“Hey, can you do me a favor and –”
Rodney looks surprised, almost as if “no” were a foreign word. I was sitting alone in the library, working on my final Year 1 essay when he interrupted me. This essay will help decide which 100 of us cadets will be invited to stay for Year 2. Those who are cut will be reassigned contracts or, in cases like mine, will revert to their original contracts. I’m struggling with my essay. I’m struggling to decide if I even want to stay. Is it better to leave a system I think is kind of evil, or stay and try to fix it? Or do I just secretly want to stay because I love fresh meals made of actual food and hot showers any time I want them? And friendship. And power.
“You don’t even know what I was going to ask. Can you just do me the favor of–”
“No, Rodney. I cannot do you a favor. I’m working on my final essay.”
The prompt we were given is: In your opinion, what is the greatest threat to modern Peacekeepers and how would you work to resolve it?
If I were to answer honestly, my essay would be about how the collective dehumanization of civilians by Peacekeeping units will one day spark a violent revolution. The casualties would make driller wounds look like mosquito bites. We have weapons of war; they have numbers and rage. Writing that essay terrifies me. I’ve been sulking in the library for three hours, trying to drum up alternative responses that fit the prompt. But if I go that route, I’ll feel like a coward for dodging the truth.
“Jancy’s writing her essay on you.”
My head jerks up. “What?”
“I saw her yesterday. Year twos have the same essay prompt, or didn’t you know? The biggest threat to Peacekeepers? She’s writing about how brownie point programs that let people like you in and train you up, are like giving sleeper cells loaded guns.”
Rodney is smiling. He smiles like he’s got too many teeth in his head. It appears to be his only natural talent: too many teeth.
“Of course, I don’t believe any of that,” he continues. “Still, it is pretty strange that those kids attacked me, and not you. And then Mel, and not you. It sure does make a person wonder. I’ll see you around.”
In our History of War class, we learned that the casualties during WWIII got so high that the night before every battle, soldiers would ritualistically write farewell letters to their loved ones – kamikaze letters, they were called. They’d leave the letters with “lucky” friends in the medic ward to keep from scaring the shit out of their families by mailing them prematurely. I wonder if Pops ever wrote us a letter. Or Paul, or Mel.
I suppose this is my letter. I don’t know where I’ll be in another week. It scares me. The way our school works is every year they cut half the students. If you make it all three years, they give you a cake and your own platoon to command – ta da! What scares me is, I truly don’t know if I want to still be here. Our command posts are all based in casinos, yet we arrest people on the street for gambling. If what I heard in prison is true, we enslave people on “farms,” and make children make our clothes.
If I don’t make it to Year 2, I’m going to be a military janitor somewhere (not kidding). Maybe they’ll let me come home. Maybe I’ll be seeing you.
“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” I ask Zelda in bed that night. Our best talks are at night when we can’t see each other’s faces. Zelda says it’s like going to confession, only we sleep with a nightlight now to help with her terrors. So it’s ‘confession light.’ Ha ha.
“That’s the point.”
She’s quiet a moment, a sad kind of quiet I understand well. Wading through regrets takes time.
“Right after Atlanta was bombed, I found a kitten in the street when we were walking back from church,” she begins. “I was about 9. It was dusty and alone, and just mewling and mewling with its tiny eyes shut. I thought about picking it up. But I knew that if they didn’t let me keep it, it would break my heart. And if they did, I’d have to share my food with it. So I left it there, probably to die. It’s stupid but I think about it a lot.”
“That’s awful. I’m sorry.”
“It’s ok. I’m allergic to cats, anyway.”
I lift my head – was that a joke? Did Zelda just make a joke, like Old Zelda would have done?
“If it was anything like the cats around here, it’s doing fine. Probably hissing at people who sneeze from two blocks away.”
“She probably eats smaller cats as snacks.”
“The French call that a petit gout. She’s probably got gout gut.”
“Sassy fat cannibal cat. She’ll out live all of us.”
We laugh quietly. It feels so good to laugh again with her.
“What do you regret most?” she asks.
I take a deep breath. “That I lied to you.”
I meant to tell her about how Rodney had me helping him grade papers, and giving her a “F.” For many Peacekeepers – for many people – there’s a separation between what you do and who you believe yourself to be. I’d seen it. I didn’t want to be that type of person any more. But now, right after we shared what felt like our first real laugh in months, was not the time.
“When I told you how I lost my leg. I lied to you, to everyone. I didn’t step on a driller trying to save my sister. I abandoned her. I tried to save myself. I ran.”
The next day, I’m sitting in our last ever Understanding the Enemy class, listening to Jancy argue that there’s no such thing as structural racism and once again thinking it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to be sent home.
“Maybe we’re just naturally harder workers,” Jancy is saying. “Hard work breeds success.”
It wouldn’t be such a bad thing to not have to listen to this any more. I look at my comms bracelet and heave a deep sigh.
“–I’m not saying everyone who’s not white is lazy. I’m just saying we work harder,” Jancy continues.
“Bullshit,” I mutter under my breath.
All eyes turn towards me. I look at Professor Munger, hoping she’ll step in but knowing she won’t. “You’re all adults and aspiring leaders,” she told us early on. “It’s not my job to stifle your dialogue, it is to cultivate it.” She’s content to watch these “dialogues” de-evolve until the loudest, most brutish voice wins. Jancy’s voice.
Then I think: fuck it.
I look at Jancy.
“I said, ‘bullshit,’” I tell her. “You are the most proudly racist person I’ve ever met and I find your views tired and disgusting.”
The room is so quiet I can hear my heartbeat trilling in my ears.
“It’s not racist to say what everyone else is thinking – it’s brave,” she responds. “For instance, everyone knows you’re only here because of brownie points. Everyone knows your opinion doesn’t matter.”
“I’m not here because of brownie points. I’m here because of nepotism, same as you.”
“You don’t belong here.”
“I belong anywhere I want to belong.”
“Yeah, in Mexico maybe.”
“I’m from Reno and I’m only half Mexican,” I say. “If you’re going to insult me, you need to pick a half.”
“How about the half with the mouth?”
“Do you hear yourself? Whether you like it or not, a lot of the population you’re training to protect are people you also define as the enemy. That makes you a legitimate threat to their peace and safety.”
“I’m not the threat, you’re the threat!”
“How could I forget when you’re so fond of reminding me? You even wrote your final essay on how I’m the biggest threat to Peacekeeping.”
That genuinely surprises her.
“How do you know what I wrote my essay about?”
“Rodney told me,” I say. In the back of the room, Rodney lets out a surprised cough. If that shocked him, he’s not going to like what I say next: “You also wrote an essay on how we should sterilize the homeless and another on why Peacekeepers should be allowed to shoot civilians in the eyes as a tactic to keep people from breaking laws, or even protesting.
“I know you wrote those essays because I helped Rodney grade those essays, and they were shit. Like, total shit. You can’t even support an illogical premise with illogical evidence and follow it to its illogical conclusion. Also, you’re a shit speller.
“I failed you on each of those papers. You earned it. And yet, I have a sneaking suspicion you’ll make it to Year Three. So congratulations in advance. I’m sure your grandfather the general will be really proud of your hard-earned accomplishment.”
In the silence that follows my speech, I look only to Zelda, who’s beaming at me. Because of this, I know the exact moment she realizes I failed her essay, as well.