Through the darkness, she could see the dead man sitting in a chair somewhere between the basement steps and the cluster of tents. All but one tent drooped, as if they were as drunk as the men sleeping inside them. The one standing straight and prim, its green burlap taught against aluminum poles – it was empty. She thought it belonged to the dead man in the chair. What she didn’t understand was why none of the soldiers slept in it or tore it down or burned it.

Not all of the men were sleeping in tents. Some were inside the charred remains of what used to be homes. Some slept under a blanket, using and empty rucksack as a pillow. Some, like the man she watched now, slept out in the street, flat on his back, his legs sprawled and an empty vodka bottle resting in a limp hand. His rifle lay on the ground next to him, its strap sprawled out on the street a good meter or so away from the soldier.

Angelina looked around, then closed her eyes and tried to remember – again, exactly who the man with the phone was. She tried to remember seeing him laugh, then dart away when she looked at him. She remembered running up the steps, watching him stumble away with the vodka in his hand. He was maybe 1.7 meters tall. Black hair. Soiled fatigues. They all had black hair. They all had vodka in their hands. She had watched him stumble along the street, saw him laugh and then collapse on the street. At the time, she hoped he had fallen over dead.

Then she had felt hands wrap around her ankles and pull her back down the steps. She had hit her chin on the cement steps. She rubbed it now, a swirl of ache and numbness and the edge of a burning pain along her skin where the steps had cut a gash. She was pretty sure the man she was looking at now was in the same position as she had seen him just a few hours before.

The men in the basement were lying haphazardly on the floor, some of them snoring. All the girls had found their way out of the basement and run off into the dark. Walking along the empty street, Angelina felt alone with everyone asleep or shuddering in the darkness somewhere. And she felt the best she possibly could on such a night. A cool wind whipped through her hair and she felt the breath of courage fill her lungs.

Svitlana had run off in the dark, too, but Angelina knew where she would be. She was huddled in the living room of her house, one of the few still unscathed by battle. She huddled there because it was familiar and she knew where everything was so she wouldn’t trip over the furniture. She was safe there for the moment, but Angelina knew that wouldn’t last.

Angelina walked towards the man, trying not to let the broken heels of her shoes make too much noise – not that it would matter, but she knew it was best to be careful about such things. Walking amongst sleeping Orcs, one did not take chances.

When she reached the man, she found him barely breathing, deep in the anesthetized sleep that came from the empty bottle in his hand. She knelt down, held her breath, and gently pawed at the right breast pocket of his uniform. She let her breath out when her hand found the phone tucked inside, just as she had remembered.

She clicked it on and saw the circle awaiting a thumbprint. She gingerly picked up his hand and pressed his thumb against the glass. His breath caught and he grumbled something. She let his hand fall away as he rolled over on to his side. The glass lit up and she saw the home screen of his phone. As quick as she could, Angelina went into settings and changed the authentication to a simple password: Lana.

The man grumbled and then his voice made a sharp sound as he rolled onto a rock. His eyes opened, his face twisted with annoyance at the pain that had awoken him. Angelina gasped, her eyes wide as she whipped around to stare at the rifle. The man saw her, rubbed his eyes and then smiled as he moved his hands towards her. Angelina slapped his hand away, kicked him in the side and lunged for his rifle.

The soldier let out a feeble cry from the pain and then struggled to his feet. Angelina ran as fast as she could with the phone in one hand, the rifle in the other. She ran towards Svitlana’s house, her feet thundering against the road like horse’s hooves. She was sure the noise would awaken them all.

Somewhere behind her, the man called out to her. “Hey. Hey you! Come back here!” She didn’t dare look behind her, but instead focused all her energy on the door to Svitlana’s house.

She burst through the door to find Svitlana sitting against the wall, her knees pulled up to her chest as she rocked back and forth, humming. Her voice was tense and hoarse from screaming.

Angelina ran up to her, knelt down and grabbed her hand. “Lana, look at me.” She held the phone up in front of her friend’s face, held it steady for a moment and then heard a chime confirming that Lana’s face was now the only thing that could unlock the phone. You need to take this.” The girl kept rocking, kept humming, her eyes staring straight ahead into the darkness. Angelina wrapped the girl’s fingers around the phone and grabbed her chin. Turning the girl’s face towards her, she said, “You have to hold on to this. Don’t let anybody know you have it.”

Svitlana stared blankly at her for a moment, then asked, “What is it?”

“It’s a recording. of – of -” She didn’t know how to tell her friend what it was. She couldn’t find the words to gently pull the girl’s mind back to what had happened to her just hours before, the dreadful terror of it all that she now tried to hum away. But she didn’t have time. “Lana, it’s a phone with a recording of what they did to you. Hold on to it. We’ll find a way to get you out.”

Svitlana, staring at a place somewhere far behind Angelina’s shoulder, said, “Oh.” She gently pulled the phone away and slipped it into the pocket of her denim skirt, now bloodied from the anguish of the basement. “Why -“

“So the world will know, Lana. They have to know. So they’ll help. I’m sorry. But you understand, yes?”

Svitlana’s expression slackened, as the idea of what it all meant sank in. Angelina could only hope that her friend would be strong enough because she was out of time. She stood up.

“I have to go. Just stay here. Stay quiet. Keep it hidden.” Svitlana nodded and her head gyrated as she pointed her face in Angelina’s general direction. “Good luck.” It was an insipid thing to say, but she didn’t have time to think of anything else

Angelina ran back onto the street. The man was stumbling along, but had caught up to her since she had been inside Lana’s house.

His voice was more sober now, and angry. “There you are!” He glanced at the house. “What’s in there?” Angelina wanted to run, but she knew she couldn’t. He had already asked a question that could never be answered.

“Oh,” he said. “Friend of yours?” He lunged out, trying to grab her hand.

Angelina did the only thing she could do to save her friend’s secret from the scrutiny of a drunk soldier. A drunk soldier, who, thankfully, was the only one that had any reason to think there was anything special about Svitlana.

Angelina leveled the rifle. He grinned. “Oh, what’s this now? Do you even know how to work -“

Before he could finish the question, Angelina flipped the safety off, shouldered the weapon and fired one clean shot straight into the soldier’s face.

©2022 Michael J Lawrence

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