I’ve never hugged somebody for as long as I hug my father. I hug him and I cry, and the tears never stop flowing. I’ve never cried this hard in my life. My mother’s red lipstick is smeared from all the kisses, her eyeliner melting from the tears. I take note of my father’s aged features and his greyed hair. His eyes hold a constant feeling of sombreness; the pain of everything he has been through is engrained somewhere within him and he cannot help but reveal the trauma. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was ever diagnosed with melancholia – it’s a possibility. Being back with my father after eight years apart feels so surreal, so unusual. It feels like a missing void has been filled, but it also feels too unfamiliar and odd. It’s the kind of unfamiliarity I would feel for the rest of my life if I had to.
All the remaining soldiers are being brought back in groups over the next few days instead of all at once, congesting platforms and Division Squares. They are sent straight to the Division they lived in prior to the war, after a few medical and psychological examinations. Unless they have strong symptoms of delirium or melancholia, chances are that a slightly troubled and depressed soldier would still be given the pass to go home.
I would like to say I’m happy my father is back, and everything is just relief, smiles and tears of joy, but unfortunately that’s not the case.
After all, my father is back because we have lost the war.
The news first aired a few weeks ago, and it wasn’t in the subtlest or pleasant way. There was a sudden power cut followed by a piercing siren that bored straight into our skulls as we sat amongst the audience of a fashion show. It brought everyone into a chaotic panic, yelling and shuffling in the dark. The music had faded to silence and the models vanished into darkness. I can remember grabbing onto Vera’s wrist in fear as she ducked beside me, hoping that I didn’t lose her amongst the crowd of disorientated citizens. The best thing we could do was collapse into the floor and cover our ears, hoping the noise would end sooner or later.
The noise didn’t stop, even when the lights returned. We had always heard about sirens going off in the city, but it had never happened during our lifetime.
A PSA warning ordered everybody to congregate in the H.D. Square once the sirens ended and I was waiting for my ears to stop ringing. After redeeming ourselves, Vera and I made our way to the Square where hundreds of people gathered, staring up at the large projection ahead, scaling one end of the Square. General Sander, the commander of the S.E., looked down on us like a peering god.
His following speech was long, powerful, frightening.
“Greetings, citizens of the Northern,” he boomed. “I would like to make an official announcement. As of today, the war between the Empires has drawn to a close. Unfortunately, after a recent brutal defeat, your State had no choice but to surrender and give up all your power to our own military and State. From this point onwards, the Northern Empire is now under the Southern’s control.”
I could hear a chorus of gasps and frightened murmurs spread across the Square. The projection was probably a live streaming, because Sander appeared to wait in silence as the crowd returned to a solemn, hushed silence.
“It has been a long, long battle, and I applaud and congratulate your State for persevering throughout. I give out an abundance of recognition and appraisal for the soldiers who fought to the death to uphold your State’s power. It is both a bittersweet ending, but it would have been nonetheless.” I looked to Vera, whose eyes watered in pure fear for what was to come. She, along with many people knew that our doom would likely come in the worst form, after hearing more about the S.E.’s strategies and Christopher Nestor’s plans. My heart hurt so much, and through all the chaos going on in my head, the only thing that hovered around in the forefront of my mind was if my father and my friends were still alive. I couldn’t bear to hear the news that any of them had gone, right at the end of the journey. It would have been too much to handle.
“Your city will be undergoing a few slight changes in order, both in law, politics and military affairs. The State regulations will change. It’s not decided how yet, but they need to be made less flexible and more firm; something that every citizen would have to follow. There will be selected personnel who will help out in running your city and keeping things in order whilst ours continues to thrive.”
His tone was severely ominous, causing my stomach to turn. “The bottom line is – your beloved General Bidas was a terrible commander. There was no way that you could trust this man with all of your heart – he has led you all to your own defeat before, betraying you to help us gain power. He was a powerful man – good with his words and even better with his looks. He had very promising persona, but I am telling you now – he was anything but promising. If there is anybody you want to blame for your downfall, it is Caile Bidas. You see, once he realised that once there was no way your city could rise up from the cusp of turmoil, he fled, like the coward he was. And I hate to be the one to tell you this news, but Bidas is now no longer with us. He was killed last week.”
This is what I promised I would tell Vera about. But now that it’s happening, I think I should keep it to myself. If she ever realised I saw this all coming before everybody else, I don’t know how she would take it. All I know is that the damage is done now. It’s all over.
The silence in my old home is deafening. My father is fast asleep, and my mother sits watching TV despite not actually watching it. She’s staring into empty air, thinking deeply. Despite our warm reunion, since my father returned this morning, he has been anything but warm, distancing himself from us since he walked through the door. I have a feeling most soldiers have been acting this way. There wasn’t much of a warm ambience in general over at the platforms. Whatever they’ve been through must have been close enough to Hell.
My mother offered him a warm beverage earlier but he declined softly. Now he just occupies the bedroom, silent, fallen into a dark abyss of thought. I’m not sure how to use the time, and I have a compulsion to visit Aris or Osscarte, however I also don’t feel like leaving my father. It’s been damn near ten years since he left. Now he’s here for good, and I really need to cherish that. I need to hold on to that for a while longer; breathe it in before I go back to the H.D.
“Please. Don’t ask.” Hugo says sternly. He stirs his coffee slowly, continuously, as if in some sort of trance. The steam from the heat has long gone and he hasn’t brought the cup to his lips yet. “Don’t ask me how it went. You don’t need to know. I don’t want to think about it. Please don’t ask.”
It’s been three weeks since they all returned, and nobody has been the same. See, when soldiers returned, they never really did ever go back to how they were. But it’s much more noticeable, this strong change; the fact that you can’t avoid a returned soldier, everywhere you turn, due to the abundance of them, means you can’t help but notice how different things really are. It’s harder to believe in the trauma unless you’re constantly surrounded in it. Nothing is the same.
Since Hugo, Eric and Liza came back, they have hardly uttered a word. Just like my father (who my mother constantly updates me on, and how he’s coming around but he’s still not quite there – I don’t think he ever will be). They haven’t even tried to explain what happened, or how their days went. We all just hang around, along with new friends that they met from the frontline, and talk about the trivial useless things in life. It’s easier to avoid the problems that we swim in and act like they don’t exist then constantly remind ourselves that they do.
Every now and then it appears Hugo will say something, like there are words bouncing in his throat, close to leaving his mouth; his lip twitches and his eyes meet mine, but a fleeting second later, they’re back to the ground, and he stares both solemnly and emotionless at the same time.
“It’s not that I don’t want to tell you,” he begins again, eventually. “Well, I don’t. Who does? But it’s just that we’ve been informed to keep as quiet about it as possible. Both for our own wellbeing and for everybody else’s. It wouldn’t be a nice feeling all around if people were just telling constant stories of death. Because that’s what it is, ultimately.”
“I understand,” I respond. “But… you can still tell me. Get it off your chest. We don’t have to talk about it in public. It can be a private thing. Just you and I, if that would ever help.”
He releases a small grin – one of the first I’ve seen from him in weeks. Months. “Why? You think it will be like the last time? I’ll confess how I’m feeling and you’ll comfort me and then…” He bites his tongue then, sobering up his expression. I can already feel heat blushing up the back of my neck.
“I just don’t like this silence, Hugo.” Stick to the main topic. “That’s all. I like it when we talk. And I know there hasn’t been much to say since you left but the truth is that there has. There is always something to talk about.”
“I’ll tell you what. You want something to talk about? Go ahead; spill some interesting story about the mad teachers in the L.D. I’m sure everything has really gotten interesting, since they got their way.”
I frown. “What do you mean they got their way?”
“Oh, isn’t it obvious? I thought you were cleverer than this.” The irritation is seeping in – the same kind that always appears when Aris or Osscarte are ever mentioned. I know he resents the fact that I still associate myself with them. “They got the kind of ruling they always wanted. Of course, it doesn’t help that Aris’ family are the ones tearing us down. Look around, for crying out loud. Look what they’ve made this place.”
And I do look up and face the truth - the reality of Patrolmen constantly roaming around the Division, on every complex floor, waiting for someone to persecute if they raise a pinkie finger. A few people have already been arrested, and that’s a few too many. The rules have changed drastically, and soon a new amendment will have been created, sent to every housing unit as a physical copy for us to read through. I have a feeling it will be quite a shocking read - certainly not a thriller in genres, but a horror story in non-fiction. It feels like there is no more privacy anymore – there is always someone of authority around, ready to tell you where you’re supposed to be or where you shouldn’t be hanging around. We still sneak around dorms, but I think that will be ending soon once the crackdown really hits us. Once the new laws are passed.
“Aris and Osscarte did nothing wrong. If just speaking your mind is enough to label you-”
“The problem doesn’t lie with them speaking their mind. It lies with their actual minds. They’re twisted. Distorted. Osscarte is screwed, there’s no turning back. But Aris is still so young. He could have been better. Maybe even like his brother Anthony. I’m scared you’ll be like this one day.”
“Can we talk about something else, please? I’m tired of this.”
“I do think it is best we move on.” He replies, low tone.
Before we can even begin a new conversation, terror breaks out in the Square.