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Misha and his mother flee their war-torn home in Ukraine

This is the final installment of Alice Pak’s novella, which we have been publishing over the course of three issues. If you are a new subscriber, you can read the first two installments online in the March/April and May/June 2024 issues.


Chapter Four

Two weeks slipped by accidentally in a blur of school, TV, and Varya coming over to hang out on the weekends. I barely had time to look around before I found myself standing in the sixth-floor lobby, looking into our half-empty apartment and my mom rolling out a suitcase full of clothes out the door. She sighed and turned to me with a pained smile.

“Well,” she said, her voice shaky, “time to say goodbye.”

“But it’s not forever, right?” I asked, readjusting the straps of my backpack. “No, of course not,” she reassured me. “We’ll come back one day.”

“I already can’t wait.”

We stood there in silence for another moment, looking at the living room. The worn gray couch. The pale orange curtains fluttering gently to the air conditioning. The drawings, books, and photos standing on the short coffee table. The smell of strawberries and freshly washed clothes.

“Misha? Ho—what’s going on?”

I spun around to find Varya, dressed in a rain jacket and boots, staring at me with a lost look on her face. My mom raised an eyebrow at me, frowning.

“You didn’t tell her?” she asked. I looked down at my sneakers.

Varya scanned my face worriedly as the silence became deafening. “Tell me what?”

“We’re leaving,” my mom said in a flat tone, which indicated both her disappointment towards my behavior and her desire to avoid all negotiations.

“Leaving?” Varya hesitated, “Leaving where?”

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled under my breath. “I totally forgot to tell you . . . we have to return to Russia.”

Varya didn’t reply immediately and instead just stood there, hereyes flickering between me and my mom in disbelief.

“W-what?” she finally managed. “What do you mean? You mean like . . . forever?”

I reached a hand out to her helplessly. “No, no, not forever. Forever is a long time. Just for . . .”

“A few months,” my mom picked up for me.

Varya’s lip quivered, small rivers of water streaking down her face. She sniffled, rubbing her nose with her sleeve. I felt tears well up in my eyes as well, blurring my vision as my mom shook my shoulder.

“I know it’s a lot to take in,” she was saying to Varya, her voice seeming to come from miles away as if I was in one of those dreams where you felt like everything was moving through mounds of sand, “but I promise it won’t be as bad as it seems. Okay? You’ll see each other again before you know it, and I’m sure Misha will have all sorts of new experiences to share with you. This is just a temporary precaution.”

Varya sobbed again, nodding shakily. I ran to her and wrapped my arms around her, hugging her tightly. She hugged me back, her fingers digging into my back as if she didn’t want to let go. Her warm breath came out in ragged sobs, and I felt a strange sad cloud come over me like a cold shadow, shielding me from any happiness I had been clinging to before.

She finally pulled away after a minute, her eyes still red from crying. “Promise you’ll call me when you can, okay?” she told me, holding my hand in hers. “I will,” I said despite the lump in my throat. I squeezed her fingers.

My mom clicked her tongue, checking her silver watch. “Well, I’m sorry to ruin your goodbyes, but we have to get going, unfortunately. I got us a taxi to drive to the furthest outskirts of the town where the bus station is, and they just texted me that they’re waiting for us around the block.”

She leaned down and embraced Varya gently, holding her for a second before straightening back up and tucking a stray wisp of hair behind Varya’s ear.

“I’ll miss you, sweetie,” she whispered with a melancholy smile. “I already can’t wait to see you again.”

“Me too,” I chimed in, wiping a tear off my face. “I’ll miss you so much.”

“Bye,” Varya said gloomily, waving after us half-heartedly as the doors of the elevator closed in front of my face.

*          *          *

I can’t say anything extremely eventful happened after then. Maybe I was just numb. Maybe I was just tired and forlorn and heartbroken and the entire package. Or maybe there was a small dose of truth in the fact that the entire taxi ride to the train station there was downpouring rain.

The train station didn’t make a statement either. In fact, at first I thought that surely our driver was mistaken; he dropped us off at some dump in the middle of nowhere with a couple of empty crates and very few equally empty people, tipped his hat as my mom tipped his change, and drove away as fast as the speed limit on the nearest highway would allow him.

I crinkled my nose at the truck that stood several feet away from us.

Let me make this clear: it wasn’t a bus. It wasn’t even remotely close to deserving the title of being named a bus. It was a cargo truck at best. Small front cabin where a buff, angry-looking driver sat impatiently chewing a toothpick was roped together with a long black box-looking thing, the door to which was open, and people stood on the ramp, talking hurriedly. On both sides of the truck were bright ads of some cereal company with smiling faces and one too many unconvincing exclamation marks added to make any sense at all.

Turns out, we were about to be smuggled across the border. Semi-illegally. “We can’t just stroll to the other side,” my mom explained to me hours later as we sat next to each other, pressed up against the walls of the truck as it rumbled over rocky terrains and we bounced around in the darkness, “Both sides will shoot us without questions. This is by far the safest way to travel and, well, if others have done it, we’ll survive too.”

“How much longer?” I whined.

My legs ached from being in the same uncomfortable position for the last five hours. My sweater was starting to make my back itch really bad, but if I didn’t grip my seat, I’d be thrown against the floor at the next bump. I was starting to get a little carsick, and not being able to see outside a window of sorts made me feel claustrophobic. Was this how Varya felt to be buried under rubble? I waved the thought away instantly, not wanting to think about it.

“I’m sorry, dear.” My mom kissed the top of my head. “I’m guessing a few more hours? I believe we’re almost halfway there. We passed both the Ukrainian and Russian border controls a few hours ago, and now we just need to get out of the Russian half of the warzone. It’s still very dangerous out there right now.”

I rested my head against her shoulder, listening to the groan of the tires beneath us slamming into the rough, dirt-packed road. I breathed in the scent of hot, dusty air. Slowly, I found myself being rocked to sleep.

*          *          *

Twisting. Turning. Tumbling down. Flying through the air. Falling.

Screaming. Shouting. Footsteps pounding against the ground. Hands shaking me awake. “Huh?” I mumbled, cracking my eyes open.

“Get up,” my mom’s frantic voice pierced through my dazed mind, making my brain switch gears as I sat up, “We need to run. Fast.”

“Where?” I shouted as she grabbed me by the hand and we stumbled outside. The truck lay in a ditch on a hill by the side of the road, one of its tires completely deflated. Another one seemed to have popped off completely and been left behind somewhere on the road. Judging by the small mob of our fellow passengers crowding around the driver, the situation wasn’t looking good. “—so we’ll have to walk,” he finished as me and my mom joined the group.

The truck lay in a ditch on a hill by the side of the road, one of its tires completely deflated.

“All the way to—?” someone in the back asked.

“Station 415,” the driver replied gruffly, looking back at the fallen truck in resentment.

“You’re saying we’re about to walk eight miles because a tire flew off?” a woman asked, searching something on her phone. “Come on. I’m sure we can fix this.”

No!” the driver lunged at her device like a mad cat. “Power your phone off immediately! Don’t you know they’re tracking us as we speak?”

The lady stared at him, horrified, and slipped the phone in her bag. Another passenger let out a low whistle.

“We better start stridin’, folks,” he said nonchalantly, “That’s a darn long walk. Might take us like half the day with all these kids.” He gestured to me and a few toddlers on the hands of their mothers.

I frowned. “I’m not a kid,” I protested.

He smirked at me, nodding. “All right. Whatever you say. My point is, let’s not waste more time talkin’. Every minute is precious.”

Everyone agreed, grumbling. The bus driver took a tattered map out of his back pocket and grudgingly began tracing our further route through the mudland prairie beyond. Some people grabbed any leftover possessions from the truck. My mom fished out a few clean T-shirts and a thick coat from her suitcase before shoving it in the corner of the deserted vehicle with a sigh.

“Aren’t you taking it?” I wondered, surprised.

My mom shook her head. “We can’t afford it. Walking as far as we’re about to is hard enough with the clothes on our backs, let alone any other objects getting in our way.”

“Come on, come on! Let’s get moving. Chop chop!” a voice hollered.

*          *          *

It had been so long, I’d lost track of time. We’d been walking for many hours. Maybe two. Maybe six. Maybe half a day, for heaven’s sake. The scenery changed every couple of miles, from mudland swamps to prairies with tall wild grasses to a lush green forestry. I stared at the road in front of me without looking up. I was so exhausted that I didn’t even notice when someone poked my shoulder until I heard a voice in my ear.

“Hey, l’il man. Won’t you look up?”

I raised my head and looked at the young man talking to me, confused, until he pointed in the distance. I squinted, and to my great elation, I spotted a small cabin-like structure a few feet away. At the steps of it stood a man dressed in army gear holding a gun, but he didn’t point it at us. Instead, he lowered it slowly as our group approached the station, sizing us up.

“Hello, comrade,” our driver said, reaching out a tentative hand to the soldier.

The soldier looked at him and his outstretched hand, his gaze calculating yet a smile tugging at the corner of his lips. “Where do you come from?”

“Avdiivka, Ukraine,” my mom piped up, “We were traveling to seek refuge when our truck broke down past the border control. We walked here from there.”

“Your truck broke down?” The soldier raised an eyebrow. “How so?”

Our driver shrugged, scratching the back of his head. “We don’t know. Wheel popped off.”

“I see. You’re saying you walked eight miles from there?”

“Approximately,” my mom inserted again. “With the children it was much slower.” The Russian nodded thoughtfully, looking down at me. I held his eyes, unwavering.

“Very well,” he said, clapping our driver on the shoulder, “Please, come inside.

There you will find food, clothes, and central heating.”

Gratefully mumbling thank-yous, our group shuffled in. Inside, we discovered, the station was exactly as small as it seemed: a few small coffee tables in front of a couch leaning against one of the walls, badges and banners hung up on the rest of them. A collection of certificates and maps were cluttered on a desk pushed against the side wall, where there were several computers and landlines running at the same time. A steel door led to another room further in the station, but from the look of it, it was locked pretty heavily. Another soldier stood up as we flooded the room, saluting to his comrade and turning to us with a skeptical look.

“Do you have your passports on you? Did you pass border control? Where was your destination?” He peppered us with questions without pausing for breath.

“We did not just walk all this way to be sent back there,” the young man from our group grumbled, folding his arms across his chest.

“Please,” my mom said gently. “We just need to get to somewhere safe.” “Do you have Russian passports?”

Half of our company muttered inaudible responses in agreement. The man’s expression softened to what almost looked like a smile.

“All right.” He nodded, sitting down behind the desk in the corner and putting on a pair of headphones. “I can arrange for you to be taken to St. Petersburg. This area isn’t safer than where you came from, since the Ukrainian military has been shooting back at us.”

My mom nodded eagerly. The soldier gave a quick half-smile and turned on his microphone before pelting a string of quiet directions into it, his fingers dancing across the keyboard.

*          *          *

The army truck arrived promptly the next morning at six. I wasn’t much too flattered, having to wake up so early after another mostly sleepless night, but, yawning, I let myself get ushered onboard. Rubbing my eyes as someone slipped a box with scrambled eggs and toast into my hands, I found myself sitting somewhere cramped between a leather seat and metal bars. I yelped.

“Chill out, kid,” another Russian army man called back, looking me in the eyes through the mirror. “You’re not arrested. This was the biggest car the corps had, but unfortunately it’s typically used for escorting criminals.”

I shook my head, my eyes wide. Oh, the stories I would have to tell.

We drove for maybe two hours, three. I perked up once I started seeing tall, gray buildings spring up around us, flickering past us as we speeded down the highway. The sky was a depressing shade of light gray as well, unlike the blue oceans at the border. Cars honked in every direction. Traffic lights flashed faster than ever, hurting my eyes.

“Are we there yet?” I whispered to my mom, whose eyes seemed to be lighting up with excitement as we drove closer and closer to her hometown.

“We’re almost there,” she whispered back. “I’m starting to recognize some places . . . look, to the left is the subway. And if you keep turning right for a couple of blocks, you’ll get to the concert hall.”

I smiled at my mom’s childish enthusiasm, wondering how it would feel to me, coming back to Avdiivka after decades of living someplace else. Would I be happy? Would I be mournful? Would I even want to be there?

The truck dropped us off somewhere in the suburbs of St. Petersburg, and we wobbled out, our legs feeling like jelly. Several pedestrians shot us sharp looks, which I ignored.

“Thank you so much,” my mom said to our military driver, shaking his hand. He saluted us cheerfully. “Proud to serve.”

We backed up as the vehicle spun around and left, a trail of smoke curling behind it. I waved behind it, hoping some of the other passengers would wave back, though through the tinted windows, I couldn’t see. I’ll never know.

My mom exhaled loudly.

“We’re here,” she announced, unable to contain her excitement.

Dialing a number quickly on her phone, she raised it to her ear, tapping her foot the same way I do when I can’t wait for the line to connect. Finally, it did.

“Sergey!” she exclaimed. “Oh, it’s so great to hear you again. Me and Misha just got to the city. What? . . . yeah, naturally. No, it’s all good . . . mhm.”

She adjusted the button of my coat.

“Now? You want to pick us up now?” I heard her say. “Well, you don’t need to if it isn’t a good time . . . no, I’m sure I could find a hotel of sorts . . . you’re right, I know, it’s the middle of the city, but I remember—goodness gracious, you think I don’t remember my birthtown?”

I squatted down and inspected a half-ripped leaf floating in a tiny puddle nearby like a boat sailing across a beautiful sea. The moon reflected in the water perfectly, like a mirror, and I wondered if this is what all nights could be like. Calm. “ . . . Thank God. You’re a lifesaver,” my mom finished. “All right, thank you so much . . . yep, see you in a few.” She hung up.

“My brother will pick us up in a minute,” she practically squealed, and I grinned. “I don’t believe you’ve ever met your uncle, did you, Mishka?”

The moon reflected in the water perfectly, like a mirror, and I wondered if this is what all nights could be like. Calm.

She ruffled my hair.

“This will be wonderful,” she continued dreamily. “He said he has some space in his apartment for the two of us. And your second cousins live a short drive away as well! Oh, you’ll love it here, I promise you.”

I nodded slightly, still feeling dampened by the intermittent rain and the weight of everything on my shoulders. How could I be thinking of restarting my life here, in one of the greatest cities in the world, while my best friend was all bundled up in her apartment, scared of going out in the street? How could my mom be so happy when people were dying by the thousands, unable to finish living the lives they deserved? How could anyone be calm when the world was tearing itself apart, brother waging war against brother?

It has to end, I decided, because we’re one nation. One people. One Earth. And if we’re going to live together, we should live in agreement and harmony.

We must live in peace.

*          *          *


I walk down the wet sidewalk, kicking a pebble. The rain has stopped, but raindrops fall down on me off of the leaves on the lonely trees lining either side of the pathway like servants in a mansion. Every street is dotted with gray brick buildings with people pouring in and out on doorways, laughing, talking, yelling at their phones. I turn the corner and jog across the road to the small park square on the other side, hearing the slosh of a taxi running over a puddle. There’s no people here, only an occasional squirrel scurrying on the benches or an acorn dropping from branches above. It looks a lot like Avdiivka.

I wonder where Varya is now. Of course, I already know the answer. She’s in Poland. Her family would get evacuated there when things got really messy. Somewhere in the countryside, maybe in the city. She’ll be twelve soon; that’s how old I was when I left. When I left her behind.

Maybe she plays violin. She always wanted to learn violin; she used to drag me to concerts and recitals so I could listen with her, and I remember the spark in her amber eyes that would light up every time a bow hit the strings. She used to say that she’d learn my favorite songs on violin so that I’d listen to her play all night and all day. I’d laugh and tease her about never being patient enough to learn such a virtuoso instrument, but she rolled her eyes and shook her head at that every time.

Maybe she has many city friends. Varya made friends easier than I ever did; she just had such a bright, bubbly personality that everyone fell in love with her and her hunger for adventures. I stuck with the same group of classmates I played soccer with every day at recess every year up until I left, but she seemed to gain friends every second. What are friends like in Poland? Did she have to learn Polish? Maybe she goes shopping with them on weekends and they buy ice cream at the mall while they browse through aisles of jeans and dresses. Does she still like strawberry? It was her favorite since forever.

Maybe she forgot about me. I wonder that often, especially on sleepless nights when I get up and stare out the window at the sad streets below and all the hooded strangers walking past. Does she still remember her best friend? Am I still her best friend? It’s been so long since I hugged her. Scratch that, it’s been so long since I’ve talked to her. Even written to her.

I pull out my pocket sketchbook, the one I always drew birds in when I birdwatched by the old swing set in Avdiivka. I fish a pencil stub out of my jacket pocket as well and set the tip down on the paper, thinking.

“Dear Varya,

It’s been such a long time since I’ve last seen you. Almost two years have gone by but still, every day I wake up and remember how you’d bang on my door on Saturdays.”


I paused with a smile and added,


“Begging for pancakes.”

“How’s Poland? I hope you like it there. St. Petersburg is really cool, honestly. There’s theaters and concert halls and lots of parks here, and a whole lot more people. Also royal palaces and museums full of things saved from hundreds of years ago. Hundreds of years, you understand? I went to one where there was an entire room made out of real amber. You’d love it here. It’s a really big, interesting place compared to Avdiivka.

I go to a Russian school now. I mean, a completely Russian school. It’s not much different. We learn the same subjects and still have lunch and recess the same way we used to. My mom signed me up for soccer, so now I play that too outside of school. Maybe one day you can come to one of my matches and root for my team! Games get pretty intense when we play against other districts.

I miss Avdiivka pretty badly. I don’t know what shape it was in when you left, but I still remember it as the small, cozy town where we grew up. Wikipedia says it’s a ghost town now. Well, that’s okay too. We’ll come back, I promise. Okay? I know the war tore it down and it seems like there’s no hope left. But there’s always hope. If no one will rebuild it, we will. We will reconstruct every building, restore every park. We’ll take the pieces and glue them together, one by one. It won’t be War and Pieces anymore, it will be Peace. No matter how long it takes, we will bring it back.”


I lifted my eyes up to the sky, tapping the pencil to my lips, thinking. My emotions were a colorfully stirred up salad that I didn’t seem to have the words to pour out on paper. Too much would still be left unsaid, so why not leave it vague?

A soccer ball bumped into my ankle, making me jolt out of my thoughts as I looked around to see who had thrown it.

“Um, excuse me?” a small voice next to me said.

I looked down at a little boy dressed in soccer shorts and a jersey observing me with a guilty smile on his face. He gestured to the ball.

“Oh, is this yours?” I asked, picking it up and tossing it to him. The boy caught it, elated.

“Thank you.” He beamed, brushing some wet grass off the sides. “I was just practicing and—”

“You like soccer?” I nodded, smirking. He reminded me of myself when I was younger: carefree, innocent. Besides, he didn’t seem to have company with him. How could he possibly play a good game of soccer on his own?

Fall 1
Fall 1

“Yup,” he said smartly, pointing at the crest on his chest, “I want to be in the World Cup one day!”

I laughed, standing up and flicking my wrist towards the small field behind the benches. “Want to play a match with me?”

The kid stared at me with a surprised, almost disbelieving expression on his face. “Really? You bet!”

He sprinted away, yelling at me to follow. I smiled to myself, pocketing my notebook and trotting behind him, watching his yellow shirt bounce up and down.

Maybe there was still a little light in the world. There was hope after all. These children will be our future.