“Give me your book.”
My new roommate has the face of a rotting peach. Her eyes are bruised and sunken, head sheared close to her skull, round cheeks, and she’s missing teeth. I don’t know how many hours I’ve been here, sitting on the cold cement floor of our cell, clutching the book and staring at the hated wooden leg. I don’t have the energy to fight but I do it anyway.
“I wasn’t asking.”
She sits up in her bunk. The bottom bunk. Don’t know how I’ll reach mine.
“You wanna be picking out pieces of your face from between your toes?”
I figure the question’s rhetorical so I don’t answer.
“Give me the book.” She punches to her mattress. It’s got two blankets. The top bunk is bare. I close my eyes and give myself 10 seconds to wish myself back on base, with my leg and warm clothing, cooking dinner – chili, maybe. Then I open my eyes and fully resign myself to this place – the cold floor, my moth-eaten jumpsuit, this feral woman who wants to fight.
“You can have it after I read it.”
She bares her broken teeth and laughs, as if reading were the funniest thing in the world. The laughter echoes through our cell and down the hall, where it prompts responding cries, “why you giggling, Peaches?” and “tell us a joke, Peaches!” and “you make fresh meat cry yet?”
“Not yet,” Peaches shouts back. They shriek and whoop. I wonder about the other cadets locked in this place. We were all given books. What have they done with theirs?
She stands. “I never beat a cripple before.”
Her dirty feet are bare, toenails purple and jagged. I’ve got 20 pounds of muscle on her and I’ve trained for this. But I’m no longer whole. I can’t stand. I feel helpless and it’s making me panic. My body blooms with cold sweat.
“Why do you want it?” I ask, staring up at her.
“I’m gonna burn it in the sink, stupid. Where you from?”
“Reno. Nevada. Is your name really Peaches?”
She shrugs. “They shaved me when I got here. Lice.” She shuffles her feet, casually kicks my good leg a few times as if searching for a soft spot. I push my spine into the wall, hugging the book.
“Look, I’ll give you the book. Just let me read it first.”
I don’t know why this is the stand I’ve chosen to take. It’s stupid. But being raised with siblings has taught me that if I back down now, I’ll be hand paving my own walkway to hell.
It’s then I notice the sharpened piece of plastic she holds in her palm. A shiv no larger than her pinkie. I’m going to have to give her the book or I will be stabbed.
“You’re doing their job for them, you know that, right?”
She kicks me again. I set the book down and slide it across the floor. It disappears under the bed. She walks back to her bed, bends down, looks back at me. “You’re gonna get that.”
She lunges at me with the shiv. Turns out she really hasn’t fought a cripple before; it’s much harder stabbing someone who’s half your height. I roll to my back and kick her knee in with my good leg. I feel the crunch of her bones shifting as much as I hear her scream. She drops to the ground. I roll again and I’m straddling her. We’re fighting for the shiv, but I’m in my element now; I know how to restrain a hostile. I put pressure on her throat until she’s choking. Her sad peach face stares up at me, bruised eyes bugging, tears streaming. She drops the shiv but I don’t let up. She’s clutching at my arm and gasping, sure I’m going to kill her. I’m not sure I’m not. I could blame the adrenaline but there’s a mean part of me who wants to bear down on her throat until her face goes purple and arms go limp. I take one last deep breath and let go.
Her heaving coughs echo down the hall and the prisoners howl again, uncaring of the players or outcome, just satisfied that violence has taken place.
I take the bottom bunk. The shiv is small, shaped like an arrowhead. My jumpsuit doesn’t have pockets so I slide into my mouth, in the pocket between my gums and cheek. It digs in.
“Get my book.” I order and she limpingly does. “Now bring me my leg.” I don’t even say please.
Now what? The temperature is dropping. There’s no light. Peaches has taken my former spot as floor sentinel. Her kicked-in knee is twice the size of its twin. I wonder why she doesn’t scream for a guard to go see a medic and then remember my own experience, mere hours ago. Now I feel guilty.
There’s a knock on our door and food – it must be dinner – slides through a slotted opening. Two pieces of bread and astronaut juice. Just the powder.
I half expect to have to fight for my dinner, even though I’d rather not. The best way to immobilize enemy units isn’t by fighting; it’s by causing infighting. If the enemy is a state, arm its uprisers. If the enemy is closer to home – say, a group of citizen protestors or prisoners – make them tired. Make them hungry. Make them scrabble for scarce resources. And if the enemy is an individual, befriend them and turn them against their own best interests.
“Make the snake eat its tail,” as Professor Munger would say. That’s how you win.
Peaches throws me a piece of bread without asking, so I toss her a blanket. I can tell it surprises her.
I eat my bread in two bites. She nibbles on it obsessively, the way Peasant and I used to nibble the heads off of matches. The bread tastes older than I feel. I’m almost looking forward to my watery cup of astronaut juice.
I look around – no cups. “How do you drink the juice?”
“Usually I just put it on my palm and lick it. If I’m really thirsty, I use the toilet.”
“Why not the sink?”
“You think I’m an idiot? Sink doesn’t work.”
So we lick our astronaut powder in silence. Its neon orangeness glows in the gloomy room. Eating anything with a knife in your mouth sucks. I taste blood and discreetly spit out the shiv, sticking it into my mattress.
A breeze enters through a hole in our one window. It’s up too high to see much but if I stand, I can see the edge of a billboard, “You’re never fully dressed–” and a brittle-red smile. We’re in Chicago.
Not that the information does me any good. The temperature keeps dropping.
“You’ve got matches?” I ask.
“What do you think about trying to burn that?” I gesture with my chin.
She looks at me like I’m crazed. “Your leg?”
“It’s not my leg.”
“But how will you walk?”
“You do much walking in here? Anyway, I won’t wear it. Let’s see if it burns.”
We’re a pair, the two of us. She drags herself to retrieve her hidden matches from a sack behind the toilet; I catch a glimpse of pens and needles, a few books, and tampons ferreted away. I drag myself to retrieve the leg. We meet at the metal sink. There are scorch marks inside.
“I’m sorry about your knee,” I say. Her shrug says, “violence is a language here.”
I stuff the leg’s stained fabric straps inside its hollow knee and lean it in the sink. It takes three matches but eventually, we get the straps burning. She smolders, then lights up. The smoke billows out the hole in our window. She must be hard wood because she burns long and hot – so hot we can sit comfortably on the ground and warm our hands on the hot metal of the sink. Eventually, I drag myself back to the bunks and return with our blankets. Eventually, we sleep.
We wake up holding hands. It’s not a sentimental thing. Holding hands ensures neither of us stabs or chokes the other in the night.
“How’d you sleep?” I ask.
She throws me a perplexed, pitying look. “You ask weird questions.”
She releases my hand, sits up and begins examining her knee. It’s even bigger than yesterday. I wrap myself tighter in my blanket and scoot myself back towards the wall.
“How long have you been here?” I ask.
“This time? About 10 days. I should get moved pretty soon.”
“Moved? Where to?”
She shrugs. “Another farm.”
I sit up a little straighter. They have farms around here, too?
“What kind of farm?”
That look again. This time, tinged with suspicion. “The regular kind. What happened to you?”
She wants to know about my leg. I look down. I’ve been massaging the stump with an absent-minded obsessiveness. The wound feels fresh all over again. I don’t want to look at it – haven’t really looked at it – but I can’t seem to keep my hands off it. It’s cold and sensitive and prickles nonstop, as if an invisible hand were inserting hundreds of needles into the scar tissue.
If Zelda were here, I would make a joke about how she sees my pant leg half full, while I see it half empty. When I had my first loaner leg, she was supportive without being pushy or making me feel helpless. When people stared, she stared back. When I got frustrated with how slow I was, she’d distract me with a joke. When I pushed myself too hard and I had blisters ringing my stump like a torturous crown, she lanced them and helped me apply salve. She never made me wonder if I was 25 percent less likeable, or even loveable, without a leg. She just let me feel like me.
The shitty thing is, I never even told Zelda the truth of how it happened. I don’t even remember what story I told her – some version of how I was trying to save my sister from making a reckless and deadly mistake. It’s exhausting keeping track of who I told what to, especially now that I consider Zelda and even FL Stewart to be friends. I wish I could go back and start fresh with the truth. But I can’t with them.
I can with Peaches, though. So I try something I’ve never tried before. I roll up my pant leg and show her my scars, and I tell her the honest, ugly truth about how I lost my leg.