Over the next ten days we will be publishing the ten finalists from the 2022 Voorheesville Short Story Contest. The theme of this year’s contest was “The Night Before.” This, the first of our ten finalist stories, made it to the final round of judging with our guest judge, Laurin Jefferson. Today, enjoy Merrin Brick’s story, “Clouds of Smoke and Screams.”, a story that our judge felt “was an interesting take …[on] the Russia/Ukraine conflict from the perspective of a young person.“
I was running through the street, as the sun flickered down on the black pavement. All the cars had cleared off of our little road and I had just got a brand new red ball for my birthday. I turned ten, double digits, that very day and all I wanted was that big red ball, the kind they have in the States. It was my dream to have one of those big, plastic, mass produced balls, so I could go over to Ivanna’s house and say to her, “Ivanna look what I got! It’s a red ball, like the ones we have always wanted.”
Then she would respond, “Wow Polina, let’s go play.”
And that’s how it went as soon as I arrived at her door. Ivanna lived in a small little sea green house on Poland street. It was a double decker and had its very own mailbox, all separated out on its own. My family’s house was a lot different from Ivanna’s house. We also lived in a house but we did not own it like Ivanna’s family, instead we had to pay rent to this mean, old, fish- stinking man who was big and brut; I always hid when he came around every month. We had to share a mailbox post with the other people around because that fish man owned the whole block.
Ivanna’ s parents were also much richer than my parents. Ivanna’s dad had his own law firm and her mom worked at our primary school. My parents did not have a law firm. My parents barely had an education, but they made ends meet through working at the deli shop, and my mom at the telemarketers office. My mom was a secretary, which I thought was meh. I would rather get through school and be a translator. I had decided that was my dream because then I could talk to everyone and travel the world.
But right now my dreams could wait, because my latest dream of having a plastic red ball had just come true. The sea green house had the best street to play in because it had barely any traffic and lots of trees to keep the pavement nice and cool. When the pavement was cool I could take my white church shoes off, but still keep my feet from burning on the pavement. My parents had saved so much to get me this red ball on my birthday and I absolutely loved it, that’s why I had to bring it over to Ivanna right away.
We played all night with my new red ball. First we had a bunch of kids in the neighborhood join us like the twins Olena and Oxana, then Symon came, and Vasyl, plus Petro and Susana, even Igor came out to play. When everyone was out we threw the ball at each other and played this really cool American game Igor learned about called Spud. It was new but still fun. Then all the kids started getting called in one by one until it was time for Ivanna to go home. I was upset, but before she went inside she ran up to me and whispered in my ear, “Happy birthday Polina, I loved your new ball!”
“Thank you Ivanna, you’re my truest friend.”
“Like the one we came up with from the American television show?” I said excitedly, maybe a little too loud because some lamps turned on down the street.
“Ya.” She responded to me, then we did it. It always included two fist bumps, three hand claps, and one high five, but always in a random order.
Ivanna went inside her house and then I looked at the window a little bit, holding my red ball. Ivanna’s bedroom was on the second floor, left window. After five minutes I saw her lamp flicker on and I knew she was home safe. Then I knew I could go home finally. I walked down the street, the light posts flickering bright at every corner. No one was out tonight and that was the way I had always liked it on winter nights. Just me and the snow walked home together. My house was a brownish tan and had barely any lights on as per usual, except the kitchen, all the power always went towards making our kitchen lit up at night.
On main street the television store played the usual channels in the window, American cartoons on the left, local news in the middle, and sports on the right. Everyone knew Mr. Kurst’s television store as a staple place to check the latest information, or if you were my age the latest new American cartoon episode. Some of the adults, especially my parents, always used to say to the kids gathered around the cartoons that Ukrainian cartoons were much better than American cartoons. Sometimes they even tried to get Mr. Kurst to change the cartoon station, but all the children knew Mr. Kurst had a soft spot for American cartoons after he worked at Disney World in the states. He even told all the children stories of the famous Disney World, he said it was a magical place, and sent us little origami cranes with notes when a Disney cartoon would be on his television on the left. I loved going to watch them with Ivanna.
I continued to walk on my street after taking a quick pause to watch cartoons at Mr. Kurst’s but I left soon after overhearing the news, and it threw me off my cartoon mindset. That’s when I walked inside my house around 7 pm to the smells of fresh borscht and sausage. Mmmm, fresh borscht and sausage. Papa was in the living room with the news on, as always, and Ma was in the kitchen feeding the cat. I had never really liked our cat when I was young but he grew on me over the years. My parents had named him Vlad when they first got him before, well, before I was born, but me and my younger brother Artem gave him the formal name of Sir Vladimir Beef Wellington the Third, after his love for beef wellington leftovers.
“Polina, is that you?”, my Ma yelled, not realizing I was right behind her.
“Yes Ma, no need to shout I am right here.”
“Polina, will you bring the borscht to the table, oh but first wash your filthy hands. Then after you do that go get your brother from upstairs.”
“Yes Ma.” I said as I turned on the sink water. It was a little brown as always so I just left it on a little while then started to rinse my hands underneath the water.The borscht was warm in the dish my Ma had cooked it in, and it smelled even better up close to it. I placed the warm dish on the table, our small dinner table, in our small kitchen. My Papa once told me our home was 600 square feet, that was when I was really young.
“Oh Polina,” Ma screamed from the kitchen, “take this damn red ball upstairs.”
I grabbed the ball and ran upstairs towards the second door. The first door was Ma and Papa’s room and then the second door was me and Artem’s room. That’s how small our house was. I had to share a room with my brother. I opened the door to find Artem on the bed looking out the window again.
“Artem, it’s dinner time. Ma wants you to go downstairs and wash your hands.”
“Sissy, do you ever wonder what it’s like when a shooting star goes through the sky? Do you ever think about what would happen if the star were to fall to Earth?”
“Ya, I do sometimes, but that is for our older selves to find out. Right now we need to focus on how good this borscht is going to be.”
“I guess I just want to see more stars up close, you know?”
“You know what is like a star?”
“My new red ball.” I tossed it up in the air, not far, but a little to get the effect of the ball being a star.
“Can I hold your new red ball?” He said with his puppy dog eyes.
“Put those eyes away, they burn my flesh.” I started to melt onto my bed, just to cheer Artem up, he always liked it when I would do this. He said it was ‘so stupid’ but I knew he liked it. “Ahhhh, I’m melting.”
“Stop Polina!” he said, chuckling slightly under his breath.
“I am not going to stop until you go downstairs and wash your hands for dinner.” Then Artem ran past me out the door and down the stairs. I finally got up off the bed and placed my red ball down next to the nightstand. I then walked back down to the kitchen past the endless row of storage boxes of toys and packaged food.
Entering the kitchen I come back to the sweet, fresh smell of borscht. Papa was at the head of the table, Ma at his side and me and Artem on the other side. Papa ladled the borscht into his bowl and passed to Ma, then Ma passed to me, while Papa started with the sausage into his borscht. Eventually the sausage made its way to me. I always liked to first cut it into pieces and gently place the pieces near the beets so I would get every flavor in one bite. That’s how mom told me to do it.
Everyone ate quickly, as per usual with sausage and borscht, then Papa immediately went back to the television, Ma to the fridge with the leftovers, and me and Artem went to the sink with the dirty dishes.
“Polina,” Ma gently touched my back. I turned to look at her sparkling brown eyes that I had known for ages. “I will clean the dishes tonight. You and Artem go sit with your dad.”
“Ma I want to go to bed! I am so sleepy.” Artem whined from the other side of Ma.
“Well Artem, just do it for me okay? Sit in your parents arms for a little won’t you?”
“Fine Ma.” He said, reluctantly I could tell.
Papa was watching the news but quickly muted the volume when Artem jumped up on his lap and cuddled in his shoulder. Ma sat down next to Papa and I sat next to her. Her breathing was heavy and staggered, but her skin was warm to the touch. I felt safe when I was near her, I felt safe even though I was in this small little house. Maybe something about the smallness of the house made our family closer to each other. I was dependent on knowing my Ma and Papa would always be there for me. Always there to hug me whenever I felt lonely, sad, annoyed, careless, angry, distressed, or distant.
I closed my eyes and sucked up this moment, I sucked it in like it was a cold soda on a summer day. I rested my head on my Ma’s lap, keeping my eyes losely shut, drifting off into the dream world. However, I didn’t understand how my dream world could be when my eyes were shut because my dream world was there, in the small little house, when my eyes were open.
I glittered my eyes when I first woke up again. All the lights in the tiny living room were off but the television was still on. Ma was still on the couch, she watched the television intensely, making me assume the news was on. I lifted my head and looked for Ma’s eyes, they were closed. I then looked at the television and saw that the news was not on but the American television shows. The American television shows that Mr. Kurst always played.
“Ma.” I said, wanting to know why the cartoons were on and not the news. “I thought you didn’t like American cartoons?”
“Sweety.” She looked at me saddened. Her eyes dragged over my face. “Honey, sometimes we just need a break from the world. I wanted a chance to see a fantasy life we can never have. I was watching the news, but it just got so depressing, I thought cartoons would make it better.”
“Why was the news making you sad?” I asked with genuine concern.
“There are some crazy things about to happen to our country. Polina, I love you, you know that right?”
Tears started to dribble from my brown eyes. The copy of my mothers eyes, copied the same exact tears coming from her eyes. “Ya Ma, I know. I love you too. I love this family. I love this small crusty house. I love the food. I love the streets. I love the mailbox, even though we had to share it.”
“I’m glad you love this life Polina.”
“Ma please tell me, tell me things aren’t going to change?”
“Polina, I think we are too late to make such guarantees.”
That’s when I saw the first shooting star from the couch. Then another one, and another, and another. I ran to the window next to the door and saw another shooting star. I followed that shooting star as it raced through the sky, my eyes trailing its every move until it went below the buildings in the west. Then there was a burst of light, and a loud noise. I covered my ears but kept watching that spot. The explosion of light turned into a cloud of smoke and screams. Clouds of smoke and screams, everywhere. I was petrified in place, the shooting stars just fell to the earth and turned into a cloud of smoke, smoke and screams.
Smoke and screams, everywhere. Shooting stars like an angel falling from the sky, that turned out to not be an angel but a cloud of smoke and screams.
“Polina! Polina move away from the window!”
My Ma grabbed my shoulders and pulled me into her chest. A few seconds ago I would have known how this felt, to be embraced, now I was unsure of what I felt. My Ma hugged me, out of love, but also out of fear. How could things change so quickly?
“Polina, go upstairs! Check on your brother! I will get Papa. Put a bag together with some clothes, and a blanket, oh and bring something to play with. Okay? We are going to get somewhere safe.”
“Ma, what’s happening? Why did those shooting stars, they fell, the angels, they fell?”
“Polina, those were not angels. They were missiles.”
“Missiles? Who would shoot missiles at us?”
“Polina, I will address all your questions, but now we need to be safe, together.”
Ma guided me upstairs and placed me in my room. Artem was up, he heard the screams.
“Polina, what was that noise?”
“Artem,” I paused, not sure how to respond, he’s my little brother, “Artem, the shooting stars are falling. And they are creating clouds of smoke and screams. We need to leave. Ma told us to put a bag together. Back some warm clothes and a blanket.”
I ran over to my bed and grabbed my school bag from underneath the frame. When I came back up, I looked out the window, I saw another shooting star that had fallen, then it was followed by a cloud of smoke and screams. I unzipped my bag and emptied everything out except my notebook, a few pencils and pens, my colored pencils, and a book. Then I grabbed the warmest clothes in my draw. The shooting stars were getting closer to us, louder for my ears. I threw on my coat and pulled on my boots. Then I grabbed my red ball. My red ball, it was only just yesterday I had gotten this red ball, how could I give it up already.
Papa shuffled into the bedroom and hassled me and Artem out with our bags. He gently placed them on our shoulders, just like he used to do when I went to school. Ma was downstairs waiting, then she opened the door, and the night was pitch black except for those shooting stars going by, then the enlightened cloud of smoke and screams.
Other people were out in the streets all walking with a backpack or they had gotten into a car and started to drive. We were already down the street before I could turn around and take one last look at the small little house I had never liked, until I realized it was too late to notice its beauty. All I could see was the mailbox, our mailbox, and I internalized that mailbox because it was mine.
“Polina, you must keep walking. We need to get underground.” Papa yelled at me while tugging the shoulder of my jacket towards him. I then grabbed his hand to ensure I still had something. To ensure I had my family and my red ball.
“Mari,” Papa said tapping Ma from behind, “We must be nearing Perchers’ka.”
“I know Jarold. We can hide in there.”
We walked for five minutes, but five minutes felt like an eternity when you are running from the stars and the cloud of smoke and screams that follows. In the pitch black, the cold, Papa’s hand was sweating, Ma’s brown eyes were teary, and Artem licked his lips, as he always did when he was nervous. And I, I was just walking with them, not knowing how to feel, how to think, how to do anything but find a way to keep what I had.
The crowds of people were getting heavier, and the noise was getting louder. “Ma.” I said through the thick night. “Are we standing in a line?”
“Yes, Polina. We are near the subway. We are almost at safety, we just need to get in.”
“Okay Ma.” But it was getting hard to just keep saying okay Ma, everyone was breathing on me, rubbing against me, I felt hands crawling all over my back, the sweat dripping from my forehead.
I was getting dizzy, when my red ball slipped from my hands, and it fell out into the street and I heard it bounce down away from me. I needed my red ball, I needed it. So I dropped the hand from my right, and wiggled my way out into the street, following the noise of my red ball. When I picked it up though there was only one thing I could see. It was a shooting star, coming straight for me. My shooting star, coming to save me. However, with every shooting star tonight I knew what followed, the cloud of smoke and screams fell with that shooting star. I turned around to take in what was around me, and when that star fell, all I could see was smoke, but the screams I heard were the scariest of all. In the smoke all I heard was, “Polina! Polina!” and then I saw the thick red blood around my new red ball.