Authors: Amanda K. Byrne
My heart stops.
The nightmare plays out in the wet and muddy street, air filling with the sickening noises of bones breaking, flesh striking flesh, horrible, nasty words uttered in gravelly voices. Yes yes yes it’s happening again. Ryan, curled up like a potato bug. Ryan screaming as his spine is broken. Ryan gasping for air, the skies opening up and drowning us both.
I blink the memory away, and it’s no longer Ryan. It’s someone else entirely. Government soldiers aim their steel-toed boots at the man’s stomach, his head, his back. I have two choices: slink away or try to get them to stop.
Because that worked so well the last time.
Except last time I wasn’t prepared. Last time I held my ideals and hopes and prayers out for anyone to take.
I need a distraction. Something fiery. Something like the Molotov cocktails Ismael thought to store in a crevice in the wall. Smart man, Ismael, predicting our corner of Sarajevo might be one of the next neighborhoods to fall. Hopefully the fuse hasn’t gotten wet.
Where’d he put the lighter?
Fire licks up the rag, forcing me to throw the bottle before I have a chance to rethink my decision. It lands away from the group in the street. Flames dance over the gasoline puddled on the cement, inching closer to the car I’d aimed for. I’m sure Mrs. Vukic won’t care about losing it. The fuel rationing has become so extreme almost no one can afford it any longer.
, a second of suspended silence, and the gas tank catches fire. I cover my head and brace for the explosion. Metal and rubber shrapnel litter the pavement, and just as I’d hoped, the soldiers abandon their victim and draw their weapons, fanning out, searching for the culprit.
My alley is merely a crack between buildings. Skinny enough it will go unnoticed, and perfect for hiding in. The soldiers have spread out around the car, heads down against the encroaching smoke, which means I have very little time, and no plan for getting the injured man out of the middle of the street.
. I should have walked away. I should have pretended I didn’t see a thing.
I can’t let him die out there. Not like Ryan.
Curled up as he is, I can’t judge his height, if he’s slim or muscled, still conscious or a dead weight. Fire crackles and sends black smoke spewing into the air. It’s disgusting, a thick, nauseating cloud that wants to settle in my chest. Before long it’ll make visibility nil.
I’m running out of time. If I’m going to continue to play hero, I have to move. Now.
I have to.
Darting forward, I keep an eye on the soldiers, or what I can see of them. The smoke’s doing a decent job of creating chaos in addition to a distraction.
His hair is black. At least, it looks black. Broad shoulders. His jaw looks intact, but his nose is definitely broken. One arm is cradled to his chest. Two fingers are out of joint. His coat is torn and bloody and covered in mud. His jeans are in slightly better shape than his coat, and I can’t tell if there’s any damage to his legs.
His moan of pain is followed by a jerk of his leg, but his eyes remain shut as I feel my way down his thigh, over his knee, along his shin. The moan comes again as I prod his shin. Possible break. Great. Outstanding. He has the use of one leg. Maybe. Leaving him here is starting to sound like a much better idea. Save my own ass.
And they’ll come back and finish what they started. Tears sting my eyes — from the smoke, from the thought of another person suffering the same fate as Ryan — and I blink furiously to keep them from falling.
Sticking my hands under his shoulders means scraping them along the damp pavement below, and I can’t stop the hiss of pain. “Get up. I need you to get up, because it’s the only way you’ll get off this street.”
“Can’t,” he gasps.
won’t work right now. Get up. I don’t care if you have to crawl, but I can’t lift you.” I push at his shoulders, attempting to shove the man into a sitting position and only succeeding in pulling a harsh groan from him.
“Get help.” I hadn’t thought it was possible to infuse that much pain into two words.
“No time. You can’t walk — I think your leg’s broken — so get on your knees, we’re going to try crawling.”
Please move. Please let this horror show end. I can’t leave you. I can’t leave you behind, whoever you are.
After an eternity, he rolls onto his stomach, his legs twitching as he bends them, working them under him. He flops down again when his good arm gives way. A few more attempts, my heart breaking a little more each time, and he remains up. Not standing, but in a mobile position.
I drop to my knees beside him so he’ll be able to see me better. The smoke’s thick enough it’s getting hard to breathe, and sight became a thing of the past several minutes ago. They’re out there, waiting, circling, trained to pounce, and I’ve got nothing left. Crawling over the pavement is hell on my knees. I grit my teeth as I stick to the man’s side.
By some miracle, we reach the sidewalk. “Almost there.”
“Almost where? The entrance to hell?” Under the pain coloring his voice is an accent I can’t place. Not Slavic. A mystery that will remain a mystery. My goal now is to get him into the alley and go for Doctor Gudelj.
“Pretty much. Keep moving.”
The alley entrance has never looked so inviting, dark with shadows and shrouded in smoke, smelling of burning rubber and damp. I push to my feet and dash inside, waiting impatiently for him to follow.
He collapses as soon as he’s through the opening, the toes of his shoes sticking out into the street. Not good enough. With the smoke clearing and the shouts of the soldiers coming closer, our reprieve has ended.
I try not to think of all the bacteria swimming in the puddle he’s landed in as I work my hands under him. A few more feet. Grunting, I dig into his armpits and heave.
He moves about three inches.
Again and again and again, until sweat slicks my spine and my back screams in protest, but his feet are clear of the entrance. By a solid distance, too. It’ll do. He needs help, attention I can’t give him.
I stumble and catch myself as a hand closes around my ankle. “Thanks,” he rasps.
I strip off my coat and fold it up, shoving it under his head. “Don’t thank me yet. I’ve got to go get you some help.”
“'Kay.” The word is faint and buried in the fabric. He’ll live. He’s not as bad as Ryan was. There’s no babbling, no pleas for death. No mercy. No desperate
I love you
Still, I hesitate. He needs medical attention and strong arms. Neither of which I can provide. I can wait until the soldiers leave, or I can go now. If he’s bleeding internally, those minutes, however long they may be, could make all the difference.
I race down the alley, Ryan’s ghost hard at my heels.
* * *
“He is where?” Dr. Gudelj’s accent gets thicker when he’s excited, and right now is no exception. I’m asking him to run into a hot zone. Anyone’s pulse would race.
“The alley. Well, the sort of alley. Right across from where Mrs. Vukic parks her car? The car’s not there anymore,” I add. “I blew it up.”
To his credit, the good doctor doesn’t look surprised, merely continues rushing to and fro as he collects the various implements he’ll need. So disorganized. I’m surprised he can find them so quickly, given how cluttered his flat is. They should all be packed away in his bag, cleaned and ready for use. Pointing this out is a waste of time; Doctor Gudelj is one of the few medical personnel in the neighborhood who’ll willingly treat almost anyone and is even less likely to request payment.
“Run downstairs and get Murat and Ismael.”
I race for the stairwell, slowing slightly so I won’t trip on my way down. In any other city, I’m sure the frantic banging and shouting would have drawn the neighbors’ attention, but nobody sticks a head out to investigate. No one will. Not anymore. Mind your own business is the new mantra of this city.
The door swings open, and Ismael squints at me, his dark hair in drooping spikes. “Nora. Too early. Come back later.”
I stick my foot in the door before he can shut it. “I need you and Murat to come with me. Government soldiers attacked a civilian, busted his leg and a few other things. He can’t stand on his own.”
The change from sleepy to alert is instantaneous, and Ismael nods once before shutting the door in my face. Typical Ismael. I’m only allowed inside if I come bearing alcohol or if Murat takes pity on me.
“You tell them to come?” Doctor Gudelj jogs down the stairs, his face already red with exertion.
The door opens again, revealing Ismael, followed by Murat. “You ready, old man?” Murat asks the doctor before flashing me a grin, blue eyes alight with excitement. The guys love this. Running on the edge between the rebel faction and the government soldiers keeps them on their toes.
The four of us hurry to where I’d left my charge, and at a head jerk from Murat, I dash off ahead. I’m not as fast as they are, but I’m smaller and it’s easier for me to blend into the shadows. I’ve spent the last two years perfecting it.
He’s still there. Still quiet. Unmoving. Fear and pain freeze my blood, numbing my limbs, and if I don’t move soon I won’t be able to tell Murat it’s safe to come around the front, onto the street.
. It’s not Ryan. It’s someone else, someone I don’t know, someone I can see to safety.
Hugging the side of the building, I edge past his prone form and peek around the corner. Fire flickers over the twisted, groaning frame of the car, fitful plumes of smoke drifting upward every so often. The cold air is mostly clear, a fine layer of ash and dirt and shrapnel on the sidewalks and the street.
I creep out, staying low, staying close to the building. Nothing. It’s empty. No civilians. The soldiers have moved on. I hurry down the street to the corner. Murat’s waiting at the end of the block. I wave him over, and he jogs toward me, nodding when he passes. They’ll take the man to the clinic, provided it hasn’t been boarded over and locked tight by one faction or the other. It should still be safe. It was a few days ago.
Murat’s waiting at the alley entrance, the question clear in his voice. Am I coming? This is my find. My responsibility to see it through to the end. To find his family or his friends, to return him to his keepers.
Dread weighs me down as I trudge toward Murat. I should have left the man in the street when I had the chance.
But the ghosts would have never left me alone.
Doctor Gudelj looks up as I stick my head in through the entrance. “Go. Open the clinic and start some water boiling. The first room should be clear. We will put him in there.” He digs for his keys and tosses them to me.
Grateful to have an excuse to leave, I shove them into my pocket and take off, keeping to the shadows as much as possible. It’s not hard to do in this city, full as it is of broken buildings and souls. The skirmish the outside world thought would end quickly has gone on for two years now, with no end in sight. Word is it’s spread to the countryside, but with the city’s borders closed, no one can say for certain if that’s true.
The soldiers have deserted this sector for the time being. A buzz, a snap, and the lights flicker on, casting light over a facility edging toward nonuse. The front windows are long since busted out and covered in plywood and whatever else we could find. Cupboards and drawers stand open, papers fluttering listlessly in the breeze blowing through the cracks. The place is chilly, and I blow on my hands to warm them. I grab the one large pot that hasn’t been stolen and fill it with water, begging the spluttering tap to give me just enough to cover the doctor’s tools. It can shut off after if it wants. Not before.
They’ll be here soon. I can reassure myself the man will be fine and slip away, go back to hiding from everyone. I set the pot on the hot plate one of the nurses brought in, leaving it to boil while I pull out supplies.
Rebels and soldiers alike have ransacked the place for everything of use. Except for what they can’t find. What they can’t find is hidden, covered by a panel, then a shelf, and the shelf scrapes over the floor in a grating, nails–on–chalkboard sound. Behind the panel is the neighborhood’s dwindling supply of bandages, antiseptic, and precious, precious drugs. Antibiotics, painkillers. The inhalers were the first to go. With the constant smoke and soot, the incidence of breathing problems increased, and the nebulizers, both the pocket–sized and the larger machines, are gone.