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  • shanercollinsautho

Short Story: The Naked Mattress


"The Naked Mattress" is and excerpt from my unpublished collection ROTC-Land and first appeared in Upender in 2015


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            Cadet Amanda Funk tossed her rucksack and Kevlar helmet onto the naked mattress. She lived in a two-person dorm room at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst where she was a first year ROTC cadet. Because of her strange hours – waking up at five-thirty in the morning most weekdays – her roommate had requested new housing after just three weeks. The bare mattress she left behind was a constant reminder that Amanda was alone.

            She didn’t mind having the whole room to herself. Some students paid a premium to get a single. But Amanda did get lonely sometimes, like right now. She wanted someone else to be in her room, to share this space with her for just a little while so that it didn’t feel so much like solitary confinement.

            Of the students living next to her, two were junior biology students who spent more time studying in the Du Bois library than they did in their room, and the other two were theater students who made strange faces when they saw Amanda in her Army uniform. Her BDU fatigues set her apart from the other students at the school. The camouflage uniform made her an outsider before she had a chance to introduce herself.

            Amanda pulled off her boots and socks, both sodden from the weekend’s heavy rains. She had just come back from a weekend training exercise at a nearby base. It was the biggest ROTC event of the semester, what they had trained for since August. Parts of it had been fun, but mostly it was tiring. It had rained most of the time and the temperature had hovered at forty-five degrees the whole weekend. A sergeant said if it got any colder, they’d have to herd the cadets into the barracks to prevent hypothermia. But the temperature never dipped below that line because she slept in her sleeping bag outside with only an old, worn poncho covering her from the rain. She looked at her rucksack, a fifty pound monstrosity, and grimaced. A spare sheet stuck out from her hamper and she threw it over the rucksack and the bare mattress so she wouldn’t have to look at either.



            She unbuttoned her BDU blouse, pulled off her trousers and T-shirt, sports bra and underwear and wrapped herself in a towel. The bathroom was adjacent to her room. Before she left, she took her glasses off. Thick lenses with wide, round frames that made her look like an owl. They were Army regulation, though, and since they’d been firing rifles over the weekend, she was required to wear them instead of her contacts. They called them BCGs, or Birth Control Glasses, since they were hideous enough to be an effective form of contraception. She put them on her desk and brought a new pair of contacts to the bathroom. The shower was as hot as she could stand, but it did little to warm her up. She lathered her sandy-blonde hair with conditioner and massaged her scalp.

            Amanda was an Army brat, the daughter of a retired full-bird colonel. Growing up, she moved around. Fort Campbell, Fort Bragg, Fort Leonard Wood, and Fort Lewis. Her grades weren't stellar so she ended up at UMass. Amanda had no intention of being an Army officer. She contracted before school began. That is, she passed a medical exam, took a physical fitness test, and signed several dozen papers saying she would graduate from school and serve as an Army officer for seven years. But what most of the cadets didn’t know – the secret her father told her – was that ROTC would pay for a cadet’s tuition and give them monthly pay for a full year. As long as they quit before the end of that year, they were off the hook. No legal troubles, no hard feelings. Take the money and run. So she would do ROTC, go through the motions, and get a free year of college. In July, she’d tell the Colonel in charge of the program, “See you later!”

            But the scheme had a downfall. ROTC alienated her from other college students. Most of them hated the wars in the Middle East and she sensed they distrusted anyone in a uniform. And not taking ROTC seriously alienated her from her ROTC peers. More than anything, Amanda felt alone. After three months of college, she hadn’t made a single friend. Amanda missed her older sister, Stephanie. Moving so many times as a kid, she’d perpetually been the “new girl.” Her big sister had been one of life’s few constants. But now that Amanda was off to college, she was on her own. Stephanie had gone to West Point academy where she actually intended to be an officer. West Point kept her busy. Stephanie called once a week – always on Sunday and always at six-thirty. Amanda checked her watch, wiping off the water as it beaded on the face. Stephanie would be calling in about fifteen minutes. Amanda turned off the water, dried, popped in her contacts, and returned to her room.

            As Amanda sifted through a hamper of clean clothes, searching for pajamas, she realized how bare the walls were. The dorm room measured fifteen feet by twelve feet. The walls were brick slathered in thick white paint, chipped and peeling in places where past students must have hung posters, pictures, or miniature basketball hoops. Maybe she should get some posters. She grabbed a pink highlighter and scribbled a reminder in her planner to get some at the Campus Center. Maybe a poster of Twilight or Fall Out Boy. Something to make the room feel less empty.

            Amanda wore a pink tank top and pink and purple pajama bottoms. She sat down in her bed, crosslegged, and held her phone, waiting for her sister’s call. Six-thirty came and went. Stephanie always called right on time – she was never late. Finally, at six-forty-five, Amanda got a text from her. Sorry sis, can’t talk tonight. Stuck with mess hall duty. Next week.

            She stared at the phone for a while and finally put it facedown. Outside her room’s one window, it was dark outside. The sound of talking and laughter crept in through the shut window. Amanda closed the shade so that her first floor room wouldn’t feel so much like a fishbowl.

She wanted to scream, just to see what would happen. Would someone down the hall knock on her door? See if she was okay? Probably nothing would happen. Or one of the theater girls would ask her to please keep it down. The too-white walls bore down on her and she felt claustrophobic and anxious.

            Amanda hopped off her bed. Under her desk, she’d hidden a bottle of raspberry vodka out of site from passing RAs. She grabbed it now, along with a plastic Solo cup and a can of room temperature Dr Pepper. The cocktail made her cringe but the second sip wasn’t as bad, and the third was even better. She had gotten the bottle of vodka from another ROTC cadet, Gilmette. He was tall and handsome and a year older. He’d helped Amanda put together the bunk bed in her room. After, they’d gone on a date – dinner at Chili’s – he bought the vodka for drinks back at her dorm, and he’d spent the night. He hadn’t called her again, though she hadn’t expected him to.

            She picked up her phone and wondered if any of the frat houses were having parties that night. On a Sunday? Probably not. She was only nineteen and all the bars in the area were twenty-one and older. She felt exhausted but she wanted to go out, maybe meet some people. Someplace she wouldn’t need to wear her uniform so she could be on an even playing field. But she was too tired to think of someplace to go.

            In a few weeks, ROTC was having a Dining-In ceremony, a biannual ball for the cadets. She had asked a cadet, Kerney, to be her date to the ball and he’d said yes. He was a nice guy. He lived in the same building as her, just two floors up, along with another cadet, Krieger. Kerney was cute and drove her to PT every morning. Could she go up to their room? Maybe they were watching TV and she could join them. But she didn’t remember which room was theirs.

            She picked up her phone, cycled through her contacts until she found the Ks, and sent Kerney a message: Having trouble sleeping. Want to come down and have a drink? She put her phone down and finished her vodka soda. However, just as she was swallowing the last of it, something occurred to her and she felt a knot of dread in her stomach. She picked up her phone and realized she had accidentally sent the message to Krieger instead of Kerney. Their names were next to each other in her contact list. But before she could message him back, he texted her, Sounds great. On my way.

            She did not know what to think. At first embarrassed, but now that he was actually coming down, she almost felt relieved. He’d probably bring Kerney anyway. Amanda went around the room making it look as clean as possible. She shoved the rucksack off the bed and to the corner of the room throwing the sheet on the bare mattress so it wouldn’t be such an eyesore. She threw dirty clothes into the hamper on top of the clean ones and tossed empty soda cans and old sandwich wrappers into the gray plastic trash bin.

            Someone knocked on the door and Amanda turned around. Krieger stood there alone. He was wearing an brown Army T-shirt and basketball shorts. She could tell immediately that he hadn’t showered since they’d returned from the Field Training Exercise. Dirt covered his cheeks like blush. “Hey,” he said. He smiled though he looked even more tired than she was.

            “Kerney already asleep?” she asked.

            “Like a baby.”

            “Come in,” she said and stood away from the door. She poured herself a second drink and took out another Solo cup to pour one for Krieger. She used her pinky to mix each drink and handed the new cup to Krieger.

            “Thanks,” he said and sat on her ex-roommate’s abandoned bed.

            She opened her laptop and turned on some music. Panic! At the Disco. And then, she didn’t know why, she decided not to sit on her own bed but instead on the abandoned mattress next to Krieger, though on the corner so there was a comfortable distance between them.

            “So what was your favorite part of FTX?” she asked him. Krieger was a first year cadet, same as her.

            “Getting back,” he said. They both laughed.

            “Same.”

            “I like your room.” Krieger looked over the white walls. “Very sparse. Post-modern. Oriental.”

            Amanda smiled. Oriental and post-modern sounded much nicer than bleak and empty.

            “It was nice of you to ask Kerney to Dining-In.”

            “He’s a really nice guy.” She felt uncomfortable at the mention of his name. “Are you going with anyone?”

            “Nope,” he said. “I don’t plan to. I had a girlfriend in high school. We tried the long distance thing for a month or two but it didn’t work out.”

            “Aww,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

            Krieger shook his head and took a sip of his drink. He seemed to want to talk about his high school girlfriend as much as she wanted to talk about Kerney. “What are you hoping to branch in the Army?”

            Amanda hesitated. She hadn’t told any of the other cadets that she was just playing the system. But she suddenly felt like she could trust Krieger. “I’m actually not planning on staying in. They don’t tell you it, but you can contract, let the Army pay for your first year of school, and then quit before your Sophomore year.” It felt good to tell someone the truth. It was probably the most intimate thing she’d shared with someone at UMass.

            “Really?” he said. “That’s smart. How’d you hear about that?”

            “My dad’s a Colonel,” she said.

            “Uh oh,” Krieger said and held up his hands like he was surrendering. “The Colonel’s daughter. You never mess with a colonel’s daughter.”

            She laughed. “Stop it. It’s nothing like that and, besides, he’s retired.”

            He smiled. “Okay.” He looked at her for a moment, his brow furrowed like he was seeing her for the first time. “Ditched the glasses?”

            “Yeah.”

            “You look really pretty without those glasses.”

            “Thanks.” He looked at her for a few seconds and Amanda felt an awkward tension. At last, he finished his drink, leaned toward her and set it on the desk behind her. She hadn’t planned to, but when he leaned toward her, she kissed him.

            His lips were syrupy sweet and tasted like something familiar. Was it licorice or menthol? She wasn’t sure. They kissed awkwardly for a few seconds, closed lips, and then Krieger’s mouth opened and he sidled toward her. His hand brushed against her knee, grabbed her leg, and then went under her shirt. She didn’t stop him. Krieger kissed her neck and his syrup-breath was hot on her skin. She ran her fingers through his hair and found it rain-wet and oily. He smelled like dirt and sweat and body odor, the way she imagined a farm hand might smell.

            He pulled her pink tank top off and kissed her breasts. She worked his shirt over his shoulders and pulled it off, the fabric sodden and filthy, grimy with sweat and rain and caked with dirt.

            She dug her nails into the muscles of his arms as he clumsily pulled off her pajama bottoms and then his own basketball shorts. She wondered if he had drunk anything before he’d come down.

            “Do you have any condoms?” he asked.

            “Yeah,” she said and wriggled out from under him. She had a half dozen in her top desk drawer, under some legal pads and index cards. Standing naked, she felt suddenly exposed, as though the moment were slipping away and soon they would be, once again, two naked strangers in an empty room together. She hurried back to bed and opened one of the condoms. She partially unraveled it and tried to put it on his penis but he soon went soft.

            He kissed her mouth, her shoulders and chest as she played with him, feeling him become hard again in her hand. She opened the second condom but as she worked it on, he went flaccid all over again.

            “Sorry,” he said.

            “Are you clean?” she asked.

            “Yeah.”

            She shrugged. “Then don’t worry about it. I’m on birth control.”

            She played with him again until he went hard. Krieger guided his penis with his hand but he was too quick and too rough and it hurt her at first. After a minute, though, it felt okay, and then it felt pretty good. After ten minutes, she could feel him growing limp inside her. It went on like that for a while – she couldn’t say how long – maybe an hour or two. At last he did finish and after, she went to the bathroom to pee and wipe as much out of her as she could.

            She crawled back into bed and he put his arm around her. Krieger fell asleep in minutes, without another word, and began to snore. It was not an obnoxious, unpleasant sound though. She actually liked listening to his snoring. It was low and baritone, how she’d imagine a hibernating bear would sound. It was an auditory acknowledgement that she was not alone. She lay in bed with his arm around her, listening to the sounds of his snoring and the occasional pitter-patter of rain and wind against the glass window for a long time. Amanda liked the feel of an arm around her – it didn’t matter much who it belonged to. She supposed this moment, that the desire for this feeling – being inside someone’s arms, feeling a man’s breath on her, knowing that she had satisfied someone, that she was perhaps not loved, but at least liked – was why she had sent the text to begin with.

            She began to feel bad, ashamed even, that she had slept with Krieger when she had really wanted Kerney and had already asked him to Dining-In, but her own crushing desire to not feel alone overwhelmed that feeling. It made the other feeling the shadow of a regret.

             So Amanda lay in the abandoned bed with Krieger for several hours, not sleeping, only measuring the weight of his forearm draped across her belly, marking time with the rise and fall of his chest, feeling the small hairs on his arms as she brushed her fingers over them. She didn’t let herself sleep because if she did, she wouldn’t be able to enjoy it. Finally, when the palest glow of dawn pressed against her drawn shades and seeped into her double bedroom which had become a single, she shook Krieger’s arm gently.

            He awoke with a start and looked at her, perhaps wondering where he was.

            “Sun’s coming up,” she whispered. “You should get back to your own room before Kerney wakes up.”

            “Okay,” he said.

            “And please don’t tell Kerney.” She didn’t think he would but she wanted to be sure. “I don’t want to hurt his feelings.”

            “Sure,” he said. “I won’t.” He gathered his clothes and left the room.

            Amanda crept off of the strange mattress and returned to her own bed with its familiar blankets and pillows. She closed her eyes and was able to sleep, alone, though not so lonely.




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