With each shell that whistled through the night, the small boy who’d fallen asleep with his head in Yulia’s lap whimpered, and she stroked his hair and sang a soft lullaby. For him, for all the children holed up in her basement apartment, and for herself. Did she dare bring a child into this world, a child whose father might already have been killed in the war? But it served no purpose to ponder what the future held for her; all she dared focus on was getting through this night. Then, a blast landed so close she could hear glass shatter and rubble cascade to the ground. Marina, mother and grandmother to eight men and boys out fighting for their country, cried out and again cursed the devil who’d visited this hellscape upon them.
Still, Yulia could not help but think about Maksym. Worry never kept anyone safe, but she hoped he had food and water and warm clothing and enough ammunition. And then she prayed. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, the skies quieted, and those who were still awake eyed each other in the dim slit of light filtering through the dirty street-level windows. The question passed around the basement apartment was clear: Was it finally time to leave?
The old man who lived on the fourth floor—once a soldier, now past the age to serve—met Yulia’s gaze with a nod. She gently eased the boy onto a folded blanket and rose, brushing the night from her eyes. The old man held out a hand and she took it, careful to step between the sleeping bodies and their possessions as they made their way toward the exit. He stopped her there and put a palm to the door. She understood it was to check for fire; with shuddering horror she recalled hearing about some of her neighbors trapped in their burning buildings. Apparently he deemed it safe, and soon they stumbled into the burgeoning daylight. There, on the sidewalk, Yulia’s heart damn near stopped beating. The old soldier cursed. The building had been hit. No. Not just hit. The eastern corner of the top two floors had been lopped off as if a giant had swept it off in a fit of pique. Bare rebar and splintered wood hung askew. Each breeze plumed concrete dust up into the air. Disbelief froze Yulia to the spot, then she burned with anger. She spun toward the old man, mouth open to vent her fury, but he stopped her.
“It’s time,” he said. “Come. Let’s see to the others.”
The denizens of the basement looked as if sleepwalking, when he first made the announcement, then they shook themselves back to reality and moved with greater purpose. “One bag per person,” the old man said, helping a frail woman to her feet.
Yulia sighed. What she hadn’t already sold or given away wasn’t worth taking. The only possession that mattered was the leather portfolio her parents had presented her upon her art school graduation. Among other work, it contained sketches of the neighborhood children, and of course those of him. With his molten eyes and broad shoulders—across the room while she sketched him and later, many times later, above her. “Maksym, you rotten bastard,” she thought, with a secret smile and a press of her hand to her belly. “How could I have let you leave?”
But she didn’t have the luxury to think about her own dramas. She found teddy bears and blankies and picture books; she dried tears and hugged mothers and cursed Russia. Then plucked her portfolio from the closet, and into its inside pocket, she tucked a change of clothing, and a gun.