The beginning of the end
I placed my hand over my chest to remind myself I was still alive, despite the fact that every thought racing through my head reeked of my demise, my death, and the end of anything I’ve ever loved. But, I forced myself to keep my hand there, feeling my perpetual pulse pound against my weak and unsteady hands.
With each successive bomb that pierced the dense air, ringing vehemently in the surrounding area, my bones shook, and my heart ached. I struggled to breathe and wondered whether I would succumb to asphyxiation prior to any explosion. I continued clutching my chest, though, hoping to grasp on to the only essence of life I could find in the midst of such destruction, and I felt my heart continue to leap out of its cage as if it knew the danger and begged to flee.
I tried to get up, but my leg gave out. I felt disconnected from my body—as it lay limp, my mind wandered. Suddenly, all I could hear was my mother’s voice from two days ago, we need you. I need you. I ignored her at the time, but all I wanted as I lay on the ground alone was to go back, to go back and tell her that I’m sorry.
In reality, I needed her. I needed her to tell me what to do at this moment because she taught me how to clean my room and how to drive a car and how to plant the flowers so it compliments the chipped house paint, but she never taught me how to survive the beginning of a war. I tried to get up, but my legs gave out again.
I don’t know how long I remained frozen on the floor in my dingy living room, allowing the sound of destruction to devour my conscience, but eventually, the explosions were dampened by the unpleasant pounding of rain on my roof. The heavy downpour appeased my fragile body and cradled my senses. Despite the disruptive chaos, I almost felt at peace.
To my surprise, a smile tugged at my lips, and I found myself quietly laughing. It wasn’t heavy laughter, rather a small snicker of disbelief. The rain continued to pour, and the bombs continued to go off somewhere in the distance. And I simply laughed. I laughed because there was no possible way this could be true. I laughed because my parents couldn’t have left me 48 hours ago to face this tragedy on my own.
I laughed, but then I cried.
My parents were right: the war wasn’t just a rumor. It was real, and I rested in the heart of its havoc.
A heavy banging on the front door interrupted my panic, causing me to flinch. For a moment I thought, this is it. This is the end. They’re here to take me.
“Ivan! Are you in there?” Oh, maybe it’s not. “Ivan! It’s Jakov. Come to the door!” he wailed.
I dragged myself out of my dismal lull and followed his voice, rushing to the front door as I wiped away my tears. When I opened it, I faced a man who I’ve known my whole life. Except at that moment, it looked as if he aged twenty years. His eyes drooped, unmistakably desirous of rest. His hair sat atop his head like an abandoned bird’s nest. I stared at his neglected appearance for longer than I should’ve, attempting to examine what he had gone through the last few hours.
“Why are you just staring at me? Come on. Let’s go,” Jakov demanded.
“What’s happening? Where are we going?”
“The Serbian Army is coming to each neighborhood and killing people they see. They dropped bombs a few miles away, but I’ve been told that they’re coming into Samac with their tanks. I don’t think we have a lot of time,” he pleaded. “I knew you stayed, so I came back for you.”
“Why is this happening?” I felt embarrassed by my naivety, but I couldn’t wrap my mind around what was going on.
“They want power, and they’ll do anything to get it.”
For a moment, silence hung in the air.
“Okay, I’m coming, but give me one second,” I said, and I went back into my home before he could say anything.
When I walked back into my living room, I expected the rush of emotions that had overwhelmed me just a few minutes ago to come flooding back; however, I felt nothing. None of this felt real.
Before I left my house, not knowing when or if I’d ever come back, I grabbed not food or water, but two things: the crucifix that hung in my living room and the picture of my family that once hung outside of my bedroom. I folded the picture, putting it into the pocket of my jacket right next to the aged cross. When I came back to the front door, Jakov was shaking his head, either out of impatience or annoyance. I couldn’t tell which one.
“Was that really necessary?” he asked.
“Yes. Yes, it’s necessary.”
When I walked outside, I didn’t confront a chaotic storm. Instead, a soft drizzle lightly doused both of our bodies. Above us, the clouds blanketed the entire sky—an eerie grey mass that ran for miles. I tried to look for the sun, even just a glimpse of it, but it seemed to be engulfed by the gray beast. I glanced around my neighborhood, which looked decayed and desolate. Not a soul walked the streets, except for the truck that was parked in front of my house.
“I’m driving. Get in the back,” Jakov motioned to the back end of the truck. “I don’t know if you know any of the others in there, but make yourself comfortable. It’ll be a long ride.”
I didn’t give a response other than a hesitant nod.
Inside, there were eight of us, including me. Three men sat in the front, while the other five laid in the back. The metal floor of the truck felt cool on my face, but the musty, dense air made it difficult to breathe. To my left, four other men shook, despite the warm air.
None of us spoke. In the silence, I heard my mother’s voice in my head, and it brought me back to a year ago after my father lost his job. I walked in on her as she sat hunched over a table, crying. I asked her if she was okay. She turned around, surprised I was awake so late at night.
I’m sorry, Ivan, you shouldn’t see me like this.
Is everything okay?
Well, no. She wiped away her tears, looked at me longingly, and smiled. No, but we’ll figure it out, right? It’s not okay now, but it will be one day.
“Oh no,” Jakov fretted.
Reflexively, I looked out the window and saw two tanks behind us; their size made our truck look insignificantly meager in comparison. The man next to me clutched the back of my jacket and pulled me back to the floor. However, I fell awkwardly and rolled over him, now lying in the middle of the truck.
“Are you stupid? Why would you get up?” he chastised.
I looked at him, wide-eyed, questioning what to say because I didn’t even know his name.
Then it happened.
It happened so quickly. All of my senses were overwhelmed by a deafening explosion. My body flew to the left. Half of the truck was now blown off, and it lay sideways. But I still remained inside whatever was left.
I didn’t try to get up immediately because I feared I couldn’t, and I seemed to only be able to focus on the ringing in my ears. I attempted to look around the haze of smoke, but I couldn’t distinguish anything, couldn’t understand my surroundings.
I felt someone tugging my arm, and I looked up, relieved to see Jakov’s face. He pulled me off of the ground, and I started following him as he led me through the dense smog. I stepped over a body and quickly realized it was the man who pulled me to the ground of the truck a few seconds earlier.
I couldn’t breathe.
Once again I heard my mother’s voice. It’s not okay now, but it will be one day. I repeated it in my mind as I clutched the cross in my pocket, continuing blindly forward, hoping her words still could be true.
It’s not okay now, but it will be one day.