Road Runner, by Bianca Brutaldo
Chapter 16
I’ll take a side of fries with my mashed potatoes

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At 0600 we receive notice via our comms bracelets (which I even sleep in now) that we’ll get our job assignments today. It’s all anyone talks about during showers, chow, and drills this morning.

Every cadet on campus is assigned a job – upper cadets get the plumest jobs. They are campus guards, teacher assistants and drill sergeants in training. Nobody’s quite sure what us rookies will be stuck with. Maybe I’ll be emptying trash cans after all.

They must’ve delivered the letters when we were completing our afternoon drills – crawling through mud and up ropes (which I’m extraordinarily good at when I remove my prosthesis) followed by lunges (which are quite tricky to execute with one very floppy leg). When Zelda and I return to our room, we find two sealed envelopes slipped under the door with our names on them. Even though we don’t know what to expect or even hope for, we’re both excited. She rips into her envelope first.

“Mail room,” she reads aloud. “Huh.”

I rip open mine next. My eyes scroll over “library assistant,” printed in neat type, but that has been crossed out in red. The words “demoted” and “kitchen duty” are scrawled beneath, along with the hours I’m expected to report for duty.

“I’ll be working in the cafeteria,” I say.

“I guess those demerits were real and they meant something,” Zelda says, reading over my shoulder. “But it could be worse – you could be cleaning showers.”

That’s probably the nicest thing Zelda has ever said to me. I throw her my friendliest smile. “Yeah,” I say.

I suppose the higher ups see kitchen duty as a punishment – I have to use some of my unstructured evening time to help prep for dinner. But I’m delighted. It’s a small price to pay to be near food – real food – when you’ve been so hungry most of your life you’ve eaten your fingernails, the heads off of matchsticks, even choked down locks of your sister’s beautiful hair because you read it was made of protein.

Being in a kitchen is not punishment. For me, the punishment is more subtle. Dinners here are an exquisite torture that remind me of hazy, long-ago family dinners crowded with plates and elbows and loud, happy faces.

While breakfast and lunch on base are the standard protein packets and muscle juice all citizens get rationed out, dinner is a fresh cooked, sit-down affair. Spaghetti topped with meatballs. Hamburgers covered in a side of fries. I nearly cried the first time I tasted mashed potatoes here. I finally understood: this is the stuff my mother’s dreams are made of.

That night, the cafeteria was crowded with clashing conversations but I might as well have been alone. I sat in perfect stillness as the mashed potatoes melted into a buttery pool so rich and slick I almost didn’t need to swallow. On that first bite I suddenly remembered standing on a dining room chair, watching my mother peel potatoes as a kid. My job was to holler when the water was boiling and point out brown spots she’d missed.

Reminiscing will get me nowhere, I know. If Los were here he’d say, “I can’t understand what you’re saying, I don’t speak whinease.”

I fold the job assignment and place it in my desk. It’s probably a lousy keepsake but I’ll keep it anyway. The memories it stirs may be useless but they’re still warm.