So I finally did it – I finally got to run off base! It’s very different here than Reno. The city never got bombed, for one thing. Chicago did though, and that’s about 70 miles away, so it’s basically become one big tent city from here to there. The really weird thing is, my running partner says the gutter-tricks have started communicating between cities, and nobody can figure out how. Like, when we change up how rations are delivered or prepare for a big street sweep, they seem to know. We’ve been robbed like crazy lately, I guess.
Also, there are more cats here than roosters and the roosters don’t really crow.
I love you.
The next day, I’m getting ready for work when he shows up at our door with a stack of papers – the rooster killer. The sight of him still repulses me.
“Can I help you?” I ask Rodney.
He smiles like he’s about to sell me something as useless as his company.
“I thought we could study together.”
“Oh, well, I have to get to work right now. And I don’t really have any more homework to do tonight, so…”
“That’s great!” he says. “What time do you get off work? I could use your help with some papers.” He gestures to the papers snuggled deep in his armpit. “Mentorship goes both ways, you know?”
No, I didn’t know. We agree to meet in the library when I’m done with dinner prep.
It’s become my favorite time of the day – dinner prep. I feel at home in the kitchen and working in the garden is meditative. Señora Chabela and Mrs. Anand have given me more responsibilities, like planting winter crops and identifying and pruning fruit trees. It’s late fall – apple season. I’m also learning how to murder slugs.
Tonight we’re making spaghetti and meatballs and garlic bread. I’m put to work rolling out meatballs larger than rubber bullets and placing them on baking trays. As my hands dig into a plentiful bowl of ground beef, my mind returns again to the tased rooster, the child, and others I saw during my run – all painfully thin. Were people in Reno as thin as they are here? Were the children as skeletal? I can’t remember. I’d like to think not but perhaps I just never noticed. It’s hard to recognize misery if you’re steeped in it yourself.
The meatballs are a huge hit at dinner.
“Can I ask you a question?” I ask the table, as my friends stuff their faces.
“Mmmph.” Ryann says, which I interpret as “proceed.”
“Where you came from, did it look like people were starving?”
Ryann swallows and reaches for another meatball. “What do you mean? Like, people dying in the streets?”
“No, but like you can’t tell how old kids are because they’re all so thin. Or people who don’t look like they have the energy to get up.”
Ryann thinks for a moment. “No, not that I recall. Are you talking about people you saw on your run?” I nod. “Maybe they’re on a hunger strike. Or maybe they’re trading their rations for drugs.”
“I don’t think children would be doing either of those things,” I say.
“Did you talk to them?”
“Then you can’t be sure, can you? We’re learning in history class all about agitators who try to stir up controversies while playing victims to gain sympathy and attention,” Ryann says.
“But what if they’re not?” I respond. “Think of Occam’s razor – what if they’re just hungry?”
“I don’t know what razors have to do with it but I think there are natural born manipulators out there, most of whom were conscientious objectors, who want to make the government look bad at all costs. It’s our job as Peacekeepers to ignore them.”
I realize everyone I know except Zelda and me grew up on a base or in a casino – places with walls and guards. They don’t see these people in the same light we do. I look to Zelda, hoping for reinforcement. Expecting that she is on my side.
“Even if they are hungry, that’s not our problem,” she says. “Our job is to keep the peace.”
Rodney is so late for our meeting that I almost leave the library. The fact is, I don’t want to go home yet so I linger. It’s not that Zelda and I are fighting but I’m… disappointed in her? I don’t have the words to describe why, exactly, except that I want to shake her – I want to shake all of my friends but most importantly her – and say, “you didn’t see what I saw on those streets.”
Except Rodney did see what I saw in those streets. So have all the other second years and third-year cadets who work patrols off base, even going so far as Chicago, and they seem to think skeletal kids are normal. What do I say to them? “Look again, look harder”?
I’m probably wrong. Maybe it was a growth spurt.
“There you are!” says Rodney, jolting my mind off its hamster wheel. His tone is playfully chastising, as if I’m the one who’s late.
“Here I am,” I agree.
He takes a seat next to me and places a girthy stack of papers on the table.
“What are these?”
“Remember that assignment on dictators? I haven’t graded them yet and they’re due back tomorrow. I was thinking that you could read part of them and suggest a grade for each paper, since you’re in the class and you know the material and criteria, and then I can skim the papers and take your suggestions into account when I grade them.”
“You want me to grade my classmates’ papers?”
“No, I want your help suggesting grades for them.”
I’m ready to argue again but think better of it. This arrangement could benefit me. Our assignments are graded pretty brutally – professors make it clear that in each class, only 20 percent of students can earn an A, tops.
I’m mostly a C student and I know that doesn’t help my chances of graduating to Year Two. I should work harder on my homework, like Zelda does. I just… don’t want to? I spent most of my life reading books because I had nothing better to do; now I want to cook and explore things and run.
“Sure, ok. I can help,” I say.
I actually read the first few papers – really I do – but then I check my comms bracelet. It’s 2200. At this pace, it’s going to be a late night.
The next paper I pick up is Jancy’s. It begins: “Fidel Castro is one of the most notorious and evil Mexicans in modern history…”
Fidel Castro was Cuban, not Mexican. I give her a ‘D’.
I flip to the last page: “In conclusion, since the Mexican-American War of 1846, hispanics led by dictators like Fidel Castro have launched insidious campaigns to weaken the freedoms that make America great, by crossing our border and spreading their socialist attitudes and lazy work ethic.”
I change the ‘D’ to an ‘F.’ The next paper is Zelda’s. I don’t even have to read that one – I give it an ‘A.’ Several papers later, I land on my own and give myself an ‘A’ as well. Within 10 minutes, I have graded them all.
I glance over at Rodney, eager to tell him I’m done so I can finally go home. Instead of grading essays, like me, he appears to be writing one.
“Finished,” I say. “I’m headed out.”
“Great, thanks for your help! Same time next week?”
I sigh and nod. At least this way, I’m guaranteed a superior grade in one class.
When I get home, Zelda’s still up.
“Where were you? I thought we were doing hair masks tonight.”
I flop on my bed. “Sorry, I completely forgot. Long day. I didn’t even grab eggs. I will tomorrow.”
She’s not even looking at me, though. It looks like she’s interviewing her split ends. “Just make sure you don’t forget again – another day and my hair will look completely fried.”
I feel my irritation flair – at her, at Rodney, at myself for being so obliging. Jancy may have the personality of a racist hammer but I doubt she ever feels taken advantage of.
“I’ll try not to inconvenience you further,” I say sarcastically but Zelda doesn’t notice. She’s braiding her hair in the mirror, lost in her own reflection.