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Before the takeover, I always hated school lunches. At home before the takeover I could eat any cereal for breakfast that I wanted. My favourite part was the milk left in the bowl after I finished the cereal, which would radiate brown and gold from all the sugar that washed off. For dinner, we’d eat grand meals like roasts or turkeys. We’d always have fruit sitting on the counter, like sweet, dripping mangoes. I used to eat watermelons with my mom and spit out the seeds into the metal sink. School lunches and their boring green apples were boring in comparison with that. But after the takeover, school lunches became my favourite meal of the day. At home, we were eating less. We ate dinners with no meat or meat that my dad never named. We stopped buying cereal. My dad started buying food with vouchers, and he didn’t get many vouchers because it was just the two of us. School lunches still had green apples that I began savouring. I remember my dad saying that we children were the future, and it was more important for me to eat properly. I remember wondering what he ate for lunch. It couldn’t have been much, I thought, because he was always grim when I asked for more at dinner.
Do you know how adults have the same boring conversation with everyone they meet? They all talk at the grocery store about the weather, and then they see someone else a few minutes later and repeat the same concerns about the unseasonable temperatures. Well, those set-piece conversations changed too. Instead of talking about the weather or their kids, adults would talk about how good things were. They would talk about how the city was doing so well since the takeover, how everyone was holding up so well. Then they’d all walk away in the same navy blue clothes to pay for their groceries with vouchers.
Adults started acting especially strangely around me. My dad’s friends would always smile so widely at me, as if their plastic mouths and lips and eyes could swallow me whole. Everyone would touch me when they saw me. Even adults that I had never met before would clap me on the shoulder and say something about my mom and what a hero she was. People would offer my dad things, sometimes even food, but he would never take anything. Once someone brought my dad a bag of food that he threw in the garbage, and I took a loaf of bread when he wasn’t looking. When he caught me eating the bread in my room, he left without saying a word and didn’t come back home until the next day. I’m still ashamed that I finished the loaf.
I don’t remember too much more. Telling this story makes it feel unreal to me. Sometimes I wonder how strange it really was. Memory is funny like that. When I try to think about my time then, I picture myself as an overlarge dragon, cautiously sticking my tongue blindly into the emptiness. I still can’t fit inside that cave. Afterwards, they told me that it was a nightmare, but nightmares are easy to remember. Nightmares are vivid and crass, searing crudely behind your eyes. They’re simple. Maybe it was more like a dream, wispy, and delicate. Maybe it was a little bit of both.
I remember how the takeover ended. One day the men in camouflage finally came, the men everyone said my mom had banished forever. They didn’t poison our water or bomb our city, but they did wear giant plastic masks and shoot smoke at us. Everyone fell asleep, all at once, like a bunch of falling dominoes. I was walking home from school and saw a car slide across the street into a van parked on the other side. I kept wondering why it didn’t turn, why it wouldn’t follow the road. I started running home, and that was the last thing I remembered. I woke up in a hospital, surrounded by faces I had never seen before, eyebrows I couldn’t read, hands that poked instead of patted.
Everyone asked me so many questions about my life during the takeover and what the city was like. Mostly they asked me about my mom. I couldn’t remember everything, sometimes not even what she looked like. But they didn’t ask about that. They asked what I thought about her. Now I know that those were dangerous questions, but I guess I gave the answers they wanted. They asked when I found out that she was a terrorist. They asked what my dad said about her. They said that they’d been watching us ever since the takeover, learning about us, and waiting for a chance to re-impose order. They said they’d been keeping me safe, but I didn’t know from what. They wanted to know why the takeover happened in the first place. Did my mom tell me anything before she left? Did my dad explain it afterwards? How did he feel about it? I didn’t know. They gave me a grilled cheese sandwich, and it was delicious. I hadn’t had one since before the takeover. I ate a slice of watermelon and I spat the seeds in the garbage. There was a TV in my hospital room, and I could watch anything I wanted, just like before. All of my favourite shows were freakishly unchanged. They told me they were going to make everything normal again, make me safe again, but everyone in the hospital smelled like latex, and all their hugs felt like bones slumped coldly over my shoulders.