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A Father's Love
Thirteen years before fall of Jacinto
Dominic Santiago's house, Ephyra.
"I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, 'Mother, what was war?'"
-A pregnant Maria Santiago as she prepares for her husband to leave on a deployment.
"Mommy, why did Daddy have to leave?" Sylvia asked yet again. Her mother, Maria, was busy braiding her hair. Sylvia's grandparents were there also, but the mood was somber.
"You know why," her brother interrupted, "He's got to go kick butt!" He made small karate chops on the last words, accenting them.
"But you said he got to come home for two weeks! I want Daddy!" she kicked her feet and stuck her bottom lip out in a classic pout.
"Hush, child." Her mother said quietly but firmly. She finished with the young girl's braid and tied a small ribbon at the end. The little girl in front of her stood up, and her mother patted her on the butt affectionately. Maria quickly fastened a locket around the child's neck. "Here, sweetheart. I want you to have this."
The girl lifted the necklace in her hand and examined it closely. "What's this, Mommy?"
Her mother bent down in front of her, "Look, if you open it up there's two pictures inside. The one on this side is Mommy and Benedicto, and that one there is you and Daddy." she closed the locket and allowed it to fall back around the girl's neck.
"And here, son. Your father gave this to me to give to you," Grandpa said gruffly, pulling out a small pocket knife. He handed it to Benedicto, reminding him to be careful with it.
"Cool!" Bennie gushed, eyes wide. Something occurred to him, and he glanced back at Grandpa with something akin to fear in his eyes. "But why are we getting these? It's not a holiday."
Maria didn't know how to answer, and looked to her father-in-law for help. He patted Bennie on the back and smiled. Before he could answer, a small shock made the house quake, causing the glasses to clink in the cabinet and a small sprinkling of dust to fall down onto the silent party in the kitchen.
Grandmother gave a small, terse smile and nodded to Sylvia. "Why don't you and Bennie go and play, and let us talk to your mom." The way she stated it wasn't a question.
Sylvia skittered down the hallway back to her room, calling out an "Okay, Grandma!" over her shoulder. She came to a stop in a jungle of toys and baby dolls. Two unmade beds were in the room, one covered with a bright pink blanket, the other with a camouflage one. She ignored all of this though, and headed for the small window that looked into a neighbor's house. It was low to the ground, short enough for her skinny four year old arms to reach up and open halfway. She peered into the adjoining window of the neighbors' house. Looking disgruntled, she picked a small stone off the pile on her windowsill. She lightly tossed it at the other window, creating a light clinking sound when it hit. They were kept there for that very reason.
A few minutes later the window opened, revealing another young girl. They looked remarkably alike, with long dark hair and olive skin. They were the same age, and of Latino descent, which foretold their similar features.
Sylvia smiled. "Hey, Brianna. Whatcha wanna do today?"
"My daddy told me to stay inside today," the other girl said. She glanced down to Sylvia's outfit and her eyes seemed to brighten. "Is that the same dress your mom gave me?"
Sylvia looked down, seeming to notice what she was wearing for the first time. She nodded excitedly and said, "Yeah! Go put yours on and we'll be twins for the day!"
Brianna nodded eagerly. "Okay!" she disappeared into her room. She came back to the window, wearing the same navy blue outfit as Sylvia. She was smiling excitedly, until something caught her eye and she frowned.
"What's wrong?" Sylvia asked her.
"Your hair. It's in a braid." she said unhappily.
Sylvia reached back and touched her hair, realizing that she was right. Brianna's hair hung straight down her back because she had no mother to pin it up for her. Sylvia, in a bought of curiosity, had once asked her daddy what had happened to Brianna's mom. His eyes had gone dark, and he had told her simply that, "She's not in the picture anymore." Sylvia couldn't imagine what it would be like without her mommy. She pulled the tip of her braid to her chest, and began working on the thin ribbon that kept it in place. She ran her fingers through her hair, undoing all her mother's hard work.
"There!" she exclaimed happily, "We really are twins now!" Brianna nodded, smiling widely. "So," Sylvia continued, "Wanna go play in the sandbox out back?"
Brianna glanced to the backyard. "But I was told to stay inside," she whined unhappily, and Sylvia could tell she was dying to break the rules.
"Come on. The backyard isn't outside, it's practically part of the house. You won't get in trouble, I promise." Sylvia told her, and her eyes gleamed.
"All right then. I'll meet you there." She disappeared into her room again, leaving the window open. Now all Sylvia had to do was get outside. The front door was locked, and her brother Bennie was playing by the back door. Suddenly, she got an idea. She went to retrieve her stool from the bathroom, the one she used to brush her teeth every morning. She paused halfway through the hallway because she could hear the adults talking in the kitchen.
"…everything's very hush-hush. The government's not saying anything." she could just barely make out her grandmother's voice.
"I need Dom here," her mom's voice was quiet. "I can't do this without him."
"What do you mean 'this'? Ain't nothing happening. The COG's just being paranoid and recalling all troops to make themselves feel better," her grandpa muttered, "The earth shakes a few times and the army yells that the sky is falling. He'll be back here in a few days, I guarantee it."
Sylvia heard his heavy boot falls getting louder, so she scurried back to her shared room. She placed a pile of books on the floor underneath her window, and carefully dropped the stool onto the soft carpet of grass below. She had just managed to heft one leg up and over the windowsill, when the bedroom door creaked open. She turned to face the intruder.
"What are you doing?" Bennie asked incredulous. He quickly stepped into the room and shut the door behind him before mother could see.
"I'm going to go play in the sandbox out back. Wanna come?" she asked him. She reached for the stool with her toe.
"No way. You heard what Mom said, it's dangerous out there." He watched her warily, seeing her stretch her foot out towards the ground below her.
She rolled her eyes at him. "Chicken," she said simply, a dare written on her face.
Bennie sighed, remembering the promise his father had made him make. He had stood in front of him, wearing the most serious face that he could muster at his six year old age. When I'm on duty, you're the man of the house. Take care of your sister, and your mother for me.
Take care of your sister.
He groaned quietly. At this point, she was almost out of the window, and he followed her. It was much easier for his taller frame to reach the stool and climb out the window. Brianna was waiting for them, already on her way to building a soaring sand castle.
"Hey!" Sylvia called out excitedly, and joined her in the sand. Bennie stood behind them, nervously keeping an eye out for his mother to come storming down the narrow walk with fire in her eyes.
Brianna frowned at the crack in her shovel. She brightened with an idea and stood up suddenly, calling "I'll be right back!" over her shoulder. She crawled into a basement window in her own home. Sylvia continued molding a mote around the castle.
"Sure you don't want to play?" she asked her brother.
He narrowed his eyes at her and was just about to reply when a violent shaking started behind him. Bennie turned suddenly, peering into the street. He walked forward cautiously, trying to get a better look. He ended up in the front yard, looking up and down the street.
Brianna crawled out of the basement window, looking worried. "What's going on?" she asked Sylvia, the newly acquired shovel now dangling forgotten in her hands.
"I don't know…" she trailed off, looking around. "I'm going to go see if my mommy is okay." She tore off for the stool, catching the windowsill in her hands and lifting herself up with a strength her young age belied.
She could hear her mom yelling for her inside, then the slam of the front door. Heart beating frantically, she leaned out her window to a gruesome sight. She could just barely make out the middle of the street sinking into the Earth. Her eyes widened, and she tried to climb out the window again. Something with white, scarred hands was beginning to climb out of the hole.
Before she could lift her foot over the windowsill, Bennie ran back through the narrow walkway between the houses. "Come on!" he screamed at Brianna, the tense situation causing him to mistake her for Sylvia. "Mom's waiting for us!" He grabbed her arm and pulled her in the direction of the street.
Brianna struggled against him, screaming for him to let her go. The world had collapsed into turmoil, and the only sounds were the screams and sharp retort of gunfire.
"Wait!" Sylvia called after them, and she struggled to climb out of the window. She had just managed to push her head out the small window when a ghastly scene met her eyes. Through her narrow vantage point, she saw Bennie turn his head to look at Mother. Something ripped through him, leaving a glittering trail of blood on the hot pavement below. He fell to his knees, jerking as more bullets pierced his body. Brianna turned to run, when a spare bullet found its way into her head, shattering her skull and causing instant death. She too, fell to the ground.
"No!" the little girl screamed, seemingly not realizing what she was doing. She allowed herself to fall out of the window, scrambling to her feet. She saw her mother bending over Bennie's body, sobs racking her body. Sylvia called out for her mother, but her voice was drowned out under the chaos that had invaded her sleepy street. She had almost made it out of the passage way between the two houses, when a man appeared and covered the image of her mother and brother. She barely had time to glance up to register him as Brianna's father before he scooped her up and ran with her back down the aisle, away from the street.
"No!" she said and kicked him weakly, "No, take me back! Take me back!"
He jolted, and his eyes grew wide. He fell on top of Sylvia, coughing up blood. He held her tight in one arm, protecting her from the bullets that were still ringing through the air above them. His other hand found the small locket, and not realizing what he was doing, squeezed it until the hinge broke. He looked down, and his last sight was of the girl who was not his daughter. He gasped in surprise, then slumped over her as one last bullet found his back.
She struggled against his weight, and the broken half of the locket fell to the ground, creating a light tinkling when it hit. She scrambled out from his grasp, not allowing herself to look too closely at his bleeding form. She turned to run back to Mother and Benedicto, when a grub appeared over her brother's body and stopped, sniffing the air. The thing was tall, taller than her daddy. It looked so inhuman, with it's short thick nose and wide set eyes. He stretched his grey and mottled skin over his teeth, and inhaled deeply. He looked down the passage way, and her eyes widened when its gaze stopped on her. Without thinking, she turned and ran through the backyard and into the woods, waiting for the sharp sting of a bullet to hit her. She ran past the broken half of her locket, blood slowly staining the face of her father and herself red.
She ran and ran, sometimes stumbling over the uneven ground. She wanted to outrun the day, to outrun the images of her brother and best friend dying in front of her, and the shock in the man's eyes as he finally died. She wanted to outrun the fear that had gripped her when the pale thing had looked at her. She wanted to run, and to never stop. Her lungs burned and her hair tangled behind her. Finally she tripped over something and stayed down. She curled into a little ball, looking for her house and finding no trace of it. This was so much farther than she had ever been, even with her father. She clasped her hands over her ears to block out the muffled cracks of gunfire. Shaking and crying, she laid on the ground, humming to herself to add some semblance of normalcy. Exhausted by her emotions and her crying, she finally fell asleep.
A hand shook her awake sometime later. She jolted, eyes wide with fear, halfway expecting the white man to have followed her.
"Hey," a man said softly, drawing his hand back slowly. "What's your name?"
It was only a split second decision, one made in a moment of fear and uncertainty. She had wanted to escape this world, this new one without her brother and best friend. She wanted to be rid of it forever, to be rid of herself. She never thought of what the possible consequence would be when she opened her mouth and said, "Call me Brianna." She stood up and felt something slide around her neck. She reached up and found the other half of the locket, still attached to the chain. Her eyes welled up as she saw her brother's and mother's smiling faces.
"Here," the stranger said, holding out his hand. "Come with me. I'll keep you safe."
Sylvia reached up and took his hand, her other still clenching the broken locket tight in her small fist.