch the other plebes clumsily lunge at nothing, it becomes clear that I don’t need anyone to take it easy on me. I have four solid months, and countless hours, in the ring. Zelda should feel lucky if I take it easy on her.

After a few minutes, they break us into groups of 50 cadets, each assigned to a wrestling ring. The rules are simple: two plebes enter the ring; first one who crosses the line loses. Unlike at the hospital, though, the winner stays in the circle and keeps choosing their opponents until they’re beaten.

“Then the champion of the rings will each compete until we have a winner,” FL Stewart explains to the crowd. “And that winner will receive a prize.”

The officers and third years divide themselves up to referee the circles and call for volunteers to start the matches. I take a step back, not that anyone’s looking at me. Volunteering to be first to wrestle is a stupid move; even if you’re good, you’ll have more people to beat, increasing your chance of burnout.

Sure enough, the first people to enter the rings are loud, cocky cadets – all men. The kind of guys who look like they would flex at a math problem. The guys take their positions and the gym falls silent except for the odd primal grunt. I can’t see what’s happening at the other circles but occasionally, a burst of cheers interrupts the silence. In our circle, a kid named Trek is struggling to beat his tenth opponent.

“C’mon, Trekkie, kick it into high gear!”

He’s a large guy, over six foot, and looks like he was built to fill a door frame. He didn’t even use the practiced moves on most of his opponents, just crouched and ran at them, driving them from the ring with brute strength. But now he’s tired. Both guys are crouched low, heads down, batting at each other with their arms. But Trek’s crouch is looking less like the squat they taught us and more like a dog taking a shit on the street.

“Pain is weakness leaving the body, Trekkie! Stay in it to win it!”

With a grunt, Trek drops to one knee, grabs his opponent’s leg, and lifts up, pushing him off balance and out of the circle.

His friends, most of whom he’s already beaten, hoot and howl their approval. Trek looks around. There are only two guys left in our group that haven’t wrestled; the rest are women. He’s panting, tired, looking for an easy win so he can recover.

His eyes land on me.

“You,” he says to me. “You’re next.”

I nod and step to the edge of the ring.

“Don’t worry, I’ll make it quick,” he adds and I don’t think he intends to be a jerk but that’s how his friends take it. They snicker behind my back, as if wrestling me was somehow an insult to him. As I roll up my pant leg and unbuckle my prosthesis, Trek adds, “Oh, you want to make it even quicker? Fine by me,” as even more people laugh.

The leg drops off and I feel a rush of relief as blood flows freely to my stump. I forget how much the straps hurt until I take them off. People are staring. I guess I should feel self-conscious – outside of the girls’ bathroom debacle and Zelda, no one’s seen me without my prosthesis – but surprisingly, I don’t. I just feel like me.

I take one hesitant hop into the circle with my arms out for balance. Part of my hesitation is for show, I want to reinforce my weakness in Trek’s mind, but part of it is real. It takes my body a minute to remember how to move without the prosthesis. Imagine suddenly becoming 25 pounds lighter, but only on one side. I take another halting hop and feel a hand at the small of my back, steadying me. Zelda.

I take another hop forward. I can now feel the hot whoosh of Trek’s each panting breath. I barely reach his chest. He turns and strides to the other side of the ring and stands there, staring at me. His hesitation is kinda funny. All of his other opponents have charged him. It’s obvious I won’t do that, and it’s equally obvious that he now feels uncomfortable taking down the crippled girl.

As I wait for him to make a move, I get down in position and go over the advice the colonel told me back at the hospital: “You’re fighting like you’ve got two feet but you don’t. You know what the most stable shape is? A triangle. If someone attacks you, I want you to triangulate yourself. Squat down as low as you can. Put most of the weight on your stump and your non-dominant arm for balance. That’ll leave your good leg free to kick out – they won’t be expecting that. They’ll most likely charge you and expect you to try to lean in and counter their weight, because that’s how they’re trained. Don’t do that. Hug them around the middle, fall back, and use their momentum to throw them behind you.”

So that’s what I do. Trek never even saw the ground coming before he kissed it. I throw the next two guys out of the ring just as easy. They don’t learn from Trek’s mistake; I take both out with the exact same move.

I expect the women to be harder to beat, and they are. Their center of gravity is lower, they’re more agile and unlike the men, they’ve been paying attention. Still, I’ve got four months of practice on the mat. Hours of being thrown to the ground and fighting with everything I’ve got to stay in the ring. My female opponents all make a similar error: they think that once they’ve got me pinned on the ground, they’ve all but won. But now I’m strongest when I’m on my back.

In these matches, I don’t have time to think or worry about the crowd, which is why it takes me awhile to realize that every time I beat someone, the cheering gets louder. The best part is, the people cheering the loudest are the ones I just beat. I become their champion.

“Get her, Legs!” That’s Trek.

“Take her down!”

“No blood, no foul!”

My last opponent rushes me as soon as she steps in the ring, throwing herself across my back. She’s heavy enough that I can’t just heave her off.

Everyone’s screaming, losing their heads cheering for her and for me, but under the din I hear her mutter, “Shit. Now what?” to herself. It makes me laugh. She must feel it because she turns her head towards me.

“You’re really good,” she says. “I don’t know what to do now.”

“Thanks. I’ve had a lot of practice. You’re fast.”


Then I grab her wrist for leverage and roll, throwing her onto her back, feet flopping out of the ring. The crowd goes wild. I’ve never had a crowd before.

I roll off her and help her up. We shake hands.

“I’m Natalie.”

“I’m Rio. Good match.”

I lose in the semifinals, not because my opponent is better than me but because I’m tired. My quad aches from crouching for so long, so like Trek, I assume the dogshit stance. I’m not low enough so my opponent is able to scoop me up and basically carry me out of the ring. I don’t feel like a loser, though.

“That last match was rigged,” I overhear while watching the final match. I’m sitting on the ground, sipping salty muscle juice that FL Stewart wordlessly passed to me. The drink means more to me than praise coming from him. Praise would’ve felt patronizing.

“Yeah,” someone else says. “He’s on, what, like his fifth match? Rio beat 25 of our guys. He was fresh and she’s not.”

“Yeah, I’d like to see him try that tomorrow.”

The thing is, I know my dominance is fleeting. We’ll all practice these moves and people will start to beat me, fair and square. But nothing can take away this memory – not for me but for them. The memory of surprise and awe that someone like me can do what I just did. That despite my size and my stump, I can fight like a champ.