“One day they will go too far, Stefan!” his older brother's words played back in his head. “Soon we will have to rise up and dare to be free again!”
Sixteen-year-old Stefan watched a tired, silver dawn emerge behind the smokestacks of the main factory where he had just ended his twelve-hour night shift. The factories surrounding the town created a controlled border that forced the population into labor.
No one could leave.
As the population of the town increased so did the need for lodgings; houses were built upon houses creating their very own mountain-like topography. Stefan lived in the topmost house with his brother Henrik.
He watched for his brother to return from his shift each morning with the rations…But this morning was different from the rest. Henrik would be bringing home more than just their daily rations this time. Tension hung in the air as Stefan scanned the thin ribbon-like streets far below, eager for the news Henrik would bring. Guards, like usual, crawled like ants on every corner.
A few minutes later Henrik entered their shadowy lodgings and tossed a stale loaf of bread on the small dusty table. Stefan seized the bread and tore off a chunk and stuffed it in his mouth. With much effort, Henrik seated himself on his sleeping mat with his back against the wall. He let out a labored sigh, dropped his head back, and closed his eyes. He rested his elbows on top of his knees letting his weary arms and calloused hands hang.
A couple of minutes later, Henrik slowly opened his heavy-lidded eyes, resting his gaze on his brother by the window. His disheveled hair stuck to the sides of his sweaty face which became more gaunt-like every day. But no matter how tired he looked, Stefan could always find the gleam of resistance and hope in his hazel eyes.
“Did you do it?” asked Stefan. He didn’t move from his spot at the window. The air buzzed with anticipation.
How could the silence between a question and an answer be so loud? It was almost unbearable!
“I did,” Henrik replied at last as if a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. “I placed it in the main factory by the generator. When it goes off it should make all the other factories shut down.”
“But what about Ingrid? She works in the main factory like us,” Stefan said.
“I plan on getting her out too. Five hours from now our second shift starts. That's when it goes off. We will meet up with her and make our escape after the explosion.” Hendrik seized a canteen that hung above his head. He took a quick gulp and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “In the meantime, rest.” Henrik laid down on his dusty mat using his arm as a pillow.
“Rest?” Stefan thought to himself. “How could I rest?”
It was all too thrilling to think that they might be free, but terrifying at the same time. Stefan began to question whether Henrik’s plan would work. He knew Henrik to always be the spirited one. Henrik never doubted his capabilities, even after the loss of their parents five years ago. He still pushed on, determined and certain.
Stefan curled up on the window sill ashamed of not feeling as brave as Henrik. He mulled over one drab house stacked upon the other. No lights in the windows except for the faintest glow of the hearth. No sound of laughter or music.
Could things ever go back to the way they were?
White houses in a neat row with red flowers trailing up them reaching for the pure sunlight, the aroma of dinner on the table drifting out into the streets mingling with the fragrance of freshly lit pipes, the rousing sentiments of an accordion on the street corner, the soft glow of candlelight, a mother's lullaby, the laughter of men in a pub.
“Have I seen such days as those?” Stefan muttered to himself fogging up the window pane. “It's not fair my parents will never get to relive those days again.”
Sometimes it felt like a dream or something he had read in a book or tales told by the pilgrims who used to pass through the town. Unsettled, Stefan dragged himself away from the window, his one place of safety, freedom, and light, to rest.
Four hours later Stefan woke up in a sweat. He had been dreaming about how his mother and father died. His mother had worked in the cotton factory that produced clothing and was forced to work endless hours to the point of exhaustion and perished. He dreamt of when his father rallied the men in the mining factory to go on strike which only led to his death.
Stefan realized at that moment that he only had the two choices his parents did: To remain or fight.
The sound of a bell tolling pierced through the hushed town each hour so the workers knew when to return to their shift since no one owned any clocks. They didn't own anything. The only thing they owned was firewood for the hearth.
“One hour till freedom,” Stefan whispered to himself.
Henrik woke at the sound of the bell and deftly ate some of the stale bread. Stefan did the same. They stuffed the remainder in the same satchel that was used to smuggle pieces to make the bomb.
After pacing the room for a good half hour, Henrik went back over to his sleeping mat and ripped it open. Stefan couldn’t see what he was doing until a coil of rope appeared in a heap behind Henrik as he pulled it out.
“After the bomb goes off we will wait ten minutes and then leave.” Henrik wound the rope into a neat coil. The end of the rope had a hook attached to it that barely glinted in the dim room.
“But guards are in every alley and on every street corner. Anyone caught outside off their shift will be–”
“That’s why we’re going by rooftop.”
“Rooftop!?” Stephens's eyes widened.
“It’s the only alternative.” Henrik went over to the window and looked in the direction of the main factory. “They’ll never catch us that way.”
“I don’t know if I can do it,” Stefan said breathlessly as he ran his fingers through his flaxen hair. Fear shivered down his spine.
Henrik threw him a look as sharp as the broken glass from the window. “You don’t have a choice!” Henrik took one giant stride toward Stefan, grabbed his shoulders, and rattled him. “Sometimes in life, you don’t have the choice to be scared. By doing this we're giving others a chance to escape too.”
“I know that. What I was trying to say–”
“We only have one life to live and I want a life with Ingrid, not a collection of fleeting glances across the rations room. I want our children to grow up under a free sky.” Henrik’s voice became hoarse. Stefan was sure he caught the slightest glint of a tear in his downcast eyes. Henrik squeezed the collar of Stefan’s worn-out leather coat, “I don’t want to forget how to live.” He clenched his jaw as his eyes misted over. “Every day the grasp on life slips further and further away. I’m afraid if I forget how to live I’ll forget the people who matter the most to me…You…Ingrid.” Henrik looked earnestly into his younger brother's eyes. “They have stripped us of everything. I don't plan on giving them the pleasure of making us into robots that do not know how to love or live.”
“You, Henrik? Afraid!?” Stefan exclaimed in a low voice. Somehow the thought of his older brother being afraid made Stefan see him as being even stronger.
“Don't be ashamed to be scared as long as it is not the only thing you feel. Sometimes fear can be your friend; it can drive you to do things you never dreamed you could do,” said Henrik.
“I guess I was scared of being afraid,” muttered Stefan honestly. “But I want what you want too. I don't want to forget what we are to each other.”
Henrik slowly released his grip. His shoulders relaxed and he let out a sigh of relief.
“But Ingrid? How will she be safe from the explosion?” asked Stefan.
“She’ll be in the rations room with the other women handing out bread to the men leaving their shift the same hour the bomb is set to go off. The workers in the vicinity should be clear of the explosion,” said Henrik. “I told her to hide under one of the tables when she hears the explosion. We’ll meet up with her in the rations room and escape through the factory.”
Stefan rubbed the back of his neck, took a deep breath and side glanced toward the gray daylight filtering in through the window.
“Do you trust me?” Henrik put his hand on Stefan's shoulder narrowing the gaze of his hazel eyes.
“I trust no one else but you, brother,” Stefan replied, clasping Henrik's shoulder.
The next second there was a deafening boom, the houses shuddered and moaned. Dust fell from the ceiling irritating their eyes. Henrik and Stefan nearly lost their balance as the ground trembled beneath them, but they held tight to each other and steadied themselves.
“Ten minutes and then we go!” Henrik said bluntly. “We can start by dressing in as many layers as possible. Make sure you have some sort of mouth covering to protect yourself from smoke and debris. And don't forget the water and bread.”
Henrik proceeded to wrap his neck and head in the tatters of old clothing as well as his knees, shins, and arms. Stefan did the same. Henrik went over to the hearth and pulled away a plank of wood from its side. He reached his hand in the dark cavity it had disclosed and pulled out a long but hefty piece of metal. It looked rather like a crudely made sword. Henrik slipped it along his side through his belt. He turned around and said to Stefan, “Just in case.”
Stefan snatched up the satchel and canteen and slung them over his head. Henrik heaved the coil of rope onto his shoulder. The two brothers paced the lightless room once again as they waited to leave. It felt like ages had gone by in those few short minutes.
“We should go now,” said Henrik as he moved toward the window. Stefan's heartbeat quickened and his hands became cold. Henrik squatted inside the large frame of the window and pushed the partly broken panels aside. Stefan held his breath as he waited for his brother's instructions: “Follow my every move. Stay close. Move quickly. All the while keeping in your mind what you're fighting for.” Henrik remained perched on the sill as he grabbed the hook on his rope and hitched it outside above his head. The silhouette of Henrik’s broad shoulders against the pale sky heaved up and down. He looked back at Stefan and proclaimed, “For life!”
Henrik released the rest of the rope, took hold of it, and jumped out the window. Stefan rushed to grab it without wasting a moment. His hands trembled as he reached for it, but as soon as he gripped it the numbness vanished and adrenaline buzzed at the end of all his limbs. But before he jumped he noticed something.
But he soon realized the pale powder dusting every inch of the town wasn't snow.
It was ash!
Stefan jumped from the window. As he slid down the rope, through the ashfall, he saw Henrik ahead of him let go and land on a rooftop. His gloved hands became warm from the friction. Factory alarms could be heard going off in the distance. Stefan caught a fleeting glimpse of black smoke spewing into the sky from the smokestacks.
As he sped down the rope his eyes began to water. Fast! Fast! Fast! He was speeding toward the end of the rope, to the beginning of his freedom. He felt something warm stream down his cheeks. He easily could have accepted them to be tears from the gush of cold wind in his face, but Stefan discovered his tears to be tears of hope. And hope was something he hadn't felt in a long time.