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C H A P T E R  S E V E N

AFGHANISTAN

ASHEN BORN

2 MARCH, 1984     17:22

CHAPTERS

              Ten months had passed since the warmth of May drifted from the village. The chill of autumn and bitterness of winter clung to the mountains for a time after. Eventually, soft spring winds blew in from the valley. Ten months had slipped between John’s fingers. Ten months of joy now lost. In the comfort of his new independence, he had forgotten time, letting it unlace like the thread caught on a door. Suddenly he was here, nearly a year later, watching sun rays inch along a dried ceiling. 

              The day was ending.

              He lay in an old room in an old dwelling roughly a mile from home. Color-faded pillows propped him up from a floor scattered with nearly a year’s worth of pebbles dropped by the boots of trespassers. His loose fingers grazed over the rough floor, snatching a pebble from its place. Each stone held the memory of the day it flung free from his boot, taking its place among the crowd of others left to watch the sun pass by. The groove he thumbed on its surface was the memory it kept, now aging into the past. 

              He swore he could recall the afternoon he had skipped it against the wall, finding its destiny beside the nest of pillows he escaped to so often. It had been a hot day, stuck in the dead of summer; a day like many where the sweat clings to the skin. The feeling lingered in his mind, and that of desperation to strip the clothes from his back. 

              He rolled the pebble between his fingers in the light. A smile pressed into his cheek as he looked over the many bumps and subtle sparkles on the rock’s surface. Maybe this wasn’t that stone, and he just wanted to remember.

              The sovereignty he’d earned a year ago from his father brought him everywhere he could reach. Each day felt like an opportunity to step out into an undiscovered world. And over the summer, he grasped for each chance to get out there. He rode with Moisey on patrols, visited neighboring towns with supplies, and even walked with his father beyond the village; speaking of all matters of things about the world. Most stories were exaggerated warnings he had heard many times before, but listening to them again in such open-air beside him made him feel like his equal; no longer a child. 

              Then there was Nuria, who took him nearly everywhere she said she would. Though his father demanded he stay within several miles of home, the two of them risked late hours away on adventures. Cliffsides towering the valley, ancient ruins, and abandoned villages raided by the Red Army were among some of their explorations. He was bewildered by it all, and she pushed him further each time. She shared her world with him, and all things both beautiful and broken filled him with awe.

              It was a thrill he could never predict, one that ignited an excitement in him. It became harder to focus. He would look for her over his shoulder instead of tending to his tasks. Conversations with townsfolk and even his father dwindled into awkward silence as he slowly turned his gaze to the horizon, hoping to see her. He waited for her arrogant stride and that squinting smile that meant she had some new surprise in store for him. Gradually though, that sight became scarce.

              The war in Afghanistan bloomed since May, calling Nuria and Moisey into longer, more distant work for the Mujahideen. John found himself worrying more. The deepened anxiety was unfamiliar to him.

              Weeks would pass without a word from the patrols. John would check with any of Moisey’s men staying behind who weren’t too intoxicated to speak. Between being either cursed out or brushed off, he’d never receive more than a ‘no word yet’, or ‘they’re still a long way off’. He found himself waiting on his roof at sundown, scanning the edge of town until his father would call him for dinner.

              In time, he fell into the droll of work again, pushing through chores so he could return to his spot on the roof. It was a place for him to try and understand the feeling that sprouted in his stomach. He felt if he latched on to it, squeezed it, it would somehow produce an answer to why he felt so misplaced. But his father grew tired of his despondency and scolded him, putting an end to his evenings searching for her. He instead spent the end of the working day with his father indoors, his father distracting him temporarily from the coiled pain in his abdomen.

              John did enjoy his time with him, listening to ramblings about the past and musings of the countryside. It seemed to him that his father knew the time was soon approaching that John would set out on his own–or so he hoped. But then the unmistakable blare of engines would crowd the streets, spurring him out the door to see Moisey and his men–and Nuria, roll up the road in their green trucks. Usually covered in grime and dust. The hours he spent waiting instantly vanished out of memory when he saw her again. Their eyes would lock, and equally bright smiles would crease their faces. The coil in his stomach would suddenly unwind.

              It was after one such reunion that the memory that consumed him took place. He had run to see her, hearing her convoy return. Before he could open his mouth to speak, she pulled him away, the two of them setting off between stone brick homes. He remembered the jeering from Moisey, and the grumbles of the men left to unload Nuria’s truck. John laughed as they ran, almost tripping as his feet were left skipping over rocks in Nuria’s pull. He remembered how she looked back at him as they ran; bright eyes, an arcane smile, and a look that clenched his gut.

              His laugh had choked in his throat. A strange giddiness suddenly pricked at him. Curiosity let him be pulled along, her hand tight on his wrist. He stared at her pale hand grasping his, goading the giddy feeling up his chest. 

              They had leaped over a fallen wall out onto the sandy hills. Tufts of sagebrush blurred passed them as they dashed on fleeting feet. The scorch of the sun above them warped the air, creating an ocean of heat into which they charged.

              Over ridges of sand and sunken rock, they ran until a symmetrical form broke the horizon. Waves of hot air distorted its dark, squarish shape. 

              For a brief moment, all he had noticed was the sound of their falling feet and Nuria’s pounding breath. Vibrant curls of hair waved back at him, each strand floating like liquid amber. The drum of his heart clamored, drowning his ears in burning thuds.

              They came upon a singular, stone home tucked into a semi-circle of tall dunes. Aged, gray wood made up its roof, parts of which lay collapsed on its side where a makeshift shed had been attached to it. A single, dust-covered window sat beside an equally grubby door. It was a small, humble home, deserted long ago.

              John had been puzzled by it. They weren’t more than a couple miles from the village, but he had never been here before. For nearly two decades he had roamed the nook in the mountain and never encountered this place. He had asked Nuria about it when they stopped to catch their breath. Between huffs of air, she said simply that it was her secret

              It was the building he lay in now, thinking deeply of that day. He clung to the memory, drifting into it more frequently as time went on. There was a sweetness weaved like silk in those thoughts, creating a feeling he had become addicted to. But it didn’t compare to how he felt then.

              She had lifted herself from her knees, looking at him. The smile pressed into her cheek was gone. He had felt oddly vulnerable under her gaze. In hushed words, she revealed the secret of this place. This was her sanctuary. It was her palace she vanished to when she was a child, to escape the world and all its vices. It was the last place she could go to be alone but now wanted John to know.

              At first, John felt apprehensive, unsure he should have been given his friend’s secret. It seemed all she had. But she stepped closer, steady, crystal eyes looking into his. She said again that she wanted to share this secret with him; that she wanted it to be theirs.  

              He remembered her hands open to him. Slender fingers that unfurled as petals to receive his. The air in his lungs had turned to ice. He had looked at her, standing in the doorway; her eyes a calm blue. A wordless beckoning bathed in their color, pulling him in as she stepped into the dwelling’s cool shadow. His heart had been pounding, his stomach tilting. Her touch was welcoming. So why had he felt so unsure? The closer he got to her, the greater the feeling of warmth surged in his chest.

              Their fingertips connected, hers curling under his, leading him inside. He waded into the darkness of the home, its coolness washing over him. He shut the door behind him. Darkness concealed the interior of the room as his eyes adjusted. All he could see was the soft haze of light reflecting from Nuria’s pastel skin. 

              A queasy churn had filled his stomach. Something in the way she looked at him made him inept. He fought to say something, anything. His eyes flitted about, searching for words to describe–something, the home, how he felt–how beautiful she was.

              What may have been the start of a word or just a panicked breath had been taken from his lips. She had pressed against him, cool eyes closed behind fluttered lids. Her lips had reached up for his, arms thrown around his shoulders. 

              The swirling feeling inside him burst into fire. The confusion he had felt, the anxiety and pain, it all flared into flame as they connected. He had leaned into her, grasping around her with fervent hands, lifting her against him. The fire blossomed, spreading throughout his entire being. It was as if they had arrived at the culmination of a thousand kindled moments together. Nothing had felt so natural, so destined for only them to have. 

              That memory gradually shifted into flashing images of what happened next. He could remember intense surges of emotion, eager movement, and sounds sung in harmony. He remembered peeling sweat-drenched clothes from their skin. Hot breath had stuck to his neck. Hands clasped together as their bodies lifted against one another. Gentle moans had whispered into his ear. He remembered a growing fire whose heat threatened to erupt all around them. If the world were to end, it would be because of them. Their moment was all that mattered, it was all that was left for the world to experience before it was no longer needed.

              John pulled himself out from the memory, feeling his heart begin to race. The images of it faded above him, shifting back into the bumpy ceiling above. There was a stirring on the pillows beside him. Turning, he glanced at the curved form tucked against him. His fingers trailed lightly over the woman’s exposed hips, along her back, and into the tangle of red hair thrown over the pillows. A hum escaped from her hidden face, but she didn’t move.

              Still asleep.

              He didn’t want to wake her. He needed this to last a little longer. The sun’s arm of light had nearly passed over the entire room, slowly descending them into darkness. The day was coming to an end, and then life would no longer be the same.

              John looked at the pebble he held. Whichever one this had been, he chose to believe it was the one from that day. He pocketed the stone in his loosely worn trousers, wanting something to remind him of the memory, knowing he may never come back. 

              Moisey had brought concerning news to his father and the elders of the village. The Red Army’s campaign was expanding. A move to root out resistance in rural areas had begun. Moisey had apparently seen it firsthand.

              American supplies for the resistance were being cut off at the Pakistan border. The Soviets were learning how they were being smuggled and began targeting potential smuggling points used by the Mujahideen. Soldiers were now searching towns and looking for anyone tied to the operation of these supply lines.

              In other words, home was no longer safe.

              Villages were already being raided, people were executed, and homes burned. They had to leave. His father volunteered himself and John to help anyone not too stubborn to stay to flee for the border to Pakistan. Hope for American assistance was all they had.

              Several of Moisey’s men would accompany them, hearing that American troops were taking in Soviet deserters. For many, this was their chance. Moisey, though, had decided to stay, along with a few others–including Nuria.

              Nuria’s decision bewildered John. Why would she want to stay? What cause did she have to want to continue working for the Mujahideen? He knew what Nuria did, she did so to survive–so coming with him made the most sense. She of course insisted that he stay and go with her and Moisey. It was a recurring argument over the past few weeks. 

              His heart ached to think about it, but the decision had been made. He couldn’t abandon these people–and his father; not when they needed him most. In a few days, he would help them pack their few possessions and make for the border. Moisey agreed to leave them one of his trucks, adding it to the small fleet of barely operational vehicles they had to transport goods and the elderly. John would be one of the very few capable enough to carry their burden. Leaving now would be inexcusable.

              So, he made a promise to her.

              Once they found safety, he would come back. He would find Nuria, and then they both could be free to explore the world. When he swore this to her, her expression had been unreadable. Still, he had insisted he would keep his promise.

              He would come back.

              Nuria sighed heavily beside him, shifting over the pillows to face him. The last glow of the sunset settled on her naked chest. One eye opened from behind sun-glazed, orange curls to look at him. He watched her, the way she moved was ensnaring.

              She smiled, lifting her arms and arching into a long stretch. John grinned, incapable of resisting his desires. He raised himself over her with his hand pressed into the cushions, brushing his other over her body and around to cradle her back. She exhaled a pleasant, tired laugh, laying her arms around him. He breathed into her neck, dragging his lips over her skin up to hers. 

              She held his face close, letting stray strands of his hair drift along her cheeks, kissing him. She playfully raised her hips against him. John shook his head, unable to keep back his smile. As he tried to pull away, she latched onto his lip with her teeth, her arms locking around him with surprising strength.

              Chuckling, he leaned back onto his knees, Nuria clutching around him. He held her tight, kissing her deeply once more before easily unclasping her arms from him. She fell back against the bed of pillows giggling.

              “That’s not fair,” she breathed.

              John laughed, cheeks beginning to burn from smiling.

              “You’re unnatural,” she added, a teasing grin curling her nose.

              John lowered himself over her, keeping himself an inch from her face. Their noses nearly touched.

              “Come with me,” she uttered.

              John smiled, remaining silent. He planted his lips around her face, curving around her jaw, and down to her collarbone. He felt a hand run through his hair, gliding over lingering sweat. 

              He was pried away from her suddenly, her hand gripping the thick locks of his hair. A sharp wince escaped his lips as his head was jerked back. He glared at her, but upon seeing the sinister look in her eye, he knew to relent. 

              She held onto him, tilting his face down to hers. Her grip slacked enough to allow him to relax a bit. Just as always, his annoyance with Nuria was insatiable to her. The crumpled expression on his face must have been satisfying.

              “I’m trying to talk to you,” she said, unblinking, a coy grin exposing her white teeth.

              “I heard you,” he replied curtly. 

              Sighing, she released him. John sat back with a frustrated huff. He ran his fingers through his hair, fearing to find a bald spot. Nuria made a mocking face at that, which only pushed John’s irritation with her.               He looked away, pretending to be more interested in a stack of old books in the corner.

              “John,” Nuria leaned into view. “This is our chance. Come with me!”

              He fought to not look at her. His stomach turned sick. He didn’t want to hurt her, but it was inevitable–the day was ending. His jaw tightened.

              “They’ll be safe!” Nuria continued. “Sasha, Anton, Burov–like, five others! That’s a whole squad!” She waved a hand in the air for emphasis. 

              “They’ve got guns, supplies–the truck. Nothing will happen. You don’t have to worry about them. Rolan will understand–”

              “Stop,” John muttered. His eyes felt hot, his jaw quivering as he tried to speak. He turned to face her. Nuria’s expression sank. He had to do this–he knew it was the right thing to do.

              “They need me,” he struggled to say. “They–I need to know they’re safe. I need to know.”

              Nuria lowered her head, tucking her knees to her chest. Wet eyes darted away from him. John grit his teeth, his stomach plunging deeper within him. He searched for words, but found none; none that would fix this.

              “Why do you want to stay?” John pried. “I don’t get it.”

              She held her gaze from him, looking to the window. The dwindling light reflected off the pools of her eyes. John felt his breath shorten, waiting for a response. Her silence ate at him.

              “Give me something!”

              “I don’t want to be trapped,” she said in almost a whisper. John slumped back, brow furrowing. He didn’t understand what that meant. 

              “If I go, I’ll just be somewhere else like this. Just stuck living a life I don’t belong in.” She shot a look at him briefly, then looked back to the window. “We aren’t supposed to be here, you know that?”

              “Yes you do–”

              “This isn’t our home! As much as you think it is, it isn’t!” Nuria scowled at him, retreating further into the pillows around her. They became a barrier between them. “Look at how we live–as outcasts–strangers. They hate me! And–and as much as you think they like you, they’ll never see you as one of them.”

              John clenched his jaw, grimacing at the floor. He hated what she said. It wasn’t true.

              “If I go with you–John, I’ll just be kept in someone else’s shoebox. I can’t live like that, even if it’s yours.”

              John flashed a look at her, biting his tongue. He clenched his fists against his trousers, unable to say anything. How could he?

              “If I stay–” she sniffed, wiping her nose with the back of her wrist. “If I stay, I at least have a chance–to be in control of where I am–how I live. I don’t want to be here either, but…” She rested her head against her knees, falling into silent sobs.

              John stared, becoming acutely aware of the thumping of his heart in his stomach. He had no escape, no way to make this right with everyone. He couldn’t help but feel responsible. He always assumed she felt the same as he did; that he was different, but had a place here. Maybe she was right. 

              He didn’t know what to do. Looking upon her nakedness felt wrong now. Turning away though felt like he was abandoning her to suffer. He inched forward, snagging her tossed jacket from the floor along the way. He draped the coarse clothing around her, pulling it over her shoulders and knees. Her small, pale hands tugged the jacket around herself, hiding within it. He moved beside her and laid an arm around her.               Nuria leaned against him, feeling the shudder of her sobs.

              He looked to the window. Orange twinkling was all that persisted over the horizon. It was strange, the sun should have set by now. 

              John blinked away, returning to his thoughts. Everything he knew told him to stay with his family, but his heart–he had to trust himself. Could he leave everyone behind?

              “I’ll talk to my father,” he mumbled. He wasn’t sure what he would say to him, but it prolonged the inevitable just a little more. The words didn’t seem to be enough to pull her from the cocoon she made for herself, though. 

              “I don’t want–I don’t want to leave you,” Nuria sniveled under her jacket. 

              John exhaled, smiling weakly. He carefully peeled the collar of her jacket away to expose the crown of her head. She’d never been this open with him before, this unguarded. He owed her more than a goodbye to their friendship. John felt more confident in deciding to go with her.

              She peeked up at him from beneath the green cloth with glistening, pink eyes. John rolled his head back with a sigh while he rubbed her shoulder to comfort her. 

              John glanced at the window again. It had to be much later than it appeared. They were gone for hours, but still, the smoldering glow of the sun danced in the rim of the window. They should get back while the light still favored them. As much as a walk under the stars appealed to him, John would rather not face his father after dark–especially when he had so much to consider. He wanted his father in a good mood when he told him his intentions.

              “Come on,” John said, patting Nuria’s shoulder. “We should get back.” Standing up, John stooped to pool Nuria’s clothes together for her. Pieces were scattered among the pillows, making his search more embarrassing than it needed to be. 

              He found his shirt among the tumble of cushions, wriggling it over his head. A sharp twinge struck the bottom of his foot, discovering his belt had ended up hidden beneath the cushions. With a wince, he hobbled on one foot as he slid it around his waist. It seemed to cheer up Nuria though, who made a quiet sound close enough to a giggle. She stood beside him, twisting her clothes back onto her body. 

              Watching her put him into a trance. All her movements, both graceful and awkward, were equally catching. He watched her pull her fitted undershirt over her shoulders, tug her oversized, cargo pants over her thighs and zip them up swiftly. Cozy, dim light from the window perfected the moment in John’s eyes.

              The light.

              His trance broke as he stepped to the window, peering through the grime. Dust and imperfect bubbles in the glass made it hard to see, but it was clear that blackness sat above them. So why was the horizon so bright?

              “What is it?” Nuria asked, struggling to pull on her boots. She’d thrown her jacket on now, appearing like one of the sagebrush bushes around the house.

              Something wasn’t right. He ducked down, trying to angle a look up at the sky above. Even through the smudges, he could make out the dim sparkles of stars. Shrouds of darkness wrapped around the sky below them. As if–

              He crossed the room, shoving his feet into his boots. Flighty fingers threaded the laces quickly, tying them off with a snap. Nuria called for him as he snatched the handle of the door. 

              Yanking hard, he wrenched it open, the wood squeaking irritably. Cool, night air wafted into the room, followed by a thick scent that wrinkled his nose.

              Smoke.

              He burst out of the house, padding over the yard of sand and dull, green vegetation. Rocky dunes blocked the horizon ahead, but he could still see a stirring of colorful light beyond them. His chest tightened. 

              “John!” Nuria yelled, still netted in her boots.

              Making for the dune, he clambered up its ledge. He grasped a rock shelf protruding from the dune.   Roots of sagebrush scratched him as he hoisted himself up. Steadying himself on the sandstone ledge, he looked onto the horizon; in the direction of home. Air left his lungs.

              The village was burning.


 

              A hollow beat carried in John’s head. Sounds of his feet slapping over the sand, thrashing breaths from his burning lungs, and tight, swinging arms at his side hurtled him forward in a fierce tempo. A buzz filled his skin, humming through his wind-beaten face. A single thought had persisted through the sickening rhythm.

              Find him. Find Father.

              Nothing else existed for him in that moment; not the scar of fire on the landscape, not the smoldering drapes of smoke that blinded the sky, not the screams that chorused the ceaseless popping of distant gunfire.

              Home stretched further and further from him. Each step that brought him closer somehow pushed him away. With every beat of his heart, every gulp of air, the buildings ahead splintered into a blush of embers that roared into the sky. It would be too late.

              He could make out darkened shapes lying around the village entrance. Dead people. Sneering flames licked at them, reaching from their consumed homes. 

              The wind stole the tears from his eyes, streaking stinging beads back along his face. Stumbling suddenly, he rolled over the sand. Coarse grains stuck to the sweat on his brow and to the corners of his eyes. 

              He fought to his feet, but something snagged at him from behind. Hands clawed at his shirt, pulling him back. Someone spoke–screeched into his ear. Yelling a mix of snarled words, he attempted to pry free from the hands grasping him.

              A hand snatched his jaw, turning his head. Blue eyes met his wild gaze; blue eyes that held the reflection of scourging fire. Nuria stared at him, mouth moving rapidly, teeth prating, as she repeated something over and over. She shook him, begging for him to stop. Words eventually broke through the rush of blood in his ears.

              “Please!” Nuria hollered again. “Stop, please! It’s gone!”

              John’s lip curled in revulsion. He seized her hand, ripping it away from his shirt. Again he tried to raise himself from his knee, only to be pulled down once more. Nuria tangled herself around him, weighing him down. Kicking angrily to stand, John failed to break free from her. Sand splashed against his face again as he fell back down. In his distress, John let out a pained wail, his eyes burning. 

              Heart hammering, his body begged to charge on. But he couldn’t. He remained anchored. Nuria groaned heavily, pressing with what must have been all her strength to hold him still. John wanted to kick her, force her away, but looking into her pleading eyes suddenly filled him with sadness.

              He let his head fall against the earth.

              “Let me go!” John blurted through dirt-crusted spit. He lurched with his one free arm, attempting to gain leverage against the earth.

              “It’s gone, John,” Nuria winced, snagging his arm. “We have to go! We have to–”

              John rolled onto his back, lifting Nuria momentarily into the air before she thudded down beside him. Using the momentum, she instead latched her legs around his waist. John growled through his teeth, head falling back. From this angle, the burning village now crested in the sky, pouring embers into the abyss below.

              “I can still–” John sputtered. “We can do something!”

              An explosion burst in the distance. He could hear yelling, the barking of men, then gunfire. A scream was suddenly cut short. 

              He could have been there by now, he could have stopped that death from happening.

              “Let me go!” John howled.

              “You can’t–you can’t save–” Nuria stuttered through shortened breaths. He could feel her muscles quiver, ready to give. Wriggling, he slipped from her hold on his arm.

              “You’ll die!” she screamed. “We have to leave! I–I know where we can go–somewhere–someplace safe–John!”

              He wrenched her aside. She fell away without resistance, either giving up or having used all of her strength. Her limp body slid from him as he bucked through the sand, scrambling forwards. Sand stuck to his entire body, coating his sweat-drenched clothes and hair. He spun around, breathing hard. 

              Nuria sat in the sand, peering at him through tearful eyes. Her cheeks glistened, dusted with sand. Sweat-tangled hair stuck in snarls over her face. She panted hard, slumping in the sand, mouth twitching. The look in her eye froze him. 

              The two of them breathed in silence for a moment. Two souls pulled in either direction, tied to one another. He couldn’t leave her, he realized. He couldn’t risk losing her too. But he had to push on. The same haunting thought of his father bleated in his mind. He had to try.

              “I’ll find him,” John said. “I’m not leaving my father, no matter what…I’m going.” 

              Nuria continued to heave with deep breaths, trembling. He hoped she would understand. He needed her to.

              “Wait at the safehouse,” he said, feeling sick as the adrenaline inside him began to settle. “I won’t abandon you–I’ll come back.” 

              Nuria shook her head. She tried to move towards him, but fell sideways, taking in a desperate breath to regain her poise as she lay there in the sand. She rolled her head to face him.

              “No,” she panted. “I’m not leaving.”

              John frowned. Each moment they waited was another life lost. Nuria was capable, but would only slow him down; especially in her current state. 

               “You’ll need me,” Nuria insisted. “It’s a raid–Soviets…”

              John grit his teeth, already knowing who did this; who was murdering the people he’d lived his entire life with. He didn’t need her to tell him. 

              She must have read his expression, snapping out quickly before he could protest. “You’ve never dealt with them–fought them. You have no idea what they’re like!” she spat. “You’ll die up there! You need me, John.” Her eyes pierced through him. Drops of sweat ran down the sides of her face. She swallowed, lifting her chin in a sign of composure. “I care about him too.”

              John held his tongue, looking away. Lack of endurance or strength wasn’t something he worried about, but he hated to admit he’d never been in a fight before; not since he was a child. Weighing on him still was the realization that he’d never seen a Soviet other than Moisey and the other deserters.

              “The barracks,” she pointed to a building sitting near the entrance of the town, Little ‘Merika. “We’ll check if anyone’s alive, find Moisey–there are supplies too–weapons.” 

              A broken wall was all that guarded the building, having been toppled by falling debris. Loose laundry and alcohol-soaked rugs still hung over the balcony to dry; a sign that fire had yet to reach the building. Its windows were dark, but it appeared intact.

              “It’s right in the open,” John countered. “It has to have been raided already–”

              “If they came straight through the entrance, yes, but Soviet raiders usually sneak around the mountains for cover, remember? There’s no sign they came in a vehicle transport either. They could’ve attacked the village from behind.”

              John felt uneasy. The untarnished barracks looked more like an ambush waiting to happen. But he trusted Nuria. It was more of a plan than he had. 

              “Fine,” John relented, glaring back at her. “Stay close to me. If we get separated, head straight for the safehouse–okay?”

              She nodded, muscles tightening in her jaw. Picking herself up from the ground with surprising speed, she danced ahead of him on light feet. John twisted over himself to stand. Astonishment painted his face as he broke into a run. 

              Whirling wind picked up into his ears as they dashed for the barracks. The length of sand ahead was empty, filled only with the sound of their frantic steps. An unsettling churn filled John’s stomach as they closed the distance. They were diving straight into the frenzy. Instincts to turn back pulled at the hairs on his neck. He swallowed the feeling, knowing he couldn’t turn away.

              As they drew closer the obscured forms of bodies began to take shape. John had never seen death like this before. The sight of charred limbs reaching for the heavens gripped him. Contorted fingers cracked from frail hands, lipless mouths that bore soot-stained teeth flared, sunken eyes–John tore his gaze away.       Bile surged up his throat. He coughed, tasting his nerves threatening to leave him. By force, he turned his gaze on Nuria, who kept on running. 

              They were nearly there.

              The bursting of gunfire cackled more clearly now. However, no signs of movement could be seen as they approached. Only fire waved and cavorted in the dark. 

              Several times, the sight of what looked like shooting stars lanced up into the air from below.             Tracers, bullets that could be seen at night; he’d seen them once on a late patrol with Moisey, deep in the valley. The spectacle startled his already thumping heart. He just needed to make it to the barracks, get inside, find weapons–

              The realization just now struck him. He might have to kill someone tonight. In his panicked state, he had only thought about helping his family and friends escape the onslaught. He didn’t imagine himself needing to kill. But he would, he told himself, if forced to.  

              Yes, he shakily convinced himself as they ran; he was sure he could. For the people he loved–he’d do anything. Still, the realization of what they risked taunted his courage. His breathing shortened abruptly, forcing him to pull his focus back to the barracks. Just keep running.

              Nuria reached the tumbled wall, leaping over the hewn bricks silently. John followed suit, holding his breath as he boosted over on the tips of his feet. The move wasn’t as well calculated as Nuria’s, landing him clumsily on his hands and knees. Biting his cheek, he held down a grunt begging to burst from his lips. 

              Seconds passed as he listened for any sign his shaken stunt had been spotted. A quick check to either alley beside him confirmed they were empty. Breathing out, he raised himself to a crouch, shuffling after Nuria to the front of the barracks.

              The path that led to his home was surprisingly barren. A flighty feeling shot through his chest. His home was just a bit up the road. If he ran now, maybe he’d get there before the Russians did. He stayed himself, finally noticing what had Nuria hesitating. The trucks parked outside the barracks were gone. 

              Puzzled, John looked at her. Nuria paced around the tracks curving away from the barracks. They led outside the entrance to the village. Worry weighed on Nuria’s face, her mouth dropped open slightly.               Anxiety crept up John’s ribs.

              Where are they?

              Someone could have taken the trucks to get help, bringing reinforcements back. Moisey himself could have stayed behind, barricading himself and a few others in case they returned. The thought must have crossed Nuria’s mind too as she made for the door. He kept his reassurances to himself as he moved beside her. 

              Nuria took another look over her shoulder, then tried the door. Her thumb slowly pressed the latch down. A low click responded. She paused, shooting a look at John. Instinctively, he pressed himself against the wall, keeping to the shadow of the balcony above. 

              Sweat began to tickle John’s palms in anticipation. Nuria inhaled slowly, then tugged the door. A grinding creak responded as it budged toward her. It was unlocked. They looked at each other, similar looks of trouble marked their faces. 

              Slowly, Nuria pulled the door outward, keeping herself hidden behind it. They listened for anything: voices, movement, or even shouting from being discovered. Nothing. Only darkness greeted them 

              Nuria pushed past John at once, stomping inside. John followed, gritting his teeth at Nuria’s sudden loss of furtiveness. His eyes adjusted to the darkness quickly, darting around for any sign of motion.

              The first floor of the barracks was spread wide. Typical walls that would have separated the entryway from other sections of the building had been knocked down to expand the area. Old, wooden beams were all that remained of the previous layout. They supported the second floor which was accessed by an internal staircase made from stone at the end of the room. Windowed nooks ran along the left wall, fitted with small seating areas for the men to use for eating, smoking, and drinking. The rafters were dressed in hanging clothes and blankets, while posters of near-naked women were slapped up on the walls, and unswept floors covered in dried mud and broken glass that made the entire first floor appear more like a disheveled saloon. The distinct stench of shut-in men and sun-baked sweat still lingered in the air.

              Nuria made for the stairs, climbing them without a word. The second floor held the men’s cots and Moisey’s private room he used for planning operations. John also suspected that’s where they kept their guns. Not much was stored on the bottom floor apart from dried food, hashish, and vodka stolen from the Red Army. 

              Not wanting to wait around, John decided to search this floor. He ducked under a pair of soiled pants hanging from above. A crudely written note pinned beside them read ‘First shit pants’. John’s nose curled, promptly moving away. He backed up against a makeshift bar set against the wall, rattling empty bottles and glassware. 

              He spun, catching a bottle before it rocked over the edge of the spill-stained wood. Heart skipping, he set the bottle aside and looked over the bar. Nothing. The shelves above were empty too. A few chipped glasses sat on their crooked racks, but the array of carefully scavenged, Soviet vodkas were gone. John’s gut tightened.

              He stepped back, his thoughts beginning to sour. Where is everyone? His foot caught on something heavy.

              John jumped, swinging a hand to catch the handle of a large object sliding to the ground. His fingers snapped over the handle right before it collided with the ground. 

              Slow down, he thought, get a hold of yourself. His cheeks blushed at his fumblings. Settling himself, he lifted the object he caught from clattering to the stone-tiled floor. 

              In his hands, he held the rugged handle of a woodcutting ax. His brow wrinkled, studying the grain of the wood. It had been put to better use long ago perhaps, but still felt solid. He decided to hold onto it, giving it a half-spirited swing.

              “Fuck!” Nuria shouted from upstairs.

              John twisted on his heel as Nuria thundered down the stairs. She hurled something that shattered against the wall. John jumped, startled. He set the ax down and pushed away from the bar, stepping in front of Nuria’s path.

              “They’re fucking gone!” she yelled. “Everything–guns, food–they took my fucking shit too!” She turned about, grabbing fistfuls of her hair. “They knew!

              John felt a chill run down his body. Knew what?  

              “How did–” John searched his mind for answers–and questions. “Why would they–?”

              “Because he fucking can!” Nuria belted at him. “Piece of shit! Pig probably heard radio chatter about the attack coming and bolted–took everything. I can’t even contact him because the fucking radio’s gone!” 

              John suddenly felt very aware of how loud they were shouting. He raised his hands to her shoulders, trying to calm her. 

              “Hey–Hey!” John spoke over her. “We have to keep quiet!” He looked around, listening. Silence, but for how much longer? “Was there anything–anything up there we could use?”

              “Just…just this,” Nuria swayed, trying to bring her voice down. She reached for the back of her pants, retrieving an L-shaped object in her hand. A handgun. John’s eyes widened.

              “It’s mine,” Nuria said much more quietly now. “I keep it hidden, but–” she pressed a button on the side of the gun’s handle. The magazine slid out into Nuria’s hand. “This is all the ammo I’ve got,” she said, frowning.

              She turned the magazine over in her hand. John counted about seven bullets from the exposed window on the magazine’s side. Despite his lack of knowledge of guns, it didn’t seem like much to him. 

              Nuria crammed the magazine back into the handgun with a clack, pulling back the metal slide on top. It rang out with a ping when she released it. She looked up at him, biting her lip. One gun and an old ax.               That’s all they had to protect themselves and the village. 

              Nuria’s eyes drifted over his shoulder, widening at once.

              “Hey!” A voice exclaimed in Russian.

              The muscles in John’s legs tightened sharply. His lungs squeezed, his stomach wrung taut. Slowly, he turned.

              In the open doorway stood a single soldier bearing a rifle raised at them. He wore a strange, bowled green helmet and a round, plated vest over his shoulders that looked like a smooth turtle’s shell. His drab fatigues were covered in soot. A narrow scowl fixated on them from behind the iron sights of his rifle.

              John stammered as his tongue fought to pluck words from his throat. All thoughts of escape dwindled on his locked legs. Standing before them was a Soviet raider, come to kill them.

              John was pushed aside. He stumbled to the ground, barely catching a glimpse of Nuria who had shoved him. Her gun was drawn, snapped up in locked arms, ready to fire. 

              John’s jaw dropped as the room burst into light. Two ear-popping explosions ignited the interior in white light, casting skeletal shadows over the room. 

              Two shots. 

              He had seen the man’s mouth open to speak. His rifle had swung to aim at Nuria. She had closed in on him, pulling the trigger of her handgun.

              The sound of splashing liquid clattered over the tiles. A body fell heavily with a boom next. John gaped, bewildered, ears ringing. Just as the flash of light had blinded him, he fell immediately into darkness again. His pupils burned with the silhouettes of Nuria and the soldier. 

              He was grabbed by the collar, a straight tug lifting him. Orange and green shapes filled his sight as he tried to blink them away. Temporary blindness and terror had him on shaky legs.

              Opening his eyes, he saw a body on the floor. The soldier lay there, eyes wide with surprise. He’d been shot twice, once in the neck and again in the cheek. 

              A wave of relief passed over him, and he turned to see Nuria cross the room to the body. John stood dumb, watching her pilfer through the dead soldier’s many pouches strapped to his vest. She slid two curved magazines from them, slipping them into a pocket on the inside of her baggy jacket. Her handgun was returned to her waistband, her hands now taking up the soldier’s rifle.

              She straightened, slinging the rifle over her shoulder. There was a cold look in her eye when she looked at John. Her lips were pressed thin up against her nose.

              “Out the back,” she said in a flat tone. “They’ll have heard–”

              Voices called from the outside the front door. Footsteps pounded near the entrance–John couldn’t tell how many there were, just that there were too many. And they now stood between him and the road to his home. The voices rose into a clamor, no doubt seeing the dead Russian in the doorway. Another sound followed, a sort of scuffling and clatter of metallic clicks.

              Nuria struck a look at John, eyes filled with fear.

              “Down–!”

              She rammed into him, sending the two of them crashing under the bar. 

              A battering hail of bullets shredded into the room. Wood splintered inward, glass exploded into raining fragments, and all sound blared into ceaseless cracking. John covered his ears, kicking himself farther away and under the bar. Nuria covered her head beside him. His teeth ached from clenching as he waited for the hell-storm to pass.

              After what felt like an eternity of ear-piercing agony, the gunfire halted. John breathed harsh, short breaths, waiting for more soldiers to charge into the room. He reached a blind hand around, finding the handle of the ax near him. It felt heavy as he dragged it towards him, clutching it in his hands. 

              Glass bottles suddenly crashed through the broken windows and doorway. Their contents splashed over the room as they dashed over the floor and walls, casting into coursing fire. In an instant, the entire entryway became a wall of fire. John gaped in horror.

              He pulled Nuria towards him, who had been covering herself from falling glass. She let out a scream, seeing the fire wrap over the ceiling above. Hands of flame snatched up the hanging garments and cloth, assisting it to spread over the rafters with petrifying speed. 

              John hopped to his feet, taking Nuria by the arm and lunging for the back exit, ax in hand. He knew the first floor well enough to find their escape. There was a second room that turned behind the stairway, a mud room used by the deserters to store their boots. Their exit lay in the back of that room.

              Smoke chased them as they skipped around the corner into the mud room. A build-up of dried mud and sand coated the floors from the frequented boots of Moisey’s men. At the back sat a large, wooden door. The way out.

              John rammed against it, Nuria in tow. The wood growled as he threw his body into it. The door didn’t budge. In the dark, he searched for the handle, fingers clawing rapidly without sight. Finding it, he pressed the latch and pushed. The door moaned but refused to move.

              Panicked, he shook the handle violently. The wood clattered as it was shaken back and forth. Only a crack of light could be seen along its edge. It was locked from the outside. 

              They turned around to see the flickering glow of fire cast into the room. It was about to catch them.               Smog poured in, slithering into their lungs. Nuria coughed, covering her face with her shirt. The heat began to rise.

              “Move back!” John hollered. Nuria stumbled away, beginning a coughing fit as the air became unbreathable.

              Once clear, John took the ax in both hands, bringing it over his head and down against the door. His strength buried the ax head into the wood with a deep crunch. Grunting, he ripped it free, lifting it back over his head. A fist-sized hole now sat squarely in the door. I can do this.

              He heaved his arms down, throwing his entire body into the swing. The ax ruptured two of the center planks of wood into an explosion of splinters. A lower, horizontal plank still blocked their escape. He lowered the ax to the floor, using his hands to rip the broken chunks of wood away. The size of the hole was now big enough for Nuria to squeeze through. Another good swing would do it. 

              He stepped back, bringing the ax about again. Through sweat and rage, John hurled one more swing down, parting the horizontal board clean in two. 

              He turned to Nuria, a mixture of shock and relief in her eyes. He took her hand and led her through the jagged exit. Stepping out after her, he drew in a deep breath. The outside air burned with smoke too, keeping a lingering ache in his lungs. John spat in vain to rid himself of the taste.

              Behind them, the barracks burned. Swirling smoke blackened the air in thick, snaking curls above.               Supporting beams could be heard creaking and snapping as their strength turned to charred ash. The building shook as the second floor crashed inwards. 

              A blast of sullied dust blew out over them through the shattered door. John covered his face in his shirt, which did little to protect him from the gust. It snuck into his sleeves and collar, dashing heat and particles into his eyes. He coughed, tilting back haphazardly.

              A hand steadied him, clutching his elbow. He was led away, taking wide, sluggish steps as he tried to clear the grime from his eyes. It didn’t help that his shirt was already matted with sweat and layers of putrid dirt.

              “Here,” Nuria’s voice touched his ear. She traced her thumb over each of his eyes, wiping sticky soot from them. It helped. “We gotta go.”

              He blinked desperately, blurred sight returning to him. As his eyesight became clear, the shape of a figure took form in front of him. It sat down in the sand against an opposing wall. 

              “Nuria?” John asked, confused. He blinked again, heart-stopping.

              The figure’s form came into focus. Blank eyes looked up at him, yellowed. Its jaw sat unhinged, gawking. Familiar wrinkles creased the figure’s face with a sunken look of surprise, and dried blood stained the figure’s clothes and skin.

              Bahramand.

              John’s chest locked. A buzzing feeling surged throughout his skin as he stared down into the glassy eyes of his father’s friend, one of his closest teachers. He’d been killed, and John couldn’t stop it.

              John’s tongue stuck to the back of his throat, unable to pull himself away. He felt Nuria’s tug on his arm but remained planted where he was. His stomach revolted at once, doubling him over. He grabbed his knees as liquid bile spat from his mouth onto the ground. Heat crept over him, followed by a tremble he couldn’t control. He coughed a muted cry as the heat flooded his eyelids.

              The body of Bahramand sat still, unaware that John knelt before it, pleading for his forgiveness. He’d made it too late. Everyone was dying and all he could do was see the horror he left them to. John cursed himself.

              “I know–come on,” Nuria whispered. She wrapped an arm under John’s shoulder, forcing him to his feet. “This way–we can get to Rolan.”

              How could Nuria set herself aside from this so easily? She’d grown up with these people too. How could she not care?

              Approaching voices tore him from his anguish, coming from the front of the barracks. Soldiers approached. 

              John sniffed, wiping his face as he reached for the ax. He turned to see Nuria already slinking along the wall, looking for their next move. Bahramand was left where he was.

              John crouched beside Nuria, feeling her heat. She looked around the corner of the wall. They sat behind several smaller homes, a maze of stairs leading out around them onto the main road. Flapping shadows from fires above made it difficult to discern movement from the flickering shadows of debris. But they had to move, the crunching of footsteps approached from behind.

              Nuria dove forward wordlessly. John nearly missed it, ducking after her between two of the homes and up a short flight of rock-ledge stairs. They huddled in the dark, eyes seeking wildly.

              The road in front of them ran lengthwise, the left leading back down to the barracks, and the right winding up around to the back of the village. A jumble of homes clustered across the street, creating a mix of alleys that could both hide them or potential attackers. John’s home sat beyond this crowded junction.

              Fire ate at the tops of the homes ahead. Several had collapsed, casting chunks of stone and glowing timber into the winding paths between them. Meanwhile, the street appeared void of life. Bodies lay crumpled in ditches along the road, a sign the Russians had already passed by. The killers may have been the ones who set the barracks ablaze. 

              John could sense the gamble Nuria was going to make. The streets looked clear but left them in the open. The route would also take longer to curve around to John’s home. Running straight into the alleys though could spell greater danger. Falling bricks and fire made it risky, and soldiers could still be moving through the buildings looking for survivors.

              Nuria chose, shooting out from the shadows. John tucked his ax under his arm, barreling out onto the dirt street behind her. They kept their heads low, John keeping watch in the corner of his eye as they ran.               Nuria’s aim was for an alleyway between two scorched homes. The distance was short, but the sprint across felt like a weightless moment hanging in the balance, vulnerable.

              Nuria hopped over a low ditch along the road just as a door swung open abruptly on one of the adjacent homes. John faltered on his feet, shocked at the sudden emergence of Soviets pounding down the front steps into the road. He shrunk into the alley after Nuria, hoping he hadn’t been spotted. 

              He looked back at the group. They dragged someone along the ground, tossing them to the earth. A woman. She was screaming as they beat her.

              “–where he is!” one of them shouted in Russian over her pained wailing.

              “The doctor!” Another spat in slurred Pashto. “Hidden here? Speak!”

              John hesitated, listening. Were they talking about his father? 

              “Nikolaev,” the one speaking Russian snarled. “Tell us!”

              Nikolaev? John didn’t know that name. Who are they looking for?

              A man barged out of the house, yelling. He swung something in his hands, cracking it against the helmet of one of the soldiers. They turned, unleashing a volley of gunfire into him. 

              John watched the man fling to the ground. The woman began sobbing horribly, clawing in the dirt to get to the killed man. 

              One of the Russians who turned to fire raised his gaze, meeting John’s stricken face. There was a momentary pause before the soldier began pointing, shouting to his comrades.

              “John!” Nuria grabbed him by the arm. She saw the Russians from up against them. “Shit! Up this way, go!”

              She pulled John past her, bringing her rifle around to her shoulder. She fired wildly from the alley into the crowd of soldiers. They dove in all directions, some careening to the earth as bullets hit their mark.               John pushed on, unable to see if they were being pursued. 

              He could hear Nuria’s breathing behind him as they ran up farther into the alley. A wall had fallen ahead of them, forcing them to turn left into another section of shared, slim crossroads between single-story homes. John turned to his side, quickly sidestepping over a charred body underneath them. He didn’t have time to see who it was. 

              A soldier leapt out in front of his path, reaching for him. John fell to a crouch, using the ax under his arm to ram into the Russian’s gut. The soldier stumbled, wheezing. John shoved him back down the path he jumped from, sending him into another Russian coming up that way.

              John turned down another path, making frenzied choices to get away from their hunters. He knew more or less where he was headed. He prayed his home was still intact, that his father was still alive.

              Ahead, another soldier appeared in his way, this time farther down. He raised his rifle. Nuria tackled John into a dwelling beside them. They fell through a door into darkness.

              “John, go,” Nuria said hurriedly. “Out the front, you need to go!”

              John furrowed his brow. Unsure of the meaning of her words.

              “I’ll pull them off, okay?”

              “No!” John suddenly understood.

              “We’ll meet at the safe house, okay? Trust me!”

              A loud rustle could be heard outside as Russians converged on the dwelling they hid in. The few precious seconds they had faded as John fought against himself to stay. He didn’t want to leave her.

              “Now!” Nuria pointed to a back doorway at the end of the room. Light from a window beside it indicated an exit. 

              Nuria pivoted, firing rounds from her rifle into the mud-brick walls where Russians waited to storm the dwelling. Panicked shouting echoed outside. John got to his feet, taking another look at her. He trusted her. She’d stay alive.

              He made for the exit. 

              Embers flitted down from above where the roof had caught fire. A charred beam hung diagonally into the room from a hole in the ceiling. He moved around it, crashing through the door. It had been weakened by fire, bursting into glowing charcoal as he tumbled out onto the ground.

              He found himself back on the main road. He looked around, eyes darting for more Soviets. Nothing. There wasn't anything in his way now.

              Home was just up the road, a short walk away. His father would be there, waiting. They would find a way out and meet Nuria back at the safe house. Everything would be okay; Nuria knew where to go from there. 

              Keeping his ax stowed under his arm, he ran up the road. Along the path were the remains of Mirwani’s flock. Dead sheep lay slumped in the road. They must have gotten in the Soviet’s way. The soldiers had been through here; he had to hurry.

              Gunshots echoed behind him. More shouting and yelling could be heard, followed by an explosion. Nuria. Please stay safe. He pushed on, owing it to her to not look back.

              His spirits lifted as he came around a bend in the road. The home was still there, untouched by fires.               By luck, the flames hadn’t reached the homes on this side of the road. It appeared almost invisible in the darkness, nestled towards the back of the village at the foot of the mountain. A faint smile cracked his dry lips as he ran.

              Father.

              The run home was short. He slid to a halt on the gravel outside. The house was here, familiar, and untouched. His heart raced.

              John grabbed the door, yanking it open energetically. It swung forward easily, revealing a darkened interior. John’s smile began to fade, worry pricking at his neck. Was he home?

              He checked he wasn’t followed, then stooped into the house, closing the door behind him. He blinked in the dark. Shapes of furniture around the room felt oddly foreign to him. They became a maze for him to wade through. Uneasiness boiled inside him.

              He took a step forward, his boot connecting with something heavy. His heart skipped to his throat.               Crouching, the silhouette of a body appeared to him. John inhaled sharply, laying his hand over it. A man, lying face down. Wincing, John rolled the body over.

              A clean-shaven face looked at him, vacant eyes staring up. Not him. John squinted, looking over the body. A Russian, but dressed differently. He wore similar fatigues to the soldiers but wasn’t dressed in their gear or armor. The shape of a large, circular cap with a black rim lay beside the fallen soldier’s head. The uniform looked more official, clean even.

              While his breathing calmed slightly, it didn’t put him fully at ease. There was a dead man in his home. Where was his father? He wanted to call for him but feared there may be others inside still.

              His eyes finally adjusted to the dark, bringing his surroundings into focus. Now he understood why everything felt different. Furniture and broken glass were strewn around. Cushions that normally laid along the wall were stepped on and kicked over the floor. There was a fight. Blood pooled from the soldier on the floor, but there was more leading from the body. Small splats of dark liquid lead to his father's room.

              He made for the door, reaching for the handle. He paused, the door was left ajar. Looking down, he noticed a foot caught in the gap. A tall, black, military boot hugged the wearer's leg.

              John readied his ax in one hand, using the other to slowly pull the door open. He prepared himself for anything. The door opened to reveal the body of another soldier, dressed like the other in the entryway.               The floor was scattered with papers, blood seeping into them. A quietness held the room as John stepped inside.

              Moonlight fell softly through the window into the room. His father’s desk lay tilted, two of its legs broken. Contents from its drawers were spilled onto the floor. Pens, books, and several small trinkets had all been scattered at John’s feet. The closet at the back of the room had been scoured. Loose folders and boxes were toppled from their shelves.

              His father’s bed was shoved away from the closet, leaving a small gap between it and the wall. The window perched above the bed bathed its light down onto the sheets, revealing blood stains in the fabric.       John stepped closer, brow narrowing. What looked like hand prints were smeared on the wall beside the bed. 

              John held his breath, stepping over the body of the Russian. He peered around the bed, fear seeping into his bones. A metallic click held him in place.

              “John?” said a rasping voice.

              Bluish moonlight reflected off the barrel of a gun; it was pointed at him. John remained still. Heat swelled in his chest.

              “Dad?” John faltered, dropping his ax to the floor.

              “Come here, son,” the voice of his father beckoned.

              John fell to his knees before him. His father lay hidden beside the bed, against the wall. Tremors shook the gun in his hand. It slipped from his fingers as he lowered it to the stone floor, falling with a clatter. His father grimaced, clutching his shaking hand to his abdomen. 

              The glasses he wore were reflective moons of light, keeping his face obscured in shadow. His body, too, was hidden beneath an old, brown coat he clung over himself. His form was slouched over with his head against the mattress, looking sunken. He looked as though he were pulled thin.

              John reached out, unsure what to do. His father took his hand in his, squeezing it softly. When he let go, he returned to clenching his stomach, exhaling painfully.

              “I’m glad you’re alright,” his father said, giving a slight smile.

              “Dad, I–” John looked around, the sight of blood, bodies, and the destruction of his father’s room painted a terrible picture in his head. He quivered, feeling grossly warm. His throat tightened. “What’s–Moisey’s gone. I–” he felt himself losing grasp of himself. Dreaded acceptance of the brutal scene around him seeped in. His father was badly injured.

              A comforting hand was raised to steady John.

              “I know,” said his father. “There’s so much. So much to say. But John, you need to leave.”

              John snapped his eyes back to his father, the image of him blurring.

              “No, Dad, I–we,” he stammered, trying to recount everything he’d been through to get here. “Nuria–she’s out there! She can get help–there’s–”

              “John,” his father said, pausing with a shuddered exhale. “You’re such a fine boy. These soldiers, they’re here for me. It’s too late to explain, but you need to know how sorry I am for everything–”

              John shook his head, bleary-eyed. “No.”

              “For everything. For thinking I could make this work–this life for you. For keeping you in the dark for so many years. I see now you always deserved to know–you need to know, to survive this mess I’ve made.”

              His father released one of his hands from his side, sucking a sharp breath as he slipped it into his coat. He retrieved a small, gray, rectangular object. He held it up, offering it to John. It was a cassette tape.

              “It’s a recording I left. It’ll help you–help you understand,” he said, shortened breath interrupting his words. “And hopefully, then, you can forgive me.”

              John shuddered, his shoulders rocking. A despairing denial gripped him as he shook his head. This wasn’t how his father should talk. He didn’t need to say these things.

              “C’mon, Dad,” John offered his hand to him again. “Let’s go–”

              “No, John, not this time.”

              “I–I don’t know what to do!” tears streamed down John’s face.

              “Take it,” his father stretched the recording to him. 

              John could see blood on the palm of his father’s hand. A red drop ran down his wrist, dripping to the floor. John’s breath became ragged, stuttering through his teeth. He didn’t want it. He didn’t want to know what was going on anymore. He just wanted his father, and to hold his hand. 

              The cassette began to slip from his father’s grasp as tremors ran through his fingers and thumb. John quickly took it in hand before it fell, protecting it like it was a piece of his father’s soul. He squeezed his father’s hand.

              His father lifted his other hand, resting it on top of John’s. It was warm, hugging him back. His head relaxed, the glare of his glasses shining less bright so John could see him smile.

              “You are, with all my pride, the most beautiful thing I’ve offered to this world,” his father spoke softly. “I am so proud of you, John.”

              John lowered his head, body heaving now with choked sobs. Drips ran from his nose down his face.               He couldn’t hold it any longer. It felt like no matter how hard he squeezed, the world just kept seeping through his fingers. Thoughts of what to say fell upon one another, battling to burst out from his sputtering mouth. He searched for something, anything he could say to make his father stop this. There must be something he could do to make him come with him and put this horrible mess behind them. 

              His hands felt cold.

              The words formed in his mouth, pushing through the sobs.

              “Dad, I–” he started, looking up. “I love you, dad. I–”

              His dad looked at him kindly. Gentle eyes saw him, feeling his pain. They looked on, forever, the light of the moon now gone entirely from his lenses so he could see him. His father’s hands loosened, sliding from John’s grasp. A smile remained; a quiet goodbye.

              John fell on him, crying out. He gripped his father’s coat, the coarse cloth pinching the skin between his white-knuckled fists. The coat caught his tears as they poured out, slowly dampening it with his muffled sobs.

              Everything was lost. John was alone. He didn’t know what to do, or where to go. 

              A sound came from the entryway. The clank of metal rang. A shuffle of paper swiped against the floor. Though subtle, the sound ripped John from his father. His eyes stung and his teeth ached. He wiped his face with a wet sniff, placing the cassette tape into his pocket. 

              He lifted the ax from the floor as he stood. Hot breath escaped his drooped lips. He stepped closer to the door, listening. Someone was stirring in the dark.

              No one should be here!

              A feverish anger grew in him. Its venom spread in his chest, coursing over his ribs. His bones filled with a fire’s hiss.

              He didn’t care how hard he breathed now, how loud the crunch of ceramic shards grumbled under his boot, or how the blade of his ax grated over the floor as it was dragged. 

              He reached for the door.  

              A voice muttered, low and reticent. Whispers and rummaging hands reverberated through the still air. 

              John laced his fingers over the door, the tips of them numbing with a humming sensation. It felt like alcohol’s burn slithering through his veins. His muscles tightened, clawing his nails into the wood of the door.

              His heart spoke to him in a loud, steady beat. A repeating urge drummed inside his chest. His lips twitched, pulling behind his gums. Sick cravings burned in the back of his skull. His heart wanted it. His body wanted it. He wanted it. A devouring urge threw him forward.

              John slammed the door open, sending it crashing into shelves of pottery. Hatred guided him, surging him toward the intruder.

              Wide eyes. Raised hands. A mouth that made a soundless gasp.

              John wrenched his arms back, the ax twisting in his hands. The wind whirled as the thick blade sang through the air, plunging into the intruder with a meaty thud.

              He looked down.

              The intruder’s mouth hung open, a choked cry clicking at the back of its tongue. A look, stricken with dread, spasmed under the skin of its face. A curl of hair fell over horror-filled eyes as they slowly looked down at the blade parting its leg in globs of flowing blood.

              “Dima–!” the intruder screamed, his hoarse voice scattering into cracks of sputtered air.

              John recoiled, face curling with malice. He pried the ax free, snapping the rest of the intruder’s femur in two. The man made a doggish howl, hands sliding over his halved leg. 

              John stared, chills of revulsion spreading over him. The man’s scream was appalling. He hated it. His grossly, pathetic appearance angered him more. John snarled through his teeth, hot spit foaming forth as he brought the ax above his shoulder, ready to swing. 

              Disgusting. Rotted. Mulch. That was what bled beneath him. That was what vomited and pleaded, calling out for help. He wanted it to stop living, to be stomped on, and smeared into the earth. Erased.

              John swung the ax down.

              The man shrieked again as the ax pounded into his chest, snapping rods of bone outward like the legs of a dying spider. John wrenched the ax’s handle like a lever upward and forced it down into the intruder’s ribs. A guttural, squelched moan bubbled from the man’s throat as the ax was plunged fully into his chest. 

              John’s vision fogged with tears as he leaned his entire weight down onto the handle. He lowered himself, plunging the ax deeper, until his face was inches from the intruder’s bloated eyes. John screamed into his face. His neck tensed, throat turning to gravel as he let his hatred pour out from behind his bared teeth.  

              Blood splattered over him, slicking his grip on the ax’s handle. John’s voice finally faded mute as the last air from his lungs left him. He inhaled a haggard breath, staring unblinking into the man’s dead eyes.               His bloodied image was blurred in John’s wet, glazed sight.

              His grip wrung over the blood-soaked, wooden handle, the fuzzy numbness surging through his fingers again. John’s heart suddenly struck hard, shooting a lance of pain through his body. He cried out, lifting the ax. His heart struck again, sending another wave of screaming agony along his spine.

              He continued to tear the ax away, pulling it up from the red mass of the man’s chest like it was stuck in a sucking mud. The effort burned in his muscles, clenching his jaw. A piercing sting ran through his teeth. 

              The ax flung free, sending slashes of dark fluid into the air. The intruder slumped backward onto the floor, pouring the contents of his chest into a pool around him. Droplets rained on John’s skin; the wet warmth a poisonous touch. 

              He looked down on the body of the intruder. It was a blight in his home. He wanted it to go away. The feeling, the sickness, the mess at his feet; the sight of it churned his stomach. He wanted it erased. 

              He swung the ax down against the intruder’s body. Blade met flesh. He wrenched it up above again, and again it fell. Bones snapped. Again, he raised the ax, and still, the growing sickness continued. The numbness turned to a singing fire. 

              His heart cried out in agony. John screamed. 

              He cleaved the ax downward. Again. Again. He only saw darkness beneath him, stretching out to the corners of the room. It wouldn’t stop. The hate remained, the fire inside burning hotter. 

              A final shock of pain exploded in his chest. The ax slipped from his grasp, clanging to the floor. John collapsed to his knees, hands slapping into the pool of blood. 

              He choked, watching as a deep glow emitted from the veins in his hands. Dazed, he watched it seep out to the tips of his fingers. The glow appeared to reach out from under his skin and touch the blood. Tendrils of light wriggled under the blanket of deep crimson. 

              An orange radiance flashed beneath his skin. 

              His head screeched with pain, pressing against his skull from all sides. A sound caught in his throat.               His teeth felt like they were going to explode. Though shut tight, his eyelids gradually filled with the orange warmth. Wherever it bled to, it burned, sending him into convulsions.

              His stomach rose, bucking him forward. Something oozed up his throat, pushing out into his mouth. It was hot and bitter. He coughed strenuously, splattering black blobs of fluid into the blood below.

              John gazed down, fear strangling his anger. What’s happening? He clutched his stomach, spitting inky ripeness from his mouth. He was at once aware of where he was, and what he had done. He shook, looking at the blood all around him.

              He hadn’t had control of himself. The feeling of anger, the hate, that was his, but his actions had not felt like his own. He had fallen completely into a vying fury. 

              The events played out in his head as awareness returned. He’d killed someone. Horribly.

              The pain in his body vanished. Aching bones cooled. Feeling returned to his fingers and his skin chilled with sweat. The burning sensation within him left.

              He looked at the oozing blackness dissolving into the blood below. It bubbled, its heat steaming the surrounding blood into a foul mist. He kicked himself back against the wall, slipping in desperation to get away from it. He wiped his mouth, looking at his hand. 

              Dark muck came away from his lips, oddly warm.

              It came from him.

              A chill ran down his back. His skin shivered as the surrounding air vibrated over his ribs. The air thickened, weighing on him. It became harder to breathe. 

              He suddenly felt that he wasn’t alone. Something looked at him, lurking nearby. He could feel it in his head too, like a thought that wasn’t his. It radiated an overwhelming sensation into the room, pulling him down. Something was trying to touch him.

              John spun around, slipping on the wet floor. His eyes darted to the dark corners of the room. Someone was there. Someone was looking at him. His skin pricked with shivers, hairs on end.

              He was in a nightmare, a horrible, unending dream. 

              “Go away!” John said, voice cracking. His chest rose rapidly. 

              Why did this curse continue? He’d already lost everything, even himself. Had he died facing the intruder, and now he was damned to be haunted by this moment? This must be the cost for his murder in death, to be tortured by rending guilt forever. 

              He wanted it to stop; he didn’t mean for this to happen.

              John stumbled to his feet, his balance gliding on the blood under his hands and knees. He picked up his ax, whirling it around at the unseen, mocking eyes. If he wasn’t dead, he wanted to be. His life had been tainted, damaged beyond repair.

              He backed himself against the front door, his ax raised to block some unforeseen attack from the shadows. Slick with blood, he fumbled for the door handle. The door swung open behind him as his hand grazed the handle’s latch, sending him tipping out backward. 

              He crashed onto the dirt outside, knocking the air from his lungs. He rasped, eyes weeping from his head striking against the ground. He rolled over, gasping.

              The doorway filled with a deep gloom, untouched by the firelit night. Fear spiked in his chest. He couldn’t see it, but something approached him. It stood in the doorway. 

              John kicked, scrambling back over the earth. His panicked lungs sucked in clouds of dust. He felt lightheaded, his vision dimming. 

              The blackness of the room suddenly departed, a nightly glow returning to the interior of the entryway. He clutched his chest, swallowing gulps of air. Sweat ran in streams down his face. Whatever was there was gone now.

              John rose to his feet, eyes still flitting over the room’s entrance. He began to move away when he heard a noise behind him. He turned around.

              A row of soldiers stood in a line, weapons raised. Cold, thin lips frowned at him from under a black line of shadow beneath their helmets. The Soviets had surrounded him.

              John trembled, lip quivering. He stared down the line of barrels aiming at him. It was over. The terror, the murder, the curse that had fallen on him–that darkness had guided him to his death. 

              A final thought flashed in his mind. Nuria. He hoped she escaped. An ache for her sunk inside him.  

              The thought of her waiting for him was unbearable. He could see her smile, her sea-like eyes, looking out the window from the safe house. She would be waiting, but he would never come. He wondered how long she would wait for him.

              Someone snarled an order, snapping the thought from his head; then time erupted. 

              Piercing flashes ignited the night. A cacophony of belting pain blared into his ears. The row of rifles fired.

              Yanking thumps tore him back as bullets pulled flesh through flesh. His limbs snapped in twists, muscles stripping from bones. His vision shifted from black to red to searing white as his head flung around from the unrelenting gunfire dragging through him.

              At first, there was only a numbness, and a bizarre pause as his body warped and bent. Then, a scalding boil sundered through him. Pain ripped at the fibers of his being. His tongue filled his mouth, unable to scream. Gunfire drummed on, shredding him into torn meat.

              The roar of shots ceased at once.

              His mind, somehow awake, understood that he’d fallen to his knees. He waited, feeling all that remained of himself seep from his ruined body. He waited for death, but it did not come. 

              He couldn’t move, couldn’t scream. His eyes only wept silently; bloodied drops dashing the sand beneath his hanging head. Why?

              He felt warm. His body stiffened. Though he couldn't move, he felt his muscles shift. The pain transformed, a hum taking over. He closed his eyes and saw an orange glow bleed in from the dark. Blood rushed through his ears, carrying a strange creaking groan with it. His body began to shift.

              Heat spread through him.

              Feeling twitched in his fingers again. He blinked, able to move his head slightly. He looked down at himself.

              His clothes were drenched dark and shredded. Flaps of skin, red muscles, and discolored masses of flesh were laid bare, exposed under scraps of clothing. Protruding bone from his chest and legs moved. Tears ran down his cheeks. John screamed.

              He was alive, a feeling more terrifying than anything.

              Orange light trailed through his open wounds, filling them with a fluid that hardened into layers of what looked like gray shale. His body tensed and shifted as bones crept back under his slithering muscles.

              He continued to cry out, staring down at the petrifying mutilation reforming his body. Gradually, control of his arms returned. The muscles in his body held little strength but responded to his fearful mind with twinges of movement as they reconnected. 

              Dull shouts carried into John’s ears, the sound blotted by a screeching ring. The Soviets blurred forms shifted about. Rifles glinting with fire’s glow lowered in bewildered hands. A commanding voice boomed over them. The rifles were once more held at their shoulders, aiming.

              John’s vision heightened as a warm buzz spread under his skin. The soldier’s forms sharpened before him, somehow far clearer than before. Expressions of grit teeth and astonished eyes marked their pale, sweaty faces.

              Another form appeared between them.

              The soldiers seemed not to notice the body stripped of flesh standing among them. Black ropes of tight muscles flexed over its body. A skin of shelled bone plated its naked muscles, which were both pierced by jutting teeth. Unfurled petals of fangs were sewn throughout its form; carnivorous and horn-like. A cruel, skinless grin carved along its face of scales. Fingers of bone covered where its eyes and nose should be. A halo made from twisting horns crowned back from its head. 

              It stood, listless, poised, head turned aside. 

              John could hear it–its voice. It was wordless, soundless, but felt throughout his body. It called for him.

              An ember flared within John. His muscles fixated, filling with fire. Hate claimed him again.

              The phantom’s head turned to him, its eyeless, piercing gaze looked into his soul.

              John roared, launching to his feet with his ax in hand. Swift steps hailed him into the air, lurching over the sand. Hate and fire led him. He swung his ax.

              A scream blared as the blade gutted a Russian in front of him, hewing his armored vest into splintering shards now dashed with gore. Guns exploded all around. John followed his swing into a wide arch into the air. The ax struck, cleaving another man’s face in two, and parting it into ribbons.

              He moved fluidly, unaffected by the broken bones in his legs snapping back into place. As more bullets punched through him, his older wounds sealed with a cauterizing smolder. The feeling blew life into the growing ember in his chest. Every swing tore back what was taken from him. Every step forward was another for his father. 

              He washed the ax through bodies like water, the flow continuing. His throat became raw, blood coating his tongue as he yelled. He was compelled, thirsting for their deaths. All while the horned phantom watched, humming into his mind thoughts that mimicked his. Thoughts of yearning rage.

              The killing stopped when no more stood. John coughed blood, the fire inside him dwindling. It burned only enough to keep him standing. Clutching his stomach, he held desperately to the warmth that had fueled him.

              Only the phantom remained, its head bowed. It raised its arm, clawed fingers outstretched to him. John cringed back. It beckoned still. Wanting, craving, to touch his skin.  

              He wouldn’t let it touch him. John coiled the ax behind his head, rushing to swing at the horned personage. His strength left him abruptly, the ax becoming abysmally heavy. Its weight pulled him to the ground. John’s eyes shot up.

              The phantom was gone.

              Pain crept up from his healing wounds, the numbness that had graced him before now retreating. The sting snarled through his teeth. He squeezed his stomach, hoping it would somehow make the pain pass. 

              Nuria.

              The thought of her struck him. He had to find her. With wincing effort, he grasped the ax’s handle, using it to stand. He set off with a limp, hobbling into an alleyway ahead. He was determined to find Nuria–she had to be alive.

              His vision darkened in waves. Exhaustion soaked into him. Despite the miracle he had experienced, his body still struggled to carry him on. What functional muscles he had were heavily strained by hours of running and fighting. He mustered all he could to keep himself from collapsing. 

              He didn’t know how far he’d gone. The stretch of homes seemed to carry on forever as he stumbled through a maze of alleys and backways. His only guide was a glimpse of the horizon spotted over the sloping village. Each step sent a shock through his body that pounded into his head. It was becoming difficult to tell where he was.

              He trudged into a tight corridor, light greeting him at its end. The opening grew before him as he limped through. It had to be the exit. He’d made it to the village’s edge, breathing a sigh of relief.

              His ax snagged beneath him, stealing his balance. He toppled forward, rolling out of the alley. Dazed, he raised himself to look at his surroundings. Walls of homes encircled him in a large courtyard. Fire sneered from the rooftops. He was still in the village. 

              John rolled onto his back, breathing hard. A dull thundering echoed above him. Black shapes stirred the sky, beating the air with dull thwacks. Helicopters.

              More Russians.

              He pried himself back onto his stomach and tried to push himself up from the dirt. He had to get to Nuria. He needed to escape before the Russians surrounded the village. He would see her again.

              His arms shook, straining until they suddenly gave out. He collapsed back to the ground, blowing grains of sand from his mouth. If he stopped, he would die. He began to crawl.

              Sounds of movement came from all around. Shouts bounced from the walls of the courtyard. Footsteps pounded from around a corner.

              John watched as a Russian dashed into view, dropping his rifle in the sand and rushing past John into another alleyway. He looked afraid. John paused, resting his face in the sand. He wondered if he’d been spotted.

              Gunshots rang out nearby, followed by more shouting. The chaos seemed to be coming from his left where the Russian had appeared from. 

              Just then, several gunshots popped to his right, followed by a man’s pleading cry. Another gunshot silenced it. John shifted, watching the right passage. Footsteps echoed–light and quick.

              Nuria ducked out of the alley, skirting over the sand. She froze, snapping her attention to him.

              “John!”

              She ran to him, sliding onto her knees in the sand. She dropped her rifle, shaking hands hovering over him. She trembled at his appearance. Nuria laid her hand on his head, brushing strands of hair from his eyes.

              “I’ll get you out of here–I’m so sorry–”

              John smiled. 

              John watched rapid thoughts flash in her eyes as they flitted over his body. She bit her lip. John felt her arms tuck under him, groaning as she flipped him onto his back. She moved beside his head, resting it in her lap. 

              “I’m sorry, John,” She whispered in his ear. “I shouldn’t have left you. I wanted to give you some time, but–God–I’m so glad you’re alive.” He felt her warmth against his cheek. “Let’s get you outta here.”

              She tensed, breathing through pursed lips. With a grunt, she heaved him upwards from under his arms. John felt his weight wear on her. He could feel her grip shake, arms quivering. She dragged him a few feet before stopping to lay him back down.

              “Shit!” Nuria hissed. “Hold on.”

              She stood, looking around the courtyard. He watched her, mesmerized. He only cared that he’d found her, keeping her in the center of his vision. His eyelids grew weak, fluttering. Darkness drifted in from the corners of his eyes.

              A commotion came from around the corner of the alley opposite them. Gunshots cracked and spun off the mud bricks as three Russians stumbled into the courtyard. They fired their rifles down the alley they came from, turning suddenly to see John and Nuria staring. Frantic hands swung their guns to aim at them. 

              Nuria spun around, knees bent. She dove for her rifle, snapping it in her hands and firing a shot that lanced through the head of the centermost soldier. He flung back, knocking another against the wall. 

              The third, still standing, locked his gaze onto John, raising his rifle under his arm to fire. John gawked, unable to move.

              “Stop!” Nuria hollered. She spun in the sand to a crouched position, firing another volley that snatched the soldier’s leg from under him. Another two shots burst through his chest and neck. He fell just before John. 

              Another shot rang out.

              Nuria stumbled, falling quietly to the sand. 

              John froze. His heart hung still. 

              “Nuria!” John cried. He clawed the earth, tearing himself towards her. She didn’t move. The ground darkened around her.

              The last Russian stepped over the body of his comrade, snarling breaths growling from his nose and mouth. He crossed towards him. His rifle pointed at John’s head. Sweat beaded over his bullish face, huffing loudly.

              Two soft pops broke the rhythm of the Russian’s heavy breaths. Blood spurted from his throat. His eyes bulged, jaw dropped. He gripped at something in the air, then folded to the ground, dropping his rifle.

              “He’s down,” a hushed, gravel voice said. In English. 

              Two men moved together, black rifles raised to masked faces. They wore strange, boxed goggles over their eyes, two scoped lenses peering from them. Their attire was entirely different from the Russian’s.               Black fatigues, tight vests with protective collars dressed with rows of pouches and packs strapped to their backs and hips. An ominous aurora hung over them as they stepped silently into the courtyard.

              “Eyes up,” the head soldier said in almost a whisper, touching his hand to a device strapped to his chest. “This area’s light.”

              He lifted the goggles from his face and motioned forward. A swarm of figures all in black appeared from around the corner, fanning out into the courtyard. 

              They looked like ghosts, drifting through the shadows. Their forms shifted in John’s darkening vision, making it impossible to track them. He felt their eyes staring. Someone knelt over him.

              John gripped the sand, fingers clawing in and out helplessly. Nuria was beyond his reach. Something pressed into his back, pinning him down. He could hear voices above him. The words turned to cotton in his ears, his head feeling thick.

              “S-stop,” John rasped. “Let me–save her–”

              John’s eyes drooped. They’d closed for only a moment, but when they opened, he was being dragged away. Nuria slipped further from him.

              “Wait,” John choked out. “Wait! D-don’t leave–”

              His vision blacked again. He shook his head, fighting to stay awake. He kicked his feet, powerless, and reached for her. 

              A figure appeared beside Nuria. It was covered in spines of teeth and bone. The phantom stood over her, head bowed. 

              “Stay away from her!” John screamed, blood spitting into his mouth. “Don’t fucking touch her!”

              The grip that pulled him tightened as he fought to break free. 

              No one was helping Nuria. They left her there in the sand, standing around her. No one stopped that thing from being near her. Why aren’t they doing anything?

              John cried out, his voice faltered as blood filled his throat. His sight fogged, fading by the second. A low hum flowed into his mind, sending his head lulling back. Nuria blurred into a wash of color. He couldn’t picture her face anymore. 

              The embers from the homes turned to soft spheres of light in his eyes. They carried away all that he had loved. Fragments of his life floated into the abyss above him, blinking into nothingness. Gone forever.

              A blanket of shadow draped over him, pulling him into a total, blank sleep.

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