There had been funerals, and now there were awards. Sergeant Powell was glad it was not the other way around. He was receiving a bronze star. Apparently people thought his quick thinking had prevented the total massacre of the unit. Or maybe they just needed something to celebrate. It had been ages since his dress uniform had gotten this much wear.
During the reception, he accepted congratulations and well wishes, but found himself at work anyway, looking in on his men. The whole team had some leave after the invasion. Some he had seen a good deal of. Others had disappeared into god knows what. In addition to the three lost at the caves, the watchtower teams had lost four. Trujillo looked as though he had been dragged out of a drunken stupor and forcibly cleaned up by Salcedo, who was still hovering over his shoulder, making sure the celebratory drafts were nursed, not drained. Sasaki seemed perfectly proper and militarily dignified to any onlooker, but the sergeant saw there was something a little too stiff about him. He was putting a little too much effort into keeping his chin up. Not in a bad way, though. The way where you stuck with faking something hard, because the longer you faked it, the more real it became. Ciernik had disappeared for a while, and he looked a little tired, but he was moving from friend to friend, making small, ordinary conversations, and each one seemed to warm him up a little bit.
Of all the survivors, the one who worried Sergeant Powell most was Barnes. To anyone outside their unit, it would have been nearly impossible to explain why. Barnes was drinking, but not too much. He was not mingling, but he spoke pleasantly enough to anyone who approached him. He was inexpressive, which was easily read as his normal stoicism. Barnes always smiled at the corners of his eyes and hid his worries in a single line between his brows, but if you knew where to look, he was a river of expression. Now there was truly nothing. Sergeant Powell would prefer to see Barnes staggering and screaming slurred profanities than this emptiness.
Worry resolved into dread at the bar. Sergeant Powell had simply happened to stand next to Barnes while getting a refill of his bourbon, and Captain Taylor came to offer his congratulations. They had both known Taylor as Sergeant and then Lieutenant Taylor. He had been one of their better commanders, and the one to convince Powell to seek his own promotion. Of all the niceties he had received tonight, Captain Taylor’s nod and handshake filled him with the most genuine pleasure. It bordered on giddiness. On the inside, of course. On the outside, he returned the handshake with a firm grip and equally firm nod.
Once he released Sergeant Powell’s hand, Captain Taylor turned to Barnes and asked about his plans. Barnes, as always, replied that he did not know.
“Better make up your mind, soldier. Do your duty, then move up or move out.”
“Thank you sir,” Barnes said, and returned to his drink. After a moment of silence, Captain Taylor gave Sergeant Powell another nod of acknowledgement, and then moved along. When the captain disappeared into the crowd, Sergeant Powell turned and studied the back of Barnes’ head.
Thank you, sir.
That was the wrong response. All three of them knew it. “Thank you, sir,” was a non-answer. A polite dismissal of his concern. The right response was, “just don’t do the other thing.”
This was a problem.
Sergeant Powell turned the problem around in his head. It felt staggeringly unsolvable. So he did what he had done with Sorenson in the caves, and with the attack in Arcadia. Among the murky morass of futures, he reached for the solution that was solid, tangible, and actionable right now. Then he acted on blind faith that it would fit the problem he had.
He wandered through the crowd until he found his sister. He badgered and cajoled her until she gave him a number. Then he asked the bartender if he could use their phone.
“Hello?” The voice on the other line was familiar, though a little more refined and adult than he remembered. He hadn’t heard it in three years.
“Is this Yessenia?”
“Yes, who is this?”
“David Powell. Judith’s brother, remember?”
“Oh, hello! Congratulations on the medal. I’m so sorry I couldn’t make it to the ceremony. Judy wanted me to come with her, but I’m pulling an all nighter on a paper.”
“Listen, I need a favor, and there’s no one better to do it. Do you have a free night this weekend?”
“Depends on what for.”
“One of my soldiers. He’s having a rougher time coming back than usual, and he could really use a night out.”
“And I’m the best person for this because?”
“Because you’re local, single, and frankly exactly his type. Far as I can tell.”
“I’m also not available to be rented out.”
“God, no, nothing like that. He’s a good guy. The take him home to meet your folks type. He’ll probably wait three dates before he kisses you good night.”
Yessenia sighed. “Listen, I really do have a lot of work to do. I’m applying for a research fellowship soon, and I can’t afford to get behind.”
“Just..” Sergeant Powell spotted today’s newspaper stuffed under the phone desk. He had read it already, and it gave him an idea. “Do you have a copy of the Times lying around?”
“Today’s edition. Did you get it?”
“I think so.”
“Go get it. I’ll wait.”
A long pause. “All right, I found it.”
“Page 6B. There’s a story about me.”
“I see it.”
“See the picture of the unit? Second face from the left.”
“Left… David, you wouldn’t happen to mean the one hand sculpted by angels, would you?”
“Your words, not mine. But yes.”
He got some details from her, thanked her profusely, hung up, and returned to the bar.
“Private Barnes. Any plans Friday night?”
“Good.” He slapped down the paper with Yessenia’s information on it. “Now you do.”
Nick’s sense of manners dictated that he should pick a woman up, but Yessenia Ruiz drove and he did not. So he took a bus to her apartment, knocked on the door, and escorted her to her own car. She had long, glossy black hair and the kind of effortlessly regal posture that made five feet and four inches feel statuesque. It also made him feel underdressed, even though he had rented and pressed a suit and she was in an everyday skirt and blouse.
On the drive to the movies, he asked about her studies. it had always been easy for him to keep people talking about themselves. She studied anthropology. He asked about anthropology. Her gracious smile turned to a grin as she said words like heterogeneous, matrilineal and syncretism. She had a good sense of when he did not understand a word, and inserted explanations in a practiced manner, too everyday to sound condescending. He smiled appreciatively and felt nothing.
They arrived at the theater. He bought tickets. He bought popcorn. He lead the way to their seats and then let her slip into the aisle first. He felt nothing.
He wondered if he would laugh at the cartoon reel. He didn’t. Yessenia did. He smiled at her, to indicate that he did not find this childish. She smiled back, to indicate that she didn’t particularly care whether he did or not, but she approved of his approval all the same.
Then the newsreel came on, and it was talking about them. Arcadia, the attacks, the trial. It was not new information. Too many people were talking about it, and too much information was in the headlines, and too much had been lived. Still, Nick had avoided any real, in depth discussions of what had happened. He exposed himself to updates five seconds at a time. This newsreel was five minutes.
Nick first noticed the feeling when he reached for some popcorn, hoping for an excuse to look away more than anything else, and the idea of putting that handful into his mouth made him sick. Actually, physically, viscerally sick. Even the smell of it made him worry that he was about to vomit, and that made him notice the smell of butter was everywhere, that he could not get away from it as long as he wanted to breath. And as agonizing as the nausea was, part of him luxuriated in it. In the diseased, tortuous presence of some kind of feeling.
Nausea was followed by rage at the voiceover. How could he have said “four other soldiers died in the assault on the watchtowers” and not speak their names? McKendrick, Van Amelvoort, Mikkels, Harford. In this interminably long broadcast, would that have been so hard? The omission kept Nick boiling through the monotonous, sing-song recounting of the battles. The popcorn problem was solved when the kernels crumbled to greasy dust in his hands and fell through his fingers.
Then began the part about the trial, and Nick felt the emptiness return. And that was the worst feeling of all, because after weeks of blankness, the torture of skin on fire and a stomach that tried to climb out of his own throat… they had been relief. Sweet, sweet relief from a sense of total inhumanity. He could not go back to it.
“Excuse me,” he whispered, and left without waiting. Not just the auditorium, but the whole theater. He walked for the nearest alley, pressed his head against a cold brick wall, and cried. Sadness. Sadness was good. Better than nothingness. It came with some shame and self-loathing, but that too was something.
He had no desire to abandon his date, but even less to go back inside and try to stop feeling bad. This crisis was resolved when Yessenia Ruiz came out to find him.
“I’m sorry,” he said, when he noticed her watching him. “You should go back in and finish the movie. I still need a minute.”
“Hang the movie,” she said lightly. “It’s not as if I had to pay for it.”
Then, in a softer, more serious tone, she said, “Do you want to go get a drink? Somewhere quiet?”
He shook his head. “No, no I don’t think I can be much fun at all tonight.”
“You don’t have to be fun. We could just talk.” The light tone came back. “I am an anthropologist, after all. The study of human behavior is fun enough for me, even the depressing parts.”
He smiled a little but shook his head. “I don’t want to talk. I’m sorry for wasting your time.”
“Well, will you let me do something for you, at least?”
“I don’t know. Anything. Whatever you need.”
“That’s kind of you, but-”
“Stop being so chivalrous and give me something to do.”
It was an order. Nick sighed.
“I guess you could give me a ride.”