by E.V. Jacob on October 11, 2012

Bullets tore through the air as the screams of the wounded and dying mixed with the explosions that shook the ground of the tiny village.

The raid had hit so suddenly, almost no one had been prepared—the soldiers raced into the little village with their trucks and Jeeps, screaming at the villagers. They hadn’t wanted anything, not really. They wanted only to kill. The territory occupied by the village had been caught in some political strife between two warring countries for quite a while, and at last, the corrupt militia had decided to eliminate the problem.

So few had managed to escape the first wave of destruction. Those who hadn’t were now running through the streets, panicking, screaming, trying desperately to find a place to hide.

Nia had only managed to get to safety because of her husband. He had fought in war before, and he had known the sounds of the attack immediately. He’d woken Nia, told her to grab the baby, and led her to a hiding place.

That was why she was still alive. She huddled as quiet and still as she could, crouching down on the dirty floor of the cramped cellar where she hid. In her arms, the sleeping baby stirred. Nia looked down at her tiny son’s face. She could barely see him in the shadowy gloom, but she could feel his weight in her arms as she clutched him close against her chest.

Nia forced herself to relax. She was afraid her grip was so tight that she might crush her child. He was so tiny—no more than a week old—and so helpless.

There were only about twenty people in the cellar—the only ones who had a chance of surviving the massacre. Nia closed her eyes and trembled as a blood-curdling scream reached her from above. A voice begging for mercy, silenced suddenly with the firing of a gun.

The faces around her were almost invisible in the low light of the cellar, which was really just a crude hole in the earth where a small shop stored supplies. It was hidden well, kept secret, as no one was supposed to store extra supplies; the government strictly forbade growing or creating one’s own produce, or having any kind of surplus kept by private parties.

But still they were silent. No one dared to breathe too loudly, or even to move. If the soldiers were to hear anything, their hiding place would be found. Nia couldn’t bear to think of what would happen if they were discovered.

Nor could she think of her husband. He hadn’t made it into the hiding place—she had no way of knowing if he’d survived.

She closed her eyes and suppressed the sob that caught in her throat. This was not the time for sorrow—she had to survive, then she could grieve.

On the streets above, an eerie silence fell. The group in the cellar froze in unison. People clutched at one another, hands clasped together, faces buried against arms, or turned up to watch the floor above them for signs of danger.

The silence was overwhelming. Nia peeked up at the floorboards overhead, at the dim light filtering in through the uneven boards. She had lived with the threat of the militia raiding her town all her life, but she’d always hoped that it would never happen—that she might somehow escape this hideous fate. But they came, with their trucks and guns and grenades. They came to destroy everything she’d ever known.

Above them, boots sounded against the wooden floor as they checked through the shop, making sure no one was left. A collective shiver ran through the group—the cellar was hidden, but how well?

There was a shout from above, and the sound of someone crying out. In her arms, Nia’s baby stirred. She looked down at her son, eyes wide, willing him to stay asleep.

Gunshots erupted above, followed by the sound of a body falling. Nia’s son opened his mouth wide and started to cry.

Her eyes widened. Nia clamped her hand down over the baby’s mouth, scrambling to block the sound.

The soldiers above called for silence, listening closely.

The baby continued to squirm and cry, but Nia kept her hand in place, trying to keep his nose clear while still silencing his wails. He only cried harder, though. She held her hand firm, stifling the sound. Everyone else in the cellar stared at her, eyes wide.

They would hear. The soldiers would hear and find the cellar, and they would come down and find twenty people who’d tried to escape, and then they would kill them all. They would torture them and kill them. Maybe force them to fight each other, or make family members kill one another to avoid more dreadful punishments.

Could she let them be found? Could she allow such a tragedy to fall on all these people? Every story from every other village attack flashed through her head as she kept her hand clamped over her wailing baby’s mouth.

Nia’s mind raced in a panicked haze as she squeezed the child against herself, muffling the sound by curling her body around him. Blood from the latest victim dripped down from the floorboards above, falling on Nia’s shoulders.

The floor boards still creaked with their heavy foot falls. The baby still thrashed, trying to make himself heard.

And Nia prayed. She mouthed the prayers silently as she trembled, rocked by quiet sobs, begging her son to stop crying.

And then, he did. So suddenly that it startled her. Slowly, Nia pulled back, afraid he might start up again. But no, he was silent. And still. She touched his little face, and shook him slightly, softly, but he gave no reaction

It took several long seconds for her to realize why.

Nia’s mouth opened to scream, but all at once, the other villagers were on her. Hands gripping her arms and legs, hands crushing her lips against her teeth. Just like she’d done to her baby. Her child. Her own flesh and blood. The only person she had left.

Smothered to death by her own hands.

Nia felt her body shake with sobs as tears ran down her face, but no sound left her. Someone stroked her hair—such an odd, out-of-place gesture for this hell they were in.

After what seemed like an eternity, the soldiers left the house above, their boots creaking on the floor as they walked out of the decimated home.

They stayed there, still and silent, no one moving. The others still held Nia, but not as fiercely—she was too exhausted now to move. Instead, she lay still, staring up at the light that filtered through the roof of the cellar. There was a shadow blocking the light directly above her. Another drop of blood fell, landing on her cheek. She closed her eyes and shuddered.

When enough time had passed, they finally dared to move. Jin, one of the men who held her down, got up and crept carefully out of the cellar to investigate.

He returned a moment later, his face drawn.

“They’re gone,” he said, sounding anything but relieved.

Slowly, as if waking from a dream, they all got up and made their way out of the cellar. All but Nia.

The others helped her up, but after she refused to move, they patted her sadly on the back and left—they all had their own tragedies to endure.

There, lying on the floor before her, was her infant. So still in death, so quiet.

Nia lifted him with shaking hands and bowed her head—no tears came now, but her entire body trembled as she clutched him close.

She had no idea how long she sat like that, but eventually a soft sob broke through her sorrow—a sob that was not her own.

Nia lifted her head to see two small children in the opposite corner of the cellar. She turned her hollow gaze to the source of the sound, vaguely curious.

The two small girls were no older than five. They sat on the floor, huddled around a sleeping woman.

Nia got up and, still holding her baby, went over to the children. Her feet carried her without her mind complying, and she found herself standing over them, looking down at their tear-stained faces.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, her voice falling flat in the empty cellar.

The oldest child wiped her eyes and looked up at Nia.

“Mama got shot,” she said in a quiet voice choked with tears. “She bleed and bleed…but she didn’t say anything….’cause the soldiers…”

Nia looked down at the woman, seeing her properly for the first time. Her face was chalky, eyes blank, staring off at nothing. There was a gruesome wound in her stomach, and a pool of blood on the ground.

She had bled to death in silence, trying to protect her children and the other villagers who’d managed to hide.

So many lost. And for what? Some war where, no matter who won, they were all doomed.

Nia looked down at the child in her arms. Just another casualty of war.

Her eyes blurred with tears. She didn’t deserve to be one of the survivors. Or maybe she did. Maybe this was her punishment. Maybe the worst fate was having to live with the memory of what had happened.

But she wasn’t the only one who’d survived. Many had, including these two girls. Nia recognized them now that she’d had a moment to recollect her thoughts. Their mother had been Zola, an acquaintance of Nia’s sister. Who was also probably dead.

“What are your names?” Nia asked. The weight of her baby felt so heavy in her arms, but she held on, refusing to let go.

“I’m Maya. My sister’s Hadi,” the older one said. The smaller one looked up at Nia with wide eyes, so dark they were almost black. In her little hand, she clutched the hem of her mother’s dress.

Nia stared at them both.

“You got a daddy? Or an auntie?”

They shook their heads.

“Our Daddy died…we got nobody,” Maya whispered.

Nia nodded solemnly. “Me either.”

For a long time, they were silent. Then, Nia held a hand out to the girls.

“Come on, we’ll go get some of the others to help us move your mama, so we can bury her proper.”

The little girls climbed to their feet. Hadi took Nia’s hand as she led the sniffling children out of the cellar and into the war zone their village had become.

Still clutched in her arms, the lost baby weighted heavy on her heart. But there were bodies to bury, streets to clean, buildings to repair, and two lost, lonely little girls to look after.

As far as she had fallen, maybe there was still some good she could do, after all.

  • Michael K. Eidson

    This story is told so vividly and with such emotion, tension, and feeling of loss. It makes me glad I live where I do.

  • Mark Lidstone

    Fantastic, Elena. Another story that makes my gut twist. I stopped breathing when I baby began to cry and didn’t start again until it was over.

    • Elena Jacob

      Thanks! :D Gut-twisting is the goal! This was a rush-job but I’m still pretty happy with how it came out (though it would be better if I’d had my proof-reader available…*cough*) ;)

      • Mark Lidstone

        It pains me to have not helped. This weekend I finish moving. That means the Boston project is done and my move is done so I’ll be back to writing/editing/critiquing. This means I will be harassing you for Ever chapters. I will MAKE you write it!

        • Elena Jacob

          Woo! No worries–I’m glad you got to do all that stuff, it was important! And good! I need the pressure! :D

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