John was accustomed to fighting his own demons, but this was different – this was forced battle with the demons of others.
His feet slammed rhythmically and heavily onto the high street’s tarmac, as he stumbled occasionally into potholes and puddles. Every torturous footfall led him further and further from those he loved. It seemed there was little choice but to continue the march.
His flimsy excuses given grovelingly at the rebels’ enlistment office had borne no results, and neither had his efforts at feigned illness at the doctors. He had neither flat feet nor mental issues. Neither was he in a profession which would get him out of the march and back to safety. It seemed his ‘demons’ were not enough. Everyone had demons nowadays, he knew that, but most were nebulous and delicate – they were demons of the ‘what if’ variety, or of the ‘political anguish’ variety. Though different, John’s demons were real, and his demons didn’t want to march.
As his feet tramped heavily in his ill-fitting boots, he knew for certain that he was no freedom fighter. He was one of life’s accepters, or cowards, perhaps - choose your word according to your political persuasion. He would prefer to embrace the differences, amalgamate with the opposition – the victorious battle winners - and adjust to a life different from the one he’d known before. After all, when a country is conquered by a greater power, what can a single person do?
Give in and give ground? Yes. Give up, if need be.
Pre-conquering, their lives had epitomised wonderful western freedom: a freedom his grandfather had been willing to die for, and John was the archetype of leaving things as they are and enjoying his east coast English life. It was a simple seaside life, with no recourse to politics or militia or men with big flags and bigger egos.
Surrender, to his granddad would have been the equivalent of burning in hell, but to John, it was simply surviving in Hull. He accepted life as they knew it. Accepted what life had become. Believed the changes could work, even.
His daughter, who believed in nothing other than unicorns and wonderment, demanded that he stay. ‘Don’t march, daddy,’ she’d begged. She wanted to wake to the fuzzy fluff of a toy raccoon’s face, not to the gunfire of rebellion. That was why he was here. Not for the country and the other soldiers, but for the child who wanted the world to be nicer and prettier, because she was the only one in this great, big overtaken country who he could rely on.
The rebellion unit (ridiculously named ‘The Paths of Destruction’) was marching out from Hull today, and from every other major area of population across the entire country. He’d heard of uprisings in the tiny Welsh village where his family usually spent their holidays, and of crowds assembled at railway stations and car parks throughout all the cities still standing.
Marches were to be televised by the few remaining independent TV channels, and would be broadcast with accompanying stories of uprising amongst the country’s young men. No longer allowed to fight for their country in war, they instead were to fight for their country’s freedom on the streets. But the new government shut down the independent news channels, confiscated film equipment, and jailed the rebel leaders. And still, underground, the marches were planned, each participant aware of the risks, but accepting of them too. All except John.
There would be some life or death decisions occurring that day, thought John. Many of other marchers would welcome conflict if it arose. That’s what scared him the most. He wanted only to be left behind in glory, to return to his little family.
But the marchers didn’t care who they took with them. They didn’t care how many would fall, as long as freedom would eventually prevail. Freedom’s high cost. It’s pointless cost, thought John. Who cares about principles when so many lives are on the line.
Four days later, John lay whimpering, surrounded by murdered friends and comrades. They’d been marching for three days with only minimal rest and refreshment, when the trained government troops caught up with them. Their basic weapons and boyish enthusiasm had crumbled against the fully armed foes.
They had walked into the trap: the trap of love for one’s country all gone wrong. He wished he’d assumed an alias. He wished he’d considered what could happen when handheld, miniature nuclear missiles could be deployed en masse by government against its own people. He wished that people had thought and remembered what had happened in the past, when men went to the front to fight with honour and pride. And when so many didn’t return.
The people had dealt with betrayal on top of betrayal. The government had told so many lies.
Four days later, John lay on the cold ground. It seemed he was in a barn. It seemed he was the lone survivor. He heard nothing and saw nothing, just a sea of darkening red and green bodies. But there were odd noises in the dark. Perhaps farm animals, he thought.
But then, just as he was rousing himself to pick his weary body from the ground and investigate, he realised the noises weren’t from animals. They were fire trucks: trucks taken by the government and filled, not with water but with something far more frightening. John had to run.
He broke out of the barn’s back door, still with nobody stirring on the ground. He thought little of leaving his friends behind. There was nothing any rebel could do now, other than to run.
The following morning, there was no buzzing from government fire trucks, there was no shouting, just the sounds of nothing. After an night in the woods, terrified and almost frozen to the bone, John began to make his way back to his home, and to his little girl with her fluffy raccoon.
On empty streets, he was alone, apart from three herons and two small bears, feeding off the streets’ dead.
He walked past his local newsagent’s shop. Their wall was damaged and was gushing a liquid. He wasn’t sure it was water. His friends, Amahl and Sofia were nowhere to be seen.
Inside each and every house or shop window, all he saw was the glittery glow of liquid. He’d seen it before, outside the barn. Embalmment from the outside in.
Why was he here? Why was he the only one who seemed to be alive. He didn’t deserve it and didn’t want it. He was just a joiner. He made fitted bedrooms. He was a simple family man, without brains or valour. His head itched and he was hot and sweating.
Humans feel loss of dignity and embarrassment the most, that’s what he’d always been told. Don’t put people down. Don’t be a pain. But today it wasn’t like that. There was no dignity to have been lost. There was no audience for embarrassment.
All he could think of was his little girl. His warm breath on his daughter’s neck as they cuddled, and how he knew he would discover her face up in her bed, her life once full of accidents waiting to happen, now empty. Now gone.
The march was pointless, but it had been all he could do to protest.
He would rather have died, he thought, as he sat outside his family’s home watching the inevitable glimmering liquid within.
He remembered his daughter saying ‘People aren’t amazed enough. People need to be amazed’ and he cried. He was not amazed. He was broken. They all were. And he wished he'd fought more.