Road Runner, by Bianca Brutaldo
Chapter 41
Invisible wounds and all the other things hug therapy can’t heal

We're publishing a new chapter of Road Runner every day — look at the Table of Contents to see what we've published already, or follow along on Twitter: @roadrunnerbook. Come back tomorrow for the next chaper. It will only be available on the site for a limited time, so read up!

Zelda is broken. She sleeps under her bed and most nights wakes up screaming. When I brought her eggs for her hair, thinking it might cheer her up, she wouldn’t even meet my eyes.

“What’s the point?” she said.

I cajole her to walk to class with me each day. Other than that, she stays in our room. She doesn’t shower, doesn’t eat in the cafeteria – I have to bring her meals or she wouldn’t eat – she doesn’t even study in the library anymore.

Zelda also didn’t turn in her latest assignment for Understanding the Enemy – an essay on what we learned in prison (or, for Jancy and one other student excused from the experience because of “medical reasons,” an essay on whether corporal punishment should be used in prison). I check the pile twice, then give her an ‘A’ anyway. (Jancy gets an ‘F’ because she sucks.)

My friend is not ok.

I don’t know what to do, so I do the only thing I can think of: I message FL Stewart for help.

We meet in front of the library. I bring two cherry hand pies with me. It’s cold out – the kind of cold that frosts your lungs every time you breathe – but I’ve finally got my leg back and I want to use it.

I hand him a hand pie. “Mind if we walk?”

He shrugs and gestures for me to proceed. The grass beneath our boots is dormant. The trees look dead. Soldiers hurry across base, heads down against the February cold. I don’t know how to begin.

“Have you ever been to prison?” I finally ask.

“Yes. It was brutal. The prison was going through a ration shortage. We got pulled after three days because a riot broke out.”

Interesting that Jancy had a get-out-of-jail-free pass for “medical reasons,” yet FL Stewart, who can’t see without a helmet practically fused to his head, did not.

We make small talk about our prison roommates – his was a guy who’d been thrown in prison for stealing medical supplies.

“He told me his kid brother was diabetic and died without his medication.”

“Don’t you think there’s something wrong with that?” I say. “Like, I don’t know, we shouldn’t lock up people who are just trying to survive.”

“Perhaps. But he broke the law. Without laws, and people like us to enforce those laws, the most brutal among us would dominate everyone else.”

I don’t agree but I don’t quite have the words to articulate why. I guess I’m starting to wonder if society really would fall apart without Peacekeepers. But I’m stalling and I know it.

“Something’s wrong with Zelda,” I finally say, my breath forming clouds in front of my face, as if giving weight to my words.

“What do you mean?”

I tell him everything: about the hole and how it broke her, how she screams at night and won’t leave our room.

“I’m afraid she’s going to fail out of school,” I say. “I don’t know what to do. Should I take her to see a counselor or something? I just don’t want anyone to think she’s weak or broken.”

He shakes his head. “The counselors here aren’t those kind of counselors. They’re more like career specialists – they help all of the cadets who don’t make it to year two or three find their next military placement. So they wouldn’t help her. At most, they’d recommend hug therapy.”

“What’s that?”

“They make you do push ups until you can’t feel your arms and then you hug yourself. It’s supposed to be comforting.”

I sigh. Why is it that the adults in our lives often fail us in the most obvious ways?

“Maybe she’ll just snap out of it,” FL Stewart says.

But I don’t think that’s how depression works. I wish Kate were here. I didn’t realize how much she helped me back at the hospital. Everyone else was focused on fixing my body. She went to work on my spirit.

Jan 20

Dear Peasant,

It’s been a tough few weeks. The good news is, Zelda is doing better. I taught her how to do my Katercises and I think they’re helping. Now we do them together every night, before we go to bed. She cries less and she started sleeping on her bed again. And yesterday, she let me condition her hair.

We also had a guest speaker on base the other day – a “decorated war veteran.” Our afternoon drills were canceled so we could all hear her inspirational speech. I had to listen to her go on and on for an hour about how she lost her leg while saving another soldier, and about how all a good cadet needs is training, discipline and courage to succeed in life and make our country safer. She actually said the words, “what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger.” Gag.

Except her story is all a lie: her name is Shanna. We shared a hospital room in Reno together. She lost her leg at about the same time I did, while out on patrol. She never saved anyone that I heard about. The highers have to know that. Why don’t they get real heroes to talk to us? Are they all too broken, like Pops?

What really chaps my ass is that afterward, Zelda went up and talked to her. I could tell she was inspired by her. Zelda’s hasn’t stopped beaming for the last day, so I can’t tell her the truth about Shanna. I wouldn’t say shit even if my mouth were full of it, but it’s galling to think some imposter with a Hollywood story might’ve done more to help Zelda’s recovery than I ever could.


PS. My fake leg is better than her fake leg. Hers is mounted to a gold boot that is totally impractical for running.

Spring is beginning its slow creep from the ground. Señora Chabela is having me seed the early spring crops. Kale. Radishes. Chard. Peas. Spinach. They all have to be covered against the frost but the ground no longer feels like a block of ice under our feet. It should be an optimistic time of year but instead I feel mounting dread.

Zelda thinks I’m being paranoid, which is kind of rich coming from someone who still can’t go to sleep without checking under our beds and in our closets (for what, I don’t really know). She’s reliably bathing and doing her schoolwork again, but some mornings I still find her under her bed.

“Why do you check under there if you’re just going to sleep there later?” I asked one morning after she awoke.

“It feels safe.”

“What was it like down there?”

She knows what I mean: the hole. I don’t really think she’ll respond. She never has before.

“At first it was just dark and cold,” she said, surprising me. “Then you realize it’s so quiet you can hear your own heartbeat. That is what time becomes – a series of heart beats. You realize your heart could stop beating at any moment, so you listen harder for every beat. Every time it does, it feels both torturous and relieving. And the blackness around you becomes so black you feel like you’re falling unless you can touch the walls, so you push yourself into the corner, even though it’s the coldest part of the room.”

She pauses, as if wrestling with whether to tell me more.

“Eventually, you realize there is a demon right in front of you,” she continues. “But he’s so still and patient, you can’t hear him above your heartbeat. It doesn’t matter how quiet you get, he’s quieter. He even breathes with you. But he doesn’t want to kill you. He feeds you, then feeds off you. He feeds you pieces of stale bread to stay alive and then feeds off your hope that this is just a nightmare that will end soon. It’s so dark you can’t tell if your eyes are open or shut. But then you realize it doesn’t matter if you’re dreaming. It doesn’t change how you feel. It doesn’t change anything.”

She’s rubbing her chest in small, circular motions – as if her heart hurts or she’s having trouble breathing. She looks haunted. She looks like my Pops. He never talked about what he saw during eight years of war. Maybe he had whatever Zelda has. I feel a flash of shame that I never thought to worry about his health the way I worry about Zelda’s. He was an adult. It never occurred to me that he needed help, that the agony-hell of war, as he called it, could continue past the battlefield. That it could live within the brain.

I know that all the comforting cliches sitting in my mouth can’t fix what Zelda had been through. Still, I try. “I wish I could’ve traded places with you.”

She looks at me. “No. You don’t.”

“Well, I wish those places didn’t exist.”

“I’m glad they exist,” she says. “Everyone should have something to fear. Criminals act the way they do because they don’t fear anything – they don’t fear Peacekeepers and they don’t fear the consequences of breaking our laws. A few days in the hole would break them. I would hurt people –” she looks right at me “–I’d put you in there myself before I’d ever go back.”

It’s ugly, this side of her. It repulses me until I remind myself that I have an ugly side, too – a side that would lie with ease and change grades out of jealousy. I just never showed that side to her. But torture?

“You’d put someone else through that?” I ask.

She shrugged. “Why not? If they deserve it.”

It’s who decides that scares me.