Red Rooster – Lauren Gilley

For a moment, clutching the address tight in his left hand – his bad hand, his bad side – staring up at the clean, white façade of the building, he had allowed himself a rare sense of hope. The ad he’d torn out of the paper with painstaking care, left hand shaking the whole time, had promised hope for wounded veterans, and that’s what he was, wasn’t he? He wasn’t the sort who put stock in hope, not anymore, but he’d been half-drunk and not thinking with his usual dire cynicism when the paper came tumbling down the sidewalk and snagged on the toe of his combat boot. He’d picked the paper up with the intent to throw it away, when a half-page ad caught his eye. Soothing blue font on the heading. Words had jumped out at him: new drug trial, looking for participants, $250 per person. Two-hundred-and-fifty bucks would buy a lot of cheap bourbon. But more tantalizing than that, even to his alcoholic mind, was the idea of a trial. A radical new treatment, it said, believed to be incredibly effective. He couldn’t see well, vision blurred from drinking, and not enough sleep. He made his way into the closest Starbucks, plugged his phone into a wall outlet, and turned a blind eye to the uncomfortable glances shot his way by the student crowd. He Googled the Ingraham Institute from the ad, and lost half an hour down the rabbit hole, scrolling through article after article praising the Institute’s breakthroughs in trauma research and medical advancement. The VA spoke about the place in glowing terms. Smiling photos of vets were posted next to quotes talking about changed lives, a return to normal thought processes, an increase in mobility and quality of life. Rooster finally set his phone down on the table, stared at the cardboard sleeve of his small black coffee, and asked himself some hard questions. Was he capable of getting better? Of thinking normally again? Was normal qualitative anyway? And, most importantly, did he deserve the chance to get better? That was something his therapist had told him, when he first got out.

You deserve to get better, Corporal Palmer. Yeah. Sure. He hadn’t been a person to that quack, just another rank, name, and serial number. (That was what he told himself, in the moments when his guilt for turning away from her kind eyes and helpful smile stabbed him in the gut.) But there were kids with cancer languishing in hospital beds, mothers dying in childbirth, innocent teens T-boned by drunk drivers. Why, of all the wretches of the world, did he deserve to get better? Because he’d served his country? That’s what his therapist had said. Before he stopped showing up. He sat leaning against the steam-fogged window of a Starbucks, ignoring the whispers and glances of a group of kids in NYU sweatshirts at the next table, and he realized, for purely selfish reasons, that he did want to get better. Deserving it had nothing to do with it…he just wanted to be whole again.

So he’d called the toll free number, and set up an appointment. And for a moment, on the sidewalk, a brisk afternoon in Queens, leaves tumbling in the gutters, he’d allowed himself to feel hope. He’d been one of five in the waiting room. All men. All clean cut and well-groomed, in clothes that fit well. One man with a prosthetic lower leg had his wife with him, and the two of them talked in low tones. Rooster had become uncomfortably aware of his own scruffiness. The way his boot soles were starting to peel off, the dirt crusted into the wrinkles of his jeans and jacket. He looked homeless, which wasn’t far from the truth. Then had come the examination.

First a physical, to test his limitations. His body had been so badly damaged by the bomb, had been hacked and pieced back together by so many doctors, first in Germany and then in the US, that he no longer felt shame when he stripped naked and allowed someone to pass gloved hands down the pocked, scarred skin of his arm, and side, and leg. Then came the psych eval. That’s not what the bright-voiced doctor called it, but Rooster had endured enough to know that’s what it was. Question after question, designed to catch him off his game, tough ones that could shake loose his fragile framework of lies. When it was over, all hope had bled out of his system, and it was his old friend resolution who took up the hollow space in his chest. “Alright, Mr. Palmer,” the doctor said, straightening the paperwork in his lap and shooting Rooster a perfunctory smile. “You’ve given us a lot to consider today.” Rooster took a deep breath and let it out slow.

“That means no, right?” The doctor, a soft-in-in-the-middle man with glasses and a premature bald spot, glanced up with obvious surprise, maybe even a little affront. “I beg your pardon?” The scar tissue on his left hand – mottled, and lumpy, and tight – made simple, everyday tasks obscenely difficult. Rooster fumbled with his shirt buttons and tried to keep his tone civil. He didn’t know why he was angry; he’d expected it to go this way, after all. Holding onto hope was about as useful as trying to catch soap bubbles. “You said you need to consider,” he said, flatly. “That means you won’t take me.” “Oh. Well. Um.

Of course not,” the doctor said, flustered. “We receive a wealth of applicants every day, and we consider each one carefully before we make our selection.” Which meant jack shit. Rooster snorted and managed to get the rest of his buttons secured. He wished he’d worn a pullover instead. He wished he gave enough of a damn to be polite, but he just didn’t, not anymore. The doctor adopted an annoyed expression. “As with any intensive medical procedure,” he continued, lifting his head to a lofty angle. “A prospective patient’s circumstances must be taken into consideration. Eligibility is key.

” “Yeah,” Rooster said, sliding down off the paper-covered exam table with only minimal wincing. The pins in his left knee had preserved his ability to walk, the VA docs had told him, but when his foot hit the floor, bright sparks of pain moved down his entire leg. Hot as fire in his knee, bringing tears to his eyes that he quickly blinked away. “I bet.” The doctor exhaled through his nose and fixed Rooster with the sort of look every doctor and therapist had fixed him with over the past year. “Corporal Palmer, it’s very important that–” “Thanks, doc. I’ll see myself out.” The doctor didn’t protest. Rooster didn’t expect him to. He limped back through the mazelike hallways, following the laminated signs that steered patients back to the waiting room.

If he’d cared about aesthetics, he would have said it was a beautiful building, in the way that a medical facility can be eye-catching. The walls had been painted a warm taupe, the terrazzo floors looking more like those of an upscale hotel lobby. Rather than harsh overhead tubes, glowing wall sconces provided the light. The air held a subtle floral smell. The effect was miles from the glaringlybright, bleach-scented hospitals he’d cycled through after he was blown up. Not just a place of healing, but a well-funded one. A place not intended for the likes of him, with his unwashed hair and grungy jacket. In the waiting room, a new group of hopefuls occupied the chairs. All of them still with buzzed hair and immaculate dress. Several guys had spouses.

An athletically-built woman in head-to-toe Nike sat upright, right arm cradled in her lap in a way Rooster knew too well – it was the same way he held his own bad arm in public, holding it close, guarding it. She glanced up as he walked past, eyes flashing dark and guarded. Stay away from me, her expression said. That was fine; he figured his own face said something similar. He was in the air lock when the alarm sounded. As it did every time something like this happened, his brain split in two. A clean, metaphorical cleaving that left him of two minds. Part of him – the half that had been pierced and pitted by shrapnel, burned and beat up, fractured and pinned back together again – wanted to curl and cower. But the other part of him, the dutiful Marine, the well-trained military killer, picked up the limp, frightened half of his psyche and kicked into action. He turned back to the lobby, was in the process of tugging open the door when a uniformed security guard loomed on the other side of the glass, waving him away.

Rooster opened the door anyway, and the alarm was louder then. Not an air raid siren, not the fire alarm wailing he remembered from drills at school, but something softer and politer. An unobtrusive sort of siren, meant to catch your attention, but not to send you into a panic. The guard, face set in a scowl, held up a flat palm. “You can’t come back in here, sir. Please make your way out of the building.” Behind him, two other guards were herding the waiting patients up out of their chairs and toward the door. The door that Rooster was blocking. “Sir,” the guard said, firmly. “What’s going on?” Rooster asked.

He felt a hard tug in his gut, that sense of responsibility he couldn’t shake off or drink away. There was no such thing as an ex-Marine, and all his training and instinct was kicking in now. Something was wrong, therefore he needed to act. But the guard was having none of it. “Sir,” he said, edging forward, openly hostile now. “You need to leave. Now.” The other potentials were closing in, peering at him curiously…and suspiciously. They were all vets, they would assume a man blocking the door was up to no good. The alarm continued to ring, on and on.

Something wrong, something amiss. A fire? A gas leak? Not his business, really. Rooster nodded and turned away. The hopefuls followed him out onto the sidewalk, murmuring questions to one another, wondering aloud what might be happening. Evening was fast approaching, bringing a cold breeze with it, fat gray clouds piling up on the horizon. Rooster zipped his jacket with stiff fingers, shoved his hands – one smooth, one ruined – into his pockets and walked to the bus station. ~*~ He’d just brought his third glass of bourbon to his lips when he heard the front door open and then shut above him. He was in that good space, where the buzz was fresh, floating but not flying, deliciously warm, his pain fuzzed at the edges so he felt almost human. His muscles, the ones that hadn’t been shredded and harvested to try to repair his broken body, had relaxed, and he was melting slowly down into his secondhand sofa. Drinking helped with the anxiety, too.

When he was buzzed, he stopped listening for footfalls, waiting for disaster. When he was buzzed, he didn’t worry about the rest of his life, the disaster it was becoming. Sure, he’d wake up sweating and nauseas at two a.m., heart pounding out of his chest, blood in his mouth because he’d bitten his tongue in the midst of a nightmare. But for now, he drank. Overhead, high heels rapped across the hardwood floors. From the foyer to the kitchen, followed by the hurried thumps of a child’s sneakers. Two voices – one young and high, one grown and patient – conversed. Slap of the fridge door.

Scrape of a chair’s legs. He was sitting forward to pour his fourth drink when the door at the top of the basement steps opened and the high heels clicked down into his lair. Ashley stepped around the corner wearing what had become her patented you-can-do-better expression. She folded her arms and propped a shoulder against the wall, fixing him with a look. “Number three?” she asked, nodding toward the glass in his hand. “Four.” She nodded, because she’d expected to find him like this, but her jaw tightened, because she hated it. “How’d your appointment go?” He shrugged. “It was a waste. I didn’t make the cut.

” She sighed deeply. It was the same sound that followed her six-year-old daughter’s worst transgressions: jumping off the back of the sofa, and playing with the makeup. Serious stuff. “Rooster,” she said, in that voice that made grown men – her husband among them – run for cover. “You’re fucking up.” He let his head flop back so he didn’t have to look at her anymore. “I know, I know.” “So do better,” she said, like it was simple as that. She knew it wasn’t, though, and so Rooster heard the note of sadness in her voice. He recalled something her husband, Deshawn, had said to him once, reaching up to tap the photo of Ashley he’d taped above his bed.

“She’ll chew your ass out,” he’d said, his smile broad, “but it’s only ‘cause she loves you. When she stops fussing, that’s when it’s time to get scared – that’s when she’s decided she’s done with you.” She clearly hadn’t given up on Rooster yet, so that was something. She pushed off the wall and came into the central room of the basement, going to the coffee table and collecting empty glasses and greasy paper plates, consolidating everything so she could take it to the kitchenette in one trip. “Ash, you don’t,” he started, half-rising. His knee, and his back, and his neck grabbed, lightning flashes of pain that forced the air out of his lungs in a low hiss. “Sit your ass back down,” she said, her sigh fond and worried now. “Have you eaten anything? You can’t drink like that on an empty stomach.” Slowly, sweat popping out on his temples as he fought the pain, he eased back down to the couch. “I’m fine.

” “Yeah, you look fine.” She carried the plates to the trash and dropped the glasses into the little shallow sink that he only used once he’d dirtied all his glasses and was forced to at least rinse them out before he filled them again. “I’m making spaghetti for Desiree. Come upstairs and have dinner with is.” It wasn’t a suggestion. “Ash–” “Twenty minutes,” she said, firmly, leaving no room for argument, and shot him her best drill sergeant glare on her way out. Rooster listened to the gunshot sounds of her high heels going back up the stairs and knew that, somehow in the next twenty minutes, he’d get himself upright and drag his carcass upstairs for spaghetti and Desiree’s exuberant eight-year-old brand of conversation. He might drink himself to sleep every night, take too many painkillers, and be a walking disaster in general, but there were some lines he wasn’t willing to cross, and displeasing Ashley Spencer was one of them. A year ago, Deshawn had been taking point when they infiltrated the house where they’d finally pinned down the al-Qaeda boss they’d been hunting for weeks. Rooster had heard the faint click echo off the stone walls.

Had thought of the photos of Ashley and Desiree taped over his friend’s bed. And he’d grabbed Deshawn by his pack and dragged him back, thrown him around the corner, behind the wall. Had shielded him with his own body. Deshawn had walked away with minimal scrapes and bruises. Even now, Rooster could only remember the pain burning through his body like fire, the blurred view of faces crowding over him, shouts and curses. The thump of the rotors and the wind on his face as he was strapped down and loaded on the helo. He’d known he was dying, and really, he was glad. He was tired of the sand box, of the death, and the blood, and the gore, and being terrified all the time. He was getting out, finally, and he’d saved his friend, had kept a good man alive to go home to his wife and daughter, and that was a sacrifice he was happy to have made. But then he’d woken up in a hospital in Germany, the pain a restless, living thing inside him, tubes in his nose and his elbows, machines beeping all around him.

“At least your face still looks handsome,” a kindly older nurse who reminded him of his mother had said, and patted his scarred arm. Like being pretty was his biggest worry. His home, before the Marines, had been Virginia, but his folks were both dead, and he had no other family to return to. He’d wished, for a little while, that he hadn’t survived, because he walked with a limp, was covered in scar tissue, had no support system, and no idea what to do with himself now. Deshawn had stepped in, had insisted he could live with them in Queens, in their finished basement. “It’s not much,” he’d said, “but it’s comfy.” It had been offered as a gift, but Rooster had insisted on paying rent. “Just ‘til I get on my feet,” he’d said, and meant it literally and figuratively. And now here he was, dreading the effort it would take to get upright again. Deshawn was on another deployment, and Rooster was cluttering up the poor man’s basement.

Something had to change, but he didn’t know what, or how. He leaned forward and gritted his teeth, pulled himself along by the coffee table, and got to his feet with minimal cursing and only a little swaying; Ashley was right that he needed to eat, unfortunately. His knee got looser as he moved, and so by the time he got to the top of the basement stairs he was only puffing a little, and he forced a smile across his face when Desiree spotted him and shouted with delight. Ashley stood at the stove and shot him a smile over her shoulder. He definitely didn’t deserve these people, but he was glad he had them. ~*~ He woke with the phantom tastes of blood and sand in his mouth, choking on them, gasping into his pillow. He propped himself up on his good elbow and scanned what little he could of the dark room, trying to get his breath back. The nightmares were always shapeless, an indistinct collage of light, and sound, and sensation. He woke aching all over, sore thanks to the clenching of all his ruined muscles as panic worked on him while he was defenseless. He was getting better at coming back from them.

Bourbon helped. He sat up with a groan and swung his legs over the side of the bed, wriggled his toes against the smooth, industrial carpet squares underfoot. The digital clock on his nightstand said it was just after two in the morning. He was raking his fingers through his too-long hair, gathering the strength to stand, when he heard it: a faint tapping. Four soft raps, and then it stopped. “What?” he asked the dark room around him. Probably he’d just imagined it. His brain didn’t work quite right anymore. Probably– There it was again. And it wasn’t coming from the stairs, which would have been the most logical place, but from the narrow window set just beneath the ceiling.

Technically, it was a legal point of egress, one which let out onto the front yard, but you had to stand on a chair to access it. Sometimes, Ashley came down when he was out and cranked it open to let in some much-needed fresh air, but Rooster always closed it again, unable to sleep with the rumble of traffic wafting in. It was shut tonight, and when he glanced toward it, he nearly leapt out of his skin. There was a face peering in at him, pale in the wash of the porch light, eyes huge and bright and flashing. “What the fuck?” The tap repeated, and a small hand waved at him from the other side of the glass. It was a girl. Staring in the window at him. “Okay,” he said, panic washing through him in familiar waves. “Sure. Why not.

” For a moment, Rooster convinced himself that it was Desiree, that she’d snuck out of bed, somehow gotten out the front door, and… But no, she wouldn’t do that. She was a freakishly obedient child, the kind that made single people want children of their own someday. And besides, this kid’s skin was too pale to belong to his goddaughter. “Hello?” her voice called, muffled by the window. “Sir?” He heaved himself upright with a groan and a crackle of protesting joints, tugged on the t-shirt that lay across the foot of his bed, and made his way to the window. He did the maintenance work around the house – when he was mostly sober and when Ashley would let his half-crippled ass do it – so the window was well-oiled and opened easily. The girl moved back out of the way as he did so, and then popped her face into the opening. There was a cool breeze coming in off the street, bringing with it the scents of early autumn…and of a hospital: industrial strength cleaner, the harsh detergent they used to wash the sheets and gowns. She had a cherub face, rosy-cheeked and sweet, and her hair, when the porch light hit it, sparkled like a tumble of flames. It was red.

Not carrot-orange, but the deep russet of an Irish Setter, shot through with the copper of new pennies. “What are you doing out there?” he asked, for lack of anything more intelligent to say. Her eyes – pale green – widened. “I followed you,” she said, without beating around the bush. Her expression was guileless as a baby deer. “From the Institute.” He stared at her a moment, stupefied. He would have loved to blame this on a bourbon hallucination, but his head was pounding and his joints were throbbing, and he knew he was sober. “You mean…the Ingraham Institute?” he asked. “Yes.

” “Why did you follow me?” “I ran away.” “Oh.” Like that was a normal thing to hear. “You looked like you were running away, too.” “I…wait. You ran away from the hospital? Why?” She didn’t look like a wounded vet to him, not at all. No way was she old enough, for starters. And she was too perky to be someone who’d been turned away from an experimental study that was attempting to correct significant battle injuries. No, not turned away. She’d run away, she said.

“Look, kid,” he said, willing himself to be patient. She was just a little thing, and Ashley had been on his case about being kinder to the people around him. “I dunno why you ran away, but your mom’s probably real worried.” If it was possible, her eyes got even wider. “Oh. I don’t have a mom.” Shit. “Your dad, then. Your grandma. Whoever took you to that place.

” She shook her head. “Nobody took me. I was born there.” “Born?” “At the Institute.” “You were…born at the Institute.” “Yes. I’m one of the LCs.” Something ugly was churning in his belly, the same dark premonition that had accompanied him into that room on his last deployment, on the day he’d saved Deshawn’s life and lost most of his own. “Are you alright?” he asked her. “I can call somebody.

Or you can use my phone.” Her expression grew almost comically solemn. “I don’t want to go back.” He had no idea what so say. So he said, “Okay.” Like an idiot. They stared at one another. At another point in his life, when he’d actually had his shit together, he might have done the right thing. Or, at least, the Responsible Thing. Called some sort of authority; offered to take her somewhere.

But he was tired, and confused. So fuck it. “Uh,” he said. “You wanna come in?” He pointed toward the stairs, intending to go up to the front door and let her in. But, quick as a little mouse, she chirped, “Yes, please,” and dropped down through the window to land on the floor. Rooster reacted badly. That was a nice way of putting it. He startled back, tripped over his own feet, and landed on his ass on the thin, industrial carpet of the basement floor. As quickly as it happened, he berated himself, which sent him into one of his now-normal shame spirals. He’d been strong once.

Physically; mentally. Fit, tan, hardened, deadly. He’d been a model Marine – for so long that he no longer knew how to be anything else. But then he’d gotten blown up, and he was a ghost of his former self. Weak, stiff, staggering. Vulnerable. And so he flinched, when he’d never flinched before, and he drank, and he worried, and was a piece of shit in general. Oh. He’d gotten stuck in his head again. The girl stood over him now, her lips moving.

She was talking to him. “What?” he asked, and his voice faded from a strange echo to something that sounded halfway normal – given his situation on the floor. Now that she was standing, he could see that the girl did indeed wear hospital scrubs, white and too thin for the weather outside. She held her hands clasped together in front of her; her hair fell in two thick curtains on either side of her narrow, freckled face. “Are you alright?” she asked.

.

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