“I’m pretty sure I’ll never get to run off base again,” I tell Zelda when I finally make it back to our room the next day.
“I think there are bigger things at play that you should be worried about,” she responds, as if I didn’t know. As if I haven’t just spent the entire night telling and retelling what happened. Pointing out locations on maps. Attempting to describe attackers I never saw. All the while trying to eat my guilt about FL Stewart and the more complicated guilt I feel about ratting out those who attacked us.
They didn’t beat us, just robbed us. That could’ve been me attacking Peacekeepers. It could’ve been my sister. And we’re not evil.
Of course I know there are bigger things I should be worried about, but I can have one selfish regret. Can’t I?
“Thanks for reminding me how I should be feeling right now,” I say to her.
“I’m just reminding you it’s not all about you. Have you even seen Mel? Do you know how he’s doing?”
I shake my head. I haven’t asked to see him since he was taken to medic last night. Truthfully, I don’t want to see him. There’s that guilt again, rising up in the back of my throat. Have you ever noticed there are different flavors of guilt? This one tastes like bile – acrid, throat burning bile.
The trains are rolling in today and tomorrow. All the cadets are returning to base after idyllic holidays eating turkey and cranberries off of craps tables, or whatever it is they do. Our attack is the big news greeting them. They show up at my door, a constant line of drive-by gossips who want to “see if I’m ok” and “by the way, how is FL Stewart?” Someone spread the word that I saw him without his helmet, even though I didn’t really. I didn’t tell anyone about that except the superiors – not even Zelda.
When I leave my room, I catch whispers in the halls – old resentments spreading and some new ones I didn’t even know existed. In the bathroom:
“I heard she just ran away and left him there.”
“I heard she was laughing while they pulled off his helmet.”
“She’s got to be a spy, right? She can’t possibly lead a squadron of Peacekeepers, right? They’d all be slaughtered.”
Their words echo coldly off porcelain tiles. I wait until they leave because I’m too chickenshit to confront their gossip. Class starts again tomorrow. I’m dreading it. Teams are built on trust. If no one trusts me here, where do I belong?
I’ve never been popular – not like Jancy or even Zelda – but now I find myself grateful for the few friends I have.
“I mean, two attacks now, both with her involved. That seems like a pretty unbelievable coincidence.”
“What are you implying? That she’s colluding with them somehow?”
I’m in the library when I overhear this. I’m usually never in the library except when forced but in the last few days I’ve found it a great place to hide. They’re whispering, which I guess is appropriate for a library. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop but now I can’t leave. The part of me that hates myself compels me to stay.
“I mean, she was basically raised on the streets of Reno, right? That place is supposed to be rough. Like Chicago only, like, sandy. Maybe Jancy’s right about her. I mean, somehow all these street people are communicating. Somehow they’re all rising up.”
“Nice conspiracy theory but that would take discipline and tactical thinking to pull off.”
I breathe deeply through their quiet laughter.
“She’s got to be some sort of smart. She’s in second year classes. She talked them into letting her off base, which is super weird. How does she get special dispensation? And somehow she convinced FL Stewart to go with her.”
“You know, the first thing she said when she got home was ‘I bet they won’t let me run off base again.’ Nothing about Mel at all. She didn’t even tell me about his helmet.”
Now my eyes are swimming.
I thought we were friends.
So I do what any scorned friend in my position would do: I take a deep breath and fail Zelda on her next paper. Like, fully fail her, with a sassy red ‘F’ and everything. At night, I listen to her rage, hysterical, over that paper.
“Professor Munger wouldn’t even talk to me! I’m a straight ‘A’ student. I don’t deserve a failing grade.”
“You don’t ‘deserve’ grades, you earn them.” Can she hear the gloat in my voice? “Maybe you’ve gotten a little entitled. I’m sure if you try harder, your grades will improve.”
If looks could kill, my organs would be cat food.
The worst part of it is, changing her grade doesn’t make me feel better. It doesn’t assuage my anger or hurt. Sure, it feels good in a mean sort of way, but I realize I’d much rather have her friendship than revenge.
“Have you talked to her?” Nicole asks the next night.
We’re at dinner. It’s rice and beans, which is kitchen code for ‘we’re running low on supplies.’ By some twist of fate, it’s just she and I, so I unload on her.
“No, I haven’t talked to her. What would I say – ‘I heard you gossiping about how I’m a potential domestic terrorist but also too stupid to be a potential domestic terrorist?’ Do you think that’s why no one else is eating with us? Do they all think that?”
Nicole rolls her eyes at me and the way she does it, all exaggerated, makes me feel a little better. Nicole is not a liar. If she thinks I’m being melodramatic, my friends aren’t plotting to dump me. Yet.
“No one with a working brain thinks you’re stupid or a domestic terrorist,” she says. “I know there’s a lot of negative attention on you right now, and this Zelda thing just makes it worse, but it underscores how you have to be your most vocal advocate. If you’re not speaking up for yourself, especially to your friends, how do we support you?”
“That makes sense.”
It won’t make having a conversation with Zelda any easier, though. Is it too much to hope that she’ll spontaneously confess and apologize? And then maybe Peasant will finally write me back and apologize for ignoring me for so long. And then my left leg will dig itself out of whatever shallow desert grave it was buried in, heel-toe it about 2,000 miles and cheerfully reattach itself. I’m busy trying to divine this really fantastic future in my muddied rice and beans, so I don’t notice when company arrives.
“Mind if we join you two?” Zelda asks.
I look up. Behind Zelda stands FL Stewart. Oh shucks oh dear.
“Please join us!” Nicole says, all chipper.
Zelda sits next to Nicole; FL Stewart takes the seat right next to me. My armpits turn into instant geysers. I’m sure everyone in the cafeteria is laser beamed on us. I’m sure everyone who’s not currently in the cafeteria is getting updated about it via their comms bracelets. I want to say I’m sorry, I want to ask how he is, but all I can do is sit there with dry mouth while my pits drip apologies.
“Are you doing ok?” He asks quietly. I notice he’s wearing a new comms bracelet. They haven’t given me one.
“Yeah, I’m ok. How are you?” I muster the courage to look at him. His helmet is scratched. The visor’s been replaced, dents hammered out.
“I’m doing much better. I wanted to thank you for helping me through that.” He takes my hand. In public! “I was in a really bad place and you got me through it.”
“It was nothing.” I take a sip of water. Then a deep breath. Then I say what I have to say.
“I’m really sorry I left you there. I didn’t mean to, I swear. I got attacked from behind and the kid got my comms bracelet and started running and I thought I could catch him and you’re so smart and capable I didn’t even think –”
“You couldn’t have known. I didn’t even know. I’ve never had that many flashlights shined directly at me before. And I never thought you left me there on purpose. I told the highers that.”
It’s a funny thing, receiving an apology from a man without a face. I keep searching for his eyes. I’m looking for connection, reassurance, and instead I see metal, teeth, and the dull green glow of his visor. I understand for a second what it must be like to be him – to have to prove your humanity to those around you. FL Stewart does it with his voice. I don’t know shit about music but sincerity has its own pitch. It sounds like sunshine on a cabbage bloom; it sounds like a baby laughing; it sounds like wind chimes and crowing roosters and the truth.
When I answer him, I try for it. Sincerity. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything.”
“I chose the time, I chose not to bring my gear, I chose the route.” He squeezes my hand. “So I don’t blame you and no one else should, either.”
It finally dawns on me that this has been for Zelda and Nicole and the two tables full of people to our right and left as much as it’s been for me. A private apology wouldn’t have restored my reputation as this public performance has done. I squeeze back, briefly uniting the matching white scars on our wrists and palms, then pull away and focus on my beans. They are the best beans I have ever tasted.