Road Runner, by Bianca Brutaldo
Chapter 24
The great consolation prize

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Ok, maybe I screwed up. I come to this conclusion while doing my morning PT exercises in an empty gym, following an uncomfortable evening in a room with someone who definitely wished I’d had my tongue removed instead of my leg.

“I take it FL Stewart found you in the library.”


“What did you do when he asked you to be his mentee?”

More silence.

“I’ve read Crime and Punishment – it’s a pretty interesting book. Very intellectual. You’ll enjoy the crime. And the punishment.”

Silence so profound I can hear toilets flush down the hall.

This time, I don’t know how to make amends. Should I even have to make amends? She never even mentioned the peach pie, so I didn’t have to lie about it. But that doesn’t seem to matter. I’m being punished anyway.

I finish my last set of lunges around the gym and move on to jumping squats. Whoever invented jumping squats should be tased. I thought PT was supposed to mimic the movements you’d do in the wild – like in life. I can’t imagine a scenario that would call for me to spread my knees, crouch nearly to the floor, and then explode vertically. I look like a rabid carpet squirrel (that’s what Peasant used to call rats).

After my first set I reward myself with what I call a cool-down lap around the medic unit, or what others might call “snooping.” I don’t think it’s snooping, though, because I never go anywhere I’ve been explicitly told not to go.

Mainly I walk the halls looking for open exam rooms to explore. If someone happens to walk by, I lunge the halls, but I rarely see anyone. They schedule us that way.

I walk to the end of the hallway that has the green-light room and peek through the window, like I always do, and like always, it’s dark and empty. I try the knob anyway. For once, it turns easily. I slip a hand inside and feel along the wall for a light switch. The light flicks on but it isn’t green – it’s normal. The room is empty except for a chair and a hamper in the corner.

Further explorations lead me to conclude the chair is just a chair. The hamper, though, is filled with oddities: plush children’s toys, brightly colored wooden blocks and a few books without any words in them – just rows of neat perforations, like a puzzle I’ve never seen and can’t begin to decipher.

I’ve also never seen that boy again. I suppose he’s a man but his posture, his floppy hair, even the shy way he regarded the items splayed out at his bare feet as he earnestly searched for his shoes – it was all so childlike. He reminds me of the children without bedtimes back home.

I had fantasized that the boy was really a helmetless FL Stewart, that I would see him again only this time, he would catch me watching him and I would become his confidant. I would help him find his shoes. But the boy lacked his confidence and posture, his quietly assured FL Stewart-ness. So as vivid as my imagination is, even I can’t make that pig fly.

My comms bracelet chimes, reminding me that I have class in 20 minutes. I close the hamper and walk back to the gym.

“There you are. I thought you’d left.” I nearly jump out of my skin in surprise and even that resembles a jumping squat, damn every physical therapist to hell and halfway back.

“Hi Dr. Reynolds. I was just using the restroom.”

“Very good. How’s the PT coming?”

“It’s going great, sir.”

“That’s what I hear. You still running in the mornings?”

I nod.

“Fantastic. Listen, we are impressed with how you’ve embraced your prosthesis. You’ve shown dedication and a willingness to push the limits of what you and your new limb are capable of doing.”

Ok, now I feel like a shit-heel for skipping out on two sets of jumping lunges.

“Three months ago, we bet on you,” he continues. “Your prosthesis was not a gift, it was a wager. We wagered you would work hard to earn it and the technology it represents. And so far, our wager is paying out.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“And that is why I am granting your request. You will be permitted two supervised off-base runs per week, which will allow you to train with your prosthesis on more challenging terrain.”

“I get to run off base?”

“Yes, cadet. With supervision.”

“Thank you, sir!”

“You’re welcome. Dismissed.”

I’m so excited that I’m halfway to class before I realize I don’t know what “with supervision” means. Or when I can begin, because I want to start right now. I only hope they don’t pair me with someone who thinks military running is real running. That would be excruciating.

When I get to class, Zelda’s already there and Professor Munger is already clearing her throat, so I slide into the seat next to her and quickly say: “Stop being mad at me. Please. I have something important to tell you.”

She looks at me for the first time since dinner. “Did you really eat a peach pie right in front of me?”

I was prepared to lie but now, looking into her eyes, I just can’t. “Yes, I did. Mrs. Anand made it for me special because I told her it was my birthday. I didn’t know how to tell you so I was hoping you wouldn’t notice. I’m sorry.”

“That really messed with me. Thanks for being honest about it, I guess.”

“Yeah. Now guess what? Dr. Reynolds cleared me to run off base!”

Zelda’s face remains impassive. I don’t get another word in before Professor Munger launches into another lecture about dictators.

With a sigh, I settle back into my seat.

“Our common understanding of dictators is that they’re evil, egomaniacal people who rule their countries with absolute power,” she begins. “But are dictators uniformly evil? Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi is credited for constructing the largest irrigation project in the world during the 20th century, in one of the driest countries in the world. It delivered drinkable water and irrigation to all his people.

“After Cuban dictator Fidel Castro took power, he gave land to farmers, and launched universal healthcare and education programs for all Cubans.”

She paces the room.

“Why is this important? Because if you want to win a battle, context matters. Understanding people’s motivations matters – it leads you to identify their blindspots and weaknesses. How do we do that? By first acknowledging that no dictator, no hero, no homeless gutter-trick is as one-dimensional as we are inclined to paint them.

“If you keep that in mind when you’re out in the field, in the best of cases you can find common ground and avoid conflict. You’ll have the opportunity to test it out next year when you begin street paroles. Chances are, you’ll be monitoring the ration lines. Chances are, the rations will run out. How do you get a hungry tramp or drunk gutter-trick to obey the laws of peace we are tasked with upholding? First, you ask them nicely. Next, you evaluate their circumstances – take in the context – and offer them something that will motivate good behavior. If they look sickly, offer them a ‘scrip. If they are carrying a child with them, offer them a voucher for growth vitamins or for astronaut juice.

“And if they still fail to comply with the laws of peace – if they argue or otherwise cause a disturbance – you crush them. You take away their freedom, their health, their dignity, their family.

“But you can’t enforce peace in this way without first giving citizens an honest chance to accept peace of their own free will. Anything less than that is immoral.”

Professor Munger claps her hands together and picks a hat up off her desk. “Speaking of immoral, for your next assignment, you’ll draw the name of a so-called dictator. Next week, I want an essay identifying at least three policies or programs your dictator implemented that improved the lives of his people, as well as your analysis of what motivated him to do so. Finally, I want your informed opinion detailing at what point you believe human rights violations trump the good that one person in absolute power can do for a society.”

The hat is passed around. I pull Robert Mugabe. When Professor Munger dismisses us, Zelda quickly slips out the door while the class TA – a third-year named Randy? – blocks my exit.

“Hey there Cadet Gonzales,” he says.


“I had a question for you…” he stops, waiting until the classroom is completely empty.

“Am I missing an assignment?”

I’m impatient. I want to catch up with Zelda. I want her to speculate with me on when I can begin running off base and what I’ll see there.

“No, cadet. I wanted to give you the good news: I’ve chosen you as my mentee.”

He grades my papers but we’ve never said a word to one another. He’s never even left a comment on my homework. Our relationship is like my left shoe: nonexistent.

Maybe he senses my confusion. “I’ve noticed how passionate you are about this class. I think that’s pretty inspiring.”

I size him up: brown hair, a face with all its parts, same with the body. I can’t imagine what we have in common, what he can teach me.

This isn’t what I expected, but in the absence of any other offer, it seems rude to argue.

“Okay,” I say. “Thanks, Randy.”

“It’s Rodney.”