I’m on my hamster wheel – running my laps around the base – when, for the first time, I let myself envision a life beyond this place. Or after this place, I should say.
The lightning bugs are back, zinging around my face, dimly lighting my way forward. Next month is The Sorting. I know: it sounds ominous and needlessly dramatic (especially for the military). It’s supposed to. The Sorting is when we take our final exams and all of our professors, instructors and mentors decide which half of us will stay another year, and which half of us will be cut.
I should want to stay. The vain part of me wants to stay. But I’m realizing my time here, my education, has done the opposite of what it was supposed to do. I don’t know if I want to be a Peacekeeper, let alone lead a platoon of them.
This place has shown me that I’m not strong enough to always do the right thing. I worry that if I stay, I will one day view the people outside these walls with the same casual contempt that many of my peers do.
I also dread what will happen if I’m let go.
They’ll reinstate my previous contract, of course. I’ll become a janitor. Maybe I’ll be a janitor on this very base. The thought of picking up after my friends – or worse, people like Jancy – scrubbing their shit stains and restocking the soap while they rise higher in the echelons of military power, well, that sounds like my exact flavor of hell.
But perhaps they’d let me go back to Reno to serve out my contract. I could return to my old room, and to Peasant. Maybe I could become a janitor at a casino. Maybe I’d work side-by-side with Vivian. Perhaps the person she couldn’t love as a daughter she could learn to respect as a coworker.
At night, I could run again – really run through the streets, instead of on this hamster wheel. The road runners would notice me.
“Who’s she?” They’d wonder. “How did she get so fast with only one leg?”
The local Peacekeepers would give me a wide berth out of respect. They would know of me; I would speak their language.
I finish my last lap around base with a 30-second sprint. Maybe it’s the runner’s high or maybe it’s hope, but my fingers and even my ears are tingling. For the first time in awhile, I envision a future that makes me happy – or at least not disappointed in myself. I could walk away from this place. All it takes is courage.
I know it’s not your birthday but I decided to celebrate it early, since I always forget. I even made you a hand pie – asparagus and cheese – that I ate on your behalf. You’d like asparagus. It grows wild in ditches around here and makes your pee smell weird.
We’re out in the garden checking on our spring crops when I think to ask Señora Chabela: “What are the best kinds of potatoes to grow in the desert?”
I wiggle my fingers through the soil. It’s black and rich, almost cakey from all our fall and winter composting. It’s nothing like the hot sands of Reno.
“Las papas son simples,” she says. “You should be able to grow any kind. How’s the soil?”
“It’s more like sand.”
“Papas need two things: low ph and cool soil. You see how we planted our papas in March, when the ground was barely thawed? In the desert you should plant even earlier. Summer heat will cook them in the ground.”
Vivian planted in the dead of summer, early morning, after a shift. I watched her from my window as she dug holes for each withered nub with her bare hands. She was still in her cocktail dress, barefoot. When she finished, she placed a small rock over each hole. She was marking them so she knew where to water but even then, they resembled tiny graves lined up in our front yard for the whole world to see.
I forget about the tattoo most days. It’s hidden now, glued to the concave cradle of my prosthesis. It’s more organ-like than it is ornamental, and not just because I can’t see it. I like to think of my snake with dice for eyes choking out a baby as an emotional organ. A totem, a reminder to fight against groupthink. A reminder to tell the truth. A reminder to be empathetic. Like an organ, it’s now something I can’t live without.
I had a dream about Peaches last night. She was on the cusp of being reunited with her sister when I arrested her in the street. Her tears fell onto my arms, turning into tattooed snakes than encircled my wrists like handcuffs.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked. “I thought we were friends. I’m not a criminal.”
“Sucking at crime is a crime,” I said. “If you were better at crime you wouldn’t get caught.”
Then I awoke to an empty room.
Now I’m lying on damp sheets, trying to conjure each line of my hidden tattoo in my mind, wondering, if pushed, if I really have the guts to resist doing something I know is wrong. Arrest a friend for being poor and homeless. Arrest a kid for being a mouthy pest. Arrest a starving stranger for stealing food. Sentence them to a life of indentured servitude to the U.S. government.
What if the snake isn’t really choking out the baby? Maybe she’s hugging it.
Do intentions matter if the result is the same?
Zelda returns home while I’m deep in the throes of angst. I’m happy for the distraction. She looks like the old Zelda – cheeks flushed, hair frizzing, leaning close as if she’s got something important to tell you.
“I’ve got something important to tell you,” she says.
I briefly wonder what would happen if I said the same – “I’ve got something important to tell you” – and shared my secret prison tattoo, the Peaches nightmare and my growing unease that we are not the heroes we think we are.
“Shoot,” I say instead.
“I got to participate in a sweep this morning!”
She does this prancy little dance I haven’t seen since Professor Munger used her essay, “Identifying Pre-Criminals Through Non-Criminal Activities that Disrupt the Societal Norm,” as inspiration for a homework assignment on stereotyping (she listed tattoos among the non-criminal activities).
I can’t fake any enthusiasm but Zelda’s so cloaked in happiness she doesn’t notice.
“It began with a weird comms message last night, instructing me to be at the front gates at 0430, alone,” she begins. “I thought it might be a hazing thing so I messaged Mel and all he messaged back was, ‘be there.’”
So Zelda slipped out of the room as I nightmared alone. At the gates she encountered the entire class of third years led by FL Stewart. They were preparing to do a pre-dawn street sweep.
We learned about sweeps in class – it’s what Peacekeepers informally call The Sucker’s Waltz. One week, they hit a neighborhood, going door-to-door, looking for squatters. That means the people who live in each house have to present a deed for the property and valid government ID. Without those papers, they’re forcibly evicted from the home with threats of arrest if they return. Then, several days later, during the pre-dawn hours, the soldiers quietly return to the neighborhood and arrest everyone who’s sleeping on the streets for vagrancy.
And all those freshly emptied homes? New deeds are drawn up and presented to Peacekeepers, soldiers, veterans and other government allies.
“Mel asked us to help document the intakes,” Zelda says.
“Me and Jancy and a few other second years,” she says, and I don’t know whether I’m more insulted or offended or relieved – insulted that I wasn’t asked, offended that Jancy was, and yet relieved that I didn’t have to watch my peers arrest people for sleeping under the stars instead of a roof.
“...they’re implementing a more ambitious schedule for the sweeps,” Zelda is saying. “They’re going out again tomorrow.”
“Wait – what? Why?”
“Things have gotten hostile. We’re making the streets safer.”
“It makes them emptier, I don’t know about safer. Even the term – ‘street sweep’ – implies that people are trash.” I know I shouldn’t pick a fight with her. She’s in a good mood and those are still so rare and fragile. But her enthusiasm irritates me. For being so smart, she’s acting pretty brainless.
“It makes the streets safer for Mel and Rodney and all of us out there trying to do our jobs,” she argues. “Or did you forget your friends were attacked?”
“It just seems to me,” I say carefully, “that punishing entire neighborhoods of struggling people for the actions of a few is a good way to make a lot of enemies. Fast.”
“We’re not punishing people, we’re enforcing safety. You make it sound like we’re the enemy. ”
Now I’m the one leaning forward, cheeks flushed. “Well, to some people, you are.”
“Then you are, too! You’re one of us! Why are you picking a fight?”
“I’m not picking a fight. I’m politely disagreeing.”
She won’t look at me now. That’s Zelda’s tell for when she’s pissed or disappointed in someone.
Let it go, I chant to myself. For the love of friendship, let it go, let it go, let it go.
But I can’t. “Where did you take them – the people you arrested? The prison burned down.”
“I don’t know, Rio. That wasn’t part of my job.” She’s at the door now, so eager is she to get away from me and this friendship-straining non-fight we’re having. “Why don’t you ask Mel yourself, if you’ve got the guts?”
The door slams shut as my heart staccatos against my chest and I wonder if I’ll hear her say “I’ve got something important to tell you” ever again.