Road Runner, by Bianca Brutaldo
Chapter 17
Happiness looks different for everyone. So do boots, I guess

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The best day of my life falls on the Friday before my 18th birthday. I get up at 0500, as usual, so I can do my hobble-laps around the base before we’re called for drills. At 0530, my comms bracelet trills with a new message: “Report to medic 13 at 0600.”

Medic 13 is attached to the hospital. I dread it. Not because the therapists are terrible or anything, but I’m usually the only person in there, unless someone has twisted an ankle or something minor. It’s quiet, cold and lonely. I’d even take Shanna’s resentful presence next to me at this point.

Since I’m already dressed and out the door, I make it there in 10 minutes. The lights are on but no one’s in the gym, so I limp through the halls, looking for someone to report to. At the end of one darkened hallway, a glowing green light spills from a windowed door. The light is eerie – a deep green that reminds me of air raids and desolate farms and the night I lost my leg. When I approach the window, one of the regular PTs is standing with a boy I don’t recognize in the center of the cool green room. They’re surrounded by the weirdest collection of objects – a bouquet of flowers, military boots, a toothbrush, sunglasses, an assault rifle. The boy is barefoot. His thick hair is matted to his forehead in the worst case of bedhead I’ve ever seen, almost as if it was shellacked to his skull during the middle of a windstorm. It makes him look like a sleepy child, even though I sense he’s older than me.

“Now I want you to locate the boots and put them on,” the PT says.

The boy slowly looks around him at the objects on the floor.

“What are you doing?” says a voice in the hallway behind me. “Get away from the window.”

I turn and see Dr. Reynolds, the head of the unit, marching towards me. Even from a distance his silhouette looks angry.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I say, quickly stepping away from the window. “I got a comms message to come here and I was just looking for someone to report to.”

He sighs a long sigh, which I am hoping is a sigh of relief. I play up my limp as I walk towards him. I hope it makes me look innocent and rather pathetic so he won’t demerit me. We have one more week until classes begin and I’m determined not to get any more demerits. Any more and I might be cleaning showers with my tongue.

“Cadet Gonzales,” he says. “You’re early.”

“Yes sir, sorry sir. I was up and dressed already.”

“Never mind. Follow me.”

He leads me into an examination room. I haven’t been in an exam room since my first day here, when they stripped me down, measured my everything, poked and prodded my stump, and collected vials and vials of my blood like they were party favors for a gothic wedding.

“Remove your joggers and the leg, and take a seat on the table. I’ll be back at 0600,” he says, shutting the door behind him. Privacy is an illusion – this door has a window, too.

As I unlace my boot, I wonder if the boy from the other room ever found his. What a strange task. But then, so is pulling a military boot off a fake leg if you think about it. And a fake leg off a real stump.

I sit shivering in my underwear on the thin paper sheet for a good 10 minutes, tracing the goosebumps on my leg as they give way to perfectly smooth scar tissue, like sand at a river’s edge. Every day I’m here my body is capable of a little more. I shouldn’t be surprised by this but I still am. I’m also grateful.

When Dr. Reynolds returns, it’s with reinforcements: two physical therapists and what looks like a rifle case. He sets the case down on the chair opposite me and begins talking as he opens it. “Now this is just a preliminary fitting…”

I don’t hear the rest of his sentence – there’s a ringing in my ears and I can’t catch my breath. It is not a rifle case. Inside is the most beautiful piece of machinery I have ever seen. Pistons and shafts of metal beautifully soddered together in the shape of a calf, tapering down to a curved blade about the size of my right foot.

I’m trying to speak but I have no voice. I swallow and try again. “Is that mine?”

He smiles. “Conditionally. It belongs to the federal government but yes, it has been designed to meet your physical specs. Our prosthetics team is the best in the country. They are able to take nature’s blueprint and improve upon it.”

He picks up the leg and rotates it slowly. “It mirrors the length of your right leg down to 1/100th of a millimeter and its weight will slowly be calibrated to complement your weight, as you become accustomed to it. Now, these pistons mimic the interplay of your calf muscles and this carbon blade, or ‘foot,’ helps you regain your natural heel-strike walking pattern. Each individual component is coated in a thin layer of graphene to make it as flexible and strong as humanly possible. Ha.”

His smile widens in satisfaction at his own joke.

“Can I hold it?” I ask, when what I really want to say was “please leave.” I want a private moment to get acquainted, just me and my new leg. I need to feel every curve, cradle it like a baby, maybe weep a little.

“No,” he says, looking annoyed. “We need to fit you for the prosthesis. As you can see, the top has been cast in silicone off an imprint of your residual limb – we need to marry the limb to this socket to prevent lesions and chaffing. Once the fit is superior, we will apply a polyurethane adhesive to the socket and that will seal the two together.”

I stare at him. “You mean I don’t have to take it on and off every day?”

“That is correct. You shouldn’t ever need to remove the prosthetic. In rare cases, the adhesive must be reapplied, but it should be able to withstand most impacts and physical trauma.”

At that I do start crying, big fat ugly tears that come from nowhere and go everywhere – tears of gratitude and shock, co-mingled with ugly sobs of mourning because emotions are messy and I feel hope, like I might be whole again, and that reminds me of what a shit year I’ve had. This is better than I could’ve ever dreamed.

The procedure only takes 10 minutes once I stop crying. It is painless. When I emerge from the squat cinderblock building, I walk unencumbered. I feel reborn.

While nobody wanted to talk about how legless I was, now the only thing everybody wants to talk about is my new leg. It’s the most attention I’ve ever gotten in my life and it feels pretty glorious.

“Wow, nice stem!”

“Look at your new strut!”

“Someone tell Stewart he’s got competition for slickest Terminator!”

What’s best is I can walk with ease again. It’s been so long since I could take a step without concentrating on the physical mechanics of it – how I had to kick my right leg up extra high so the clunky prosthetic would swing forward in the approximation of a normal step. How, with each step, my boot clomped gracelessly on the ground. The curved blade of my new ‘foot’ neutralizes the need for a boot. And my limp is completely gone, as is the pain.

So many people high five me that it becomes easy to forget that my new limb is the direct result of my recklessness, and not something I’ve earned for being clever and awesome.

Tomorrow will be the second best day of my life. Tomorrow, I run.