The painful warble of air raid sirens pierced the chilling night. Anna threw the covers off and stumbled toward Oleksander’s bedroom. She dared not turn on the lights.
“Gather your backpack. They’re coming.”
The fourth attack this week, their routine memorized, they reached the shelter, an abandoned subway station, within minutes.
Two weeks before, her husband, Faddei, had urged and pleaded with her to go with Olek to her sister in Krakow, but Anna would have nothing of it.
“This is our home! I will not let them force us from our home!”
Now as the evacuees crowded the entrance to the shelter, she questioned the wisdom of her decision. Her throat tightened. The memory of Faddei’s departure, a kaleidoscope of pain and worry, the passion of his kisses, the tears streaking his face, and how he clutched Olek to his chest before he left to join the Defense Forces.
The thump of bombs shook the ground, distant flashes lighting up the midnight sky. She gripped Olek’s hand. More explosions. Closer. Louder. The line pushed forward. Children crying. A woman, her cane knocked from her hand, tumbled to the ground. The perpetrator apologized profusely while lifting her to her feet. He took her by the arm and helped her through the door. A shelter worker, a cashier at a local market, assured everyone there was enough room but to stay calm and help each other.
Two enormous explosions demolished buildings in the next block, the shockwaves driving everyone to the ground. A scream. An elderly man dragged a limp body into the shelter. A tidal wave of terror-stricken evacuees carried Anna and Olek through the door and down to the station platform.
Anna, Olek grasping her hand, weaved through crowd until she found a wedge of concrete at the far end of the platform. She pulled a wedge of cardboard from the tracks for her and Olek to sit. No heat; despite the crush of bodies, the air was as frigid as the outside.
“Sit, Olek. It will be over soon, then we can go home and sleep.” She wrapped him inside her coat to quell his shaking, his hands like dead fish.
“I can’t sleep, mama. Not since papa left.”
She pressed her lips together and willed away her sadness. “I know, baby. I know. He is fighting for us. When we are victorious, he will come home.” A sob hung in her throat. “Soon, baby, soon.”
The earth heaved. The smell of terror choked the air. Dust fell from the ceiling, chips of concrete raining on the huddled evacuees.
“Mama,” Olek cried, “make it stop!” He buried his face in her coat, pressing his hands to his ears. “Please, mama, make it stop!”
Anna shielded Olek between her body and the wall. I can’t make it stop, baby. I can only pray. “Be brave, Olek. We are safe here.” She turned her head to hide the fear in her eyes.
The first light of dawn feathered the eastern sky when Anna and Olek ventured above ground. Soon, they stood before the smoldering remnants of their apartment building, a similar fate to many buildings. Anna’s heart, crushed, fell into her stomach.
“Mama. I’m hungry.”
She caressed Olek’s young face, steeling herself against the despair tearing her insides, and smiled at his upturned eyes. “We will stay in the shelter. We will find food there.” She doubted her own words but refused to let her son see it.
“But it is so cold. I don’t like it down there.”
“It will do for now.”
She gathered cardboard from the empty platform, anything to insulate them from the cold. They sat.
“Sleep, Olek. Try to sleep, my boy.”
In a thin voice, he asked, “Mama, where is papa?”
“I don’t know. He is fighting.” Her lids brimmed with tears. “For us, for our country. He will come home soon and hug you. Sing to you. Take you for walks again.” She brushed aside his thick, dark curls. “Go to sleep. Dream about his return. Dream about what you will do when you see him.”
“I can’t sleep, Mama. I see soldiers and dead people when I close my eyes and hear the bombs. It hurts when I try to dream.”
Anna drew him close. The pain behind his words lacerated her heart. “Olek. You are a brave boy. My brave boy. Your father and I are proud of you. You are strong.” She kissed him on the cheek. “Go to sleep. Please try. Dream pleasant dreams of when we were all together. You must try.”
He laid his head on her lap, her fingers softly massaging his temples, and closed his eyes. But then his neck stiffened. His eyes opened, darting back and forth. He tossed and rolled, but never closed his eyes.
What have they done to you, my baby? What have they done to all of us?
By the third week, the subway station had become a home for the displaced of the city. Wives and mothers, their husbands shoring up the city’s defenses, the elderly, and the children . . . always the children. The collateral damage, their injuries relegated to the tender tissue of their minds, mental bruising visible only in the reddened orbs of their sunken eyes.
Artem, the baker’s son, visited each day carrying loaves of bread and words of encouragement to these subterranean dwellers. He stopped at every cluster, including those filling the abandoned rail cars. He sat with Anna and Olek.
“Anna, how are you today?” He flashed a bright smile. “Have you heard from Faddei?”
“I am fine. No. I have heard nothing from Faddei.” Her eyes lusterless, she gave his leg a gentle pat and returned his smile. “Thank you for asking.” She pushed the loaf he offered away. “We still have bread from your last visit. Surely, someone else is in need. We must share.”
“We have plenty. The roof of the bakery is gone, but we still bake three hundred loaves a day and give them away.” Unabashed pride filled his voice. “It is our part to fight back. They will not break us.”
Olek’s head rested in her lap, his eyes fixed somewhere in the darkness across the tracks, unblinking. Her smile sagged.
“How is Olek?” Artem asked, mirroring her worry.
Anna’s lips quivered. A tear tracked through the soot on her cheek.
“Why don’t you let me sit with him for a moment? You should walk, if only to the other end of the platform. Go to the bathroom. Please.” He brushed aside her attempts to dismiss his favor and pulled the boy close, whispering soft words and singing.
“I promise to not be long, Artem. I don’t want your father worrying about you.”
He winked. “Do not hurry. This is what I do.”
Anna shuffled to the other end of the platform and stared into the empty tunnel beyond. How will all this end? I miss you, Faddei. Where will we go? Turning, she glanced toward the station’s only bathroom. I must not make Artem stay any longer. He has other stops. A line had queued up outside the bathroom door. A man missing an arm set a bucket outside the door. He apologized to those waiting, retrieving a mop and broom. I can wait.
The distant wail of air raid sirens wafted through the tunnel. Faces, pinned with looks of terror, glanced uneasily toward the foreboding howl.
Aircraft screamed overhead.
A concussive blast rocked the subway station, sending earsplitting shock waves through the tunnels. Anna fell to the tracks and covered her head with her hands. Part of the roof collapsed. Shouts of horror. Anguished evacuees rushed to attend to the injured.
“Help me,” Anna cried. “My boy!”
Hands reached down and swiftly lifted her up. She stumbled over bundles of belongings, through the chaos, pushing aside gawkers until someone grabbed her arm. She jerked it free, then froze. Among the detritus of the crumbled ceiling—a loaf of bread and a child’s backpack.
Her legs buckled; pain burst from her lungs; she shrieked, "Why? Why my Olek?” Waves of grief pulsed through her body.
Galyna, a neighbor from her apartment, pushed through the throng and wrapped her arms around the sobbing Anna. “Oh, Anna. I—” Anna stared at her, then buried her face in Galyna’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Anna.”
A dozen men carried dead deep into the subway tunnel and carefully laid them next to the tracks while a silent prayer surged among the mourners for the repose of their souls—and for the forces fighting the invasion; the elderly; the mothers; the children; and that our nation, our country, would weather these unspeakable horrors and live once more.
Anna stared at her son's lifeless body as Galyna wrapped an arm around her shoulder, drawing her close. But then a sudden change came over Anna. Her back stiffened. The pain in her eyes melted into seething anger. The muscles in her jaw throbbed. She took a piece of concrete lying beside the track, a shard of metal protruding from the aggregate, and ripped a ragged gash in the flesh.
“Anna! What are you doing?”
Galyna slapped the concrete from Anna's hand. Gripping her forearm, she compressed the laceration and frowned. But Anna's anger had hardened into cold defiance.
“I never want to forget the pain of losing my Olek,” she said in a menacing tone. “I want this to remind me of that pain and the revenge I will take on the bastards that murdered him.”
Bandaged, Anna left the shelter and never returned. Galyna heard from others that she worked in a battered warehouse near the river, sorting humanitarian supplies and blending Molotov cocktails.
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Oh my how sad and awful and wonderfully written! Amazing storytelling! Gut wrenching and real. Thanks for sharing. This one will sit with me a while.
Thanks for reading it and for your comments. It was difficult to write and will be more difficult to forget. Stay well.
Frank, This story is very compelling. You portray the urgency so clearly, it almost feels as if you’re an embedded reporter. I don’t usually go for “horror” tags, but you are correct to label it such. I’m not squeamish, just don’t care to read or watch gratuitous violence - but this is not dramatic horror. I’m sure it’s quite an accurate portrayal of the terror, loss, and grief of war. Thank you for this contribution, and for your service as a veteran.
Thank you for your kind words, Cindy. I've seen several photo essays and read numerous articles on Ukraine, and it was tough not to feel their pain. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Be well.
This is a really well-written story... I wasn't sure if wanted to read it, given the topic and how I tend to choke up a bit just listening to the news, but I'm glad I have at the end. Not only well crafted, but a touching story and you did a great job here. I'm also just very impressed by the word choices and over all vocabulary, Thanks for sharing!
Thank you for taking the time to read it, for your encouragement, and for your comments. It was difficult to write. For one, I'm not there. I had to rely on other's stories and photographs. The photos of the Ukrainian civilians and volunteers were especially difficult to view, and why I penned the story. Thank you. Be well.
This is high-quality writing, Frank. The imagery was phenomenal and your word choice was perfect. From the moment I saw "painful warble," I knew I was in for a treat. This didn't disappoint. Very, very timely story, and very touching. You can literally feel the desperation and fatigue of the people in the subway station, even with something as simple as going to the bathroom. I honestly felt like I was there with them. Honestly, great job. Thanks for sharing this!
Thanks, Zack. I appreciate your comments.