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The World Looks Just The Same

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“Remember when Sister Agnes threw that eraser in History class?”

Steve squints at Bucky and takes another bite of his sandwich. Ham. The neighbor lady had brought them two big slabs four days after Christmas. Bucky’d guessed she’d just gotten tired of making different things out of ham, crazy as that sounded. How could you ever get tired of ham? “Sister did that all the time. She should’ve been in the Olympics, throwing erasers at targets.”

“No that one time, you know, the time when that big kid with the red hair, George, was flappin’ his gums and she thought it was me. You remember.”

“Sure.” Sister Agnes had launched the chalkboard eraser at Bucky, he’d ducked at the barest second, and the rectangle had smacked George square in his shocked face, coating him with pale yellow dust. Sister Agnes had Bucky cleaning erasers for a month after that. “Shoulda’ taken your punishment in the first place, Buck,” Steve muses.

“Wasn’t me who was mouthin’ off, punk,” Bucky says with a grin. “It was worth it though, you’ve gotta admit.”

Bucky gestures, and Steve wipes his own lip with his thumb, chasing a bit of clinging mustard. “I guess it was.” George had picked a fight with Steve a few days before that, and Bucky had intervened and been punched good.

It had been worth it.

*

The coffee is bitter here; his tongue tastes like burnt copper. His hair is longer, he thinks. He cuts it in the bathroom with his knife. It is cold outside, and with the shorter hair and a watch cap and the leather gloves covering his one flesh hand and the other, he will blend in.

Fourteen hours ago he was activated and was given a mission and his familiar and freshly oiled .338 Lapua Magnum. Eight hours later he checked into a nondescript hotel room, took his rifle apart, and cleaned it again. His left shoulder is always sore the first day. He ignores the pain.

He has the current mission objective on a data stick, a small, hand-held computer, and two passports bearing different names and different seals. He examines both of them and memorizes the details. He will complete the mission and use one of the passports (perhaps both) and return to base.

Then he’ll rest. He’ll rest until the next mission.

*

He’s in the back of a van, arms secured, legs tethered together. Blindfolded, but he can feel the vibration of the road and his body shifts hard into the turns. He can detect the faint sounds of traffic over the loud radio. He knows this one; it played often during the ten days he spent in a hotel in Rome with his rifle aimed across a plaza as he crouched in the dark. It was 45 years ago or 15 months ago. The news teaches him new places that he looks up in an atlas. Nha Trang. Da Nang. Qui Nhon. He mouths the words of the song into the warm, ridged metal on the floor of the van.

...on a cloud of sound I drift in the night,

Any place it goes is right.

Goes far, flies near, to the stars, away from here.

*

“Tell me again; what do you remember?” blue jumpsuit asks him.

”My mama done tol' me, when I was in knee-pants

My mama done tol' me, " son a woman'll sweet talk"

And she'll give ya the big eye, but when the sweet talkin's done...

He pauses. “That was Johnny Mercer. Last picture I saw before the war.”

“What was it called?”

Bucky reaches out for the coffee on the desk in between them with his stronger hand and the woman’s shoulder twitches almost imperceptibly at his movement. He smiles at her, slow and lazy, swipes the hair from his brow. “This another test or an interrogation?”

“It’s another evaluation,” she tells him, steady again. Her name is Hill. He has been here for weeks. He’s been asked the same questions before at the same table. He’s had too many cups of coffee to count. They’ve found files and codes and used them. He’s standing down. He’s no longer handcuffed, but she’s still armed nonetheless. “Just tell me what you remember.”

He remembers lots of things. He holds her gaze. “Can you be more specific?

“Do you remember the first manned moon landing?”

“Yes. Neil Armstrong walked on the surface. I saw it.” в прямом эфире. “On the television.”

“When?” She asks, brow rising, and Bucky seals his lips together and doesn’t answer.

He doesn’t know.

One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. It’s something everyone has seen; even children know this, but he can’t remember when he first saw it, or where he was, or how old he was. He sips from the styrene cup and shrugs.

“Who was elected President of the United States in 1992?”

“History. I was never any good at history. Ask...” He shakes his head and offers a lopsided smile instead of a name. It doesn’t matter. The name will buy him nothing. His smile is not returned. “I’ve been resting, so.”

“Yes, we’ve been over that. Suspended cryostasis. Several times over several--” she pauses. “Decades.”

He knows this. What he hadn’t known is that he’s the only one. Or the only one left, at any rate.

They’ve seen what he can do. Welcome to the new boss. Same as the old boss. The song plays in a yanqui bar in Chile. The man he’s sent to terminate dies of natural causes before he can get off a shot. He drinks cola de mono alone in a bar. He doesn’t remember the year. Won’t get fooled again.

“Blues in the Night,” he says.

“Sorry?”

“The name of that picture I saw, about a week before Pearl Harbor. Blues in the Night.”

He remembers who he took with him. He always has. So he tells her. It doesn’t matter.

*

Perhaps when he wakes again, he will be given another mission. That’s all he’s good for now. It might be two years from now or twenty. They know his codes and he will do what they say, and then he’ll rest. New boss. Same as the old boss.

He doesn’t want to rest.

But he’s so tired.

*

“Hey,” a voice says, as an arm jostles his right arm, a hand covers his own. Fingers, gentle and warm, wind into his, same as they have a hundred times before. He breathes into his pillow and listens. “Hey,” he hears again, and opens his eyes.

It’s 70 years ago and four years ago. It’s springtime. It’s ten o’clock in the morning.

“Hey, jerk,” Steve says. “It’s about time you woke up.”