On your right is a boy you haven’t seen in fifteen years. War is an incredible thing.
You try to turn your head and look at him, but a nurse rushes forward and tells you No. That word again. She adjusts the brace on your head and smiles a moist pink smile and says, “Not yet, ma’am, not yet. Keep it still, coupla more days. Then reevaluate.”
You sigh. Out of the corner of your eye you see that he is asleep anyway.
The nurse smiles again.
“What happened?” you croak. All you can see is white, white, white, and her wide pink smile, and dark in the right corner. That’s him.
“Explosion,” she says after a moment. She’s adjusting your pillows and you hold in a gasp when she moves it and your neck feels like it’s being sliced apart. “Didn’t get all the details.” She talks like this, like she is a telegram. “Doctor said most died except you. Lucky.”
“Yeah,” you say after you can’t move your head enough to nod. Then, “Everyone died?”
You are quiet.
“Was it my fault?” you whisper.
She looks at you sharply. You try to look at her meaningfully but all you can do is lie there with your palms open and the hospital gown fluttering up over your knees from the white vent and your eyes frozen in one position. You hate this. This helpless feeling. You were never that active, nothing like him or like your brother, but not moving, not even your eyes, makes you want to jerk upward and raise your arms and scream until the brace falls away from around your neck and you can breathe.
You try to nod again.
“Don’t know. Wasn’t given the details. Who are you anyway?”
“Janie Salinger. Intelligence.”
“No, I didn’t mean it that way,” she says, throwing up her arms. “I mean a soldier?”
“Well…” you stop. You are a soldier. Yes. But you didn’t do the training. You couldn’t. You had a broken leg. But they still wanted you, brain like Wellington and boldness like Napoleon. Girl of a million, you. They wanted you and they got you and you gave them everything. Battles, strategy, and the mobility of your neck. “In a way, yes.”
It reminds you. Where is your knife? Jeremy gave it to you when Dad came home with the letter and said you were going to the army. Black. Jagged edges. It was in your boot—your foot is bandaged. Must be cut, but you can’t feel anything. The knife must have flipped open and cut you—and where is it now?
She checks her clipboard. “Oh! Salinger. Yes, I know you. You were in a bulletin? Salinger, the battle of Rye? Historic win? Tenth of the men of the other side?”
“Oh wow,” she breathes.
You throw your hands up now. “But I can’t even move my neck now. And they’ll want me to work anyway and it’ll be a disaster like this just was. Am I badly hurt?”
“Injured neck, broken collarbone and right tibia, and burns along the left side. Not bad. Looks like the explosion was on the left of you, burned, and then threw you onto your right.”
“How—how many more days?”
“In the hospital.”
“Oh. Well, I dunno. I’d have to ask the doctor.”
“You do that. And—uh, where’s my knife?”
But she’s gone already, clicking her pen and marking on the clipboard.
You wake up and your mouth is a desert. You can move your neck now but it tastes like you swallowed a pound of sand and left half it in your mouth. You turn and look at him—he’s awake, and looking at his hands. They’re swabbed in white bandages and twice the normal size. The last time you saw him, he was a skinny freckled brown-haired boy who grinned widely and thought the retina was in the back of the brain.
You want to say hello. Say it, you order yourself. Say it, you coward. If you don’t—
The nurse is gone and you try to sit up. You’re frozen. Your body feels like—well, like in the early morning, and you’re stiff and need to yawn and you’re about to stretch—and you can’t stretch. Or yawn. You’re frozen like that, aching and stiff and tired and dry and you can’t move, frozen like that all day every day.
You want to sit up and throw off the heavy white blankets and open up a window because it smells like sawdust in here. You want to raise your arms like you’re flying and scream and scream until you have nothing left to say. The beds are lined up a few feet away from each other and the gauzy white curtains are blowing from a ceiling vent.
You look over at him. He’s grown, of course. His hair’s missing, but it looks ragged, like they had to chop or burn it away to get at his skull or brain. His nose looks broken. His left leg is gone. You look at him. You look at him until your eyes start to fill and you can’t help but think of the boy who played touch-football with the other kids at school, running faster than anyone else—and then you beat him. And then he always picked you on his team after that. And you never lost a game.
You never lost a game. Until, in the army, it’s all mind games. It’s like chess, but men’s lives are at stake. And if you slip up, you can’t redo that move.
You groan and rub your eyes. Your hands feel like bird bones, soft and fragile. You try to speak again. You can speak now, you lick your lips, but for some reason you don’t speak. You look at him again. You want to say—you want to say hello. “Hi, do you remember me? Do you remember how we played touch football and a girl beat you and that girl was me? How the teacher called us all to stand in a line and talk to her one by one, after school, your eyes went so wide. Everyone else was laughing but you’d never been in trouble before. I remember laughing and saying it’s okay, it’s okay, you’re not in trouble.”
The generals, now, they respect you. Salinger, they call you, or JD. After the author, and because your first initial is J. You won the battle of Rye for them. You won them half the war. Practically.
You always won because you liked war. Not the deaths, no that was horrible. And the feeling like every death was your fault—no. That’s for nightmares. No, you always won because you felt that you and war were friends. You could manipulate war, tell him what to do, call checkmate when you needed to, even if you were bluffing. And sometimes he’d take your queen and someone would die, but you’d get back at war. And you won.
But war’s not a friend you want to keep.
He stabbed you in the back while you were bent over watching Rye. An explosion. And oh God that means all your friends are dead. Green, Whiteside, Ackley, Khyfyron—oh God they’re all gone. Damn you war.
How could you.
You choke and start to cry.
In a dream haze you hear the nurse talking to him about poetry. He’s laughing, and then he’s not. He’s crying.
“A one-legged man can’t spout poetry that well,” he’s saying. “Specially since his only worry’s his next shot of morphine.”
Specially since his only worry’s his next shot of morphine.
The nurse smiles a little weakly and pats his remaining knee and walks away. Your knife is still gone but you think that maybe you can let it go. It’s fine, it’s just a knife.
On your right, on the floor, is a man without a head. Well, he’s got half of one. You try not to look. But now your neck can move and your mouth isn’t so dry and you look at him. Oh God it’s Khyfyron.
He jerks his beady black eye over to you, you, with your arm crumpled over the blanket and staring at him in horror. He’s on a stretcher, he’s only temporary, you think. He’ll be gone soon. He looks at you. His eye doesn’t move and it’s like whole sentences are conveyed in that look. You start to cry again and he smiles with what mouth he’s got left.
Then a team of black-uniformed men with steel jaws come in and pick him up and Khyfyron is gone.
You look up at the ceiling. White. White lines. Flecks of brown in a sea of white. He is sitting up, pushing himself upward and drinking from a glass. You don’t look at him. You count your heartbeats and wonder if he knows who you are.
Just say it, you think. Say it, you coward.
But you’re not a coward. You won Rye. Not a coward.
So what are you then?
Say it, you think again. If you don’t, you’ll regret it the rest of whatever life you have left. Oh, how you’ll regret it. The nightmares—the nightmares—you groan.
The nurse is back. It’s dark. It’s cold. The building hums. You’re screaming. Why are you screaming?
You stop. She gasps. “Are you okay, Janie? Janie? Janie?”
It breaks the surface of the nightmare like a hatchet into ice. You shudder. You feel like ice. Your chest heaves. At least that’s moving.
“Can I sit up?” you gasp.
She nods. Her face is white and skeletal in the glimmering hospital darkness. It’s cold. The vent’s directly on you. Your mouth tastes like iron sawdust. She helps you up. You lean back against the wall. Your stomach is clenching. Aching. Your feet are trembling.
But you’re sitting up!
The nurse moves her hands back and forth as if wondering whether or not to leave you. You nod at her reassuringly and she leaves, rubbing her eyes. You lean back again. It’s cold and windy and dark, and your arms are bare and you hold them outstretched like you’re flying. Suddenly you smile. War might have this particular checkmate, but you can crawl back out of this hospital and wrench his arm behind his back.
He’s awake. He’s looking at you. You turn your head, against the wall, against the cold nightmarish darkness, and smile at him. His eyes are grey—flinty and yet gentle. You remember his eyes. His eyes widen as you look at him fully and he recognizes you.
Into the darkness. Your stomach is aching. Your palms are open and cold, and you close them and say it.