Because for that short moment I knew nothing but the cold searing through my frail little body, I turned away. Because I never thought for any second that if I had waited any longer a part of me would have died in that small street corner, I covered my head for warmth. In the four seconds it took for me to lower my head the soldiers had started their daily rampage, a tool used only to frighten and intimidate. The first shot woke me from my cold delirium, so I naturally looked up to see if it was me they shot, and I just hadn't felt it because I was numb from the wintry air. We were so far north that just a little bit of sunshine was considered a pleasant summery day. Our country was in a perpetual dusk and though at times it could be a gorgeous sight, it was always left in the wake of blizzards and snowstorms. Beautiful sights were oft suffocated in the cold. Unfortunately, that never slowed down the community; everyone was still expected to do their part unless they were on their death bed. But that was only because we had to keep providing for the soldiers that had invaded and, eventually, taken over our country as their own personal island of snow. If we refused to give them what they needed - or wanted - they would kill, rape, and torture until they did get what they needed - or wanted. Then again, they killed, raped, and tortured anyway, they didn't ever really need a reason. And they always blamed us for losses in the war, but it wasn't our war, we knew it wasn't, so we just avoided the gun and let them take our home. It always flustered me how easily we seemed to be giving in, but I knew it really wasn't that easy. We were just trying to protect what was ours.
When my mind adjusted around the fact that I was fine and not dying of mortal wounds, I had seen what they had really done. They had shot my mother, my poor mother, and she was on her knees, neither crying nor begging. There was no fear in her darkest of dark brown eyes. All I could see was her sad smile that was always broke my heart, no matter the circumstances; and all I could think about was that dark liquid smeared on her bundles of clothes, the best she could afford. As if shooting her just once wasn't a message enough to the rest of us, they shot her again, this time in the head. I watched the side of my mother's face explode away from her as if it had never existed there at all. It left her so disfigured that I hardly wanted to believe it was really her, but it slowly, slowly sank in, and I turned to retch. I heard people shuffling away, being herded from the scene, the show was over. Just like that. It had seemed like mere seconds had passed.
I felt outside of my body. I hadn't even spoken to my mother that morning. I had awoken in the early dawn, wrapped up, and left with her without so much as a "good morning." The idea that I had so denied my mother on this particular day left me in a puddle of regret that felt as vast as an ocean. I didn't know if I was crying at the time and I lifted my fingertips to my face. Sure enough, they came away wet, stained with the cold outlines of my tears. I heard a voice from behind, but I listened with a deaf ear as they told me gruffly to move on, go home, do whatever it was a worthless fuck like me did to pass the time. Then I heard a more familiar voice that I did not place until I turned to look. I absently wiped my mouth, but there was nothing to wipe away. My eyes blurred with pain, but I made out the friendly form of Hannah. I couldn't help but sigh with little relief. Hannah was an ally, a friend, she was like my sister. Through the wind I could hear her sputtering an explanation to the soldier that she would take me home. His hand was still raised mid-strike to hit what I could only assume was the pathetic heap of me on the ground. Hannah was crying, too. I was almost thankful that I wasn't the only one, I selfishly wanted someone else to feel my pain. I wanted to call her name, but because I didn't, she didn't look down at me, and I couldn't see that she wasn't really crying at all. She was just afraid, and it had made her voice quaver. The soldier looked openly disappointed, but shook her off and went on his way. He was gruff, tough, and would definitely have given them both a one, two, K.O., but his comrades were leaving, and so he had to follow.
Hannah lifted me from the street and hugged me, and it was now that small silvery tears slipped from her soft blue eyes. Though I would never know it, she had held her wits against the soldier. Unlike me. She had loved my mother just as much as I had, whether or not she was her daughter was irrelevant. She may as well have been part of the family. Hannah was as much my mother's daughter as I was. My family and hers were all one as we saw it, we all stuck by each other.
Even though I wanted my brother to be here right now, I was thankful he wasn't. He would have tried to stop them, he would have been killed. And then I would have no one. And when you have no control over the loss of your loved ones, I would much rather loose just one than two. It isn't as morbid as it sounds, because you learn to live with these things, no matter how much pain they bring you, you were forced to look at the upside because only the upside would make you forget about the downside, or it would do the exact opposite and make you remember what made you have to create the upside. My mother was always an optimist, so it was only natural that some of it rubbed off on me. Now that she was gone, I felt some of that hope melt away.
The more Hannah hugged me and tried to comfort me, the more I wanted to just run. I wanted out. And I wanted out now. I would run, and I would take my brother with me. There was nothing left for us here. Our father had been killed years ago at the beginning of the war when the soldiers first invaded. He had stood against them, and he had died. Hannah and her family could run, too, but I had to keep myself realistic. If we all left at once, we would be caught, and no one knows what happens to those who are captured in the act of running. Everyone knows when they get caught, but they never know where they go after that. They disappear. One of my brothers friends had tried to run, and they hadn't made it because a spy had told that he was leaving and he was caught. My brother had almost gone with him. He tells me almost every day, that if it wasn't for me and my mother, he would have gone. He would have been dead. Or worse. Spies were sketchy creatures that walked about in our own little world, blending with scary ease. They existed around every corner, and you never knew which starved, poorly-dressed street dweller was the snitch. That's what made family like Hannah's so wonderful to have. We knew in the bottom of our hearts they could be trusted.
I had no idea when to be expecting my brother to be home, but I wasn't all too concerned about it for some reason. He was… out. I never really knew where he went, but it was the same when my father was around. He would leave for the entire day, sometimes two days, sometimes he wouldn't leave at all. After a while, he started taking my brother with him, but I was never told where they were going. Then again, I never asked.
Hannah had left for her home not long ago, and I don't think she would have gone unless I had told her to. I sat in my own shack of a home, staring blankly at the wall, feeling perfectly still, yet there was a tornado inside of me. It spun in circles through every inch of me, tearing every fiber of my previous life into shreds of nothing more than flecks of dust. Though it ripped me apart, all the pieces were still there, just leftovers, sitting at the bottom of a pit somewhere in my stomach, churning in acid. I wanted to throw up again, but I knew it couldn't happen. I knew if I let myself throw up, I wouldn't stop.
The light outside faded, but the screams and gunshots heard every so often never ceased. Sometime in the early hours of night, my brother finally came home. In all the time that I had sat alone in our home, I had not thought of what I was going to say to him. Actually, I don't know what I was thinking in all that extra time. Maybe I wasn't thinking anything. When he saw me, he smiled; I loved his smile. And while it was on his face, I thought for a moment that maybe I had imagined the entire ordeal, that our mother was not dead, and that all was right with our small corner of the world. Maybe I had been wrong.
But as he watched me, he knew that something was not right, and his smile was gone in an instant and the large bag held in his right hand fell to the floor with a defiant thud as if it was offended that it had been dropped in such a manner. Replacing his smile was a frown of confusion and worry. The fact that he had known something was wrong just a few seconds after walking in the door made me remember that I had to tell him, and the fact that I knew nothing of what to say only made me prolong my hesitation. My pause only made his worry grow and it was evident in his features that were so like mine, yet so much older. In reality, he was a year and a half older, but what difference did it make? No one was counting years anymore, they were counting days, minutes even. There was hardly the promise of a single night's sleep, much less 365. As I now knew personally.
My brother was suddenly next to me, on his knees, shaking me by the shoulders. I hadn't even realized he had moved from the doorway, I suppose I had been lost in my head. I stared into his eyes, they were the same dark brown as mine, and the same as my mother's. I could feel my face contorting with the pressure of being the only one around to break this kind of news. Because it wasn't pain I was feeling at this moment, it was pressure. To say the right thing, to say it at the right time. To keep him calm, to keep him sane. But to calm the ballistic and steady the crazed you had to be calm and steady yourself, and I wasn't sure if I was.
My brother was saying my name, again and again. "Alaina, Alaina," he said, "Alaina, please talk to me." I just looked at him, and in the back of my eyes, a liquid fire burned and threatened. I gave in to the flame and the result was lava flowing like rivers across the landscape of my face. As he saw the tears floating down my cheeks, my brother seemed to put two and two together. My mother wasn't here, I was crying, and perhaps there was just that ominous underlying knowledge that something incredibly terrible has happened. Whatever the case, he knew. And maybe because I didn't say anything, and the sight of me in distress, curled into a drawn position on the floor, was enough to break my brother down as well. If I had had to tell him, if my body language had been different, he might have freaked out like I had originally predicted. The slightest differentiation in my actions could have sent him on a tangent, and I was thankful that, for once, I was lost of words. But I was his kid sister, I was crying, and then there was that inevitable displeasing taste in the air that told him something was amiss. That, and the fact that though he asked, I was unable to answer outright, for reasons that could only be death, rape, or torture - in a word, soldiers - apparently was enough to make me his first priority. He would just have to kill the entire world later.
"Alaina," he said again, but his voice was different and was more concerned for me than for the reason I was upset. I was looking right into his eyes, but now I actually felt like I saw him. My thoughts had finally started to assemble in a coherent order, but I was still hesitant to say anything. He smiled a very sad smile because I think he saw that I was finally acknowledging him. He did not ask again what happened, but his eyes held the question in the air, over my head. I think it was that he did not verbally press the question that made it easier for me to gather myself. "Alaina," he said once more, though softer. Not quieter, softer. His voice was trying so hard to be soothing, and on the top layer was genuine concern for his baby sister, but the root of her concern was also his; that, too, was also evident. He just needed to know what it was first, needed to know for sure.
I opened my mouth to speak, but closed it for loss of better words. I closed my eyes for a brief moment and when I opened them I felt ready.
My brother was looking at me so patiently. It was so unlike him, but I could not complain. He took a slow breath and I took that as a sign of his true impatience. At least he was trying to keep it in control and under wraps, I gave him credit for that much.
"Rio," I started, his name felt horrible on my lips, coming out in such a whisper as if I was ashamed. Wiping away a few of the tears that stained my cheeks, I continued, "today I was with Hannah in the square. We weren't really doing anything, we were just walking like we sometimes do in the mornings, you know we do, and we were just minding our own business." The look on his face stopped me. I had been speeding up and jumbling my words together as I went. I took a breath, shook my head, and kept going. "Soldiers came out of nowhere," I told him. His expression faltered as I grew closer to the reveal that he knew was coming. I don't even know why I was telling him if he could already tell. It was like it just needed to be out in the open for good, so I couldn't just rip it all back inside of me so that no one would ever have to know. And maybe so that I wouldn't have to confirm it. He rubbed one of my shoulders, urging me on. It was comforting, but also put more pressure on me, and I wish he hadn't done it. "Just them being there gathered a crowd, like it always did," I said, trying to keep myself at a slow pace. "They just grabbed her out of the crowd. I didn't even know what happened until it was too late. I didn't do a damn thing about it and now she's gone. It was like it meant nothing to them in the world."
He sank backwards, sagging away from me, and I realized how warm his body had been compared to our cold hut. I wanted his warmth back and after a moment it was. His arms were around my shoulders and he pulled me into him. I couldn't see his face, and he didn't say anything, so while we sat there, I did not know what his reaction was. I could not tell if he was crying, or angry. Or either. I didn't know what to make of it. He just held me, like I was some reminder that he still had something left to live for. Or maybe that's just what he was reminding me.
We sat like that for a very long time, neither of us saying anything, but I could almost sense Rio's mind working to find a plan, or a reason, or hope. He was searching for something, though, that much I knew. We must've fallen asleep, though I felt traitorous to our mother to take comfort in sleep after she had been brutally murdered. When people sleep, they don't feel any real feelings, only imaginary feelings. I don't remember what I dreamed about, or if I dreamed at all, but I hated myself just thinking it could have been a happy dream. The early sunshine woke me first, and I was glad it did. When I woke I was relieved to be out of my dreaming state of false hope. I was leaning against my brother's chest, one arm draped on his chest, the other was behind him. I must've fallen asleep hugging him. He had both arms around me, and when I pulled away, though he was sleeping, he was reluctant to let go. Careful not to stir him, I moved across the room with cautious footsteps. Though I loved him, I did not necessarily feel like talking to him at this point in time. If I had woken him, I would probably have not spoken, and he may take that as a bad sign. But considering I was quiet enough, he did not arise, I did not have to speak, and he did not have to assume.
The morning felt heavy, like suddenly all the relief in the world was gone. There was so much force of gravity I thought I would collapse from the pressure. The day was not bright, though no day really was, but today it was especially dreary, and hate hung in the air like a dismal fog. It was only today that I felt the weight of the dying world for what it really was. This morning was the first in my entire life that I woke myself up and forced myself to come to terms with the fact that it was another day, and I was here to keep living. My mother's voice rang in my head, clear as day - or as clear as day was in other countries. I could hear her, and I knew I would for the remainder of my life, but I would never see her again. Maybe she had made it to the Heaven she had believed in, but I could no longer bring myself to trust I would be there when I died. My now irrational thought lead me away from it every time it was brought to my conscious mind.
It didn't take long before he said my name. I turned from the window I was mindlessly staring out of and he was looking at me with authority, like he was about to school me. He must not have slept as long as I had because he looked intent on acting. I could see his mind whirring through his eyes. His eyes always gave away so much. They were not merely the windows to your soul, but to your every thought and emotion. "Alaina," he stated flatly, "we're leaving, and we're coming back with an army." And that was the end of that. I didn't know where we were going, I had no idea what he meant for sure. I could tell he had been strung too far, and the death of our mother had finally snapped him like a rubber band. The tension between the two of us was gone, the empty space that lay like a vast ocean in our midst. We were together, and from what I could tell of the get go, we were on the brink of war.