within the fires

Submitted into Contest #137 in response to: Write a story about someone forced out of their home.... view prompt

57 comments

Sad East Asian Historical Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

If I remember the date right, it was early September.

I think it was the ninth. It’s hard to tell—I didn’t feel like myself back then. I would often lose track of time. On that day, word came to me that we lost the war. I was walking alongside a cart of debris through the remains of our town, and two women spoke as if they were disappointed.

The great empire of Japan had surrendered.

Two of our cities were destroyed. Reduced to ash and rubble.

Even then, I could only think of you, and I cried.


- - -


Kyoka heard the drone of the planes before the ring of the bell.

“Air raid!” a man outside called. He swung a bell through the air, an echoing chime in the streets of Nagoya—the siren had broken down again. “Air raid! Get to the shelters! It’s an air raid!” A door slammed in a nearby home. Hurried footsteps followed. Kyoka rushed through her house, grabbing what she could as the drone grew louder.

“Kyo,” her brother said from behind her. She turned and took his arm, her pack in the other. “Do we have to go to the shelter again? I don’t like it there-”

“You’ll like it better than here, I can promise you that.”

She slid open the front door and stepped outside. Silver planes flew above, reflecting the midday sunlight, hundreds in the sky—a thundering roar as they passed overhead. Their fuselages split open at the bottom, and a steady stream of firebombs dropped.

They hit the ground and rolled like steel cans. Each erupted into flames seconds later. A bomb landed in front of them, and Kyoka stepped back. 

“I need you to stay close, Toru,” she said.

“You’re too fast! I’m going to trip.”

“Come here.” Kyoka reached down and grabbed him by the waist. “Up we go.”

A house exploded on their left, knocking her sideways. Fire broke through the wooden home, severing the support beams, a burning panel coming loose. A cat mewed as it scurried atop a fence beside them. Kyoka set her brother on her back and ran forward—Toru mumbled her name, refusing to look up.

The orange sky quickly blackened with smoke.

Firebombs continued to fall. Kyoka ran with a crowd through the streets, struggling to keep her balance as people bumped into her. A fire crew set up on her left, shouting, hoses of ivory water attempting to stop the spread of the inferno. 

A utility pole caught aflame and fell in the crowd’s direction.

“Kyo!”

She looked to her left, then ran down an alleyway. Cries pierced the air behind her. A car alarm rang further off. With her shoes tapping against stone, Kyoka ran until out of breath, then came to a stop at a clearing. She rested a hand against a tree.

“Kyo, Kyo, Kyo,” Toru mumbled over and over. He trembled, shaking like a reed in the wind. “I’m scared, Kyo. Are we safe now? Where’s mama? Is she safe too?”

“I bet you she got to the shelter as soon as it started. It’s close to her work.”

She set Toru down, and he clutched onto her right away.

“Kyo,” he said. “I lost my shoes when we were running. They fell off. I’m sorry-”

“It’s okay. I’ll buy you new ones the first chance I get.”

After a half-hour's rest, Kyoka hoisted Toru on her back and set out. Specks of ash in the breeze caught in her hair. Atop a hill, she stared down at the landscape of her city, now a wasteland. Nothing but ruins and loose fires for miles on end.

“Where is everything, Kyo? It’s all gone.”

“Yeah,” Kyoka said. “I…”

“Is our house still there?”

“I…don’t know. We can check tomorrow—it’s too dangerous right now.” Toru exhaled upon hearing her words. “Don’t you worry, okay? Dad flies a plane, too. He’s going to make them pay for all of this.”

The two camped out on the hill as the sun fell, giving way to night. Few stars made it through the smoke. Buildings crumbled further off, the noise carrying in the wind, and Kyoka watched in the distance as a man dug through the debris.

“I’m cold, Kyo,” Toru said. He chewed on a rice ball, dried out from being kept in her bag for so long. “And the ground isn’t fun to sleep on.”

“I know.”

“I wish we could go home.”

“Me too.”

“Can you read the letter from papa now?”

She smiled, reaching into her pack. Kyoka ran her thumb under the red seal and unfolded the beige note. After clearing her throat, she began.

“My two children.” Toru sat up and inched closer. “I hope this letter finds you in high spirits. I trust you have been well recently, and I am dearly grateful for your letters. I’ve read over them many times—your calligraphy has improved very much. Has Toru been learning too? I would like for you to teach him in your spare time.

“In order to destroy our enemy in the upcoming days, I will summon courage with all my might and fulfil the Imperial mandate. I will not retu…” Kyoka stopped. She stared at the words, then looked to Toru, who waited for her to continue.

“What did he say, Kyo?”

“He said he misses us, and he’ll be back soon. How about you get some rest now? It’s been a long day.” Toru nodded, rubbing his eyes. He wrapped himself in the blanket and rested his head on the grass. 

I need you to be strong, Kyoka; the letter had read. Please watch over Toru, and take care of yourself in the coming year. Until we meet again, my child.

After Toru had fallen asleep, quietly breathing in the night, Kyoka pressed her head into her arm, and sobbed. Dawn didn’t come without nightmares.

With little rest, she lifted Toru onto her back and made way for what remained of Nagoya. Men passed by with carts and dug out what they could from the wreckage. Lone children sat in the streets, dirt coating their faces.

“I don’t know where our house is anymore, Kyo.”

Kyoka looked around. Only a few homes remained standing. She turned away before Toru could notice the blackened bodies in a ditch. Making her way down the street, she found she lost her sense of direction, nothing the same as before.

“Kyo? Are you okay?”

“I’m okay. I’m sure we can find somewhere else to stay for now.”

“But what do we do after?”

“I…” She sighed. “We’ll find mom, and go from there.”

The hours passed by, and Kyoka could not find her. Neither could she stomach telling Toru what had supposedly happened to those in the shelters, trapped in the heat. Without knowing how to proceed, she brought Toru to the beach.

They sat in the sand across from one another.

“Hey,” she said, tears warm in her eyes. Toru palmed wet sand into a dome. Waves washed up on shore, a calming noise, and seagulls cawed overhead. Her brother raised his head and smiled.

“Look at the castle I’m making, Kyo! Would you want to live in it?”

“I would,” she said. She wiped away the tears with her arm. “You’ve been very brave, you know that? And I need you to keep being brave. For me.” Toru nodded in reply to her words. “We will only have a little to eat tonight, but I will find something for us come morning.”

“Okay,” Toru said. He poked holes in the sandcastle with his fingers. “Look, a window. Why aren't you eating, Kyo? You didn't have anything this morning.”

“Don’t worry about me.” Kyoka dug into the sand around the castle. “It’s a moat,” she said, “and we’ll have alligators in the waters and archers on the walls. No one will ever take it over. Let's build another.”

Toru laughed as he pushed sand into a dome.

She savoured his smile, knowing it may not return.

As the days passed, food became scarce. Sirens sounded each night, echoing wails, and Kyoka held onto Toru as he shook in fear. They rested in an abandoned shed outside the city—the college that served as a relief shelter had fallen to a wave of bombs.

“Kyo,” Toru said. He nudged her awake. “My stomach is hurting really bad. Do you have anything to eat?”

“I…don’t.” She stood up, the shed’s floorboards creaking beneath her. The sun had just begun to set on the horizon—the planes would soon come. “I have a plan, though. I need you to stay here, alright? I’ll be back in an hour’s time.”

She took off to the part of town still-standing—buildings and homes untouched by the fires. The very second the air raid sirens started, she ran into the fray, against the flow of people, into the bombing zone. 

Kyoka dashed into a home. She found a closed pot in one, opened it, and shovelled the cooked rice within into her mouth. A building collapsed in flames nearby. She ran into the bedroom and pulled the blanket off a futon. 

With all the food she could find wrapped up in the blanket, she made for the door. The house creaked—a bomb had set the roof aflame. A beam snapped, fell, and broke against her head before she could step outside. Kyoka dropped to the floor, dazed.

She scrambled for her supplies. Toru wouldn’t survive without them. A second beam swung down, jagged and sharp. It cut deep into her side. She cried out in pain, standing, struggling to find balance. She wrenched the beam from her impaled waist. Blood quickly stained her clothing. The heavy smoke made it hard to think.

She limped through the gathering firestorm on her way back.

At the shed, Toru ran up to her, eyes wide and worried.

“Kyo! You’re bleeding! I need to find you a doctor.”

“There’s no use,” she said. “We’re too far.” She collapsed beside him. The blanket came undone, the rice pot and cans of goods tumbling out. “I messed up, Toru.” Her breathing grew heavy. “Oh, I messed up. I’m sorry. I messed up badly. I’m really sorry. I didn’t know what to do and I was desperate and no one is helping us-”

“You’re not going to die,” Toru said, tears in his eyes. He clutched onto her. “Are you, Kyo?”

“I’m sorry, Toru. I only wanted to keep you safe, but the world made it so hard. I tried all I could.”

“Kyo…”

“I brought you,” she paused, her breathing slowing. Blood trickled from the gash on her waist. The cloth she’d tied around it had loosened. “I brought you food. You can eat, and I need you to find someone to help you, okay? Find an orphanage to take you in. Do you hear me?”

“I don’t want you to die.”

“I know,” she mumbled. “I know. You’ll have to be brave. For me. It'll be alright.”

Her vision faded at the edges. In the last few minutes of her life, the clock winding down, she held onto Toru. And when her grip weakened, he spent the night in her arms. 


- - -


It’s been a decade since then, and I still think of you all the time. I’m going to school again! I wish you could see me these days. I take the train every morning, and I’m learning a lot. An orphanage far away from our home did take me in, just like you told me.

This is only my first letter I’m writing, and I will bury it at your grave. I will visit you next year to write another. I’m sorry it took me so long, Kyoka.

Thank you for keeping me alive, and being so kind. 

I will forever miss you.

-Your brother, Toru.

March 15, 2022 18:56

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

57 comments

Delia Tomkus
11:38 Mar 17, 2022

... speechless. It stuns me how people can oversee innocent lives as if they are nothing, especially with what's going on right now. This is a beautiful story, and actually made me almost start crying in the middle of class.

Reply

Alex Sultan
05:34 Mar 19, 2022

Thank you for reading. I thought this piece would be relevant considering current events - I'm hesitant to write on something so recent with my style of writing. I do think anti-war pieces are important. I appreciate the kind words.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Suma Jayachandar
08:04 Mar 16, 2022

Alex, you know that I have always admired your research and fluid narrative. But what I liked most in this piece( and in many others) is your strong female character who takes charge. The world needs more writers like you. Excellent work, as usual!

Reply

Alex Sultan
08:55 Mar 17, 2022

Thank you for the kind words, friend. It is very nice of you. I'd like to think I write women well, both in fantasy and historical fiction. I appreciate the read 🙂

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Shea West
02:40 Mar 16, 2022

Heart strings activated... Things I loved: How the older sibling knew what to do. How to get them to safety, and to say the right things amidst a tragedy. How the younger brother did something so incredibly childlike by building a castle and a moat... This really disrupted the story but in such an obvious way, because of course a small child would do such a thing in chaos-- but I love that you had him do it. The beginning and the were full circle and I liked that!

Reply

Alex Sultan
08:36 Mar 17, 2022

Thank you, Shea. I appreciate the comment - it is so kind of you. I'm glad I got the sibling dynamic right. Also, with the sandcastle part, I didn't originally have it planned when I plotted out the story. It came through in the writing as something natural to the characters. It is nice to hear it worked. Thanks again for reading!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Benny Regalbuto
16:03 Mar 16, 2022

There's nothing quite like a story about an unbreakable bong between siblings, and you absolutely nailed it. My favorite line (i.e., the line that made me shed the most tears): "I only wanted to keep you safe, but the world made it so hard." Such great writing. Keep it up, Alex.

Reply

Alex Sultan
09:08 Mar 17, 2022

Thank you, Benny. I like this story a lot - the line you mention is one of my favourites too. I'm glad it worked for you. I appreciate the kind words 🙂

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Riel Rosehill
07:51 Mar 16, 2022

I shed a few tears, not gonna lie..! It's such a heartbreaking story, and nicely done, coming full circle starting and ending with Toru's POV. Nice work.

Reply

Alex Sultan
08:58 Mar 17, 2022

Thank you, Riel. I'm glad to hear the emotion came through - this one was a challenge to write. I appreciate the read.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Annalisa D.
02:00 Mar 16, 2022

This was a very well written story. The pacing, details, and emotions really pull the reader in well and grab attention. It's easy to care for the characters and very heartbreaking. You bring out those feelings well.

Reply

Alex Sultan
09:03 Mar 17, 2022

Thank you, friend. These anti-war stories are always challenging to write. They usually take so long to finish that I lose track of if they work or not. It's very nice to hear it did.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
J.C. Lovero
01:26 Mar 16, 2022

Oh Alex, how I love sibling stories. You really nailed their characterization: Kyoka's strength and Toru's innocence. Lots of emotion packed into this piece. You write so well in the historical genre. Always a pleasure to read your stories. Looking forward to the next one!

Reply

Alex Sultan
08:31 Mar 17, 2022

Thank you, friend. I'm glad you read this one through - it was a challenge to write. Out of the historical fiction/anti-war I've done so far, this might be my favourite yet. It's good to hear the emotion came through. I can never really tell if it works, as the writer. I appreciate the kind words as always.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Sharon Hancock
00:43 Mar 16, 2022

🥲such a touching story! I love that it’s about a brother and sister together. Well written and so suspenseful and full of emotion. I like the way you describe the sounds as they are running. I really enjoyed it!

Reply

Alex Sultan
09:05 Mar 17, 2022

Thank you, Sharon. I'm glad the emotion came through. I appreciate the kind words 🙂

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Anupam Rajak
08:48 Mar 25, 2022

A masterpiece of a story. The sequence was simply gripping and the final touch was heart wrenching.

Reply

Alex Sultan
01:48 Mar 29, 2022

Thank you, Anupam. I appreciate the comment. It is very kind of you.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Michael Regan
20:03 Mar 24, 2022

Powerful - it make you wonder how anyone could let this happen again.

Reply

Alex Sultan
01:50 Mar 29, 2022

It's war, and unfortunately, the majority of us have no say in it. I appreciate the read as always, Michael.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Leo Fall
14:57 Mar 24, 2022

I'm not crying- I- this story, it's so wonderfully written. It brings the civilian life during war to light.

Reply

Alex Sultan
01:50 Mar 29, 2022

Thank you, Leo. I appreciate the read. I'm glad the emotions came through.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Becky E.
18:33 Mar 20, 2022

Such a beautiful and sad story filled with love! I needed a good cry today so thank you!

Reply

Alex Sultan
01:51 Mar 29, 2022

Thank you for the read & comment, Rebecca.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Taj Isly
13:58 Mar 20, 2022

Well, your story brought a few tears to my eyes! Very deep theme indeed. And even with a short story, you can reach readers feelings. Very well written Alex :)

Reply

Alex Sultan
01:52 Mar 29, 2022

Thank you, Taj. I appreciate the comment. I'm glad the emotions came through for this one.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Brendan Sanders
08:20 Mar 20, 2022

This is by far among the best I have read. It's such an emotional piece, it's full of suspense and terror. I didn't want it to end because of how entranced I was with it. Amazing, absolutely amazing. Very well done! Definitely got a tear out of me.

Reply

Alex Sultan
01:48 Mar 29, 2022

Thank you, Brendan. I appreciate the kind words - I'm glad the piece was immersive.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
20:34 Mar 19, 2022

Beautifully written, super emotional. This story made me think and cry and I loved every second of it. Well done!

Reply

Alex Sultan
01:54 Mar 29, 2022

Thank you, Alexandra. I appreciate the kind words 🙂

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Lavonne H.
09:30 Mar 19, 2022

Alex, when you 'liked' my story for this contest, I felt compelled to find your stories and read the most recent first. This story is filled with the vision of war, both back in WWII and today. So sad that children and families become separated/die during the bombing. Thank you for writing about trauma but finding the reward of human endurance--when those who survive remember those that have been lost. Yours in writing, Lavonne

Reply

Alex Sultan
01:53 Mar 29, 2022

Thank you, Lavonne. I did enjoy your story - especially the names you chose. 'Cynthia' is one of my favourite names. I appreciate the comment as well - I wanted to write a parallel between WW2 and the ongoing conflict today, so I'm glad you caught it.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Okashi Kashi
01:05 Mar 19, 2022

A bitter story with sweet writing. Thanks for this Alex. I'm a sucker for Japanese settings, and I've found it fun to read your works.

Reply

Alex Sultan
05:32 Mar 19, 2022

Thank you for reading - I do like writing about Japan. While they were on the wrong side of history at the time portrayed, I'll always think it's important to tell the stories of every side.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Tommie Michele
17:41 Mar 18, 2022

Hey Alex! First off, I love this story. The way you started and ended with the letter gave it a really cohesive feel, and the whole story was paced really nicely. I know that sad isn’t your typical style, but you pulled it off incredibly well. Amazing work!

Reply

Alex Sultan
05:39 Mar 19, 2022

Thank you for reading - I knew from the start I wanted a unique style of pacing, and I went through a couple different options before deciding on the letter. I'm glad the emotions came through. I appreciate the kind words - I hope to read something new from you soon 🙂

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
00:03 Mar 18, 2022

Hi Alex, I like the edit. One thing.... genuine question... A horse whinnied further off. Would there be horses in Tokyo? It's a massive city. From what I saw of it there is no farm land. It's all built up. I know this story is set in the past when things were different but the horse, and the boy getting a farm job, just felt incongruous. I thought I should mention it. Best, K

Reply

Alex Sultan
18:18 Mar 18, 2022

You're definitely right - I think I miswrote the setting. I'm going to rework it a bit before the contest ends. Thank you for bringing it up.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply

I once read a published book with a story similar to this one, which I very much enjoyed. It was Brother's Keeper by Julie Lee, about a family fleeing North Korea during the Korean war. It's partially inspired by the story of her own Mother's escape.

Reply

Show 0 replies