When I open my eyes, the ceiling is smooth and bright white and I think: Prison can’t be this clean. Vivian is sitting next to me when I turn my head, which confirms I am in purgatory, not prison. I hurt and something is wrong, but it’s a faraway feeling, like shouts heard down the street.
Her eyes look sadder than usual. Her mouth looks madder than usual. I feel lighter than usual.
Something is definitely wrong.
I shift in the bed and there it is – the wrongness is pain but it’s stronger than pain, it is agony shooting from my legs and up my back. I reach down to grab the pain, get a handle on it, but where my left leg should be, my hands meet mattress. I gasp and try to sit up and the pain explodes again. Even my hands ache. My fingers dig into the mattress. People come into the room, all talking at once. Everyone but Vivian.
“–told us she’s awake–”
“–need to prepare her–”
“–deep breaths now–”
Someone puts something in a hose connected to my arm and a calmness floods my head and limbs. It’s as if a door has been shut on the part of my brain that is screaming. I don’t want to look down so I bring my hands to my face and marvel at their differentness: my palms are red raw and my forearms are covered in burns. The burns weep, gently. But not Vivian.
“Where’s Peasant,” I ask. Even my tongue feels thick, wrong.
“What do you mean? She’s at home. I hate it when you call her that,” she adds.
“Is she ok?”
“Why wouldn’t she be ok? She’s fine. Everything is normal.”
No one says “everything is normal” unless it’s not, but I don’t have the energy to push the lie.
Vivian puts a hand on my right leg, gently, and she’s speaking again, very quietly, as if we’re sharing a secret, but I can’t concentrate. With her touch comes the pain and with the pain comes a wave of muted giddiness and panic. I can feel it – I can feel her hand! – so they must be there. My legs. It was a mistake before. My left leg must be asleep. Peasant is fine. Everything is normal, Vivian said. I am going to be ok.
“–In fact, it’s best for everyone if you don’t remember.”
“Don’t remember what?” I ask.
She withdraws her hand – I feel it slide off my right kneecap and across the rough white covers – and stands to leave. She’s at the door before I think to ask: “When can I come home?”
Under a frayed coat, she’s wearing her work uniform, a shiny satin dress that swishes loudly when she moves. We look nothing alike. She has Peasant’s angelic face. I imagine in her casino, Peacekeepers toast its beauty, its symmetry. But when she meets my gaze, her blue eyes are ugly.
My mother looks at me with her ugly blue eyes and says, “Never, Rio. You are never coming home.”
Then she leaves me there.
Physical therapists later tell me that shock almost killed me. My blood pressure dropped and spiked dangerously for days, putting me at risk of a stroke or heart attack. I developed an arrhythmia that felt like my heart was throwing itself against the walls of my chest, trying to break itself in half and halfway succeeding. The drugs they put me on caused me to lose nearly four months of lucidity. Sometimes I wonder if the shock had less to do with the driller I stepped on than my mother’s abandonment.
It wasn’t until I was finally off the heavy medication that I figured out I was in a military hospital – and even still I’m not certain if I’m a patient or a prisoner. My room is small like a prison. I have no roommates – not even a window to distract me from my misery or hint at the time of day. I had to ask what month it was: late January. They didn’t cuff me to the bed but it’s not like I can run away. So I sit and I wait, not knowing for what, and I grieve. Like a lost traveler, my dumb hands search the empty sheets over and over again.
Another month passes before I can look down without panicking. Yet another month before I can touch it, clean it like the nurses taught. A scar thick as a garden snake ties my flesh together just below the left knee. Like the scars on my arms and other leg, it is a dark, vicious red. Although my leg throbs persistently, the scar is soft to the touch. It resembles a sad frown sewn shut.
Every waking moment I spend wondering about Peasant – how did she get home that night? Is she okay? Is she mad at me? – and waiting for Vivian to walk through my door. I can’t help myself. I strain my ears to hear the impatient staccato of her work heels. I dream that she brings Peasant for a visit. One night, she brings ashes. Yet another, she brings a stupid potato plant that wilts in this windowless room with me.
After awhile, I decide that something must be keeping her away. Our mantle back home is lined with the urns of my brothers and sisters like the world’s shittiest trophy case – how could she so easily discard her living, breathing daughter? The Peacekeepers must be keeping her from this place. It is a prison. The alternative is too painful.
Each day, the nurses try to get me to stand but I refuse. They cajole, they order, but they have other patients to see and eventually they give up. I stare for hours – days – out of the crack in my door, yearning for a familiar face while my hopes dwindle and my mind chants one question, “What am I good for now?”
It seems the nurses and staff are wondering, too. As they check my vitals, they ask me questions that I don’t know the answers to, and seem to accept lies to the questions I don’t want to answer. The nurses rotate rounds every two days – chipper ones, dour ones, many who make me feel like a burden and a few who make me laugh and forget for beautiful brief moments that I am no longer whole. Or wanted.
Then, one day, hallway voices linger outside my door. The ecstasy I feel in that instant is as all consuming as the first time I think I ran a sub-seven mile – I wait for Vivian and Peasant and Los and even Pops to squeeze into my tiny room with a litter on their shoulders to carry me out of this room and parade march me home.
But that doesn’t happen. Instead, the nurse I’ve dubbed “Angry Marge” because her name is Marge and she does not like me, pushes open my door. Standing with her is a man in ornate uniform – what the nurses call “the brass.”
I have seen the brass before. I’ve glimpsed their gleaming medals in my hallway before and heard the nurses boisterous chattiness turn to respectful whispers. In another life, I have seen them through the smokey, swishing doors of the casinos they call home. Mixed with my disappointment is some small amount of relief. Finally, someone will tell me what will become of me.
Angry Marge and the man study the outline of my stump under the sheets, the way it cuts off like an interrupted sentence at the knee. What a beautiful calf I once had.
They talk about me like I’m not here but I’m used to it.
“Sir, diagnostics are normal and the scar tissue is healing nicely,” she says.
“How’s her temperment?”
“Sir, she is combative and resists physical therapy,” says Angry Marge. “She–”
“I don’t resist–” I interrupt.
“But you’re wr–”
“Do you see–”
“I just don’t like you,” I spit out.
That shuts Marge and her bowlful of chins right up. The man in uniform regards me and though his expression doesn’t change, I feel I’ve disappointed him. My face gets hot.
Finally, he says: “Thank you, nurse Pritchard. You can wait outside.”
And then he just stands there as if he has all the time in the world. I fidget as the silence grows. It’s unbearable, this steady regard, not the clinical gaze of a nurse checking her duties off a list, but one human being staring into another. I feel empathy in his gaze. I hate it. My shoulders tense. Tears well up.
“What are you going to do with me,” I finally ask to keep them from falling.
“That depends on you.”
“What does that mean?”
More silence. Finally he leans against the doorway and asks, “Who were you with, the night you stepped on the driller?”
My shoulders loosen a bit. This is a script I am familiar with.
“I was alone.”
“How did you get five miles out of the city alone?”
“Because I like to run.”
“Where did you get the shoes you were wearing?”
“I don’t remember.”
“What time did you leave the house?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Did you tell anyone where you were going?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Did you know you were on government property?”
“Who told you how to get there?”
“I don’t remember.”
“How did your sister get home?”
“I don’t know.” My eyes fly to his face. “I mean, I was alone. She wasn’t there.”
He leaves the lie sitting there, between us, begging to be believed. Why would he know or care about Peasant, anyway? I lean back against my pillows and nurse the lie along, urging him to take it.
“The nurses say I had a concussion, so I don’t remember a lot about that night. It’s all kind of blurry.”
Finally, he speaks again. “Do you know how long you’ve been in our hospital?”
“Six months, sir.”
“Six months, 12 days. And in that time, you’ve had two surgeries. Around-the-clock care and meals.”
“Yes, but I didn’t want any of that. I just want to go home.”
“You can’t go home.”
“But why?” I whisper. I look down and feel tears slipping down my cheeks. Betrayed by my own fluids.
“Because you were found on restricted government property. Because you have accepted months of military medical care – taking a bed reserved for our soldiers, taking precious resources away from our active duty and our veterans. Because your family cannot afford to pay these debts, nor can they afford to care for you. Because these are not debts that should be shouldered by your family – they are yours alone. You could go to prison but what good would that do us? You would simply continue on your current trajectory of being a full-time burden to the U.S. government.”
I don’t want to hear any of this. “But what can I possibly do? I’m not good for anything.”
“Don’t be stupid,” he says and my eyes jump to his face again. “You will work off your debts. The only question is, ‘how?’”
At this, the man takes a seat on my bed, on the spot where my leg should be. He is close enough now that I can make out his shiny nameplate: Command Sergeant Major Richards. His neck is freshly shaved, not as tan as the rest of him but still lined with age. I wonder if he’s older than my Pops. I wonder if he knows my Pops. He doesn’t talk like I imagined important military people to talk. He doesn’t act like I’d expect important military people to act. He is showing me kindness, I think, yet I can’t understand why. I am nobody.
“Tomorrow a specialist will arrive to administer a series of tests that will determine what type of military contract you are qualified for,” Richards says. “I suggest you try your hardest to do well on these tests – failing them will not send you home, it will just send you to the shittiest assignment in the shittiest shit town in this shit region, where you will work off your debts for the bare minimum wage, which will likely take you the next forty years. Do you understand?”
“Good,” he says, patting the bed and standing. At the door he turns back and once again I am struck by the familiarity in his gaze.
“You’re clever, but you’re not as clever as you think. That makes you a danger to yourself. Remember that. Losing a leg does not define your worth – at least, it shouldn’t. I know plenty of individuals who have lost far worse than you and persevered.”
And with that he is gone.