I decide to ask Liza to accompany me at the lessons, feeling somewhat uncomfortable about turning up without knowing anybody else. Once I’ve given her as much information I know, she agrees to attend with the main reason being because she’s just as intrigued as I am.
I spend the weekend meeting Liza in the Division Park below the complexes where most people mill about in their spare time. We lie on the grass verges, snacking on nuts and reading books loaned from the Central Division’s library. She’s wearing white shorts and a vest top, also donning her two dark plaits.
“How has Law been? Is it something I’ll enjoy?” I ask.
“It’s interesting. Not fascinating, but interesting. You know, just common sense. Learning the rules of the city, inside and out. How you get punished and why.” She finishes her pack of shelled nuts, disposing of the remnants in the nearest waste bin. “How about Athletics?”
“It would be a demanding career. My muscles have never hurt like this in my life.” I chuckle. “I wonder how much worse it is for the boys, you know. They’re probably going through so much more. I think about them a lot.”
“It’s hard not to when most of our fathers are already in the war. If we had no affiliation with it, we wouldn’t care.”
“Maybe, maybe not. I still can’t get over the idea that they just threw as many people as they could into it.”
“And I don’t understand why they only think men can join.” Liza scowls. “What makes them better?”
“It’s how they’re built, I guess.” I reply. The trees glimmer around us, flickering only slightly. Air conditioning blows in cool oxygen around the park. With my head on the ground, I stare up to the top of the Division, the ceiling that separates us from the Higher Division. It looks like it could go on forever, and I sometimes wish it did. The complexes surround us, boxing us in, towering up to the Division ceiling. Fifty floors stand tall with elevators moving up and down the glass walls, as citizens peer down at us.
“It’s not how the men are built. It’s how they’re programmed.” She continues. “It would make much more sense to even out both sexes so there isn’t an odd ratio around the city. We need both men and women here.”
“We have that.”
“Really? Well, then count how many men you can see here.” Liza sits up, gazing around the park. I have to admit that she’s right; the majority of citizens now consist of women and young children. I see widowed mothers with their kids, I see war wives with their friends. I wonder if this is all our city will ever be.
“At least they are announcing an update tonight. We can see how the population might change.” Liza mentions.
“I really want to understand what goes on down in the Caverns.” I pipe up after a moment of silence. The sudden curiosity of it enters my mind.
“Yeah... I mean, don’t you find it odd how war veterans tend to come back intact? No scars or wounds?” Liza points out. I never really thought of it, but the sudden revelation hits me. It’s true; soldiers are admitted to psychiatric hospitals for post-traumatic stress, but they hardly ever have any physical evidence of battle. When my father returned ten years ago, he looked exhausted, and his eyes told me he had been through too much. Either the armour does its job in the war, or certain healing procedures are undertaken once a soldier is dispatched – I don’t know what else could explain why my father hadn’t changed much physically, except for aging through stress.
“The Medical Authority must do their jobs well,” I reply, too sceptically to be sure. “But then again, if a leg is blown off in battle, what are they supposed to do?”
Liza contemplates quietly, making a face that suggests there are words she is hesitating to let out. I feel like there has been something she has wanted to say since the E.O.I ball. Just by reading her body language, there seems to be something significant happening in her life. What it is, or who, I can’t really tell.
We spend the rest of the day at my house, before she departs to hers at the opposite side of the
Division, across the park. We don’t talk much more about the war for the rest of our hangout.
My mother lets out a long sigh and slacks her shoulders when my father’s name doesn’t appear as a casualty on the TV screen. My heart starts beating again. My mother kisses the necklace of Adaven that hangs around her neck, thanking Her for protecting her husband.
Adaven is the goddess of war, becoming prominently worshipped once the Southern Empire declared battle against us. She has been a huge part of the city’s motivation to fight and fight well. Myths tell us that she led an army alone, with no help of men, or anybody for that matter. She stood with her soldiers and the opposition stood with their own. She stood tall with her shield and her helmet, glinting gold, protected with armour. Despite leading the army, she didn’t include herself in all the physical combat that the war came with. She is known and praised for her tactics in the war she fought in. She won with her mind, finding a way to outdo the opponents using skilful methods. She lay out their defeat in front of them, without them even knowing.
Adaven’s approach to the war is how we have been taught to fight - not to run straight in with guns blazing but to plan our attacks way ahead. After Adaven’s army triumphed in battle, She was crowned the Warrior Queen, and when She was eventually assassinated, She was turned into a Saint. Eventually, Her status was heightened to Goddess – and here She is, her omnipresence ruling over us. I really do hope that out of all the things She is capable of, answering my mother’s prayers will always be one of them.
Waiting for the war updates is the torture we have to go through every few weeks. Waiting for our father to come back cold, lifeless, lying on a slab, ready to be cremated. Or waiting for him to come back just as a shell. Waiting for our city to fall or to rise.
At this point, it’s all I’ve ever really known. I’m so used to tuning in to the haunting static and humming of the TV as they talk about death. For the past three decades, it has been more known to us than life itself.
“Would you like to talk to your father?” My mother asks softly, still clutching onto her Adaven necklace.
“...Only if you talk to me about him. Tell me something I might want to know. Just talk about him with me. For once.”
My mother stares at the screen ahead of us before deciding to switch it off. “OK. This is it. I’ll tell you a little story about your father. And once it’s over, you will talk to him. Tell him how your days are going. Yes?”
“So,” She clutches onto her necklace. “Your father moved up from the Second Division to study in the Fourth, as he was told the seminaries were better here. I had never, ever really seen him before until we met in the Seniors. It was such a breath of fresh air; to get to know somebody that I hadn’t spent my entire childhood trying to tolerate. And it was also nice, because, it felt good to know that I was loved by somebody, once we were comfortable with each other and we could spill our hearts out more. It felt good to finally realise I wouldn’t live my life in solitude anymore.”
“Isn’t that lovely.” I mumble. My heart is warm, but I don’t want to show it.
“Listen. The truth is, I just... I just don’t want to keep him in the air. I don’t want to constantly be talking about him, for your sake as well as mine. I don’t want to keep talking about him and then knowing one day he might be gone, and then I’ll have to keep correcting myself when I talk about him in present tense. It will hurt every time I do. It hurts just to mention his name; just to know he’s out there and he’s not here with us. I just want to save us both the pain.”
“All I know is that you’ll regret it. What if he does die? Wouldn’t that be terrible, knowing that he was never even acknowledged by his own wife and daughter?”
My mother’s eyes start watering. I can tell that she’s been repressing intense feelings for years. The bedroom walls are thick and soundproof, so if she ever cries at night, I wouldn’t ever hear.
“Your father got me this necklace, just a few weeks before he first joined the war.” She diverts the conversation. “I think we decided to watch a theatre performance in the Central Division just to pass the time and forget about the near future. On the way back home, he took this out of his pocket and placed it in my hand. He was living up in the H.D. for training, and he wasn’t supposed to be down in any other Divisions for a certain amount of time. He later called and said he would have put the necklace on me himself, but there were only thirty seconds left of his curfew to spare when he gave me the necklace and dashed for the main lift. Unfortunately, that was the last time I spoke to him in the flesh for four years. Everything else was just phone calls and emails.” She shakes her head.
“I like to think that this necklace has given us good luck ever since it was handed to me. There is a reason why your father is still alive. I’ve always felt like it was instilled within this tiny jewel. I like to think Adaven blessed us.”
“We can only hope so,” I say.
More silence looms over us, until my mother speaks up again. “I was eleven when the war was first announced. Now here I am, almost in my forties, with a husband and a child, and it’s still raging. Every now and then, I just think about how we could have just been a stable, happy family, you know? We could have had a bigger ration to split between us. We could have had everything. Or even just a little bit more than we do.”
“Maybe one day we will.”
“I’ve thought that every day for the past few decades. There comes a point where hope gets tired of standing alone. There comes a point in time where if hope is still waiting to be accompanied by a happy ending, there is no point in it.”
I feel happier that my mother decided to speak up more about what was unsettling her as opposed to just clamping her lips shut and circumventing the issues that suffocate us every single day. Not only can I applaud her for her openness about things, but I now know the origin and meaning behind the necklace that she has never taken off.
I take a quick glance at the family photo that hangs above our TV before making my way to the hallway to talk to my father.
Phone calls to anybody in the war are limited to forty-five minutes a day, whether it be one big phone call or bouts of ten-minute conversations. We are all given a certain time range to call in, because if everybody called soldiers at once, the lines would go haywire. My mother and I were signed at any time between six and nine in the evening which is the best slot, because most soldiers would be wrapping up and heading to base camps. The worst times to call are when combat is usually the most intense, around noon. I know that Liza’s phone call slot happens to be around that time, so she hardly gets to speak to her father as much as I have the opportunity.
The phone call with my father is warned to be brief. He congratulates me on the awards, asks me how my life is going, what my trials are. I respond in short, quick sentences. Despite my outward appearance of having no interest to converse with my father, I realise how warming it feels to hear his voice again; the last time I talked to him was just over a month ago. Each talk always gives me intense nostalgia, making me reminisce the days when he spent three years of my living memory back at home, always making himself heard around the house. There was never a moment of silence with my father. He took all the noise with him, it seems. All the laughter has been put on hold, and all the jokes are long-gone. I can only pray he’ll bring them all back with him if he ever returns.
“How is combat going?” I ask.
“Well what?” I snap, nervously.
“It’s looking bleak. I’ve already lost a lot of comrades. I think I have only two good friends that are still alive.”
I sigh. “What are the chances of victory?”
The silence that follows spells the answer out, loud and clear. I am already taking in the negative prediction by the time he finally tells me.
“…There’s always hope. I don’t want you to wallow in pessimism. There’s always a chance that things pick up. Our State is beginning to administer stronger weaponry and ammunition. One of the biggest differences between us and the Southern Empire is our weapons. We’re not sure how they are so much more equipped than we are, but they are, and it’s bringing us down.”
“The bottom line is, Dad... I can’t stand to wake up to bad news every single day. It’s tiring.”
“I can’t stand waking up to no wife, no daughter. I can’t stand waking up to hearing who’s been taken out next. The future isn’t bright, but it can get brighter. I just need for you to hold on a little longer. Is that alright?” He tries to ignite the conversation with more optimism. To me, it’s futile.
“I can try.” I mumble.
Once I hang up, I start helping Mother with dinner. Preparing dinner is never a huge task, twenty minutes at the least. I tend to cut up vegetables whilst my mother boils a carbohydrate-fuelled meal, and I make some gravy with the chopped greens.
We eat in silence, like we always do.