He is small, and he has never been particularly brave. The mess of tangled hair on his head is streaked with dirt and dripping with sweat. In his chest, a hot coal burns, contracting, shrinking and expanding with every breath while his pulse thumps through thin veins.
The villa is abandoned this late at night. Other than the barn mice in the rafters and the girl tied up among sacks of grain and salt in a small room on the side, he is alone. A cool wind carries the scent of charcoal and smoke from the farm across the lane, blazing through the rural midnight.
He squats through the low door leading into the empty main room and makes his way past the moonbeams that trace, tracing the shadows of the crisscrossing supports overhead. The door to the storage room clicks open in his hand, unleashing the dank musk of mold and rot. He hears a whimper from the corner.
She is wedged between a canvas bag and the roughshod wall of the structure. Her tongue is sore from the damp gag shoved into her mouth. She shuts her eyes tight against the world, trying to will herself back to the warm pathways and easy air of home. Anywhere but here.
The skin at her wrist prickles with irritation from her rope bindings, and she tries to squeeze herself, to make herself even smaller, as though she could pull her body into nothingness. She would do anything to be lighter than air, unreachable, and untouchable.
The boy smells stale urine as he bends down to begin untying untie the gag. His hands shake. He seems to already know that only one of them will leave here tonight.
“What do you need?” he says.
The dark-colored cloth gag flutters to the ground. She straightens her neck. Her eyes bore into him. They are green like forests seen from a distance, like churned waters. Her face is all angles and lines.
“There’s nothing left,” she says. “I have nothing.”
“I know. I know.” His fingers fumble against the tight knots in the ropes. “What they did—that’s not… Let me help.”
The simple building groans into its foundation. Somewhere outside, an owl hoots long and lonesome before flapping away. The closest town, three miles down the dirt road, is burning itself out of existence. Stone walls crack in the hottest parts of the fire. The air around the town sucks inwards towards the leaping flames.
“I didn’t want this. Nobody did,” he says. The ropes around her wrists pull loose. “Are your arms okay?”
She gently touches the angry red lines on her forearms, massaging them into the her skin.
“I’ve been here for three days,” she says. “Three days.”
“You didn’t have to hide.”
“No?” A line of blood runs over her palm, tracing a course through the lines of her hands.
Seeing this, he’s reminded of his father, a jeweler. He remembers bright rubies scattered across his desk, the aging man slumped over late at night examining the jewels with different instruments and probing at them, searching for imperfections and flaws that others would miss. Pretty things contain multiple truths, he used to say. Don’t forget to approach them from many angles.
“Here, come.” His feet crunch on discarded hay as he ushers her out of the darkness and into the wide space of the main room. The air here is lighter, kept fresh by the drafty main door. The wooden crates, and sweat-stained shovels, chisels, rakes, and saws that once filled the space are gone, leaving the white walls too far apart and the room too vacant.
She hurries to a corner and stretches while watching him, never taking her eyes off of his hands. Three days alone. Three days of accepting total darkness. She feels herself reigniting while her cramped muscles stretch and tug at their joints. Her breath becomes alive again.
“What are you here for?” she saysasks. Her torn clothes hang like a used rag on a fencepost. Shoulders float above rhythmic exhales. Her thin, firm arms betray her quiet strength.
“I knew you were still here.”
She shrinks back. “How?”
“Came through my place.” He tilts his head. “After.”
He starts towards her. She jumps, and he quickly stops.
“No,” she says. She is penned in, back to a the wall. The same way it all started. Moonlight drips down the rafters, runs down the walls, and she can see his bright eyes, two luminous discs hanging in the air. He looks past her clothes and her skin and into something deeper.
“I’m sure you’re scared,” he says.
But she isn’t.
Scared was three days ago. Scared was losing all control and being tossed into a quiet room to hyperventilate and piss herself until it seemed that all of the emotions inside of her had leaked out and evaporated. Scared was staring into blackness and seeing her mother, her and father—the two of them, world-weary and beaten, begging her to help them, trying to get her to just come an inch closer—only to eventually feel their forms fade away and slip into the wind, where they would be carried out of memory until thirty years later, when she would first think of them, really think of them, again.
“Get out.” She nods to the door. “I can take care of myself.”
“I don’t doubt that you can.” He waits.
The timbers overhead creak as they shrink in the cold night. She clenches her shaking hands together into a single mass.
They stare into at each other. His shape wavers in the darkness, its borders blurring against the hard lines of the wall and the floor. Neither wants to move. Neither wants to break the moment, or maybe they’re just afraid to face up to violence, to war, to two souls colliding.
Three days earlier
A The hot, red sun was still clinging to the horizon when they showed up. There were four of them. Their uniforms were brown and roughworn.
Two wooden spoons and two bowls were laid out on the table, and the chairs had just been scraped up to a lukewarm broth meal. They simply walked in.
Her father was dragged out by his hair and tossed over the threshold to stumble on the front step and crack his skull on the dirt outside.
A tree-bark hand clamped down over her screaming mouth and slammed her head into the doorframe. He was hungry and bonelike. He started. Then they took turns.
The other three were gentle. Afterwards, they tried to feed her soup and apologized for intruding, but the soup only spilled from her mouth and pooled in her lap.
“You must understand,” the violent one said. “It is only the nature of things. It is not hurt to you.”
When they departed, she brought her father’s body inside and left the blood drying on the steps. She had hoped they wouldn’t come back.
She stretches her legs in front of her, brushes off hay, and touches her toes. An hour now.
Just inside the doorway, he taps his foot up and down, up and down. The moon sinks deeper and night gathers over the land. Small patches of structure-fires beat back at the darkness throughout the countryside, the beacons to a savior that will never come.
“Listen,” he says, the sound of his voice like a crack running through glass, “we should stay together.”
“Let me leave.”
“I’m not stopping you from leaving.” He wants to know why she won’t approach. Why she won’t even let him help. “I said you can walk out.”
“You won’t move from the doorway.”
He pushes a thick clump of hair up onto his forehead. Sighs. Frustration or exhaustion. It sounds the same in darkness.
“They’ll be back,” she says.
“No, they won’t—-”
“You’ve got nothing to give.” The slices of raw flesh on her forearms flare as she flexes her hands.
“All the more reason for you to stick with me.” He leans forward and his back prickles where the rough wall has been pressing into it. The length of his spine feels compressed. Stacks of white bone, unchanged for thousands of years, comprise the center of the human frame.
Another split crackeds open in the silence. Chopped air in the wake of something mechanical. It whirs somewhere above them, fading in and fading out. Rotors, shredding the air but leaving no mark.
She stands and presses her heels to the solid comfort of the wall. “Move.”
“Please.” He tenses.
In three solid strides she crosses the room, moonlight flickering across her face in slowtop-motion. She makes almost no sound. Three breaths. She passes through the slanted doorframe.
His hand shoots out and catches her clothing, but slips. She tumbles forward and rolls into the wet grass and stops face up, staring at thousands of stars. On her back, she puts her hands up in front of above her as he steps out of the building.
“I’m not trying to hurt you!” He stands nearby, silhouetted against the shocking moonlight. His small body is a coiled spring. Bony ankles jut from the ragged hems of his worn wool pants.
A short distance behind her, the door of the garden shed twists in the wind and slams into the side of the building, sending a thin thud into the yard. Unused tools sit on two parallel shelves inside, tight with cobweb. Tools to pierce, prod, penetrate.
The boy’s quiet breath whispers in and out of his throat. Long moments tick by, like time echoing out into an empty abyss. Neither of them knows the answer to this impossible question put forth by their world, this simple outcome, and neither hopes for more.
She twists and feels her dress catch between the sharp point of her hip and the ground beneath her. Somewhere along the side, a hem seam tears open, but she is already up on her feet, dashing towards the open doorway. The sheet-metal inner wall brings her to a violent stop. She turns around and reaches for the door.
He is sprinting towards her, pumping his arms. The metal handle catches in her fingers and she yanks it shut and drops the simple deadlock into place.
Seconds later, she hears him slam into the door. The shed reverberates from the collision. A tingling tingle starts in her cheeks and shoots bolts through the rest of her body, and a heat rises in her chest.
Six feet by eight feet. Near total darkness. It takes all ofall her focus to push away the memory of the past three days. She isn’t tied up, her hands are free, she can leave,. Sshe can breathe. She waits for her eyes to adjust and hones inhomes in on the tinny odor of the shed as a distraction.
“I’m not going to hurt you!” The walls distort his voice making it more electric, more basebassy. “I promise. I’ve lost things too.”
Her fingers dance across the wooden shelves. A quick sharp pain runs through her index finger as a splinter lodges just beside the nail. She hisses.
“Go away,” she says, barely speaking.
“Go away!” She hears his feet scraping the single concrete step at the bottom of the door. Something wooden and round meets her right hand and she carefully moves the other hand to it. Long shaft, rusted metal screwed into the wood, a wide flare, individual tines. A hand-rake.
Her chest is vibrating now and she realizes that she is shaking violently. The room is too small and too dark. There’s not enough air to fill her lungs and every breath is shorter than the last, slipping closer and closer to certain peril. If only she could leave, if only she could just walk out of the door and step over the dirt and the trees and the bodies up into the sky and walk away across the ocean to someplace where there wasn’t war or violence or people that tried to help.
He takes a deep breath from the other side of the door, separated only by a quarter-inch of metal. “It’s not right to be alone.”
Three days earlier
He slumped against his father’s side, waiting outside of their home, his family huddled together.
“Burn it down,” the thin-lipped soldier said. With that, the other soldier tossed a bottle, which shattered against the roof and spilt forth flames to cover the building. His grandfather and his father had been raised here. These rooms were his.
Dust swirled at the edges of the inferno. The shingles melted into a black mess and the wooden walls flaked, embers breaking free and gliding outwards. Windows shattered from the heat.
“Sorry, friends,” the soldier said,. “Iit isn’t personal.”
He leans an arm onto the shed and waits. If she comes out and trusts him, they can leave this place together. Walk away somewhere and be safe. They can’t just head separate ways.
“Will you talk to me?” he askssays.
“You have a minute to leave.”
“And go where?”
“Anywhere but here.” She presses her forehead to the door and the metal cools her skull. Her right hand is wrapped tightly around the rake. Silence stretches out like points in space. They’re on different sides of the same door, but they might may as well be worlds apart.
Three miles down the road, a library finally collapses in the fire, folding in on itself. Wooden supports splinter under the weight of falling stone. The books once protected inside have wafted up into the sky and are long gone. All that stands is a cracked black beam, poking towards the heavens while the rest of the city dissolves around it.
She takes a step back. Her legs wobble and she locks her knees. She inhales deeply. With two fingers, she reaches out and unlocks the door.
She rushes forward the moment she sees the sky outside and flies past him , through the opening. He stumbles back onto his heels then starts to run after her.
She stops, turns, and swings the rake upward. The tines meet his abdomen, and they push right through the flesh and into the soft red parts beneath.
Her hand slips off of the rake and she stares down. He is on his knees. He stares at her, pleading with his eyes. Rubs the metal like he has never seen this tool before. Like a child trying to understand something new.
Stars look down on them both.
He pulls a hand away from his body and gently touches her leg, paintingtracing five red smudges with his icy fingertips.
“No,” she says. Her head is warm, but she steps away from him. She turns her back and hears a small pathetic sound escape from him.
As she runs towards the crooked fence surrounding her former home, he watches her long hair swing back and forth, her skin reflecting the cold moonlight, her feet moving e through empty air as she heads for safer places.