Dog of War

Stone’s father was an expert birdwatcher. There was a certain species of swallow, he told her, that lived on the banks of the river and would hide its nest in a hole in the ground. But nothing can hide in a hole forever. Her father would mime it with his hands, the circling hawk, the stoop and impact, the small crushed bird. A flutter of fingers, dead. In the same way, Stone had assumed she would have been quietly murdered by now.

And yet she opens her front door more and more easily as the years drain on, to neighbors, to delivery men, to Girl Scouts. It’s been six years since she left Fort Bragg and she can do that now, open the door. Say hello. Buy the cookies. Even get to sleep at night, most of the time. But today it’s not Girl Scouts out in the June heat: it’s Messina, plucked straight from one of Stone’s nightmares to stand on her porch against the setting sun, heavy black curls wet at the ends where they’re soaked in the blood on her chest.

At first, neither of them moves. Stone ignores the blood: it’s probably not Messina’s, and if it is, it probably won’t matter. She watches Messina’s hands, waits for her to pull a knife, a silenced handgun. She feels somehow relieved, as if she’s been running a long race and here, at last, is the finish line. But then Messina staggers, catches herself with one hand on the brick wall, says, “Dr. Stone.” And Stone is snapped back six years and rushes to put an arm around Messina’s waist, to help her inside.

She gets Messina up on the kitchen table. Messina quietly passes out—pain or blood loss or drugs or disease or exhaustion or something else. Stone doesn’t know. It’s not like the old days, when she would be handed a dossier and shown into a briefing room long before she was faced with a body out cold on the table. Sometimes it was Messina’s body. Sometimes one of the others, Kobayashi or Rodriguez or the Walker brothers. Stone doesn’t have the equipment for serious operations or drugs much beyond ibuprofen and cough syrup, but she does have a first aid kit above and beyond any civilian pack. She closes the blinds and puts an old towel behind Messina’s head. She surveys the damage, lifts all of Messina’s hair out of the way. Stone washes her hands, sterilizes her tools, gets to work.

The shirt—short-sleeved, gray, nondescript—is all in one piece. Messina must have pulled it on afterwards, or changed into it. Stone cuts the shirt away and frowns. There’s a lot of blood, both dried and still oozing, all coming from a ragged, open wound beginning perhaps half-an-inch below her right collarbone. It was created with a blade, almost certainly, but the flesh there looks torn, almost peeled back. Stone cuts away Messina’s bra as well, but the wound stops at the top of her breast. She lifts the loose, torn skin from the mouth of the wound with tweezers and shines a penlight inside. It’s not a shallow injury, and the bones here float at the surface of the body. It doesn’t take much. The second rib is exposed, whitish and wet, glinting from behind the torn pectoralis muscles. Stone can’t find traces of foreign matter, except—the tracker. Yes, there’s the old surgical scar, distorted in the mess; she hadn’t noticed before. The tracker curves over the surface of the rib at the edge of the wound, just under the rip of skin, still screwed into place. But it’s damaged: the metal surface is scraped and one corner is raised, as if it’s been pulled up. As if someone were trying to pry it off. As if Messina were trying to pry it off.

Stone sits down in one of the kitchen chairs. Messina isn’t in any immediate danger: no punctured lung, and if necessary, Stone can use herself as a walking blood bank. They’re both O positive. Messina isn’t wearing her dog tags, but Stone remembers. She squeezes her eyes shut and tries to breathe. There’s only one Fort-Bragg-approved plan of action now: sew Messina up, call in her handlers, file a report. But Stone hasn’t been on the Bragg payroll in a very long time.

It’s impossible for Stone to pull out the tracker, even if that’s what Messina wants. She doesn’t have the equipment to remove the screws. And it would mean opposing Fort Bragg. Messina found Stone with ease. It will be simple for Kobayashi or Rodriguez or the Walker brothers to do the same, if Fort Bragg gives the orders. It’s not like Stone is in hiding—she got out six years ago, but she didn’t get very far. Chesapeake is barely over the state line, down at the bottom of Virginia near the naval base. The summers are hot and the winters are cold and it feels like North Carolina in all the ways that count. She has a house with a yard and a job at the library. Last week she bought a bird feeder. Her kitchen is painted yellow, and now it smells like the basement theaters at Fort Bragg, charnel-heavy and sweet. On the table, Messina’s face is smooth and relaxed, hair spilling over the edge in long dark ropes. Her bare skin is a mess of old scars, knife wounds and puckers from bullets, a shrapnel sunburst after that botched job in Lisbon. Cleaner lines, too, from the surgeries in the Bragg basement.  Mostly reconstructive, on her front. Experimental, on her back: around her spine, at the base of her neck. Stone knows without looking, remembers the press of the scalpel in her hand, hot from marathon hours of surgery. She pulls herself back to her feet. Stop the bleeding, suture the wound. The only choice. There are muscles to be stitched back together, a Bovie to be dug out of storage for cautery. Stone looks down at Messina’s roadmap abdomen and feels her face pull into something ugly.

*     *     *

Sometimes Stone’s mind drifts, nowadays. When she’s slicing peppers, for instance, or sorting books at the library. When her hands are busy. The early days are hard to forget, the later days harder. Her mind circles around how they all were in the beginning, Messina and Kobayashi, Rodriguez and the Walker brothers. Herself. The other scientists, Collins and Dr. Singh. They laughed a lot, back then. Rodriguez used to hang around them on their lunch breaks, lean against the file cabinets packed with consent forms and talk about the training. Dr. Singh and Kobayashi would play chess. Messina was a beauty in fatigues, tall and dark-eyed, patriotic, proud. She brought Stone coffee in the mornings—girls have to stick together, she’d say, and she’d sit on Stone’s desk to drink it. Stone would drive herself mad trying to keep up appearances, trying to stay professional. She’d go up to Charlotte on the weekends, sometimes, let herself be pressed against the walls of gay clubs by women who weren’t Messina but could be, in the dark.

They were all so much younger then.

*     *     *

Messina still wakes like a soldier, all at once. She’s up in an instant, legs swung over the edge of the table, towel falling away from where Stone draped it across her bare chest. She barely flinches as the stitches pull. Stone is in a chair against the wall. She’s been waiting for this, but tenses all the same, well aware she has no hope of defending herself if Messina attacks, injured or not. But Messina just scans the room, notes Stone’s presence, and glances down at her wound. She brushes the tips of her fingers over the stitches. How old is Messina now, twenty-nine? Perhaps thirty. She’s wearing jeans and sneakers. She has nothing in her pockets.

“Dr. Stone.” Messina’s voice is a rasp, and somehow a surprise. Stone has heard it in her mind for so many years that she’s forgotten what it sounds like out loud.

“Are you feeling lightheaded or dizzy?” says Stone. Professional. Safe.

“No,” says Messina. “Did you take it out?”

There’s no mistaking what she means. “No, I didn’t.”

Messina’s fingers return to the stitches. She yanks at the knot. “Take it out,” she says.

“Don’t pull, please,” says Stone. “I can’t. I don’t have the supplies. I’d just hurt you.”

“I don’t care,” says Messina, but her hand stills. “I’ll get you the supplies. Whatever you need.”

“A sterile theater would be a nice start,” says Stone.

“No hospitals,” says Messina. “What supplies?” She slips off the table. She’s steady on her feet. Blood is still dried in streaks down her torso and her curls are wild about her head. Behind her on the wall is a calendar with a picture of small nervous birds. A vase of sunflowers sits on the counter. Mixing genres, is what they call it at the library, Messina in Stone’s little kitchen. But Stone is the one out of place here, in truth. Stone is the book shelved wrong.

“Messina. I can’t do it,” says Stone.

Messina starts towards her. “Can’t or won’t?” she says. Stone will not move. There’s no point in running.

“Won’t, I suppose,” says Stone.

Messina crouches in front of her chair, extends a hand, wraps it around Stone’s throat. She holds it there, fingers hot against Stone’s skin, thumb over the pulse. She doesn’t squeeze. It’s just a suggestion, in case Stone has forgotten who she is, what she can do. Stone remembers feeding plasma into a mainline, Messina’s grip cracking the bedrail, the chain of the cuffs, the arm-bone of the nurse. The stun rod coming down against Messina’s temple. Stone meets her gaze. They watch each other over the line of Messina’s arm until Messina’s eyes shutter and she drops her hand.

“Won’t is the wrong answer,” says Messina. “What supplies?”

Stone gives her a list, a bra that doesn’t fit, and a shirt that mostly does. She also gives her a glass of orange juice and a sleeve of Oreos for the blood loss and an ibuprofen for the pain. Messina leaves the way she came, through the front door. Stone watches her walk down the street like any normal civilian: head up, long strides, and then gone, melted into the twilight.

Stone shuts the door, leans against it, considers sliding home the deadbolt. But locks can’t hold Messina.

Stone comes back to the kitchen. Her calendar with the little birds is still open to May. She goes to change it but can’t get a grip on the paper: her hands are shaking. She gropes for a chair but finds herself on the floor. She leans against the wall and shuts her eyes.

*     *    *

Giovanna Messina. The others called her Joey, Kobayashi and Rodriguez. The Walker brothers. Even Collins and Dr. Singh, on occasion, when Messina did something especially wonderful, like volunteer for experimental diode implantation or snap her own dislocated shoulder back into place. Joey. The sound is intimate, somehow. Familiar. Loving. And fragile, too, Stone’s always thought. She’s never been able to use it. It’s strange in her mouth; curling, delicate, like something small and featherless asleep in her hand. To Stone, she’s always been Messina, even from her first days in the program when her hair was still bound up in its regulation bun.

But today it’s not Girl Scouts out in the June heat: it’s Messina, plucked straight from one of Stone’s nightmares…

Fort Bragg knows where Messina’s been, with the tracker. Stone monitored the screens herself often enough, followed the red trail Messina left across the rooftops of New York, the alleyways of London, through Cape Town and Dubai and Islamabad. Wherever Fort Bragg sent her. They’d take her weapons away when she reported back. Sometimes she resisted. They began locking her in her quarters at night, setting a guard to watch her. For her own safety, of course—they needed her whole, and Messina was picking up some disturbing habits. Rodriguez, too, self-harming. And the Walker brothers, who attacked if they were separated. Kobayashi wouldn’t eat.

Stone left, in the end. Packed up her paperclips and ballpoints and walked away, as if everyone in the basement lab would disappear when the door slammed shut behind her. Messina was away then, on a job in the Caucasus. The tracking screen on the north wall had her crossing into Armenia. Stone remembers the jags of the mountains, Messina’s inching red line, the building tangibly empty of her presence. Messina was all the way across the world and blind to Stone’s hurried retirement, an abandonment that to Stone felt like shame, felt like cruelty, felt like stealing away from a burning building without looking back.

Stone hadn’t thought Fort Bragg would let her leave, not alive, not with her clearance. But they did. They gave her a watch, a plaque. A very small medal, gold plating, gray ribbon. Stone dropped it off a bridge and watched as it was rolled up under the water of the Cape Fear River.

*     *     *

Stone is ready for her when Messina returns. Messina lets herself in and drops a full duffel bag on the kitchen table: drugs, new scissors, a scalpel, a surgical screwdriver. Pouches of blood and saline, just in case.

Stone shakes a bedsheet over the table. Messina strips out of her borrowed clothes. “This is going to hurt,” says Stone. “I’m sorry.” Messina says nothing. She lies down on the table. Her stitches are still in one piece but the wound looks awful, ragged and swollen. A lidocaine injection is the best Stone can give without an EKG or a second pair of eyes.

“I’d appreciate it if you tried to stay conscious,” she says, which feels cruel.

Messina is staring at the water stain on the ceiling. She nods.

The stitching is easy enough to cut away, and Messina barely flinches when Stone reopens the wound around a set of forceps. Blood trickles down over the side of her ribs, pools on the table. There’s the tracker, secured to the second rib. This one isn’t Stone’s doing—it was Dr. Singh on that string of surgeries, when they received the orders. Stone passed around the consent forms. No one seemed to mind. Minor stuff, comparatively. A good idea, even, said Rodriguez. If they were captured, if they needed extraction. The tracker is curved, square and silver, the size of her thumbnail. Two tiny screws hold it in place. Stone fits the screwdriver to the first head and starts to twist. Messina doesn’t make a sound, but she stops breathing. It’s easier, without her ribs expanding, but Stone doesn’t like it.

She glances up at Messina’s face. She’s closed her eyes. The first screw comes out, and then the second. The holes remain, deep divots, fragile without the metal to fill them. The tracker lifts away from the bone and Stone can close up the wound for good.

She sponges away the wet blood with a damp towel when she’s finished, but isn’t sure
what to do about the dried streaks across Messina’s chest, her stomach. At one time, she would have washed her clean, but Messina’s not a child, to be tidied up. She’s not a tool, to be wiped down. Stone leaves the mess. “Is it done?” says Messina, when Stone hasn’t touched her for some time. Stone places the tracker into Messina’s palm. Messina’s hand closes around it and she squeezes until her knuckles go white.

“It’s still live,” says Stone. “The tracker.”

“Not for long,” says Messina. Her mouth is twitching up at the corners, like she might smile. She doesn’t, but the ghost of it lingers. It’s hard to watch.

“I thought you were here to kill me,” Stone says, when the instruments are dumped in the
sink.

“I wasn’t here for you,” says Messina. Stone doesn’t ask for details. She supposes it will make the local news tomorrow, if Messina carried out orders. An admiral, perhaps, or a key player in a protest group. It will have looked like an accident. “Never you,” Messina says.

“No?” says Stone.

Messina sits up. She fits on the borrowed bra and pulls the shirt back over her head, favoring her right arm. “They let you leave,” she says. It’s an accusation.

Stone scrapes a bit of blood from underneath her nail. “I’m not sure any of us ever really leaves,” she says.

Messina’s face twists. Stone is shocked—Messina stopped showing emotion long before Stone got out. “You left. You asked, and they said yes. For me, they said no.”

“But with—how you are,” says Stone. “With what we’ve done to you.” It’s obvious that there’s no way Messina can leave. Fort Bragg would never let her. It would be like giving a missile control over its own coordinates.

Messina regards her own hands. “I volunteered for it,” she says. She did volunteer. Women weren’t allowed in combat, and she wanted to fight. First, the injections. Then, the surgeries. Stone would watch Messina in training, the wild animal of her, how she would hurl herself again and again into the fray. “Good, Joey,” Collins would say into the microphone. Stone got her after missions, on the exam table, got her hollow dark eyes, staring at nothing.

“Open your mouth,” she’d say, and Messina would. “Raise your leg,” and Messina would.

“Break his arm,” Collins would say, in training, and Messina would.

The clock on the wall chimes nine. Messina flinches with the first bell, whips her head around. She settles again. “I want—” she says, pauses. Licks her lips. It’s as if she’s rolling the word in her mouth, feeling the shape of it. “I want to disappear,” she says.

“But you came to me,” says Stone. There are a thousand doctors in the world who could do the same procedure. A thousand doctors who would never do the things Stone has done.

“I did,” says Messina. She meets Stone’s gaze. Stone feels it again, that old prickle of want, and turns away. She has never touched Messina except when she must as a doctor, a surgeon. Messina with her scrambled brain, her weaponized body.

“I could report you,” Stone says, suddenly desperately tired. She leans against the sink and looks out the window, where clouds have covered the faint stars. The night is alive with the sound of cicadas. Messina stands and comes alongside her. Their elbows brush. Stone’s focus is distilled into the heat off Messina’s skin, how close she’s chosen to be.

“You won’t report me,” says Messina, and Stone can feel the weight of her eyes. “I know you. Anna.” Her fingers smooth down the inside of Stone’s wrist.

“Stop.” Stone shoves away from the sink, walks across the room. It seems she has no secrets from Messina. “It’s fine, you’re safe. You can leave now.”

“Sam Kobayashi is dead,” says Messina. She addresses the window. Stone can see her reflection in the glass, dispassionate, cold. “Beirut. And Miguel Rodriguez. He killed Dr. Singh, so they put him down.”

“Jesus,” says Stone. “The Walker brothers?”

“Fine. Strange. They’re sent out with six handlers, now. Collins is still the same.”

“Whole place went to hell without me,” says Stone, reaching for a joke and falling flat. “Guess I should have stayed.”

“You shouldn’t have stayed,” says Messina.

Outside the window, early-summer heat lightning has started in the clouds. It flashes high over Chesapeake, out in the direction of the ocean. Maybe they can see it all the way down in Fayetteville, in Fort Bragg.

“When I came back, you were gone,” says Messina.

“I was,” says Stone. Little swallow bird, waiting for the hawk to leave. Digging her hole in the mud. “Armenia, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” says Messina. In the window’s reflection, her eyes go glassy, her face, for a moment, far-away. “Blue mountains. There were flowers.” Stone glances at the vase of sunflowers on the counter, and feels the burden of her whole heart in her chest.

“Messina, tell me why you’re here.” It becomes an order before she can stop it, the heaviness behind her ribs dredging up a command voice that Stone thought she’d buried. The response in Messina is ingrained, spine jerked straight, shoulders slammed back. It takes an entire drawn breath for the magic to fail. Messina turns, and in that moment, just before her face collapses into a snarl, there’s something unmistakable in her eyes. Messina is afraid.

Messina is afraid of her.

And Stone has always known it.

Stone remembers walking the halls when the operatives were confined to quarters, a folder of new consent forms in her arms. A handler would flash a badge to the sensors on the doors and there it was, played out across each body when they saw her face, saw what she carried: Rodriguez gone gray, Kobayashi shrinking back, the Walker brothers tense as floodlit deer. Messina’s gaze skittering away as she stood to attention, arms locked at her sides, pulse jumping in her neck. Stone hated that walk, down behind the biometric seals where there were no windows. She knew they learned the sound of her footsteps, trembled to hear them stop. Who would be next for the table and the knife?

Stone thinks now of the way her father mimed the hawk, the downward swoop of his pinched fingers, the inevitable end.

“Tell me,” Stone says again, in the face of Messina’s rage. “Tell me why you’re here, soldier.” And this time, Stone embraces the command, leans into it, watches Messina fight for control of her body. But Messina’s will wins out, and the distance is closed between them, and Messina’s hand is gripped in Stone’s hair, yanking back her head. There’s a blade to Stone’s throat, the scalpel, the one left dirty in the sink.

“I hate you,” Messina says. Her voice is sandpaper. “More than anyone else, I hate you.”

Messina’s face is alive, open and raw like Stone has never seen. Her breath gusts across Stone’s skin. Against reason, Stone feels herself sway closer, and then she feels the scalpel drop away from her throat, and then she thinks, for a single heartrending moment, that Messina will kiss her. And then the fingers in Stone’s hair tighten past pain and Messina cracks Stone’s head against the wall and everything is dark.

*     *     *

In the morning, Messina’s handlers come. They question Stone but don’t hurt her, which is a surprise. Then Collins comes, white-faced and angry. He’s grown a tic with the years, a twitch in his eye. But Stone has known Collins a long time, and he doesn’t hurt her either. And then Stone is alone. Or not quite alone—she has a tail, she knows, a man who comes into the library during her shifts and pretends to read, a woman who sits in a car on her street at night.

But a month passes, and they’re called away as well. Stone is left with her bird feeder and her library books and the flowers she keeps in her kitchen. She twitches with every sound outside.

She watches for shapes moving at the window, feels her stomach twist with every dark-haired woman she sees from behind. She thinks of the beginning of it all, thinks of it often, that first consent form, Stone behind the desk, Messina in her dress uniform. They both laughed at something, Stone can’t remember what. Messina smiled at her, after she signed her name, this private little smile, and Stone’s heart jumped in her chest. There was the feeling of infinite possibilities, of the first step on a wide new road.

Stone tells herself she’s not waiting.

But Messina never comes back.

Maria Zoccola is a Southern writer from Memphis, TN. She has a BA from Emory University and an MA from Falmouth University. She works in nonprofit, reads a lot of books, and writes all manner of weird things. Her work has appeared in Luna Station Quarterly and Exposition Review.