They neared the Great Divide, each step heavier than the last. The notion that maybe they had left too late, and that they would never step foot through the gateway swam around in his mind, but Andrei pushed it away, struggling to keep hope alive through the damp washcloth draped over his nose and mouth. The sounds of an active war zone surrounding him and his heavily pregnant wife, Oleksandra, jolted the rocks underneath their feet as the bombs rained from the sky. He and Olek had come to the West about five semigens ago to escape the Fall of the East. Neither had dreamt that they would ever return.
But there they were.
Olek's breath came harsh through her cracked lips; her arms, red from the sizzling ash that fluttered from the smoke clouded sky like rain, clutched her protruding belly. Hanging her head and following in her loyal husband's footsteps, the square heel of her rugged, golden bronze boots caught against a rock jutting out from the cluttered ground. Throwing her to her knees, an immense pain consumed her, wrenching her insides and bringing stinging tears to her eyes.
Andrei turned at the sound of his wife's body colliding with the leaf-covered forest floor, and for a split second, snippets of his life before the Fall flashed before his eyes. In the back of his mind, he knew Olek wouldn't make it. Although the pathway to their new life seemed dark, they could not turn back. All they could do now is run. Pulling her to her feet, Andrei and Olek stumbled on.
And then the light met his eyes.
The last standing gateway.
The only way out.
The glowing, scarlet embers of the swirling portal gave Andrei the spark, pushing him to summon everything inside the bloody mess that he called himself could find. His entire body was coordinated to one sole cause, to undo the wrong he had done to himself and his wife.
As Andrei was running with all his strength and might, Oleksandra slowed, leaving long, snake-like trails in the dirt behind them. Going back for her was wasting crucial time, time that they didn’t have, time that was the difference between life – and death.
‘Run, Olek!’ Andrei cried. ‘Run!’
Moaning in pain, Olek stretched her arm and leaned on a tree, beads of sweat breaking out on her forehead, running down her face, pooling on the pit of her collarbone.
The baby was coming.
The expressions of inconceivable pain from Oleksandra graduated from moans to cries and to screams of what felt like endless torture. Andrei's mind raced, searching for how to help her, but something inside told him what he already knew. He could do nothing but watch his agonized wife. Nothing but watch the gateway to the east burn down, the vibrancy draining out like an unclogged drain in a sad and somber style.
Olek slumped to the floor like a withered tree. She could hardly be heard as the tumult of the surrounding noise drowned out her voice. Andrei held tight to the clenched fist of his wife and with a whisper that could hardly be heard, she spoke her last words. “ Mikhail, ” she gasped. “If he survives, call him Mikhail.” In great agony, she gave one last, deep push.
The sound of a crying baby brought a joyous glow to Andrei’s eyes. He cradled the baby and chipped off a sharp piece of tree bark to sever the umbilical cord. “He's a boy, Olek," Andrei whispered into the silence. He paused and turned, watching her chest, waiting for it to rise and fall, just the way it always did when he watched her sleep. He rushed to her, the baby still in his hands. "No." Tears came to his eyes. Her chest stayed put, blank, glassy eyes staring into the sky. "He's a boy, Olek, " He whispered to her motionless dead body. "He's a boy."
- - - - -
19 Years Later...
Mikhail woke up and groggily checked the time. Three in the morning. Three hours before daybreak. Maybe I should work on the boat, he thought, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed and fitting them into his tight clogs. Slowly, he eases open the heavy steel door, slipping through the small crack and hopping off the ledge into the garage turned workshop.
He stopped by the workbench cluttered with tools and dinner plates from too many nights spent eating outside and grabbed a few nuts, bolts, and screws, then quietly walked to their project, the one he and his father Andrei had started on his birthday, 3 years ago. He climbed over the rim, sat on the moss-covered wooden planks that they used for seats, and placed his hands on the grips of the paddles.
“My 19th birthday,” he muttered to himself, holding in his hands the acceptance letter to the U of W, the University of the West that he had left in the bottom of the boat the other day. “I’m going to college in a few weeks.” It had never been a celebration day. Besides the tale of his birthday, there was much more of a story to be told. It was 19 years since the mother he never met gave birth to him in the scattering of ashes that littered the forest floor. A single tear ran down his cheek as he remembered the grand stories his father told of the woman he never knew. His father longed for her, longed for his wife.
Quietly, he stepped out of the boat and started back towards his room, pausing outside the rotted wooden door to his father’s room. It hung from a hinge, but in recent times, his father didn’t have the energy to fix it.
Mikhail didn't have to enter the room to know that his father was lying on the bed, sobs racking his aged body. Mikhail continued on and entered his room, shutting the door quietly. This is how it was every year. Because today, 19 years ago, his father gained him. But he also lost so much more…