Road Runner, by Bianca Brutaldo
Chapter 8
Welcome to the gimp ward

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I don’t see Richards again. I don’t see Angry Marge again, either. As he promised, the next day a woman comes to see me, her hair done up in a dandelion puff, to administer the tests.

“Consider me like a military career counselor,” she says, taking a seat next to the bed. “I’m here to evaluate you and advise you on your options. You may ask me anything.”

And then we begin. The first part of the tests are easy – math stuff, word puzzles, weird little quizzes covering everything from military history to literature, which I know I ace. When you grow up trapped in a house with nothing but books, you learn a lot. Next she questions me about my “physical aptitude” – how much I was running back home, if I liked to run, could I do a push up?

“I don’t know,” I say. “I’ve never really tried one.”

So she calls in a nurse, who helps get me out of bed and flops me on the floor. It’s the first time I have been out of bed in months. My arms and legs tingle with fresh blood. I can feel the cold seeping through the bandages on my stump. I want to claw my way back into bed but I think of Richards and imagine being a one-legged military janitor in Elko, Nevada, for the next 70 years. My palms are sweating on the green linoleum but I slow my breath so the panic doesn’t win. I raise up on my good leg and arms and kick out my stump for balance. There, for the first time, teetering on a stump that doesn’t hurt as bad as I feared, I lower myself shakily to the ground, kiss it like I’ve seen Los do, and then shakily push myself back up.

She actually claps and I feel a flicker of pride. Then, once I’m heaved back into bed, it gets weird.

“For this next part, please keep in mind there are no wrong answers,” she says.

And then she licks her lips and begins:

“Do you believe in a moral authority higher than your own?”

“Do you believe that lying is wrong?”

“Do you ever lie to get what you want?”

“Do you believe that laws and rules are open to interpretation?”

“Do you have trouble following orders or directions, especially when you disagree with them?”

“Do you believe that people generally get what they deserve in life?”

“Have you ever hurt others to get what you want?”

“Did you feel remorse for hurting others?”

“Would you steal to save your family from starving?”

“Would you steal to gain approval from someone you admire?”

“Would you kill to gain approval from someone you admire?”

“What sort of weapon would you use?”

She smiles and makes a note of it.

After that visit, the world starts moving again. Or perhaps it’s just me. The counselor returns with an envelope a few days later. Inside are two military contracts: one is a 30-year contract to be a military custodian, which sounds an awful lot like a janitor, and the other is a one-year contract to attend Peacekeeper officer training school, provided I can pass a physical and blah blah blah.

“So I can either be a janitor or the boss of people? Those are some pretty weird options.”

“Your testing shows strong sociopathic leanings – specifically, a resistance to authority buttressed by unearned confidence and a unique disregard for the welfare of others. These leanings make you unfit for squad duties, such as Peacekeeping. And when combined with your foundational knowledge and above-average intelligence, they make you a prime candidate for leadership. But failing that, it’s in the government’s best interest to keep you isolated and powerless for the safety of others. Hence the janitorial duties.”

“First, I love my sister so I’m not a sociopath. How can I be accepted to military leader school when I’m not even in the military?”

“Your circumstances are unique, true, but not unheard of. The school accepts unusual cases from time to time – cadets that don’t fit our normal mold.”

“You mean charity cases? Is that why my contract is only a year?”

“All cadets are offered one-year contracts. For some, there will be an option to renew for a second and perhaps a third year. Officer training school is a total of three years. Roughly 200 first year students are admitted each year, but only half of those students are invited to become year twos, and only half again make it to year three. That said, given its competitiveness and your physical disadvantages, the odds are unlikely that you would graduate from the school.”

“Well, you’re wrong. You don’t know me. I haven’t failed anything in my life.”

Granted, being homebound most of your life means you don’t get many opportunities to fail. But I’d decided to become a runner and I’d succeeded at that. And I succeeded in swiping a PO badge from a Peacekeeper. Almost two. I smile. That must’ve been embarrassing for them.

“Okay, I’m in,” I tell her. “Where do I sign?”

“First, prove to us you can pass the physical. The next cadet class begins in August. That gives you six months.”

“Fine, no problem,” I say. I don’t know what a physical consists of but it can’t be that hard.

The next morning, I’m wheeled to a new room. This one has four beds, with three other women and best of all, a window. Like me, the other women are all carved up. One is missing her leg all the way to the hip. The others are missing parts and pieces – a foot and half an arm, one full arm plus some extra fingers. The wave of relief and camaraderie I feel catches me off guard. Maybe they’ve figured out the answers to the questions pacing inside my head – like, “will people look at me and just see what’s missing?”

I want to know what happened to each of them but maybe it’s rude to ask. Fortunately, that doesn’t seem to bother the armless one.

“I’m Ruth,” she says, as I’m hoisted into the bed closest to the door. “I’d shake your hand but you’d have to find it first! That’s a joke. What happened to you?”

“I stepped on a driller.”

“No shit,” she says. “Where? Were you overseeing digging or the planting? Or were you on reconnaissance?”

“Uh, no. None of that. I, uh, don’t remember.”

It’s harder to lie to this group. I feel like I look suspicious.

“If you don’t remember, how do you know what it wasn’t?” The footless woman says. “What unit are you from?”

It’s not just my imagination – they’re all giving me the eye now. I wish at least one of them was blind. That would make this easier on me.

“I’m not from a unit,” I answer. “I’m from Reno.”

The room goes silent.

“What do you mean, you’re not from a unit. You’re not military? What are you doing at a military hospital if you’re not military?” The footless woman asks.

“Kate, what do you care – you think she’s a spy or something?” Ruth says. I will come to learn she and Kate share a repulsion that each seems to relish. Listening to them argue is like watching a snake hiss at its own reflection. “You think she’s faking that leg? Maybe she’s somebody’s kid and that’s what brought her here. She’s got a baby’s face.”

The girl missing her whole leg doesn’t join in the speculation. She doesn’t talk at all. She just watches me, dislike emanating from her flat face. I wonder if she’s envious of my half a leg. The thought makes me preen a bit.

“I’m military now,” I say. “My name is Rio. I just got a contract yesterday – I’m going to officer school.”

“Well, welcome to the gimp ward, Rio,” Ruth says. “I guess I should say, welcome home.”