This story is by Shahroze Malik and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
She promised she would come back. It wasn’t until three months later that I noticed she lied. She left me with her only son, a hug, and a smile. No goodbyes. Not even one to a child crying for her arms. That woman was my sister. She left my mother in sobs to find her perfect child leaving her to a world of peril and death, but I guess war changes people. I guess war was too strong for my sister and she gave up on coming back because it would hurt her more.
I can guess many things but I know one thing that is correct. The brave always die. When war comes to a weak country, you aren’t supposed to fight, you aren’t supposed to leave where you’re safe. Being able to live is the biggest blessing you can get. And my sister was stupid enough to defy everything. If she is dead, she died for nothing but to break our family apart and to make war worse than it already is.
Now, all the brave are gone. So we, the survivors, are forced to hide in a hidden tunnel not visible to the enemy. For three months we’ve been lined up on a wall to live the rest of our doomed lives. We’ve been given rations, and we’ve been told to watch out for a disease because if it hits us, it’s another way to expire in pity, something worth the condolence. We’ve been warned not to make any noise so we won’t reveal our location, but if we can’t help it, the authorities kill us. The majority of the people is all that matters. That’s the dreaded truth.
At times, I remember when things could be good. Not long ago, I had a birthday party. Not long ago, I was that kid wearing that party cone hat. And when I got the cake, I would never share it because it was the one chance I had to be happy. I had to take that one chance. The world was giving me something so great, but only if I allowed it. And I won’t forget the distinct light of the candles making everything brighter than it already was.
I’ve kept that same candle ever since I left the house due to a mandatory evacuation to the tunnels, maybe thinking that it’ll light up once more.
“Water,” the words grab me out of deep thought as I look around for the source. I absorb in the all too familiar sight of dim lamps above every three people, a pathway for which the authorities in charge of our viability walkthrough, and a silver door across from me used for the backup plan. A plan that if the enemy finds us, we’re able to escape. Behind that door are three open hooded army cars that can’t hold nearly enough people in this tunnel.
“Water, uncle, please give me water,” I immediately turn my head to my left to find my nephew’s face. A face that’s bold red, and drenched with sodden sweat. His red eyes ogling into mine, practically begging me to put him out of his misery.
He’s sick. He has the disease.
I instantly turn to my right to find my heart sinking into my chest.
My rations are gone. They’ve spilled all over the ground. All the water is gone.
A cold drop of sweat scrolls down my spine in panic. A panic that a child that isn’t my own might die in my arms, while I was sworn to take care of him.
I think of what to tell him, he’s old enough to know that if there is no water, he’ll relent.
I look at my mother’s rations to the right of mine. Gone. Nothing. More panic.
Coughing erupted all along the wall, as it breaks the conflict through me.
I look down at my nephew thinking it’s getting worst.
“Oh dear,” I say, brushing his hair.
But as I watch his small mouth shake, reason comes to me that there is no way those coughs came from him.
The silence-breaking coughs continue.
I scroll my eyes down the hundreds of people laying down against this wall to find the same red face, drenched with sweat. The disease.
It erodes its way through the air, causing many to awaken, and to the point where I’m not the only one gawking at him.
The coughs strong vibrations erupt through the tunnel, adding so much noise, so strong that I find myself to hear the rattling of the lamps above, multiplying the sound level. I then catch a snap. The lamp’s chain attached to the roof breaks away, as it crashes to the ground in such a berserk manner. Another layer of sound exposes out in the air, a sound that can be heard miles away…God forbid.
A thick, depraved, sensation fills me that we’ll be found.
After several minutes, I hear the whispers and orders of which can only come from an army. The enemy.
“THEY’VE FOUND US! THEY’RE HERE!”
The authorities rush towards the large silver door and heave it open as overwrought screams follow.
Bodies lurk through the door to get a seat on the escape vehicles with a burning desire to hold survival in their hands only to make sure they’ll get a piece of it back.
I ignore the sharp pain coming from my muscles as I stand up, like them, the goal of survival is too big for me to care. I’d be selfish if I do.
I grab my family, my mother and my nephew, my nephew being carried in my arms and a tight grip on my mother’s so she won’t fall in her current frail character.
I run through the silver door to a jaw-dropping sight.
Two of the vehicles are gone, only one is left, and the authority driving it is staring right at me.
“YOU CAN ONLY SEND ONE!” He yells, ready to drive away. I could feel my heart beat louder at the sight of only one seat left on the vehicle.
My mother squeezes my hand.
“My son, you were always a bad child, you were the worst one a mother could ever have. My daughter was enough for me and I could’ve sent you to an orphanage. But I kept you because I knew you would pay me back one day. I gave you so many things that I could’ve given to your sister. It’s right to send me, I can go looking for her.” I listen to my mother’s selfish tone. I listen to her reason.
If I had any debt with her, it’s time for me to pay it off. But I can’t ignore the child that I promised to care for. If I send him, the authority can cure him, I know he can.
I think about that cake to relax me, I need to be relaxed to make the right decision. Something I won’t regret. That birthday can come back one day, but only if I make the right decision that ushers happiness.
I push her ahead towards the car, making my decision, but I push her just so short, that the grip we have propels me towards the vehicle as the survivors pull me up, leaving my mother in awe.
I hand her my nephew, as she stares at me helpless.
Anger suddenly fills me.
“She was always the perfect one, you thought my sister was more powerful than me. Well, look at me now. I’m sorry but your daughter isn’t coming back. She lied to you. So I will too. I never shared that cake, mother. It’s because the world gave me something so great, but only if I took it. It’s doing it again.”
I find myself astonished at what I said. Who is this new me?
I clench my pocket in letting my anger go, but not all of it.
My mother reaches out to me, sobbing. She touches my cheek but I grab her hand to a standstill.
“I’ll see you in hell,” I say darkly. I let her hand go, leaving her with an object of mine, but it’s too intense to pay attention to that.
The vehicle speeds up to the distant sound of a gunshot and two small figures that are vanishing in sight.
There lay the two bodies of a broken family inside the tunnel, bleeding on the floor.
A candle that the mother took from her son starts to light a distinct light, a light of new found happiness.
A light that reveals the dark secrets of war and the appalling corners around it, a light that cures anger and sorrow to something one can call happiness.
But it lights because a sister would come looking for her child, and to find him alive under his aunt’s dead body.
And maybe one can guess, that war can also bring people together, more than it rips them apart.