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Cellar

His mother had seized him and nearly thrown him into the potato cellar in her haste. He had yelped as his rear hit the dirt floor.
“I can fight!” he’d cried, but his mother snatched the ladder up so he couldn’t climb out. “Let me up!”
“Be quiet,” his mother had snapped, and pushed his sister down after him. The little girl had been crying. “There are more important things than fighting.”
Then she had dropped the cover over the hole, plunging her children into darkness.
That had been more than a week ago.
The boy and his sister had survived off of the food stored in the cellar, but now it was running low, and the boy still hadn’t figured out how to get out.
The rebels had come just minutes after his mother had closed the cellar. He’d heard them shout questions at her, their voices muffled by the thick floor. She had responded quietly, but the boy guessed what was coming next and covered his sister’s mouth.
The sharp report of an automatic rifle had ripped what peace had reigned into shreds.
The girl had screamed against his hand and bit him. Wincing, he’d wrapped his other arm around her and rocked her as he had once seen his mother do.
She hadn’t talked since, but then, neither had he.
It wasn’t until hours later that he had stuck the first match and looked at his sister’s face. Her eyes were shut against the sudden light, and her thin brown hair was still in its neat braids. A tiny birthmark marred her left cheek, and he brushed his thumb against it. That gentle touch spawned silent tears falling from her still-closed eyes, and he doused the match and hugged the tiny girl.
Every so often, they heard the heavy tread of the boots of the terrorists who now occupied the house he had lived in his whole life.
He wondered what they had done with his mother’s body.
He wondered what had happened to his father.
He wondered what had happened to his older sister, run off to join the army.
He wondered whether his grandparents had survived.
Wondering was the only thing that kept him sane. If he stopped to truly think, terror would grip him until he succumbed to it.
Every time he struck a match, his sister’s eyes were closed.
He wondered if they were always shut.
The darkness was so complete that it didn’t matter whether his eyes were open or not.
Then his sister screamed, out of the blue. The boy swore wildly and wrapped an arm around his sister’s head, cutting off her voice.
Heart pounding, he listened for the men upstairs. They shouted questions to each other. He heard their thundering boots all over the house.
Suddenly he heard the front door boom open, and hard shouts, and again the report of gunfire.
And then there was silence, until the sound of a single pair of boots approached the hidden cover of the cellar.
The boy carried his little sister into the corner behind the cover and crouched, pulling empty potato sacking over them.
The wood of the floor above creaked, and light flooded through the spaces in the weave of the sacking. He heard the sound of the ladder being dropped back down, and then the thud of combat boots hitting the floor of the cellar.
The boy held his little sister close, hardly daring to breathe.
The person wearing the boots walked the perimeter of the cellar. The boy hunched closer into the corner.
The boot-wearer walked back into the center of the cellar and stood there silently for a long time.
Finally the boy could not stifle the rising grasp of terror. He ripped the sacking off of him, leaving it covering his little sister.
The person in the center of the room turned toward him and drew her pistol.
“Come forward,” she said. “Into the light. Put your hands up.”
Regretting his foolishness more with every second, the boy did as he was told. When he stepped into the light flooding into the cellar from the house above, the soldier breathed a long sigh, holstered her pistol, and stepped forward as well.
“I thought you were gone,” she said.
“We thought the same,” he replied. “We thought you would never come back.”
The soldier crossed the distance between them in two swift strides. She grabbed him in a bear hug.
“You’re my family,” his older sister said. “I will always come back for you.”



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