was a person who had a match in the world—someone who had been born beside her, grown up beside her, who knew the particular nick and burn of their family and home.
The girl pressed for more details. Town, street. She kept knowing the places Fern described right down to the fence, the meandering drive at the end of which was a perfectly calculated view of a big house. “It’s white with blue shutters, right? Aren’t there some kind of pink flowers in window boxes?”
“Geraniums,” Fern said. She felt as if someone had removed her skin.
“We used to go for Sunday drives up there. Papa liked to look at the big houses and pretend we were going to buy one.” She turned to the group. “We should be nice to Fern,” she said. “She lives in a mansion.”
“It’s not a mansion,” Fern said.
“You should be happy. Aren’t you happy? Don’t you wake up every morning and think how lucky you are?”
When Fern got home, there was something in her mailbox. It said only,
He did not sign his name but she knew the writing: Ben. She called the rehabilitation facility and asked for his room.
“Am I crazy?” Ben asked.
“You are you. The world is what’s crazy.”
Edgar, in Alaska, was a misplaced toy soldier. He had been flown to Fairbanks then Nome and then driven in a jeep by a logger with a black beard and no eyebrows to an expanse of white tundra that seemed to be edgeless. There were no roads, just snow and snow and snow, and in the middle, a tiny log cabin with a curl of smoke coming from its chimney. Edgar could not have conjured a scene less reminiscent of war. The jeep stopped and the driver said, “Welcome home, soldier.” He threw Edgar’s rucksack on the snow and drove away. Edgar stood there and the wind kicked snow ontohis face. He was wearing the same clothes that the boys going to the hot jungle wore. He had no hat, no coat, no gloves. His boots, as he walked to the little cabin, began to soak through.
Inside: a single room with four bunk beds along one wall, a metal table and chairs, a sink, hooks with parkas and snowboots below. A young man, fat and pale, was sitting in front of the fire with a sketchpad. Edgar could see the drawing—a naked girl lying on her side, a kitten curled up in front of her. “Nice,” Edgar said, gesturing towards the drawing. The man looked up at him and said, “Welcome to nowhere.”
Another man came in later, spit blood into a cup, his lungs wracked from running for hours in the cold. He did three hundred push-ups, four hundred sit-ups, then went outside naked and stood there in the arctic evening, the sunlight hardly more than a grey fog. Edgar, from the window, looked at the man’s body, imagined his sweat turning to a crust of ice. It got dark and Edgar checked his watch: 4:00 p.m.
“We call him Runner,” the fat kid said. “By ‘we’ I mean ‘I.’”
“Is there anyone else here?”
“What are we supposed to be doing?”
“Fuck if I know, brother. I’m drawing fucking kittens. Best job in the Army. Better than getting my legs blown off.”
They had a radio, which Runner knew how to use, but no one ever called them on it. Runner ran every day and hardly spoke. The other boy, who Runner called Fatty, kept a series of jam jars filled with urine under his bunk. They had rations in crates in the corner. The sink didn’t run so they melted snow in a pot over the fire. There was a pit latrine out back and Runner had built a wooden platform on which to stand while he poured a pot of boiled snowmelt over his head.
Edgar figured that both of the others were also rich, that they had the kind of fathers who knew whom to call to move the game pieces of their children into safe territory. He hung on to the thread of anger at Fern for rendering him so useless at the very same time that he was eaten up by gratitude for not being imminently dead in a rice paddy. Next he hated himself for ever having thought he might serve