Madison Kozera, C’24
The brisk wind blew across the roundabout in the neighborhood playground, spinning it gently in a small circle. The branches in the trees rapped against the shut windows of one of the homes. A grill’s dying embers still smoldered beneath three charcoal-colored slabs of meat, their forms as blackened as the same rocks that cooked them. A picnic table with a pattered cloth sat prepared and waiting under the baking sun, a feast filled with fruit flies, mosquitos, and rats. A few of the neighbors’ front doors lingered open; astray cat wandered into one of them and returned with a can in its mouth. A single rook crowed into the summer sky; his call remained answered.
Roman led his little brother, Thomas, up the few short steps in front of their home. He took care to avoid the pot filled to the brim with shriveled petunias; it wouldn’t do either of them any good to break something now. The breeze whistled and blew across their faces. If it had been any other day, Roman would have relished the wind that carried across his skin, but he didn’t have the time to delight in such trivial things.
Roman took the house key out of his pocket and let his fingers slide over the end of the metal. He twisted it over once, twice between his fingertips. His eyes blinked his thoughts away.
Thomas pulled on Roman’s sleeve. With a glance down at his brother, Roman could see Thomas staring out at the small, suburban neighborhood. Thomas’s eyes seemed to flit between the humming strands of grass and the overturned garbage cans that littered the side of the street. With a furrowed brow, Thomas turned to his brother and wondered aloud where all of their neighbors had gone. Roman shook his head.
“I’m not sure,” he admitted. “But we can’t worry about them right now. All we can do is follow what Mom and Dad told us to do and worry about ourselves. If we do that, we might see all of them again.”
Thomas’s head swiveled back around to stare out at the street; his grip on his brother’s sleeve tightened the smallest amount.
Roman shook his head with a sigh as he placed the key into the lock on the door. It clicked. He waited as the sound reverberated around the neighborhood. When the rook cried again, he twisted the lock and slowly pushed the door open. It creaked against its rusty hinges and squealed as it came to a rest. Despite his knowledge that his parents weren’t home—they couldn’t have been; they’d been with them that morning—Roman still leaned into the doorway and called out into the home.
One of the family portraits on the mantle had fallen over, and another picture that had previously hung on the wall now laid in a heap of glass on the wooden floor. The television still remained turned on from earlier that morning, the same news report that had played all across town lit up on the screen. Their father’s plush chair had been pushed back onto the ground with its legs held high in the air; a tall lamp sprawled across it in a glowing orange heap.
Roman took a step into the home and ignored the echoing creak the floorboards yielded. He called into the house once more. He could hear the same rook cry out again, Roman’s only reply. Moving his hand to his brother’s, Roman pulled Thomas inside the home. Broken glass crunched beneath both of their shoes.
When Roman had pulled his brother past the mess in the living room and beside the stairs, he knelt down before Thomas and placed both of his hands onto Thomas’s shoulders. He gave Thomas another soft smile and asked if he recalled what the two of them needed to do. Thomas nodded.
“Get our backpacks, get our clothes, get some food, get some medicine…” he trailed off while listing the items on his fingers.
“And leave the city. Go into the woods.”
Roman ruffled his brother’s hair and stood to his full height. He gave Thomas instructions on what to gather, to go to Thomas’s own bedroom first while Roman investigated the kitchen. Thomas hurried up the stairs without another word to his brother. Roman rubbed the back of his neck as he looked at the corner Thomas had disappeared around. He hoped something either of them found would be salvageable. With a little shake of his head, he set off for the kitchen.
A few of the cupboards in the kitchen sat open—remnants from the events of earlier that morning, no doubt. One of the four chairs from the kitchen table sat in front of the garage door, the top part of the chair underneath the metal door handle. Four half eaten plates of food lingered on one part of the marble counter, and dishes from earlier meals awaited to be cleaned in the sink; an odd smell swept through the air and made Roman wrinkle his nose.
With a clap of his hands, Roman went to work. He began to root through the open cupboards, a search for anything nonperishable, anything that would last a long time in a warm backpack. He found a few cans of soup, an unopened box of cereal, and a few boxes of snacks that could last them some time if they managed them well. Roman gathered all of them up into his arms and turned to set them on the counter before he went back to search for more. He paused as his eye caught the door that led to their backyard, the same door with numerous scratch marks around the door handle. The open backdoor. The one thing his family had been sure to do in their haste that morning was shut and lock every one of their doors and windows; now, here one sat, almost entirely ajar.
Roman’s breath caught in his throat at the sight. He threw down the items still clustered in his arms onto the kitchen table with a clatter and bolted from the kitchen to the stairwell in the other room. He called up the stairs. Thomas didn’t reply. Roman pushed his way up the stairs and turned the corner to send a quick look into his brother’s room. Through the slightly agape door, he could make out the sheets of his brother’s bed thrown onto the ground and a number of stuffed animals scattered along the floor. His brother wasn’t in his room.
He heard Thomas scream.
Roman called out Thomas’s name once more as he turned to race farther down the hall. He pushed open the door to another room—his own room.
Inside, he saw his own bed sheets piled into one corner of the room, a mess of pillows, sheets, and clothes all stuffed together. His mattress had been pushed onto the ground and overturned to one side, and his closet doors stood open with empty hangers. His heart stuttered in his chest at the sight of Thomas cowering in one corner, a stuffed tiger in his arms as tears rolled down his frightened cheeks. The decaying bag of skin facing his brother slowly turned its head to groan and glare at Roman.