By Rebecca Jane
I couldn’t tell Tyler that my arm hurt. Even though it was still throbbing painfully and the crude, sorry excuse for a bandage was already falling to shreds. If Tyler found out I was injured, then his already tangled head would spin into even more chaos.
He was sleeping at the moment, finally. His head was resting on my knee, his breathing was uneven and his face was covered in sweat, but he was sleeping. The fact that he could sleep was just proof that he was way stronger than I was. I couldn’t shake off the cold dread that had settled itself into the room since we had been thrown in here. It was like the smell of sweat and blood and damp, rotting wood was a reminder of everything that had come before it.
We had been huddling in a corner – much like now – not surrounded by people quietly shifting but by boxes and coats on hangers. Tyler had been shaking, alert. He had been gripping my arm as I watched them through a crack in the door.
I shook the memory away. It wouldn’t help to think about it now.
I glanced at the wire mesh that closed off the tiny space, where a guard was sitting. He was watching us and the dozen others around us with a rifle sitting across his lap. It was a man in his fifties – a little overweight maybe, unshaven and bald. The gun was loose across his lap but he didn’t need it to keep us in line. They didn’t need whips to keep us working on digging that huge hole out the back. They didn’t need Tasers and boards to stop us from making a break for it. They only had to remind us that they had planes and bombs and tanks that completely wiped out the only home I had ever known.
They only had to remind us that we were trapped with nowhere to go.
I had refused to believe it at first, even as I watched them tear through our home through that crack in the door, even when half of the room beyond had been obliterated. I didn’t even know anything about the current war that was always separated from us by our country’s borders. It was something about resources or ethnic tensions but it had never been more than stories referees told when the lights went out. The destruction wasn’t something I thought would ever come here.
They didn’t even look like soldiers. They were animals, predators, hunting us down simply because they could.
Now it was real enough, but the fear that had caused me to hug Tyler close in that closet was gone. It was gone because they didn’t need us to be scared. They needed us to wait.
An older man gave a thick, hacking cough in the far corner, reminding me that my little brother wasn’t the only one who was sick. As the noise faded, I hoped I didn’t come down with it. If I did, then Tyler would have no chance.
I wanted to rest too. My sight of the guard was beginning to blur and my muscles felt heavy. I leant against the wall behind my head and tried to ignore the almost unbearable pain in my arm and the twisting cramps of my empty stomach. I tried to detach myself from the claustrophobic stuffiness and the arms and legs and backs that pushed against me from all sides. I knew I needed to rest. I had to keep my strength for the twelve-year-old sprawled across my knees.
My vision tilted as my neck finally lost its strength and I collapsed against the woman next to me. She shifted so I had a better place against her shoulder. I would have to ask for her name sometime. She took care of Tyler while I was out digging that hole. She was nice.
I woke seconds later to more coughing, and felt my drowsiness evaporate when I realised it was Tyler. My brother was awake and breathless from huge, hacking coughs that racked through his entire body. He was joined by the old man and another boy not much older than me, all filling the tiny room with the sound of death.
All I could do was watch.
I rubbed Tyler’s back and watched the other boy. His coughs were barely gasps, his eyes were wide and he was blue in the face. He would stop soon.
When the boy crumbled, one of the others peeled off a jacket and covered his face with it. I knew by the time I got back tomorrow he would be gone, but I still felt a chill at the shape. I couldn’t stir any emotion for him. Even though he was only a boy and he was my age and Tyler could have been the one to collapse, I didn’t feel anything for him.
‘Is he okay?’
I jumped as Tyler suddenly spoke. His eyes were glassy and he was pale, but he had stopped coughing. He pointed towards the old man, who was still coughing so hard his whole body shook.
‘Are you okay?’ I asked.
Tyler nodded and poked my glasses, pushing them further onto the bridge of my nose. ‘You broke them.’
I pulled my glasses from my face and noticed there was a chip in the bottom corner, probably from my fall yesterday. Compared to the pain that felt like a white hot poker was being pushed into my arm, I wasn’t worried. I pushed them back onto my nose, and the first thing I saw was a flash of colour across his cheeks. A hand to his forehead told me he still had a fever, but it was quieter than it had been.
The old man let out a new wave of devastating coughs, and I pushed Tyler’s mess of hair back. I glanced over at the guard and noticed with a jolt of horror that he was watching us with an intense interest, his eyes narrow at the speed of Tyler’s recovery.
I pulled him into a hug and checked his fever again, and the guard gripped the gun still spread across his lap.
I could guess that winter was close by the chill in the air as we were marched out the back of the compound. The ground was dusty and bare, but I could feel it already numbing my feet. The cold bit against my arms and I mourned the jacket that was buried under one of the many piles surrounding the hole. I just hoped that when the sun rose, it brought some heat with it.
A shovel was shoved into my stomach and I was pulled to the edge of the hole, which was already nearly half a kilometre in diameter and six feet deep. I glanced down at the shovel in my hands and noted that they hadn’t cleaned the bloodstains off it.
My arm twinged as I tested the shovel’s weight, and I risked a weary glance at the nearest guard. If I didn’t do this, then I would end up in that hole. Yet, as I drove the tip of the shovel into the frozen ground, the muscle screamed in protest. I bit my tongue, and heard the unmistakable sound of the whip brushing the ground behind me. A middle aged woman to my left shot me a weary glance, and I felt a stab of anger well up in my chest.
I was not going to die here. Not like this. This wasn’t fair.
I switched sides, and with the support of my good arm I pulled at the handle, ignoring the pain that felt like hot wires wrapped around my skin. The dirt loosened, but refused to give. I drove the shovel into the ground even harder.
Fuck this. Fuck it all.
I finally managed to lift the shovel, and I froze as I saw movement on the edge of my vision. The compound was still surrounded by a wall of shadows, but I could still make out the shape of someone new. Someone who would dig in the place of the dead boy.
No. I pulled the shovel from the ground and ignored the protest from the guard behind me. I watched as Tyler was given a shovel the same size as him, and watched as he drove it into the ground without so much as leaving a dint. One of the guards noticed this, and started moving towards him.
I gripped my own shovel in my good arm, and charged forward at an inhumane speed. The guard lifted his whip behind Tyler, but before he dared bring it down I leapt at him and screamed, swinging the shovel hard. It collided with his jaw, crushing it into his neck. The guard crumbled to the ground, and I felt the air around me freeze.
My breathing was ragged, and Tyler was staring at the shattered face of the guard with wide eyes.
I remembered my own guard and turned with the shovel ready. This guard had discarded her whip and raised a gun that was levelled at my head. It was that moment everything else snapped into motion.
The woman who was watching me before took her own shovel and smashed it into the back of the guard’s head. The wood split and the guard folded, falling into the hole like a bag of rocks. A woman quickly dropped the now broken shovel and grabbed the discarded whip, turning on another advancing guard.
Like a domino effect, others dropped their shovels or turned on the guards with them, and the silence was pierced by accompanying yells and screams. These were hushed by the occasional gunshot that rattled against my eardrums.
In the shadows, shapes move towards us, and I reacted. I grabbed Tyler’s arm and dragged him backwards, around the edge of that hole. He stumbled and gripped my arm, pulling at the skin and causing it to sear, but I ignored it and barrelled through the chaos. Around me there were desperate shouts and shapes that flung around in the darkness, but I dodged them easily and pushed myself forward with strength I didn’t know I had.
‘What are you doing!?’ Tyler demanded, his voice broken and high. ‘We don’t have anywhere to go!’
Shut up. Damn it, I didn’t need Tyler’s logic right now. I needed him to move, before that gunshot and sudden rush of air in front of me actually stopped us. I needed him to move.
I yanked him away from the hole and into the darkness where the sounds of bullets and bones shattering were instantly muffled. The shapes turned into trees that jumped out spontaneously with crooked branches that leered over us. My feet knocked against the roots and branches scratched at my face, but Tyler was pulling me forward and I refused to stop. I wasn’t going to….
The exhaustion I had been ignoring barrelled into me so hard that I stumbled, making my muscles so heavy that I could no longer lift them. The anger that still burned under my skin intensified, but my face collided with the ground and I couldn’t move.
I swore, but each of my muscles had been replaced with a sack of flour that I couldn’t lift. This wasn’t it! This couldn’t be all I was capable of!
‘You said we have to move!’ Tyler’s panic rang over my head.
‘Get up! Come on, get up!’
He pulled at my arm, and I screamed as the skin tore and ignited against my nerves. Tyler gave a cry and stumbled away. I forced my head to lift and saw bone under that black mess of blood and muscle.
‘Keep going!’ I growled. ‘Go! I’m right behind you!’
‘Your arm is…’
Tyler stood there, frozen and shaking and meeting my stare with pale, wide eyes. I took a deep breath and gripped a root next to my head. ‘Go, Tyler. I’m right behind you.’
Just go, you idiot. Run before they kill you! Go!
Tyler stood there for a moment longer, then turned and slowly moved further into the trees. If he kept moving, then someone would find him. If he just kept going, then eventually he would find help.
He had to.
He turned and gave me one more fearful glance, then was swallowed by the shadows. I let out a sigh and gripped the mess on my arm. I fixed that poor cloth over the worst part of it as if it would do something to quell the fire in my skin.
I pulled against a nearby tree, clawing at the bark until I was on my knees. There was scuffling behind me – footsteps – and with the last of my strength I turned towards the noise.
Cracks of sunlight flitted through the trees, revealing a guard standing over me. It was the man from that room – maybe fifty, overweight, unshaven and bald. He glared down at me, then pulled a pistol from his belt and pointed it at my face.
I stared at the dark hole in the barrel of the gun which was made darker by the gold light appearing around it, and gave a wide, victorious smile.
Image by Rebecca Jane