To read the original Swedish version, click here.
Anya drove as fast as possible on the damaged road with deep tracks and eroded edges that led to “the Den”, as the civilians called the building that once served as dining hall and administration centre for a steel mill. She glanced at Liam in the passenger seat while hauling up the cell phone from her pocket. He was leaning his head against the window, eyes closed. She hoped he was only sleeping. The hand he had held to the bandage around his stomach and the wound under it had fell down in his lap, and there was fresh blood on it. The hunt for food in the mostly blown up city center had given them anything but food.
She reached out with her hand as the ringback tone sounded and shook his shoulder gently. “Liam, are you awake?”
He inhaled, looking up. “Yeah…”
“That’s good. Keep it up.” He was too pale.
“Hello?” she heard Ina’s voice in the other end, distorted and cut up. They had hacked into the mobile phone network but when noone was maintaining it, you had to be happy for what you got.
“Is it 2358?” Anya asked. It wasn’t asking about Ina’s number, it was asking if it was safe to talk.
“No, it’s 1392”, Ina answered, confirming it was.
“We’re there soon.”
“How is he?”
“Well, what the hell do you think, he’s shot in his stomach.”
Anya looked at Liam again. He had sunk back against the window, but at least his eyes were open now.
“It won’t be long at least”, she answered. “Did Liv and Loneh come back yet?” The two had headed for the other end of the city.
“Let’s talk about that when…” Ina fell silent.
No, Anya thought. No. “Take it now”, she said.
“Loneh’s here. Liv is dead.”
“Liv’s dead”, Anya repeated, and gave a quiet laughter. That sounded ridiculous. Then her chest began to shrink. “What…?” she said, her voice so thin all of a sudden. Her body got it. A scream of thorny darkness spread from the pit of her stomach and tightened around her throat. But the brain didn’t get it.
“A wall collapsed and she was crushed to death.” Ina sounded reluctant.
The field of vision narrowed. Everything outside the grey concrete with its potholes and torn off chunks disappeared and it wasn’t until she had to dodge the large pit that was eating its way through the road one kilometer before the guards that she realized that Ina was trying to talk to her and that she had accelerated considerably. She slowed down, met Liam’s gaze, and pressed her thumbnails into her index fingers so the tears would stay in her eyes.
“Yeah, I’m still here”, she said, answering Ina’s question. Her voice was cold. Dead. But she could break down later. Liam was still alive.
“We’re there soon. I’m hanging up.”
After being checked by Elvin and Mark, who were guarding at the fence around the complex, she could finally park the car at the entrance to the Den. She had to wake Liam up again, he hadn’t been able to stay awake, and she had completely forgotten about him for a while.
“Can you walk?”
He didn’t answer, but nodded some at least, and was apparently preparing to get out of the car. That was good. If he thought he could walk on his own she would let him do it. The civilians here looked up to them, the soldiers, the guardians. The less weaknesses they showed, the better.
Anya walked around the car and took a gentle hold around his arms. Ina met them, holding up the door and looked around the steel mill searchingly as if expecting an assault. They had been fine so far, but the lesson they had learned at their previous hideout was still fresh in all their minds.
“Is the bullet still there?” Ina asked as they led Liam through the corridor, past the big room where the civilians gathered at daytime when they weren’t occupied with maintenance of the Den, and to the smaller room that used to be offices but now served as hospital, storage rooms, bedrooms.
“No, it went through.”
“Are you sure?” They helped Liam lie down on the table that was Ina’s makeshift operating table. He moaned with pain when he was forced to use the injured muscles.
“One shot, two holes.”
The shooter had turned up from behind a burned out bus, aimed at them without a word, and they had raised their hands in the air, distrustfully, since it every existing radio channel announced at least once per hour that the three week long ceasefire was still in effect. Of course Anya and Liam hadn’t been unarmed, but they had carried their weapons on their backs, not even touching them, showed all signs of peaceful intentions. Then the shot had been fired. Anya had almost grabbed her own weapons to shoot that asshole, but Liam’s shaky “The hell…” had made her shift focus.
“Get outside now”, Ina said, “and when Aidin comes back you keep him away, understood?”
Anya nodded. Outside she met Ina’s assistant, Zack, who went inside to help Ina with Liam, and Loneh. Loneh who had been with Liv when she was killed.
She didn’t want to see Loneh. She didn’t want to see anyone at all. But Loneh probably had to talk to her. Say that she tried but that there had been nothing to do. She had to say it, Anya got that much, to get some of the guilt off her shoulders. She’d been in the same situation herself. Maybe Anya herself would have to explain to Aidin in a couple of hours that she had done everything she could too, but that it hadn’t been enough?
Loneh looked at her as if she was scared.
“What happened?” Anya asked, not that she really wanted to know, but so Loneh would start speaking so they could have that over and done with. She barely listened. She picked up the essential. There was no doubt that Liv had died under the collapsed wall, and that it had been a quick death. She was still there, Loneh told Anya, she hadn’t been able to dig her free and didn’t dare to stay for long. Lucky her, Anya though, or she might have got a bullet in the stomach too.
“I’m sorry”, Loneh said. Again. She had already said it three times. For what? Was she responsible for every damn wall that any of her friends happened to stand close too?
“It wasn’t your fault”, Anya answered, it was what Loneh needed to hear. Anya herself needed to punch her and shout at her how fucking stupid she had been who hadn’t looked after Liv better. Liv, who had been the oldest among them and served the longest in this temporary defence troop that once had been part of a Home Guard unit, which had lost its structure and been spread out like gnawed clean fruit cores. Some had managed to grow strong, others had rotten away. Their own group had remained strong thanks to Liv.
Then Zack came out and told Loneh to come with, she and Liam had the same blood type and he needed her blood now. Anya was grateful to be interrupted.
There was a cubby hole on the next floor that was unused. She went there, closed the door and sank down against the wall, huddled. If there was anything this war had taught her, it was to cry silently. That didn’t mean she cried calm and still. She screamed without vocal cords and grabbed her hair and clenched her fists so hard she might as well pull the hair off, the soundless sobbing shaking her whole body.
Eventually she had to take control over the crying, but she was still sobbing when the door suddenly opened and a little girl stood in the opening and looked at her with big eyes.
“Are you sad?” she asked.
Anya nodded. She had no energy to pretend. It was too late anyway.
“Yeah, I’m sad.”
“Because my best friend ever died today.” Her voice disappeared at the end, smothered by grief.
“Are you burying her in the lawn then?”
“Yeah. Eventually.” If there’s anything to bury when I get there, she thought, but it was unnecessary to complicate things.
The girl didn’t seem to come up with more things to say.
“What were you doing here?” Anya asked.
“We were going to play hide-and-seek.”
Anya stood up and wiped her face with her palms. “You’re not supposed to be up here and play, you should be where we can see you.”
“Then you can’t be here either.”
“No. I’m going downstairs too now.”
“Did you need to be left alone?”
God, kids were so easy sometimes. She ruffled the girl’s short black hair and followed her downstairs. She was filled with anger when she saw the burnmark the girl had at the back of her neck. It was old now, but still a wound caused by a bunch of nation leaders’ inability to act more civilized than this kid when she fought with her friends about ragdolls and wood blocks.
In the corridor below was Loneh, Zack and Aidin, and she heard Aidin’s voice long before she came within sight.
“…stay for hours but she can’t even talk to me five minutes without asking me to go to hell!”
“When she stitched him up you can go in ther, and this is the last time I’m telling you this”, Zack said sternly. “It was a whole other thing with Ella and her son, and you have to understand that.” Zack went into the hospital room again, but had time to cast an accusing glare at Anya. As if it was her fault that Aidin was mad.
Then she remembered that she had practically promised Ina to keep Aidin away from there. He had one weakness and that was Liam. Ina would have had to sedate Aidin too if he was to be in the room with them.
Without a word she grabbed his arm and dragged him off to the dining hall. In there it was murky as usual, decorative oil burners the only sources of light. What little electricity the spare generators produced – when they worked – was used for fridges and hot water, for lighting only in emergencies. Ina had proper lighting in her rooms, of course. The oil lasted long in the burners, and since the windows were covered they needed light in there.
Some people were in there, a few children playing a board game in a corner, a couple of adults conversing with low voices, yet another few people just sat there, staring emptily at nothing. There was always a subdued mood in here, except when it was radio time. Then it got thick with tension.
Aidin of course hadn’t been quiet one second on the way here. He was the only one except Liv who never let his voice be affected, who always spoke straight and clear, never husehd. But when they stepped inside the dining hall, Anya had silenced his anger over Ina’s unfair treatment with a short “Let it go”. They were the soldiers. Masks on.
And he had let it go. But Aidin rarely let things go for long.
Several years ago they could have had a cup of coffee, maybe treat themselves to a cupcake, but in this dining hall, edible things were only prepared twice a day, and nowadays it was usually canned food and grains. But they still sat down at one of the battered and worn-out tables, taking a sip from their water bottles. The instinct to drink together hadn’t left them, despite that none of them had been drinking neither coffee nor tea or alcohol in ages.
Now that Aidin lowered the bottle and inhaled to start talking again, Anya interrupted him in time.
“Do you know that Liv is dead?”
He lost momentum there, you could tell. Then he said: “Yes, I know. What, you don’t think I care? But you know what, Liam’s still fighting for his life, so I’m sorry if I’m not up for crying my eyes out over Liv right now.”
“Mm. You know, I’m kind of thinking the same. Only the opposite. At least Liam’s still alive.”
They looked at each other, silently, both of them equally angry and hurt. Loneh shifted uncomfortably beside them.
“Ina’s fighting for Liam’s life too”, she said, quietly.
Aidin sighed and leaned back in his chair with his face buried in his hands. Anya felt the tears burn behind her eyelids and pressed her knuckles against her lips, pretending to only be leaning on it.
“Okay, I’m not going to compete with you on who’s feeling worst, Aidin”, she said after a while, “I’m just so damn…” There was no reason to try to find the right word, whichever they filled in would be as fitting. Tired, sad, mournful, dejected, angry…
One of the civilians put the radio up on the counter where the food used to be served. It was time for evening broadcast. Public service were still broadcasting, if very limited. At least they got the most important news. Sometimes you could tune in foreign broadcasts, transmitted from pirate stations. They had access to internet at the beginning, but a virus had ruined all the computers at the Den a couple of months ago.
The national anthem was played. That one and other songs that possibly could put the people in a better mood used to play when no other broadcasts were on. When it ended this time, there wasn’t the usual phrase of greeting from the radio host, but someone who shouted out a few words that Anya first couldn’t wrap her head around.
“We have peace! A peace treaty has been signed and enemy forces are expected to withdraw without further delay. Once again, we have peace!”
A few gasps were heard from the people in the room. Several began to cry, most of them laughing at the same time, some hugged each other tightly, others just sat quiet and looked at each other. The radio host continued to inform about the treaty details, but Anya weren’t listening. She and her siblings in arms looked at each other, silently, without moving, until Loneh took their hands and they united in some kind of embrace around the table. Tears were running down Anya’s cheeks, and she heard Loneh and Aidin start laughing that kind of laugh that is equal part crying.
Someone began to remove the window bars, but then Anya stood up.
“Leave them for now. It’ll take a while before all the enemy units get what this is about.” It killed some of the joy, she could tell, but she wasn’t letting more people die, not now.
Peace. A strange word. They had been waiting to hear it so long now that it wasn’t possible to understand it completely now they finally got it. What did it really mean? Would the UN and Red Cross be outside with flowers and marching bands and medics if she opened the door now? Would they go back to their homes, finding them repaired and repainted? Everything was ruined, wasn’t it? Liv was dead. The only thing that would be different was that they wouldn’t have to be afraid of being shot to death by enemies. But who else of their own would decide to shoot you only because you happened to be looking for canned food in an abandoned shopping center…?
The rest of the night, everyone found it hard to focus on anything at all. People were singing and dancing one minute, in the next someone held a quiet memorial speech or told a story from the war that had been, sometimes they all sat in silence, thinking or crying.
Aidin was sitting with Liam, who still hadn’t woken up but that they had all helped moving to the soldiers’ sleeping quarters. Ina and Zack were having a well deserved pause to eat and digest the news of the peace treaty.
Anya and Loneh had gone out to Elvin and Mark, who were on guard duty, early to tell the news, and after the scarce dinner on tomato pulp and some kind of soup that the kitchen staff for the night had heated up, they went to release the two for the night. Anya didn’t trust that it was safe, no matter how many peace treaties that had been signed.
Since they were two man short, they had decided to split the night in two guard shifts instead of three, and let Aidin stay with Liam. Not even Ina could stay awake 24 hours a day, and if Liam would survive, she needed help. Zack already had a lot of civilians to take care of.
At three in the morning, Elvin and Mark came outside again.
“It’s so bloody crazy, I can swear it feels lighter and more beautiful here than yesterday morning”, Elvin said. He hadn’t been able to grin happily since the broadcast.
Mark only yawned and adjusted the weapon on his back. He spoke even less than Liam, but unlike Liam, Mark seemed to be quiet because he didn’t have anything clever to say, rather than holding in things noone would understand anyway. It was only Liv that Liam really had been talking to. Her and Anya. And Aidin of course, but those two spoke best on their own, it seemed.
Inside the building, they found Ina in a hushed argument with Aidin.
“There’s so little analgesics left that I can’t give him any more, I need a reserve.”
“What, until anyone gets injured for real?” Aidin’s voice were dripping in sarcasm, but it was only his way to deal with the fear.
“Liam’s in for a rough time, but he’ll make it, with your help.”
Ina had the ability to be a tough negotiator and come off as very empathic at the same time. Aidin wasn’t pleased with the answer, however, but left anyway. Ina sighed.
“How long do you think it will be before someone comes to our rescue, you think?” Loneh asked.
Ina shrugged. “I’ve never been in a war before, I have no idea. Yrsa has sent out emergency calls every day, someone should have caught them. Even if they haven’t dared to answer.”
“We have vehicles”, Anya said, “we can go to one of the cities at the coast to see if the authorities has gained control there.” Every muscle itched to leave this place. The walls were crushing her.
“Not enough to bring everyone. And then we’ll have quarrels about who gets to go and who has to stay. We also don’t know how far the fuel will take us.”
The voice of reason. Ina.
“There will be quarrels on why we’re not leaving too.”
“It’s as usual then, smile and assure them we’ll take care of them.” Loneh smirked at Anya. Anya rolled her eyes. Loneh was the skilled smiler, not she. Loneh yawned and slapped Anya’s arm gently. “We need to sleep, if we’re going to make another guarding shift in four hours.”
Inside their small makeshift dormitory, Liam was lying pale and cold sweating on the thin mat that served as mattress, and there was no doubt he was in horrible pain. Aidin sat next to him and stroke his hair, silent for a change. Anya was once again hit by the irony of it all. Liv had tripped and fell just before the finish line. Liam had crossed it, but might see the winner’s trophy being taken away from him.
She turned to the wall when tears filled her eyes again. Not that she was ashamed of them, but she didn’t want to burden the others.
After the morning guard shift, when they were eating their minimal daily ration of thin porridge, Anya told Loneh and Zack that she was going to take Liv back.
“You can’t do that alone”, Loneh said reluctantly.
“I don’t give a crap, I want to bury her.”
Loneh rubbed her forehead. Zack said nothing.
“The only tools we got are sledgehammers and skewers. We might just… destroy her.” Loneh looked at her plate with an unhappy look, stirring the remains of the porridge with her spoon. “It’s better to wait for help.”
“What bloody help?”
“Well, whoever gets here first. The armed forces or Red Cross or someone else.”
“She’ll be eaten by ravens and shit before that happens. I’ll take her home today.” Anya prepared to leave.
Anya slammed her palm into the table, startling both Loneh and Zack. She opened her mouth to say something, but she couldn’t find the words for it.
“Can I go pee first?” Loneh said, eventually. She stood up too with a dejected sullenness that was unusual for her. Anya understood that it would be trying on Loneh to go back to the place where Liv died for her. But at the same time she had to do it, as much as Anya had to bury Liv.
“Be careful”, Zack said. “I’m tired watching Ina stitch up intestines.”
“Yeah, we’ll be careful only for you, Zack.” Anya meant it like a joke, but it was still a relief to see Zack’s faint smile. She didn’t always manage to keep the hardness out of her voice.
They drove as close to the city center as they could, took their tools with them and climbed the last part of the way over collapsed buildings, car wrecks and debris. The first thing Anya saw was Liv’s foot. It was covered by dust and sticking out from under the heavy concrete slab that once had been part of the wall of a block of flats where people had lived, lulled babies, argued about tv-shows, burnt fish stews on the stove, played heroes and villains, dreamt, loved. She felt a lump of unease in the pit of her stomach, but forced herself to keep moving forward. Loneh was following her closely.
It took time. If they had had enough food, if they had been rested, then it might have gone faster. If it had been peace, they would have a whole rescue service department to help them. If it had been peace, the wall would never have fallen over Liv…
When they finally had removed enough of the concrete to pull Liv out, the energy sort of left them. Her upper body, head and face were squeezed and flattened, tried blood and dust formed a second skin on her, everything was stiff and deformed and wrong. And yet, it was Liv.
Anya was the first one to cry. Loneh put her arms around her, and she hugged back, hard, and for the first time in ages she allowed herself to use her voice when she cried. “To hell with them”, she whimpered, and stared through the tears out over the ruined city, while Loneh was sobbing in her arms. She didn’t know exactly who she meant by ‘them’, but it didn’t matter. Her accusations needed somewhere to go.
Eventually, the weep subsided at both of them. Anya didn’t want to let go, but they had to finish what they came here for. They carried Liv back to the car, something that went easier than Anya had expected since the body was still stiff. They put her in the backseat, and had to use force to bend Liv’s legs so they could close the door. After that, Loneh had to throw up.
They buried Liv at the same place they had buried the other people who had died during the time in the Den, a patch of grass between two of the large industry buildings. They hadn’t dared to perform any funerals outside the fence of the steelmill in case enemy soldiers or looters attacked them or the graves. When Liv’s grave was filled, they marked it with steel beams and stones, just like the others. It felt good. Not that Anya believed that a dead body would care about where it was decomposed to earth again, but she got a proper closure for herself. It made the powerlessness and anger to settle down a bit.
All the soldiers were there, even Liam was determinedly and with Aidin’s support standing there when Anya, Loneh, Elvin and Mark had helped out to put Liv down in the grave. Somehow it went without saying that Anya should say something, she who had been closest to Liv, but as usual she couldn’t find any good words for it.
“You’re the best, Liv”, she finally said. “It hurts like hell and I will always miss you, I bet all the others here will too, but as long as you were alive you were the best. Always.”
That was all she could manage, but no one seemed dissatisfied. When they all were leaving, Loneh lingered a moment, and Anya could hear her whisper “Forgive me, Liv” to the silent grave.
Anya waited for her, then they went back together. “It wasn’t your fault”, Anya said again.
“I know”, Loneh answered. She sighed. “We’ll carry her with us. It’s the best we can do, right?”
Anya nodded. “I guess it is.”