Also, I'm experimenting with a different way of giving out content warnings: under a spoiler at the top. This way those who think they need CWs can read it, but those who don't want to be spoiled about the chapter's contents can avoid them. Please let me know what you think.
I turned on the TV as I made breakfast, just to have something to fill the uncomfortable silence. It had been several months since I’d moved into the small two-rooms-and-a-bathroom apartment, and I still wasn’t used to having nobody around in the morning. But that couldn’t be helped – I’d been thrown out of my family’s home a year prior, after coming out, and after spending some time on a friend’s couch I’d managed to save enough money and apply for financial assistance at my college. Money was still tight, but I could afford this small place just off campus at least.
“–tiations are still ongoing,” came the speaker’s voice from the TV; apparently I’d caught a news broadcast. “Meanwhile, another attack took place last night: the Repulsoids attacked the nightlife district of Columbus, Ohio, but thanks to the Defenders the attack was stopped, though not without loss of life. Witnesses say Defender Red was–”
I turned off the TV again; I didn’t need this, not this early in the morning. I didn’t need to be reminded that humanity was still at war with an alien race that, after landing in Michigan ten years prior, had swiftly moved on and conquered most of the Great Lakes region. Now we were in a sort of cold war: the Repulsoids still attacked here and there, and the military opposed them – especially the special Defender Squadron, wearing powered suits developed from alien technologies – while the government had ongoing negotiations with the alien leaders to try and reach a peaceful solution.
But this didn’t concern me at all. I was just a college girl; I just wanted to mind my own business and get on with my life.
As I sat down with a plate of hash browns and bacon in front of me, I glanced at the pile of mail on the table. I’d brought it in the previous night, but I’d been too tired to sort through it. I still had some time before my classes, might as well do it now.
Let’s see. Bill, bill, marketing flyer (eggs were discounted at the grocery store, I’d have to buy some on the way back from college), letter from the student union (probably reminding me to vote in the upcoming student council elections)… And a letter from Mark.
I smiled. Mark, my twin brother, was the only one in the family who’d stood by me when I’d come out; he had some choice words to say to our parents when they wouldn’t accept me, but in the end he couldn’t do anything about them throwing me out of the house: he was in the military, and he’d been on leave when I asked him to support me, but the very next day he had to go back to his post at the front-line base in Indianapolis. We still kept in contact though: he wasn’t allowed a phone, or access to a computer – the Repulsoids were very good at intercepting electronic communications, so the military had resorted to the good old mail system to help soldiers keep in touch with their families and loved ones. And even those were often censored, there was a special office that read every outgoing or incoming piece of mail, scanning them for sensitive information, and redacted them as needed.
I ripped open the envelope and started reading the letter, while stuffing food in my face with my free hand.
I’m glad to hear you’ve settled down in college. I promise I will visit you the next leave I get. Maybe you can show me around town and we’ll have some fun together, like old times! I’m really looking forward to it. And if our parents complain I’m not visiting them… Well, they’ll just have to deal with it.
I cannot believe mother and father are being this stubborn. You’re their daughter, for god’s sake! Family should mean something! Especially father, he’s being much too hard-headed for his own good. I’m of a mind to cut bridges with them, too, until they learn to respect you. That’ll teach them.
I smiled again. My parents, especially my father, had brought us up to be tough and strong, the best of the best; he was an Air Force colonel, retired – he’d landed awkwardly once when he’d been forced to eject from his plane after it had been hit by enemy fire, and all but shattered his legs. Now he had a bad limp and needed a cane to walk, and he’d been forced out of active duty. He’d always been disappointed that I, the first born (though only by about half an hour), had always steadfastly refused to enlist; and he’d been especially mad when I’d come out. “You’re bringing shame on your family” had been his exact words – right before he threw me out, with barely the clothes on my back.
Life here in the front lines is moving on as usual. We’re always on high alert, should the Repulsoids try to attack; I’ve seen a few up close – amazing creatures, they look similar to bipedal dogs, though they’re the size of a grizzly bear, and they have way too many teeth. And they’re really smart, too, as intelligent as a human. I’d rather not engage them if I can, though it’s my duty, so I’ll do it if I’m ordered to. We’re just lucky there aren’t that many of them, and we have numerical advantage.
Recently I spotted one of their leaders on the battlefield, too. They look different: they
I frowned; the following paragraph had been blacked out by what looked like sharpie, and there was a note written on the side: This passage contained sensitive information classified NS, and as such has been redacted.
Figures, Mark had always been careless with things like these; it didn’t surprise me he’d run afoul of the censors. After the censored paragraph, the letter concluded:
In any case, I hope I hear from you soon. Stay strong, sister. I love you.
Your brother Mark
I put down the letter, glanced at the clock, and finished my breakfast. It was already eight, I didn’t want to be late to class; I’d write a response to Mark that evening.
I grabbed my book bag and hurried out of the door.
That evening, after an uneventful day at the university and after my shift at the grocery store – my part-time job – I arrived home. As I entered the small apartment I sighed; the breakfast dishes were still in the sink, and I needed to make dinner. I really would’ve liked to have a roommate, someone to share chores with, or even just have a chat now and then, but I hadn’t been able to find anyone yet.
I dropped my bags on the couch and set to making dinner – I would do the dishes later. As I was cutting tomatoes to put in a salad, my phone rang; I quickly rinsed and dried my hands, and picked up the phone, groaning as I did so.
MOM was written on the display.
She was better than my father, granted; my dad hadn’t spoken to me ever since I came out, while mom at least tried to chat once in a while. But she still had trouble respecting me.
I’d had a good day. I hoped talking with my mom wouldn’t ruin it.
I answered the call. “Hi, mom, what’s up?” I said.
“Jack. I’m really sorry, but--”
I hung up. I would not put up with being deadnamed in a phone call, not by someone who should know better.
I waited for a few moments, just staring at the phone, to see if mom would try calling again, and she did. I picked up.
“Nope, try again,” I said, and hung up for the second time.
The phone was silent for a couple minutes; just as I was wondering whether mom had given up for the day, it rang again. This time, I was silent when I answered, and let her take the lead.
“Stephanie,” she said.
“Now that’s better. It wasn’t that hard, was it, mom?” I replied.
“Stephanie, please, listen.”
I paused. Her voice seemed strange, it had a tinge of emotion in it I had never heard before.
“Mom, what’s wrong? Is everything alright?”
“We need you to come home,” she said.
I sighed. “Mom, we’ve been over this. I’m not coming home until dad apologises for--”
“That’s not what matters right now,” she cut me off. She sounded almost on the verge of tears.
“Mom?” I asked, but she didn’t reply. “Mom?” I said again.
In the end, after a long pause, she replied.
“We got a call from the army. It’s Mark.”
I heard her take a deep breath.
“Your brother is dead.”