(CW: cursing, references to war)
WWIII. Russia vs. China vs. North Korea vs. the US. It was 2035.
The war had just ended, and Edmund Salloway was coming back to the States from his final deployment. To say that he was shell-shocked was a bit of an understatement. The war had taken a toll on him, not only in the ways one might expect. Sure, his entire squad had died twice, he watched his best friend die of gangrene, and he almost starved to death in the Siberian winter. But at least his few friends who did survive the war had a family to go back to. His thought he was dead.
Edmund enlisted into the war as a woman. Ella Sigmund was the name he was born under. He, then Ella, came from a small town in south-western Georgia and grew up on his parents' farm with five younger siblings and two dogs. He loved it there. He used to hate getting up early to let the animals out and clean their pens, but in time he learned to truly appreciate it. He had lived better than most other people. It was such a peaceful life. His parents loved him then. Now he doubted his father would be able to look him in the eye.
When he was sent off to boot camp, he was kept twice as long as the other recruits. They gave him pills, saying that they were like an extra strong birth control and would keep his periods under check for even longer. But the way in which they gave the pills to him seemed like he had to take them. He didn’t say a word against it and signed the waivers. He took the pills for the few weeks he was there, but as time passed, he noticed changes happening to his body. He found lots of excess hair and his voice had started to deepen, along with many other alarming symptoms. So he went to the medic who gave him the pills to tell him that they must’ve had a bad reaction in his body. But he passed out on the way there.
It felt like a long sleep. He woke up strapped to a bed, and once his vision was no longer blurry, he was able to see that he was in a lab of sorts. His heart rate must have increased, because nurses rushed into the room and sedated him.
Another indiscernible amount of time passed. He woke up, once again slowly. The world looked and sounded blurry and garbled. This time, there was a doctor shining a light in his eyes, who later probed his entire body. He went in and out for a while, but eventually was awake enough to ask what was going on. They just told him to get up, get dressed, and report for deployment. They handed him a new uniform and new tags, told him to shave and get dressed. Shave? What are they doing, a pelvic exam? He read the new tags: Lt. Edmund Salloway. Must be the wrong tags. But he went to get dressed anyway.
What he saw in the bathroom mirror caused him to clam up and stare at his reflection for at least ten minutes. Instead of the person he was used to seeing in the mirror, he saw a fully grown man staring back at him, with a slightly overgrown beard and a face like the one he was used to, but masculinized. He proceeded to look over his body. He couldn’t believe this was real. A panic set in and he felt like he was going to collapse into a puddle. What the hell happened while he was asleep?
He later learned that he was the subject of a government experiment, and was the only one so far to survive the metamorphosis, as they called it. The waivers he signed gave them permission to do this. The problem was, he didn’t read the fine print when he signed them. He was told after the war that under no circumstances was he legally allowed to sue them. They even gave him copies of the papers he signed and highlighted the text which pointed this fact out. He was also told to keep the experiment a secret. He was allowed to contact his family if he wished, but he couldn’t tell them what happened. He would also be visited by an agent once a year to keep up with him. He was stuck. They refused to tell him why they did all of this to him.
So he was deployed, first to North Korea for two years and then to Siberia for three. The war itself lasted 5 years. Now that the US had won, he was on the way to getting back on familiar soil, almost. At the moment he was still in Seoul. He and many other soldiers were sent there to be shipped back home.
He stared out the window of a coffee shop, watching the rain stream past him on the glass. He always liked the rain. It was comforting to watch and listen to when he felt this empty. He clutched the mug of hot chocolate he ordered and let it warm his hands, allowing the steam billow off his face.
He had with him his military-issued duffel bag, filled with all his belongings. Mostly clothes, another uniform, and some books. The uniform which he wore was a light grey-ish green, to match the Siberian landscape in the latter months of the year. He also carried his violin, which he originally brought with him to the front. He figured since his likelihood of death was high then he ought to bring his good instrument. Might as well go out with a good sound in my ear, he thought. It proved to be a smart move. He played for the enemies when signs of truce were put up during holidays. They managed to keep their cease fire. On Christmas he played lots of Bach, but also Silent Night. His fingers were about to freeze off, and he felt back then like he would fall over while standing because of the cold and malnutrition, but he kept playing. Even at the present he was still skinny from starving for seven months.
Edmund kept a picture with him at all times. He reached into one of the pockets in his pants and looked at it. His face fell. It was a photograph of his family, the last picture they took before he left. It was when he was still a girl and had long hair. His mother and father both had their arms around him, wide smiles on their faces, though they were tinged with worry. His younger siblings, three boys and two girls, were as happy as can be. They were somewhat oblivious, and always energetic. He hoped that they never changed, even if he wasn’t able to ever see them again. They deserved to live a happy life.
That picture always made him sad, but he wanted to see them so badly. He put it away and let out a deep breath. He suddenly felt eyes on him. He looked to the side, not really moving his head, and saw that more people were coming into the coffee shop. They must’ve noticed that he was in uniform. He turned back and started to drink his hot chocolate. He wouldn’t drink coffee before going on the flight (it was from Seoul to a layover in California, then continuing East to New York). He wanted to sleep the entire way to avoid jet lag as much as possible. Not to mention, he was tired and didn’t want to think. He wanted to distract himself from remembering.
After finishing his drink he went to the bathroom. It was a single stall, allowing him some privacy. He scoured his face in the mirror. He had a five o’ clock shadow, a slightly prominent brow bone, and an Adams apple. His blond hair was almost as short as his scalp on the sides, with the length of a crew cut on top. He was so different from how he looked before. He used to have a soft face, long hair which he often braided, breasts, and hips. Now all of that was gone.
It was almost funny. Before, when he was back at home, he wished so badly to have been born a boy. He refused to be feminine, and his parents were perpetually terrified that he’d end up a lesbian. They told him under no circumstances was he allowed to ‘come out.’ It turned out that he did like girls, but he obeyed his parents. Even if they hadn’t given him that order, he still wouldn’t have come out to them. They would hate him. He wouldn’t want to see his mother cry and his father frown in disapproval. At best, they’d shun him for weeks, maybe months. Maybe forever. At worst, he’d be kicked out and cut off from the family. He didn’t like either outcome. The fact that he was made male against his will was highly ironic to him. And it wasn’t like how the media showed transitioning. This medical experiment, whatever they did, made him male, as if he had originally been born that way. It truly was a metamorphosis. If he had been in any other circumstances he might have been overjoyed, but he got a bitter taste in his mouth whenever he thought about contacting his family again. They had already held a funeral for him, for sure. To hear a random guy on the phone say, “I’m your daughter,” would be idiotic. But all the same, he still wanted to at least see if he could do it.
Edmund left the coffee shop. He didn’t care that the rain was sprinkling all over him and everyone else had umbrellas. He just didn’t care. He walked all the way to the airport. It took an hour, and by then his hair was all wet. He didn’t even have to sit down for long before he was called to board the flight. Military personnel went first. He and maybe ten other guys boarded the plane. No one spoke.
Eventually, after finding his seat and putting his belongings above in the compartment, the other passengers started boarding. He was on the outside in the left column. There were usually three to a row, but this was the row closest to the bathrooms and so there were only two. Because they were close to the bathrooms, there was a faint, ever-lingering smell of shit. Fan-fucking-tastic. As if he hadn’t gotten enough of that in camps and trenches.
He sat back and rested his eyes. It wasn’t loud, and he enjoyed the background noise. As he sat there, he suddenly opened his eyes and noticed an old woman trying to reach the compartment to put her bag in, but she was just barely too short to reach it. He got up and helped her to put it in.
She smiled daintily and responded in Korean. “Thank you, son! You’re so big and strong!” In reality, he wasn’t much bigger than she was. But he took the compliment and managed to produce something like a smile. He didn’t remember the last time he did that.
“Of course, it’s no problem. Please, sit.” He answered. He was a novice at Korean, since his first language was English and he only spent two years in Korea. But it was enough to get the point across. He could manage a small conversation, and that turned out to be what the old woman wanted. She was impressed that he knew what she said.
“You know Korean?” She looked him up and down. A brief look of pity crossed her face. “You must have fought in the war. Bless you.” He tipped his head in thanks. He didn’t want to talk anymore.
She must have understood that from his lack of a response and they fell into a comfortable silence. The plane started, and soon they were off the ground. After about half an hour of flying, he fell asleep.
But it was not a good sleep. He dreamed of horrible things. When he first arrived in North Korea, he was sent to a camp near the border. That very day they were shot upon and there were multiple casualties. They mostly had battles in the forest, and when they did, it would be a firefight. Constant bullets streaming past. One time Edmund was captured, but he got the idea that the North Korean soldiers who caught him were captured, themselves. He begged them to let him go, but they wouldn’t, otherwise they and their entire family would be killed. As much as he understood what was at stake for them, he needed to do his best to survive. He had known of people who got captured and were interrogated, tortured, killed -- and not necessarily in that order. He didn’t want that for himself, so he managed to escape when they were walking him to another location. He was handcuffed, but soon a scuffle broke out. An ambush. It was his own side coming to rescue him and the others who were captured. He managed to escape. He didn’t know what happened to the soldiers whose families could have died. He hoped for the best, but really, what could you be optimistic about when in such circumstances? He dreamed about families dying because he escaped.
He dreamed also of the trench warfare and starvation he endured in Siberia. Seven months of little food intake left him somewhat emaciated. Their rations dwindled so that it resembled what the Nazis gave Jews to eat in the death camps nearly a hundred years prior: a fistful of bread, a small hunk of pork with fat (their only “fresh” food), and somewhat dirty water. It was enough to keep him from looking like absolute skin and bones, but it was the only meal of the day, and oftentimes they ran out, the deliveries wouldn’t come on time, or they were overrun by the Russians.
He woke up before he started dreaming explicitly about the trenches. He felt a tap on his left shoulder, and jumped, slightly startled. The old woman said something that was meant to console him, but whatever it was he didn’t understand. Before him stood a flight attendant with a cart. She asked if he wanted anything to eat or drink before they landed in California.
“Just some water,” he said. He glanced out of the window and saw the coast. He didn’t want to wake up, but it was probably better that he did since they would land soon. The little screen in front of him said it would be about twenty minutes until landing.
Soon, after the layover, he went on his flight to New York. It went about the same as the first flight -- restless sleep, dreaming of all the shit that happened in the last five years. But before he knew it, he was in the city.
It was chilly, probably fifty-something degrees. The sky was overcast and there were leaves everywhere. He hadn’t ever seen a fall like this. Before he enlisted, he had never been outside of Georgia or its neighboring states.
It was noon. Edmund still hadn’t eaten that day. He knew he needed it, but he didn’t want to. Regardless, he got halal food from a street vendor. It was actually very good and he managed to eat most of it, despite his situation. He wasn’t used to eating normal portions yet, but he was getting better. He had a list of appointments to make when he settled down… a physical, the dentist, the optometrist, a freaking therapist.
When he settled down. He had no idea how that was going to happen. All he knew is that he needed to make one phone call before he did anything else. But he was putting it off. He walked around the city, still in his uniform and carrying his duffel and violin, both slung over his shoulders. He wandered around the city for hours, dread filling his body. He grew up religious, so he went to a big church with its doors open. He initially sat in one of the back pews, but quickly went inside one of their public restrooms. He couldn’t take it anymore. Not knowing what else to do to prolong this time between now and the phone call, he cried. He did so silently, as to not disturb anyone else who might be trying to just take a piss or shit. With all that had happened, he hadn’t cried much in that time. Even though the war had ended, it was just now coming to a head for him.
Edmund wasn’t sure how long he sat in that restroom. But he needed that catharsis. After he looked like a normal human being again, he left the church. He didn’t have a cell phone anymore, so he looked for a payphone. He found one on a busy sidewalk and put a few quarters into the slot. He turned the dial for his family’s landline. He had had it memorized since childhood.
“Hello? Who is this?”
If Edmund was a dog, his hackles would have been all the way up. He was petrified.
“Hello? Is this one of them scam callers?”
He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t begin to explain to him what happened or lie and say he knew his daughter. He hung up the phone.
I’ve changed too much, he thought. What this war did to me can’t be undone.
He felt a strong wind pick up down the street. He looked into it and saw a man in all black in the distance.
The man started walking.