I’m flipping through my binder. Going back in time and moving forward slowly as I skim through elaborately written notes and post-its. I’m not using my phone today because I want to save the battery for emergencies. I stop at the last entry I have written, a small reminder I have written for myself at the bottom of a very cramped but organized page.
Reminder: SCIENCE QUIZ BEE ON FEBRUARY 24 AT 4 PM!! Remind mama to drive you on her way to the barber with Alex. Good luck!!!
I hear my brother calling out my name, I shut my binder.
“Arina! Call mama!”
I jump from the couch and run outside where mama was.
“Mama! Alex is calling you!”
My mama sees me and she frowns. She puts a hand over her phone and hisses at me.
“Can’t you see I’m on a call? And, what did I tell you about going outside? Get back in!”
“No, mama! You need to go!”
Mama’s expression changes and she ends her call.
“Where is he?”
“Upstairs, on the roof.”
Mama hurries inside the house. Before I go back in, I take a long somber look at the house across the street. I move my eyes to the bay window on the right side of the door which would always have a light behind it, day and night.
Now, it’s gone.
Cold wind passes by with a hoarse whisper, I shiver and I go back inside the house.
“Arina!" Mama shouts from upstairs.
"Grab papa’s towel, the gray one, and bring it upstairs!”
I run to the master bathroom, I look at the hanger and only see white, mama’s towel. Mama must have tucked it away already.
I eye the whole bathroom before sprinting into the master bedroom, dropping on my knees before a giant wardrobe. I pull out the bottom drawer and rummage through it, pulling out a gray towel. I hurry up the stairs, missing a step on the way before arriving on the second floor. I see the door leading to the balcony left open revealing only the white icy sky outside. Although it’s already spring, it’s still cold, especially now that the electricity was cut off three days ago.
I’m only wearing a sweatshirt but I run outside.
I whirl around the balcony but don’t see anyone.
“Arina, we’re here!”
I turn around and see my brother kneeling on the edge of the roof of the second floor. He reaches a hand out towards me.
“Give it here.”
His chestnut hair drops over his face. He hasn’t had a haircut since the pandemic began. Mama arranged an appointment for him at the local barber but it never followed through. That was three weeks ago.
I stand on the tip of my toes as I hand the towel to him. He grabs it and goes away into the roof away from my sight.
“What’s wrong? What is it?” I shout at him.
Three weeks ago the Russians invaded Ukraine.
I wait and squint my eyes at the white sky and concrete edge of the roof. I get tired and I look away, rubbing my arms together. I see large billowing smoke in the distance and my mind wanders off on the thought of how near it was. . .
Something light hits me on my face. I yelp and grab at my face.
In my hands is a large black puffer jacket.
I look up and see Alex kneeling on the edge of the roof again.
“Wear that. It’s cold outside.”
Once I zipped up the jacket, I point at the massive smoke spewing into the sky. My brother looks at what I am pointing at.
“Do you think that’s Danika’s house?”
My brother considers it, observing the smoke before answering.
He beckons his head to the roof.
“Come here,” he shuffles to the side.
“Go on the fence-carefully, then come up here.”
I follow what he says and as I put two arms on the edge of the roof to heave myself up, he offers me a hand and I take it. He pulls me up and I get on all fours on the roof. I stand up and pat my knees.
“Whew! You’re heavy,” he jokes but I don’t meet his eye or respond because I’m staring straight ahead where mama was.
Mama was holding papa’s towel with her elbow while snapping landscape pictures of the rooftop ground. I walk towards it. There on the gray concrete floor was a painting of a big and formidable red cross. My brother walks up beside me.
“Russian marking for airstrikes.”
I look at my brother in surprise.
“I thought those were fake?” I whisper.
He shrugs and I look at the cross on the ground.
Mama kneels down and lays papa’s towel neatly on the cross before laying rocks on the corners.
“This would have been better if we had paint but this will do for now.”
Silence ensues as all three of us stare at the strewn towel on the gray concrete floor.
Papa left us.
I clench my fists.
Papa left us to join the resistance at the local defense unit. Mama and Papa were in the military before, that’s where they met.
Most men did not have a choice but to separate with their wives and children, we’re still here and papa made the choice.
“They must have come yesterday when we went out for supplies.”
I look at my brother who was also clenching his fists. He looks at mama who only nods her head.
“Mama, we have to leave, we have to go. They even tagged our house!”
My mama stands up and shakes her head.
“Alex, we spoke about this already. We canno-”
“Mama! I’m not sitting around waiting to be killed! Those svolochi surrounded Kherson and we don’t have electricity. How long before Kharkiv gets captured, how long before we lose water?”
“A pole was taken down, it will be fixed-”
“When?! In a month? Mama look around! The Kravchenkos were murdered, look at Mariupol! Thousands dead with survivors left to scrounge for food and water. And, what about papa? When was the last time you heard from him? You don’t think I noticed?”
Mama looks firmly at my brother.
“Aleksander, not in front of your sister. . .”
“Mama, I’m 14!”
“Why do we hide stuff from Arina? She’s big enough to handle pizdets!-”
“-ALEX!” My mama screams with such ferocity.
“I’m not having any of this, not now, not ever!”
That’s not true.
They spoke about it again that night.
I hear them bickering in hushed tones while they presumably think I am asleep.
I don’t know which side I am on.
I want to leave but I fear leaving.
When the war began, everyone was confused and in disbelief. My family and I failed to flee during the first few hours of the war, already then it was too late. Streets and sidewalks were crowded and dangerous, transportation services were overrun with fleeing refugees. Still, we made attempts to leave.
When a ceasefire was announced last Wednesday, we packed our bags and left for Bucharest with a group. Mama’s bestfriend had family there and they were willing to take us in. We hadn’t even made it far when the sounds of silent footsteps were replaced by rapid gunfire and screaming. The group dispersed as a car sped through the street, mama jumped on top of us and dragged us across the sidewalk to the nearest building. She banged on the door, begging for someone to come and open the door. A man answered and he let us in.
We spent three days and two nights in that house.
There was no basement and the man had a family of six.
When a ceasefire was announced again last Monday, mama refused to go. Alex and I begged mama but she wouldn’t budge.
She was right.
The ceasefire was shattered again.
Evacuations were halted.
Five civilians died.
Two of them we knew.
The nice old couple who lived across from us.
I don’t know which side I am on.
My brother pulls my comforter off me. I groan in irritation and try to kick him away.
“We’re leaving soon, pack your things.”
I sit up immediately. My brother grabs some belongings beside his futon and carries them up the basement stairs.
He goes back down two steps and peeks at me.
“We’re leaving, hurry up, and move.”
I kick off my comforter and stomp up the stairs.
“Mama! What is Alex saying? We’re leaving?”
“Mama! . .”
My voice trails off as I find my mother in the kitchen inspecting a handgun. She sees me and puts it down immediately.
I blink multiple times.
“Uh-Alex said. . we’re leaving?”
“Yes, I spoke with people at the center. They got us bus tickets straight to Kyiv, then we’ll hop on a train to Polańczyk. We go to the center and they’ll help bring us there. There are people waiting for us, pack valuables, eat heavy, we’ll leave in an hour.”
“What about the food?”
“We’ll give them to the shelter.”
I stand there sorting through everything. A thought clicks in my head and I look at mama.
My mama’s face melts into a smile.
“He’s at the center waiting for us.”
Mama puts her arms in front of us and we stop walking.
My heart races as mama slowly inch forward and peek around the corner. I listen and I hear the rumblings of a small crowd.
Mama steps back and grabs us firmly on our hands, we start walking speedily again.
As we crossed the lane, I look over to my right to see what that was about.
On my right, I see lines of shops still closed and boarded up since it’s early.
I see a man and a woman whose pants were pulled down, taped to a pole. A small group of people are around them, filming and taunting them. Mama puts a hand on my right cheek and turns my head the other way.
Alex half whispers and half mouths at me from the other side of mama.
Mama tugs on our arms and I try to keep up with her pace.
I trip over my own foot and mama pulls me up, shooting a deathly glare at me. I smile sheepishly at her before I refocus my attention again on the monstrosity beside me.
The smoke from yesterday, the explosion I heard from the other night was from here.
I stared at what used to be a playground now replaced with a giant crater on the ground. I look at the surrounding houses with the ripped-off fronts and blown-out windows, including Danika’s.
I march forward.
We arrived at the refugee center which was actually a theater-turned shelter. The center was clearly overfilled with families and their pets, we had to walk in a straight line as we navigated through the hallways. I noticed the volunteers stacking sacks at the front. Finally, mama pushes open a door and we arrive in a room with less people and more room.
Alex and I let go of mama's hands and run towards the one bearded man.
He opens his arms widely and the both of us run into his embrace. Mama comes over and pulls down her mask. Papa gives her a peck on the cheek.
“I missed you all. . .”
Papa lets go of us suddenly.
“I have something to show you. Just wait right here.”
He hurriedly leaves the room before coming back again with a leash.
“A pitbull!” Alex exclaims.
Alex and I run forward, dropping to our knees on the floor to pet the dog who kept licking us back. I giggle and I look at papa.
“He’s so cute! What’s his name?”
“Leo. He had a collar with that name on it so we kept it that way. We found him tied to a fence, left by owners probably trying to escape the war. Cruel people, might as well set him free than leave him there to die. This war is changing good people.”
“And, taking them,” mama adds. . .
Alex and I sat and waited around as mama and papa spoke with his crew who was also gonna accompany us. Papa’s crew was made up of foreigners from other countries who had stepped up to help Ukraine in the war. I focused my attention elsewhere, in the corner of the room sat three people wearing green military uniforms. They were being interviewed by some of the staffers who held up phones.
The first man was barely even a man, he was nineteen, just two years older than my brother. I watched as he cried to his mother on the phone while eating bread and coffee offered by the staffers. He had a bandage wrapped around his forehead.
The second man was twenty-three, who looked empty, just staring straight ahead. His left eye is wrapped in a bandage, the other purple and bruised. His nose was also crooked and a very fresh scar laid on the left side of his face.
The last man was twenty-eight and his right arm was in a cast. He was being interviewed by the staffers and he answered the questions very sullenly.
A remark he said ingrained in my mind and tainted my heart, he said that they were treated like cannon-fodder. Tricked and placed into war. A war they, including their loved ones, do not even want.
All of these men were roughed up and dirty, they all also brandished the Russian flag on their uniforms.
“We’re almost there.”
Mama excitedly squeezes my hand and I look eagerly ahead.
We had to leave the center early since the highway where the buses were waiting was a far walking distance away. Mama said that normally a bus ride to Kyiv would last six hours but with the war, blocks, stops, and everything, it might take longer.
Papa’s crew is fun to be with. To hear the stories of these outsiders, it makes me ponder on my life outside my country. How well will I adapt?
I admire these brave men who chose to leave their homes.
They even showed us pictures of their girlfriends, friends, and families back home on their phones or photocards tucked securely in their pockets, papa had one of us too.
Leo was also the best companion I could ever ask for, I hated the thought of leaving him here.
Papa won’t be coming with us to Kyiv.
He says he has to stay here and fight.
I am not too happy about that but I am proud.
I look ahead and see the only obstacle left between us and the highway, a highway bridge that had been destroyed in the war.
I see the speckles of color beneath the bridge, a slow-paced stream of refugees who were also trying to get to the highway.
Soon after, we join them.
Tomorrow, I’ll be in Poland.
There are soldiers who are stationed here to assist the crossing refugees navigate the wreckage of the bridge and pass through the creekbed on the other half of the bridge. There’s also a news cast here who is documenting the crossing refugees, I watched as I slowly passed as the woman spoke into the camera held by the man in front of her while waving and pointing at her background. They’re both wearing full gear. Suddenly, she screams, a high pitch scream, and ducks.
A quick zip followed by what sounds like a thousand slaps on the ground, a flash of red, and the whole area is filled with smoke.
We’re on the ground, debris narrowly missing us.
The smoke clears up, leaving us in the dust.
I lay on the ground panting shaky breaths. My senses feel muffled and I feel like I’m in a well. I look around me, my mama who was slowly getting up, a mother who was trying to calm her crying baby, a man helping his frail, old, mom get up, I see my papa. My papa who is shouting at me with his hand out, then suddenly he falls.
Mama pulls me up and drags me beneath the bridge to hide behind a toppled pillar.
Everything clears up and my senses come back to me in a flash.
I hear the blood-curdling sound I thought I would never hear again,
I whimper and I cover my ears. . .
Before long, it stops.
The gunfire ceases and everything is still and quiet, no one daring to move.
Slowly, I remove my hands from my ears.
I see Alex peeking from where he was hiding.
I stand up.
“Arina!” My mama hisses at me from behind the downed pillar.
“What are you doing? Get down!” She pulls my arm.
I look at mama straight in her eyes, tears forming in my eyes.
“Mama, where’s papa?”
Please. . .please. . .please. . .
The toes of my feet tap against the tiled floor and I rock back and forth as we wait on the hospital chairs. Mama is sitting beside me while Alex paced through the hallway.
Papa was shot in the abdomen.
We went to the nearest hospital which was still far.
A doctor comes out of the room.
Mama tells me to sit down and wait. She and Alex go to the doctor.
I look at their faces closely. Hoping.
Please. . .
Mama’s face scrunches up and she covers her face with her hands.
Alex clenches his fists and looks down at the floor.
I see the tiny droplets of tears falling down from his face.
No. . .
Papa. . .
After everything. . . why?
Then I decided.
I have had enough.
I stand up and walk over to Mama and Alex.