Over the course of the next two days, Rodney’s lies become my lies as I repeat his story to a parade of officials. It’s only when I can’t remember a lie that I tell the truth: “I can’t remember.”
I understand Rodney’s motivation for lying on the most fundamental level: Being ambushed by twenty 20-year-olds sounds a lot more heroic than being tackled and stripped by a handful of underfed teens. He didn’t want to look like a fool.
Yet with each of progressive interview, my feelings of dread increase, as does my urge to tell the truth.
“And did these men say anything while they restrained you?”
My mouth goes dry. Teenagers. Hardly more than children.
“Did you attempt to fight?”
My phantom limb throbs.
“Why do you think they targeted you?”
“I can’t remember – I mean, I don’t know.”
The air is electrified on base. Our attack is all anyone can talk about. It’s yet another reason I can’t speak up and tell the truth. The lies have taken on a life of their own. People want to believe the story so they do. As cadets, we have been trained for combat. Many are eager to flex their training.
In our Advanced History of War class, we’re learning about every battle in the war. We have to analyze these battles so we don’t repeat the mistakes of our predecessors. I’ve learned about the battles Mel and Paul died in. They were basically unwinnable. We were outnumbered. We were outgunned. Our technology, all Chinese-made, was turned against us. Our leaders knew that going in, yet they still sent our family and millions of others to die in a war that we never had a chance of winning.
I guess I was too young to understand all that while it was happening. It’s no wonder Pops is the way he is. Be kind to him. Kinder than I was in my head, at least.
I assume my city runs are done for good until FL Stewart shows up at my door after class one day.
“Zelda’s in the library.”
“That’s not why I’m here. I wanted to see if you wanted to go for a run.”
Well well well. I check my comms bracelet. I’ve got two hours of unstructured time before I have to be in the kitchen for dinner duty. To be honest, I don’t feel like running around base with everyone up and watching but it’s FL Stewart and I have a few things to tell him.
“Sure. I ran this morning but I could do another lap or two.”
“I meant off base. Since Rodney’s still a little shaken up, I thought I’d escort you for the next few weeks.”
“But it’s Wednesday,” I say stupidly.
He stares. “... so?”
“We run off base on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
“Is that Rodney’s rule?”
“I – I don’t know. It’s just how we did it.”
“Well, that’s not how I’m going to do it. Are you in?”
“Yes. Just let me grab my shoe.”
I half expect us to be detained at the gate but the guards let us through without comment. FL Stewart doesn’t have anything on him – no taser, no gun, no rubber bullets, no plastic cuffs, nothing but his comms bracelet. His helmet shines like a rock, if that makes sense. I wonder what people think of him out here. He gestures for me to proceed.
“Don’t you want to lead?”
“No, go ahead.”
I launch into our normal slow plod on our normal route. FL Stewart follows for a block before speaking up.
“I don’t want to be rude but do you mind if we pick it up a bit?”
His words are a gift. I grin. “How fast do you want to go?”
“Why don’t you set the pace. If it’s too much for me, I’ll whistle. Sound good?”
I know this route like the scars on the back of my hand. Still, this is the first time I’ve attempted to run – really run – out here, so I let my speed build up in my legs like a slow heat. By the time we reach the block with the dessicated fountain, I’m ready to sprint. I turn my head just enough to check FL Stewart in my peripheral vision. He’s kept up so far. Let’s see if he can keep up with this. I pull my shoulders back, head up as if it’s tethered to a buoyant balloon like Pops taught me. In my head, I hear the crack of a starter pistol. I sprint.
I think it’s rare to recognize a perfect moment as you’re living it. For me, this is one of those moments. I know every turn, every pothole, every crack in the road. The only difference is I’m finally running as fast as my legs can go, so fast we startle people – large groups of them talking, laughing, convening, giving me a glimpse of what these streets are like when Peacekeepers aren’t patrolling them.
And I’m finally running with someone who can keep up. Almost as soon as I think that, I hear a sharp whistle behind me, FL Stewart’s signal to stop. I’m disappointed but my heart rate is still singing. I pull up and turn to find him standing in the middle of the road.
“Why did you run this way?” FL Stewart asks.
“It’s the way we always run.” I sense I’m saying the wrong thing but I don’t have the energy to figure out how.
He looks around. “This is where you were attacked.”
Clusters of people lounge on sagging porches. Everyone’s quiet. Then I recognize one of them. She waves. Aw, hell. That probably doesn’t look good.
“Do you know that girl?”
FL Stewart looks as if he’s going tackle me – he gets so close I can feel his breath on my cheek. I take a reflexive step back. It feels like hundreds of eyes are on us. Watching. Waiting. Alert. I wonder what his eyes would reveal, if I could see them.
“It seems to me that there are a few inconsistencies in your version of what happened last week.”
He looks as if he’s waiting for confirmation. I want to remind him that it’s not my story – it’s Rodney’s. I’m just doing him a favor by agreeing to it. But I keep my mouth shut.
After a moment, he continues: “I cannot stress enough how dangerous these… embellishments… can be. They will have consequences for people. And if those consequences could be tabled with a few clarifications, it is your job – your duty – to offer that clarity.”
I look down. It’s bad enough that I can’t see his eyes, but looking at the mirrored reflection of myself in his helmet is almost worse. I want to ask “what consequences?” but I’m afraid any question I have will make me look more guilty than I already do.
If I speak up and tell the truth – that Rodney was attacked in retaliation for tasing a girl, which he never reported; that we were so easily ambushed because we routinely broke protocol by running the same routes at the same time on the same days; that I wasn’t actually attacked; and that the only reason I wasn’t attacked is because I betrayed my training and my companion by screaming a warning. I realize the truth is ugly. It makes me look like a coward and a follower.
So I take the safe way out.
“I’m sorry but I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He raises one hand and waves at the stony group of teens on the porch. No one returns his wave.
“It’s time we got back,” he says. “Follow me.”
He turns down a side street I’ve never seen and sets a pace that makes my blood sing but alas, my heart is no longer in it.