I was serving in Baxon just north of Hescher, guard-dogging a queue of first responders heading into the riot zones, and John caught my eye. Her beard caught my eye. Some troublemaker flaunting the rules, I thought, or a guy sneaking in under cover of audacity, thinking the Womens Volunteer Corps was a good place to get laid. If that was the case, he was looking to get roughed up, and it was my job to oblige. I pulled her out of the line.
Roughing someone up would’ve made my day, and my day needed making. Go figure that John stepped aside and said “Of course” in that tone people use at police, all placid and don’t shoot me. She pulled her license and handed it over—and yeah, there it was: non-transitioned male sex, last Gender Assessment Test no more than two years ago, certified female register—certified female enough for government work, right—all of it signed by a state assessor I didn’t just recognize as legit, I knew personally. The grainy photo even had her damn beard.
I thought about roughing her up for making me look a damn fool. I told myself I was better than that; even kinda believed it. “Get back in line.”
In a fair world, that’d be that.
Isaac was walking the queue, giving the pep talk, getting everyone comfy with the bulletproofs and white flags. “All our pretty little heads will be back behind our boys in uniform,” he said, and I kept my fingers on my rifle. “There’s a chance our zone might go hot; if it does, we’ll get plenty of warning, just get back on the buses and we’ll peel rubber back here. Lickety-split. Time for dinner.”
I caught up to him as we boarded the bus. For the sixteen women there were only four of us from City Guard, me looking plastic and the rest looking pale and greeny under the florescent lights. “Counting four boys in uniform right here,” I said.
Isaac looked surprised, then looked at the insignia on his chest. He grinned. “Way wrong uniform, man.”
I grunted, and pointed at John. “What’s the story here?”
“What, him? —her,” Isaac corrected. Takes more than a test and a license for some people to learn. Hand to God I don’t think Isaac believes the GATs if he looks at someone and gets his own opinion, but like the rest of us, he’ll play along because it’s law. Least, like the rest of most people, he’ll play along because it’s law. “Hell if I know. Uh, hometown somewhere up north, been working with the WVC going on six years. Career, right? Just your type.”
“Shove off,” I said, and elbowed him. He cackled and headed for his seat. I took a seat near the front and decided it didn’t matter. ’Sides, I could see or guess most of it: lily-white, unlike me. College-educated, unlike me. A girl, too, unlike me. Though half the bastards would’ve argued that, had they known.
• • • •
Hescher was a hellhole. We smelled the smoke when we rolled in, and the moment they opened the doors, it was all white tents, Corps flags, antiseptic stench, and people moaning on the ground. A guy almost shoved a handful of red-yellow-green-black triage tags into my chest before deciding I wouldn’t know a sucking chest wound from a bump on the head and shoving them at the ladies behind me.
They’d cleared out one of the big bargain stores for a medical center, and its parking lot was playing support. Place was peppered with City Guard, and one came over as soon as we led our girls off the bus. “Hey. I’m Ben Kessler, managing day dispatch and logistics here. Welcome to Camp Save Big. Any two of you got a moment?”
“I got one,” I said, and Isaac came up beside me.
“So, what’ve you got going?” Isaac asked. Ben groaned.
“Cluster attacks.” He hiked a thumb over his shoulder, and Isaac and I followed him across the lot. “We go three weeks without anyone blowing anything up and now we’ve had four bombings yesterday and today.”
“Christos,” I said, and Ben hoisted up the flap of the registration tent. We went inside.
Ben went over to the sat-fax and tapped his finger on a pile of papers. I went up and said, “What’s up?”
“Your gals signed a pretty permissive contract,” Ben said. “‘Area of greatest need,’ ‘discretionary redeployment,’ y’know.”
“So where’s our area of greatest need?” Isaac asked. Ben pistoled a finger at him.
“Here, go figure. But if it’s not too much trouble, we need someone to back up the folks at the hospital. Triage and first response. They got slammed.”
Isaac looked at me. “Hell, if that’s it, we can walk our girls over.”
“Be a dear?” Ben said, and pressed his hands together. I crossed my arms over my chest, habit-like. Isaac whacked me on the shoulder.
“We’re your angels. C’mon, we’ll pull our teams.”
Isaac turned and walked back to the buses, and Ben held out a map for me. “You’ll need this. A bunch of main roads are impassable.”
I took the map, and looked over the scrawled edits. “You’re going to make me regret wearing the injury-prev helmet instead of the smart display, aren’t you?”
“Oh, there’s a lot of regret here in Hescher,” Ben said. “If that’s all you’ve got, you’re coming out ahead.”
• • • •
John was in Isaac’s group. She didn’t look at me when we rounded our eight up, and I mostly ignored her. We just got in line and marched into the evacuation zone. I did notice she didn’t walk like a girl learned to, didn’t hold herself like a girl learned to. She might’ve had the GAT, but she was off.
Shit like that makes me check how I’m walking. Out here, no one was gonna come up and check my license, but still, it’s habit, like.
The evac zone was quiet. All these buildings, still as death—no one even looting, anymore. Plenty of people were probably displaced and angry somewhere easterly, keeping their mouths shut because you didn’t bitch at the hand that fed you and rounded you up onto government buses, and that just left this place all creeped-out empty like a ghost town. Isaac and I didn’t talk. We had our hands on our rifles, watching for revs, and the girls didn’t talk because they knew you don’t distract the guys with automatics. We went in past the empty houses, past the bombed-out school, over the recent debris that made driving impossible and walking a chore and, hand to God, but I didn’t know what the revs thought they were getting by blowing up all the empty places. With all the rubble, though, I pitied the girls and their uniform skirts. Damn glad I didn’t wear one.
We were maybe halfway to the hospital and passing office buildings when Isaac held up a hand, and we stopped and ducked down. Someone was running at us down the road.
He was yelling. “Get outta there! Get outta there!”
I took aim. I was just good enough for a hipshot—not being military I couldn’t gun the guy down, not when he was waving his hands and not a gun, but for all I knew, he had three pounds of plastic on his chest. I thumbed my rifle over to single-shot, and yelled, “Do not come closer!”
Then the office behind us blew.
I was on my face like that. This chunk of concrete hit the pavement two feet from my shoulder and crap rained down, drifting on my uniform, drumming my helmet. A lot of it was glass. A rock the size of my fist caught me in the back, another almost took a chunk out of my hand. My head was ringing when I picked myself up.
First thing that crossed my mind was That’s okay, I can go home now, ’cause that was a bomb. Ten seconds later that didn’t make sense to me, and it still doesn’t. It’s just what I thought.
I don’t remember how I got to my feet. The place was quiet. Crap wasn’t falling. The guy I’d been aiming at wasn’t running at us any more, wasn’t anywhere any more, and I looked around. The color was off. Everything was yellower, and I kept blinking and blinking, trying to make it go away, and then I caught this light coming through the buildings off west. I thought, The bastards set the city on fire. Wasn’t any smoke, though. It was the sun.
Then I thought, Shit. I’d thought no time had passed. No, I’d been down for half an hour, and my helmet fit odd—pressure and suction—like I had a head injury, and the automated aid kicked on.
And where the hell were my girls?
• • • •
Ten minutes later I worked out that my helmet radio gave up the ghost and wasn’t coming home for Christ’s Mass. The tips of my fingers were numb and I couldn’t pull the helmet for fear that I’d open up a wound, so poking at the buttons was the best I could do to fix it. My maps were safe and I should’ve headed back to drum up a search, but I had a chip on my shoulder for the guy who blew me up and I wasn’t trotting home with my tail between my legs. Mama always said pride would get me killed.
So I went deeper into the evac zone.
Sure enough, before long I started seeing people, and I had to crouch down and sneak behind dumpsters and burnt-out cars and roadblocks. I could hear them yelling to each other, pick out the ones walking with rifles—and damn, some of those rifles were better than mine.
I found the supermarket easy. It was big, with people going in and out. The entire street in front was busy with revs, six or eight at a shot, walking around on important rev business. Someone came out with a big bag of something, and they gathered up and walked away. That was an opening if I ever saw one.
The supermarket was big, the kind with doors at both ends and checkout lanes lined up all across the front. Big, and stocked enough to be Rev HQ. That made walking into it a stupid idea, and of course that’s what I did anyway. I snuck around, trying to avoid the automatic doors until I remembered there was no power to this neighborhood. The doors couldn’t give me away. I picked one, poked it to see it didn’t creak, and pushed it open.
And that’s when I decided, you know, gloves off, shoot to kill. ’Cause that’s when I saw Isaac slumped against a checkout stand, helmet off and eyes staring open, with an ugly dark gunshot blown out half his head.
• • • •
I don’t know why I didn’t throw up then. I guess it didn’t feel real, between the fuzz in my hearing and the hurt in my skull and the way I’d jumped from afternoon to evening earlier. Think I thought I was dreaming.
I saw the head rev right away, when I stopped staring at dead Isaac. At least, I saw the guy acting it up. Put his name on a bullet. He was up on one of the far stands hollering like a ringleader, and there was no way I’d be able to pick him off from the doorway I’d come in. It’s hard to get sharpshooter training when you can’t meet the army requirements for infantry. Hard to shoot with a pounding headache and blood loss, too.
They don’t teach you much in City Guard, but I got on my stomach and did an army crawl like I’d seen in the comics and practiced, back home, back in that misspent youth of mine. Went creeping back into the supermarket until I found cover, with my head pounding and everything right of my pelvis one screaming mass of ache. The guy was up on the register counter, pacing back and forth, waving his gun around like that was the only way he could make a point.
“A state which controls right and wrong, which legislates right and wrong, a state which tells us what we can and can’t do, can and can’t be, can and can’t think, is a state that has legislated our humanity!” he said.
Something like that. I got the gist: usual rev talk. Blah blah this, blah blah overthrow the government, ’cause the guys with the guns and the anger will for sure be the better choice. I crept past the shelves of cereal and the display of spoiled pears and came nearer.
“Look at this guy!”
I was close enough that I could see him reach down and grab John by the collar.
He hauled John up. “This guy is a mockery of a man!” he yelled, shaking her like a rattle. “If he decided one day to put on this dress, he would be sent to jail! It’s only when the state tells him to that he can. There is no difference! The state has fabricated right and wrong!”
I lined up my shot.
And the first shot went so wild I was lucky it didn’t take out the front door. The guy spun around and almost lost his footing, but he stayed up enough to swing his pistol and take a shot that came a lot closer to target than mine had. I ducked behind a display of Corn Crunch that wouldn’t stop a ping-pong ball, but instinct said go for cover and I did. I flipped my rifle onto automatic, ’cause it’s hard to miss on automatic, and thanked God the girls knew enough to get down.
You know. Blood splattered. Girls gasped, one of them screamed before another clapped a hand over her mouth, and I looked at John, white as a sheet and bloody. One of Isaac’s girls, but I bet they all knew what happened to Isaac. They’d been looking shell shocked before I took out that rev. I pushed off up the floor and ran to them, then dropped and just barely caught myself in a crouch. God, my head hurt. Christos, I didn’t feel right. John touched my shoulder and I shoved her away.
The sensible one, the one who stopped the other girl from screaming, said, “We need to get away from the doors.” I nodded. If no revs outside had heard us exchanging bullets, that’d be one miracle. To keep any from coming back, we’d need another.
“Yeah,” I said. “Come on. Back through.” My heart was pounding. Made my ears hurt, it was so loud, and I could feel it on my stomach. I stood up, and the store yanked sideways and shook like a dog toy. Then I was on the ground.
I was on the ground, and I was back farther in the store. I was leaning against a pile of budget toilet paper. All I could hear was my own blood.
The sensible one was crouched over me, like a bad flashback to post-op. I looked around, trying to get my bearings, saw a scatter of broken glass from a freezer case, a crumpled wrapper from a snack cake, a bottle of blackstrap molasses with its top off. Nothing made any sense. The sensible woman was pushing a water bottle to my lips. “Here. Drink this, if you can.”
I caught a glance at her nametag: Agatha, with a low service number that meant she’d signed up early. That seemed important: signed up early. She was practically shoving the bottle up my nose, so I drank. The water was warm and sugary and made my headache ten times worse, but Agatha held it through two good gulps.
“Listen,” she said. “I’m concerned that you’re losing blood. Your helmet’s gone red.”
I guess I was lucky to have the injury-prev helmet instead of the HUD.
“We have to get out of here, but I don’t think you’re going to make a walk down main street,” Agatha said. “Not before anyone comes by.”
“There was a fire escape from the second floor down into the alley. I saw it when we were being brought in,” John said. Of course John said. I should’ve said; I’d seen the damn thing when I was sneaking past, watching for revs hiding in the alleys. But I was messed up, and John and her damn beard were the ones taking charge.
God, I wished Isaac was there. But that gunshot crossed my mind, and I wanted to spew. Isaac was dead. I was the guardsman left, and I was being babied by a bunch of girls.
“Then that’s where we’ll go,” Agatha said. “Come on; everyone back this way. Move it, all of you. John . . .”
John stepped up and got me under the arm to hold me up, and I yanked away. Shoved her and stumbled right into the toilet paper. Real smooth. But I didn’t want her hands on me.
“I can stand up,” I said, when they looked at me. My face was burning, but the rest of me was cold.
Agatha looked at me. Probably going to ask if I had a problem with the gender-reassigned, but I just took my rifle, pushed myself up, and concentrated on keeping steady. Were it that easy.
“I can walk,” I told her again, and turned around and started walking.
The second floor was offices and a break room, and that’s where we headed. Longest stair climb of my life. But with the shooting over and the adrenaline quieting down, it wasn’t as bad—about as bad as sneaking to the store in the first place. We went into the break room, where the revs had left bags of trash and bowls from instant meals, empty bottles of alcohol, and a map of the city tacked up on the walls. Agatha turned up her nose. “Well, I suppose we know where they’ve been spending their time.”
John went to the window and pushed it open. I went up to take a look, see if I needed to secure the alley below.
We weren’t far up, and the fire escape was a good one—wasn’t rickety or anything. But I looked and I heard myself say “Shit,” and then I was back inside the window, on my knees, spewing lunch and molasses water into a trashcan full of old receipts. Even after everything came up, I kept heaving until the vise in my head let go. My heart started pounding again.
I wasn’t going to get out of there.
I swallowed, and wished I hadn’t. Looked back at the girls, and saw John and Agatha kneeling near me. Before they could say anything I told them, “Look, it’s about five blocks to the barricades, and none of you look like revs. Just get down the side and go for it. Keep your hands up and no one’s gonna shoot you. Can you do that?”
“I’ll see them through,” Agatha said, then frowned. “Here; you’d better give me your sidearm.”
“What?” I squinted until she focused back into one solid person instead of two blurry ones. “I will get my ass raked over the coals if I hand a pistol to someone who’s never had gun training. There must be ten different laws against that.”
“Tell them I stole it off you while you were throwing up,” Agatha said. “Or do you want us just to sing if a rioter comes by?”
I squinted at her. “What?”
“It’s what you do for bears,” John said.
Fancy educated bastard. I groaned and put my head back. “Fine. Take it.” I was just gonna close my eyes. And then I felt myself falling, in the back of my head, like all that darkness under my eyelids was some river, with an undertow, and I’d sink down through. Then I felt hot hands on my face and John pried open my eyes.
There she was, staring me in the face and yammering on about a concussion and hyposomething. I tried to wave her off like a horsefly. Then she said, “We talked it over. I’m going to stay with you.”
No idea when they’d had time to talk it over. I laughed in John’s face. “Why, ’cause you’re the butch?”
“Because Agatha has more important things to do,” John said, and I thought, Yeah, like my job.
“Lemme up,” I said.
“Agatha’s going to get everyone back to base,” John said. “She’s going to tell the rest of City Guard where we are, and they should be able to get someone in here to bring you out.”
What I should’ve done in the first place. “I can make it,” I said. “In my own time, yeah?”
Agatha did just what she should have: came over and crouched down and said, “Don’t be an idiot. I’ll break both your knees if you think you’re going to crawl out, pass out, and make us carry you.”
I liked her. Kinda wished she would stay with me. Not just that John torqued me, but I had a feeling Agatha could take on the entire rev mob with guts to spare.
The girls filed out the window, and I heard their feet going down the metal stairs. John went and closed the door, and turned all the lights off. Better for my head, at least. Then she came and sat by me.
“You don’t like me much,” she said.
I rubbed a sleeve across my mouth. “Does it matter?”
John sighed. “I have been accused of not playing to the spirit of the GAT.”
Were it that fucking simple.
“Give me your hand,” John said. I squinted.
I squinted a bit more, and gave her my hand.
She took it and squeezed my thumbnail. Then she took my pulse. “Well, you haven’t lost much more blood,” she said, and let go of me. “Capillary refill’s no worse than it was, and heart rate is good, considering.” She shook her head. “You really shouldn’t have come after us.”
I tried to think of something sharp to say. I was angry—angrier than I had any right to be. Tried to blame my head.
“But thank you,” John said.
Given the way the rev had been going after her—well, I know how these things go. Gender assessment gets people angry, anger gets people nasty. That’s why most of us keep our dirty little secrets under our belts and our vests. Why most of us don’t go wearing a damn beard.
That just got me feeling sick.
“What is it with you?” I asked, and looked at her. “Get a shave, put on some makeup, grow out your hair. You walk into a warzone and you come looking like that?”
“Not my style,” John said.
I looked her up and down. “How the hell did you test female?” I asked.
John sighed. “Is this the conversation we’re going to have?” she asked, like she’d had this one before.
Probably had. Probably every time someone had to talk to her. Make small talk. So, John, what’s up with your genitals? So, John, why you wanna be a girl?
Didn’t want to be a proper girl, though.
“You scored, what, a fifty-one fem, fifty masc on the GAT?” I asked. “Just enough to scrape through?”
John looked at me. “Sounds like you’re familiar with the GAT.”
“Yeah, familiar,” I said. “Took it. Tried to go army. But I got eighty-two masculine, and the goddamn military is eighty-five, min.” I flipped the convo around again, back at her. “You think you’re a man, don’t you?”
She hedged. “I don’t think it’s useful to pay too much attention to—”
“Bullshit. You think you’re a man?”
John hesitated. Looking for any way not to answer the damn question, then answered it anyway. “Yeah, I do.”
I sneered. “Thought so. Why the hell’d you do this? Getting some girls?”
She gave me this long-suffering look. “I wanted to serve. I wanted to go into care. I didn’t have the stomach for armed service. I’ve thought a lot about why it was so important, and I don’t know how to explain it—”
“So you’re a man,” I said. “You’re not just playing queer, you’re a man.”
More hedging. “Well, legally I—”
“You’re playing!” I almost shouted. I almost didn’t care who heard me. I was shaking, I couldn’t see straight. “You’re a fucking—yeah, you know what? I grew up in this. I was playing with—fuck you. Fuck you! You want to know what it’s really like?”
John got a look like she’d worked something out.
I hated that look. Straight up hated it.
“I know what—” John said, or started to say. I ran right over her. Couldn’t stop, and Christos, I wanted to.
“Ever since I was a kid. Sold my dolls on my parents’ net accounts. Thought I’d be able to get this toy gun—they forced me into a dress once and I nearly tore their eyes out, clawed up my mom’s face so bad, and every day I was sick when someone looked at my chugs or called me ma’am, and you’re fucking—”
You’re a pretender, some sick trans-v playing in women’s clothing. I wanted to say that. Didn’t even care it was the same shit people used to fling at me.
“I was a boy,” I spat out. “I had some chromosome problem but I knew what I was. This isn’t a joke.”
“It’s not a joke for me,” John said.
“No, it’s a goddamn disguise,” I said, leaned over, and puked again.
John put her hand on my back and I shoved her away. I didn’t want to be touched. I spent my whole life up until the GAT and the surgery and the moving halfway across the country to Baxon having people say I’d grow out of this, like I’d grow out of my skin, be a normal girl, settle down with a normal guy, take those hands all over me, take him crawling on top of me, take him feeling better than me, stronger than me, like I’d take the whole five-course meal of what my life was supposed to look like and feel like and be shoved down my mouth the moment I was spewed out into the world, when some doctor looked between my legs and laid down the law on me. John’s little card with her GAT score meant nothing on all that.
There’s a word for that. Dysphoria. I got my chugs lopped off, got my own little card that got me into the City Guard with the rest of the boys, got a good haircut and remedial hormones and that all helped, but not enough. The damn rev had a point: I got to be a guy because I took a test and it said I got into enough fights, played enough sports, had enough right interests and few enough wrong ones. I got to be a guy because some white-collar jackhole stamped and signed a form. I never would’ve got to be a guy just because I was a guy.
John was quiet when I was done spewing. Then she said, “The only way I could’ve gotten this job was by acting, every day, like I was something I wasn’t.”
The only way I got this job was by arguing my whole life I was who I was.
“Do you think it makes sense?” John asked.
“Yeah, funny thing is, no one ever asked me.”
John was quiet. Then she said, “I hate it.”
I looked at her. Didn’t know what she meant.
“You can feel it,” John said. “How they look at you.”
I grimaced. “Yeah,” I agreed. “How it goes sliding over you. Like they just look, and—”
“And it’s not even—it’s a look that says ‘I know what you are,’” John said. “Like they’ve figured you out.”
“And you can’t say no. You can’t—”
“You just want to say, that’s not me!”
I turned my head to look at her. Him. I looked at him. “Why do you put up with this shit?” I said. “Just get another goddamn job.”
He watched me with blank hazel eyes. “Why didn’t you just wear the goddamn dress?”
I twisted around and punched him.
I split his lip on his teeth. If I hadn’t been wearing gloves I’d’ve split my knuckle on his teeth. He jerked back and spat blood, and gave me the kind of look people give bad wiring.
After a while, I said, “Sorry.”
John wiped a glob of blood off his lips. “I had brothers,” he said. “I’ll survive.”
“I meant—” I waved a hand. “Sorry for the other stuff. Pulling you out of the queue.”
John was quiet for a moment. “You were just doing your job.”
“So was the guy who said I wasn’t man enough to be in the army.” I ground my fingernails into my fist. “I just—this is shit, what they make us do.”
Wasn’t much to say, after that.
I closed my eyes and tried to keep the headache down. John got up and walked to the window, looked out at the alley and the street. Then I heard him take breath in.
I opened my eyes. “That our boys?”
John was standing way too still, and his shoulders came up toward his ears. “No,” he said.
I pulled myself up on the windowsill, and John grabbed my arm to keep me standing. I couldn’t see—headache made it hard—but John said, “There. Three, coming for the front entrance.”
Where they’d find Isaac. They’d find that dead rev. They’d look and wonder where their hostages got to, and they’d come up here to plan. I cussed and reached for the window, and John stopped my hand.
“Are you going to make it down?”
I didn’t look out. Figured that if I went with my eyes closed, I wouldn’t lose it. “We have a choice?”
“You get sick on the stairs and they’ll hear you,” John said. “We’ll be easy marks in that alley. We can find somewhere to hide, let the guard flush them out.”
I groaned. “Where, like the girls’ bathroom?”
John shrugged. “Good as anywhere.”
He got me under the arm and we went to the door, quiet as possible. We slipped through, just as quiet, and someone yelled “Hey!” from the stairs.
John hadn’t seen the first bunch of revs to come home.
There was maybe a second where the rev just saw John’s dress, and most people leave medical types alone. Never know when one might save your bacon, even if you are on the wrong side. Then he saw me, though, and the one thing the revs hated as much as appointed officials was City Guard.
He probably put together who’d shot his pal, too.
Pride might get me killed, but twitchy kept me alive. I shot from the hip, literally, didn’t kill the guy but came close, and the other revs started shouting downstairs.
I remember thinking something about high ground. I remember my helmet fitting too tight, watching myself like a live-action movie, like I was outside my head, stumbling down the stairs and crashing down under cover behind the pulp books. I shot one guy in the chest because I don’t think he believed what was happening—damn revs talk big, but most are just city boys, low on the masc score, lower than me—and then it was on.
By the time I hit the registers I was skidding on adrenaline. Yeah, so I had stupid ideas about action and heroism, like every kid who wanted to be in the army. Thought I’d be a big hero, mowing down hostiles and never taking a hit, lighting up a cig with a big grin. Instead I was sick to my stomach and my heart was pounding too fast; I thought I’d wig out any second. The way my hands were shaking, I can’t believe I shot anyone, but I must’ve, sometime in between the shelves knocking over and the displays getting torn apart over me. I fought those revs until my magazine was empty, not that it took more than a minute at that, and that’s when the boys in uniform came and rescued me.
• • • •
I can’t remember the trip back to Camp Save Big. I know I didn’t make it on my own power. Mostly I remember the bit before I woke up, swimming in that big back-of-the-eyelid river, up and down until I broke the surface.
Didn’t wake in any proper hospital. This was where they put the special projects, I guess. I could feel a catheter in, and my stomach dropped three feet. All I could think was Shit. All I could think was, Cover blown. People aren’t in the habit of asking after your privates unless they knew you took a reassessment, and I’d been liking that no one here knew. No one asks to see your license if you pass yourself off. If you don’t have chugs or a damn beard. Or a goddamn head injury that makes them stick a catheter in.
I bit down hard, and made fists hard, and held on to nothing until I heard a door open and guy’s voice say “Hey,” beside me.
Look up and there was John, and he reached over to take my pulse. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m your attending. I told them you might like a private room, and they gave you this one—you being the hero of the hour.”
I looked around at shelves shoved into a corner, a few warehouse pallets stacked in another corner, and decided it had been a crappy back room before becoming my crappy suite. Then what he said hit me. “Wait there. Hero?”
“Hero of the battle of Fresh Food Mart,” John said. “Save the day. Get the girl. You know, if you want her.”
I gave him a funny look, and he burst out laughing.
“Christos, not me!”
I laughed, too. “Think I’m Agatha’s type?”
He reached down and patted my shoulder, and the funny thing was, I didn’t mind. Like, maybe it didn’t matter to his thinking that I got no bits—just like he got no girliness. We both had our dirty little secrets.
“Tell you what, though. That’s got to be worth three points masculine on the GAT.”
“Not unless they hand me a medal over it.” I groaned. Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather get treatment than none and I was glad that my head didn’t hurt, but I wanted out of that bed, out of that hospital gown that fell down between my legs, out of just lying there helpless and feeling exposed to the world. John looked at his fingers.
“Not fair, is it?”
Yeah, and we both knew without asking. “Shit deal,” I said. “So what do we do?”
John shrugged. “Keep going,” he said. “Things have to change sometime.”
I looked at him. “You sound like a rev.” That talk about things changing, how unjust it all was. Hell, I guess I sounded like one, too, in my head, but I knew I wasn’t, and I don’t think John was either. Just two guys in bad positions.
“Yeah, well. They’re wrong about a lot, but they’re not wrong about this.” John shrugged, and stood up. “I’ve got patients. You’re gonna be fine.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Good luck on your rounds.”
He went, and I lay back and listened to the painkillers swirling in my veins. The door pulled open, and I didn’t hear it shut. I looked.
“If I have any say in it, I’ll get you that medal,” John said.
The door swung closed behind him.
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