The Stone Keeper

In Issue 72 by Ben Raterman

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Image by OMG Snap on Adobe Stock

When the night sky exploded, the dark interiors of houses shone bright as day. And those that faced the street across from the park felt their homes tremble. Fierce chords of destruction echoed, and the neighborhood awoke with fright and stared at horror.

Caitlin sat up. Intermittent flashes lit the walls. Sounds: falling bricks, breaking glass, muted screams, explosions. She went to the window. Fires, as if dragons had entered her world, she thought, come to destroy her home.

“Caitlin.” Anxious, the voice... and relief. The bedroom lights went on.

Caitlin turned from the window where dragons roamed and watched her mother hurry to her.

“Thank God,” she said, peering out the window at the buildings across the street. Falling rubble, shadows scurrying, sirens, moving lights, flames. “Downstairs. We must go downstairs.”

“Why are you carrying me?” Caitlin said, squirming from her mother, who couldn’t lift her seven-year-old daughter.

“Take my hand.”

They hurried down the hall to the stairs where her father stood waiting, holding her baby brother.

“She’s OK?” he said.

“Yes. And heavy. We need to get to the basement.”

“What’s happening?” Caitlin said.

Caitlin woke in the early morning, curled on the basement couch where the light of the television poked at her. Her parents sat on either side of her, their eyes numb, watching the news.

“There was a fire,” her mother said.

Caitlin saw images of burnt and fallen buildings, a fire truck, people moving about. She turned to the French door that opened on the small yard in the back. A pale light washed the branches that stood beyond.

“What happened?”

“Sweety,” her mother said, “we aren’t sure yet. The police came by while you were sleeping to check on everyone. No one in the neighborhood is hurt, but across the street in the park...” She looked at her husband.

“We’re still waiting for an explanation,” her father said, “but the park is gone. There are buildings... blown up buildings that were destroyed by... something—”

“By dragons,” Caitlin said.

He looked at his wife. “We don’t know yet.”

“Can I see?”

“We’ll all see when morning comes,” her mother said. “Soon. Go back to sleep.”

But she couldn’t. She lay on the couch thinking of dragons. Until the sun rose and spilled the neighborhood with light, and questions, and dread.

Caitlin sat in the kitchen stirring her cereal, disappointed there would be no school today. She heard the television talk of fencing the park, evacuating the neighborhood, calling the national guard. Confusing words. She just wanted to go to school. Her mother said they were in a state of emergency. But she shouldn’t worry.

“Can I go outside and play?”

“No. It’s not safe.”

She walked into the living room.

“Don’t stand by the window, Cait,” her mother called.

Across the street, where the park used to be, buildings stood in the morning light, their faces torn off and lying in heaps at their feet. Smoldering piles of concrete and brick, partial walls with twisted rebar emerging from their sides like snakes, whole rooftops, broken, splintered, lying aslant. Her playground had disappeared. A light snow fell over the destruction. Men wearing coats and boots climbed through the mass of rubble, searching. What were they looking for? she wondered. Others were in the cratered and buckled street carrying stretchers to ambulances or to a place where other people lay in rows on the ground.

“It’s not safe,” Caitlin’s mother said, coming up behind her.

“Are there dead people over there?”

“What?” Her mother searched the once tranquil park. “Come with me. It’s not safe here.” She pulled Caitlin away from the window.

“Dina, it’s like a war zone,” her father said, coming up the stairs.

“I know. I just don’t understand. How can this be, Tom? It’s the same images we see on TV of the war, but here. In our neighborhood.”

“It sure looks like it. But that’s not possible.”

“What’s not possible?” Caitlin said.

Her parents exchanged glances. Caitlin knew that something was terribly wrong. Her mother’s statement that it wasn’t safe, her commands to stay away from the window, emergency, school closed. On a sunny day. She sat at the kitchen table and watched her brother in his highchair and frowned. It’s a war zone, she heard again in her head and saw the people in the park lying out on the ground. Her eyes grew moist, and she got up and climbed on her father’s lap, hugging him.

“Bird,” her mother said.

“It’s OK. You’re safe,” said her father, smoothing her hair.

She leaned heavy on him, clinging. “Is a war zone like a school zone but for wars?”

“Oh, honey.” Her mother came around the table and put her arms around Tom and Caitlin. “There’s no war here, Cait. We don’t know what—”

An air raid siren screamed, unraveling the three figures in the kitchen, rousing the baby. Dina picked the boy up and started for the basement.

“Follow your mother,” Tom said to Caitlin. He went to the front window. A second siren in the distance. And then the near siren wound down only to start again, sounding like a coyote wailing in the night. He watched for a minute, then turned for the stairs.

An explosion.

The far wall of his living room flashed. He hurried to the basement, then stopped to listen. Returning to the living room, he saw a building with its top half severed, slanting, held in place by bent rebar while black smoke and roils of dust plumed from the eyeless windows. Two people, tiny dolls, and their furniture, fell from a gutted room into black smoke. “Christ.” He turned back to the stairs.

Television crews arrived. Photographers roamed the edges of the park, capturing the broken town and the banal destruction of life where joy walked no streets.

Caitlin’s parents felt it safer to be in the basement, on the ground floor where the large television hung on the wall, a place to watch football games, where parties happened. Listening as journalists, experts, politicians tried to explain a situation they didn’t understand.

Dina said, “She shouldn’t be watching this.”

“It’s the same that’s going on out the front window—”

“Yes, but—”

“You heard them say there was no danger to us. It’s some kind of illusion.”

Dina stared at her husband, then at the television, unable to square her notion of reality with what she was seeing.

Caitlin watched, curious. Her earlier fears, based on her parent’s fears, were not real. Dragons aren’t real. A war zone was a place where war happened. There would be signs on the roads. That way, people could slow down and pass the war without getting hurt or hurting anyone else. On television, she saw ruined buildings and people milling among the rubble. And then people sitting at a curved table, talking, with the war zone split-screened to the side. The split opened wide, and a reporter stood with a microphone talking and Caitlin saw her house over the man’s shoulder.

“Look.” She jumped up and ran to the screen, pointing. “It’s our house.” She turned to her parents.

“Tom,” Dina said. “It is.”

The reporter reappeared in a tiny window at the top right of the screen. The full screen showed children, bandaged, being carried from a small building. Soldiers and emergency personnel rushed about where pale smoke crouched in corners and flames appeared and disappeared as if dragons were lying behind chiseled boulders, exhausted from flying, wheezing.

Dina said, “This is too much.” She got up. “Come on, Cait. Let’s go upstairs.”

“That’s the same clip they showed half an hour ago,” Tom said. “She’s seen this.”

“I don’t care.”

Upstairs, Dina walked around the kitchen, perplexed. Caitlin watched her mother. She’d never seen her like this before, so distraught.

“Mom,” Caitlin said.

Dina stopped and sat at the table, leaning across, taking Caitlin’s hands in her own.

“I’m OK, sweetie. I’m just not used to this business across the street. It’s not natural.”

They sat and watched each other, Dina with a tight smile on her face. From downstairs they could hear voices on the television: What is happening is contained within that bubble. It is quite safe. No bullets or debris can fly beyond its perimeter. It’s just a picture. A life-size, 3-D picture. Another voice said, We’ll be speaking with two physics professors on what might explain this strange phenomenon. Dina let go of Caitlin’s hands and pushed her chair back.

“Come on, Cait. Let’s look outside. See what’s going on.”

Through the oak branches that stood at the curb, Caitlin saw trucks moving down a debris strewn road close to where she thought was once a playground with four swings, a teeter-totter, and a geodesic structure she loved to climb on. Now it was gone. There were no kids playing, no people on the streets next to the burned-out buildings.

“It’s a strange phenomenon,” Dina said.

Tom walked up behind her and said, “Everything is quiet over there. Shall we take a walk in the park? Get a closer look?”

“Where’s the park?” Caitlin said.

“The police and military have barricades up. You can’t get close,” Dina said. “That tells me it’s not safe.”

The doorbell rang. Caitlin turned to the door.

“It’s Joanne and Peter,” Tom said, leaning toward the window.

A small boy looked at Caitlin when she opened the door. He wore a green jacket, his pocketed hands opening it wide as if he were about to take off. Caitlin said, “Hi Timmy.”

The boy’s parents climbed the steps.

“Hey,” Tom said, waving his hand. “Come on in.”

“We’re walking around the neighborhood seeing how everyone is,” Peter said.

Joanne followed. She said, “We can’t stay. We don’t have the view of the park you all do, so we thought we’d take a walk and see it up close.”

Tom caught the look on Dina’s face.

Across the street, Dina saw the thin layer of dirty snow and ice covering the ground. A rat appeared from within a crevice of broken masonry and bounded across an open area and disappeared. She shivered and closed the door.

Joanne said, “It’s terrible what’s happening there. I’m so glad we’re not involved. Directly, I mean. But the noise is overwhelming. When the bombs go off. You know what I mean? It’s hard to sleep.” She looked at Dina. Dina nodded and led her into the kitchen.

Peter said, “It’s fascinating how real that image looks. They must have projectors hidden somewhere in the park, but what surfaces are they projecting onto?”

Tom said, “There was a physicist on TV who had no answer for it.”

“Oh, no,” Peter said. “This has nothing to do with physics. The president set this up to support his policies. It’s a joke.”

“A joke?” Dina said.

Caitlin took Timmy to her room and showed him her collection of minerals. The boy wasn’t interested in shiny rocks. He looked around for toys. Caitlin heard her father say, “This is not a political ploy, Peter.” She wondered what a ploy was and went to her closet and brought out a plastic frog that jumped on command. Timmy was impressed. “People are dying,” her mother said, and Caitlin saw images of bodies lined up like railroad ties on the frozen ground. The frog jumped. Timmy laughed. Voices rose in the kitchen. She closed the door to her room and sat on the floor, wondering about the war zone. Would there be busses in a war zone?

Over the next weeks, the spectacle in the park drew fewer people. Caitlin’s parents returned to work, no longer staring at the TV. School was in session. The nanny appeared, opening the teak door on the brownstone with her key and entering Caitlin’s world, where the girl sat eating her breakfast, her legs swinging, anticipating the new school day. Her mother gave her a kiss and walked out the door.

The weather warmed. Yet, where the park once was, snow fell. The shelling had stopped. The buildings stood silent, many with their heads hung low, their guts flung at their feet while living dwellers walked a determined gait with eyes of sadness. A bulldozer scraped the fractured pavement, scooping the rubble, lifting it into trucks that drove one way to an overburdened landfill. Other trucks drove to trenches where bodies wrapped in sheets were dumped and buried. The two cemeteries were bombed. Ancient coffins, along with their gravestones, split by incendiary axes, lay strewn over the upheaved ground. No rituals, no prayers for whole families that perished. Just dirt.

When Caitlin got home from school, she found the nanny sitting in the kitchen eating pretzels with one hand and doing something on her phone with the other. Caitlin’s sixteen-month-old brother waddled over to her, holding out his arms. She knelt on the floor and hugged him.

“I have to do my homework,” she told the boy.

She glanced at the nanny and walked downstairs and out the French door. Passing a row of common garages, she reached the main road. Rounding the block, she crossed her street—Barkley Court—and kept to the sidewalk, walking in line with a wide ribbon of pine trees and bushes that formed the edge of the park. Two police officers walked the elevated foot path that surrounded the grounds, the path the chain-link barricade was placed on. She walked through the pines to a culvert that ran beneath the path. In line with the culvert was a grassy area leading to the playground, Caitlin’s destination. She bent low, with one hand on the corrugated pipe. A thin layer of water flowed from the pipe, dripping over the lip to an eroded cut in the earth.

She peered into the dark, seeing a pale light at the far end. Straddling the water flow and touching the edges of the cold pipe, she walked in a crouch, duck-like, unable to see her shoes, hoping she wouldn’t get them dirty.

Emerging from the pipe, she stood, pulling her jacket close, zipping it. The air was chilly. She put her hands in her pockets and walked through the woods to what she thought would be a grassy clearing and the playground beyond. But there was no clearing. No playground. She stood just within the edge of the woods, standing next to a tree, her hands reaching for its trunk, looking at the charred bark. She put her hands back in her pockets. What was this place? A street ended twenty feet from her. Its pavement ripped and cratered and covered with litter, pieces of metal roofing, two gutted cars, building materials shorn from within their buildings. A child’s bicycle lay on its side, crushed, a pedal forced into the asphalt as if a dragon had stepped on it. A pigeon took flight from a slumping green roof. Like the pigeons in her neighborhood, but this place wasn’t like her neighborhood, not the park. Was this the war zone? She took a step toward the street onto a grassy median, somehow out of place. There was a quiet, something unsettling that slowed her pace. She reached the pavement and walked down the middle of the street, around and over the debris, seeing more debris, trash, burnt tires and twisted cable, a refrigerator with a hole through its back, lying on its side where a black lightning stripe was spray-painted. Sounds, vehicles moving, people talking in low voices. At the corner, she turned onto a wider street where homes stood closer together, not unlike her neighborhood of town homes, she thought. There, the similarity ended. These homes were missing windows, some without walls. White stucco and brick exteriors turned black, where smoke had exited windows low along the wall, then rose higher as if a painter had swiped his brush upward in an angry gesture. This was the war zone. But where were the signs telling cars to slow down, to be watchful of the children? And where was the playground?

Ahead, she saw several people. Kids playing. The homes looked better, but several had their roofs caved in. Trees growing along a sidewalk that fronted the homes. Some branches, torn from their sides, lay in the street. Across the street, several large buildings stood with balconies, some hung like pouting lips. The building on the corner was a mass of crumbled pieces that flowed into the street like a giant paw, resting. Kids climbed over it. Caitlin walked on the side of the street where the trees grew, where just a few townhomes had been touched by dragons.

A boy on a bicycle, his head down, concentrating, came toward her. A woman’s voice called. Oleksandr. Her tone was emphatic. Caitlin watched as the bike’s front wheel hit a lifted slab, rising a few inches, then dropping back to the sidewalk. The boy’s head was turned, looking behind at the woman. Caitlin watched, waiting for the boy to look forward, moving to the side onto a muddied patch of earth and grass. The woman called again.

Caitlin yelled. “Watch out.”

Oleksandr turned his head and body a full two-hundred-seventy degrees, swerved off the sidewalk and skidded to a stop, dragging his left foot through the dirt. The two looked at each other, then Oleksandr spoke. Caitlin cocked her head, wondering what he’d said and told him he looked like an owl, turning his head so much. The boy frowned, then laughed.

“You are English?” he said.

She considered. “American.”

“Where are you living?”

“Across the street,” Caitlin said.

“The street?” Oleksandr looked puzzled.

Walking toward them, the woman said, “Sasha.” Oleksandr and Caitlin turned.

“My mama,” Oleksandr said to Caitlin. “She’s worried.”

She introduced herself to Caitlin. “Alina.” Oleksandr explained to his mother that Caitlin was American and lived across the street. Alina looked dubious. She wanted to know where across the street. Caitlin pointed. Alina looked down the burned-out street and asked where her parents were. Why was she alone? Caitlin explained her parents were working, and she’d just returned from school. She wanted to see the playground.

“It’s not here anymore,” Caitlin said.

Alina narrowed her eyes, scanning the street. “Sasha,” she said, and continued in a language Caitlin didn’t understand.

Oleksandr answered, then asked her a question, pointing to Caitlin. Alina looked from Oleksandr to Caitlin.

“Would you like to come to our house?” Alina said.

Caitlin nodded.

Alina studied the street. A worried look. “No,” she said. “This is not a good idea, Sasha. It’s too dangerous.” She turned to Caitlin. “You should not be outside.”

“Because it’s a war zone?” Caitlin said.

Alina’s eyes narrowed. She stared for several seconds. “Yes. It’s not safe. It’s not a place for children. I wish you could play with Sasha. Maybe when there is no more war.” Alina held her hand out. “Come. Let me walk you home. We’ll all go.” She glanced at Oleksandr.

The three of them walked a serpentine route through the gnarled street. Caitlin asked why Alina called Oleksandr Sasha. She learned it was a nickname and said her parents often call her Cait or Bird.

“So, you can call me Cait,” she said to Oleksandr. “If you want.”

“You can call me Aleks,” Oleksandr said. “I don’t like Sasha.”

His mother sighed and said, “Where is it you live? Where is across the street?”

Caitlin pointed. “It’s down there, past the trees where the big pipe is. I’ll show you.”

“Pipe?” Alina followed Caitlin.

They walked to where the street ended, where the pavement curled and dipped beneath the earth, to a place where there were no sounds but the whisper of pine.

“This is not a place I’m familiar with,” Alina said. “Where is the pipe?”

“Just over there.” She pointed. “Through the trees.”

“We’ll stay here,” Alina said, letting go of Caitlin’s hand.

Caitlin said, “Bye,” and walked across the narrow strip of grass—a grass she thought she recognized as part of the playground—and turned and waved.

“You can come to play tomorrow,” Aleks said.

Alina clasped his hand, watching Caitlin disappear into the woods. I don’t understand. Death walks these streets, enters our homes, tears our town apart. And then this. An angel appears. “Then disappears.”

“What did you say, Mama?”

“I just don’t know.” She turned and walked back through the sad street, holding Aleks’s hand.

Dina arranged her schedule so that she could be home early every Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. When she arrived this Tuesday, Caitlin asked if she could go to the library and get a book about war zones.

“War zones?” Dina placed her purse on the table and looked at the girl. “What happened to your jeans? They’re all wet and dirty.”

Caitlin explained that she’d gone to the park and met Aleks and his mother. And there was water in the pipe. Dina’s lingering thoughts about work and her daughter’s jeans took a sudden change. Caitlin saw it on her face. She thought perhaps additional information might help.

“Aleks has two nicknames, like me. His real name is Oleksandr. His other name is Sasha, but he doesn’t like that much.” Her mother’s face was crawling with questions. Caitlin realized more information might not have been called for.

“Caitlin, did you go outside after school? To the park across the street?”

Caitlin nodded.

When her father got home, Caitlin watched his face as her mother relayed Caitlin’s revelations.

Tom looked at the girl and said, “You went into the bubble and talked with people in the war zone?”

Caitlin nodded. She decided it was best to use as few words as possible. Tom queried her on how she got into the bubble, what she saw, what she touched. His questions were contrary to his wife’s, who focused on Caitlin’s behavior and not on what she had accomplished. Dina listened with some curiosity but soon became angry.

“Tom, you’re encouraging her when you should be concerned for her safety.”

“I’m just trying to understand.” He turned back to Caitlin. “Where is this pipe you walked through? Can you show me?”

Before Caitlin could answer, Tom’s phone rang.

“There’s going to be a kind of town hall tonight at the club house,” he said after the call. “Senator Payne and a couple of state representatives, city council members, will be there. It’s about the petition we signed. We need to go.”

The petition demanded action from the state to do something about the bubble. Although the neighborhood and the surrounding areas had been told they were safe, people were still not convinced. The noise from the artillery and the bombings was just too much to live with.

“You go,” Dina said. “I’ll stay here and watch the kids.”

“Can I go?” Caitlin said. “It’s about the war zone, isn’t it?”

Dina answered with an immediate, “No.”

Tom said, “It might be educational for her, Dina. She’s curious about this whole thing.” They stared at each other for several seconds. “As are we all.”

  Dina turned to Caitlin and asked her to go to her room for a few minutes. She and her father had some things to talk about in private. On the stairs, Caitlin slowed, then stopped and sat, listening to the conversation in the kitchen. She heard her mother, with deep concern, tell her father Caitlin had changed since this “thing” first appeared. And now she was making up stories about people in the bubble, about the war and the destruction she saw.

“This is like pre-traumatic stress if there is such a thing. She’s having visions—or she’s making up stories—based on what she sees across the street. It’s more real than what’s on TV. You know this isn’t good.”

“I’m sure other kids may experience similar things,” Tom said. “I can bring it up in the meeting.”

Caitlin thought about visions, making up stories. She liked to make up stories while waiting for sleep to close her eyes. But she wasn’t sure about visions or what they were, how one had visions. She walked upstairs to her bedroom and sat on her bed and wondered what Aleks was doing, wondered about the war zone he lived in, the broken bike and burned cars and the refrigerator that looked like a dragon’s claw had pierced it, probably trying to pick it up to see what food there was. On her desk lay the box of minerals she had shown Timmy. Inside the box were two stones she liked, both aventurine that her father brought back from India when he visited last year. She liked them because they were green and had a sparkly smooth surface. Green, the color of Aleks’s eyes. She turned the desk lamp on. Palming the smaller of the two stones, she angled it to the light, seeing it shine, then put it in her pocket.

The clubhouse was next to the community swimming pool. A large room with a small stage and a kitchen area near the back. People sat in folding chairs and stood along the walls. Caitlin stood between her father’s legs and looked at the stage where several people in suits and dresses had seated themselves. The room hushed as a man spoke. He talked about the bubble. She wondered why it was called a bubble, this war zone she had visited, where Aleks and his mother lived, where other people lived, where kids played and searched the rubble. Across the street. Just there for everyone to see and hear. It wasn’t a bubble. It was a neighborhood where a war zone was.

The man described what the government officials were doing, what the scientists were measuring with their probes, why it was important to gather as much information as possible... but then a man stood up and said the government needed to do something about the noise and flashes of light, the bombs going off at all hours. “We don’t care about your data,” the man said. The government needed to build a wall around the bubble if they couldn’t get rid of it altogether. More people started talking, murmurs of anger, shouting. Caitlin took hold of her father’s wrist. The senator asked for calm, requesting one person speak at a time, then asked for a show of hands. “All those who want a wall built around this thing?” Many raised their hands. Others weren’t certain. Caitlin whispered in her father’s ear, “Do we want a wall, Dad?” He said he didn’t know. He needed to think about it. Caitlin thought, would a wall prevent her from visiting Aleks? “I don’t want a wall,” she told her father.

A woman in the front row addressed the senator. “Shouldn’t we be doing everything we can to help those people instead of talking about a wall and noise abatement?” This gave rise to many voices, all talking at cross-purposes with the senator trying to referee. When the noise subsided in the room, a woman just in front of Caitlin and her dad stood and pointed a finger at the senator, yelling, “I think the president had this thing put in our neighborhood on purpose. So, when he whisks it away just before the election, people will vote for him, thinking he’s such an effective politician. Well, I’m not fooled...”

Boos mixed with yes’s erupted from the gathering. The senator called for calm, trying to point out the absurdity of the woman’s argument. His words were lost in a purl of angry babble.

When they returned home, Caitlin said, “It was raucous, Mom. People were yelling.”

“Raucous?”

“That’s what Dad said.”

Tom gave her a synopsis. “Apparently, you can walk up to it, but as you get close... it’s like walking against a heavy wind, without the wind.”

Dina waited for more. “That’s it? That’s all that was discussed?”

He explained that no scientist working at the bubble has been injured. There was no reason to be concerned about safety. That the government wants to gather and analyze data, to see how the bubble operates, how it came to be. But that most of the neighborhood had little concern with safety or data. “They want a wall built around it to keep the noise and light pollution from getting out,” Tom said. “It got heated. People yelling at one another. Some thinking it’s a ploy by the government to gather votes.”

“Did they talk about the effect on the children?” Dina interrupted.

“That didn’t come up.”

“You didn’t bring it up?”

Tom shrugged. “It was pandemonium.”

Dina got up and walked to the living room. Caitlin saw she was upset and grabbed Tom’s hand, pulling him into the room. “Mom,” she said.

Dina stood at the window. The streetlights illuminated Barkley Court. Cars were parked on either side of the street and the tree limbs exchanged shadows. In the park, all was dark. She saw several people standing near two small fires warming themselves. Enough light to make out the ravaged street. Vague lights in buildings beyond. “I think those are real people over there. Suffering. Shouldn’t we be talking about them? Doing more to help?”

Caitlin pulled on her mother’s arm. “Somebody said that. At the meeting.”

Dina looked at Tom.

He shrugged. “We’re sending weapons.”

The next day, Dina had a sit-down with the nanny concerning Caitlin’s after-school activities.

“Under no circumstance should she leave this house,” she said, looking at the nanny, then at Caitlin. “Understood?”

They both nodded, the nanny adding “yes.” Caitlin considered her nod a provisional yes as she got into the car with her mother. Dina buckled her seatbelt and turned to look at her daughter.

“Remember, when you get off the bus this afternoon, go straight inside and stay there till I get home.”

Caitlin looked up through her eyebrows. “OK.”

Days later, spring snuck through the trees and warmed Barkley Court—including the war zone. Caitlin looked out her bedroom window through the high chain-link fence, seeing a crowd gathered near a building. Men worked repairing the damage. Others were hauling debris in wheelbarrows and loaders.

“It’s almost summer,” Caitlin said, as her mother dropped her off at school.

And to celebrate, that afternoon Caitlin snuck out the basement door and hurried to the culvert. She heard voices and saw a truck parked on the path. Men at the fence. She crouched low, moving toward the culvert. When she got to it, she saw steel bars in front of the pipe. Walking up to the bars, she grabbed two and pulled. Like a jail, she thought, listening, stretching her neck to see what the men were doing. They carried some kind of equipment. After a time, there were no more voices. The fence stood open at an angle. She crawled up the low bank and walked quickly across the path to the fence. A gate. She walked through to the edge of the woods and to the street where the broken and burned still lay. Caitlin sniffed, smelling the air, curling her nose. The angle of the sun gave the pavement the look of a tablecloth without color, stricken, laid down for a demonic feast, preening in the harsh light. A dark and putrid landscape. Caitlin made her way through the destruction to the cross street where Aleks lived. At the end of the street, kids played, adults mingled. Caitlin jogged closer, straining to make out her friend. She passed the bike he rode leaning against a tree, but no Aleks. Unsure which house was his, but assuming it was the one closest to his bike, she knocked. Some seconds and the door opened. She said, “I came back.” And handed him the green stone. “It matches your eyes,” she said, Aleks peering down into her palm. “It’s for you. I have another one just like it.”

Aleks picked up the stone and examined it. “Thank you.” A smile.

Caitlin caught his smile and held it with hers. He glanced outside.

“I need to finish some homework, stuff my mama told me to do. She’s a doctor. She says it’s important to keep learning... since my school was bombed.”

Caitlin frowned. “Bombed? You can’t go to school?”

He shook his head, bringing her into the living room and pointing to the table. “This is now my school.”

“Can you come outside and play when you’re finished?”

“I can do it fast,” Aleks said. “Wait here.”

He ran to another room. Caitlin looked around the living room, at the windows, which were covered with what looked like wide strips of packing tape, at the furniture, most covered with plastic. In the middle of the room was Aleks’s worktable. It looked to Caitlin like a dining room table—with two chairs. Scattered over the table were papers and books. The walls were bare, showing holes where pictures must have hung. There were boxes along one wall, stacked two high. One small table held an angled picture in a silver frame. Three people standing together with a lake in the background. Aleks with his mother and... she turned.

“Is this your father in the picture?”

“He’s in the army,” Aleks said, coming into the room, holding out his hand. A stone. She picked it up and studied it. Nearly flat, dark gray. On one side there appeared to be the footprint of a bird, four toes.

“It’s a fossil. I found it. You can keep it. I only have one, so you have to give it back when I ask. OK?”

“OK. It’s a bird foot,” Caitlin said. “Like a baby dragon, maybe.”

“A dragon? There are no dragons.” Aleks stared at Caitlin. A smile crossed his face like a shadow. “Are there?”

“If you believe in them,” she said, holding the stone in her palm as if it were a holy wafer. “This one is tame, a good dragon. The ones that breathe fire, aren’t. They’re bad.”

“The ones that burned my house and broke the roof.”

“Really? They did?”

Aleks motioned. “Come upstairs. I’ll show you.”

At the top of the stairs, Caitlin stared at a ceiling that wasn’t there. The bones of the roof showed through the plasterboard, bare ribs opening to the sky. A green tarp stretched across the floor, attached in a haphazard but hopeful fashion to the slumping roof sections and the standing walls. To her left, a large hole was punched through the sidewall, opening on a room in the adjacent house. Two rooms had become one in a melee of glass and wallboards, roof shingles and timbers.

“When it rains, water comes downstairs.”

Caitlin stared at the destruction. She put the stone into her pocket and said, “Dragons shouldn’t be allowed in our world. Even good ones.”

She followed him back to the living room. She stared at the letters he was writing, a few of which looked familiar, but many were unintelligible. He explained he was writing the names of all his ancestors, the ones he knew and “the ones who died a long time ago.”

There was a knock on the door. One of Aleks’s friends wanting him to come outside. Homework was over. Caitlin joined three other boys and Aleks. The three boys had set four shell casings in the street as soccer goals. They invited Caitlin to play.

But it was not to be. As the game was about to begin, an air-raid siren began a slow rise in pitch. Everyone scattered, Aleks yelling for Caitlin to follow him. She covered her ears and ran. Inside, the two made for the rear of the house to an empty closet next to the door. Aleks reached down to a heavy blanket, picking it up. Caitlin saw two cushions on the closet floor beneath the blanket.

“Get under,” Aleks said. “We need to be under this blanket.”

Caitlin’s eyes told of her apprehension. She wanted to ask him why, but something in her already knew why. She ducked under the blanket. Aleks pulled it over the two of them and they sat, their eyes probing the dark, their ears wise to the wailing horns. Muffled booms, far off. “They’re bombing,” Aleks said.

A phone rang. Aleks whipped the blanket off. “My mama,” he said. “I forgot the phone.” He ran to another room and returned with the phone, speaking to his mother as he hurried back. He spoke quick gibberish. Caitlin held the blanket as he retreated under it, still talking on the phone. She heard her name and more foreign words. The light of the phone illuminated the side of Aleks’s face, making him look like a ghoul, Caitlin thought.

“She says she’s afraid for you,” Aleks said.

The phone’s light went out. The sirens revved their screaming, but it wasn’t as loud as it had been outside. Caitlin sat wondering what would happen, what could happen. She couldn’t see him, but she could hear Aleks breathing, breathing that seemed normal. But it wasn’t normal to sit in a closet with a blanket covering you, waiting for a bomb to fall through the roof.

“Aleks,” she whispered.

“You don’t have to whisper,” he said. “You just have to wait until the sirens stop.”

And they did, but not until Alina got home and hugged her son. And told Caitlin she should be far away from this place.

“I don’t know how you get here, Caitlin. Why do you come?”

“To see Aleks and see what the dragons have done in the war zone.”

“The dragons. Well, you go home and tell everyone you know what you have seen here. And tell them to send soldiers. We need your soldiers.”

The sirens drifted to a low drone and stopped. Alina threw the blanket off and stood.

“I don’t know what good all this blanket and closet nonsense is,” Alina said. “If we were to be hit by one of those shells, there would be nothing left.” She took Caitlin by the shoulder and walked her to the door. Her phone rang. She stepped back and listened to the caller. Caitlin watched her face change.

When Alina put the phone away, Aleks said, “Is it the army?”

“Yes. They’re close. Tanks are coming. We need to stay inside. Hide.” She looked at Caitlin. “You need to stay here. It won’t be safe.”

“How long? I need to be home by four. When my mother comes home.”

“I don’t know, Caitlin.”

“It’s only a little way to the pipe. I can run fast.”

Alina stared at the girl, unable to form a coherent thought. The town had been hit with artillery and bombs from the sky several times, usually at night. No enemy soldiers had entered before. No tanks had been on their roads. The message from the hospital administrator left no doubt. The town would be overrun. Local militia forces stood no chance against the advancing army. Everyone was to stay inside.

“OK,” Alina said. “I’ll go with you. You stay here, Sasha.” She opened the door and looked down the street. It was quiet. No children playing on piles of rubble. Four artillery shells stood at attention, fifty feet apart, like candelabras set on a dark and ruinous table. She took Caitlin’s hand. A siren revved.

The air above seemed to quiver, then a loud whistle moved overhead like an unhinged bird renting the air. Caitlin’s eyes searched. Alina stopped and said, “That’s...” Two blocks to their left, a building exploded, billowing smoke, tossing slabs of concrete, bricks, tree limbs into the sky. Screams. Another whistling sound further left. The explosion. Alina turned and looked back at her house. “Sasha,” she said and let go of Caitlin’s hand.

“Go,” Alina said. “You must run as fast as you can, Caitlin. Sasha...”

Caitlin hesitated a second, seeing Alina sprint away, then ran for the cross street, turning right toward the pine trees and the pipe. When she got to the path, she saw the gate locked. She heard the explosions behind her, likening them to thunderous footsteps taken by a giant as he trampled the town. She took a breath, her heart beating hard, and walked to the pipe and entered, crawling quickly, knowing she was getting her clothes dirty. But that was not her worry. Maybe the jail bars weren’t there. Maybe someone removed them. But as she neared the far end of the pipe she saw the bars, steel rebar hammered into the ground, welded at the top. She grabbed hold and shook. The bars moved but not enough for any person to get through. Tears clouded her vision. She tried to stifle the whimpering as she shook the bars with force. She stopped and sat against the pipe, wiping her eyes with her sleeve. Looking through the bars, she could see shadows—cars—move across her view. The street lay only a hundred feet away. Her eyes focused on the bars. Maybe.

She brought her legs up to her chest and placed her feet against one of the bars and pushed with all her strength. The bar bent, a little. She moved to the other side of the pipe with her back against it and did the same with the opposite bar. It too bent. She could get her head between the two bars now. Twisting her body, she maneuvered her arms over her head, pressing her elbows against the bars and pushing with her feet. She wormed herself against the bars until she could no longer move. Her chest hurt. Every breath she took hurt, forced by the bars to compete for air. She found if she didn’t breathe, the hurt was less. She forced her arms back through the bars, and, turning her head to the side, levered herself into the pipe. Again, she pressed her feet against the bars, bend them a little. This time she could move past her chest to her stomach and beyond until a bar caught on her pocket. She looked down and saw the bulge. It was the stone, the bird stone Aleks had given her. She reversed herself, reaching for the pocket, removing the stone, placing it on the ground where water trickled from the pipe. Within seconds, she was free and standing by the pipe, pocketing the stone. She looked down at her clothes. What would her mother say? She ran to Barkley Court, intending to make her way to the alley behind her house. At her street, she saw people sitting on their porch steps and on lawn chairs on the sidewalk. Kids stood, staring. She saw her nanny and brother.

Caitlin crossed to her side of the street and walked down the sidewalk as her neighbors watched the display in the park in the bubble. The buildings coming apart, the explosions, the fires. She heard a boy say, “It’s like the 4th of July fireworks. The grand finale.” Caitlin stopped and watched. The bubble was a mass of black smoke, flames, and dust that fell like gray snow. Through this heavy mist, she could see vague outlines of crumbled buildings. But it was the sound and the vibration of the explosions that caught her breath. She walked to her porch stairs and sat beside her nanny, who held her brother as he sat on her knee, watching in wonder, the flames catch-lit in his eyes. Her nanny didn’t notice her. Caitlin held her head in her hands and wept. She knew Aleks and his mother were dead. They must be with this much destruction. The explosions continued at a rate that seemed to be timed to her heartbeat. She put her palms hard against her ears and closed her eyes.

“Caitlin,” the nanny said. “Where have you been? Your mother’s going to be livid.” She pulled her up by the shoulder and led her inside, telling her to change her clothes and put them in the wash. “I’m going to be in a pile of shit,” she mumbled, closing the door on the fireworks.

Dina got home as the fireworks were ending, her neighbors retreating to their homes, folding up chairs. Caitlin lay on her bed, wearing clean clothes. When her mother entered, Caitlin wiped her eyes and sat up.

“Cait, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?”

“Aleks and his mother... Their town was bombed today. I think they’re dead.”

Dina sat beside her and held her close. “Sweetie, who is this Ollix? This is the second time you’ve mentioned him. Were you outside watching the explosions across the street?”

Caitlin nodded.

“I think your imagination has you in its grip. You mustn’t make up such horrid stories.”

“They’re not stories. Aleks is in trouble. We need to help. We need to send soldiers.”

“Soldiers? What are you talking about?”

Caitlin explained to her mother what she had experienced today.

Dina listened with a sense of bafflement, intrigue, concern. She called Tom at work and told him he needed to come home. It was urgent.

“It seems she was out again today,” Dina said to Tom when he walked in.

Tom listened to the story Caitlin had told her mother. He meant to follow-up when he first heard his daughter tell of her meeting Aleks and having to crawl through a pipe.

“Pretty bizarre,” he said.

Dina suggested taking her to a psychiatrist, but Tom vetoed the idea.

“We need more information, Dina. I want her to take me to the bubble and explain just what she’s doing, what she may be seeing. I drove by the other side of the park on the way home. It’s a disaster. She may have walked around the park and seen things we can’t see from our street. Or she’s watching scenes on TV. Let’s find out what’s feeding her psyche first.”

Dina said nothing, sitting, staring at the wall.

“On the way home, I was listening to the radio. Terrorism has become a strategic goal in the war. Besides targeting critical infrastructure, small towns of no strategic importance with little or no defenses are being targeted. It’s a deliberate attempt to terrorize the populace, to destroy their homes and businesses. Civilians are now targets.”

Dina looked at him. “I’m glad you’ve become an armchair defense analyst, Tom. But what has that to do with Caitlin?”

“I was just trying to explain the situation.”

“I’m not interested in the situation. I’m interested in my daughter’s mental health.”

She stood and walked out of the kitchen.

Tom went upstairs to talk with Caitlin, then the two walked to the pipe that Caitlin said she used to enter the bubble. The bubble was quiet, dark. Tom and Caitlin walked through the trees to the culvert. Tom stood with his hands in his pockets, examining the pipe entrance. He asked how she got through the rebar barrier. He couldn’t believe she’d done such a thing.

“You can fit through that space?”

They walked to the fence. “Don’t touch it. It might be electrified,” he said.

She pointed to the gate several yards away. “I went through there when it was open, but it’s locked now.”

Tom considered his wife’s words, her concern for Caitlin’s mental health.

“You walked through the gate into the bubble? And met Ollix and his mother?”

“Uh huh,” she said.

At dinner, Tom announced that a neighborhood group was acting on the idea of constructing a wall around the bubble. They had talked with the city manager who was sympathetic but that no money was available. Funding would have to come from private donors and the structure must be easily dismantled.

Dina had her eyes on Caitlin, who moved food around her plate but ate little.

Tom said, “It would cut down on the noise.” He followed Dina’s stare. “And prevent kids from seeing what was going on, make it less real anyway. But it would be costly.”

“Tell us what you saw, Caitlin,” Dina said. “Today, when you were there.”

“I told you already.”

“Can you be more specific? Did you see bombs dropping?”

“No. I heard them and saw buildings blow up.”

“And you said Alina was holding your hand, but then told you to run.”

“Uh, huh.”

“What does Alina look like?”

Caitlin raised her head from her plate and put down her fork. “Kinda like you, but she has blond hair, and she’s a doctor.”

Dina glanced at Tom. Tom said, “Before she told you to run, what were you doing?”

Caitlin gave a sigh, pushing her plate away. “I told you. We were in the house and Alina’s phone rang to tell her the army was coming with tanks. And there were sirens.”

“OK. I just wanted to be sure,” Tom said. “It’s important to know the facts.”

Dina gave him a look. Outside, a loud boom. Tom got up and hurried to the living room. From the front window he could see tanks moving through the streets, their turrets turning, spitting fire, seeing walls blown apart, falling in the momentary flashes of light. Caitlin and Dina stood beside him.

“Dragons,” Caitlin said. “I hope Aleks is safe, but he doesn’t have a basement like we do. He doesn’t even have an upstairs. The bombs broke the roof and water comes in when it rains.”

Tom knelt on one knee and put his arm around Caitlin’s waist. “This scares you, doesn’t it, bird?”

“I’m scared for Aleks and his mom.”

“But watching these tanks and this destruction. Does it scare you?”

“No. It’s like a video game from here. If you want to be scared, then you should go to Aleks’s house.”

The next day, Dina stayed home. She told Caitlin she would not be going to school. Caitlin made no fuss.

“You still like school, don’t you?”

Caitlin watched her brother throw a spoonful of oatmeal across the floor.

“Caitlin,” Dina said. “Did you hear? You still like school, right?” She walked to the sink for a washcloth.

“Uh, huh.”

“We can have school at home today. Would you like that?”

“That’s what Aleks does. His mom teaches him because they bombed his school.”

Bombed, Dina thought. What could have created such vivid and detailed fantasies? she wondered. “We’ll set up a little schoolroom here in the kitchen then—”

“I need to see how Aleks is, Mom. Could he stay with us if his house is gone?”

“Sweetie, Aleks is in your imagination. We’re going to talk about imaginations today.”

“No. Aleks is real. I know about imaginations. We need to help him. And his mom. We need to send soldiers to help them.” She smacked her spoon on the table and got up and went to her room.

Dina gave a sigh and phoned friends, enquired about psychiatrists. Sometime later, she heard the door close. She jammed her phone into her pocket and ran. Caitlin stood on the sidewalk and said she had to see how Aleks was. Dina told her to wait. She would come with her. Caitlin looked across the street at piles of burning rubble. People walking about with little purpose but to cry, it seemed to Caitlin. She dropped her gaze and thought about the bars in front of the pipe. Could Aleks and his mother get through? Dina appeared at the top of the steps, holding her brother.

Caitlin turned. “Hurry,” she said. “We need to go.”

Dina followed her daughter, walking along the sidewalk of the main street, cars moving quickly. They walked a hundred yards, then Caitlin turned into the woods. “This is the way?” Dina said, struggling to keep up. “Uh huh,” came the reply. “Slow up, Cait.”

Caitlin stood at the culvert and pointed. “This is the pipe. You’ll have to twist your body to get in. I’ll show you.” She pulled from her pocket Aleks’s stone and walked forward.

Dina watched, mesmerized by her daughter, holding her small son, surrounded by trees, not thinking straight.

“Wait,” she yelled. “You can’t go in there.”

Caitlin’s shoulders were through the bars. She squirmed, pushing with her arms, bending her legs, twisting upright. “I want to see how Aleks is,” she said, pocketing the stone. “I’ll bring him and his mom back. He can sleep in my room.”

Dina ran to the pipe, shouting, “No, Caitlin.” She bent down and saw her daughter disappear into the dark. “Caitlin.” Her daughter’s name echoed in the pipe. “Come back.”

She moved to the fence and saw Caitlin emerge from the pipe. “Caitlin, you must come back,” Dina called through the fence.

“I will.”

“Oh, God,” Dina said as Caitlin made her way through the trees. She turned and hurried home, where she called the police.

Two big trucks were parked at the end of Aleks’s street where rubble from the corner building reached farther into the street in a pathetic gesture. She saw that several of the homes were destroyed, caved in, twisted, and blackened by fire and soot. Caitlin moved among the window frames, wall sections, broken glass, still smoking furniture smelling of gasoline and lemon oil.

The trucks had six wheels, with green canvas tarps covering the rear. They looked like big, blunt-nosed beetles, she thought. Soldiers stood talking, smoking cigarettes, with rifles slung over their shoulders. Lying in the street and front yards were bodies—a dozen at least, she thought. She heard a radio squelch, then talking. One truck started and moved off. From the rear of the remaining truck, she could now see the heads and upper bodies of several young children. Crying? She wasn’t sure. She moved closer to Aleks’s house, staying low, keeping an eye on the soldiers. They stood in a close group, talking, laughing, gesturing. As she neared the house, she noticed the front door was open, its frame splintered. She felt the ground shake and heard the dull ticking of tank treads approach from the street corner. The nose of a dull green and gray tank, then its fore-treads, came into view. A soldier stood in the turret and called to those by the truck. Caitlin dashed to the front door and entered Aleks’s house, walking the short hallway to the living room.

She stopped and screamed, raising her hands to her mouth to stifle the noise, unable. Tears fell from her eyes as she looked at Alina’s naked corpse, her legs hanging off the side of the table, her pants dangling from an ankle to the floor. Her jaw was broken, hanging off-center, her face stretched like a grotesque mask. Her right eye was a bloodied hole from which an oozing of red painted her cheek.

Caitlin backed up, whimpering, turning to the stairs, her hands wet from tears, her voice whispering a name. She climbed the stairs and stood at the landing looking up at the tarp and the bones of the house, the roof, canted, the angled light and shadows appearing as a sad and macabre face and she calling in a low voice.

“Aleks.” She walked forward, picking up one end of the tarp. “Aleks.” She pulled the stone from her pocket and leaned, tapping on the floor. Her action was without thought. Hope was its agent. Maybe the stone could summon Aleks. Rubbing her eyes, she descended the stairs and stopped and turned to the living room. A whimper. She turned to the front door, swiping at the tears.

In the doorway stood a soldier, his mouth twisted in a senile smile. Caitlin screamed and turned for the living room, then hesitated. The stairs. She took a step and felt an arm reach around her, picking her off the floor, turning. The soldier’s boots, mud-packed, walking to the door. Caitlin dangled from his hooked arm, hearing the rustle of his pants. He walked into the blighted yard toward the street. In her hand, she held the stone. She twisted her wrist and, raising her arm, struck the stone hard against the soldier’s kneecap. Caitlin fell to the ground, the soldier shouting profanities, on the ground in pain, trying to grab Caitlin. She scrambled to her feet, eyeing the soldier as he struggled to stand. She ran, hearing soldiers shouting.

Her name. She turned her head.

Aleks, leaning off the gate of the truck. “Run.”

She sprinted through the wreckage, ignoring the soldiers, stepping over street debris, around a crushed motorbike, hearing gunfire, turning to see guns aimed at her. She ducked behind the fallen refrigerator, hearing the ping of bullets against metal and ran across a corner lot to the street that led to the pipe.

Out of breath, her heart pounding, she fell into the pipe and looked over her shoulder. No one. She sat at the mouth of the culvert for seconds, catching her breath, feeling the water wick up her pants onto her socks. Crawling to the other end of the pipe, she reached for the stone. She had dropped it. Shimmying through the bars, she stood looking through pine branches at the flow of traffic, cars moving past in a vapid manner, ignorant of all but the asphalt beneath their tires. She blinked through tears and fell to the ground, crying hard, images of Alina, Aleks, soldiers, crumbling buildings, the dead, Alina, Alina.

Behind her, voices. Police, people walking the path calling to each other, pointing. Her parents, running through the trees.

In the days that followed, Caitlin learned that Aleks’s town had been destroyed. All its inhabitants killed or abducted. The destruction was purposeful and complete. No structure was left intact. Television crews captured the devastation and the death. There was no attempt to hide the killings or operate within the conventions of war. The town had been murdered. It no longer existed.

“It’s gone,” Dina said the morning after Caitlin’s return. She looked out the front window at the park. The day was bright. Bird calls replaced gunfire. She went to Caitlin’s room where the girl lay in bed.

“There is no more war zone, Cait. Our park has returned.”

She stayed in bed that day and half the next, refusing to eat, refusing to speak. But she was hungry and came downstairs for lunch and sat at the table and stared. Still, she couldn’t eat.

“Bird, you have to eat,” Dina said.

She walked to the front door and opened it, looking across the street. Parents and small kids played. Joggers. A couple playing tennis. Beyond, through the limbs of leafing trees, she saw the teeter-totter, the swings.

Dina took her—Caitlin adamant that she must go—leaving her brother with the nanny. She held her mother’s hand walking over the new grass, smooth with the filaments of nature untrammeled by war. Caitlin looked for Aleks’s street. The burned-out cars, the fallen, gutted buildings, twisted and yanked out of form by dragons. Nothing of her journeys to the war zone remained.

Dina watched her daughter wander aimless over the park, her head down as if she were searching for something. She saw her run across the corner of a soccer field toward the teeter-totter. Dina came up, out of breath. “What are you looking for?”

Caitlin didn’t answer, bending, eyeing the mulch that surrounded the play area. Dina sat on a swing and worried, staring at her feet, wondering what she could do for her daughter.

“This,” Caitlin said.

“A stone?”

“It’s Aleks’s. I’m keeping it for him. For when he comes back.”

Dina looked at her face. There was a light returned to her daughter’s eyes. She smiled, knowing there was probably no such person as Ollix, that nightmares can sometimes be extinguished by the simplest things. She took Caitlin’s hand, and they walked back across the street.

About the Author

Ben Raterman

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Ben Raterman writes from Virginia surrounded by trees, next to a stream that falls into a lazy river—when it’s wet.

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