The comm icon flashes and my finger hovers over it for a long moment before I tap. It’s Doctor Reynolds, and I feel the edge fade from the tension that’s been building all morning.
He nods, the computer-generated pixels blurring for a moment. “Samuel, it’s time,” he says in his soothing voice.
My trembling fingers fumble with the pill box and it seems to take an eternity before I manage to free the little yellow pill. I swallow it down with a gulp of cold coffee and open my mouth wide to show that it is gone.
The simulation nods again. “Thank you, Samuel. Have you decided where you will attend?”
I shrug. “St. Margaret’s, I think. It’s closest.”
“Good, good.” There’s a gentle smile on the doctor’s face as he reaches out a CGI hand towards an imagined keyboard and with a “Keep well, Samuel,” he signs off.
I close down my work session. There’s no point in doing any more today, though I still have the best part of half an hour to kill. As I change my shirt and tie, I catch a glimpse of my uniform at the back of the wardrobe, hidden and protected by its plastic sheath. Should I be wearing it? Somehow, it doesn’t feel right, so I leave it hanging there. But I do dig out my medal box and it surprises me once again to see how many there are. What, I wonder, are they all for?
Because, of course, I don’t remember the War.
There’s one medal I do recognize, though—the one my father had, the Purple Heart. I wonder where I was wounded. There are no obvious signs, except for a livid patch of scarred tissue on the palm of each hand. My father lost a leg in the Middle East. What did I lose?
I’m beginning to feel the nerves return and I take an eternity in the bathroom, neatening my hair, fussing over my tie. It’s too warm and I can already feel sweat trickling down my arm. I splash cold water onto my face, think about changing the shirt—but a glance at my watch warns me I’m cutting it fine, so I grab my keys and begin the brisk walk to the church.
The sidewalks are thick with people, all in their mid-thirties to early forties—my age—and all heading the same way. A few of them are wearing uniforms; khaki or navy blue. A few I recognize. I wonder if I served with any of them.
We file into the church, which today, at least, is full. I didn’t realize there were this many Veterans in town. I find a space towards the back. The man who moves over to make room for me grins nervously and proffers his hand. “Richard O’Connor,” he says. The hand is slick with sweat.
“Samuel Adams,” I reply.
He pauses before letting go. “What, like the beer?”
No, like the man, do you really think my father would name me after a beer? But I don’t say that. I simply nod.
He nods back. “A pleasure to know you, Sam. Any idea where you served?”
“No. You?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “I thought of looking it up…but…”
But of course he didn’t. Like everyone else, his memory stops at the start of basic training and continues the day he returned home. We’re warned that any memories we do accidentally awaken might be painful, or even dangerous, so we don’t go looking. Trained as we are not to dig too deep, some people say Vets lack drive and ambition; that we’re not “All we can be.”
I don’t know about that.
My ex-wife, Cathy, couldn’t understand why I went through with the treatment. “Those who forget are doomed to repeat,” she quoted, “and the War isn’t just about the soldiers. It was harsh on us as well, but if it is to mean anything at all, we have to live with the decisions that were made, and learn from them.”
I told her that she was wrong—that it didn’t have to mean anything, that she didn’t have to live with it, and she didn’t need to go on her little marches, her pointless peace rallies. The treatment was available to Service wives and husbands, and indeed anyone who felt they had been a victim of the War. Look what it has done for me, I said.
She hadn’t liked that. It got ugly and she left, claiming I wasn’t the man she once knew.
The screen at the end of the church is showing a field of poppies, swaying in the wind. It looks fuzzy, low-quality, and I wonder when and where it was filmed. There’s a bang behind me and I feel my heart pound in my chest, but it’s merely the big wooden doors being closed. Facing forward again, I see the poppies have been replaced by the craggy, worn features of Bob Tyler, the vice president.
“Today, we honor our soldiers,” he solemnly intones. “All of those who served; the living and the dead. We come together to recognize the sacrifices you have made and to apologize.” He leans forward over his clasped hands and lowers his head.
“We apologize for demanding the impossible of you. We apologize for not knowing how to cope when the War was over and you returned, damaged, needing our support, our patience, and our compassion. The actions we took to end the War—actions that we asked you to follow through—were horribly divisive. We were shocked when we realized that even in victory, our great nation might tear itself apart and the returning Veterans, who should have been treated as heroes, became instead an intolerable reminder of those difficult decisions.”
Tyler looks up again, his eyes reddened. “And so, we asked you to make one more sacrifice. We asked that you forget.
“We were desperate, so we told you that we could make your pain and suffering go away. The vast majority of you accepted us at our word and took Doctor Reynold’s radical procedure; a combination of hypnosis and psychotropic drugs that allowed you to lock away all memory of the War.” He pauses. “But that vault is only as strong as you make it and it must be renewed. And that is why, each Remembrance Day these past fifteen years, we have asked you to step forward once again.”
“On the eleventh chime of the eleventh hour, you will remember. A short while later, another bell will sound, the signal for your hypnotic suggestions to kick back in, and aided by the drug you took this morning, you will once again forget. By tomorrow, you will even forget the remembering.”
Tyler looks at the clock behind him. “Once more, then, I salute you: you and your continued obedience. On behalf of the president, the chiefs of staff, and the whole country, I sincerely apologize for what you are about to re-experience.”
The vee-pee bows his head as the first of the chimes echoes out through the speakers. I sit, gripping the edge of my seat, trying to understand what he’d just said. Had the country really been on the brink of civil war? How could I not have been aware of that? Cathy, though…I remember her coming home from a march, dirty, frightened, asking to be held. Long hours we lay, her face turned away, her body shivering. When I awoke sometime around dawn, still wearing yesterday’s clothes, her place in the bed was empty, the sheets ruffled and damp, and from the bathroom I heard the shower on full blast. She never talked about it, and I never asked. I fumble with the box in my pocket as the chimes continue to ring out.
When I come to, it is to the echo of a bell ringing faintly in my ears, my body wrecked with tension, tears drying on my cheeks. I unfurl my fists and look dully at the blood oozing from the crescents my nails have cut deep into the already scarred palms.
By my feet, Richard O’Connor lies half in the pew, half in the aisle, cradling his arm and whimpering. Nearby there’s a guy who works at the hardware store staring stupidly at his tattered uniform, his face and hands heavily scratched. As I watch, his legs crumple and he falls in slow motion. The church doors have been opened again and a nurse rushes to his side.
I can feel my memories of the War fading, already some I recall only as in a newscast, as if I hadn’t actually been there. But I remember the first atrocity: the burning, suffocating gas. Six months I spent in the hospital as they re-grew the lining of my lungs.
I remember returning to the front line and how desperate things had become by then, the terrible loses we had incurred. The prayers that if we just held on a little longer, the tide might turn.
And I remember the yellow-and-black labels on the syringes we were ordered to inject, on the last day of the War, a day when not a shot was fired.
The morning after, we were briefed: we had a humanitarian task to perform. It was difficult to comprehend. We’d been fighting for our lives, our very survival, and now we were supposed to go into the enemy’s trenches and offer medical assistance to the injured? We were warned that in some cases, our humanitarian aid might involve the use of our handguns. There were murmurs of approval.
But there were no survivors, not that day. The dead…it’s fading fast, but I do remember the smell. I feel nauseous and I clutch the side of the pew to stop myself from falling. An arm gently pushes me back onto the hard seat, fleeting fingers on my wrist feeling the pulse before moving on.
I remember the radios hissing static, the blackened tins atop primus stoves long burnt out. We pressed on. Beyond the command bunkers, we entered the first of the villages, where the odd-shaped piles didn’t wear uniforms, and some…many…were hardly bigger than my kit bag.
We camped in an open field that night, trying to escape the stench that had intensified throughout the day. I don’t remember what we did, what we said. I remember Wilkins swearing at a pair of cows—how dare they be alive, he ranted, he’d soon fix that—bang, bang…bang. The third shot was for himself.
I think I remember our first survivor, two days and thirty miles beyond the front, begging me to use my pistol. After that, the twisted, inhuman faces merge into one nightmare vision of pain and suffering. I remember running out of ammo and unbuckling my knife, the knife my father gave me, the knife I left behind. I never did get to use the medical kit. By the time we got to people who could be saved, helicopters were already there, ferrying them out. There was no room for us, and our grumbles earned us black looks from the medics. We went back the way we came, avoiding the silent villages.
I realize I’ve left the church now, though I can’t recall having done so. There are bloodstained strips of gauze wrapped around my hands and I’m standing on a bridge, holding my medal box by the corner as if it were poisonous. Perhaps it is. If I dropped it, though, I think I know what would happen. In a week or so, I’d get a note from the local jewelers thanking me for my custom and the medals would be returned, polished and pristine, this moment, like the whole goddamn War, wiped clean. So, I slip them back into my pocket and begin the weary walk home.
I’m done remembering, and I can’t wait for this day to be forgotten.
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