4-4: Shirley's Grave
“It’s not that I have any particular attachment to Shirley herself,” Red said. He was standing alongside Catherine in front of the late Cerulean General’s gravestone, right at the spot where he had brutally murdered her and consequently exploded several months ago. He was wearing sunglasses to conceal the color of his eyes.
“Then why do you go to this specific place so often?” Catherine asked. “I mean, come on, three times within like half a year is a lot for visiting a dead person.”
“It’s because this is the place where everything changed for me.” Red bent down and placed a bouquet of flowers in front of the gravestone. “Before that battle happened, yes, I was prepared to kill people, but I was still being naïve. I was only prepared to kill the bare minimum of soldiers to get to the enemy general and finish things off 1-on-1. But then a fellow teenager appeared before me as a general. It made me question everything, and while I was so busy having my own doubts, a person dear I held dear died right in front of my eyes due to my incompetence.”
“Vanessa...” Catherine bowed her head. “I saw you using her dagger during the raid that happened on your birthday.”
“Having it makes me feel safer,” Red replied. “She’s the soldier I entrusted my back to, and up until the bitter end, she did an excellent job. Even though everyone says she’s gone, she still continues to protect me with that trusty dagger.”
“She died shielding you from a fatal attack…” Catherine recalled. “And then you went on a rampage and killed Shirley...”
“‘Kill’ is an understatement,” Red said. “I beat her up and burned her so badly that I don’t even know if the ashes I buried down here are even hers. And that sight of her corpse before I exploded...I’ll never forget that. One is better off living his life without ever going through such a thing. It was at that point. I had been killing people as part of the Raid Unit, but at that moment when I brutally murdered the Cerulean General and killed hundreds of her soldiers with one explosion, even getting some of my own men caught up in the blast...that was when everyone stopped seeing me as a human. Even myself. My troops are friendly with me because they’re on my side, but the rest of the world...well, you could figure it out just from the title they gave me.”
“No Red, you’re no mons-”
“I am,” the boy said, interrupting his companion’s words. “I was prepared to become one when I was given a second chance at life as the Crimson General...or so I thought.” His hands clenched into a fist. “It was only when I finally snapped and killed Shirley though that I was finally able to understand what being a monster meant. It meant seeing corpses just like Shirley’s over and over again, piled up to the hundreds, the thousands. It meant bringing an insurmountably heavy sense of pain and sadness to the people whom my victims held dear. I’d be robbing people of their futures, one strike, one bullet, one explosion at a time. But then again, if I hadn’t become the Blazing Monster, I wouldn’t have been able to get this far. I had to do something, and this is the path I’ve chosen in order to do what it is that I have to do.”
“What you have to do...?” Catherine asked, but she already had an idea as to what the answer was.
“You’re getting out of this war alive,” Red replied. “I may have failed to save many lives, and I may have taken far more by my own hand, but at the very least I will guarantee your safety. I’ve turned into a monster so that you can survive and have as normal a life as possible after all this is over. That’s what’s led me to go as far as I have right now.”
Catherine was tempted to discourage Red from going to such lengths solely for her, but she could not bring herself to say the words because...
Roger had once said the following words to her: “Without you doing anything, you’ve become Red’s main driving force to fight on. It’s all Red’s fault, yes, but we’ve come to accept it if it means we get to protect those that we love in the same way he’s desperately trying to protect you.” In essence, Red is using his soldiers in order to protect her and, in the same way, they’re using him to protect their own loved ones. It did not sound like a pretty concept by any means, but in the end people’s lives were being saved, albeit at the cost of others. Accepting this reality of war was something that Catherine had to do if she was to stay by the side of that crimson-eyed teenage boy.
Meanwhile, Red was sensing a group of people coming from behind, with one of them running ahead, seemingly at full speed.
Without a second thought, he held Catherine’s shoulders, and just before the girl could figure out what was going on, he pushed her to the side, sending her falling to the ground just as he himself fell forward with a slight groan.
Catherine looked to see what was going on and her eyes instantly widened when she saw Red. The boy was on his knees, and the handle of a swiss knife was protruding from his back. Furthermore, there was a woman in her 40’s who stood behind him, and a few more people of varying ages running to the scene: An elderly man, a man in his 40’s, and a woman in her late 30’s.
Red, without so much as a change in expression after the initial strike, turned around to face the woman, took out the small weapon stuck on his back, and handed it over to her, with blood all over it.
“You must be her mother,” he said, completely revealing his identity and ruining the point of his sunglasses. “Here you go, ma’am.”
With an expression that was a mix of shock and anger, the woman gasped at Red, saying, “Why you little-” before stabbing him right in the stomach, this time keeping both hands piercing his insides and refusing to let go.
Red grimaced in pain, but refused to push the woman away. She was twisting at his insides and his fist was clearly being clenched to try enduring the pain.
While this was going on, the woman’s companions got to the scene and pulled the woman away, taking the knife out of the boy’s body with her. Red started gasping while holding his wound.
“That’s enough, Jane!” the old man cried out. “Is this what Shirley would want?!”
“Hmph!” the woman called Jane simply said in response, dropping the swiss knife and walking away before stopping after a few meters, her back on everyone else.
When things seemed to have settled down, Red, who was in the middle of regenerating, looked up. He stopped his gaze at the old man.
“...I know you,” he said. “You’re in that picture. You’re one of the guys who created us.”
The guys who created us. The old man was one of the leading scientists who engineered the general serum that turned Red into the Crimson General.
“That’s right,” the old man replied. “I can’t see your eyes directly, but I’m willing to guess that you’re Crimson. Given the circumstances, that’s the only explanation for a teenage boy in a place like this. After all, you’ve been to this place before, right? We saw the flowers you gave last time; it was obvious from how-”
“-how the flowers didn’t exist in your country,” Red continued to finish off the old man’s sentence. By this time, the wound had healed up enough for him to stand. Getting back on his feet, he placed himself between them and Catherine. “I don’t want any trouble. If you have business here, we’ll stay back until you’ve finished.”
Catherine looked around, unsure of what to do.
In response, the old man smiled and shook his head. “No, it’s okay,” he said. “Let’s talk. I’m Gilbert. This guy over here is Martin, this one is Josephine.” Red and the old man’s two companions briefly exchanged bows of courtesy and Catherine followed. “As you’ve guessed from Jane, we’ve come here to visit a member of our family.”
Using his eyes to scan the people in front of him, he began, “The stabber is the mom, Martin’s the dad, you’re the grandpa, and the other one is...”
“I’m Shirley’s aunt,” the woman named Josephine replied. “She grew up under my and father’s care, so I’ve grown very attached to her.”
“I don’t get it. So I assume that the parents were something like busy businessmen and so Shirley was sent to you and that old man. Then why-”
“Why would I turn my dear granddaughter into the Cerulean General, is that it?” Gilbert asked. Behind his back, he was thinking, Woah, this kid is sharp.
“...I’m guessing there’s more to the story.”
Gilbert nodded. “I had no intention of giving her the general serum,” he said.
“She stole it and injected it on herself.”
Shirley was a sheltered daughter born from parents that founded a successful business. She was always pressured to learn being elite in all ways possible, such as having proper table manners, learning the piano, and excelling in her studies. Being an only child, she had no one to cling onto, so she diligently followed her parents silently.
At the age of 12, her parents, Martin and Jane, were starting to have less and less time to be at home, so Jane’s father Gilbert insisted that Shirley stay with him and his widowed daughter Josephine. Despite being one of the lead scientists in the creation of the serums for the upcoming Global Unification War, Gilbert made sure to have enough time so that Shirley didn’t feel alone when at home after school. This setup became the new family for the girl named Shirley, and she was happier with all the attention and effort being given to making her happy. They were also a lot less strict on him, so the newfound sense of freedom was a breath of fresh air for her.
Skip to 4 years later, at a point when Shirley was permanently staying with her aunt and uncle with her parents visiting every now and then. Josephine was still single, but she claimed that taking care of Shirley came first. Gilbert and the other scientists, meanwhile, have finished creating the general serum and his country’s portion was given to him.
For several nights, Shirley would see her grandfather late at night stressed out in his study, frantically going over various papers, with a serum on the table beside them. On one particular night, she was eavesdropping him a little more closely than usual.
“Dammit!” she heard him scream as he slammed on the table. “We’ve tried 35 people already, and yet no one can take the serum! The longer this takes, the harder it’ll be on everyone! What’s the hidden requirement? How come the cream of the crop of the country can’t handle it? I heard that Adam’s general was already stabilizing, and Barry’s as well.” The so-called “Barry’s general” was Zack. “If I can’t find someone, then this country will...”
Taking deep breaths, Gilbert stood up. “I need some fresh air.”
Shirley hurriedly but quietly ran out and waited for her grandfather to exit the room. When the nearby sounds of his footsteps have disappeared, she snuck into the study, standing in front of the table and scanning the papers.
“These are profiles...” she softly commented to herself. “Each one looks like a person in his prime. But...these cross marks...these must have been those that ‘didn’t make it.’ And as for the serum grandpa was talking about...” She turned her head and saw it. “It’s this, huh...? The thing that has been causing grandpa so much pain lately...this is the thing that’s breaking my family apart.”
Taking it in her hand, there was no hesitation in her eyes.
“If this doesn’t work, it’s not like my parents will grieve for me anyway,” she said. “If there’s even the slightest bit of a chance, I will do anything to help out grandpa.”
Jane gritted her teeth and Martin averted his gaze.
Red finally knew why he was stabbed.
They were planning on making amends with Shirley during or after the war, but then she died. And the one who robbed them of that chance was me. Red looked up. I knew that Shirley lived with relatives outside her parents who were too busy, but I never thought...
“Say,” Josephine suddenly uttered as she looked at Red, interrupting the boy’s inner monologue. “How about you? How did you become the Crimson General?”
“Dad forced it onto me,” Red replied. “There was an accident, and while I was being operated on, he injected it onto me in a huge gamble for my life. But he told me after that if the accident hadn’t happened, he would have straight out asked me to take it anyway.”
“So you were the first ‘specimen’?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
Gilbert nodded in approval as he looked at Red from head to toe. “I see,” he said. “You’re the ‘trump card’ Adam was talking about.”
“He was talking about making a radical move that would revolutionize the world and how people think,” Gilbert explained. “At the time I had no idea, but this is very clever indeed, turning a teenager into a general. Your father has incredible foresight, and he actually pulled off that revolution with you defeating two armies. But what’s more amazing to me is you yourself, accomplishing such big things despite your age.” He stepped forward and placed his hands on Red’s shoulders. “Has it been tough?”
Despite his sunglasses, Red still moved his face away to avoid looking at Gilbert directly while he replied, “Well, yeah, of course. In the same way you had no intention of turning Shirley into a general, I didn’t really want to kill her if I could help it. But she was out to kill me, and I had to at least show her the same amount of resolve she had…” There was a slight pause. “…a resolve borne from her immense love for her family.”
Jane and Martin were visibly struck by these words. Gilbert let go of him and Jane approached him.
“Why…?” she began, but paused. Red waited until she continued, “Why did you let me stab you? You knew I was about to hit you from behind, but all you did was push that girl away.” She briefly used her chin to point at Catherine. “And even when I stabbed you upfront after you turned around, you didn’t resist at all. Why? Why put up with the pain when you can pretty much kill me with just one touch?”
Red’s response pierced through Jane’s heart.
“Because I wanted to understand you,” he replied. “‘Shirley’s parents must be very sad and frustrated’...that thought alone isn’t enough to atone for what I did. You were mad at both me and yourself…mad enough to want to do what you did. I know that, and yet I will never understand firsthand the intensity of those feelings of yours. So the least I could do was to let you have your way and try to see the depth of your grief as much as I could. Besides, I regenerate quickly, anyway.”
“But Crimson,” Gilbert interrupted. “You generals may regenerate at inhuman speeds, but the pain...”
“...is the same as with anyone else, yes,” Red said to complete the old man’s sentence. “Stabbing a general induces the same pain as stabbing a bio-soldier or a normal human. In that regard, we’re not invincible. If you place enough sudden pain on a general, it’s possible that the shock can render them unable to move even if they’ve already regenerated. It’s a theory, but it’s pretty possible, since getting hit is pretty painful.”
Upon hearing this, Jane covered her mouth and broke down in tears. She fell on her knees, and Martin held her shoulders to console her.
After caressing her hair for a while, Martin turned to face Red. “I’m sorry on behalf of my wife,” he said. “We came here to apologize to Shirley, but it seems someone else deserves an apology more urgently.” He briefly faced both Josephine and Gilbert, and they all exchanged nods. “We’re all terribly sorry. Shirley turning into the Cerulean General was our fault. If it weren’t for us, you would never have had to...”
Red shook his head. “In this world, there are things that don’t go as we plan. For all we know, I could easily die tomorrow and the direction of the war would change drastically. If it happens, it happens, and there’s nothing we can do to affect the past. We’re all the same here right now in that we have our own regrets regarding Shirley, but in the end, we can’t let that get in the way of moving forward. Well, at least in my case I can’t afford to let it since I have an entire country to protect, and you know how high the stakes are for that.”
Jane slowly stood up. “I understand. We’ll be on our way now. Sorry for the inconvenience, after you came all the way here and even brought flowers.”
“Um, okay. Thank you for understanding,” Red said with a bow of courtesy. Catherine followed, and so did the others.
Soon, the two teenagers were left alone once more.
“Cath,” came Red’s voice, pointing at a random direction. “Take 10 steps toward there and face away from me.”
Tilting her head in confusion, Catherine asked, “Why?”
Red moved his face away. “Just...please...”
What? Deciding that Red must have had a good reason for it, Catherine did as she was told. When she was far away enough, she could hear Red in an outburst of tears. He was bawling like a baby, the same way he did right after killing Zack. She could make out a few words from the boy’s mouth.
He was repeatedly saying “I’m sorry.”
Briefly turning around, she saw Red on his knees and embracing the tombstone in front of him. Right after this, she immediately turned his back on him again, afraid of him noticing due to his enhanced senses that could detect motions from extremely far away.
Soon, she began hearing other sounds. Removing all distractions in her head in order to focus on eavesdropping as much as she could, she finally realized what Red was doing.
“Richard, Albert, George...”
Catherine could feel a few tears forming in her eyes when she figured it out.
Red was enumerating all of the people he had killed thus far.
This visit wasn’t just for Shirley. This day, this moment, it was when he allowed himself to become human and grieve for the tragedy of the war, forgetting those blood-stained hands and blood-colored eyes of his if even for just a while.
Holding her hand over her mouth and shaking uncontrollably, Catherine sobbed alongside Red.
Several minutes have passed.
Red had finally settled down, and as Catherine looked at her companion on his knees in front of Shirley’s gravestone, she slightly held her hand out.
It was raining.
From his silent, depressed trance, Red noticed a shadow form above him. Looking up, it was Catherine holding an open umbrella and looking at him with a pitying smile.
“Let’s go home, Red,” she said, stretching out her hand for him. “Okay?”
“Heh.” Forming a slight smile, Red put his hands on his knees and stood up, making Catherine awkwardly draw her hand back. “I guess it’s time we went back. Let me hold that for you.”
“Um, okay,” the girl said, handing over the umbrella to Red before walking out of the cemetery.
Catherine was at a loss for words. Starting from that time a few days ago when the women at the Crimson Base told her the story about Red’s tragic battle with Shirley, everything seemed to come into place: Why Red seemed like a seasoned veteran who enjoyed fighting when they were reunited back in November even though it had only been a few months since the war started, why he was irrationally hard on himself when she took out all of her anger on him, why he keeps fighting on the front lines, and why he keeps calling himself a monster. The moment she failed to fully understand Red’s tears in front of Shirley’s grave was when she realized how different the worlds they lived in were, and how much that one crimson-eyed boy - that boy who is constantly changing history on a worldwide scale all for the sake of protecting her - has sheltered her from the ugliness and tragedy of it all. She had been able to grab glimpses of it, but she could only imagine how hard it must have really been for someone her age - in fact younger than her by several months - to experience so much bloodshed right in front of him.
With these thoughts, the teenage girl, whose life had already been saved twice by that boy, was now stealing glances at him.
He seemed perfectly fine now, with his face having that neutral, normal expression, the kind that gave you no clue as to what he was thinking or feeling. All hints of crying, aside from the soreness in his eyes, had virtually vanished.
What has this war done to him?
Catherine knew. She knew that this ability to recover so quickly after such an emotional display was something that had only appeared during the war. Red had that ability because he was the Crimson General first and Red second. This boy knew that whatever personal grief he had must always be kept in check, or else he would be unable to effectively do his job as a general. If he had carried over his sadness upon the tragedy of the battle against the Cerulean Army, the fight against Zack and the Ivory Army would not have been such an ensured victory; Zack could have exploited Red’s sadness and he very well could have died at that battle before Nathan could even come to help. Aside from having turned into a monster that has taken countless lives in seas of flames, the boy named Red has also become a robot capable of hiding his innermost feelings, crushing the guilt inside him and facing forward with those blood-red eyes to kill more.
However, she knew that Red was still human at his core. He did not take pleasure in killing; in fact, he grieved for his victims whenever he could. He remembers their names. He knows their backgrounds. He vividly remembers how each one’s life ended, even if it had been “collateral damage” due to his immense power. Having all those stored in any normal person’s head would probably make their brain explode, but Red had his genetically-enhanced memory retention, and he chose to use it for this.
Because of this, Catherine was sure that Red had the greatest sense of empathy in the whole world.
And just by that alone, she knew that he was more human than anyone else.
That’s right, Catherine told herself. There is no way the guy I fell in love with could possibly be a monster.
With these thoughts in her mind, she heard Red’s cellphone ring.
“Oh, excuse me,” he said as he took it out of his pocket and placed in on his ear. “Yo, Uncle. What’s going on? Did you miss me already?”
Based on how Red called him, the caller must have been Allen. Catherine was unable to hear the conversation, but it seems that with just one reply, Allen was able to turn Red’s face pale.
“The Emerald General is dead,” he reported.
While Red and Catherine were travelling to Shirley’s grave, away from any source of news and information because this was supposed to be Red’s time to dwell on his personal life and not be a general, it turns out that the Golden General had staged an all-out attack. According to the reports, over 10 bomb-ridden buildings crashed onto the Emerald Army from the sky and effectively decimated them.
Now there were only two of them left.
Crimson and Gold.
The peaceful stalemate was over, and the day of the final battle to determine the fate of the world was finally approaching.
Questions abounded the entire world right now. How did the buildings fall? Was it the Golden General’s power? What was his power, exactly? Who is he? The fight had reportedly been so sudden, and the Golden General did not even show himself, so speculations were sure to start circulating by now.
However, Red was not thinking about that.
“...I see,” he said over the phone. “Then I guess I’ll be coming back one day late.”
“Wait, what?! What’re you-”
With his head bowed and a smile on his face, Red cut off his conversation with his uncle right there. He then proceeded to turn off his cellphone and place it back in his pocket.
“What’s going on, Red?” Catherine asked.
“We’re taking a detour,” the boy replied.
“To visit another girl.”