Toy Soldiers

I wrote this short story a few months ago and submitted to a few places. Since none of them decided to accept the manuscript, now I share it here. This is a piece of speculative, dystpoian fiction, faith-based and visceral. TW: suicide.

I take my seat in the stadium, ready for the concert– a state-sponsored and practically-mandatory event meant to support the illusion that life is still normal here.

Life is not normal here. But I hear the band is supposed to be pretty good, so I’m looking forward to the momentary escape.

Escape being the operative word. Not deliverance. Not freedom. Just a temporary release from a horrifying reality.

My eight-year-old son, Jacob, fidgets in his seat beside me. I put an arm around him and am about to whisper something affectionate in his ear, until I see what he has in his hand: a little green plastic soldier. If you’re over the age of thirty you might know what I’m talking about– one of those World War I figurines all children used to play with, not fully understanding the atrocities of war. “Where did you get that?” I hiss. And thank God the lights are dim, so maybe the cameras won’t pick up a clear image. And that Jacob’s seat is next to a large pillar, so there’s no neighbor to see.

“Found them outside,” he whispers back.

“Them?”

He reaches deep into his pocket and pulls out three more.

I barely resist leaping out of my seat, but rise slowly instead, and then hover low over him in the attitude of a parent trying to scold their child without drawing too much attention. I suppose it’s not far from the truth. “Give me those,” I say directly into his ear. “You know those could get us arrested.”

With wide eyes, he places them in my palm which I have hopefully successfully concealed from prying eyes. “Don’t cry,” I command him, as I see little pools beginning to form. Then, for the sake of the act, I raise my voice ever-so-slightly and say in my most menacing 

mom-voice, “We’ll discuss this more when we get home. Now sit still and enjoy the concert.” I shove the toy soldiers into my own pocket.

It pains my mother heart to hurt my son so. I place an arm around him as we settle back into our seats and he dries his face with his jacket sleeve. 

Public affection hasn’t been outlawed yet.

The lights go out the rest of the way, and spotlights shine onto the center of the stadium, where a large stage has been erected with multiple platforms of varying heights and surface areas– a few barely wide enough for a single person to stand on. Somewhere along the way of live bands struggling to draw people to their concerts (when they could much more easily watch videos from home), they became more and more spectacular, incorporating feats of daring acrobatics and even aerial stunts. To make it in the music performance industry nowadays, you didn’t only have to know how to sing and play an instrument, but you had to be a proficient gymnast as well.

The band members’ bodies, suspended from cranes, spin and writhe as they’re lowered toward the stage. All around me, the audience stands and cheers. Phones come out of pockets, cameras turned on to catch the amazing stunts.

Beside me, Jacob whoops and hollers; I fight the urge to myself, but I do fight it. I’m no longer in the mood for mindless entertainment; the toy soldiers burn a hole in my pocket, and my palms are sweaty. I force myself to clap politely. The loud music and gravity-defying dancing begins in earnest on stage, and people return to their seats.

“Mom,” Jacob says a few minutes in, “I need to pee.”

Oh thank goodness. I’ll take any excuse to leave this stadium right now. “Come on,” I say, taking him by the hand and leading him across the row of people– several of whom give us dirty looks in the lowlight. I shrug and move on. 

A sign directs us to the restrooms; it’s eerily quiet out here. I can still hear the music in the stadium, but it floats to my ears as if I’m hearing it from underwater. I look about me and the whole space is empty, save for a single security guard who watches us as we make our way to the toilets with quiet steps.

We take stalls next to each other, since the new style in public restrooms is to have everything unisex. It seemed strange to me at first, but now I’m grateful for it since it allows me to keep my son close.

My only son still at home.

As I’m finishing up, I have a thought and fish out the four toy soldiers from my pocket. I have only one objective with them: get rid of them, fast, and do so in a way that they can’t be traced back to me and Jacob.

I’m fairly certain there won’t be any camera trained directly over the toilet, but I’m still careful to conceal my movements as I drop one of the soldiers in the toilet as I stand, then flush. I don’t dare try flushing more than that.

I think of my second son, Matthew, one of the first to be drafted for the war. Of course, we’re not supposed to call it that. All talk of violence is prohibited. The official line is that our young men and women have been “enlisted to serve the cause of humanity.” 

There is a War alright. But it’s not the war everyone thinks it is. The real War is being fought right here, in my own soul. No matter what, I can’t let the tyranny of the world snuff out my free will– what’s left of it. I can’t let it obliterate my faith.

“Mom, are you done yet?”

“Almost,” I say, standing and pulling up my jeans. “Having some trouble with the zipper.”

“You need to buy bigger pants, Mom.”

“Hush.” It’s true I’m getting fatter. But everyone is. We’re fed with the cheapest foods, which of course means the least healthy. Couple that fact with my lifelong propensity to eat my emotions…

We wash our hands and return to the stadium. The band has formed a human pyramid, and Jacob joins the rest of the crowd in applauding the feat, which culminates in the top member rising and waving the Union Red in great sweeps above his head.

Barely visible down at the corner of the stage hangs Old Glory, a relic of days not that far past, but forever irretrievable. We are not that nation anymore, no matter how people try to pretend.

After the concert I drive with Jacob to the nearest gas station; it’s my assigned day to fuel up, and I won’t get another one for five weeks. I send him in with our card and reach for the squeegee/sponge to wash the windshield while I wait for him to come back out with the gas key. On an impulse, I pull out another toy soldier– careful to conceal it in my palm– and drop it into the murky blue-gray water as I grab the squeegee handle and a large paper towel.

Joseph– my youngest after Jacob by eleven years– was the second to enlist, but unlike his older brother he did so voluntarily, eager to serve the new Order. He’d always been troubled by the chaos he saw in the world, and believed in the regulations and restrictions gradually being imposed upon our society. Nothing we said would convince him otherwise; he and Greg– my husband– argued about it endlessly, while I sat in the corner and silently grieved. My family was crumbling around me, and I was powerless to stop the decay.

Jacob returns, I fuel up, and we ride home in silence, deep in our own thoughts. Back at home, we brush our teeth and change into pajamas. Wordlessly we sit together in the living room, neither eager to go to bed in this big, empty house. It’s become our nightly ritual, staying up for as long as we can stand it. My head starts to nod. Jacob sits in the big armchair, playing on his tablet; most nights I’ve lost the will to fight it. 

Tomorrow’s Sunday, my favorite day of the week. At least, it used to be. The Order outlawed all religious gatherings nearly three years ago. That means “church” is now just me and Jacob at home, clinging to the last vestiges of our faith. We study and pray in silence, because the Order monitors what we say in our own homes, but not what we do so long as it makes no noise.

I pull out the remaining toy soldiers and study them in the lamplight, one in each hand. Jacob gets up and pads over. He climbs onto the couch and nestles into my arms, his face turned upward. “I’m sorry,” he mouths.

“Me, too,” I murmur in his ear. “I wish you didn’t have to live this way.”

“It’s not your fault.” How I love this boy.

We fall asleep. Later, I wake up and carry Jacob to his bed. In my own room, I place the soldiers beneath my pillow, scooting my head to the edge to avoid being poked. I’ll figure out what to do with them tomorrow. I mouth a silent prayer to God before removing my glasses and drifting off into a troubled sleep.

Sunday passes uneventfully. We begin with breakfast, and the mandatory morning report on the television. It begins with national news– nothing worth repeating. Then we get a local weather report, and a recap of yesterday’s “incredible concert, enjoyed by the entire community.” 

What’s left of it.

I am relieved that there’s no mention of contraband toy soldiers, or suspicious activity in the public restroom. There was a drunk driving incident after the concert, though, and the news anchor “regretfully informs the community that the individuals involved have been removed for the safety of us all.” Removed. That’s all it is. They’ve just been removed. Like I might pluck out an unwanted hair on my chin.

The callousness makes me sick. But I can see the haunted look in the anchor’s eyes, and my vitriol shifts from her to the ones truly responsible.

But aren’t we all responsible? Shouldn’t we all have seen? And done something?

Before it was too late.

We spend the morning resting and studying the Bible in silence. In the afternoon we take a walk to visit an elderly neighbor, Mrs. Gunther. Jacob listens to her talk while I wash and dry the woman’s laundry. She suffers from dementia, and her speech wanders so that it’s difficult to follow. I’m still glad my son has the opportunity to know someone else who grew up before the Takeover began. Occasionally she manages to say something understandable and revealing. I guess the surveillance microphones aren’t sensitive enough to interpret her words, or maybe the AI has simply given up on trying to follow. Otherwise, she surely would have been “removed” by now. We eat an early dinner with her, which I’ve brought with us and reheated in the microwave.

I think about hiding one of the soldiers inside her potted plants before we leave, but I decide I can’t do that to her, just in case her home is ever searched.

The next morning we repeat the routine, eating breakfast and watching a propaganda report about the “humanitarian efforts.” They always seem to lay it on especially thick Monday mornings, as if attempting to cancel out whatever religious programming we might have subjected ourselves to over the weekend. Hah.

“I’ll walk you to school,” I say, as the news broadcast ends and I shut it off before the overly-bright jingle assaults our ears. But as I say this, I slide a single piece of paper over to him with the handwritten words, “Don’t forget Who and What you truly serve.” He looks up into my eyes and nods solemnly. We bow our heads and pray silently together; we will not forget our Lord. I clear the dishes, dump the leftover cereal into the sink along with the note and grind everything up in the disposal.

Jacob slips into his shoes and jacket and his regulation backpack– transparent, with only a single textbook, notebook, and three pens. Pencils aren’t allowed in school anymore, being considered a “safety hazard.” I believe it’s a way to keep kids from writing “unlawful” things and then erasing them later to avoid getting caught; but I don’t dare mention this suspicion aloud.

I stop at the school gate and Jacob rushes inside, hunched over and avoiding eye contact with his schoolmates. 

I begin the twenty-minute trek to work, ordering a soda at the walk-through. I wear my gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints on the cup, and when I’m finished, I toss it into a recycling bin along with another toy soldier.

Nothing I said could convince Greg in the end that life was still worth living. Sick with grief and hopeless for positive change, he gave up on life, his family, his faith– everything. He wanted me to go with him, but I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. He had one pistol hidden away, with two bullets in the barrel. He had fashioned his own silencer and pulled the trigger standing in the shower while I slept. I woke to his body falling.

The authorities believed me when I told them I hadn’t known about the unregistered firearm. Coupled with the fact that I still had a young child at home in need of my care, they let me off the hook; but I wasn’t allowed to bury my own husband.

I shiver and blow on my fingers as a cold breeze brings me back to the present. I need my gloves for more than just print concealment by the time I reach the factory, grateful that at least I get to work somewhere indoors. I check in and take my place, reciting hymns in my head as I feed bits of tin into the shredder. Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound… Far sweeter than the grinding gears and shriek of metal.

After the shredder, the tin will go to the furnace to be melted and then flattened. Now I know what to do with the last toy soldier.

“Did you hear that?” I ask my co-worker, Celine.

“Hear what?”

“A thunk.”

“A thunk?”

“Maybe something’s stuck in the shredder.”

Celine shuts off the machine and sighs. “Better go tell Shawna.”

“I’ll do it,” I say, jumping up perhaps a bit too quickly. Celine narrows her eyes for a moment, but then shrugs and pulls out her phone to keep herself occupied while I make my report. 

I find Shawna in the furnace room. “What’s up?” she asks.

“I heard something inside the shredder,” I repeat my lie. “A thunk.”

“That’s odd,” she says. “We just had that machine looked over.” She pulls a lever and the conveyor belt beyond the furnace shudders to a halt. She stands. “Keep an eye on things while I go take a look?”

I nod, and sit on the short bench in front of the controls. Once the door closes behind her, I pull out the fourth and final toy soldier, keeping it concealed in my fist.

For a long time, I thought my oldest son, Nathan, would be spared from the draft. He suffered from asthma, as well as occasionally-crippling anxiety. And for a while he was spared, and allowed to enjoy his time with his wife and infant daughter. But after the birth of his second child, he got the dreaded call, with the promise that he wouldn’t be given any “strenuous” assignments. I never believed that, and when I said goodbye over the phone six months ago he spoke with such exaggerated optimism that I knew he didn’t believe it, either. 

I’ve had letters, at least, from Matthew and Joseph. Nathan hasn’t sent a single word. His wife, Bella, writes to him weekly, but as far as I know he’s never replied to her, either. I fear the worst.

I open the furnace hatch and lean in close until my face peers directly into the flames, as if I’m curious to see how it works. I bring my closed fist in front of my nose, open my fingers, and flick the soldier inside. The furnace door hits my cheek as it closes, and I gasp at the touch of heat. Thankfully, there’s a large sink nearby for just such an occasion, and when Shawna returns it’s to me leaning into the faucet stream to cool my damaged skin. Shawna watches me with arms folded, until I turn off the water and stand upright.

“I’m so clumsy,” I say, feigning a self-deprecating laugh.

Shawna snorts. “There’s nothing wrong with the shredder,” she says. “Get back to work. After you put some aloe on that,” she adds, pointing to my cheek.

“Yes,” I say, looking down at my feet as I escape her glare. I make my way to the first aid station and find the aloe. It soothes my face tremendously and I sigh. But it’s not only relief from the burn that I’m feeling right now.

I finish my shift four hours later without incident. I stop for lunch at a diner, ignoring the security cameras all around me for the first time since last night. My conscience is free. At least, that part of my conscience that fears the world.

Father, forgive me, I pray silently. Don’t let anyone else get in trouble because of my actions. You know I did it to protect my son. Usually praying makes me feel better, but a pit remains in my stomach, as if I’ve forgotten something important.

I’m early to pick up Jacob, and I sit on a park bench across the street to wait. So it is that some fifteen minutes later, I’m witness to a police car pulling up in front of the gate and two officers rushing inside.

My phone rings, and I look at the ID; it’s from the school. With trembling hands, I manage to slide the indicator to accept the call. “Mrs. Horton, this is Principal Fritz. There’s been an incident,” says a man’s voice on the other end.

“I’m right outside the school,” I say. “Two officers just went in.” Please don’t let this be about my son.

“Mrs. Horton, this is a very serious matter, and I thought it only right to inform you personally before you get the official summons.”

“Summons? I– What–?” My head reels, and I grip the side of the bench.

Mr. Fritz clears his throat. “Your son, Jacob, has been found with contraband in his pocket of a most serious nature. Were you aware that he was in possession of a toy soldier?”

I am speechless; I nearly fumble the phone, but cling to it just in time.

“Mrs. Horton?”

“I– no, I– I mean– Can I speak to him?”

“I’m sorry, but that will be for the authorities to decide. Good day, Mrs. Horton. I hope, for Jacob’s sake, that his removal will be swift and painless.” The line goes dead, and my screen shuts off.

Removal.

Oh, Jacob…

Mr. Fritz only mentioned one toy soldier… no one knows about the others. But that is little comfort now. Why, God? I plead. Why can’t you deliver us from this madness?

I will, Child, comes the reply, as clearly as if He stood before me. I look up, almost expecting to see Him there, but there’s only air. Warm air. It envelops me. Just not in the way you were expecting.

Tears spring to my eyes. When the officers exit the school with Jacob in handcuffs between them, I approach them calmly. “If you take him, you take me with you,” I say.

One of the officers shrugs, and the other gestures to me to follow. I get into the back of the car beside Jacob. He leans on my shoulder and sobs. “I’m sorry, Mom,” he says.

“Hush, don’t be,” I say. “Remember what I’ve taught you?”

He sniffles and nods.

“We’ll be with your dad again soon. We’ll leave this all behind.”

“What about Matt? And Joe? And Nate?”

“I don’t know, Love. But if not soon, then eventually them, too. This life is just a preparation, for what waits on the other side. It’s not the end. Not by a long long shot.”

“Shut it up back there,” one of the officers warns through the iron grating.

“I will praise the Lord to my final breath,” I declare, raising rather than lowering my volume.

The driving officer laughs derisively, but the other simply frowns as he stares at me.

“Tell the reporters to put that in their newscast,” I say, staring back. 

“Save your statements for the judge,” says the driver.

“Alright,” I agree. “And while I’m at it, I’ll tell them about the other soldiers, too.”

My soldiers. My husband. My sons. We are the Soldiers.

Soldiers of God.

This is the War that matters.

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