The letter is waiting on my bed when I get home. It smells like cigars, the signature smell of Circus Circus, the scent my mother always wears. I rip the letter open.
Hey, it’s your bro. We got your letter. I’m glad you’re still alive. I can’t believe you’re going to be a Peacekeeper. What’s that like? You’re not missing anything here. Everyone is the same, except Peasant, who is more mouthy.
I read the letter again and again and again. It says nothing but it fills me with a longing for home that’s so acute, it makes my missing leg itch. Painfully.
“Are you ok?” Zelda asks.
“I’m fine. Why?”
“You’re itching your… leg.”
My first PT back in Reno warned me this could happen. I didn’t really believe her. It’s called phantom limb syndrome. Sometimes, after you lose a limb, it’ll feel like the limb is still there but it itches or throbs painfully. When she told me, I almost wished for it to happen so I could close my eyes and pretend to be whole again.
I realize with a jolt that it’s been almost a year since the farm accident, yet suddenly it feels like my leg is back. Only it’s twisted, heavier somehow, and covered in ants and mosquito bites. I hadn’t realized I was scratching my prosthesis until Zelda pointed it out. I force my fingers into stillness even as the itching intensifies.
“Did you get a letter back from your mom?” She asks.
“No – my brother. He’s older. Los.”
“That must make you feel good.”
But does it?
Los and I have never been close. I was younger by two years, I annoyed him, and we had so many other siblings to look up to, until suddenly we didn’t. I never expected him to write me back. In fact, I would’ve pegged him as the last person in our household to write. Yet here he is, sending me a letter that says basically nothing and in doing so, reminds me of home and of how much I want said. If only Vivian had said, “I love you.” If only Peasant had said, “I forgive you.” If only Pops had said, “I’m watching out for you.”
I sleep with the letter under my pillow. Time and again during the night, my hands reach down to assuage the itching. Time and again, my fingernails uselessly slide along metal pistons while a swarm of “if onlys” invade my restless dreams.
Is Peasant still sneaking out? I know you probably are but please watch out for her. What did Pops say when he heard I was going to be a Peacekeeper? Did you tell him I’m in officer school?
Life here is good. At first it was hard to make friends but now I have a few good ones, including my roommate, Zelda. She’s the one who helped me figure out how to write to you.
School is also good. Zelda and I were able to skip a few first-year classes because we’re both incredibly smart. Right now, we’re mainly learning about history and how to identify and crush our enemies. The main lesson seems to be, everyone could be the enemy.
Tell Peasant I’m still running. We’re not allowed off base, so I run around in circles on base nearly every day. It’s driving me a little crazy. Tell her this place reminds me of Elysian Fields, she’ll know what I mean. But I’m doing so well with my prosthesis, they’re going to let me off base soon. I’ll finally be able to run free, wherever I want. Tell her I miss her.
Writing the letters tethers me to home. I don’t really expect him to write back again but maybe someday, Peasant will.
I have to wait another five days for official clearance to run in town – five days of lapping the base like a caged animal and daydreaming about what lies on the other side of the wall, besides lots of cats. Rodney, my mentor, will be accompanying me. He doesn’t look like a runner but I guess to most people I don’t either.
The days are getting shorter, darker, colder. We get cleared to run during my scheduled morning PT time.
Rodney meets me at the gate, after I’ve done a warm-up lap to dissolve some of my nerves. I’m wearing our drill sweats and a lightweight running sneaker, while he’s walking towards me in combat boots and what we call “casual” riot gear – a belt with tear gas, baton and a taser.
“You ready to rock?” he asks me.
“I’m ready to run. Are you ready?”
“Sure thing, Legs.” He raises his arm for a high five – “don’t leave me hanging,” he says – and I’m torn because he’s a 200-pound goofus who makes me cringe so hard my shoulders cramp but he’s also the key to getting what I want, so I give him his damned high five. The soldier on duty confers with Rodney and opens the gate. I step through. I breathe. It’s beautiful.
The area around our base is nothing like Reno. It’s green, even in fall, and there are no mountains in sight. Chicago, the closest city, was bombed during the war but the drillers didn’t reach here. It resurrects memories from my childhood. The buildings here are still standing; the streets are still smooth.
“Mind if we warm up first?” he asks.
I want to say, “I’m warm already,” but I say “okay” instead.
“Is this your first time off base?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say, remembering that year twos get to patrol the area to practice Peacekeeping.
“Yeah, it’s a real shithole. Stick close to me,” he says, fondling his baton.
It’s not, though. The homes on each side of the street look worn, with sagging porches and crumbling front steps, but all of the windows are intact. Weeds and wildflowers and overgrown trees vie for dominance in yards. The streets, meanwhile, are lined with other makeshift homes: tents, junked out cars, and shanties built from discarded ammunition boxes, car hoods and the wool blankets they hand out during winter in rations kits. And everywhere, cats: in the trees, on the porches, strolling down the center of the street. Perhaps that’s why there are no roosters here.
It’s just before 1000. I catch glimpses of stirring hands and feet through car windows and gaping blankets as we walk by. It doesn’t look like a shithole; it looks like a community. Like the community I left back in Reno – only cleaner.
And then I hear it, the most beautiful sound in the world: the crow of a cocky rooster. He’s perched on the roof of a wheelless school bus 10 feet from me, a beautiful gentleman with a bright red comb and a tail so black it shines purple in the weak morning light. And he’s crowing! In the morning, no less!
“Look at that!” I say, feeling like this must be a good omen, an auspicious beginning, nature herself welcoming me into this new place.
As the rooster puffs his chest for another proud caw, the taser connects, electrodes embedded deep in its chest. I scream. The rooster hits the road in a swirl of feathers. Rodney walks up and casually unhooks the electrodes as the bird kicks its feet, his naked pink chest heaving.
Rodney walks back to my side.
“Why did you do that?” I whisper.
“What do you mean? Those things are a nuisance.”
Within seconds, five cats encircle the wounded bird. But before they have a chance to pounce, a small child darts from the bus. One small hand deftly grabs its still-spasming feet. The child’s wrist is nearly as thin as the rooster’s legs. It flaps its wings once, feebly, and stills. The cats try to follow but the child reboards the bus and snaps the door shut.
I feel sick.
“Ready to run?” he asks.
I nod. I want more than anything to sprint away from here. I want to run so fast and far my thighs catch fire and my leg falls off. It’s a funny feeling; I’m not sure I ever want to return.
Rodney launches into the clipped pace of a military shuffle directly in front of me. I stare at his slowly bouncing ass and wish I had a taser of my own. At least I’m off campus, I tell myself. At least I’m getting a glimpse of the city no one else in my class gets. But it’s hard to watch your potential for greatness slip away as an overconfident man blocks your path, running at a walker’s pace.