This story is about the war in Ukraine, though sanitized somewhat. Many violent things are implied here because the nature of what is happening right now is violent and graphic and disturbing. To tell the story without this would be to tell a lie. I hope that you can forgive me for any mistakes and understand that this story comes from a place of compassion and an effort not to look away, whatever the cost.
“It’s in your head, Petr. You always let your mind run away with you. They’re not monsters, not really. They’re just men.”
Maybe Vera was right, Petr thought. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d been told that. But would men do what these men had been doing to their homes? Their friends? He missed Aleksandr, ten years old like him, now gone and never going to return. Aleksandr and his family had joined the caravan the first day, when the invasion began.
Petr Melnyk made himself as small as possible and shoved himself back into the corner of the hidden room.
Somewhere else in the house the monsters stirred.
His mother had told them that Petr and Vera would be safe in the room. It hadn’t been used for almost a century. Before the bombs began to fall, turning his school playground into a minefield of unexploded munitions, his family had all but forgotten about it. Access to the room was through a secret panel in the back of a closet — much too inconvenient to even use for storage. That’s what his mother told him, in her calm voice that soothed his nerves as she pulled the vacuum cleaner from the closet. Several boxes blocked the two-foot-square panel in the back — she moved those too.
“Don’t worry,” she told him. “Nobody found this room when your grandmother hid from the Nazis. Nobody will find it now either. You and your sister will be safe, and I will try to peek in when I can.”
The monsters were in the city by that time. His father had squeezed him so tightly that night that Petr could still feel the man’s prickly beard pressed against his temple.
“Be brave, son,” his father had said. “Protect your sister and mother. Stay safe and don’t leave this room, whatever you hear.”
At first, the sounds from outside of the room were normal. Father and mother, going about their days doing what they had done as a family only a week before. The Melnyk’s had a habit since before the announcement was made about the invasion of packing food to send to those less fortunate. It was the Christian thing to do, his father had always said. And they continued doing it even once the city was “occupied” as the local news said. The monsters called it “liberated” as they ate people.
“We help each other. Christ would have, so we do too.”
Sundays they went to market after church sometimes, or they used to before. The women from church would go with them and tell Petr how cute he looked. He glanced down at his clothing, soiled and dirty and ripped. They wouldn’t think him cute now. They would think that he was homeless.
“Stop. Leave me alone,” his mother’s voice came through the wall. The sound of a man’s rumbling tones were too low for him to make out words, but he did hear a small acquiescence whisper after the tones ended. “Okay.”
“Cover your ears, Petr,” Vera told him, but he’d already beaten her to it. Next would be the sobbing and crying and pleading. He bit down on his bottom lip and hummed quietly to keep the sounds out.
The low voice wasn’t his father, however much Petr wanted it to be. The voice was that of a monster. They had somehow disguised their voices to sound human. Petr didn’t know how they did it. And he was convinced they’d sunk their claws into his father, who hadn’t been back for over a week since he left to get food and check in on a neighbor.
Not their next door neighbors. The monsters had already been next door. All the gunshots in the world didn’t stop the monsters from hushing the neighbors house, just like they’d hushed the Melnyks.
The monsters had come the same day his father had left, almost the same hour. And when they’d arrived, that was the first time Petr heard his mother cry since the invasion began. And that’s when her “peeks” stopped.
“It’s not doing you any good to hide there,” his older sister said, during a break in the crying. She pointed to the entrance. “The only way in and out is there, and if someone gets in, there is nowhere to hide.”
It didn’t make him feel better to know the monsters could corner them so easily. Scrunching down into a ball made him feel better. The security of being almost invisible gave him the strength to listen to the clanging and occasional breaking of their dishes, and the scraping of food into fang-riddled mouths he’d never seen, without screaming in terror.
“We need to escape,” his sister, Vera, told him later. Every day she peered out through a tiny hole the size of a pin that led out into what he thought must have been the alley between their room and the neighbor’s house.
“Not without Mom,” Petr said, not for the first time.
“Mom has been captured,” Vera told him, her hair stringy and unkempt from not having been washed or combed for days. He remembered the way she used to look. Having finally gotten permission to do her own make-up, she used to layer it on so thick that she didn’t even have the same complexion any longer. She lightened her face up at least three shades. Now, smudge-marks decorated her cheeks and forehead. The remnants of lipstick clung wearily to lips drawn too thin from a lack of any real food in two days. “She can’t help us.”
“We have to bring her with us.”
“We can’t, Petr. We’re just children.”
“Then we can’t go.”
Vera’s eyes filled with tears — also not for the first time. Petr knew Vera, and she would never leave without him. Guilt dripped through his veins at the idea that he kept her trapped. But where would they go if they did get out? His mind went back to the neighbors, who the monsters had purged in something they’d called “the cleansing.” Petr remembered his parents talking about it, and those arms that he kept wrapped around his knees shook like jackhammers. They hadn’t silenced the neighbors, he remembered. They’d killed them.
“All of them?” His mother had asked, still not crying. She’d let the children out of hiding, but only for the space of a meal. Then both would have to go back into the tiny room.
“Every single one,” his father had said, looking over both of the children. His big hands found their way into his sister’s hair. Once thoroughly tousled, it was Petr’s turn. The man’s arm passed by Petr’s nose, smelling of earth and gunpowder.
And that was it. They spoke no more of the house full of friends, now silenced by monsters.
“Go back,” Petr’s father had barked after the soup was all gone.
“I want a story,” Petr had demanded. At the time, he’d still been in the habit of demanding things. Not anymore.
“Not tonight, little one,” his father had told him with a fat sigh. “I have to go out.”
And Petr’s father was gone after that. One more added to the disappearing people all across the invaded territory. Petr was convinced the monsters herded them together and ate them, one by one.
“We have to leave,” Vera repeated, interrupting his thoughts. He looked up from his arms where his head was buried.
“Not without Mom,” he repeated, sternly.
“Then we need to get her,” Vera said, “because they’re going to find us here. Either that, or we’re going to die and nobody will even know until the stench of our rotting bodies fills the house.”
He bit his lip again — this time so hard that it drew a single drop of blood.
“Okay. Tonight. After it stops.”
He looked at her, his eyes imploring her to say that it was okay to wait. After it stops. The sobs started up again — always in the evenings, when the darkness fell and the little room went so black they couldn’t see each other. They had only their imaginations and the sounds of rusty springs and their mother’s muffled cries. He remembered the first time they’d heard the noises after the men came. His sister had shoved the solitary cushion of the room’s only chair into her mouth and bit down. Tears streamed out of her eyes and down her face. He’d asked Vera why their mother screamed, and she’d said nothing until the noises stopped. Then she’d turned her tear-streaked face to his own.
“She misses Dad,” Vera had said, although Petr suspected there was more to it. That first night the screams had filled the house. Now, only sobs were barely audible through the walls. Sobs and the grunts of monsters.
“After it stops,” she promised, nodding. Her bright blue eyes had already gone a little gray as what little light that found its way through cracks and crevices had started to fade.
Night fell, and it was absolute. Vera moved first. Petr made his way toward her sounds in the darkness though he knew the path she would take by heart, and so following was a trivial matter even without light.
The panel was shut tight. Vera and Petr both had to shove on it with as much of their strength as they could must, and only then did it push open, and then only wide enough for Vera, on the smaller side like her brother, to wedge through sideways. As she did, Petr listened for signs of movement in the house. Nothing but the cacophonous snores of the monsters came to his ears.
He hadn’t seen the monsters before, and Vera told him they were only ordinary men in uniforms nearly every day. Petr didn’t believe that ordinary men could silence the house next door, or keep his father away. He didn’t believe that ordinary men would drop invisible bombs on their playgrounds and kill their teachers.
They were monsters. They had to be — even if Vera didn’t believe him.
The door to the little closet creaked open. Light from the moon had worked its way through the window and shoved shadows into all of the crevices.
“This way,” Vera whispered. “She’ll be in the bedroom.”
She said it as though there were anywhere else for her to be at night. Petr followed, staying on the balls of his bare feet, toes so cold he could barely feel them. A monster moved on his left, and he froze. Then, gaining courage with every second after, he turned sideways to keep an eye on the mountainous shape as he followed Vera.
The door to their parents’ bedroom was wide open. It had never been that way when Petr’s father was there. The bedroom was off-limits for many reasons — one of which was the stash of toys that he and Vera weren’t supposed to know hid in the closet.
Snores. From the sounds of it, at least three monsters. Vera’s golden hair reflected too much light as they walked along toward the bed, one step after the other.
Then Petr bumped into her and sent her sprawling over a figure cloaked in darkness. Still standing, Petr sucked in his breath as she fell, and he waited for her collision with the floor to wake the monsters. Only a grumbling sound emanated from one of them. A pale arm reached up from the darkness and closed around Vera. Petr burst forward to knock the hand away, but then he recognized the French tip manicure that their mother had loved. It was her last treat before the fighting began in earnest again.
“My sweetheart,” his mother said, her voice strangely hoarse and weak. Then he saw her face, pockets under her eyes deepened by the shadow of moonlight. One eye seemed wrong, swollen and purple. “My sunshine.”
“Don’t talk, Momma. We’re leaving.”
She could barely walk. One arm slung over Vera’s shoulders and the other hand pressing down against Petr’s, and the trio managed a slow, noisy shuffle across the wooden floor. Petr’s toe jammed against an empty bottle that, from the size, Petr knew to be vodka. He held his breath as the bottle rolled then bumped against the leg of a table. The monsters still didn’t move.
“This way,” Vera said, pushing them through the doorway and out into the street. Petr shielded his eyes against the moonlight.
“Wait, child,” her mother said. She shoved the two of them to the side and, on energy he couldn’t have guessed she had, she shuffled back inside and emerged again, this time with another bottle of vodka and some rope. As she held the rope before her, he noticed red welts across her wrists.
“Momma, are you okay?”
“Child, I will be,” she assured him, as she tied the rope around the door knob and then around a bush that their father had planted fifteen years before, in the same place that their grandfather had planted a pear tree once. Vera looked at their mother, and something about the look that they shared scared him.
“This,” his mother said. Then he noticed that she’d brought a lighter. The vodka wasn’t just vodka, he realized. It was a magical weapon to fight the monsters off. In less than a second, it became a ball of fire and then she catapulted it through the window. In an instant, fire spread everywhere.
At first, the house stayed silent as it burned. After a second passed, Petr heard the sound of monster screams. He looked to Vera, furrowed up his eyebrows. The monsters screamed and made guttural noises like pigs.
“I told you they were monsters,” he said, as the monsters shrieked and banged and tried to leave. One hurled its flaming body through a window, only to convulse for a moment on the ground before it went silent, flames still burning.
The sound of a heavy footstep echoed behind him.
“They are monsters,” came a familiar voice. Petr turned and ran toward the sound. He flung his arms around the great man to discover that his arms made it around too easily. His father had lost his size. But still, the man’s hands made it into his hair. Petr’s mother made a whimpering sound and limped to him as well.
As the building burned, the Melnyk’s headed toward the woods that Petr’s father had always told them about playing in as a child.
“It’s easy to get lost,” the big man had said. “Learn them and learn them well. If you do, the forest will provide.”
Silhouetted against the fire, they left the screaming monsters to their deaths behind. Petr finally felt safe. Together, he suspected, they could beat the monsters. His mother had the magic in her. And when they did, the nights would be safe again — not just for them. Monsters, he knew, don’t care who they eat or destroy. Monsters take and break and hurt, and if they aren’t stopped in their village, then they will just keep hurting people. But fire, the power of his mother, was a force for good.
The monsters couldn’t withstand it forever.