“Was I being a puckered butthole or was she?” I ask Ryann later.
“It sounds like both of you were pretty puckered,” she says diplomatically. “But maybe as the person who’s not currently in a fragile mental state, you could unpucker yourself and apologize.”
My sigh could’ve launched a thousand ships. Naval tankers, even.
“So where’d they go?” she asks.
Ryann rolls her eyes. “The people they swept up. Didn’t you ask FL Stewart?”
No, I haven’t. Zelda knows me well. Or at least, she knows pretty well the pre-prison, tattooless coward whose top priorities were survival and acceptance.
I want to be better. I want to be a person with ideals she’s strong enough to live by. In my head that’s easy, but in practice, I’m struggling. Confronting others is not my strong suit. Changing myself is exhausting. Part of me wonders if it’s worth it.
I spot FL Stewart at dinner. It’s early and he’s sitting alone, a rarity, so before my coward’s brain can come up with 12 good reasons for why this is a horrible idea, I sit down next to him.
“Hi,” I say. How does one politely begin a confrontation with someone they admire?
“Hello,” he says. “Great soup. It tastes very green, if that makes sense. Did you make it?”
“Uh, no. It’s asparagus soup. I did help pick and trim the spears. How many people did you arrest this morning?”
By the way his head jerks in surprise, I can tell I got the tone wrong.
“I would estimate about sixty.”
“Sixty families or….”
“Sixty individuals. Teenagers and older. About a dozen children were also taken into custody.”
“And what did you do with them – where did they go? The prison is rubble and ashes.”
“They were sorted and transported to satellite jails.”
They were sent to the farms. If Peaches is to be believed, that means they’ll be put to work for little pay. They’ll also be billed for room and board, and will never earn enough to pay off their debts.
“You seem disapproving,” FL Stewart says. “It’s really very humane. People freeze to death in the streets without our intervention.”
“It’s practically summer.”
I can feel it: he’s rolling his loaner eyes at me.
“We’re conducting another sweep tomorrow morning if you’d like to join and see how humane it is,” he says.
The coward in me wants to refuse but The Sorting is in two weeks and I’m still not sure if I want to leave this place. Participating in a sweep, being recommended by my peers – that’s a privilege most first years won’t have.
And I think of Zelda’s excitement and wonder if maybe these two people I admire and respect see something I’m not seeing. Perhaps it is time to roll up my sleeves and manually unpucker my butthole.
“Yes, thank you for the invitation.”
It’s too early for small talk – and we’re warned to be silent, anyway – so we greet each other with yawns and set off walking, two by two, the same route FL Stewart and I took when we were attacked. Zelda is avoiding me so I get stuck walking in the back with Jancy, who audibly hisses her displeasure when she sees me. In my mind, my stump snake hisses back.
Then she chooses to walk on my left side, the fool.
Eight months ago, Jancy played a game she named “Trip the Gimp,” as I later learned. It cost me the honor of leading our running platoon. It cost me pride. It cost me confidence in a body I was still struggling to accept.
The first time I hook my blade around her ankle, she shrieks and lands hard on her hands and knees, a pose common in Renaissance paintings. It even has a name: the supplicant’s pose.
The battalion freezes. A scream could kill a discreet operation like this. FL Stewart approaches.
“You make another noise and you won’t step foot off base until graduation,” he whispers.
She nods and gets to her feet.
Being invited to join the sweep is a privilege – one that could influence who gets culled in two weeks. Jancy’s enthusiasm for becoming a Great Military Leader is rivaled only by her enthusiasm for ethnic cleansing.
So when she falls again, she swallows her scream. She falls so quiet only the cadets in front of us notice, and she’s back on her feet before they can think to stop.
“Wrong time to be clumsy, cadet,” I whisper.
My skin tingles like I’m being hugged by a sandstorm. Maybe it’s justice; maybe it’s hatred. Either way, I embrace it.
Everyone looks innocent in sleep. Tiny hands poke out of ragged blankets. Mothers are curled around their children like protective moons.
The Peacekeepers fan out in pairs until they cover the entire block.
FL Stewart kneels, his gloved hand hovering over the shoulder of a sleeping woman. At his signal, the Peacekeepers awaken the slumberers, some with their boots, some with gloved hands. There is no chance to run. This is a civilized ambush.
Single men are corralled to one side of the street, women to another, families in the center. The dawn’s golden silence is replaced by an angry buzz of protests, pleading, the panicked mewls of children as they are removed from their protectors. One by one, they are sent to us to record their information.
“Name and birthdate, please?”
The little boy silently fighting his captor – a soft-spoken year three cadet named Paul – freezes when I speak. He’s brown, like me, and I think he’s just realized it. He stares hard at my face, then my hands, then my legs.
“Where’s your leg?” he asks me, pointing at my prosthesis.
“It’s right here.” I lift my leg to show him the blade. “I can walk and even run on it.”
“My daddy doesn’t have a leg like you.” The little boy strains to look over Paul’s shoulder at a man – I would’ve assumed an old man – bowed over on the curb. “He can’t even walk.”
“That must be really tough on him. I bet you’re his big helper, aren’t you?”
The little boy nods. He’s dirty but looks well cared for, his soft cheeks and deep brown eyes framed with a warm hat. He’s even got shoes on, unlike many of the others.
“Can you tell me your name?” I ask again.
“How old are you, Julio?”
“Three.” He holds up three fingers.
“That’s so big! Do you know your last name, Julio? Or your ID number by chance?”
He shakes his head, looking suddenly unsure, as if the question has pierced the trust my brown skin briefly bought me.
“Ok, well thank you for talking to me, Julio.”
I move to begin questioning another captive when Paul clears his throat.
“You have to take his shoes,” he tells me, holding out one of the little boy’s legs.
I recoil. “Absolutely not.”
“Everything okay here?” FL Stewart asks from behind.
“She won’t take his shoes,” Paul says. Julio is watching me, his expression neutral.
“They’ll be confiscated anyway, when he’s sent to the temporary holding cell for unoffending youths,” FL Stewart says. “Take them. We can redistribute them during the next ration. It earns us goodwill.”
“I’m not taking his shoes.”
“I’ll take them,” Jancy says, reaching for Julio’s plump baby leg.
I swat her hand. “Don’t you touch him.”
“Cadet!” The word is a reprimand. FL Stewart steps around me but Julio whimpers at the sight of his helmet.
“No no no,” the little boy says.
“I’ll do it,” I say. “Just– I’ll do it.”
I gently grab one ankle and remove the shoe, then the other, exposing pink-tipped toes that curl against the cold. I rub the bottoms of his small feet with my thumbs, trying to reassure him, to keep him warm. His brow is furrowed, confused, as if wondering, “what kind of monster are you?”
“Give him to his mother until it’s time to board them,” FL Stewart says.
Paul nods and takes Julio away. Another group of Peacekeepers are sifting through the belongings of the arrested, looking for more valuables to confiscate. Paul throws the tiny shoes on top of a pile.
I understand our role now. We arm ourselves against those have no homes, let alone weapons. We are the people who take shoes from children, and children from mothers.