I dashed around the corner, slamming into the wall as I overestimated my momentum. Stumbling, I righted myself and sprinted down the alley with all my might. I heard footsteps close behind me and willed my legs to pump faster. My heart was racing, my lungs burned with effort, and I wanted to stop. I wanted to collapse to the ground in exhaustion, but I had to keep going. If I was caught...it would all be over, for me, for everyone.
So no matter how strong the temptation was to quit, I resisted it. People were relying on me. The approaching footsteps grew louder, the pounding of my pursuers' feet matching the rhythm of my beating heart.
I tripped on a loose stone, flying face first into the asphalt. Groaning, I picked myself up to my hands and knees, then a firm hand seized my arm, hauling me to my feet. I struggled, but the grip was unrelenting.
“Brielle! Brielle, stop!” a wonderfully familiar voice commanded. I instantly froze, my gaze meeting two bright bright blue eyes.
“Jaydn?” But I didn’t have any time to question it. My friend pushed me behind him and held up a metal pole, facing my pursuers. They had frozen at the other end of the alley, sizing us up. Apparently, they weren’t impressed because they started toward us again.
Once the first attacker was in range, Jaydn swung the metal pole like a base-ball bat, hitting the man in the side of the face. He slammed into the wall and crumpled to the ground, instantly immobilized. His companion hesitated, but Jaydn didn’t give him a chance. He went on the offense, taking a swing at the man’s legs, but he jumped and the pole went directly under his feet. Jaydn, gripping his weapon in both hands, made a quick overhand arc and whacked the man in the head. He was unconscious before he hit the ground.
My friend grabbed my hand, starting to pull me away. “We need to go,” he said. “More could show up.” I didn’t disagree with him and allowed myself to be led away. We stayed concealed in the shadows, keeping well out of sight of other people.
One family passed close by us, keeping their eyes focused on the ground. Their faces were worn and dirty, and their eyes...oh their eyes. They were dull and devoid of life and I knew that they had been victims of the wretched Soul Breakers. My heart ached for them but there was nothing I could do.
Jaydn squeezed my hand and we made eye contact. He gave me a sad smile and continued to lead me on. There were so many other families, so many other men, women, and children like that, more every day. I yearned to help them all, but couldn’t. There was no way we were all going to get out of here, no matter what I did. Too many had already succumbed to the mind-numbingness of the Soul Breakers.
We at last entered another dark, musty-smelling alley and Jaydn dropped my hand to move a trashcan and lift a panel in the ground underneath it. I slipped in the tunnel, dropping lightly to the soggy ground, Jaydn following close behind. Once he grabbed a flashlight and clicked it on, we started down the passageway.
“I never had the chance to thank you,” I said in the silence that followed.
He grinned. “You don’t have to.”
“You didn’t have to help me,” I insisted.
Jaydn laughed, shaking his head in disbelief. “Are you kidding? Of course I had to help you! You weren’t getting out of there without me and I wasn’t in the mood to lose another friend today. You’re also our leader here. We’d be sunk without you.”
I flushed, tucking some of my brown hair that had come loose from my ponytail behind my ear. “We’re all here for each other,” I told him. “And seriously, thank you.”
We approached a wooden door and Jason opened it. We entered into a large room. In one corner, there were a few tables and chairs, and on the other side were cots screened off by curtains hanging from the ceiling. About a dozen people milled around, stopping what they were doing when we entered.
“Bri! Jay! You’re back!” Giana, an energetic girl around my age, sprinted over to us, crushing me and Jason in turn with a hug. She pulled back, hopping from one foot to the other in nervous excitement. “We were getting worried that something had happened. I mean, I knew you’d be fine once Jaydn went to find you - he’s great with that pole of his - but it’s a weight off my shoulders now that you’re back and safe, and in one piece! What happened? Did you get the supplies - of course you didn’t. You don’t have them with you, obviously. Silly me.” She laughed at her own apparent stupidity.
By now others had joined us and caught Giana’s last words. “You...didn’t get the supplies?” Nathan asked. Pin-drop silence ensued. Jaydn and I shared a look.
“Actually, I did,” I replied. “But I was attacked and to escape, I had to hide them somewhere.”
“So we go get them,” Giana said, looking around at the other dejected faces. “Simple.”
“But…it’s curfew,” Emery, always the voice of reason, pointed out. “If we’re caught…”
“We can’t last the night without those supplies,” Nathan told him, getting right in his face.
Emery wasn’t fazed. “And why not?” he said defensively. “We’ve been in tighter spots than this before and survived. Just because we can’t fill your belly one night out of a thousand isn’t going to hurt you one bit.”
The older boy grabbed Emery’s shirt and voices rose as the others began taking sides. Jaydn stepped between the two and shoved them apart. “That’s enough!” he shouted and the din died down. “We should be working together to rid Drogas of the Soul Breakers, not quarreling amongst ourselves. Emery is right,” he added, glaring at the subdued Nathan. “We will survive one night without food - it’s not the first time. At least we’re all here and together. We almost didn’t have that.” He cast a meaningful glance at me.
“You’re right, Jay,” Nathan mumbled. “I’m sorry.”
But Jadyn shook his head. “Don’t apologize to me.” He gestured to Emery and Nathan turned to the younger boy.
“I’m sorry, Emery,” he said, holding out his hand. “I shouldn’t have done that. You’re right, as always.”
Emery hesitated but wasn’t one to hold grudges. He shook Nathan’s hand gratefully. “No hard feelings, Nate. We’re all hungry.”
“Now that that’s straightened out,” Jaydn said, clapping his hands. “Let’s go to bed. There isn’t much we can do until morning when a few of us will go back for the supplies.” The others headed for their cots but Giana gave me one last bear-hug.
“I’m so glad you’re back safely, Bri,” she whispered, her voice catching slightly. “I don’t know what we would’ve done without you.”
I squeezed her gently before holding her at arm's length. “Thank Jadyn. He’s the one that got me back in one-piece.”
She nodded and flung her arms around a surprised Jaydn’s neck. “Thank you, Jay!”
He patted her back awkwardly. “Don’t mention it.” She finally released him and then headed to her cot.
I smirked, but there was a twinge of sadness I couldn’t quite conceal in it. Jaydn must’ve noticed because he narrowed his eyes at me and asked, “Are you alright? You’re not injured, are you?”
I shook my head. “No. I just don’t feel much like a leader. You handled Emery and Nathan so much better than I could’ve. They respect you. All I’ve managed to accomplish is letting them down.”
“Bri, you’re too hard on yourself. You have taken such good care of us this far. So what if you made a mistake? You were in danger and your safety is your priority. You made the right call leaving the food behind. Besides, it’s not like we’ll never eat again.”
I smiled admiringly at him. “That’s why you’re lieutenant. You’ve got all the right qualities: you’re good at pep-talks and yelling at people.”
That night, I dreamt of the first day the Soul Breakers came.
I heard the screams, smelt the smoke, felt the fear of impending doom all over again. I had been happy - my father was a successful businessman; I had two younger siblings who I would do anything for and who adored me.
But then one day, it changed. My father burst in the door of our penthouse, home from work earlier than he should’ve been. His breathing was rushed, his hair and suit in disarray. My mother spilled her mug of coffee at his obvious urgency and rose to meet him. I was sitting on the floor of the living room, playing a board game with my siblings, but now my focus was intent on my parents.
“Payton?” my mother said questioningly, addressing my father. “What’s going on?”
He rushed to the living room, throwing his briefcase on the ground and plopping on the couch. “Brielle, turn on the TV please, the news.”
I obeyed and my mother sat down beside him. “Is everything alright?” she asked.
He shook his head. “I don’t know yet.” He held up a hand to halt her next question. “Listen, my love.”
I had turned on the news and sat back down beside my siblings, who were alarmed by the panic in our father’s voice. A reporter was on screen, in the middle of a broadcast. Her tone was frantic.
“We have reports of a bombing at the official government building in downtown Drogas,” she was saying. “The source of the explosion is unknown and so far there have been no reports of any deaths but many government officials are missing. We would like to advise all families to stay in their homes or evacuate to the…”
We never heard the rest of her sentence.
An explosion rocked the building, shattering the windows. My siblings screamed, and I resisted the urge to do so as well. My dad and I herded everyone towards the stairs. We didn’t go very far though when we heard pounding footsteps and men dressed in black charged up.
I didn’t know it at the time but these were the people who changed my life, changed everyone’s life forever.
The Soul Breakers.
We backtracked up the stairs. But the men were faster and they grabbed my siblings, my mother trying to wrench them from their grips. My father joined the fray but I stood frozen, unable to do anything but watch. When my wits finally came back, I ran and hid, and to this day I was regretful of my cowardice.
The men, the Soul Breakers, quickly subdued my family and dragged them away and I sobbed, safe for the moment, but hopelessly alone and ashamed...
I sat up, gasping, tears streaming down my face. Unspeakable guilt washed over me. Some instinct told me it was close to dawn and I curled into a ball, pulling my blanket close around my shoulders.
I only ever saw my family once after that, but it wasn’t them. Their gazes were lost, forlorn, their souls broken. Destroyed. They didn’t recognize me, didn’t look at me when I pleaded with them to follow. I could take them somewhere safe, but they didn’t want that. Deep down I knew that it was too late and I resolved that I wouldn’t allow myself to be broken. I would defeat the Soul Breakers, shattering their hold on my family and the rest of the city.
I met Jaydn on the streets one day with the same resolution, and together, we rounded up those who succeeded in avoiding the Soul Breakers, which weren’t very many. Banded together, we had some sense of security, some feel of family - we were no longer completely alone.
That was all six years ago now.
Six long years of building up reserves and plotting, but in reality, doing nothing.
And I was sick and tired of doing nothing.
“Alrighty then. Where did you leave the supplies?” Emery asked quietly.
He, Giana, Jaydn and I slunk through the alleys and backroads, keeping our heads down and staying out of sight. We had left our base as soon as curfew lifted so the sun was still low in the sky, giving us plenty of cover in the dim lighting.
“Not too far from here,” I replied in a whisper, peering around the corner of a building. “Just across the street.”
“That’s a relief,” Giana said. “My feet are aching.”
Jaydn shushed her and we scurried across the street and into the alley. I lifted a cardboard box and pulled out a backpack. “You hid our food underneath a cardboard box?” Emery asked, disbelieving.
I shrugged, slinging the bag over my shoulder. “I didn’t have many options.”
We prepared to head back but were stopped by three, burly men, clad in black attire. A spotlight shone above us and wind from helicopter blades whipped at us. “In the name of the SBO,” the pilot ordered through a microphone, “you are to come with us.”
“I don’t think so,” Jaydn said, gripping his metal pole. But before he had the chance to do anything, he grunted and staggered forward, pulling a short, feathered dart out of the back of his neck. He fell to the ground in a heap, his pole clanging in the dark alley.
The last thing I saw before I joined him was the rest of my friends collapsing, unconscious, and being dragged to a waiting truck in the street.
When I woke, my head throbbing, I couldn’t remember where I was, or who I was. I was in a brightly lit room, bound to a chair. I looked around frantically for some indication of what was going on, but it was all fragments: fire, smoke, pain, emptiness. I saw faces and bits and pieces of memories, running for my life, some boy swinging his pole pretty expertly at some weird dudes, but not much more than that.
But something was off. I couldn’t place it but I had a feeling that people I knew were in danger. Grave danger. My friends. Then it all came back to me. The little gang of rebels, my family, the Soul Breakers.
The door opened, allowing a young woman only a couple years older than I to enter. She smiled sweetly and sat across from me. I wanted to demand answers, I wanted to tell her to let me and my friends go, but I didn’t. I just sat there, mesmerized.
“Hello, I’m just going to ask you a few questions, alright?” she asked. “Do you know who you are?”
“My name is Brielle.”
Her smile wavered, as if she was disappointed, but she said, “Do you know who I am?”
I furrowed my brow. “You’re a Soul Breaker.”
She laughed softly. “No. I’m simply here to help you. You’ve been living on the streets, with little provision, right?” I refused to answer - it was a rhetorical question anyway. “You’ve been cold and lonely, haven’t you? Just wanting to find your family?”
“Wanting to free them,” I spat.
“They are free, honey,” she told me, her tone sweet. “Just like you could be.”
I shook my head, my memories beginning to fade again. “No, no, I won't’ let you…”
“Look at me,” she ordered. I shook my head again. “Look at me. It’s going to be okay.” I slowly raised my head and met her gaze. Her eyes were green, smooth, like glass, and they were calm, reassuring, but calculating and cold. I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t bring myself to.
“Your friends have already been freed,” she said, “and you can be free just like them. None of you will have to worry about surviving, questioning where your next meal will come from, and you’ll get to see your parents again.” My eyes widened and something inside of me snapped. I wanted more than anything to see them again and at that moment, I decided that that’s all that mattered, but some little nagging thought protested. This is a trick.
But it would be worth it.
She seemed to notice my conflicting thoughts because her grin widened. “Why try fighting your family, bringing them out of their happy life when you can just join them.”
“But-but you’re...evil,” I said, but in my heart, I didn’t quite believe my words. How could someone be evil when they were offering happiness and freedom?
“But we’re not,” she continued. “We simply want what’s best.”
I began to shake my head but what she was saying made sense. “No...I don’t believe…”
She cut me off. “You’re not giving up. You’re not giving yourself to anyone. You were misled - you’re young and don’t understand everything. Trust me. We only want to help you. Your family is waiting right outside. As soon as we’re done, you can go see them and you’ll never have to be apart again. Your friends are already with their families and they’re happy. Why don’t you join them?”
I needed no more urging. I smiled slowly, eagerly, like a child receiving a candy, and nodded. I didn’t need to fight anymore. I could be free. After six long years, I could see my family again, feel their arms around me. We would never be separated again.
And in that moment, I gave myself up to the Soul Breakers.
I allowed my fire to be quenched. My spirit to be crushed.
My soul was broken.
I would be like those people on the street, lost, devoid of purpose.
But I would be free.