Inna seeks comfort in the midst of war in Ukraine.
I woke at 6 a.m., a very chilly time to be awake. I hate waking at this hour, but most of the time I can’t help it. It is so chilly that it is uncomfortable to stay asleep, but I would rather hide under the covers and my pillow than have to suffer through sirens and shouting.
I was awake now, though, and I couldn’t do anything about it. I pushed myself up out of bed and staggered sleepily to the kitchen. I live in an apartment probably the size of someone’s living room, if not smaller.
I went into our tiny kitchen. The kitchen is my favorite room in the apartment, because it is the warmest, and because I’m always soothed by the smells of Auntie’s special teas that she only lets me and my uncle drink on our birthdays. (They leave the most beautiful scents in the house.)
I was surprised to see my uncle and aunt already up, sitting at the kitchen table. In front of them, they had a pile of newspapers, our radio, and the mini-TV we owned turned on atop the cramped kitchen counter—basically everything you could receive news from in our apartment. And the most questionable, concerning part about it was that they had their whole pile of savings in front of them. This made me frightened.
They glanced up at me. Their eyes had big circles under them. Their faces were red, and it looked like they had been crying. This all shocked me. I had a painful stomachache slowly coming on. I experience these when I feel stressed, sad, or basically any emotion conjured up that is upsetting. These stomachaches usually feel like something is punching and wrenching into my stomach slowly but surely.
“Good morning, sweetie pie.” Auntie yawned. “Morning,” I replied sheepishly.
I meant to say it in a kind tone, but it came out wrong. (I often have trouble with this.)
I opened a cupboard and pulled out some oatmeal mix. I then put some water on the stove in a pan to boil. After a couple minutes of waiting, I poured the oatmeal in and put the lid on top. I had oatmeal every day for breakfast. My aunt and uncle always had a rushed breakfast, so they just had coffee and sometimes split a piece of toast. This morning, however, they didn’t have one single piece of food on the table—not even coffee!
I knew that this war was not safe, but I had never imagined leaving the place where I had grown up.
As I waited for my oatmeal to cook, I made myself a small cup of Moroccan mint tea. (I had this every morning with my oatmeal.) I put only one sugar cube in it. I used to put two, but now, since Auntie and Uncle aren’t working, we have to cut back on things that are not necessary. These cubes were the last of the ones we had bought last week.
After I finished making my tea, I scooped the oatmeal out of the pot and set it in a bowl. I carried my breakfast to the table and took the last vacant seat.
I started to eat when my ear caught something. I looked up after hearing the key word that had basically taken over my life: war. I glanced at the TV. My heart fell at what I saw. I dropped my spoon and ran to my room. As I ran, I caught a glance of Auntie and Uncle staring at each other, their faces etched with worry.
I picked up my favorite stuffy, Possy—the only thing I had left that made me feel comforted and strong. I’ve always loved how Possy’s ears are yellow and how her tail is blue. It reminds me of home. Every Christmas, no matter how old I was, Mom would always get me a stuffed animal with our home—Ukraine’s—colors on them. Possy was the last one she got me and it still smelled like her. Unlike every other time, though, this time when I was curled up with Possy, petting and clutching her to my chest, I felt a ping of sadness instead of comfort. Tears took over my face.
Auntie stood in my doorway. There grew a silence, making the air in the room thick and hard. She came up to me and sat down on my bed. She pulled me into her and stroked my hair. Then, Uncle walked into the doorway, and after a little while, he came and curled up on the other side of me. I felt better but not recovered.
We did this a lot. I have had a lot of emotional hours ever since I moved in. Luckily, Auntie and Uncle understand, and don’t seem to ever grow tired of comforting me.
We all stayed huddled as a pack until I suddenly pulled away.
“What are you guys doing? I need to know,” I inquired. I meant it in a firm way, but it came out very shaky.
Uncle sighed and glanced at Auntie. Auntie sighed too, and then took a deep breath.
“We are looking for ways to leave the country.”
I swallowed. I knew that this war was not safe, but I had never imagined leaving the place where I had grown up. The place where I had made all my great memories. The place where my life was planted. This was the worst news I could get at the worst time of my life.
“We know that this news is hard for you, so we’re going to give you your space for a little while. But, of course, if you need us, we’re always here,” Uncle finished.
My aunt nodded. They then both kissed me on the forehead and lifted themselves off the bed.
After they left, I just sat on my bed. I looked at my watch. The time was 7:45 a.m. I clutched Possy with my sweating, trembling hands. I felt my eyelids grow heavy.
I felt weird and slightly lightheaded when I awoke. I hadn’t realized that I was so tired. I glanced at my watch: 9:23! I couldn’t believe that I had slept that much. I guess I had a lot going on in my mind and that was what was tiring me out. Plus, it’s very hard to sleep with all these noises of war.
I scooched to the other side of my twin bed to get my book. Books were the only thing that were getting me through all this. I loved them. As I scooched, I got a big jolt when something moved under my covers! I pulled up the sheet and inspected underneath. There, my aunt and uncle’s dog, Fern, was snoring softly, snuggled up with her chew toy. I smiled. I had loved Fern ever since I moved in, and I found her to be the most patient and understanding creature out of all of us. To be frank, any dog or animal is. They do not want anything but love, and they only want to give you love and joy. In my opinion, they are better than humans in those terms.
I kept scooching slowly until I reached my bedside table. There, as I reached for my book, I froze. As I looked at the table, there stood a picture of my family. My whole family. My mom, my dad, my aunt and my uncle. After COVID-19, my aunt and uncle were the only family I had left.
I was about to burst into tears when I caught my aunt sitting at the edge of my bed watching me. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed. I wiped away the small wet drops that had formed in my eyes. I quickly crawled across my bed to my aunt. She pulled me close. We sat like that for a while. Then, she pulled me up so I was facing her.
“I know this may be too quick, but we are going to go down to the train station to see if we can get a ride out soon.”
I shook. This was all too much. I had too many things going on.
I didn’t even think about it, but I nodded. She smiled slightly. I lifted myself off the bed, and so did she.
“I guess I should get dressed,” I sighed.
Auntie nodded and tiptoed to the door. I slid under my sheets and retrieved Fern. I loved that dog. I gently placed him down on the carpet (he continued to snore) and started making my bed. After that, I quickly pulled out a skirt and turtleneck (my everyday outfit). I then hopped out of my room and took a few steps to our shared bathroom. As I walked in, I almost fainted. My uncle was standing in front of the mirror half naked, with his towel wrapped around his waist. I have seen this every day since I moved in but still haven’t digested it. The crazy thing about this is that my uncle always forgets that he’s half naked.
“I’ll be out of your way in just a moment,” he greeted me. I tossed my hair aside so it wouldn’t go in my mouth and nodded. He quickly finished combing his hair and trudged out of the bathroom—his hairy back jiggling as he went.
I quickly washed my face and hands. Then, I got out my favorite headband (we all have our own little basket in the bathroom) and put it in my hair.
As I did that, a thought occurred to me. I wondered what outside would be like. Not just because of the war but because I haven’t been outside that much ever since I’ve moved in. I have been grieving. I couldn’t believe that after all this, my aunt and uncle thought that I could go outside. Did they even think it was safe?
I had so many thoughts going on in my brain that I felt like I couldn’t take any more. But of course, more just kept on coming. After I finished getting ready, I walked down the cramped hall to my aunt and uncle’s bedroom. I played with my skirt a bit and then knocked.
“Come in!” Auntie said sweetly. I walked in and sat on the chair of my uncle’s desk.
“I’m all set, I guess.”
“All right.” My auntie smiled. “I’ll go check on your uncle.”
As I waited, my eye caught something on Uncle’s desk. A piece of paper— folded and refolded many times—was laying on the desk. I shifted my body so I could read it.
My heart stopped. My stomach grumbled. Everything ached. There, on the paper, were the details of all of our savings in my aunt’s neat handwriting:
To Evacuate A Person: 36,500 Hryvnia Per Ticket
To Evacuate An Animal: 12,400 Hryvnia Per Ticket
Total Amount For Evacuation: 221,900 Hryvnia
How Much We Have: 100,000 Hryvnia
Amount Needed: 121,900 Hryvnia
I couldn’t stop shaking.
As I heard their footsteps, I realized that it would be horrible if my aunt and uncle knew I had seen this, so I pushed in the desk chair, smoothed out the ruffled cushion on it, and sat on the bed—pretending to be interested in one of Auntie’s embroideries.
Right as I was reminding myself not to look so shaken, they came back and Auntie extended her hand.
I held her hand as we all walked out the apartment door and into the hallway. I kept holding her hand as we descended the stairwell.
When we reached the bottom, I hesitated. I took a step back. The last time I had walked through this door was the day I had found out that my parents were dead.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. I glanced up. My aunt was smiling down at me. “It’s okay, Inna,” she said.
We all were like connected keychains—each of us had a different picture and shape, but we were linked together.
I was frozen. I looked down to see a drop of water on my skirt. This was like a heap of emotion and memories all being dumped on me at once.
I slowly took a step forward and then another. With each step, I could feel more droplets falling on my skirt.
My uncle came over and took my free hand. We all were like connected keychains—each of us had a different picture and shape, but we were linked together.
We stopped as we reached the door. I held my breath.
My aunt bent down and whispered into my ear. “Are you sure you can handle this?”
I thought about it before nodding. I actually paused. I wasn’t sure. I knew that we weren’t going to be able to evacuate, and I didn’t really even trust that I could pull myself together. I was also scared of what might be outside that door. If it was anything like what I have been hearing from the apartment, I knew I might not be able to bear it.
Auntie sounded rushed, though I could tell she wanted her voice to be gentle.
I snapped back to attention. Even though I wasn’t sure at all, I nodded. I had to be there for my aunt and uncle.
I took a deep breath, and Uncle opened the door.
Now I was on the verge of a mental breakdown. This was impossible. Outside, in front of me, was the same regular city I have seen all my life. People were going to work and mothers were pushing their babies in strollers. Dog owners were walking their dogs. It was all normal. The only thing that was different was that everyone looked sad and somber. I looked up at my aunt and uncle and they looked sad too.
We started walking. As we walked, I slowly felt less shaken.
Then, out of nowhere, we heard sirens and screaming from afar. I trembled.
My aunt held my hand tight.
“It’s not close,” she reassured me.
We kept walking until, finally, Uncle stopped. “Here we are,” he stated.
We were in front of a big, steep staircase. We started going down until we were at the last step. We walked to the ticket booth.
“Excuse me,” Auntie called out to the teller—her voice polite but firm. I had never heard her talk this way. I felt a nudge on my shoulder.
“While your auntie’s talking, why don’t we look around a bit? It might be fun,” my uncle suggested.
I could tell he was ordering me to do this and not asking. I guessed that this was because he didn’t want me to hear about how we maybe couldn’t afford to leave.
I took his hand and we started walking.
I felt sad. The last time I had been in a train station was the day that I had found out that my parents had died. We kept walking around until my Uncle stopped.
“Why don’t we play a hopping game?” “That sounds fun,” I managed to say.
We made up a game where you had to make it across all the green tiles in the station by only hopping once in each square tile. I let Uncle win. He seemed delighted. Unlike Auntie, Uncle was always competitive in games no matter who he was up against. (I liked this about him.)
We went back to where Auntie was. When we saw her, she looked stricken.
She shook her head at Uncle.
My guess was that they had come here because they wanted to make sure that they had the correct information about how much it would cost to leave the country. It all made me very sad.
We walked back home in silence. Bad thoughts seemed to race each other in my brain. Were we stuck in Ukraine? Were we stuck in war? Were we even safe?
When I was six, my mom told me that my name means “fast-flowing stream” in Ukrainian. I’ve never understood how my name fits me except that I think it does describe the way my thoughts work. I always seem to have a stream of thoughts instead of one at a time.
When we got home, I went into my bedroom—where Fern was wagging his tail behind the door. I decided to read for the rest of the afternoon. Even though I usually hate naps, I have to admit that the one I took in the morning really helped my energy. My book was okay. It was about a girl who was my age—eleven—and who had just lost her best friend because a bunch of sassy girls had swallowed her up and turned her into a sassy girl like them. It was a little crazy. I didn’t like the storyline at all—partly because it was so different and unimaginable from my life. I didn’t have any friends now, though I used to have many before I moved. This book actually made me sadder, so I decided to go and try to play a card game with Uncle.
As I played Uno with my uncle, I started to feel better bit by bit. I realized that maybe the war could end, or maybe we could keep saving up and evacuate later. The more I thought about it, I was happy we weren’t leaving Ukraine. The people who were attacking us should be leaving and not the people like us, whose homes were here. I felt better now.
I decided to go back to my book. As I went back into my bedroom, a wonderful idea occurred to me: what if I made my aunt and uncle a fun surprise to lighten their mood? Since they had been working so hard and were so worried, they definitely deserved that.
After a dinner of beef stew, I went to bed thinking about the things that I could do for my aunt and uncle. The perfect thought occurred to me! Tomorrow, I would go outside and get the ingredients (from my allowance) for an omelet. It was one of Auntie’s favorite dishes, and Uncle loved cooking it. Perhaps it would brighten their mood! I hoped they would sleep in tomorrow . . .
The next morning at 6 a.m., a very chilly time to be awake, I did not try to hide under the covers and my pillow. I got out of bed, quietly dressed myself, stepped out into the empty hall, walked down the stairwell to the door to everything outside and, determined, went on my way. I would buy eggs and tomatoes this morning and, as I did, I hoped I could lighten some of the moods around me in the streets and hopefully back at our apartment too.