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This is the second installment of Alice Pak’s novella, which we will be publishing over the course of three issues. You can read the beginning of Alice’s story in our January/February issue.

Chapter Two

Unlike Misha, I was always a little on the more reckless side.

I was two years younger than him, though sometimes it felt like six. Misha had always been the quiet, observing intellectual and preferred to stand in a corner and watch the world unfold before his eyes. I, on the other hand, wanted to unfold the world myself, so I constantly started getting myself in more and more problems as time passed.

I remember the first time my karma backed up a little and hit me on the head.

I was wobbling behind Misha, trying to jump in as many puddles on the street as I possibly could while he calmly strolled ahead, raising his head up to the sky to breathe in the warm, wet air. My pink rain boots squeaked with every impact, sending water splashing in all directions. Had there been more people outside, I would’ve probably been more conscious about my childish behavior, but the intermittent rain seemed to have scared most schoolkids back in front of their TV screens. The only pedestrians left outside were groups of laughing men gathered outside of smoke shops and bars and a handful of elderly women gossiping on benches while feeding pigeons.

We were heading to the park. The very park we had been to with our parents ever since our birth, the very park where I held my ninth birthday, the very park where the trees were so old that some of them seemed to be growing crooked. The park downtown, which slowly turned into a hotspot for schoolkids to gather and play soccer or hang out. Me and Misha went there at least once a week and played soccer and held races, which became a sort of ritual for us every Friday after school that I looked forward to every single time. So did he; sometimes, if he was in a good enough mood, he would stop by the local convenience store and buy ice cream for us to enjoy on our walks.

I remember thinking about ice cream with a smile that moment. Would I pick strawberry? Or vanilla? Definitely not chocolate, though; Misha always got chocolate, but I thought it was too sugary for my liking. Plus, it always made you extremely thirsty.

Maybe vanilla with a chocolate coat?

That was when I heard it the first time.

It was a loud, shrill sound, shocking the area for miles in intermittent waves of wailing. The siren seemed to almost freeze the street as the people outside immediately stopped their affairs and raised their heads. The noise continued for several more minutes, steadily growing louder as panic started to boil among the pedestrians. I turned to Misha, confusion brewing in me as I noticed a scared expression on his face.

“What’s going on?”

The screech seemed to bring a particular fear to the street. Chaos ensued, people running in and out of buildings, shouting orders at each other, and trying to figure out the meaning of the situation. Dust rose up from the feet pounding the pavement, creating a cloud of smoke. I stumbled back, eyes wide, as a stampede ravaged the street.

“Misha?” I yelled. “Misha!”

“Varya!” Misha hollered back somewhere on my left. “Hurry, we have to go!”

I spotted Misha through the dust cloud, waving at me to follow him. “Come on, what are you waiting for? We have to get out of here!”

“What’s happening?”

Misha’s face seemed to get paler by the second as the sirens blared behind me. “Don’t ask questions! Just follow me!”

I sneezed, blinking the settling smoke out of my eyes.

“Come on!” he called desperately. “Don’t be stubborn, Varya, please. This could be dangerous!”

“Tell me what’s happening, or I’m not going anywhere!”

I heard a piercing whip slice the air above me. I twisted my neck to look at the gray sky, stepping back to see nothing but a gust of wind curl the tip of the clouds.

It all happened in a second.

There was a soft whizzing sound, like an arrow being launched. I turned around sharply to see a single window shatter in the building above me before the rockets hit the wall and my world went pitch black.

*          *          *

My shout died in my throat as time slowed down around me and I watched the building explode, a million pieces raining down on the pavement around me. Chunks of concrete and drywall crashed into the street, a cloud of dust rising up in the storm of rubble. I finally found my voice again and screamed, reaching out a helpless hand towards the spot where Varya had stood seconds before. I couldn’t see her now. Someone grabbed me and pulled me under a metal sheet and I knelt down, the blood rushing in my ears, deafening me from the noise of the outer world. I struggled to breathe as through blurry eyes I made out paint- streaked bricks shooting through the air like missiles out of control.

My heart pounded as more bullets slit the air and more muffled blasts shook the ground like an earthquake. Several buildings around me collapsed. It felt like the climax of a horror movie, I thought, as I crouched down, covering my head with trembling hands. Around me, huddled together, were other people, but I looked right past them, out into the crumbling world beyond. The earth rumbled violently, explosions rocking us back and forth with every smash of concrete against the ground. The wind rushing past me felt like a slap in the face, carrying hundreds upon thousands of bits of pebbles, some of which stung my eyes, making tears spring out as I rubbed my face forcefully, trying to lessen the burning.

The earth rumbled violently, explosions rocking us back and forth with every smash of concrete against the ground.

I don’t know how long I sat there. Maybe a few seconds. Maybe minutes. Maybe a lot more, or at least enough for my legs to go completely numb and my arms to follow soon after, only my mind fully awake yet unthinking. It seemed to last for an eternity, an eternity of brainless destruction. Who was behind this?

And just like that it was over. The silence that settled on the area seemed almost ominous as all the banging faded into an unsettling, muted landscape. Terrified faces peeked out from various shelters hidden among the wreckage, slowly creeping out from corners to survey the chaos. I crawled out onto the street, ignoring tiny bits of sharp pebbles digging into my knees. My thoughts swirled around one word.


As if something inside me bloomed back to life, I sprang to my feet and sprinted to the debris next to where Varya had been standing before the building exploded behind her. I knelt down, shoving the remains out of the way with my bare hands in a rushed, panicked manner.

“Varya! Varya!” I called, my voice cracking. The shards of broken glass on the ground cut my fingers, sending streams of blood trickling down my palms, but I didn’t falter for a single second, desperate to reach my best friend. Tears streamed down my face like small rivers, blurring my eyesight. I heard shouts as strong arms tried pulling me away from the wreck, but I shook my head wildly and kept digging as blood droplets splattered on the dirt of the road. Where was Varya? She had to be buried somewhere here. The strong arms kept pulling at me persistently, until someone finally picked me up and carried me away. I screamed and flailed wildly, fighting. No, I couldn’t leave. I needed to find Varya.

“Someone knock him out or something,” a bored voice muttered as I was set on the ground away from the debris. “He’s gone mad.”

“Varya is under there!” I said loudly, pointing to the ruins. “I need to help her!” Someone draped a blanket around my shoulders, gently helping me stand up.

“Come on, dear,” a woman’s kind voice whispered to me. “Let’s get you out of here. Do you live nearby? Where are your parents?”

Without answering, I began slowly dragging my feet in the direction of my apartment, kicking rocks down the road. I didn’t want to leave, but turning my head back, I caught a glance of a group of young men already sorting through the remains. Surely they’d find Varya soon . . . they had to.

The sky was clear and calm now, inspiring a false sense of security and safety. The bluish-gray tint of the wispy clouds reminded me of the color of hospital walls, light but somehow unsettling.

I walked home slowly that evening. I was still covered in the blanket, shivering, my eyes trained on the ground as I focused on stepping one foot in front of the other. One, two. One, two. I was afraid that if I stopped concentrating, I’d pass out.

I didn’t see many people out on the streets. Most who had heard of the terror that occurred downtown had shut themselves in their apartments, peeking outside through their curtains to see if there was any action going on. Those that I actually encountered outside were running in the opposite direction, going to see what destruction had happened and possibly to help.

Help Varya.

I hated how it all felt. It seemed so nice out; the sky was light gray, a small breeze chasing in between the trees. Not the type of weather you see in movies when the villain commits mass destruction and blows up a building. It made me feel like I was dreaming and nothing had happened, because there was no way that this would be the scenery to the shooting of an entire block. It made me mad.


I looked up to see my mom standing at the end of the street, wrapped in her tan-colored coat. She took an unsure step forward which turned into a sprint as she ran to me. I could see the panic in her eyes as she grasped my cold hands, clutching them as if for dear life.

“Oh, Misha . . .” Her breath hitched. “Are you okay? Are you hurt? Where’s Varya?”

I opened my mouth to reply, but no words came out.

My mom continued to watch me intently, trying to read my face. Suddenly, her expression changed.

“Oh my God,” she gasped, “Is she there?”

I nodded, a feeling of guilt that had been hovering over me the entire time finally settling in. My mom peered behind me as if hoping to see Varya there.

“I want you to head home,” she ordered, fishing her phone out of her pocket and beginning to dial a number, “All right? Until I come back. I need you to stay there.”

She tossed me the door key, raising the phone to her ear.

“Hello? Oh, yes, this is Natalia . . . yes, you better come quickly, Varya got buried under rubble from what I understand, I’m so sorry—”

I watched her slowly start walking in the direction of the wreck, still talking on the phone. She was calling Varya’s parents, I assumed, as my stomach gave a nervous jolt. What would they say? Would they hate me?

Was it my fault for not acting fast enough?

Instead of taking the elevator as usual, I strolled right past and began climbing the steps. I don’t know what I was thinking, but suddenly feeling the pain in my calves made me wake up somehow. By the time I made it to the sixth floor, at least thirty minutes had passed and I was panting heavily. I fumbled with the key, unlocking the door on my second attempt, and threw my coat aside, collapsing on the couch. I lay there, staring at the corner of the room while my brain kept running.

*          *          *

I didn’t realize I fell asleep until I woke up to my mom stroking my hair. I sat up, rubbing the leftover sleep from my eyes. My mom smiled at me.

“Hey hey, did you sleep well at least?” she teased.

I nodded, smiling a little. My smile faded almost instantly once I remembered everything. “Where’s Varya?”

“She’s in her apartment, don’t worry,” my mom calmed me down. “She was only in the wreckage for about two hours. They uncovered her quickly, and her parents carried her home to sleep.”


I leaned down to pick up my teddy bear, which I had apparently dropped in my sleep, while my mom patted my pillow into shape.

“Is she all right?” I asked nervously, dreading the answer. My mom pursed her lips.

“She has a minor breakage,” she finally said, shaking her head ever so slightly, “in a bone in her arm. But I called her parents and they said she’s taking it surprisingly well, and it’ll heal fast.”

“Wait.” I tensed up. “She got hurt?” My mom nodded sadly.

“Like I said, her arm. She’s going to have to wear a cast for a couple of weeks.

Which means no playing volleyball or any other dangerous games.” “Volleyball isn’t dangerous!”

My mom rolled her eyes teasingly. “All right, all right. Whatever you say.”

She stood up, walking to the other side of the room and spreading the pale yellow window curtains apart so that bright sunlight streamed in, showering the room in light. Then, kissing me on the forehead lightly, she made her way back out of the room, promising to make breakfast.

“Can I call Varya?” I yelled after her hopefully. “Go ahead,” my mom called from the kitchen.

I jumped into the hallway, grabbing the home phone off of its stand and punching in the numbers I knew by heart. It vibrated in my hand with a soft bzzt as the line connected, the screen flashing with dark orange. I drummed my fingers on the wall impatiently, waiting, until there was a beep and someone picked up.

“Hello?” Varya’s voice crackled into the speaker.

“Varya!” I said excitedly, not being able to contain the grin that split my face. “How are you?”

“Oh, not bad,” she replied, and I could tell she was smiling too. “You? Did you get buried too?”

“No, I didn’t,” I told her. “Um, how’s your arm?”

“It’s, uh, well, it doesn’t hurt, but the doctor said it was broken.”



There was a small little pause while I thought of a way to change the subject. “Hey, at least you can draw something on your cast, right?”

Varya laughed. “I could try. I’d probably mess up.” “Hey, it’s better than a boring old cast,” I said playfully. “At least it’s purple!”

I snorted. “I thought your favorite color was blue?” “Yours is blue. Mine is orange.”

“Why’s your cast purple then, hmm? Where did that come from?” Varya seemed to think about that.

“You’re right. Where did that come from?”

“Maybe the doctor thought purple would look good on you,” I mused. “Maybe. Does purple look good on me?”

“Uhhh . . . yeah?”

Varya laughed again. I loved her laugh. It was bright and tinkling, like dandelions in the form of sound waves. It made me feel warm inside, as if I just drank a gallon of hot chocolate.

“Hey, Misha?” her voice appeared in the speaker again. “Hmm?”

“Promise me one thing, okay?” I shrugged. “Sure, what?”

“You told me you’d marry me when we grew up, right?” “I did, didn’t I?”

“You promise you will? Even if my arm is still broken?”

I laughed, shaking my head. My mom poked her head from the kitchen, mouthing for me to hurry up.

“Your arm won’t stay broken that long, Varya.” “Hmph. What if it does?”

“I’ll still marry you, okay?”

“Good. Because you pinkie promised, remember?” “Of course, of course.”

“Well”—I heard some background voices on the line—“I have to go eat. See you later!”

“Bye bye.”

The line disconnected, leaving me holding the phone in my hands with its orange screen still flashing. I set it back down and skipped to the kitchen, where my mom had set out a plate of oatmeal decorated with blueberries and cherries. My mom turned to me, wiping her hands on a towel.

“What did she say?” she asked curiously, setting a teapot in the center of the kitchen table as I pulled a chair aside and sat down.

“She sounded happy,” I said, shoving a spoonful of oatmeal in my mouth. “And she told me her cast is purple.”

My mom raised her eyebrows. “Does she like it?”

It felt like we were stuck in a survival show against our will, where everyone was paranoid and scared.

“I think so,” I decided, chewing thoughtfully. “Though her favorite color is orange.”

“Well, that’s nice,” my mom told me, setting down her own plate and interlocking her fingers. “Oh, you already started eating? I say we pray first.”

I set down my spoon and put my hands together as well, closing my eyes as my mom began.

“Dear Father, I thank you for this meal. I thank you for my son, Misha, and my family and my country. I thank you for the roof above our heads. I pray that peace and love descends on Avdiivka, and may any disagreements stop so that all may live in harmony as before.”

“Amen,” we both finished, before snapping our eyes open and picking up our spoons, the sweet aroma of the warm oatmeal rising up in the air around us temptingly.

Chapter Three

After that day, I could feel that everyone in Avdiivka became a little more tense, a little more alert. Kids at school began traveling in strict packs like wolves, only spending time with their close-knit friends on the playground. People on the streets walked at a faster pace, glancing behind their shoulders.

I didn’t like the feel of it. Neither did Varya. It felt like we were stuck in a survival show against our will, where everyone was paranoid and scared.

“I want everyone to act normal again,” Varya told me one day as we were walking to school. “I want everything that’s going on to stop. So that people can be normal again. Everything was fine before.”

Before” is what we started calling before the massive shooting downtown. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that shootings have been going on since practically my birth. The Russian-Ukrainian citizens in Avdiivka sometimes traded snippets of stories regarding the terrorists, and I always tried to connect the dots as best as I could to the fast-moving timelines of the present.

Apparently Russia has come to back up the separatists in the conflict.

Although most news sources called it an “invasion,” I didn’t want to believe that this would be the start of a World War Three. At school, we had just finished our unit over World War Two, which had impacted the Soviet Union greatly. Since Ukraine had been part of Russia, it was a mandatory lesson we went through in sixth grade. Reading various books and articles about the six-year-long conflict, I was terrified. Why would people start these collisions? I prayed I’d never have to live through that.

Instead, I directed all of my energy into researching the Russian “military operation” as much as I could. From watching the news, I found out that Russian troops had invaded Ukraine and taken control over most of Donetsk and Luhansk, to which the government responded by sending its own army there as well, to drive them out. The Russians refused to move, and thus the war started. Each side would push each other back and then get pushed back, which went on for days, which turned into weeks and eventually formed long, endless months of fighting. Donetsk and Luhansk both suffered tremendous breaks and losses. The people were constantly terrified, not being able to leave, but the situation made it more and more dangerous to stay.

The news made everything seem like it was a random, unexpected invasion, I thought angrily. But it really wasn’t. Russia was just trying to save its citizens when they pleaded for help. Russia was trying to lend a hand when Ukraine ignored us.

I guess I could say the day that the real drama started for me was the morning that I hopped downstairs to check our mailbox to find a crumpled, slightly dirty piece of paper hastily shoved in our box. I turned it around in my hands, confused, but took it back up to our apartment, dropping it in front of my mom as I walked in.

“This was in our mail,” I told her.

She unfolded the paper, a worried look clouding her face. I caught a glimpse of some messy black scrawls before she leaned back out of my sight, her eyes scanning over the message. Then she paled.

“What? What is it?” I stumbled over my words.

My mom stuffed the paper in her pocket, taking a deep breath. “Oh, it’s nothing.”

“No,” I said stubbornly. “I know it’s something.”

She gave me a warning look to shut my mouth. “Misha, honey, why don’t you go read a book? I think you need to unwind a little bit. School must be taking a toll on you.”

I rolled my eyes and slouched to my room, closing the door behind me. I could hear my mom typing on the keyboard hurriedly as if it was the end of the world, and I intuitively knew, I knew it wasn’t nothing.

*          *          *

My suspicions were confirmed as letters kept arriving, all the same crumpled sheets being forced into our mailbox. Some letters didn’t even look like letters; they were written on torn notebook paper, cloth, and all sorts of food wrappers, stained with grease and sauces. I was disgusted, yet I brought my mom every single one to watch the same horrified reaction.

One time, I let my curiosity get the better of me. For once the letter didn’t look like it was mailed from a local dumpster; it was a folded piece of notebook paper with only a slight tear at the edges where it looked like it was ripped out of a diary. I looked around, making sure there was no one in the window who would run back to tell my mom, and lucky for me, the only living creatures outside were a couple of doves roosting on top of an empty van. I steadied myself and slowly pulled apart the two ends of the paper.

I squinted at the black writing, which seemed to be some sort of nearly unreadable mix of cursive and print, trying to make out the words . . .

Get out of here before you meet your end!

My breath caught in my throat as I read the message, feeling goosebumps prick up on my arms and my neck go cold. I flipped the paper over, but there was no continuation.

Who in their right mind was sending these?

I sprinted into the elevator, poking the up button as fast as my finger would allow me until the doors finally closed and the cabin swung up. I tapped my foot frantically, clutching the letter tightly in my fist, until the doors moved open and I sprinted to apartment number sixty-four, swinging the door open and kicking my shoes off.

“Mom!” I yelled.

My mom slid out of the bathroom, halfway through brushing her teeth. She raised an eyebrow, looking a bit tired.

“Mom, why are they sending this to you?” I waved the letter in front of her face. “Who’s doing it?”

My mom’s eyes widened as she snatched the paper out of my hand angrily, crumpling it up. She marched back into the bathroom and set the toothbrush down, wiping her face with a hand towel. Then, she turned to me again.

“Where did you get this?” Her voice was drenched in fury.

“It’s one of those letters you’ve been getting like every month!” I protested. “Misha, that’s not your business! You shouldn’t be reading them! How many have you already read?”

“Just this one, I swear!” I pleaded. “But why are they threatening us?” My mom massaged her forehead, sighing. “It isn’t safe for us here.” “Oh, really? Gee, I didn’t notice, with the literal threat in that paper!”

“Hey!” My mom raised her voice once more. “I was figuring out what to do. You wouldn’t like the actions we’d have to take, so I decided that it was better for both of us that I didn’t tell you until the decision was final.”

“Yeah?” I said. “Is it final yet, then?”

My mom glared at me. “Don’t give me the attitude, young man. And yes, it is.” I stiffened up. Something in her tone made me nervous.

“Misha, we’re going to have to leave Avdiivka for . . . some time.”

What?” I screamed, stepping back. “No! Not because some idiot is messing with our mail!”

My mom looked up at the ceiling and moved her lips noiselessly as if praying. “I knew this would be your reaction. I knew it would be hard for you, but this

is the best choice we have.”

I shook my head, tears welling up in my eyes.

“There has to be some other choice,” I pursued. “Can’t we, uh, install security?

Or something?”

My mom stayed silent.

“Please,” I begged, my voice shaking. “This is my hometown. My school, my friends, all my memories, they’re all here. There’s no good reason for us to leave!” My mom pursed her lips, looking like she was having an internal fight herself. “I’m sorry, Mishka,” she said quietly. “This war is out of our control. Russians aren’t very welcome here anymore. I’m not going to pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about. Many have left already. We have to leave too, before any more trouble happens.”

I sobbed, wiping my tears with my shirt.

“I contacted my brother who lives in St. Petersburg a few nights ago,” she continued. “By some complicated method, he found out about a sort of bus, you could say, that travels across the border to Russia. It’s dangerous for us to try to cross alone, since the area is under constant surveillance by both armies, but he said if we get on, we’ll make it.”

“Isn’t that kind of dumb? Moving to the enemy country?”

My mom frowned, her eyes darkening again. “Russia isn’t the enemy. This entire war is a miscommunication between Russian-Ukrainian citizens that have been under attack for years and wanted someone to protect them. When Russia finally sent its armies to help, it was called an invasion by NATO and turned into this whole mess.”

I hung my head.

“I know. Sorry,” I said meekly.

My mom stepped closer and wrapped her arms around me in a hug. I hugged her back, wishing I could curl up into a little ball and stay there forever, frozen in time and space. Her hair smelled like cinnamon; she was warm, just like always.

“It’ll be okay,” she whispered in my ear. “It will all be okay.”

*          *          *

But it wasn’t. The shelling continued, gunshots echoing for miles around from the battleground near Donetsk. The air always smelled rancid, to the point that some people began wearing masks again, as if another coronavirus epidemic had struck. It was like everyone was entering some sort of survival- hibernation mode; kids rarely roamed the streets like they used to and stuck to little playgrounds that were in front of every apartment complex. School started happening three times a week instead of the usual five, leaving Wednesdays and Fridays off for those who needed them. My mom fiddled with the idea of signing me up for self-defense lessons but backed out in the end, saying that it was too dangerous and costly.

“I can’t wait until all of this is over,” Varya expressed to me as we sat on the steps of our school after class on a Thursday.

“Yeah, me too,” I agreed.

I hadn’t yet told her about the news my mom gave me. I wasn’t sure if I would ever find the guts to. I couldn’t imagine the sadness that she would feel knowing that I would be in a completely different city in two weeks.

“I’m still confused,” she said, glancing up at me. “So why exactly is all of this happening?”

Oh, that’s right. Varya’s parents had been in a nervous wreck since the very start of the conflict. Unsure of what to think or who to believe, they hadn’t told her anything about it and left her to draw her own conclusions based on what the news media broadcasted.

That was dumb. Didn’t everyone know that the news could lie as good as a fish could swim? I had figured it out a long time ago. The news never told the whole, unbiased story; they only told the parts that they wanted the public to hear, which was whatever would benefit the government the most.

“It’s all politics.” I shrugged. “It’s very complicated.” “Politics?”

“Yeah.” I spread my arms, explaining. “You know, politicians starting and carrying out their own problems onto an international level and blaming each other.”

“Who are politicians? I don’t think I know any.”

“They’re men and women who wear fancy suits and decide the fate of our country. Well, not just our country. All countries. All the people in the world.”

Varya’s jaw dropped.

“That’s a lot of power. They can basically control our lives, no?”

“You could put it like that,” I decided. “Yeah. Politics is all about deciding international relationships and partnerships and then accidentally breaking them.”

“Isn’t that like a paradox?”

I strained my brain, trying to make the connection. “Now that you mention it, honestly it is.”

“Dang,” she mumbled. “But why did they start the war, then?”

I furrowed my brow. “Disagreements? Though it would have to be a pretty big disagreement to bring out this mess.”

“Wait.” Varya squinted at me skeptically. “We have disagreements too, but I don’t think I’ve ever threatened to shoot you. Or any innocent bystanders.”

I watched a leaf slowly float down onto the pavement.

“But we’re friends, aren’t we?” I smiled. “Friends have arguments too, but we shouldn’t hurt one another because of something that can be easily solved anyway.”

“And Russia and Ukraine were friends for years, no? We speak the same language eighty percent of the time. We have the same traditions. We sing the same songs. Just like you and me. I see no difference.”

“Good point. Okay. Very good point. But this war could somehow benefit someone. I don’t know who or how, but people dying could potentially be used as some form of . . . blackmail.”

Varya frowned, looking back at the street before us. “Isn’t that illegal?”

“It is,” I agreed. “But ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ can change in a day if politicians need them to.”

“That is definitely illegal.”

“Well.” I smiled a little. “It’s still their job.”

Varya stood up, brushing dust off her skirt and swinging her backpack over her shoulder. “That,” she proclaimed, “is simply the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of in my life.”

I laughed, shaking my head, before getting up and chasing after her. “You’re right.”