Sergeant Geraldine Kazinsky met John Hastings in a high school cafeteria. She presented him with the many rewarding paths his future career in the Marines could take and he nodded along, thoughtfully chewing his tater tots. He had a strong jaw and a deep cleft in his chin—classic tough-guy features. “Let me level with you,” she said, “and I’m one-hundred-percent not bullshitting you on this. After high school, I worked at a call center. I drove an hour each way to and from the office. I saw the same faces, the same traffic, the same stretch of road, day in and day out. There will come a point when you have to ask yourself: am I going to settle for this? John,” she said, “I won’t feed you a line about how easy it is. Some people aren’t built to be soldiers, but some aren’t built for anything else.” Not her best pitch, but he filled out the clipboard.
Later that week, as Kazinsky waited for John to answer the door, she considered that he might have been bored or sadistic enough to write down a fake address, to send her out on a stiflingly hot afternoon to the ass-end of Seymour County, on the Ohio-Kentucky border, for a meeting that would never take place.
Had she not been so far from reaching her recruitment quota, Kazinsky would have circled back after her first look at the place. Something about the glossy green Camaro parked beside a one-story clapboard shack didn’t sit right. But her numbers were stagnant. “It’s crucial you make quota in the first nine months,” they told her, yet here she was, one mediocre performance review away from career purgatory, with zero shot at advancing, at ever seeing a battlefield again. She knocked. Clouds parted above the uncovered porch and the sun beat on her neck. In the spare, crackle-dry yard, a rooster pecked at the dust.
From inside Kazinsky thought she could hear footsteps. The door opened and one eye peered out. This eye—a girl’s, decidedly feminine—was framed by long, dewy, remarkably curved lashes. A black hood—what looked like a Quaker or Mennonite bonnet—swallowed her head. There was no light behind her and the slip of visible flesh seemed to hover in the darkness.
“I have no chaperone,” the girl said loudly and turned away.
“Wait,” Kazinsky said, wedging the toe of her boot in the door. She removed her cover and turned so the braids pinned against her head could be seen. “What if it’s just us girls?” This trick she had learned in Afghanistan, supporting combat units. When the women began hiding bombs under their abayas, Kazinsky was brought in to conduct pat-downs—something the male soldiers couldn’t do without inciting a riot. She’d needed to prove herself this way before—in uniform, she was sometimes mistaken for a man.
The girl’s eyelid crinkled strangely. Unable to see her mouth, Kazinsky couldn’t tell whether she was smiling or scowling. The door flung wide, and the girl moved—limped, rather—to the middle of the room.
Kazinsky followed, hat in hand. They stood in a one-room kitchen and living area, from which a narrow hallway stuck out like a funnel. The few furnishings and appliances looked hulking and ancient. A crooked light shone though an open window above the sink, illuminating the filmy air. Whoever lived here would get on fine in basic, Kazinsky thought.
“My name is Ruth, but you may call me Ruthie,” the girl said. Ruthie was sheathed from chin to foot in black muslin. Heavy rectangular buckles shone on her shoes: she was a kindergartener’s idea of a pilgrim. All that, in this heat.
Kazinsky introduced herself, which somehow prompted Ruthie to hug her. Gingerly she patted the girl’s shoulder, tried not to inhale her yeasty smell. The crown of her head was cut by a jagged part, her scalp shiny with grease.
As if sensing her disgust, Ruthie released her, performed an embarrassed curtsey, and hobbled toward the dining table. She dug a match out of a sugar bowl and lit an oil lamp. Beside it, flies circled a browning apple core.
“Sit,” Ruthie ordered.
“I’ll stand, thank you,” Kazinsky said. She hadn’t yet stated her business. “I’m here to speak with a Mister John Hastings about his future in the armed services. Is he available?”
“My brother is out.”
“Well, are your parents home? I see a car out front.”
“The men are out,” Ruthie said. “I have no chaperone. There is only me.” She picked up a cloth doll from the seat beside her. The doll wore a denim jumper and had yarn for hair. Its face was blank, featureless.
“An Amish doll,” Kazinsky noted.
“We are not Amish!” the girl said. She spat on the floor. “Daddy says what we are doesn’t have a name yet.”
Kazinsky exhaled slowly, keeping her expression neutral. Great, a splinter group—were they ever any saner than the orders they left? “Ruth,” she said, “Ruthie—I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.” She made a point now of sitting at the table. Ruthie nodded approvingly.
The pleasantries, the kowtowing, the displays of unnecessary deference—this was the part of the job Kazinsky most despised. The military attracted her in the first place because there, people were direct. Order, protocol, et cetera. Battle, she believed, should be fought openly and without pretense.
“Do you know when John will return?” Kazinsky asked. “We were supposed to meet.”
“What for?” Ruthie swung her doll by the foot so its head beat the underside of the table.
“I’m a recruiter,” Kazinsky said over the rhythmic thunking. Ruthie looked confused, so she continued, “I tell people about the Marines and help them sign up.” Kazinsky thought of Rodriguez, the branch’s top recruiter. Tacked to the pin-board behind his desk were orderly rows of wallet photos—every soldier he enlisted. Wins, he called them, smiling in a way that nauseated her.
Thunk, thunk. “Did you ever fight?” Ruthie asked.
“Two tours overseas.” She overheard Rodriguez once, in an intake interview: The reality is, you’ve got a better chance of dying on the freeway. “I’ll go back as soon as they let me,” Kazinsky said.
Ruthie studied her but, thankfully, said nothing. The need to go back was something Kazinsky couldn’t explain, especially to civilians. All she could say was they had pulled her out too soon; whatever alchemy changes those in war had yet to transform her. Even during the homecoming parade she felt like a sham, at once pleased by the waving crowd that lined the streets but unable to shake the feeling they welcomed her in error, mistaking her for somebody else.
“Daddy says if you don’t give up you haven’t lost,” Ruthie said.
Kazinsky huffed a laugh. “Next time he says that, tell him he’s going against protocol.” She was thinking of a training manual entitled “Strategies of Attrition”: From a cost-benefit perspective, surrender is preferable to a rout. But who, she wondered, would find surrender preferable?
The rhythm stopped. “Daddy doesn’t stand for back-talk.”
“Never mind. Bad joke.” Kazinsky pulled back her shoulders. “Do you mind if I wait here for your brother to return?”
“Stay forever if you want.” Ruthie released the doll and it tumbled to the floor. “Tea?” She struck another match and held it to the burner. With a whoosh, a flower of flame appeared.
“None for me, thank you,” Kazinsky said. “Can I use your bathroom?”
“If you must,” said Ruthie.
The bathroom was barely wide enough to turn around in. A toilet, a sink, a medicine cabinet, its mirrored door speckled with rust. Kazinsky opened the cabinet. Inside, a straight razor, several thick bars of soap, and about a dozen pill bottles, many with severe iconographic warnings. The names were scratched off, and she couldn’t tell if they belonged to John Hastings or someone else. She tried to imagine driving two-and-a-half hours home on these unlit roads, only to face the other officers, tail between her legs.
It’s one thing if you can’t handle the heavy stuff—the real stuff. She knew brave soldiers, infantrymen, who came home and painted every room of the house camo-beige. Still, it was their company she preferred, their methods that made sense. Here, she no longer felt like a soldier.
Sure, she had seen things, but her time in—near—the frontlines seemed so paltry, her contributions so pathetic. A let-down, especially after being hand-selected for a Female Engagement Team. Finally, she thought—real combat. But for the handful of months before her program was disbanded, her work amounted to befriending Afghan women, playing with their children. Information gathering. Cultural outreach. She wasn’t expecting nonstop heroics—it’s called service, she knew—but whatever the party line was about every job being an integral part of a larger mission, Kazinsky knew better. The humiliating truth was, her role—like recruiting—demanded neither toughness nor grit, but relied on finesse. The willingness to smooth-talk, to make silky promises that might never come true, to “yessir” requests as well as orders. She couldn’t help feeling she had more to give.
Kazinsky washed her hands. The sink basin was dusted with beard whiskers, and she guided the water over them, training them toward the drain. She dried off on a starchy towel. On the sink sat a plastic cup, which held a toothbrush and what looked like a two-pronged stick. It was silver and shaped in a long, narrow “u” with a cluster of jewels at the base. A hairpin. The only bit of decoration in the whole damn house. The ends were surprisingly sharp—could do some damage in a pinch. Kazinsky held the pin to her hair—to get a sense of how it would look on her—and, barely realizing she had done so, slid it under her braids so it could not be seen.
When she returned to the kitchen, she was surprised to find Ruthie had disrobed. She still wore her bonnet, but in place of the muslin was a butter-yellow sundress that hit well above her knees. Sequined sandals adorned her feet. Ruthie couldn’t be older than twelve but in the line of her shoulders, in the steep ascent of her throat, Kazinsky saw flashes of the woman she would become five, ten years from now.
A breeze passed through the open window, ruffling the stovetop flame. The burner remained lit, although the kettle sat steaming on a wood cutting board. Since Ruthie made no move to do so, Kazinsky turned it off. “Listen, Ruthie,” she said, “I have to speak to John. You need to tell me where to find him.” She felt a new sense of obligation and authority over the girl, having taken something from her.
Ruthie gestured to the cup on the table. “I made it for you,” she said.
“Thank you, but I said I didn’t want any.”
“You’ll change your mind.”
“No ma’am, I won’t.”
Ruthie crossed her arms. Behind her, at the open window, Kazinsky caught sight of a linen shirtsleeve, a thin golden arm. Someone—a small boy—was climbing inside.
The intruder clambered down the counter and Ruthie stood to face him. “Henry,” she said, “why do you have to be such a mess in front of company?” She spat in her hand and smoothed his hair. Though clearly exasperated, her touch was deft, almost tender. Freshly groomed, Henry turned to Kazinsky. He smiled as if he had performed some marvelous trick, and bowed to the waist. She guessed he was about five.
Kazinsky glanced at Ruthie—perhaps she underestimated her age.
“Are you his mother?”
“May as well be. Who else would take care of him?”
Kazinsky nodded—not her place to pry. Henry looked at her, head cocked to the side like a curious dog. Children always made her uneasy; she could feel them sizing her up, sniffing her out. Henry pulled Ruthie close and whispered something Kazinsky couldn’t make out. Ruthie scolded him, and he shrank back as though bitten.
“But she’s wearing pants,” he said. “Pants!”
“He’s never seen a lady soldier before,” Ruthie explained.
“There aren’t many in these parts.”
Henry took Kazinsky’s chair and sat crouched, knees jackknifed against his chest.
Ruthie shook her head. “There aren’t many girls around here, either. Most days I get so bored I could stab my eyes out,” she said. “At least there’s tea.” She raised her cup, toasted no one, and sipped.
Kazinsky was still searching for a reply when she felt something on her head. She turned to find Henry standing on the chair behind her, his fingers in her hair. She tried to twist away but the boy held tight. Several bobby pins wriggled loose; one of her pigtail braids uncoiled.
With such force that Kazinsky feared for his shoulder, Ruthie yanked Henry’s arm. The boy yelped, and she proceeded to whack his bottom. Careful not to attract notice, Kazinsky freed the pin from her hair and slipped it in her pocket.
Finally, Henry was released. He examined the fingernail-sized crescents in his arm, lip quivering.
Ruthie frowned. “I’m sorry, Henry,” she said. “Here. You can have this.” She set her cup of barely-touched tea before him. Henry accepted, suppressing a smile. Elbows out, he lifted the brim and slurped.
Kazinsky pressed her tender scalp. She watched Henry leave, moving down the hall with exaggerated delicacy, so as not to spill. An effective tactic, she thought: take one thing, give another. Following raids, her commander handed her a bag of Tootsie Pops, which she then distributed to the sons and daughters of the men they’d hauled away. Hate burned in their eyes, but the children always accepted the candy. Kazinsky began to wish they wouldn’t. Once, she even offered to let a boy slap her. “I promise I won’t fight back,” she said. She waited. He stared at her warily.
“What good is it?” the boy said, throwing his lollipop wrapper in the dirt. “Touching you would just make me filthy, too.” He wedged the red sugary bulb between his molars.
“I apologize for his conduct,” Ruthie said. “He’s never seen such blond hair before.” She squeezed Kazinsky’s shoulder.
Kazinsky stood. “I think it’s time I—”
“Do you have children?” Ruthie said.
Kazinsky shook her head. “John doesn’t live here, does he?”
“You mean John Edward Hastings, seventeen years of age, brown hair, blue eyes, cleft chin? The most boring brother on the planet?” Ruthie crossed her arms. Her description fit the boy from the career fair.
“Please don’t be offended,” Kazinsky said. “I’m happy to talk to you, too.” She caught herself before adding, while I wait. As a gesture of goodwill, she sipped from her untouched cup. The tea tasted both acrid and overpoweringly sweet, and as she swallowed she fought the urge to grimace.
Ruthie glared at her, viciously kneading her hip.
“Are you alright?” Kazinsky asked. “I noticed you were limping earlier.”
“Some bones broke,” she said. “I healed wrong.”
“How did that happened?”
A flicker crossed her face; Ruthie looked down.
“It’s okay,” Kazinsky said, “you can tell me. I’m a friend.” The words came reflexively—her old script, just not in Pashto this time.
Ruthie’s eyes snapped up. “Friends don’t talk to each other like that.”
It was as if some everyday object Kazinsky relied on—her car keys, her cell phone—had vanished, leaving her unaccountably vulnerable, helpless. She sipped her tea. “You’re right,” she said. “You’re right about that.”
A pause. “It’s been like this for years,” Ruthie said quietly.
“Don’t worry. I’m used to it now.” Kazinsky recognized the girl’s brittle tone, knew that offers of any sort—assistance, pity—would be refused.
Ruthie stared pointedly at Kazinsky’s cup, so Kazinsky forced several large gulps. Whatever God-awful herb produced that tinny note, she was afraid to ask. Ruthie smiled and drummed her nails on the table. “Will you do me a kindness?”
“What is it?”
“It won’t take long,” Ruthie said, tottering to the cupboard. She retrieved a rusty canister with something rattling inside, and sat across from Kazinsky. With visible strain, she hoisted her left leg up until it was parallel to the floor, heel coming to rest in Kazinsky’s lap. She opened the tin, removed a vial of baby pink nail polish, and pointed at her toes. “I can’t reach these on my own.”
How had Ruthie, living where she lived, come across nail polish? “Does your father know you have this?” Kazinsky asked. She wondered what unknown rules this figure established, and what punishments might befall Ruthie were a pedicure discovered. She considered piling both children in the car and never looking back. The impulse only lasted a moment, but that it occurred at all surprised her—how much worse she had seen, and been indifferent to. Compassion had proved, like everything else, to be an exhaustible resource. Its return now annoyed her.
“I’ll cover my feet,” Ruthie said. “He won’t see.”
“He won’t. This is for me.” She wiggled her toes. “Paint these now and I’ll do the other foot later.”
Kazinsky sighed, shook the bottle. Somehow the afternoon’s chain of absurdities justified even this. She unscrewed the lid and regarded the foot on her lap. The sole was soot-black, the toenails long, claw-like. When Kazinsky attempted to reposition the leg and improve her working angle, she cried out: “It won’t bend that way.” So Ruthie might comfortably dangle her foot, Kazinsky knelt, setting the bottle beside her. With the tiny paintbrush she polished her big toe. “Did your brother give you this?”
“John told me the girls at school wore it,” she said. “He told me all about sleepovers.”
Kazinsky nodded. Her free hand hovered under Ruthie’s foot, ready to catch any drips. She dotted the pinkie toe. “All set.”
“This stuff stinks,” Ruthie said, standing. “Better open more windows.” As she crossed the room her foot grazed the open bottle. It tipped over and rolled, trailing a long gash of color.
“Ruthie,” Kazinsky cried, rising so quickly she nearly toppled forward. Her head throbbed and blood rushed in her ears. Unsteadily, she grabbed a rag from the counter and swiped at the floor. The sleeve of her uniform dragged through the mess and came away pink.
Kazinsky, still crouched, dabbing now at the stain on her wrist, remembered the medicine cabinet with a vague sense of alarm. “Ruthie,” she called again, “what exactly do you put in your tea?”
At that moment she felt a tug at the back of her head. Before she could turn she heard the pull of metal on metal, the unmistakable sound of shears opening, then thickly closing, at the nape of her neck. One clean snip. She experienced an uncanny lightness as her left braid fell away, landing between Ruthie’s faceless doll and the nail polish hardening on the unfinished floor.
Henry scooped the severed lock into his soft little hands. “Mine,” he said in a chipper singsong.
Kazinsky snatched the scissors from him. She brandished them like a dagger, sharp ends-out, leeringly, almost drunkenly. She felt drunk. With a mix of satisfaction and horror she watched as Henry put his fist to his eye and began to wail.
At the sound of crying, Ruthie appeared at Henry’s side. She scanned him top to bottom in her motherly way, vigilant as a physician against bodily harm. Then she turned to Kazinsky. Her gaze grew cold. “Look what you’ve done,” she said. The boy pressed his face to her skirt and she petted his hair.
“What I’ve done?” Kazinsky thrust the scissors forward, toward the braid still tight in Henry’s hand. The blades fell apart feebly.
“You’re not my friend,” Ruthie said. “You just wanted me to think you were.”
Though the girl’s tone was ridiculous, haughty as a hurt playmate, Kazinsky’s cheeks flushed. She looked away, across the room, anywhere but at the children. The flame of the oil lamp seemed to waver, although the kitchen window was now closed.
She reached in her pocket and set the hairpin on the table between them.
Ruthie’s eyes narrowed. Henry blinked and stared dully ahead, uncomprehending.
“Take it,” Kazinsky said.
Ruthie grabbed the hairpin. Then, as if to demonstrate that she wasn’t merely following orders, she slapped Kazinsky firmly on the mouth.
The hit left her stunned. Purple spots clouded her vision and a warm prickle bloomed up her face, tightening her scalp. Her stomach clenched in a thrill of fear, a reptilian surge of adrenaline. So this was a fight.
She always assumed instinct would guide her, but she stood rooted, motionless. She tried to recall her training, but heard Rodriguez instead: There are only two kinds of people that understand Marines: Marines and those who have met them in battle.
A housefly zipped past her shoulder. Kazinsky looked down. She hadn’t realized she’d kept the scissors but was now glad to find them in her hand.
Ruthie and Henry watched as she ran the shears through the second plait, very close to the scalp. The braid fell, landing softly on the floor below. Henry lunged for it but Ruthie was faster, balling the braid in her fist. This was no real loss, Kazinsky assured herself—just a matter of costs and benefits, give and take. Fighting, as a matter of protocol, demanded such calculations. In the right circumstances, even surrender was an act of war.
“What did you do that for?” Ruthie said.
“Listen,” she said coolly, “I don’t want to fight.”
Kazinsky found her hat and pulled it on. It took her a moment to realize the children were no longer watching her, were instead looking at the front door, opening now behind her. There was the sound of voices, the stamp of boots on the threshold. The men were home.
The voice was firm, polite, yet not at all conciliatory. It conveyed a reserved respect—men addressing men. She smiled: they had mistaken her for one of their own.
Ruthie opened her mouth as if to correct him, to give her away, but Kazinsky caught her eye, shook her head no. She knew they would figure her out soon enough, that she would have to explain, that no good would come after. But even as the footsteps approached she kept her back turned, and did not face them right away.