Road Runner, by Bianca Brutaldo
Chapter 21
Just a bad day to be clumsy

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Afternoon drills are probably the most important part of the day – it’s the only time that our entire company comes together, all 200 first years, 100 second years, and 50 third years. The most accomplished third years lead the drills under the guidance of the drill sergeant. FL Stewart is a notable exception to this rule. He’s only a second-year but also sometimes leads the afternoon drills, in addition to our morning drills. Like today.

FL Stewart is leading our running drill, which for me is the most hated of all drills. Military running isn’t like what I do. It’s more like a slow, synchronized trot. We line up in rows five across and ten deep and in these platoons we very, very slowly trot around the base – in fact, the same route I run each morning only 1,000 times slower. I have no idea why we do this. It must be a holdout from old-timey times, when war was fought in giant tubs of molasses and entire armies spent decades attempting to bore each other to death.

The only thrill of running drills is being chosen as a platoon leader, which means you’re one of the first five people leading your pack. The drill leader picks his platoon leaders, which is essentially rewarding those he views as the best at that activity.

“Cadet Webb! Cadet Jones! Cadet Phillips! Cadet Gonzales!”

Hells bells, FL Stewart just called my name. Did I hear that right? I look at Zelda and she gives me a slight push. I did. He just called my name. I jog up to the front line and position myself on FL Stewart’s right flank, staring straight ahead. He’s still calling names, organizing the rest of the platoons, but I’m in platoon number 1. I can’t believe this is happening.

The cadets quickly fall into formation behind us, 20 platoons total, with ours in the lead. But I’m too nervous and keyed up to look behind me. When I hear FL Stewart’s whistle, I want to skip and sprint and dance. It’s all I can do to keep myself to a sedate jog.

I know I just said I hate military running – and I’m still trying to get permission to run on my own in the city – but it’s moments like these, when we are 350 strong in lock step, silent except for the determined stomp of our boots pounding pavement in time to an invisible drumbeat, that make me feel proud to be a Peacekeeper- and officer-in-training. I imagine us, stoic, marching into rubbled cities and ushering in a new era of peace and prosperity.

And then suddenly my reverie turns into a nightmare: I trip, pitch forward, and fall on my face. Everyone – my platoon and the hundred of people behind them – grinds to an immediate halt. In the silence, I hear quiet nasal huff of laughter behind me. I don’t know what happened. My hands are chewed by gravel and I don’t want to lift my head up because I’m afraid I might cry from the humiliation.

FL Stewart reaches a hand down and helps me to my feet. As I rise, I catch a glimpse of a bright red smirk behind me. Jancy.

“You okay, cadet?” FL Stewart asks.

“Yes sir, sorry sir.” I brush my bloody palms together and face forward once again.

He blows the whistle. We resume our run. No more daydreaming. In fact, I vow to never trip again. In my life. Ever. My fingertips are gently dripping blood. I ignore them. I can feel my good knee swelling. I ignore it. I concentrate on the ground ahead of me and on pacing FL Stewart. This works for about a mile, and then I feel it: the unmistakable jerk of someone hooking the bladed “foot” on my prosthetic.

I stumble, try to catch myself, hit the ground and roll. Again, the company stops. Again, Jancy’s smirk is framed by hundreds of pairs of eyes, all judging me. I slowly get to my feet, ignoring everyone else. I stare at Jancy and wish I knew how to throw a punch.

“Cadet, it seems that you’re having trouble running today,” FL Stewart says.

“No sir, I am not having trouble running today.”

“Yes, cadet, I think you are. And you’re injured. Go see a medic. Dismissed.”

With that, he turns and motions. Jancy steps forward, assuming my position. The whistle blows and I stand there, motionless and dripping blood, watching as my best day turns into my worst, watching as each platoon slowly passes me by.

“I want to learn how to punch, can you teach me that?” I ask PT Lenfield later, as he applies salve to my chewed hands. The medics were all on lunch.

He smiles. “No, I can’t think of a scenario in which punching would be part of a holistic physical therapy routine for acute leg trauma. Who do you want to punch?”

“Imagine if a crocodile gave birth to a rattlesnake baby.”

He laughs. “You’ll start learning hand-to-hand combat in year two, although you’d probably still be out of your depth fighting that combo.” He checks his comms bracelet. “But since you’re already here and drills aren’t over yet, why don’t you work on lunges and ladders in the gym.”

Great, I think as I head to the gym. Jancy’s learning hand-to-hand combat and the best I can do is sprint ladders away from her if provoked.

I’m not stupid. I know racism exists. I know life got hard for Chinese-Americans – or as Nicole says, anyone Asian – and Mexican-Americans after the war began. Probably pretty much everyone brown. After Mexico allied with China but before our streets were bombed, Vivian told me and Los to be careful in public, to ignore insults, to “take the high road.” But I didn’t really experience any of that, or maybe I was too young to notice. There are a lot of brown people in Reno – more than half the population is not white. That’s too many brown people to discriminate against. You’d never get anything else done.

But it’s one thing to understand something exists and another thing to experience it. When I first told Nicole about Jancy’s hatred of me, and my anger at the unjust “brownie points” label, she gave me an odd, appraising look.

“I don’t know whether to pity you or envy you,” she said. “It’s like you were raised white and just woke up brown one day, and are shocked that people hate you for it.”

I don’t think that’s fair but I don’t have the words to argue with Nicole. She has more experience with the world and racism than I do. My mom’s white. Maybe she’s right: I don’t really know what it’s like to be brown in public.

Regardless, Jancy hates me – either because I’m half-Mexican or possibly because of my personality. Or both. I guess it doesn’t really matter. I can’t change either. And now that I’ve sprinted a few ladders in the gym and some of my anger has burned off, the thought of standing up for myself makes me feel dizzy. It’s the same dizzy feeling I got standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon as a young kid. Jancy is older; she’s got friends and a powerful family. I’ve got one leg, one close friend, and really shiny hair. I can’t win that battle.

I hear the door open behind me but I ignore it and push a little harder in case PT Lenfield is here to critique my form.

“How are your hands?” FL Stewarts calls out instead.

I nearly trip again – this time, my fault.

“They’re fine sir,” I say, panting.

I wipe my eyes and hold my hands out for inspection. I’d heard that his eyes were blind but that the helmet is somehow wired to his brain. I wonder how differently he sees things. To me, the fleshy parts of my thumbs look like they’ve been gnawed on by tiny sharks. I look up. He isn’t examining my hands. He’s looking at me.

“Did Cadet Friedrich trip you today?”

I consider my answer very carefully: the stakes, the battle, Professor Munger’s long expositions about putting the group before the individual. And as much as people treat FL Stewart like a cyber-enhanced street god, he’s just a cadet, like me. There’s nothing he can do about Jancy.

“No sir, I wasn’t tripped,” I say, watching my lying lips reflected in his visor. “Just a bad day to be clumsy.”

FL Stewart nods. It’s galling to be made a fool. It’s galling that the one thing I’m good at was stripped from me so publicly and there’s nothing I can do about it – well, almost nothing. He heads back to the door.

“First Lieutenant Stewart!” I call out. “Her grandfather isn’t really a four-star general. Did you know that?”

He turns and cocks his head, confused. Of course he knows her grandfather is a four-star general. It’s practically the first thing out of her mouth when she makes eye contact with any living thing. The guy has his own chapter in our Advanced History of War textbook.

“He’s really a four-star magician on the casino circuit,” I continue. “She used to be his assistant, before he replaced her with a viper in a bowtie because it had more stage presence. He says it’s because audiences were genuinely concerned when he made it disappear, instead of relieved.

“If you don’t believe me, try sawing her in half and see how she reacts. Or better yet, ask her to tell you the quickest way to make her disappear.”

He stands there so long I start to regret my stupid joke. Then he smiles. It’s a small thing but it feels validating. If we can’t beat our enemies, at least we can laugh at them.