***** Glaring at Laurie, Nancy added, “You guys better hurry up and eat or we’ll be late again. Breakfast time is over.” The dining room was half empty. The buffet, holding steaming trays of food, was on one side of the spacious room, and tall French windows, opening onto the garden, were on the other side. In between were several round tables where a few women were finishing their breakfast. Anne, also late, was at the buffet counter. Her hair, pulled back in a single ponytail, left her pretty face exposed, shadows hiding under her high cheekbones. She had half a bagel and a cup of coffee on her tray. “That’s all you’re gonna eat?” Laurie inquired. “I’m not hungry.” “You never are. I’m starving.” Laurie loaded her plate with bacon and eggs, home fries, and two buttermilk biscuits. She followed Anne to the table where Rosie was seated with Nancy, Abigail, and Fat Agatha. “Good morning everybody,” Laurie said. “Is this Tuesday or Wednesday?” “It’s Tuesday,” Nancy replied in her Southern drawl, “as everyone knows except the retarded.” “Thanks, mate,” Laurie said, “it takes one to know one.” Agatha, plump and rosy-cheeked, jumped to her feet. “Breakfast isn’t over,” she said, “until this fat lady pees.” They all laughed with her as she scooted away from the table, squeezing her knees together. Agatha’s big belly poked out while her butt was as flat as a board. It seemed as though she should be twisted around at the waist. When not depressed and moody, she was quite a comic, poking genial fun at herself and others. Anne yawned. “I’m still sleepy.” Rosie, a petite Puerto Rican, said, “So drink your coffee, girlfriend. It will put some zip in your zap.” Laurie asked, “So what the hell is a zap? “Who the hell knows,” Rosie replied, as sunny as ever. She had grown up in the East Harlem barrios, and although she and Laurie had not known each other in Harlem, they were simpatico, lone migrants among these white folks. By the time Laurie finished her breakfast everyone had left for Group Therapy except Anne, who was toying with her bagel. “I’m going to town later in the van to do some shopping,” she announced. “What should I bring you back? Crack cocaine or powder?” Laurie frowned. “Neither. This is no longer a joke.” “I know, but I’m fucking desperate. Come with me.” “I’ll see you, when you get back. Okay?” Anne shrugged and stood up without answering. She’s angry with me, Laurie thought, but I’m not going with her. ***** They arrived at group therapy, as Mrs. Broady, the house manager, was finishing her opening remarks. Plump and freckled face, she had arms long enough to box with God to protect her wounded veterans. Her voice though was gentle and persuasive. “Please understand that you’re not alone,” she said, repeating her mantra. “We are all in this together.” The latecomers joined the other women seated on folding chairs forming a semi-circle. The room was small; the twenty residents huddled together, as though the walls had ears. “Now that we are all here,” Mrs. Broady continued, “do we have a volunteer?” After a few moments of nervous silence, to Laurie’s surprise, Abigail stood up. “My name is Abigail Adams,” she said, speaking clearly instead of with her usual whimper. “I can’t believe I allowed myself to be broken down in basic training like…like I didn’t have a will of my own.” Still surprised, Laurie nodded. That had been the beginning of hell for her also. In basic training. In the Army boot camp where the National Guard had sent her. “Shape the fuck up,” the drill sergeant had yelled at her and the other female recruits, “or your sorry asses will be kicked out of here.” He was a burly bastard, Laurie had decided, an opinion that did not change during her weeks there. “Kill, kill, kill,” she yelled, as he commanded, while thrusting her bayonet into a huge stuffed bag representing the enemy, the stinking hajjis, the godless scumbags. On their long marches she was packed down with forty pounds of equipment and ammo, her rifle slung over her shoulder and a helmet on her head. Informed that they had to be as tough soldiers as the men, the women marched four abreast singing in cadence: Gun down all the Iraqi bastards Bomb the men while they are praying Kill the children while they are playing In the village and wherever found Shoot all the motherfuckers down. How the hell can I sing that? Laurie had wondered outraged. But day after day, complying so as not to fail, she chanted it with less concern and more bravura, reasoning that it was only words, and the song also had a nice rhythm for marching. “Bomb the men while they are praying. Kill the children while they are playing. Kill. Kill. Kill.” Abigail’s voice, rising in anger, pulled Laurie back to the meeting. “The chaplain told me to pray. I was the sinner, not the soldiers who had gang raped me.” Abruptly, Abigail sat down, her face flushed and angry. “Thank you for sharing,” Mrs. Broady said. “Rape has always been one of the spoils of war, but when it’s done by your own brother-in-arms, that makes it all the more heartbreaking. We understand, Abigail, and share your pain. What we are attempting to do here is to own these incidents, which are so crippling. Then we are in control, rather than letting them control us.” After group therapy, as they were walking down the hall together, Anne again asked Laurie to accompany her to town later. “Not if you intend to buy some coke, Anne.” “That is my intention.” “You’re crazy.” “Tell me something I don’t know. Come with me.” Anne’s smile was winning, but Laurie refused to be intimidated. “I’ll see you, when you come back.” “Why are you so chicken, Laurie?” “Why are you so fucking bold?” Anne shrugged and turned away. Laurie watched her walk down the hall her ponytail bouncing, until she disappeared, descending the stairs. ***** Anne had not been raped. She told Laurie, at one of their midnight pot sessions, that at fourteen she used to hang glide with a bunch of daredevil friends, soaring over the hills of Pasadena like a graceful bird and loving every second of it. Her doting parents were alarmed, and as an alternative to jumping off a cliff harnessed to aluminum wings, they allowed Anne to attend a high school flight academy. By the time the Iraq war started, she had been a flight instructor, a commercial airline pilot, and had the qualifications necessary to enlist in the Army Air Corps, which had always been her goal. “I hate to admit it,” she confessed to Laurie one night, but it was exciting bombing Baghdad. Such an adrenalin rush. Precision bombs, we called them. Smart fucking bombs. Our crew would laugh and congratulate each other when we hit the target. Can you believe that?” Laurie nodded. “In the Army we do conform.” “I can deal with killing soldiers who were trying to kill me,” Anne continued, “bomb them back to the Stone Age, as our president suggested. But we were the invaders. Once, I hit an open-air market, blew it sky high along with the women and children shopping there. Later I saw a photo of the market, a woman cradling a baby in her arms, half of its head blown off.” The memory was in Anne’s eyes. She blinked, but it was a camera she could not shut off. “I bombed hospitals and schools and mosques. Caved concrete buildings into rubble. I killed school kids and invalids. And men praying on their knees. Their bones scattered among the rubble were deemed as worthless as the rubble itself.” She suspected that Nancy was a closet alcoholic, her bleary eyes this morning matching her frizzy red hair. She hailed from Atlanta, had been a Sergeant First Class in the Army, and still had a tendency to lord it over others, particularly Abigail, a sallow speck of a woman who was her silent shadow. They had served together in Afghanistan. Laurie could barely tolerate Nancy, and the feeling was mutual. She walked down the hall past the other residential rooms and the telephone booth at the end of the aisle. A few of the women had cell phones; others barely owned the clothes on their backs and were homeless, as Laurie had almost been. She took the stairs slowly in no apparent rush, her depression easing with each step, her sense of humor at this shitty situation gradually being restored.