“It’s my sad duty to inform you, sir, that your husband, Sgt. Jones, was killed in action.”
“No! There’s been a mistake! An…Anthony…he said it was okay…”
“Sit down, please.” Edward tugged again and this time August let himself be moved to a chair.
“Sir, the Plethorian’s launched a massive assault. They charged the guns, most of them unarmed, by the thousands. They kept up the assault with wave after wave of suicidal fighters until the guns were dry and the shock rounds were spent. In nearly sixty years of fighting there has never been an operation like this. It was unexpected and couldn’t have been planned for. Your husband has been awarded the Bronze Crown of Valor and the title of Hero of the Empire. Please accept the deepest condolences on behalf of the Armed Services and His Majesty, the King.”
The words sounded like hollow echoes and August stood up. His head felt light and he was afraid he was going to become ill. “Excuse me, please.” He mumbled and hurried to disappear into the bathroom.
His head was spinning, but he needed to get away from what couldn’t be true. He ran cold water over his hands and splashed it over and over again on his face. It helped to settle his stomach, but his mind wanted to scream a denial of rage and pain. When he thought he might not pass out he turned the water off but he couldn’t bring himself to open the bathroom door. The walls weren’t thin, but the door wasn’t very well insulated and the space was small. As soon as he had the water turned off he could hear them out in his living space.
“Is there someone we can call? Family?” He heard the military man ask.
“No, none he’s close to. He’s some cousins, an aunt but I don’t think they’ve even spoken in years.”
“No parents or siblings? He shouldn’t be alone right now.”
“His family was killed in a transport accident a couple of years after he came here to school. Anthony was his only family.”
“What about Sgt. Jones’ family?”
“A sister and brother, both in the service. They’ll make it to the funeral I’m sure, but it’ll be a couple of days pass at best. They won’t be able to get here anytime soon.”
“We like to stay until someone is able to be with the families we’ve just informed.”
August shook his head. “Please, please, go away…” He whispered.
There was a lingering silence while Edward tried to think of any other relations. “I’ll stay with him. Make sure he’s not alone.”
“We prefer a family member.”
“I’m his brother in the eyes of God and the King and I’m a Brother of Mercy. I’ll make sure he’s not alone.”
“Please, go away.” August whispered again.
“Okay, but please remind him that he has the entire support of the King’s Army to call upon if he needs us.”
“Thank God.” August whispered.
“I’ll unlock his access now but, sir, we highly recommend he not watch that letter alone.”
August heard some more words, expressions of sympathy but he was glad to hear sounds of farewell. The last thing he could stand was a man in uniform that wasn’t Anthony in their apartment. He didn’t think he could stand that when the reality of Anthony not coming home hadn’t even really sunk in yet.
“He’s gone. You can come out now.” Edward spoke.
Carefully, August opened the door. “It’s true?” He asked but he could see it was from the sorrow in Edward’s dark eyes.
“I’m so sorry.” He opened his arms.
It was an invitation August needed. He was already bone weary exhausted and the arms that wrapped around him stole what little bit of strength he had left.
“Opps, hang on there… it’s okay.” Edward whispered and caught his friend when his body sagged. “Here we go… let’s get you sitting down…”
He let his friend flop him down onto the soft couch and was surprised to feel his body was shaking but it didn’t feel like his own body. He wanted to wail but he couldn’t move. He let Edward sit next to him and just stay near him.
“Did you eat today?”
He shook his head.
“Guess you won’t eat now, but we’ll get you something later. I’m going to stay here with you, okay? Or you can come stay at my place?”
“No.” He snapped and clutched at the sofa. He couldn’t leave the apartment he shared with Anthony. It was irrational but what if they’d made a mistake? If they had he needed to be where they could find him.
“Auggie? I already checked, they won’t postpone your exams. If you’re not in your seat in two days time you’ll have to repeat the year.”
“I’m going to keep trying…”
“No, I’ll be okay. He wants me to do well during the exams. He’s expecting me to pass so he can be here for graduation.”
“Auggie, he’s not going…”
“I know…” He covered his face with his hands. “He has funeral services already planned out. He wanted an open casket…”
“I’ve been told that won’t be possible. You don’t need to think about that tonight.”
“Oh God…” He moaned at the thought, but took a deep breath and tried to calm himself down. It didn’t feel real and seemed like a dream. “What’s this about a letter?”
“About that, I don’t think you should see it tonight.”
“Anthony sent you some letters while he was transferring to the outpost. They’ve caught up.”
“Why block… he sent a goodbye, didn’t he?” It had been a promise, to say goodbye if things looked bad. August had always known that his husband kept one recorded when he went out on patrol and deleted it when he returned safely. He’d never asked how many times his husband had made a final letter that hadn’t been used, he’d never wanted to know, but Anthony had always promised him that should the worst happen, he would say goodbye.
“Yeah, he did.”
“I need to see it.”
“It will be there tomorrow.”
“No, no I…” He closed his eyes. “I need to see it or it won’t feel real.”
Edward wasn’t sure it was a good idea, but he knew August to be a fairly sensible man and aware of his own limits. “Okay… okay…” He flipped through the files of the now working unit and pulled up the letter that he’d been shown previously.
The screen clicked on and the visual jumped around a little. In the background he could here people shouting and the dull whomping sound of shock rounds being fired. When the camera finally settled down it focused on Anthony’s face. He was a little sweaty and grimy but otherwise didn’t look bad.
“Heya, Augs, I try to keep this updated, but I have to be quick. Some of the others are going to try to squeeze in a letter before the upload limit is reached. Hopefully these won’t get sent but, well, things look hairy right now. They just came out of the jungle, thousands of them and they’re not stopping. We thought we could hold out until help got here but… anyway, that doesn’t matter.” He grinned and the worry melted from his face. “I love you. Don’t you dare ever forget that. Every day since I met you I’ve been happy, I can’t thank you enough for that. I’m sorry, Augs but I’m going to have to break my promise, I don’t think I’m going to make it home this time. That’s my only regret, not being able to hold you one last time.” Someone shouted behind him and Anthony glanced over his shoulder for a second. “You pass your exams, you become the best Guide anyone has ever seen. If something happens to me, promise me you’ll try to find love again. Don’t you mourn me for too long, you hear? I won’t stand for it.” He had to stop to rub at his face. “I love you, August, I love you so much. Goodbye, sweetie.” The letter went dark and the screen asked if they wanted to save, replay or delete.
It was more than August could stand. Anthony never said goodbye unless it was goodbye. He wasn’t coming home, he really wasn’t coming home and the truth of it was crushing. He wanted to sob and cry and all he felt was utter and complete exhaustion. His world had dissolved instantly and all he wanted was to crawl into bed and never get back out.
He didn’t stay there. With Edward’s help he crawled out again to attend his final exam but he ran through the marathon exams on autopilot. It no longer seemed important if he passed, he only showed up because Anthony had wanted him to. Exhausted from the strain of his exams and now the weight of grief he moved like a zombie to attend the funeral. Edward pushed him to shave and dress and got him to the funeral. He was surprised at how many of his classmates and teachers showed up and it touched him. The mourners seemed to be clearly made up of two factions, those of the military and those in the Orders of Faith. Anthony had been well liked by all he’d met and August accepted the folded flag from his coffin with as much grace and dignity as he could.
The funeral merged with his graduation ceremony the next day. He would have skipped it if Edward hadn’t been there to help him. The idea of attending a celebration felt too much, too exhausting to even consider, but for his friend’s sake he did. The speeches and invocations, spoken oaths and vows all blurred into a haze that later he wouldn’t be able to recall but August had been shocked to find out he was graduating the top of his class. He accepted the honor and award in numbness, bowed his head to accept his Dean’s blessing, and to allow the gold chain of his new rank to be slipped around his neck. Somehow he managed to stay still and quiet for the rest of the ceremony but as soon as it finished he lost all sense of his control. He sat in his seat and wept, quietly but he still sat and finally broke down. His friends stopped leaving the hall and came back to sit around him and he thought, maybe, he could make it through the day.
One day turned to two, and turned to a week, and then a month. August managed to get his life moving but it was methodical, because he was doing only what was expected of him. After a few weeks Edward stopped babysitting him, and most people assumed he was okay, but he knew he was faking it. He kept on faking it through his apprenticeship and by the time he applied for, and accepted to, his first position, he couldn’t tell what was fake and what was real.
And once he was granted permission to serve a territory on a mining colony called Jacob’s Fall, he wasn’t certain he was faking anything any longer. He’d settled into a steady level of not too happy but not too sad, capable of doing his job and doing it well, but he rarely laughed any more. Jacob’s Fall turned out to be a good place for him and he settled in to his role as Guide with ease and found a new home. Life was a little emptier, but he had his work and that was enough.
August turned and smiled. “Morning, David.” He touched the brim of his hat as the man he passed actually half tipped his hat in respect. He’d given up his shiny black shoes for dull waterproof boots and his feet slipped a little on the muddy street.
“Lot of rain last night.”
“Sure was, creek didn’t flood though.”
“Thank God for that.”
“Indeed!” The roads would be mud until at least noon, but so early in the morning everything was a mess. August didn’t mind, the sun was shining and the small town was buzzing with people already up and moving about their days and the sun had barely risen. There were wooden boardwalks in front of the homes and business, but his home and chapel was on the outskirts of town on the hill and the transport depot he was headed to was on the other side of town, again off of the town’s carefully laid out boardwalks. He found a quiet joy in the squish of mud around his boots as he tromped his way through.
The transport was already at the depot but it couldn’t have been landed long, because cargo hadn’t been unloaded yet even if the arriving shipments had. Transport day was a big deal in their small community, it only arrived weekly if they were lucky but every other week was more common. When it finally did drop from their skies it rarely brought anything more than packages but it still was an exciting day.