It’s been six days since they laid siege to our city. First we heard their jets screaming overhead, their missiles and bombs whistling as they fell on our homes. Those were followed by artillery strikes, accompanied by the thundering of tanks just a few kilometers from the town’s borders. Dust clouds filled the air, choked out the lungs of the oldest and youngest. Whatever left were burned to cinders by their soldiers. Our favorite restaurants, the supermarkets where we’d pick up our groceries every weekend or so, the houses. By the end they were all gray remnants of what they once were.
We were not to be spared. Or maybe the lot of them just went trigger happy. Anyone unlucky enough to end up at the crosshairs of a squad out on patrol would be shot. Dying slowly or instantly, it didn’t matter. The shooters would just walk on, not checking up on their latest kill. Surrender really wasn’t an option
Some of us hid. In hollowed out malls, stores, subways—the rather naive ones chose abandoned houses—or whatever place gave the illusion of a safe haven. I knew better. Staying meant waiting for the inevitable. Leaving, as risky as that sounds, at least gives us a slim chance to get our lives back. And I’m not about to let us stay here to die.
The second-story skylight’s giving me a pretty nice view. A patrol of four riflemen, lightly-equipped by the looks of it.They’d be leaving in a few minutes, I hoped. A warehouse isn’t really the most obvious of places to hide in, with its wide-open first floor. The second though, had endlessly branching hallways, good to disappear in, if it came to that.
A sudden pattering of feet, taking my eyes off the roads. “Dad? I need to go to the bathroom.”
“Could you wait a bit more? I’m kind of in the middle of something here.”
“No, really, I need to go. Now.”
I sighed. Can’t really ditch my post now. “Just this once, you can pee on the floor.”
He looked surprised. That was one of the first no-no’s we’d taught him.
“Mom would get mad!” he retaliated. Good to know he listens to his parents.
“No she won’t, I’ll explain things to her. Now then, back away a bit, and go on with your business, okay?”
He didn’t say anything else. Probably still a little confused that I’d just told him to whizz on something other than a toilet. Two years ago he’d do that on anything close by. They sure grow up fast.
I turned back to the window. The four were still there. Chatting, passing cigarettes between themselves. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. Was that Russian? Chinese? Japanese? I needed to know if they were planning to sweep the area.
They started walking over. Did they see me? Did they hear anything? Shit, shit, shit. Gotta get Tommy. Gotta hide. Gotta leave. Run.
I whispered, “Tommy.” No answer. A little louder, “Tommy!”
“We need to go, c’mon.”
“Huh? Why?” that puzzled look on his face, totally unaware of the danger out there. God I wish I could feel the same way.
“I’ll tell you about it later. Now c’mon. You have everything with you?” He nodded, face still not showing even a hint of comprehension. Better that way.
I carried him in my arms. “Now, whatever you do, don’t make a sound okay? Not even if scary things show up. Okay?”
He snuggled to my chest, hiding his face. Good idea, wish I’d thought of that.
I walked with the heels of my shoes, making as little noise as possible. Where should I go? The stairs? No, too risky. Fire exit? Their friends might be waiting outside. No choice, have to wait for them to come up here and sneak past.
Voices. Footsteps. They still talked, loudly. Did they think nobody’s home? Or that whoever’s in here would pose no threat to them. I prayed for the former.
Broken pieces of glass cracking under the weight of their boots. Things thrown to the floor, couldn’t tell what. Or why they’re even doing that. One of them shouted something. The same phrase again and again. Is that a demand for surrender?
They know we’re here. Please, God, please. Fucking listen to me for once!
Another voice, one speaking a language I could understand. “Don’t shoot! Please don’t shoot!” A woman. Faint mumblings, from the soldiers probably. They were talking over something. One of them barked, “Strip!”
“Clothes. Off. Now!”
Nearly inaudible, the woman muttered, “No. Please.”
A barrage of gunfire followed, aimed at the top of the first floor. The rounds poked holes a few meters from where Tommy and I hunched over.
“You do,” the lecher reiterated, “now!”
“No, no, no. You can’t do this. You can’t! Please!”
Then the sounds of beatings. A bone cracked. A burst of air escaping the mouth of someone whose gut had just been pummeled. A skull smacked into concrete.
“C’mere Tommy,” I held him close, as much I could. “Close your ears, don’t ask why, just, just don’t okay? Everything’s gonna be fine. You just need to close your ears and everything will be fine.”
I could see tears welling up in his eyes, but he did as I asked. I helped press his hands further—no child, no son of mine should hear any of this. And for the next eternity, I listened to a woman being beaten senseless, wailing for help that I could never give, her pleading the soldiers to leave her alone.
HELP ME SOMEBODY PLEASE HELP PLEASE
The tune of rape. It—she—had saved us. Ah Christ.
Then one single shot, a round of laughter, and the beasts strolled back to the streets. They went away, far from where I could see them. It was safe enough for me to let Tommy go. And vomit.
We awoke the next morning, not remembering when we fell asleep. I gathered our things, checked Tommy’s little rucksack; his toy cars, Superman comics, they were all there. Mine was still full of canned foods, from fruits to beans to ground beef. At least food wasn’t all that hard to find.
I peeked through the windows, and saw no one. I tried to hear anything as best as I could HER SCREAMS and could pick up only the caws of birds SHE BEGGED FOR HELP. The roads are empty YOU DID NOTHING. They have to be.
“You ready, buddy?” I asked.
“Yeah.” I put his green beanie on his head, patted him twice, and carried him downstairs and to to the streets.
The border, it can’t be that far away anymore.
We passed empty homes, parking lots with burnt out skeletons of metal, parks with their trees, bushes, and grass turned gray. Tommy kept asking why they were all like that. I answered, “because something bad happened,” and he didn’t reply.
When my arms started to give, I let Tommy walk by himself. It hadn’t been long since he learnt how to, but his legs still wobbled each time an uneven surface popped up. It’s adorable, really.
“Daddy, daddy!” he wobbled towards me, face bursting with excitement. It’s good to know he could still feel that way. “I think a storm’s coming!”
“Hmm? Why do you suppose that’d happen?” I played along.
“Cause I can hear the clouds rumbling,” his hands both cupped next to his ears, pointing upwards like radar dishes.
To my surprise, I could hear it too. But not from up there. Not the skies, no. The ground was shaking.
I didn’t say a word, instantly dashing and grabbing Tommy of the pavement, sprinting as fast as I could. Houses, no. Too visible. Malls? Supermarkets? First places they’d send their footmen to check. Dammit. Dammit. Someone’s running.
I didn’t know who he was, where he was headed, but maybe, just maybe he had an idea. I followed him. Tommy clutched my arms until they heard. He was scared. I haven’t said anything. Didn’t want him to know the kind of things we face. But he knew.
Left once, right twice, straight until he found an abandoned house identical to any other. I was far from him, couldn’t keep up with his pace. He crouched down, and opened a trapdoor. From a distance it seemed as if he’d torn open a square of grass. He didn’t turn to look, and climbed down, closing the hatch behind him. I ran faster and faster, already out of breath.
Reaching the hidden latch, I put Tommy down and tugged. I pulled until my fingers turned white. I heard something creaking, then cracking, and the latch sprang open, tossing me flat on my back.
“Let’s go, Tommy.”
“It’s dark down there.”
“It’ll be okay. I’ll be right beside you.” The rumbling grew louder, they were getting closer. I yanked Tommy off the ground and he yelped, but there was no more time.
The ladder was rusty, brown all over. I managed—somehow—to bring Tommy with me downstairs. I climbed up again, and shut the latch. By the time I was done, i sprawled myself on the ground and gasped for air.
“Get out,” said a voice.
It was pitch black, I couldn’t see anything. “Please, they’re out there, they’ll slaughter us.”
“This is my house.
“You have the space. We’ll leave as soon as they do. I’m begging you, let us stay for a little while. You’ll save our lives.”
“You’ll lead them here!”
“No one followed us, I swear it!”
A figure, small or large I couldn’t tell, leapt from the darkness. It tackled me to the ground. Its claws maimed the skin of face, its limbs assaulting whatever part of me it could find. My hands flailed wildly, looking for purchase. While its found my throat, and squeezed. Pain, in my neck, in my chest, everywhere. Not yet. Not yet. . .
A loud bang and the beast howled. I sucked in all the air there was. Slowly, far too slowly, I pushed myself upright. There it was, eyes gleaming in the dark. Face ragged, covered in hair, eyes wild. But it was smaller than me. I tackled it to the ground. Again it tried to pry to skin off my face, yet I managed to slap its arms each time. My hands were now on its throat. I found its larynx, and put forward all I had to crush it. “We just wanted a place to stay!” It trashed around, its eyes dimming, its knee found my gut, and I spared a fist for its chest. Then it stopped, eyes still open, body unmoving.
I backed away on all fours. Repulsed by the thing. It’s dead. It’s fucking dead. Thank God. Thank the goddamn Almighty.
Light poured out from the ceiling. I frantically twisted my head, looking for who had caused the sudden illumination, noticing that Tommy. He’d found the light switch. Good boy. He was also holding a small shovel, the kind someone would use to dig up spots for flowers. Did he. . . he did, didn’t he?
My kill. What was it? I couldn’t see its face, but it was male. It wore khakis, and a floral shirt which hid its generous belly.I inched myself closer, to see it, its face.
An old man. It, was an old man. White and balding hair, brown spots all over his skin, wrinkles wherever one looked. Seventy,. Maybe eighty. Those gleaming eyes? They were his spectacles. And this weak, decrepit man was my kill.
My voice came out, raspy, wet, “Yes?”
“Why’d the grandpa hit you?”
“Because he was a bad man, Tommy.”
“Will we meet more like him?“
“I guess so.”
“Will they hit you too?”
A clicking sound, then the creaking of a door. Someone’s entering the room. I tucked Tommy behind a wooden box, moved frantically to the source of the sound. Moments before the door opened, I placed myself behind it, invisible to whomever’s entered the room.
“Gramps?” the unknown said, “is that you? Did you find—“ he screamed, noticing the body on the floor. He was a kid, no older than sixteen by my guess.
“No, no, no, no, you can’t. . .” his mouth repeated again and again. Hunched over, I could still tell that he was a large boy, big enough to be trouble.
I slipped my shoes off, and walked with no hurry towards him. He hadn’t noticed me. “I’m sorry,” I whispered, as I grabbed his head and slammed it to the concrete floor. It made a crunching, splattering sound. I held it and waited, and he did not move.
“Tommy? It’s all right, you can come out now. The bad men can’t hurt us anymore.”
He peeked at me, from the corner of his box. He didn’t move, leaving his one eye wide open, staring. Not at the bodies. At me.
One green, piercing eye. Unblinking. Unwavering. Focused.