His eyes followed a trace around the golden frame, carefully analysing the ornaments engraved into the golden painted wood. The frame looked old, part of the paint had started to fade, flaking around the corners. The glass which was held by the frame, keeping the picture behind it safe, had been broken many times. Traces of glue protruded between several cracks, thin lines trailing along the surface.
Ironically, the demolished appearance came close to an analogy of what the picture itself showed. Long-lost hope, a broken father-son-relationship, hidden behind layers of fading fake perfection; layers to hide the cancer that had grown in this relationship over decades, layers to play pretend, keep up the façade of perfection.
“Son, come to me.”
“Yes, dad!” The little boy stumbled down the stairs as soon as he heard his father’s voice. The day had come, the day everyone had been talking about. His excitement had kept him awake all night, his stomach literally hurt as he spurted into the kitchen, proud smile and shiny eyes.
“No, son. It is ‘Yes, sir!’. Conviction and respect.” The boy stood tall in front of his father, even though he was only half his height. A nearly unnoticeable smile flashed across his father’s lips as he watched his son with pride. The day had come, it was time.
“Now, where is your sister?”
“She’s still in the bathroom, da- sir! Bathroom, sir!” He didn’t dare to look him in the eyes, didn’t dare to see his reaction. If there was something that man despised entirely it was tardiness and – even though nobody quite understood how – his little sister had a habit of being tardy.
The man’s face turned entirely emotionless, cold like stone. His hands were clenched to fists and his chest swelled at his shuddering breath, his nostrils dilated. The boy knew that posture, he knew that look and it made a shiver run down his spine. If there was something he was utterly terrified of, it was his father’s anger and rage.
With a hauntingly calm, yet sharp exhale, the man opened his mouth – and what followed could be compared to the sound of rolling thunder over an old wooden cottage, unprotected, about to shatter at the pure sound of it.
“MADELINE!” One sharp shout, only one, and everything went silent. The glimpse of a moment later, a little girl, only about five years old, stumbled down the stairs with trembling knees and tears running down her cheeks as if the blue ponds ended in waterfalls. She fell to her knees right in front of her father, whimpering and whining, no clear words as she was too scared.
The boy didn’t blame her, in reality, he felt extremely sorry for her and only wanted to protect her from that terrifying rage; but he didn’t dare to disobey his father. He had to stand tall and act by command. There was no time for pity, no time for compassion.
“Madeline. Why are you late?”
“I’m sorry, daddy, I-!”
“QUIET. I did not ask for excuses, I asked for an explanation.” Something about that sharp, cutting voice and that cold look in his eyes told the boy that his father was not willing to be forgiving. There was no emotion, no love. No love…
His little sister was still on her knees, crying her eyes out, her whole body was shaking. Fear had taken over, fear was everything she felt, fear in her eyes, in her limbs, in her thin voice.
“Daddy, I-I…” A hiccup interrupted her already cracking voice, followed by a disapproving grunt from her father. She was in trouble, that was for sure.
“Enough. Wipe away those tears, they make you ugly. Be late to the ceremony and you won’t even have to come. I cannot allow any more disappointments, you already are a disgrace. Now, go.” Without another word, the little girl took off, trembling and squealing in agony and fear. Her mother was waiting for her in the living room, hidden from the cynical glare of her husband when she gently tried to reassure her daughter. She didn’t like what her husband did to their children but she couldn’t act against it. There was no way to resist, all she could do was tell their children to be obedient and modest at any time.
His little heart was aching when the boy had to watch his sister’s pain. He couldn’t stand it when his father became uncontrollably furious but he had to obey, he had to stand tall, not give in. After all, it was his day and Madeline had disappointed their father.
“Outside. Steady pace, stand tall.”
“Yes, sir!” The little boy tried to follow a hypothetical beat in his mind to keep his pace as rhythmical and consistent as possible. His father had made him practice the walk outside for hours and hours with a rhythm and a metronome, every time he had missed a beat the man started shouting ‘WRONG! AGAIN! AGAIN!’ all the time. No matter what conditions he was put into, pouring rain, rolling thunder, no matter if his legs were burning because of the pain, the tension in his muscles. His father had always been ruthless.
Outside, a respective applause could be heard as the boy came to stand At Attention. The group of men that had gathered nodded in his direction, respectively, but somewhat distant. He knew them all, had heard their stories of combat. Once every week his father would invite one of the veterans and ask them to join him for dinner. A lot of whiskey would be drunk that evening, a lot of stories would be told. But shame and dishonour if any of the children would say a single word.
“Son, at ease.” The boy widened his legs slightly and folded his hands behind his back, holding his head up nevertheless. He knew everything, everything he’d have to do. Hours of hours, days after days, he had studied and practiced everything to perfection. The proud look in his father’s cold, grey eyes was worth it.
From the corner of his eye, the boy saw his little sister approach, accompanied by their mother. Her face had been dried up and her smile had come back. It warmed his heart to see her back at happiness, there was still a part in him that valued the luck and joy of his sister, even though they had never been the closest siblings.
“Good morrow, fellow soldiers! Today is the day we had all been waiting for. In fact, I have been waiting for this day ever since this little fella has been born seven years ago!”
Another round of respective applause, one supportive cheer – nothing compared to a comedy show, everything serious and strict after all. The ceremony was meant to be just like it would be in every actual inauguration ceremony. It was exciting, it was what he had tried to live up to throughout the past years.
“Gentlemen, this is our future. I am proud to announce the inauguration of my son to build the future. The future we have been longing for, the future humankind shall greet with open arms – The future that will be led by the heroes and martyrs of our bloodlines!” This time, a wave of cheers and supportive shouts from the gathered men. A sheepish, nearly maniacal smile lit the face of their leader. The boy noticed how his father strode towards him, a small wooden knife with a sharp, shining blade in his scarred hand. Instant fear made his heart race faster the closer the man came, he had to swallow the lump in his throat.
“Son, hold out your hand.”
“With this blade, you will be incorporated in the brigade of the British Army. With this oath, you will pledge allegiance to the Fifth British Empire. With your blood, you will seal your pride and honour to serve Britain and the Queen.” The boy could feel his heart skip a beat as he heard his father’s words, fear and insecurity growing in his chest. Never had he been told that he would have to give his blood in order to be inaugurated. How come his father had never told him?
“Open your hand.”
“Yes, sir…” His voice was faint, merely a murmur as he stretched out his palm, a terrified look in his eyes, biting his tongue so he wouldn’t make a noise. His father grasped his son’s hand firmly, squeezing it, though, more with conviction than with love, and placed the blade on the pale skin. He didn’t wait much longer and cut deep into the flesh of his son’s hand, leaving a mess of blood dripping down the boy’s arm as he tried to choke back tears and a scream. The pain was nearly unbearable, he couldn’t stand it much longer and everything was turning around him. The smell of the blood made him feel dizzy.
“You’re dismissed.” Not a second later the boy strode off, holding his bleeding hand with a whimper of pain and embarrassment. The eyes of his little sister followed him, filled with worry and sympathy. She would be the one who’d sit by his bed and dress the wound carefully. She would be the one drying his tears late at night. She would be the one noticing the constant agony in his eyes. Always.
He felt his eyes water as his fingers brushed over the small figure on the picture, his past self coldly staring at him like the reflection he had never dared to look at. Despised by himself was this image, despised what he had done to appeal his father’s wishes. What a disgrace.
Not once had he listened to his own heart, being raised by the military man his father had always been he never dared to think of anything else. Ever since he was able to walk he had learned how to act accordingly, how to behave, what to say. He was bound to become a striking soldier, even as a child.
Madeline had noticed, more than he had noticed it himself, that this was not who he wanted to be. That this had never been who he wanted to become. She had always been there, telling him he would just have to follow his dreams. But he didn’t even know anymore what he dreamt of, he forgot to be anything but the soldier he was taught to be.
His eyes were filled with tears, his heart was filled with pain and anger and disappointment. His hands were trembling from the rage he felt rising in his veins, blood pumping, his heart racing. Hatred growing in his chest, filling his sore limbs with a force he had never, never ever felt, becoming stronger and stronger. Hatred towards that one man that had never seen him like a son, never seen him like a boy. Only the little soldier he was bound to become. The little soldier he had always been. His puppet. His little soldier.