by Christine Wang
Issue: Elysium (Spring 2012)
“No matter what happens just don’t move, okay? Don’t make any noise.” Tightly, she hugged the shivering child, too afraid to close her eyes to enjoy the moment, every sense painfully aware. Her bony hands clasped at the child’s shirt, her eyes blood-shot with exhaustion and the fire of maternal instinct. Like a mother bird protecting her babies from the hungry eagle, nothing else mattered at this moment except to protect and to survive. If anything, at least for now they were still alive and together.
With a frantic breath she struggled to register that these were the last moments with the loves of her life. Before she could, she heard faint footsteps a few rooms down. Tired eyes wide with fear she grabbed her child by the shoulders and shook her. “Take care of your sister. Do you hear me? I love—”
Suddenly, the scream of another mother a few rooms over rung out in the air. Gasping, the woman hastily shoved her two sobbing children towards a secret pathway in the floorboards.
Sasha, the eldest sister, clung onto every one of her mother’s words, sobbing silently as she was herded away, but her little sister refused to be as obedient.
“What’s h—happening?” Broken questions tumbled out of the little girl’s mouth, “Mommy?”
But before any questions were answered, the doorknob rattled furiously and there was a heavy crash of a body against the door. The two sisters were quickly silenced with an embrace and pushed into the hole. The crescent of dim light waned in front of their eyes. As they sat, acid adrenaline coursing through them, they felt the warmth of their mother’s gaze for the last time as the heavy lid clanged shut over their hiding place.
They heard loud steps of a couple of people running into the room as the numbing darkness closed in on the girls. Frozen with fear, they realized it was too late for answers. They heard the sounds of a wardrobe being pushed onto the ground and glass shattering and suddenly two sounds jumped out from all the others. First, there was a gunshot and following was a sound Sasha had never heard before, but recognized immediately. Their mother’s high-pitched scream.
“Why are we doing this?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is she okay?”
“I don’t know, okay? I don’t know.”
“You do know! You—”
Sasha reached down with a cold hand and covered the younger girl’s mouth. The younger girl clung onto her shabby stuffed bear their mother gave her when she was young. The bear was dressed in a tattered, brown dress much like her own. Teary trails were evident against the grime of the younger girl’s cheeks and with every breath, her frail frame shuddered. Violent sobs had left her feeling dizzy and sick, and lacking the energy to fight the grief any longer, she let her tears flow freely.
The Magistry had been chasing their mother for a very long time now. Sasha grimaced. The Magistry was what the government called themselves. The governors called themselves Elements supposedly representing purity or something of that sort. Sasha knew that Father had done something to anger Neon, the head of the Elements, but Mother never talked about it. Yet, suitcases were packed at all times and when their mother didn’t come home at night they were supposed to hide in this secret hiding spot. Whenever Sasha asked about reasons, it was always the same excuse. You’re too young, Sasha. Life is about doing what the age calls for and at your age you are not supposed to worry about grown up problems.
Both she and her sister knew something was wrong, but with her Father gone and her mother struggling what else could they do but keep their mother happy? After all, Mother sacrificed all her time and effort into raising her children, dedicating every ounce of love in her to being a perfect mother.
Sasha hugged her sister closer and gathered her thoughts. Mother told her that Father left because he found a better job, yet, by the way her Mother flinched at the very mention of her Father, Sasha knew that was a lie. Was he dead? Had he been dead all these years? Shivering, Sasha blocked out the rest of the speculations she had. Right now she needed to focus on what she was going to do to escape.
After a long silence had passed, Sasha muttered, taking her hand off her little sister’s mouth, “Can you get rid of that bear? How are you going to keep balance if you don’t have any hands to support yourself?”
The young girl considered it silently, but the sadness in her eyes was evident. Her small hands clung onto the toy bear. “Please, can I keep her?”
Sasha sighed, but nodded. There was no Mother now, but someone still had to protect her little sister. Her sister shouldn’t have to worry about things not suited to her age anymore.
When the cries of violence had subsided and the ground no longer rumbled of footsteps, only then did they begin crawling out of the small wooden hiding space into a gutter-like tunnel. The slosh of nauseating soup lapped at the younger girl’s feet. Sasha could not fit on the dry sides of the small space and was forced to wade in the stream of garbage beside her sister. A half eaten dead rat floated along and Sasha shuddered as she watched white maggots and a few flies consume the rest of the carcass.
As the sisters struggled forward, the younger sister stumbled and slipped on the slimy walls, her one-eyed stuffed bear rolling into the water.
The little girl froze, too exhausted to cry out or even attempt to retrieve the toy. The putrid current swallowed the bear and, when it resurfaced, pulled it farther and farther away. The little girl, after watching the toy bear vanish among the bobbing pieces of trash, looked at her sister with a quiet whimper. Turning her watery eyes on Sasha, she begged for answers and comfort that the older girl could not give.
The young girl tugged on her sister’s sleeve, her voice a desperate plea.
“She’s g—gone. She’s gone f—forever, isn’t she?”
Sasha closed her eyes and looked away.
“I’ll buy you another bear.”
But with a quick glance back at her sister, she could see that she had made a mistake; it wasn’t
about the bear. It would never be about a stuffed bear again.
Giving her sister a small hug, she said, “Mommy will be back.”
The lie echoed accusingly in her mind as she said it, but it was necessary. It was the hope the young girl needed to keep fighting and Mother would have wanted that.
Sasha grimaced. Besides lies and toy bears, what did they have left but each other? Her mind ached with memories of her parents. She missed the times when they would drive out into the woods in their beat-up red convertible, belting out songs all the way, and fall asleep together under a starry sky. It seemed as if they could easy go back to the time when they would gather on a family to sit drowsily on their creaky rocking chairs and watch the sunrise. Sasha cast a bitter look at their surroundings; it would never be about stuffed bears anymore.
Her little sister turned to her again. There was a terrible hope in her young eyes, a naive trust that her big sister could make everything right again. Sasha frowned, running a grimy hand through her disheveled locks. She was responsible now, and whether she was ready or not; she had to keep moving forward.
“Mommy will be back right?”
“Of course she will.”
Her little sister nodded trustingly and moved closer. Looking up at Sasha, the younger girl slipped a small hand into Sasha’s and gave an affectionate squeeze.
Gently, Sasha turned to her sister and brushed the tangled hair away from her hopeful eyes. Her little sister didn’t move or say a word, but her smile spoke for her. It was only a small smile, but it was enough. Sasha looked down at her sister and, without fully realizing, she smiled back.
If anything, at least they were still alive, together, with the memories of Mother’s love to keep them warm. Sasha sighed. Perhaps it was never truly about a stuffed bear.