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through smoke, solid ground

Chapter Text

You take the arm off four days later.

 


 

You lift wallets instead of shoplifting. You won't be able to fit all of the things you need into your pockets. You have a list.

Lists are important. Lists mean objectives: all of the things you need to do, tucked into the palm of your hand. Boxes you can tick to confirm a thing has been done. Even if you forget, you know it's been done. Someone ticked the box; someone crossed off the line. Linear lists are best of all. A then B then C, and a reward. There were often rewards, at the end of lists. Lists are on your list of good things.

It's a short list, but you'll make it bigger. Lists like to grow.

Your list has these things on it:

At least one screwdriver;
Wire cutters;
Needle-nose pliers;
One (and here you've written pry bar, but you aren't sure if this is the English term for the object you're thinking of, and you don't know if they come as small as you need);
One drop-cloth;
One bottle of cleaning solution;
One ball of string;
And one bottle of disinfectant.

You come out with more than you intend, but you find everything on the list. There is a pry bar. There is a very small multi-head screwdriver to go with the large multi-head screwdriver. The attachments are so tiny that you think they must be used for watches, for jewellery, for delicate things. You also find miniature needle-nose pliers. The symmetry is pleasing, even if you're certain you won't need them. Large and small, like nesting dolls. Someone once showed you: матрёшка. Little painted faces getting smaller. Look, someone had said, taking out all the dolls but the smallest one, and closing the largest one around it: This is you. This is me. Mother Russia looks after us. Or maybe: This is you. You are empty, and there is only a very little person inside you, rattling around.

You don't remember how the story ends, either way.

You hope what you've chosen will be enough. You have a line of memory in your head, chopped up. Images: click. Dialogue: click. You remember when they cut off your arm in the snow, skin like lace hanging from the bones of your elbow. Everything below: shards. They left it out there, in the snow. It's still there, you think. It must be. You remember when they cut off your arm again, in the lab. Higher, that time. Maybe another time after that. You watched, when you could. You tried. The Russians let you, called you храбрый, said: молодец! You always wanted to, but the Americans didn't let you. You don't know what you'll find when you get the plates off. If you can get the plates off. If. You have to. They must have come off, to be repaired. You remember the hiss of a welding torch and the smell of butane. They must have.

The clerk has eight piercings in her face and the sides of her scalp are shaved. The curls in the middle are green. She says: big project, huh?

Very big, you agree. The biggest.

Good for you, she says.

She helps you when you fumble with the money one-handed. You don't recognize the people on the bills.

It's okay, she says. You got strong hands, it'll come back.

What will come back? you ask.

Fine motor control, she says. You just got home, right? From a tour?

Tour, you think, tour, tour bus, tourism, tourists. Tour of duty.

How'd you know I was a, you say. Your mouth makes a shape around soldier but your throat doesn't make the noises.

A vet? she says. Combat boots. Your arm. I mean, I don't mean to be rude or anything. But you didn't take your hand out of your pocket. And you got the look, I guess. Ma looked like that, when she came home. Don't worry. It'll come back.

You take your receipt. You say, a beat too late: thanks. And then you say: Your ma. Tell her. Tell her she did good.

Going to war? says the girl. Or coming home?

No, you say. You. She did good.

The piercings move in her dimples when she smiles.

 


 

The apartment isn't yours.

It isn't anybody's. The building is, maybe. The water runs but there are boards on the windows. Black mould on the walls, smoke rings on the ceiling. Linoleum. Rolling balls of dust and cat hair scuff away when you open the door. You catch them and drop them out of the window, and then you clean the floor. A perfect ten-foot circle. The floor is blue under the dust: slate blue. Rocks and birds are that colour, sometimes. You like it.

The drop-cloth goes down, and then your tools. All in a row. You rearrange them until you like how they look, and then you disinfect them all. You disinfect your arm. You disinfect your right hand. Your hair is in the way, so you tie back as much as you can. You tuck the rest behind your ears and disinfect your hands again.

You don't want to do this.

The arm is yours. They gave it to you. It's yours. It's the only thing that is. The Americans, they misunderstood. They saw the arm and thought: that is the whole person. That person is a weapon. But the Russians said: this is a person with a tool. Here. This is your weapon. This is how it works.

You didn't mean to kill him, the first one who showed you, the one who bent your wrist with gentle fingers. His hyoid snapped like bird bones. You remember: the crisp little noise. The scramble. Someone trying to breathe; stopping. Someone trying to laugh, and forgetting how: hhhhhhh.

You didn't strangle the next one. You wanted to learn.

It was yours.

It's yours, and you don't want to do this, but you have to.

You weren't allowed to watch, but you know this: there are things in your arm that aren't yours. Things the Americans put there, after they'd taken you out of you. The thought makes you crawl, inside. You think you'll shiver right out of your skin if you think too hard about the things in your arm. You want them out.

They won't come out, the Americans said. Threatened. They won't come out, so don't try. It's all hooked up together. The wrist bone is connected to the arm bone. The tracker is connected to the pharmacological dispenser. The pharmacological dispenser is connected to the incendiary device. They won't come out. So don't try.

Inside the arm are these: two trackers, two electromagnets, one small bomb, one remote detonator, and eight dispensers. Three of these are on timers. One of them seems to have no effect; it may be empty. The other two are unpleasant. One is a stimulant. The other is a sedative. They tell you when to wake up and when to sleep. The sedative is set to dispense in two hours and forty-seven minutes.

Of all the lists you know, this is your least favourite. This is the list of all the reasons the arm needs to come off.

You half-expect to be electrocuted when you insert the pry bar under a plate in your biceps. The body remembers. Maintenance comes with shocks. But: nothing happens. You feel very brave. You look inside the arm.

You close your eyes, and swallow, and swallow. Your heart batters at your ribs. Your stomach tries to crawl into your throat. You tell them: stop, stop. Your systems must obey. They must be calm.

Your upper lip is damp with sweat.

You look inside.

It's not encouraging. There are circuits and wires and little glowing lights. Most of them are red. You think this is bad. You remember putting your hands into a bomb: wires and red lights, and numbers counting down. There are no numbers here. You wait for one hundred and twenty seconds, but your arm doesn't explode.

You pry off the next plate.

Between that plate and the next, you are seized with something. You don't know the word for it in any language. It's something like anger and something like fear and something like nausea. There is a vicious spirit in your hand. Plates rebound off of nearby surfaces: ping, ting, tong. You make music.

It takes thirty-eight minutes to strip your arm of plates. You look at your weapon. You can see all of its parts. Wires for nerves and fibres for muscles and shiny titanium bones. Your poor naked weapon. You think about separating it from the rest of you. You think about it alone and cold and apart. You want to put your hand on your wrist and tell it that everything will be okay. But you can't lie to yourself. You can't. It's just. It's yours.

It's yours.

 


 

The plates around your shoulder don't come off when you put the pry bar beneath them. They're screwed into your bones. There's no one around to hear the small animal noises you make when you take them out, but you're ashamed of them anyway.

There are four screws in your collarbone. You estimate it will take one minute per screw.

It takes a lot longer than four minutes.

There are six screws in your scapula. You don't think you can take them out. You make a fist around the screwdriver and almost throw it across the room. You look at your blood on the head, on the handle. It's just a tool. It did nothing wrong. It doesn't deserve to be thrown.

It turns out you're a lot more flexible than you thought you were. The screws come out.

The arm won't come off afterwards.

You panic.

You shove the screwdriver under the plates. You make yourself bleed more. There is a terrifying noise. You realize it's your noise: snuffling, choking, whimpering. The rough saw of your breath. You make yourself quiet.

When you've settled, the solution comes to you. Sometimes the arm becomes jammed. Sometimes, when this happens, you rotate it all the way around to line up the pieces of the joint. Maybe, you think. Maybe if you go the other way, the pieces will un-line-up.

It works. You make a noise in your throat. A good noise. A good noise also comes from the arm. A satisfying clink-clunk, like something has come loose in your shoulder. The arm falls, and then catches on the wires.

You aren't prepared for the pain.

You bite your cheek bloody. It drips down your chin, onto your hand. The tool. The wire-cutters, in your hand. You make more noises. You tell yourself to shut up. Something is beeping.

Clip.
Clip.
Clip.
Clip.

It falls.

You drop everything. You slip on the drop-cloth: sweat and plasma.

You throw the arm.

You throw it and you throw yourself. Your weapon, across the room. Your body, under the sink. Slam the door.

There is only the sound of your breathing and your bleeding.

There is only that sound for a very long time.

 


 

When you come out, you come crawling. Scared, like a baby monkey. Your toes try to grip the dust-gritty floor. You come at the weapon sideways, your heart slamming at your ribs. You have never kicked someone to death. You wonder if you will kick yourself to death from inside.

The weapon does not blow up when you touch it.

All the lights have gone out.

You touch your arm and you cry. Slow, at first, and then you make a little hiccoughy noise, and you can't stop. It's dead. It was yours and now it's dead. The things the Americans put in it are probably still alive. Like parasites, eating. They don't know that it's dead. Your throat convulses, but your stomach is empty. You gag anyway, and then you cry some more.

You don't know how long you lay curled, touching your own fingers. It's night when you come wading up out of the wet dark. Maintenance has been neglected. Chagrined, you see to your body.

The screw-holes have closed; so has the hole you bit in your cheek. Your body does this when you aren't paying attention. It steals time for itself. When you step back into your eyes, you are almost always healed. You wish your body would suck the blood back into itself. Surely it needs it.

The water that comes out of the taps is red-brown and smells of metal. Your body is strong, but you worry. You use the rest of the disinfectant to clean yourself instead.

Your socket is very, very clean.

It's metal. The skin of your shoulder folds over hard edges inside. There must be more metal you can't see. A skin bowl, holding all the metal in. There's a smooth round cup in the centre, and grooves like a labyrinth around it. You look at the ball-joint shoulder of your weapon. You want to slot it back into your socket. Pop: like a doll.

All the wires hang out, limp. Little dead bird feet. You clip them flush to the metal.

Tiredness sneaks up on you. You only notice when you you drop the wire cutters. You put your hand on your cheek. On the back of your neck, under your hair, where it's warm. Your hand is very cold.

You think: I'm cold.

You can't remember when you weren't.

 


 

The sofa you wake up on smells of decomposing animal. Cat urine. Or maybe it's you. Four days of sweat. Fear and exertion. Potomac mud in the creases of your clothes. Potomac water, in your hair. You sniff beneath your right arm, the sofa, the socket. You smell like trenches – trenches? – but you aren't rotting. The socket smells clean: iron filings and alcohol.

There is a puddle of sunlight on the floor, in the circle you cleaned. Someone said to you once: try. Try what? The sunlight cure. Lay in the sun for half an hour, and if you don't feel even a little bit better, I'll give you a nickel. You don't have a nickel, you hypocrite. Don't make me sit on you, Barnes.

When you step back into your eyes, the puddle of sunlight has moved.

You put the weapon in it before you leave.

 


 

The thrift shop is full of tiny old women. They stare at you without looking. Some of them are wary. Like maybe you will pull a gun on them. (You have two guns. You won't.) Some of them are something else. You don't know the word. The opposite of hungry. Like they want to take the fullness they have and give it to you.

You know what you look like: combat boots and filthy trousers, clean shirt with one arm turned inside-out and tucked down your side. Greasy snarl of hair pulled back with a string. You stand out. You need to blend in. You think about what people looked like on the street. Try to make yourself unobtrusive: don't look here. This body is small and quiet. You choose clothing you saw young men wearing: soft blue jeans, long-sleeved shirts, a hat with a brim. Socks. A leather jacket, cracking under the collar. A backpack.

The tiny old woman at the counter looks at you: up, down, sideways. She gives you a discount. You don't know why. You thank her when you leave.

You find an empty bathroom. You find the lights: flick. There you are. You flick them off. In the dark, you wash what you can reach. Change your clothes, dancing in bare feet on cold, wet tile. There's nothing to be done about your hair. You tuck it under your cap.

You thought you would feel better, once you were clean. You feel worse. Your socket makes a staticky thump-thump feedback out of time with your heartbeat. Your head feels like a rotten pumpkin. Your hand shakes when you bring it to your forehead. Clammy. Hot. You drink out of the tap and wonder if you're shutting down. Maybe there was vital life support in the arm. Maybe they lied: maybe it wasn't a bomb at all. Maybe it was a pacemaker.

Fresh air is an improvement. You'll walk, you decide. Walk it off. You'll die or you won't. What you won't do is run back to the apartment, try to fit your poor dead broken weapon back where it belongs. The place where it was is empty. The emptiness is yours too.

It helps, the walking. The edges of your body are different. Your left side weighs forty-seven pounds less than before. Five blocks later, your stride feels almost natural. You watch people. You notice that the ones who walk wide and swinging draw attention. Men trying to make themselves too large. You adjust; keep your legs beneath yourself. Hunch a little. Walk from the hips, not the shoulders. This is how not to walk like a killer. This is how to walk like a human being.

Just when you think you have the hang of it, you turn the corner, and you stumble like a drunk.

Smithsonian Museum! the sign says.

Captain America: Living Legend! the sign says.

Meet the Howling Commandos! the sign says.

You have to sit on a bench or else you'll fall down.

The man you almost killed is not an overgrown child in a costume. Not a junior agent. Not a vigilante. The man you almost killed has a museum exhibit. The signs suggest that he is a source of national pride. A man of history. A household name.

A hero.

He said he knew you. Knew. Not circumstantially. Not in passing. The man said he was your friend. A handler wouldn't have said friend. Wouldn't have taken three bullets and lifted a girder to save you. Wouldn't have stopped fighting.

Wouldn't have let you beat him half to death, waiting for you to recognize him.

You didn't.

Don't.

But.

You glare at the signs until your eyes cross.

And then you walk inside.