I slowly push open the heavy manhole cover just enough to poke my head out. A few fires around the streets, distant fighting, same as it has been. No imperial patrols around, at least as far as I can tell, and my house is close. I could probably throw a rock from here and hit my roof! It’s hard not to feel excited, considering how much I’ve gone through today.
I climb out and reseal the cover as if I was never there, then I head off. I’m on the main street now, I have to find an entrance to the side street where my neighborhood is.
The streetlights are dead, the sun has set, and there are no lights in the buildings, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve returned home at night so many times that I know the area like the back of my hand, the only problem is having to carefully step over all the trash and rubble.
How many times have I returned home hours after everyone went to sleep? More often than not, I bet. For a long time, I slept on the couch downstairs since I didn’t want to bother Natcha by climbing into bed. The first time she caught me though, she sat me down and explained that she wants me in bed no matter what hour I return, she didn’t care if I disturbed her or woke her up.
She’s so perfect, I can’t wait to see her again. I’m sure Chalerm and Sopa will want to hear a bit about my adventure today as well. I’ll leave out the parts where I saw dismembered corpses.
When I enter the neighborhood, the first thing I notice is a house shining. From every window, a warm orange glow cuts through the night like a beacon, and shines over the nearby trees and houses. What’s going on there? There’s a city-wide blackout, there shouldn’t be any lights. I keep low as I inch closer, and from a yard on other side of the street, I peek over a fence. Through a window, I see soldiers of the empire, sitting around a few lanterns with their helmets off, drinking and laughing. Looks like they’re just taking a break.
In that case, they don’t matter. They’re not looking for intruders, so they won’t notice me if I don’t draw attention to myself. I’d love to barricade the doors and windows, then burn that house down with everyone inside, but I’m on a timetable. Also, I’ve gotten really lucky thus far, I shouldn’t push it by trying something so dangerous.
Continuing on, I finally reach my house. The creaky wooden gate needs to be painted again, and there’s all sorts of toys scattered across the slightly overgrown yard. There’s a shoddy-looking swing set I built a few years ago next to the tree, and Natcha’s flower garden is bright and vibrant. I’m home. It’s hard to hold back tears, but I want to meet everyone like a brave hero, not a sniveling old man who can’t keep it together.
I hop the fence and run up to the door. My keychain rattles in my hand and it’s hard to slot it in place. It goes in, the locks inside slowly tumble as I turn it left, and then I carefully slide the door open. Because I often came home late, I’ve always kept the hinges oiled and squeak-free.
Sticking my head in the small gap of the door, only the barest outlines are visible. Everything seems to be where it should be though. There’s a lump of anxiety in my throat that blocks the words, and that lump doesn’t go away until I close and relock the door behind me.
“Hello?” I whisper. “Anybody home?” No response. “Daddy’s here.” I hurry over to the windows and close the blinds, then I finally take out the flashlight Surat handed me.
It looks like everything was mostly untouched, save for a few pictures and knick-knacks which probably fell off the shelves during the bombardment. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say went wrong today. Even the gunfire seems muted in here.
“Natcha?” My voice grows a little stronger, “Chalerm?” I walk to the kitchen, “Sopa?” The kitchen smells like the stir fry we had last night. I had a snack at Surat’s hideout a little bit ago, but it was just a nasty calorie chew. A far cry from the brilliant chefsmanship of my wife.
“Whew, you wouldn’t believe the day I’ve had, haha.”
My flashlight rolls over the table, revealing a piece of paper wedge under a candle. “What’s this?”
“Hi honey,” it’s Natcha’s handwriting, “in the off chance you get home early, schools are out today. Chal was bugging me about joining the military again, so I’m bringing him to the base to watch some exercises. Sop doesn’t want to come so I arranged a play date with a boy she’s been crushing on lately. Don’t worry about a thing, just relax and kick your feet up. I’ll pick her up on our way home. Love ya.”
I… I have to sit down, but I don’t bother picking up a knocked-over stool, I just fall to my knees. That’s… a lot to take it. I drop the flashlight, my hands are shaking.
The military base. They were at the base after all! Natcha and Chalerm are okay. They survived the bombings, they were evacuated, everything is all well and good on that front. I can breathe so much easier, my shoulders feel so light. No matter what happens with me, my wife and son are alive, safe, and most importantly, not in this city anymore.
…but then there’s Sopa.
What friend? She has a crush on a boy? Where’s his house? She’s not safe, and I have no idea where she is. I need to find her. I guess Hizan was right, Sopa was the source of my bad feeling this whole time. I need to find her.
But… Natcha’s note doesn’t include where she is, just that she’s with a boy she likes.
My face tightens as if I’ve eaten something bitter, I lean forward until my forehead hits the table, I clench my teeth and run my fingers through my hair. It’s all just so frustrating. I’ve come all this way, but my efforts are ruined by this? My daughter’ll be killed or captured because I was too much of a trash father to know what’s going on in her life?
I should have known she likes a boy.
I should have known where he lives.
I should have known there wasn’t school today.
But I didn’t.
I don’t even know where in this city to start looking.
My nose runs, my eyes are watery.
I’m sorry, Sopa…