Sunday. October 21, 4481, Crystal City.
“Man it’s cold out tonight!”
“Just keep moving. And keep quiet!” Kyle Aider and his little brother were going back and forth and it was driving me crazy, but Damien was right. It was freezing. I felt like an ice dragon with every puff of air that came from my nostrils. The air was still and the moon was full. It was just the start of the season and I could already tell it was going to be a long and hard year.
We followed close in line, one after another with Keenan taking the lead. Keenan was the eldest of the brothers and the biggest of the Aider family. Even as we stayed low, Keenan still towered over the lot of us. The moonlight defined every muscle bulging through the ripped black sweater on his back. He kept his grey eyes focused on the boarded up warehouse ahead. It was the halfway point from our neighborhood to our destination; the old book store on Birkin Street.
“How can I hurry if I can’t see, dirt-bag?” Damien held on to Kyle as if his life depended on him for survival. He was annoying Kyle, but he couldn’t help himself. Damien wasn’t as brave or as strong as his brothers. Truth be told, he really wasn’t anything like them at all. Unlike their brothers, Damien and Keenan were the only two that resembled their mother through appearance with their black hair, grey eyes, and caramel skin, but that was as far as the similarities went between the two. Other than that they were polar opposites. Where Keenan seemed to fear nothing in this life, Damien jumped when he would run into something.
“What are you talking about? There are plenty of stars out to light the way. Or would you rather have a giant spotlight saying, ‘Hey we’re the law breakers you’re looking for, Mister Officer! Come and get us!’ You’re such a moron.” Kyle brushed Damien off and adjusted his red checkered jacket. Every now and then he’d breath on his hands and pull his pants up… or rather one of his older brother’s pants. They were entirely too big for him just as his boots were. Even the red knitted cap he used to cover his short black hair was big. As the second youngest of the five brothers, Kyle bore a majority of the hand-me-downs before they got to Damien. Kyle was nothing like Damien in his personality, but he wasn’t exactly Keenan’s spitting image either. Keenan was a giant to him, tall and burly, while Damien was as fragile as a blade of grass, thin and short. Although he had more of a lean build, Kyle wasn’t much of a fighter if he didn’t have to be.
“This is dangerous! If we get caught…” Damien’s eyes touched every corner, shadow, and inch of the sky above. His voice was shaking and his whispers were getting a little too loud. I didn’t blame him at all. My heart was two steps from the ledge. He wasn’t wrong, but I crossed my fingers that he wouldn’t be right. Not tonight. The laws in Druggon were not only specific, but deathly cruel in their punishments.
“We won’t.” My mother’s voice was low, but stern. The Earth seemed to stand still before her. The breeze fell back and the moon hid behind a small passing cloud. Damien paused in the shadow of the rubble that shielded us from the main street. He loosened his lips to speak, but the only thing that was released was a small breath. He sealed his lips and let his gaze fall upon his bare feet. His fingers twisted around one another in the long sleeves of the ripped pink coat hanging off his shoulder. We all stood as statues in the dark. My mother's hand crept across my shoulder. She was smiling down at me and David. Her lips warmed my forehead.
“Everything will be fine my little Thunder Bird.” I hadn't realized I was crying until she brushed a tear back. “Mommy will keep you safe.” Why was I crying…?
“Let's go.” Keenan pressed on, quickly crossing the street. Kyle nudged Damien in the arm and followed after his older brother. Damien turned his head in my mother's direction. His eyes avoided hers, but his lips managed to whisper “Sorry”, before he ran off.
“Rinko.” I turned back to one of my mother's arms extended. Without hesitation, my body found its place beside her.
“Damien's right. If we're not careful,”
“The only thing I need you to focus on, “ she knelt down, hugging Victor close in a thick blue blanket. “is taking care of yourself and your brothers. Understand? I need you to pave the way for them, while I defend you. I know what could happen. I know what's at risk when we come out, but the punishments of the district bare no weight compared to our everlasting rewards for our faithfulness. Trust me Ri, for all things work together for the good of them that love God and are called according to His purpose. As long as you stay focused and faithful everything will work out.” My mother gave me one last kiss on my forehead and turned me around.
As we walked, Damien kept finding a reason to grab onto Kyle; whether it be over the shadows he thought he saw or the things he thought he heard. We stayed close to the walls and kept under the veil of darkness. To lower the risk of getting caught, Keenan and my mother agreed that we'd take the longer way around to our usual meeting place. We kept out of the streets and lights as much as possible, weaving through back alleyways and demolished buildings. Behind the rubble of an old liquor store, Keenan stopped us just at the edge of the debris.
"What is it?" Why'd you stop?" Damien was frantically trying to lean over Kyle to see. He was having no luck, with Keenan being as bulky a guy he was. On top of that he stood about 6 feet. All Damien could see was Keenan's upper back.
"Quiet!" His voice was so deep that I could barely make out his words.
"What do you see?" My mom whispered behind me, bouncing Victor in her arms.
"Patrol. Five armed. Assault rifles and an armored jeep." Keenan quickly peeked around the corner when it was safe to do so. I couldn't see them on the street, but I could see the lights waving back and forth over our heads. They must have been pacing the streets looking for "criminals". People like us. Keenan turned back towards the rest of us.
"We wait until they pass before we go." He nods to my mother and she returned the gesture. After a few moments pass, the lights waving above us had moved on halfway down the block. Keenan raised his fist as he readied himself to move. Once The lights hit the corner, Keenan looked back again and nodded to us all. Crouched against the wall he lowered his hand and peeked around the wall one last time.
"Ri." My mother whispered over my shoulder. Her smile was soothing. "Don't be afraid. You're stronger than you think." She squeezed my shoulder before her gaze went back towards Keenan.
Keenan crossed the alley first from the old liquor that shielded us to the charred bricks beside it. The building was unrecognizable from what it used to be. Keenan had to almost lay flat beside the ashes to stay hidden. He waved a hand to Kyle to cross next. We all inched forward as Kyle hesitantly readies himself. I stayed crouched behind Damien.
After a wave of light passes, Kyle quickly slides across and dives behind Keenan. Damien was next. Just as Keenan waved him over, a bright light came quickly from the direction we were heading. It was followed by loud humming in the street. The lights from the patrol that had passed where making their way back. Keenan quickly raises his hand to Damien to wait. Not that he had to be told. As soon as the lights started coming our way, Damien hugged the shadows trembling. Kyle waved to get Damien’s attention and raised a single hand over his mouth. Damien followed suit in an effort to muffle his heavy breaths. Overhead we could hear voices not too far off.
“Officer Blake, you and your men are relieved for the night. Go home and take a load off.” A rugged man between his 50s to 60s jumps out of the passenger seat of the black armored truck. Five men follow after; four out the back door and the driver. They fell in line behind the loud officer holding the belt of his pants.
“Heads up!” Officer Blake approaches the arriving party as his men fall into place following his order.
“Officer Myers. I wasn’t expecting to see you until we doubled back and reached the borders of zone 3. Is there a problem?” Officer Blake rests his rifle on his shoulder. His green eyes fell on the men behind Officer Myers as he responds. The two men furthest to the left had swollen right eyes. The middle man had limped into position and the man beside him, second to the right, was red in the face. His eyes seemed to be fighting back tears. Patches of his messy blond hair had red spots. He stood with his weight shifted on a trembling left leg. The last man in line seemed untouched. He kept his stare straight forward, not looking at anyone or anything in particular.
“No,” Officer Myers pauses and looks over his shoulder at the blond. “but we were tired of entertaining each other so I figured we’d get to work. As they say, idle hands make a madman.” Officer Myers chuckled. He paces past Officer Blake and scans the area.
“I suppose.” Officer Blake watches Myers circle around his men, looking them over.
“I see you still have the rook.” Officer Myers nods and grins towards a young man in his early 20s who could easily pass for 15. The young man swallows hard from across the street as Officer Myers closes in.
“He serves his purpose. Works hard like everyone else. Maybe even more so. Isn't that right Private?” Officer Blake steps in front of Officer Myers in the middle of the street.
“Uh-, yes Sir!” The young man is quick to respond. His eyes light up at Officer Blake’s words. Officer Blake gives him a slight nod before turning back toward Myers.
It seemed like a lifetime and a half waiting for the patrol to switch shifts. I had never seen them take so long just talking. It made me wonder what was going on and I could tell I wasn't the only one. Keenan kept peaking around the debris at them while Kyle was attempting to silently comfort Damien, whispering softly. My mother gently stroked my back with a single hand.
“Why won't they leave?” Damien leaned towards his brothers whispering.
“It’ll be alright. They’re just talking, right Key?” Kyle tapped Keenan on the back, who in turn nodded to Damien. As Damien sighs into his palms, Keenan glances at my mother. He frowns and nods to her too. In response she looks over her shoulder and goes back a few steps. At the crossing we took before, she looks out at the patrol.
“Sh.” David was trying to reach past me towards our mother under his two blankets, getting her and the brothers’ attention. I tried to hold him close and bounce him, but he kept pushing away.
“David!” One of his tiny hands found it's way in my face and a finger slid up my nose.
"Hello. Who's there?" A man's voice called out from the street. One of the officer's.
“Ma-ma. Ma-ma! Ma-ma!” It didn't take long for David to turn to tears. His usual response to anything not going his way.
“Rinko, shut him up!” Damien spun around so fast it looked like he rolled his ankle. He launched toward David, covering his entire face with a bony palm. Before I had time to react my mom was beside me. She smacked Damien across his head so hard he fell back against the wall, freeing David to pout and whimper.
“Ri take your brother, baby. Aw, David come here. Come to mama.” My mom dropped to her knees beside me and extended Victor towards me. David didn’t even wait. He lunged his entire little body at her, impaling her chest with his face. I quickly took up Victor and rocked him gently. He was silent. His eye lids were heavy. His nose was a faucet. He looked up at me and smiled. A chubby little mitten pushed through the wrapping of my bed sheet and held my bottom lip. He giggled quietly to himself before mumbling some nonsense. My mom smothered David into her giant wool sweater, drowning his forehead in kisses.
As Officer Blake and Myers continued their conversation, Private Brycen Nicoles paces his small area on the side street. He kept watch over the buildings and shadows like the rest of the men in his unit. Private Nicoles takes a deep breath and smiles to himself.
"Works hard like everyone else. Maybe even more so."
"You're a good man Brycen. You're a good man. Make the right decisions." Private Nicoles chants to himself under his breath. He checks around to make sure no one else can hear.
"Ma-ma?" A soft, high pitched voice calls out.
Private Nicoles pauses where he stands. In a moment of silence he stares into the darkness. Before him is a blackened brick wall that stood as tall as him next to a pile of wood, concrete, and bricks. A sign laid in front of the wall near a gap forming an opening to enter into the structure-less building.
"Hello." Private Nicoles whispered under his breath. He placed a trembling hand on the gun holstered on his hip. He was answered by silence. A shiver danced down his spine with the kiss of the night chill. Private Nicoles took a step forward. He remembered his flashlight and shines it towards the alley between the liquor store and the pile of rubble. "Who's there?" He calls out a bit louder. His tone was just above that of a whisper. A few feet back from the wall, Private Nicoles notices a slab of glass with a large letter "J" attached to it. He can see a reflection in it.
"Ma-ma. Ma-ma! Ma-ma!"
Private Nicoles pulls his gun. He moves in. Just a few feet from the wall, he can see a reflection in the glass. A woman in a sweater with long dark hair resting on her shoulders comes into view. She takes up something small wrapped in a thin blanket or sheet and holds it close. A small hand fights through the wrappings and hugs the woman. Private Nicoles watches as she rocks the small child back and forth. His shaking arms slowly drop to his sides. He steps back. "You're a good man Brycen. Make the right decisions."
“Marion.” Keenan was up on one knee with a hand behind his back and the other against Kyle’s chest, keeping him back.
“I know. I know.” My mom bounced, rocked, and hugged David tightly, but he didn’t let up.
“Damien calm down. It’ll be okay.” Damien fell back against the wall and clasped his hands together. He buried his head between his knees. Tears were falling down his cheeks as he mumbled under his breath in what sounded like a foreign language, as the officer’s heavy boots drew closer.
“Father please forgive me. Spare me from my sins. Please, please, please, don’t let me die here. I can’t… I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. Please! Please deliver us!”
I tried to comfort him; hugging him, but he didn’t seem or hear me. Even Victor leaned in to give him a sloppy kiss. Meanwhile Kyle seemed to be arguing with himself, as Keenan pulled something small and red from his back. It reflected the moonlight in his hands.
“The hell is that? What are you doing? Th-that’s Dad’s lucky knife! Are you kidding me? You can’t use that stupid, broken piece of metal against them! They have guns! Hey! Hey! Keenan are you listening to me? Urgh!” Kyle’s arms flew up as his back hit the wall. Keenan knew what he was doing. Or at least I hoped he did. Getting caught out past curfew would mean a life sentence for all of us, including the babies. But fighting back, even carrying a weapon of any kind is supposed to carry harsher punishments. Torture, labor work, poison, lashes… whatever they can think of to make you suffer. He knows that and even then…
“Get ready to run.” Keenan pushed his little brother back. He nodded to my mom. She nudged Damien, then grabbed my arm as she continued rocking and kissing David. With as hard as my legs were trembling, it felt like the earth was shaking beneath me. The air was thinning.
“Where are we supposed to go?” Damien leaned towards his brothers.
“Quite!” Kyle popped up over Keenan’s shoulder.
“What are we supposed to do?” He was getting closer. Out of cover. My mom snatched him back.
“Damien, calm yourself.” She spoke gently to him, like she did David.
“Shut up!” Kyle was whispering, and yet somehow managed to shout at Damien as well.
“Dad said stick together! Keenan!” Keenan raised a hand to still him, then put a finger to his lips.
“Baby brother, calm yourself. Even if I leave for moment, I will always come back.” Keenan’s words were a breath of relief. Damien crawled back into the shadows and slid between me and my mother. She rubbed his back and took his hand. Even David was calming down.
I looked around for a place to hide. If Keenan was going to be a distraction for us to get away then we had better make his fight worth it. The closest building was the drug store just a few feet from Keenan and Kyle. Beyond that we could head further down the street as long as we weren’t seen. I checked around for a second escape, but there was none closer. There was a mirror. It sat between us behind the liquor store and Keenan’s pile of rubble. In the reflection you could see my mom. They could see my mom. She didn’t see it.
“Keenan, mom look.” I pointed toward the glass. We all stood frozen.
My mom let out a long, heavy breath. She held David close. He was silent in her arms, laying his head against her chest. She stared long into the mirror. She shook her head slightly.
Private Brycen exhales as his gaze meets with the woman in the mirror. He closes his eyes. Private Brycen notions for the woman to move along. She nods to him. Brycen turns his back and lowers his gaze to the pavement.
“Make the right decisions.”
“Let’s move!” Officer Blake calls out to his men. Officer Myers and his men continue of down the street. Private Brycen turns slightly to look back, but stops himself. He follows on after his comrades back home for the night.
My mom turned to Keenan and pointed off in the distance past the mirror. There was a small light shining from behind a wall full of tags and a portrait of a woman with long, stringy black hair hanging over her face. We could see two heads peeking around at us. As the new group of patrol passed on down the street we cut back through the alleyway towards the light.
Behind the tagged wall we met with the two heads that flagged us down. It was Logan and Timothy. The last of the Aider boys. I didn’t know much about them. I never did. Logan never seemed to like being around children and Tim was like Ms. Lee, but with women. They normally didn’t bother with my family unless they had to. Tim would visit from time to time a few years ago before my brothers were born, but eventually he just stopped. Keenan took the lead with Logan at his hip and Damien at his heels. They talked and laughed among each other the entire walk as if nothing happened. My mom took me up by the arm and pulled me against her. She squeezed and kissed me before she let me go ahead of her. She kept watching our backs, as we got back on track.