Sooner or later the other soldiers in the squad were going to kill him. It was only a matter of time. Victor had never done anything to antagonize the brutes he worked with, but he was sure they hated him, or soon would.
He had wanted such a different life. He had wanted to be a teacher, but war had come and schools were closed. Many teachers were killed, many disappeared. Both of Victor’s parents were dead; he had joined the army out of necessity. Now all he wanted was to stay alive.
He tried to concentrate on the paperback in his hand. Victor was reading Of Mice and Men
– very slowly, and with an English—Spanish dictionary – but even reading at this turtle’s pace, he was touched by the loyalty between the two men: big, dumb Lenny and shrewd, crabby George. John Steinbeck knew that people should exist in pairs. Victor would have given anything for a friend, someone to be loyal to, but there was no one like that in this place.
A friend might have helped stem the tide of fear that rose around him; he could feel it lapping at his chin. Soon the waters would close over his mouth and nose and he would drown altogether. The Captain hated him to be reading, he knew that, but there was simply no other way, lacking a friend, that he could distract himself from the fear that – maybe not for a month, maybe not for two – the other soldiers were going to kill him.
In America, now, things would be different. They had jobs in America, not war. You didn’t have to carry a rifle to prove your manhood. He could go to a vast American city and lose himself among the crowds. No one would know what a coward he was. He would work at two jobs, three if necessary, and perhaps one day open a restaurant or a store. Maybe New York, maybe Washington, he hadn’t decided yet. That was the nice thing about a fantasy, there were no decisions to make. He devoted himself to the study of English, knowing that one day he would speak it in America. Oh, all of the soldiers spoke a little English, but none of them could read it – he wasn’t even sure if his uncle could read it.
Not that he could lose himself for long in fantasy, not at the little school. The air was sour with the smell of bodily fluids. The guardroom was a tiny space between the cells and the interrogation room. Pretty much the only thing the soldier on guard had to do was to bring the latrine bucket to the cells as needed, and to shoot anyone who tried to escape. There was no chance of that. Guard duty was easy, but the stench from the cells was not something you could forget for more than a few minutes at a time.
“Reading again.” The Captain filled the entire doorway, casting a shadow over the book.
“Yes. Same story,” Victor said, showing the cover. Anger emanated from his uncle like heat from a stove.
Captain Peña did not even glance at the book. “That’s why you took guard duty, I suppose. Even though it’s not your turn.”
“The others enjoy their card games. I thought, why not let them?”
“You don’t do it for them. You do it because you want to read.”
“Well, yes,” he said with what he hoped was a disarming smile. “Reading is definitely my vice.”
“Don’t imagine you’re making friends by taking extra duty. You read in here because you don’t want to be with them. You think they don’t know that?”
“They like cards, I like books. Why is that a problem?”
“Don’t be stupid. They know you are from a different class. By reading, you rub their noses in it.”
“I don’t think I’m better than them.”
“Then you’re even stupider than I thought. With your background and education? Of course you are better than them. But you’re a corporal, not a general, and from now on you take your breaks like everybody else. You spend your free time with your brothers-in-arms.”
“It’s just going to cause trouble, sir. They don’t want me around.”
“They never will, if you don’t make the effort.”
A prisoner called out, “Please. I need the bucket. I can’t wait any longer.”
Victor started to get up.
“Sit down. I’m talking to you.”
Victor sat down.
“I’m beginning to wonder why I saved your ass. I should have let Casarossa put you in front of that firing squad.”
“Please don’t think I’m ungrateful, sir. I’m very grateful.” That was true. He was still amazed that his uncle, whom he had never known all that well, had saved him.
“I didn’t do it for you. What would your father do if he knew he had a coward for a son?”
“He would have shot me himself,” Victor said. “He would have had no mercy.”
“Exactly. You didn’t deserve any. That fake wound on your head.”
“The wound was not fake, sir. I ran into a guy wire.”
“Very convenient to fall into a ditch just when the firefight is about to begin. Quite a coincidence.”
“I can’t say. I don’t know what happened.”
“Oh, of course not. You were unconscious through the whole thing.”
The prisoner called out again, “Please. The bucket. I can’t hold out any longer.”
Victor started to stand.
His uncle screamed so that the veins stood out on his neck. “You get up when I tell you to get up and not before! You think our dainty little prisoners need a bucket every time they whine for one? Forget the prisoners. The prisoners are dogs.”
“Dogs.” The Captain took out a handkerchief and mopped his brow. He spoke more softly, as if he had suddenly remembered they were blood relatives. “I blame myself for letting things slide. Two weeks go by and you don’t make the slightest effort to fit in. Well, things are going to change, understand?”
“Number one: no more reading. Is that clear?”
“Number two: you spend your free time with your squad. Is that
“Number three: I’m going to be on your tail night and day. No more mollycoddling. You’re my nephew, you’re a Peña – I expect more of you, not less.”
“Every day I’m going to move you a little bit closer to the heart of what we do in this place. If you stay on the edge, the others won’t trust you. I know the work is hard, I know it doesn’t come naturally. You think I like this work?”
“I hate this work. God knows how I hate this work. But it’s my duty, and you do your duty or you are nothing but a traitor, you understand?”
“Holy Mother, the things I’ve had to witness. They would make you sick just to hear about them. The war has forced this on us, the fucking Communists. I get no pleasure from what we do here. I just do my job, understand? And from now on, you will be one with the team. Otherwise, I’ll send you back to Casarossa with my apologies. Or maybe not. Maybe I’ll just shoot you myself.”
The Captain’s anger seemed to ebb again. He took out his handkerchief and mopped his brow, and when he put it away his tone was softer.
“Listen, Victor, I have seen even some of the worst soldiers eventually shape up. I’m not giving up on you. First opening that comes available, I’ll pull some strings and send you for training. Real training. They have a wonderful facility in Panama. Even better would be the United States. Fort Benning. That would be the best.”
“The United States,” Victor breathed with hope. “I could go to Fort Benning?”
“Possibly. But it’s for soldiers, not cowards. Next detainee we bring in, I don’t care who it is, you are going to get some hands-on experience, is that understood?”
“Yes, sir. Understood, sir.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Breaking Lorca by Giles Blunt. Copyright © 2009 by Giles Blunt. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.