There’s a crowd gathered at the gates when I arrive – military personnel, a few people I recognize from the medic unit, as well as a handful of curious cadets.
“Yeah, I know,” I say, waving my shrieking bracelet at him.
“That’s yes, ‘sir,’” one officer corrects me.
“Yes, sir,” I respond, more out of habit than deference. What does it matter any more?
My shrieking watch stops.
“There’s been a change of plan,” the officer says. “Word came up from Chicago. We’re not reinstating your former contract. You’re being dishonorably discharged from the military.”
The officer pulls out a paper and begins reading my transgressions aloud.
I want to shrug. They’re firing me from becoming a janitor like that’s some great punishment. Why can’t this be done with already? I search the cadets for familiar faces but none of them are my friends. Jancy is there, of course. I wonder if her grandfather general is as useless as she is. I wonder if his grandfather was also a general, and if the family is just one long lineage of worthlessly smug people who are bred into positions of unearned power. Ah well, at least she’s got lipstick on her teeth.
“... and for this, the most rehensable of conduct, you, Roberta Gallina Gonzales, are hereby dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Army on this day, and barred from collecting any future service-related rights or benefits without risk of prosecution.”
Silence. Then behind me, someone cheers. I’ve never felt more alone in a crowd of people.
“Can I go now?” I ask.
“Not quite yet,” the officer says. “There’s the matter of the leg.”
I’m confused. “What?”
“That leg is property of the U.S. government. It needs to be returned.”
My whole body goes cold. “No. It’s my leg.”
“You are no longer a cadet, you are a civilian, and that is an expensive piece of government property. The contract you signed –”
I turn to run but the medics are ready. Someone grabs my arms from behind. I drop my bag. Arms snake around my torso. I kick out – a brutal mistake. They grab my blade.
“You can’t do this!”
But of course they can. Why they choose to do it so publicly, I can only guess: to teach me a lesson. If not me, then all of the other cadets present. This is what happens when you defy the interests of the U.S. government.
Shock takes over. I freeze. Don’t scream. That’s what people like Jancy are here for. I stare up at the watery blue sky. They roughly push up my pant leg. Someone applies the burning cold solution that eats away at the adhesive connecting leg to stump. They pull on the leg – one, two, three times – before it gives way.
“Is that a snake?” someone says. People crane their heads to see my tattoo, exposed in the sunlight.
It’ll be over soon, my brain soothes. We can get through this. Soon we’ll be on a train home.
They release my arms and, unbalanced, I fall to the ground. My view is obscured by booted feet. So many boots. The crowd has grown. They should take my pants, too. My shirt. My shoe. All are military issued. I can’t feel more exposed than I already do.
I don’t realize I’m crying until tears hit my hands. I try to stand up but I’m unsteady. Someone holds out a hand. I don’t look at who. My pant leg flaps as I try to regain my balance. I am broken, my mind chants. They broke me, they broke me, they broke me.
“Help her to the gate,” someone orders.
A hand, gentler this time, grabs my elbow. The hand propels me, hop-limping, to the open gate. My bag is thrown through. In the far distance, I count five black plumes of smoke rising above the budding trees. The city is apparently burning but the street is empty. No one is waiting to take me to the train station in Chicago. The steadying hand slides away and I’m left alone, balancing on one shaking leg.
Before I can turn, I hear the great gate shut.
“But how do I get home?” I whisper to no one.
How easily I’ve been abandoned. How eager my friends were to watch me stripped of my limb and future. How quickly I went from peer to spectacle.
There will be no car ride to the city. No train ride to Reno. No contract cleaning toilets for the next 20 years. They’ve taken everything from me, including the ability to walk.
The world tilts and I’m on the ground. Nothing can return my breathing to normal. There is no normal, not now. For once in my life, I am completely alone. From here on, I am nobody’s problem but my own.
You don’t know me but my name is Persephone Gonzales. Rio is my sister. I haven’t heard from her in nearly two months. The letter I sent her was returned. I’m hoping you can tell me where she is, and that she’s okay.
Thank you for any help you can provide.