Read Battle Dress Online

Authors: Amy Efaw

Battle Dress (10 page)

I scrubbed the boot harder to erase the thought.

Besides, the only difference that I could see between the male latrine and the female latrine was four urinals. Everything else was laid out exactly the same. The wall of bathroom stalls. The row of sinks. The locker area. The large tiled room, where we stood now, with shower heads all around and no privacy curtains. And everywhere the smell of new cadet-issued Dial soap and Johnson’s baby shampoo, mixed with sweat, clung to the damp air.

No difference at all.
But I wasn’t convinced. Deep down I felt like I didn’t really belong here.

“Relax, Knuckleheads!” Cadet Daily’s voice disrupted my thoughts. “This is Squad Leader Time.” He stopped splish-splashing around and stood in front of Ping, to my left. “Let’s get to know each other,” he said. “You’re first,
Combat
. State your full name, where you’re from, what you’re famous for, and why you’re here. In that order. Do you think you can remember that, Bonehead?”

“Yes, sir,” Ping said.

Real relaxing.
I bit my lip and globbed more saddle soap on the boot.
I’m next. Great. Famous? I’m not famous for anything. And why
am
I here? What in the world am I going to say?

“Sir, my name is George Ping—”

“You’re not telling
me
, Knucklehead. I already know everything about you. You’re telling your squadmates.”

He knows everything about us? About
me
?
I scrubbed harder.

“Yes, sir. I’m George Ping. I just came from the Prep School at Fort Monmouth. Before that I was stationed at Fort Bragg, as a medic with the 82nd Airborne. But originally I’m from Phoenix.” Cadet Daily remained in front of Ping, studying him. Ping looked directly at him and said, “And I’m here because I didn’t want to be an E-5 in the Army anymore.”

“That so?” Cadet Daily smiled. An amused, almost sarcastic smile. “What’re you famous for,
Combat
?” He leaned closer. Water from his nose dripped onto Ping’s. “How’d you get that Bronze Star, Hotshot? And all those other medals. Steal ’em off some dead guy?”

“Sir, I earned them in Afghanistan.”

For a second all scrubbing ceased. I didn’t know what a Bronze Star was, but it sure sounded impressive. The lower part of Cadet Daily’s face retained the smile, but something like jealousy flashed in his eyes. He stepped back.

“Ping.” He spat it more than said it. “I’ve got a smack named ‘Ping.’ Unbelievable.” He shook his head. “You’re going to catch all kinds of heat with a name like that! I almost feel sorry for you, Combat. But don’t get your hopes up—
almost
is the operative word. What kind of name is ‘Ping,’ anyway?”

“Sir, Ping is a Chinese name. In the Fujian dialect of south China, ‘Ping’ translates to ‘soldier,’ sir.”

“How apropos,” Cadet Daily said. Then he turned to me. “Davis, what do you got?”

I stared at the gray water disappearing down the drain, wishing I could follow it. After Ping I had nothing impressive to say. “I’m Andi—short for Andrea—Davis. I’m from Lake Zurich, Illinois. Um, that’s a suburb of Chicago. And I’m famous for, um, running, I guess—”

“Running?” Cadet Daily looked interested. “Did you get recruited for track?”

Recruited?
I didn’t know people got recruited for sports at West Point. I shook my head. “No, sir. But I ran track in high school. Cross country, too.”

He turned his green eyes on me. My Speedo suddenly felt awfully skimpy. I tugged at the tongue of my lathered boot. I knew I didn’t look much like a runner. Not a long distance runner, anyway. I didn’t have the requisite stick legs, and, well, I had too much on top.

Suddenly I heard my mother’s voice, speaking to my doctor during an annual checkup:
“With knockers like that, she could be a go-go dancer, couldn’t she?”
I squeezed my eyes shut to clear my head.
I’m so glad she’s not here now.

“You any good, Davis?” Cadet Daily asked.

I shrugged. “I guess, sir.”
I never went to State.
The thought just sat there, condemning me.
How good can you be if you never went to State?
I rubbed the toe of my boot with the nail brush. White leather peeked through the lather in places. I had qualified—twice in cross country, and once in the 3000—but had never gone. My mother had seen to that. She hated “that good-for-nothing running.”

I chewed the inside of my lip, wondering what to say next.

“You’ll wear a hole in your boot scrubbing like that, Davis,” Cadet Daily said. I could feel him staring at the crown of my head, waiting. I watched my feet and the bluing running over them. My toes looked funny, tinted gray. “And you came to West Point because . . .” he prompted.

Because one thousand long miles stretched between West Point and home? Because I didn’t want to owe my parents anything anymore? But I couldn’t tell him—or Third Squad—that. “Sir, I came to West Point because . . . well, um, I’m not exactly sure why.” I raised my eyes to his face, and suddenly the words came fast. “But, sir, this girl—a cadet, actually—came to my high school to talk about West Point to anyone who wanted to know about it. That was my junior year. And well, I stopped by her display—it was right in front of the library—and it sounded like something I’d like to do, and I’ve always liked being outside—”

“If you just want to be outside,” Cadet Daily said, annoyed, “join the Peace Corps!”

I had let myself babble, and now he was mad at me.
Way to go, Andi.

He stepped closer, his green eyes penetrating mine. “If you don’t figure out why you’re here, Davis, you’re never going to stay.” He moved on to stand in front of New Cadet Boguslavsky, then turned back to me. “This afternoon, during Mass Athletics, what did you sign up for, Davis?”

“Sir, I signed up for softball.” I remembered how yesterday afternoon I had surprised myself, hitting a double. That hit had made my day, but I would’ve traded that play in a second for my running shoes, a long path in the woods, and a big chunk of time—alone.

“Well, I’ll make sure you get hooked up with the Women’s Cross Country Team. The captain of the team’s a personal friend of mine. And tryouts for Corps Squad—” He eyed the faces around the room. “Here’s a new vocabulary word for you, Smack Heads. At Woo Poo U, Corps Squad means varsity, N C double A, Divison One.” He redirected his attention to me. “Tryouts for Corps Squad are in a couple of weeks.”

I might be able to run here!
I could’ve hugged him right there—Speedo suit and all. But, of course, I didn’t. “Thank you, sir,” I croaked.

“Yeah, well, don’t embarrass me, Davis. I better not see you falling out on any runs.” He switched his focus onto New Cadet Boguslavsky. “All right, Boguslavsky. You’re up.”

“Yes, sir. I’m Christopher Scott Boguslavsky, but I go by ‘Kit.’ And I come from Monongalia County, West Virginia.”

“Mono—whatever you said—
County
, Bogus?” Cadet Daily snarled. “We want a city, not a county, Bonehead.”

“Yes, sir. I come from a town called Crossroads, close to Morgantown—that’s the home of WVU—and down a stretch from Efaw’s Knob in Monongalia”—he emphasized every syllable—“County, West Virginia.” He had a slight southern accent, one that wove around his words but never quite settled in. “Back home, I’m famous for being the preacher’s kid, and I came here because I heard the hunting’s good.” He smiled. “And, of course, I wanted the challenge.”

Cadet Daily crossed his arms and smirked, raising an eyebrow. “Good answer there,
Bogus
. But guess what?” The top of Cadet Daily’s head only reached the bottom of Boguslavsky’s chin, so he had to take a step back to get good eye contact. “The hunting’s only good for the hunters, Wise Guy. And I’ve got my sights set on
you
!” He moved along the sloppy line of new cadets, boots, shoes, and saddle soap that stretched across the room. “Mr. Hickman, you’re next.”

When Hickman opened his mouth, a thick drawl crawled out. “Well, my name is Tommy Hickman from Birmingham, Alabama.” He put down his scrubbed boot and picked up the fresh one. “I’m famous for my fastball that got me a 1.02 ERA during my senior year.” He paused dramatically, a smug expression on his face. “I’m here because Army Baseball recruited me, and because my dad’s a Citadel grad.” He stood a little straighter. “
I
want to do better.”

There are some people you like immediately. Hickman wasn’t one of them.

“You think pretty highly of yourself, Hickman, for being nothing more than a scum-sucking maggot.” The smug look on Hickman’s face instantly vanished. Cadet Daily moved on. “Okay, Bonehead Bonanno, you’re up.”

“Yes, sir. My name’s Frank Bonanno, and—”

“Whoa, Nellie!” Cadet Daily leaned closer to Bonanno, whose nose nearly touched Cadet Daily between the eyes. “Bonanno, did you shave this morning?”

Bonanno swallowed. “Yes, sir!”

Cadet Daily frowned and closely eyed the condition of Bonanno’s face. “I think you need to step a little closer to that razor, Fur Face.”

Fur face?
From where I stood, two people away, Bonanno’s face appeared to have a light haze of stubble in places, but it looked okay to me.

Bonanno swallowed again. “Yes, sir.”

“And while you’re at it, shave your back. No telling what kind of vermin is hiding in that jungle.”

The look on Bonanno’s face was one of pure shock. “Y-y-yes, sir,” he stammered. The rest of us were staring hard at our boots, trying to keep from laughing out loud. With Cadet Daily around, no subject was sacred.

“Okay, Bonanno, as you were. Finish telling us about yourself.”

“Yes, sir.” Bonanno had a shapeless nose and bushy eyebrows. And, as Cadet Daily had pointed out, Bonanno
was
a hairy guy. His shorn head seemed mismatched with the rest of his body. “My name’s Frank Bonanno, and I’m from Long Island,” he said in a voice that I’d only heard taxi drivers in the movies use. “I’m famous for . . . does winning New York State’s spelling bee in the third grade count, sir?”

Cadet Daily laughed, then coughed, trying to cover it up. “You’re a real go-getter, huh, Bonanno?”

“Yes, sir!”

Cadet Daily shook his head but didn’t say anything else, so Bonanno cleared his throat and continued. “Well, when I was in middle school, I was, uh, well, I did some pretty dumb things, so my dad says, ‘Son, you’ve got a choice: military school in high school, or military school in college.’ I chose college because, well, frankly, I thought he’d forget about it by the time college rolled around. But he didn’t.” He cleared his throat again. “So during my junior year my dad took me up here, and I thought, ‘Hey, if I’ve got to go to military school, I ought to go to the best, right?’ So, here I am.”

“Yeah, just ask Mr. Hickman. The Citadel wasn’t good enough for him.” Cadet Daily glared at Hickman. “But what Hickman doesn’t know, Bonanno, is that West Point might be
too
good for him.” He turned, then stopped in mid step. “Listen, Bonanno, don’t shave your back, understand? I didn’t mean that literally. But
do
pay closer attention to that face. Hairy guys like you need to shave twice a day.” He sloshed on. “New Cadet McGill, what do you have for us?”

“My name’s Jason McGill, and I’m from Boulder, Colorado.” The stubble on his head kept its sun-bleached color even when wet. “I’d like to be famous for winning the Tour de France someday, but for now I guess I’m just famous for having a really cool bike.” He laughed loudly—and alone—at his own bad joke. “And I’m here because I didn’t get into the Air Force Academy.” He laughed again, nervously. “I would’ve only been two hours from home.”

I was wrong.
Because of his hair and tan, I had pictured McGill as a California guy who’d spent most of his time on the beach, a surfboard in one hand and a boom box in the other. It made me wonder how the others pictured
me
before I opened my mouth. And, with a sinking feeling, what they thought of me now that I had.

“A zoomie wanna-be.” Cadet Daily shook his head. “And a momma’s boy. That’s a weak combination, McGill. And I’ve got news for you: If you ain’t good enough for the flyboys, you ain’t gonna last
here
a week. Might as well start packing now.” Then he nodded at the biggest guy in the room, New Cadet Cero. He was about six foot four, all muscle, and black. And he towered a full head and shoulders above Cadet Daily.

Cadet Daily’s the shortest guy in our squad, besides New Cadet Ping . . . and Gabrielle. He’s only maybe an inch taller than me!
Somehow, he had seemed much taller than that.

“Okay,” Cadet Daily said, “let’s hear it, Big Guy.”

For such a big guy Cero had a surprisingly soft voice. “My name’s Phil Cero, and I come from East L.A. I’m not famous for anything, and I’m here because I want to be.”

Cero’s answer was way too short. Cadet Daily’s face became a mask of ice.

“East L.A., eh?” I looked quickly from one face to the other. “You speak any Spanish,
Cero
?”

“Yes, sir. I know a little Spanish.”

“Then, I presume, you know the meaning of your last name?”

Cero’s Adam’s apple moved up, then down. He knew what was coming, and so did I—I understood four years’ worth of high school Spanish. “Sir, in the Spanish language ‘cero’ means ‘zero.’”

Cadet Daily slapped his hands together twice in mock applause. “Mr. Zero, famous for nothing. Absolutely nothing. A complete zero.” Cero’s jaw muscles flexed in, then out. “Hey, Zero, you have a scar under your left eye. Nice touch. Mind telling me how you got it?”

I felt my body tense up. There were some things that people didn’t want to share with others. I had a feeling Cero’s scar was one of those things, and I felt bad for him.

Cero paused a second, staring back at Cadet Daily.

Cadet Daily took it as a threat. “
IRP!
You need an attitude adjustment, Mister? I’ll drop you right here, right now, Big Guy! A little
Leaning Rest
action. Is that what you want?” Cadet Daily’s ears, then face, grew crimson as he leaned closer to Cero, his face upturned and eyes blazing.

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