It’s funny to think I spent last Thanksgiving trapped alone in a hospital. It seems so long ago. This year, I spent it making real mashed potatoes and eating with friends. Most kids get to travel home for Thanksgiving but there are a few of us who don’t have anywhere to go, including Zelda and my friends Marcus and Ryann and Nicole, so I wasn’t alone.
I showed Zelda the garden. I thought it would remind her of her parents’ farm. I was right – she got kind of emotional.
FL Stewart was also at Thanksgiving. Zelda says he’s an orphan, too. I thought he hated me after the whole taser thing but after the dinner, he invited me to go on another city run with him, so I guess he’s forgiven me.
He’s one of the smartest, most intimidating people on campus. I think it’s because he tells the truth. Most people have their own versions of the truth that branch out like limbs on a tree – you can understand where it comes from but also know it’s not the main truth. FL Stewart’s truth is like the trunk of the tree. Zelda is also like that. Perhaps that’s why he chose to be her mentor – maybe he sensed they saw the world the same way.
What if Rodney saw me and thought the same thing? I know my truth isn’t always the most honest version but I’m not like Rodney, right? Man, that’s a depressing thought.
I wish you and Los were here to eat with us. Real mashed potatoes taste like rich, buttery velvet. Did you know there are actually thousands of varieties of potatoes in the world, and that their starch content makes them good for different things? We’re using russets for our mashed potatoes. Sometimes I wonder what variety Vivian is trying to grow. Maybe her problem is the varietal.
That’s probably one of the last good meals I’ll have in awhile. We go to prison soon. I know you’re supposed to avoid prison but we’re only there to observe or something. It all seems very ominous. The upperclassmen just say things like “expect the unexpected” and “good look trying to survive,” as if they’re trying to scare us. Of course we’ll survive. We’re heroes in training. Heroes always survive.
Anyway, this Thanksgiving I’m thankful you’re my sister.
I prepared for my second run with FL Stewart by not running. I wanted my legs fresh and they are – my muscles feel like they’re jumping out of their skin, they’re so ready to work. He texts my comms bracelet a few days after Thanksgiving: “Meet me at the main gate at dusk.”
The sky is deep purple when I see him.
“Aren’t you worried about the time?” I ask.
“What, do your legs stop working at night?”
“No, I just figured that with the attack on Rodney, there might be rules…”
He shrugs, then nods at the soldiers guarding the gate as they let us through. “No one’s said anything to me yet. It’ll be quick; we won’t run more than three. And I suspect the attack on Rodney was a personal issue but as you know, I can’t confirm that.”
Eesh. I glance up and down the dusky road to keep from looking guilty. My awkwardness is quickly replaced by excitement. Cities, like people, are two-faced, with a softer face they reveal only at night. Under muddied yellow street lights, even trash looks romantic and it’s hard to tell if the bodies hidden in the shadows are watching you or dead or locked in embrace. The air about everything is both dreamy and sinister. It occurs to me I might not know what romance is.
“Which way?” FL Stewart asks.
Rodney and I always went right. “Left.”
I begin at my usual warm-up pace and almost immediately realize my dilemma: I want to sprint but I also want to look at everything before the light deserts us. We follow the base’s outer wall for about a block before it ends, opening up into a large, wooded area on our left and more houses on our right. We run down the middle of the street, skirting around the halo of intermittent streetlights, encumbered by the growing darkness and my curiosity.
I sense we’re running away from the center of town. I feel eyes on us but who knows if they’re animal or human and really, who cares? Perhaps they catch a glint of light off of FL Stewart’s helmet or my cyborg leg, or the dull glow of our comms bracelets. Perhaps they fear us. In the harsh light of day, that thought would make me sad. At night, it makes me feel powerful.
We reach another intersection about a mile from base and hear three sharp whistles to our right. Suddenly, I’m blinded by flashlight beams.
“Oh shucks oh dear,” mutters FL Stewart under his breath.
“Stewart, is that you?”
“Yeah. Mind pointing those somewhere else?”
Five beams drop down to booted feet. I can’t see faces but I gather it’s a troop of second years out on patrol.
“Good thing you said something, we were about to light your ass up like a pre-war Christmas tree.”
“What for? For running?” I’m full of adrenaline and the darkness makes me bold.
“You have to admit, it looks pretty suspicious,” says the voice. “People don’t run unless they’re hiding something.”
“I do. I run for fun. And where I’m from, I know a lot of kids who do that.”
“Oh yeah? And where’s that?”
Snorts and laughter assault me in the darkness.
“Oh yeah, they run for fun in Reno.”
“All those gutter-tricks, they’re just training for their next marathon!”
My already pounding heart pounds harder, my palms sweat, and then a hand finds my shoulder – steadying, not restraining me. It’s FL Stewart.
“Thanks, Stevens,” he says. “We won’t hold you up any longer.”
I stand still, pissed off and humiliated as the troop says their goodbyes to FL Stewart and head back in the direction of base. To distract myself, I ask a question I’d never be brave enough to bring up otherwise.
“Do you get hot under your helmet when you run?”
He laughs quietly. “Yes, very.”
“Does your visor fog up?”
“Huh. You know, I’ve never noticed. I don’t really see through the visor like you would through a window. It’s kind of like a screen.”
“Wouldn’t that mean when the sun’s out, everything you look at is backlit?”
“Like most people, I don’t stare directly at the sun, so that’s not a problem. But yes, sometimes bright light does screw with things.”
“Why’d you say ‘oh shucks oh dear’ when you saw the group coming?”
“It’s something my grandma used to say. She called it her church curse. I don’t know why I said it just now. I guess my mind was wandering.”
“That’s funny, my grandma had a church curse, too.”
“What was it?”
“Wow. What church did your grandmother go to?”
“Catholic. She said she was retired, though. That’s about the only English she spoke.”
He laughs again – we both do. This is what the darkness does; it fosters intimacy just as easily as it sews fear and discord.
“We should head back.”
I know he’s right. We’ve dawdled long enough. Without the moon, the darkness feels solid, and I’m shivering now that my pulse has slowed and sweat has cooled. But I don’t want to run into the other cadets again. He must sense it because he gestures toward the road they originated from.
“We can take the long way back,” he says. “We’ll just have to run slow.”
He takes the lead and since I can no longer see two feet in front of my face, I amuse myself by trying to exactly mirror his stride. One misstep and I’ll be on his heels, but I don’t miss. I am a well-oiled running machine. The thought reminds me of the road runners; it reminds me of home.
“Is there something going on in Reno?” I ask. “It seemed like I was missing something back there.”
He’s quiet so long I fear I’ve crossed another line I didn’t know about.
“It’s just that we’ve been noticing patterns in some of the cities. Civilians methodically attacking Peacekeepers, stripping them of their gear or raiding rations stations. Small groups of them. They’re fast. When one tactic works well, we see it repeated in other cities, like they’re somehow communicating. But that’s impossible. After the drillers, there’s no way even a pigeon is getting into a stronghold like Reno without being shot down first.”
It’s impossible not to look back at my time in Reno and cringe at my naivete, like thinking the road runners were some sort of social club, or that I could just walk up and steal from an armed Peacekeeper without repercussions. Oh shucks oh dear indeed. It also makes me wonder if Rodney’s attack had an ulterior motive. Now that I think of it, I can’t remember exactly how it happened, how they got him on the ground and disarmed so fast. I’d assumed it was because he’s lazy and slow and bad at most things, but maybe they were practicing on him. I’d mention it to FL Stewart only I don’t think I can keep my lies straight.
“What do you think happened to Rodney?” I ask instead.
He stares straight ahead.
“I think he made himself a target,” he says. “One person might be stupid enough to poke a bear but a group of people won’t unless there’s a reason. I think he did something he wasn’t supposed to do – like stiffed someone on an under-the-table trade – and what he got was street justice. What doesn’t fit in that scenario is the attack on you.”
I don’t know what to say so I don’t say anything. Then, from behind us, come three sharp whistles. He sighs and we both slow to a stop and turn around. The flashlights approach again, blinding us. FL Stewart puts one arm up to shield his visor and turns his head, only to encounter another beam.
“Flashlights, Stevens!” he says.
But the flashlights do not lower. They continue at an unhurried pace, swinging methodically back and forth, chasing our faces as we try to turn away. Something is wrong.
“Rio, get behind me,” FL Stewart says quietly.
We have no weapons. I step behind him and bring the dull glow of my comms bracelet to my face. My fingers are shaking. What’s the code for an actual shit-your-pants emergency?
“0-0-0,” he whispers.
Did I say that aloud?
I type out 0-0- before they’re on us. I’m grabbed from behind and thrown to the ground. Both arms are pinned by someone who smells acrid, like sour rage. All flashlights are trained on FL Stewart. The beams track him, shining directly in his face every direction he turns. No one touches him. He tried to keep his head down but the flashlights follow. He lashes out, wildly, looking to make contact.
Suddenly I’m released. I jump to my feet. Two feet away, a young man is lightly bathed in the glow of my comms bracelet. He is smirking at me. He turns and takes off running.
You think you can outrun me? Oh, you’re on.
I take a deep and sprint after him. He’s fast. We pass a streetlamp two blocks down and I can tell he’s getting winded but he knows the streets better than I do. I have to concentrate on the debris in front of me as he weaves between houses and onto a side street. He looks back to check if I’m still following. If I’m going to catch up, I have to push myself as hard as I can go.
I take it up a notch. The question is, do I drag his ass back to FL Stewart when I catch him or just grab my comms bracelet and let him go?
Shit. FL Stewart.
The chase suddenly leaves my legs and I stop in the street. I abandoned him. He was struggling and I just left him there, alone. Surrounded by the enemy.
I turn and sprint again. I sprint faster than I thought physically possible. I sprint until my lungs are screaming as loud as the castigating voice in my head. Only when I get back to the streetlight near where we were attacked do I slow down, trying to recall the training I’ve only half paid attention to and never practiced in real life. My ears are on high alert. My eyes strain for any sign of movement in the dark but the streetlight has momentarily erased my night vision.
That’s why I almost trip over him. He’s so still. So quiet. He’s sitting in the road, head cradled in his arms. Right where I left him because that’s what I did: left him.
I see him now: the boy from the green room. I can tell by his hair and how he holds his shoulders. I drop to my knees. I’m afraid now, deeply afraid that he’s seriously hurt. Or dead. All because of me. His comms bracelet is gone. I don’t even have a way to call for help. I put my hand gently on his shoulder.
He flinches. He’s alive. My eyes adjust to the darkness and I see it: hair. He’s not wearing his helmet.
“Cunt-licking cocksuckers,” I whisper. “Mel? Where’s your helmet?”
He shakes his head.
“Mel, can you stand? Please?”
Finally, he speaks. “No. I can’t see. They blinded me.”
Maybe they were after our comms bracelets. Maybe they saw us and wanted to test the limits of my bionic leg or his bionic eyes. Maybe they wanted his helmet. Maybe they wanted it all. They certainly got it all, but I can’t worry about that now. I need to get us to safety before they come back – or before others find us.
But every time I touch him, he flinches.
When I was in shock during those first few days – maybe weeks – at the hospital, one kind nurse would narrate everything she was doing while she was with me, from changing my bandages to monitoring my pulse. It was soothing and in my deep, animal-panic state, it slowly reminded me that I was human.
“You don’t need to see. I can see for both of us,” I whisper in my soothingest voice. “. I’m going to help you up now. First, I’m going to take your hands. Good. Now I’m going to pull you up – that’s it. Now I want you to put your arm around my shoulders and I’m going to put my arm around your waist and we’re going to take a nice walk home, ok?”
I don’t look at his face. Even though part of me is curious, it feels like a violation and he’s been violated enough tonight.
We lurch forward together. He trips over my blade a few times before we get into a rhythm we can both move to. A few steps later, my boot connects with metal.
“Hold on a sec,” I say. “I’m going to bend down slowly and pick something up. Don’t move.”
My fingers connect with the cold contours of his helmet. The visor is shattered. It’s functionally useless.
“I found your helmet. Do you want me to carry it or put it on you?”
He bows his head. In the dark, I lift it up, my fingers grazing locks of hair, and gingerly work it down over his head. It’s an intimate moment and I hate it. I feel wretched for leaving him, for witnessing his vulnerability and knowing I’m to blame, for how dependent he is on me now.
So I do the only thing I can think to do to show him how sorry I am. I open my mouth and start telling him the truth. Not big truths – not the ones that will make him hate me. But some truths, at least.
“Did I ever tell you I have a sister? Before the war, I had three. The youngest is Peasant. Her real name is Persephone but I call her Peasant because I used to role play that I was a queen and she was my stupid, ugly servant. Really, she’s the most beautiful person in our family – maybe even in the entire city but we were basically shut-ins during and after the war so it’s not like I could verify it. I called her Peasant because I was jealous of a little girl.”
I talk for two miles. I tell him about how I wanted to be a runner but was afraid to leave the house. I tell him about stealing shoes from a starving boy. I tell him how I trained, how I raced the road runners, how I lost. Things I’d never said aloud before.
He doesn’t respond, just leans on my shoulders and shuffles forward, one foot in front of the other. From a distance, we could look like lovers out for a stroll or comrades drunk on watered down rubbing alcohol instead of what we are: two people too broken to stand on their own, fumbling through the dark.