There were many things she wanted to say.
Can she apologize? Would a mere word from her lips ease the suffering she caused others?
No. Of course not.
It was a selfish thing to think about.
Just as selfish as leaving them in the first place.
Yet she remains in the corner of the room, unmoving.
Sorry, she whispers.
The reasons she had were too uncouth to tell
but she meant well
And in her mind her words shined like rare diamonds in a mud pile.
Slowly I'll be back, she thought.
She fiddled with her fingers.
Slowly I'll be back.
Chapter Eleven: A Side She Didn't Know
"I'm sorry, major. Would you please repeat that one more time?"
Her words stumbled from one to another. It was the same news that she had been dying to hear for years, but never had she imagined it actually coming to life.
Major Arthur Romero had come personally to clinic she worked for in order to bring her the news. It must be true.
"You heard me, flower. I know you're quite capable hearing with those ears. I am reporting to you that your father is alive."
He said with a proud grin on his face. "I thought you would be happier than that," he added, and immediately Anna wrapped her hands around him.
"Thank God," she said happily. "I can't believe it."
She almost cried from the sudden good news, but the old man's changed expression asked that she waited.
"A catch," she said to him.
"There must be a catch. He couldn't have been found that easily now if you had been looking for him for two years."
Major Romero's forehead furrowed. The slightly sour facade showed how much he didn't want to reach this part of the conversation.
He greatly wished to end the conversation there, but there was more to the news and they both knew it.
"I'm sorry to only say this now Anna, but your father has been held prisoner in Sonddor all this time."
Anna's hands fell to her sides, and her gaze turned slowly into that of a pitiful child left alone in a dark, empty alley.
"The intel we received from the watercraft engineer you've encountered confirmed the information we have."
"You knew something?!" Anna bellowed loudly, and head began to turn in their direction.
The major dragged her inside one of the checkup rooms, where he quickly sat her down.
"We couldn't reveal any unverified information to anyone, especially not to his family members, unless we guarantied its validity. You of all people would have the motivation to do something reckless."
"My father... my poor, poor father."
Major Romero sat in front of her, grabbing her carefully by the shoulders.
"Don't think we haven't done what we can. We've sent squadrons after squadrons to rescue him, but nobody has been successful. They know us, Anna. Each and every member of the National Guards. No matter, the disguise, they all come back with white sheets covering their heads." He shook his head.
"I don't know why, but they must be hiding something powerful on their side. We have yet to figure out how they could possibly put a name on each and every men we send out, when we have some with no records on the books to completely guarantee their identity be kept safe. An inside spy, perhaps."
She turned her attention to him in shock.
Of course, it wasn't impossible. Anna had never considered it before, but she could not be the only one to have a superior ability.
Anna, for instance, has photographic memory.
This superior capacity to remember every single face, information or event that brushes past her had made it impossible to erase a single face in her mind. It was as if she was watching a film in her head, where memories flowed with a sequence and a hidden repeat button.
Her father made her promise ever to reveal her gift to anybody, in fear she may be used for military gain. But telling them about her ability might ultimately help the situation, and she could get father back. At that moment, Anna wanted to reveal everything, but a knock on the door interrupted their conversation.
The Major opened it slightly, and she watched as he had a small exchange of words with whoever was on the other side. After a final nod, he closed the door and sat back down.
"Do you have to go?" She asked him.
"In a bit," he replied. "But there is something I want to tell you." The major looked at her sternly.
"There is a way to get your father out, but it requires greatly on your participation-"
"Count me in."
There wasn't a moment of hesitation in her mind. It was her father, after all. "I can't leave him there any longer."
The major nodded.
"I knew you would say that." He turned around, and he ruffled through a pile of filed before his hands landed on a black briefcase. " I need you to go to Sonddor, Anna."
"To Sonddor?" She repeated.
Major Romero nodded. Opening his case, he took out a brown folder and handed it to her. "All I need for you to do is pass by the first boundary of Sonddor's Eastern region and get this to the hands of our men hiding out there. This folder contains your father's possible location in the South Hall's penitentiary. After that I want you to leave right away while they take care of it."
The tips of Anna's fingers turned cold. The South Hall's Penitentiary is known to house all of Sonddor's war prisoners, if they hadn't already been killed. Sahl described the place to be a damp, isolated compound surrounded with poisonous barbed wires and iron barricades, with guard dogs as strong and vicious as those that put the prisoners there. It was a deadly, melancholic place for the damned, as Sahl would say, yet he refused to give more details.
And now her father is in there.
"The first border should be safe for civilians. Hence, Sehler was able to work there and still have his head intact. If my suspicions are correct, they've planted a mouse inside this place, allowing those rodents to find out if any of us enter the border. The only ones who can do this now consists of the few men already there, and you, who they've never seen before."
"I'm sorry I had to put you in this position, flower. However, I no longer have a choice. This is the only way I can think of. If you agree to it, you will leave two nights from now. You should be able to reach Sonddor in two days' time if you are going by land."
Anna stood up. "Let's do this then," she said. "I've been waiting for him to come, and if this will finally let him do so, I'll do my best to do my part of this operation."
The Major gave her a pat on the shoulder. He bid her farewell and was about to leave when he snapped his head back once more.
"That's right. I will ask for Sehler's cooperation to be your guide."
"Kyle Sehler? I could not ask such a favor from a man I've never spoken to."
"Then I cannot let you go." The major said as he closed the briefcase. As he turned around, however, something flashed on Anna's mind.
"How about a man named Hansel?" Asked Anna. "I've heard that he is a capable man. Would he be at risk for accompanying me halfway through my trip, just long enough for him to tell me what I needed to do before I continue the rest of the journey myself?"
"Hansel?" repeated the major, and his gaze narrowed to her as if he was trying to complete a puzzle in his mind. "You don't mean...."
The major didn't say anything for a while, but it was that sudden glimmer in his eyes that seem to have connected all the dots together.
"You have no idea who this man is, do you?" He said right away. "And I can verify with my standing that you didn't just hear that he is a capable man. No one could suddenly stumble on that sort of information. Someone directly told you about Hansel. Who could that be?"
Anna didn't know what to say. It was as if she was caught in a big lie, and her cheeks felt hot. She wouldn't dare tell him about the letter now, would she?
The major began to laugh, and his boisterousness reverberated throughout the room.
"Don't worry, flower. I will get Hansel's cooperation on this operation. But you must promise me one thing - you will work together with him, yes?"
"Of course!" She said gladly. "He can be a giant with three heads and I wouldn't care."
"Then that's settled. Get ready to leave in two day's time. We'll send someone to get you."
With their conversation finally at a halt, Anna walked to her supervisor and excused herself for her next round of absences. Luckily, her supervisor was kind, and she gave Anna a pat on the shoulder.
"It had not been easy for you, had it, sweetheart?" She said to her.
"Don't worry. The busy season is over and you can use all those vacation days you've never bothered using for years."
Anna apologized once more to all that she bothered, but it didn't make her regret her decision to go. This will be the first time she will be anywhere outside the Siho Nation, but she wasn't terrified.
After all, she was finally moving - moving to save her father's live, moving so she could help him come home.
The problem now lies with the mysterious escort.
Little brother dance with me
Both your hands in mine you see
One, two, three
One, two, three
Round about so merrily.
A young girl's voice echoed in her mind. Singing the same children's song she heard before, Anna felt the soft breeze of the air as stalks of corn brushed through her small fingers.
"Ah, this must be a dream", she thought.
With your foot a tap, tap, tap
And your hands a clap, clap, clap
One, two, three
One, two, three
Round about so merrily...
She found herself back in the meadow where she had seen Alexandra, a girl she used to play with. And yet despite hearing the child's voice, she was nowhere in sight. Anna turned around, and suddenly she found a gun on the ground.
And Daniel too.
He laid there with blood all over his body.
"You killed him, Anna."
Alexandra said as she stood beside Daniel's body.
"No!" Anna screamed, but she couldn't move. "He can't be..."
"It's all your fault," Alexandra said as she walked towards Anna. Holding Daniel's gun, Alexandra pointed it to her.
"You should die too."
Anna immediately got up from the bed to get a glass of water.
"What's going on?" she thought as she drank three glasses in one sitting. "This has never happened before."
This is the second time she had seen Alexandra in her dreams. It was bizarre how Anna kept on dreaming about the same thing for the second time in a row, but what made it different this time was that Daniel was in it too.
Anna drank another glass of water before taking a shower. Tossing and turning all night had accumulated sweat all over her body, so the shower provided a refreshing release of stress. Once out, she changed into a fitted gray long-sleeved shirt and leggings, pairing it with a comfortable pair of black boots. Tying her long hair into a high ponytail, she grabbed her father's satchel and filled it with the things she needed for her journey. She didn't bring much, but just enough that she would be able to go' around comfortably.
"It's time," she thought as she heard the soft knocking on the front door.
What appeared on the other side of her door was a tall young man in a dark gray jacket.
Even with the cap on, Anna recognized him as one of the new recruits from Union Republic. Along with three other boys in light green camouflage uniform, he looked to be the oldest among them, possibly 25 or 26.
Yet she doesn't know his name.
"Are you... Hansel?"
"And if I am?"
He looked at her seriously, but it didn't last long, as her confused gaze caused him to chuckle. Removing his cap to reveal hid short dark brown locks, he bowed slightly before thrusting his shoulders upwards, his chest puffed.
"I'm Gil," he smiled, "a lieutenant from the recon division. I'll be driving you to the meeting point. Pleased to make your acquaintance."
He held out his hand, and despite her newfound distaste for the man she held out hers. "And Hansel?" She asked again.
"He's meeting us outside the Siho border. He's on standby on another assignment right now."
"I must have bothered him," she replied. "I probably shouldn't have asked him to come."
"He's fine," he shrugged his shoulders as he opened the door to a black, 4x4 Jeep Wrangler. It was pretty high, so Anna had some trouble getting up, but she managed to get to her seat. "If you don't give him things to do, he goes crazy. Like a mad dog in heat," he said with a grin.
"Outside the border, huh." This would be the first time Anna has ever left Siho. For all that she can remember, she has never stepped foot outside the territory. But now, for the first time, she would finally get the chance to do so.
"Don't worry, it's not so bad out there," he said as he fixed the mirrors.
"Oh, that's right." Removing his hand on the wheel, he rummaged through his pocket and handed her a small silver bracelet.
"It's adorable," she said immediately as she touched it.
The bracelet was a simple piece of jewelry with a fine, silver chain that felt like satin to her fingers, but what allured her attention was the pink gemstone in the middle - rose quartz. The gentle color provided a calming effect.
"Hansel asked me to give it to you before anything happens. It's a bracelet that serves also as a locator. If something suddenly happens, this tells us where you are."
Anna nodded her head. It was quite smart for him to use a bracelet for such a purpose. It would take a while for anybody to think of such an item as something as valuable as GPS.
Curiosity filled Anna as she thought about the type of serious man this Hansel may be, but as he is not yet here, she is left to observe her other companion.
When she first saw Gil in the National Guards Alliance ceremony, he had taken the appearance of a serious military man with his emotionless face on stage, but it surprised her to see that this man resembled Ilyan in both personality and even in appearance. Gil was quite handsome as well, but she had not once seen him in the streets of Siho. Perhaps he was one of those who did decide to stay inside the compound unless he had to go.
"Are you perhaps judging me right now, Ms. Elixon?" said Gil as he drove, surprising Anna as she snapped her head back to the front.
"What makes you think that?" She fired back.
"We're all humann, you know." Gil smiled, and he turned his head to her. "Unlike what some people think, guys at the camp don't just have orders in our heads. It's true that we form routines inside the camp - we wake up, do the drills, eat, and set out when we have to, but we also have emotions as well. We'll fight for our own desires at times. But hey, didn't your father tell you not to stare at strangers too much because it's rude?"
Anna was caught off-guard. She hadn't expected him to talk so much, nor would he know her so well.
"I'm sorry if I offended you," she said quietly. "I.... Gil...."
"Nah, I'm fine," he chuckled, waving his hand amusingly. "I just really wanted to say that line today."
Anna wanted to punch him.
She wanted to punch him so badly for messing with her, but she held off. After all, he was driving, and at that exact moment the sun began to rise. The sky had turned into an array of orange and pink - like a painting.
"Yeah, it really is."
"Have you noticed then?" Gil said as he slowed down.
"We've just passed the Siho border. We're no longer at the territory."
Anna still couldn't see very well as it was far too dark, but Gil took out a piece of blue satin in the glove compartment. He handed it to Anna.
"At this point, I'd need to order you to put the blindfold on. We're entering an undisclosed passage and- "
"-would require any citizen or noncitizen not part of the National Guards Alliance to put the blindfold on in order to preserve the secrecy of the location, correct?" Anna continued as she tightened the cloth, covering her eyes completely.
"Ah, yes." Gil replied blatantly. He was fiddling around with his phone after just receiving a message.
"My father's a military man, you see," Anna said to him, "and I'm coming to save him."
"You must wait for me here, Ms. Elixon, while I grab the map that you need to deliver," said Gil, and Anna heard his side of the door open. "Please do not remove the blindfold at all times."
She nodded, and she felt his presence disappear beside her. As she waited, she started to feel uneasy. Maybe it had to do with the blindfold and being away from home, but anxiousness filled her.
"Just what am I doing right now?" She whispered. "Father, are you really alive? If I do everything they tell me, will I see you again? Or... just like mother... would I end up dying too?"
"I won't let you die."
Anna froze. She heard the door to the driver's side shut, and the car began to move, but she couldn't bring herself to speak.
"You can remove the blindfold now, Anna. It's a beautiful day, and you should see it."
"Lieutenant... why.... are you here?"
"I'm not answering any questions unless you remove that blindfold."
"There are many lieutenants out there, who are you calling right now?"
Anna was shaking, and hastily she took the blindfold off her to reveal another more familiar man driving the wheel.
"Why couldn't you have just asked for my help in the beginning?" he mumbled.
"Where has Gil gone, lieutenant?!"
He didn't reply, and his eyes went directly on the road, but Anna was furious.
She didn't care about how beautiful the countryside looked, or how magnificent the magnitude of the cornfields that went for miles.
"So you do know my name." He let out a sigh as he stirred the wheel. "I was beginning to think you actually forgot."
"You..." she said, exasperated, "You can't possibly be Hansel, can you?"
Anna began gasping for air.
"No, this can't be happening. Please go back. You shouldn't be here. What if they see you?"
Worry took over her body. If Major Romero's information is accurate, then someone in Sonddor would know who Daniel is. After all, it was in that same border than they found Sahl and the remaining aerial warfare pilots:
All of them...dead.
"It's not too late for you to turn around, Lieutenant. I'll have Major Romero void your order so, please-"
"Do you really hate me that much?"
Daniel immediately halted the car, and he got off the vehicle.
"No..." she whimpered. Covering her eyes with the palms of her shaking hands. " It's not like that."
Anna was torn. She wanted to run to him, to tell him that it wasn't because she hated him.
At the very least, this was the best she could do to protect him.
She refuses to lose Daniel - not in Sonddor, where both her childhood friend and father had been its victims.
Preoccupied with her thoughts, Anna failed to notice that her side of the door had been opened. When she looked up, there he was, looking at her.
Anna noticed something else- it was the small band aid on his left cheek, from a cut he received that night.
For such a small bruise to remain unhealed, how could the rest of his body possibly feel?
She thought he was going to die that night.
"Doesn't it hurt?" She whispered, and her fingers touched the side of his face.
He shook his head.
"What about your body? You're not in any condition to be in a place that would be after your head as soon as you're found out."
Daniel chuckled at this, but Anna could only put her head down.
"Aren't you tired of being around me?"
He didn't say anything, and instead he grabbed her hand from his face, placing it down on top of his chest.
"This part hurts," he said. "Whenever my eyes can't reach you, I start to go crazy." Putting his hand on top of hers, Daniel closed his eyes.
"I heard that you were looking for Hansel. Since I've entered the army, II've taken the name 'Hansel' to prevent leaking my identity. For you to know that name, Sahl must have told you."
Anna didn't say anything, and she turned her head away. But he turned her head back to him.
"Sahl saved a worthless man like myself and it's because of him that I've come here," he told her. "He mentioned to me once about a woman he cherished, but he never told me her name. That's why I've become a coward after his death."
He looked at her with somber eyes.
"I assumed you felt the same way towards him, so I stayed away. I tried to stay away." Daniel shook his head, and an unpleasant smile appeared on his face.
"But I simply can't leave you alone any longer."
And just like that, Daniel pushed his head forward, brushing his lips against hers.
He smelled like firewood and rainwater in April.