Road Runner, by Bianca Brutaldo
Chapter 28
One person’s slur is another’s endearment

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Nov. 1

Dear Peasant,

I watched a girl your age get tased in the street. We’re trained to use tasers as a de-escalation tactic when confronted with two or fewer suspicious individuals (more than that and we tear gas them). But after seeing it, I don’t really understand how it can be considered a de-escalation tactic. It was brutal. I still sweat when I think about it.

Zelda and I play this game sometimes when we’re lying in bed, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever eaten?” When we played it last night, I told Zelda about the time you and I were so hungry we grabbed spoons, went outside, and chiseled spoonfuls of adobe off the house until we were stuffed. Do you remember? It felt so good to feel full until we crapped actual mud for days. She thought that was really funny.

I guess I wanted you to know I was thinking about you and I hope you’re being safe. If a Peacekeeper ever pulls a taser on you, turn sideways if you’re standing up so you’re a smaller target (we’re trained to aim for the chest). If you’re on the ground, start rolling.



I can’t get it out of my head so I raise my hand ask Professor Munger in class: “What happens when Peacekeepers do something wrong?”

“Can you be more specific, Cadet Gonzalas?”

“Like, we’re learning how to become Peacekeepers, and lead Peacekeepers, but what if we break the rules? Or ignore the rules? What happens, then?”

“Sounds like someone’s got a guilty conscience,” Jancy stage whispers.

I ignore the bait. My question is important. I need to know the answer.

“Peacekeepers are subject to the same laws as everyone else,” Professor Munger replies.

It’s a very unsatisfying answer.

I press on. “So what happens if they break the law? Who decides what the punishment is? Who decides who gets punished?”

“We have military courts that decide serious cases. As for minor transgressions, well, if you’re fortunate enough to become a commander, some day that may be up to you.”

“You’d better hope you’re not in my platoon,” Jancy mutters.

“Don’t worry – everyone hopes that,” I respond.

But I am worried.

Rodney cancels our next two runs. I think he’s trying to punish me but I appreciate the reprieve. The two gutter-trick girls haunt my brain all week. I can’t get over how willing – eager, even – Rodney was to assault them without really any good reason at all. I wonder how long the pain of being tased lasts. I even ask about it in The Art of Restraintful Restraint, which yields the most unsatisfying answer.

“It depends on the suspect’s weight, age and relative health. Tasers aren’t considered lethal weapons, which is why Peacekeepers are able to employ them, but they can be lethal.”


But then five days after the run, I wake up sick of worrying about something I didn’t even do. Why should I even feel guilty in the first place?

There’s a saying in the kitchen: “You can’t feed a village without first slaughtering a lamb.” Maybe in order to keep a village safe, you need to slaughter a few lambs, too. For the greater good. Safety is the greatest good – safety of the masses take precedence over the freedoms of the individual, that’s what Professor Munger says.

Maybe Rodney was right: If those girls hadn’t been acting suspicious, he wouldn’t have had to taser one of them. Now they’ve learned a valuable lesson on how to comport themselves in public: act more innocent. Move slowly, keep your hands visible at all times. Smile more. Maybe wave at your friendly Peacekeeper patrolling the street. I can’t imagine us tasing someone while they’re smiling or waving at us. That would be absurd.

So when I see Rodney on Saturday afternoon for my weekly round of Rodney favors, I apologize.

“I don’t have the training you have. I don’t have the reflexes.”

He nods. “You were hysterical.”

It seems counterproductive to argue with him in the midst of an apology.

“That girl reminded me of my sister, maybe that’s why I reacted so strongly,” I say instead. “But I learned a lot from that encounter so I just wanted to thank you for helping me become the best Peacekeeper I can be.”

I want to add: Now can we please go back to our weekly runs?

“I hadn’t thought about that ­– a lot of them probably remind you of home. But as a Peacekeeper, you’ll have to work hard to overcome that sentimentality,” he says. “They’ll sense it and they’ll use it against you. If anything, you should be using your taser more, not less, than the rest of us.”

Perhaps I could just learn to tase people when they are legitimate threats to safety, I want to say but again, I swallow my words. It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter, I chant to myself.

I finish grading my stack of papers – a D- for Jancy ­– and rise.

“So I’ll see you on Tuesday?” I ask.

“Ok. See you at our normal spot.”

I leave feeling victorious but I can’t help but wonder: at what point do you concede so much to get what you want that you end up losing more than you’ve bargained for?

Since I got my new leg, my physical therapists have been incrementally adding small weights to it, with the goal of building up my hamstring and quad muscles and eventually having it calibrated to the weight of my other leg. A perfect complement to its partner. Today, the last weights were added. I’m whole.

I want to celebrate with a run but Bart, my new favorite PT guy, tells me to take it easy. He’s my new favorite PT because he reminds me of Los.

“You overdo it kid, you’re gonna cramp up – and I mean cramping ‘til you scream for mercy,” he says to me. “You ever seen a bombed building that looks like it just shit its guts out? All that rebar and shit all twisted up and sticking out at odd angles? That’s what the muscles in your leg look like, except it’s all held in by a thin skin sac that was stitched together barely a year ago. You need to give that shit time to recoup. Take it easy, okay?”

I promise him, I’ll take it easy.

So instead of sprinting, I’m completing rounds of the dreaded trifecta: leg lifts, lunges and jumping squats. If there is a hell and it’s personal, someday I’ll be doing infinity jumping squats on a bed of hot coals while Vivian criticizes my form and my dad cheers me on by calling out the wrong name. Maybe Jancy will be there with a can of lighter fluid to spray under my ass. At least with a lifetime of PT under my belt, I’ll be prepared.

The gym door opens and FL Stewart walks in, sees me mid-squat, and stops.

“I didn’t know you were supposed to be here.” He sounds accusing.

“Sorry – usually I’m running laps around base but Bart wants me in here today.”

He says nothing. Just stands there.

“I’ll be done soon – I’ve only got five more rounds,” I add.

He sighs. “No, it’s fine. I just can’t be distracted.”

“I will try not to be distracting.”

He sighs again and turns his back to me, casually kicks up into a handstand and walks – on his freaking hands – to the far wall, like 20 feet away. Once there, he leans his body against the wall, still upside down, and starts doing push ups on his head.

His elbows pump, biceps flex, arms lock out. Pump, flex, lock out. This is the first time I’ve seen him in a t-shirt – seen his arms or hands at all, in fact. The inside of his arms are covered in slivered white scars from wrist to elbow. I know those scars. They race up my good leg and right wrist. They also line his lips.

He sighs again and kicks down. I realize I’ve stopped all pretense of exercise and have been openly staring at him. I put my head down and pump out two quick jumping squats while he approaches.

“Sorry,” I say again. “I didn’t mean to be rude. Your PT is much fancier than mine.”

“It’s fine. It’s not fancy, I just have to work on my balance. Staring at me is actually better than anything else. Movement is very distracting. I see everything, even things I don’t want to see sometimes.”

“What do you mean?”

“My helmet helps me see better than human eyes. But unlike human eyes, I can’t zone out or unfocus, if that makes sense.”

“What happens if you take it off?”

“My eyes are actually pretty new transplants and they don’t communicate with my brain correctly yet. The helmet helps my brain interpret data, so without it, I can’t really see.”

He is the boy in the green room. I want to say something but what? Hey! When I was snooping around, I saw you at your most vulnerable!

“I’m working on seeing without it, though,” he adds.

“But why, if it’s better? Your helmet makes you almost superhuman.”

Like my leg, I think. There’s no way I’d ever give up my leg. Not even if they could grow me a new human one, identical to the original model.

“I’m grateful for my helmet,” he says carefully. “But it’s not me. It doesn’t make me whole again, it doesn’t fix me. It’s a tool, and if someone takes it away from me, I want to ensure I’m not helpless. What would you do if someone took your leg away from you?”

“They can’t. It’s glued on.”

“You somehow managed to lose the first one.”

“I guess I don’t see my leg as technology. I think of it as a part of me. It made me whole again. In fact, it made me better than whole.”

He shrugs. “We see things differently, I guess.”

The silence stretches between us but I don’t want this to end. Not yet.

“I wonder if I could ever do a handstand,” I say.

“Try it.”

“No, thanks.” I really do not want to make a fool of myself in front of this person.

“Go on, just kick up into a handstand. Here, I’ll stand in front of you and I’ll catch your legs if you kick too hard, that way you can’t flip all the way over.” He gets into position so we’re standing face to face. He gestures down to his bare feet. He’s got hairy toes. “Try to plant your hands parallel to my feet.”

I’ve done handstands before, my childhood wasn’t completely bereft of fun, but it’s been awhile. I don’t remember it being that hard, so I take a deep breath and make an attempt. My arms go down and my legs go back and up, like a cartoon donkey. I end up on the ground.

“Try it again,” he orders. “Kick harder this time. With conviction. And lock out your arms.”

I get up and try again and again, I fall.

“Better,” he says. “You’ve got it this next time.”

I get up, stare deep into his bottomless visor, then round down and kick hard. He catches my feet at the top. I’m vertical!

“Now what?!” I gasp. My shoulders start shaking.

“Now point your toes and squeeze your glutes. Try and look down at the ground between your hands. Now try and shift your weight to one side and scoot a hand forward.”

I try and immediately crumple to the ground, exhilarated. I want to try again but remember Bart’s warning: “Take it easy.”

I get up, beaming, wanting to shake his hand or something to show my appreciation. “That was really fun. Thank you FL Stewart.”

“You’re welcome, cadet. You can call me Mel.”


“It’s short for Melvin. I was named after my great grandfather, who was also Melvin Stewart.”

“You can call me Rio. I was named after the famous painter, Rionardo da Vinci.”

He laughs – a real, honest burst of surprise and joy. I wonder if Zelda makes him laugh. I feel like she’s twice as smart as me but only half as funny. It still makes my chest ache a little, imagining what having him as a mentor would be like.

“Well, thanks again, Mel, for making me try that.” I savor the way his name feels on my tongue.

“Any time. You’re not a bad gym buddy.” My heart trills. We’re gym buddies! We share a bond now!

“I guess us gimps have to stick together,” I joke.

Something in the air shifts, hardens. I don’t have to see his expression to know I’ve said the wrong thing.

“Don’t call me that.”

“I’m sorry – I just –”

“You can call yourself whatever you like but I don’t use that word.”

With that, he heads for the door.

“I didn’t know –” I stammer. “My friends in the hospital used it all the time. Like, affectionately.”

It’s over. We were on a first-name basis for a blissful 15 seconds before I ruined it. We are no longer gym buddies, no longer bonded. He stops at the entrance at turns.

“If your friends are calling you derogatory slurs, maybe they’re not really your friends.”

The door slams. I’m stunned. After a little while, I resume my rounds of lunges and squats. I can’t leave the gym yet. I don’t want to risk running into FL Stewart again today or really any time over the next three years.

Language is a slippery thing. It’s powerful in ways I never had to consider at home. It can be weaponized. Someone can take an innocent word, like “Mexican,” or even my name, and make it into a slur. And then other people, like my hospital friends in Reno, can embrace a slur and make it feel like an endearment. I felt included when Ruth or Kate called me a gimp. I felt like I belonged somewhere, with someone – a group of someones. A group of gimps.

With each lunge and squat, I become more indignant that other people – Rodney, FL Stewart – feel entitled to dictate my identity to me.