It was a blessed relief to get out of the house, to escape the oppressiveness that came with his parents’ daily growing fear. He moved quickly and silently through the woods, knowing how dangerous it was to be caught alone. Ziv collected small twigs and chunks of wood in his arms. His eyes scanned continuously as he moved further away from his home and the protection it offered.
A shiver wracked his body, and another until his teeth clacked together. The canopy of the trees appeared to keep the cold trapped between the enormous trunks, offering no respite. His clothes were no defence against the winter months. The cold dug deep and bit at his bones until they felt like they might snap.
The laughter under his breath was brittle and humourless as he continued on. He couldn’t remember a time he’d felt warm. Even in the summer, he lived with a coldness inside him. Each day, it seemed to take away a part of his soul. The war that was tearing his country apart ensured that.
He’d watched friends gunned down in the street in cold blood. Over what?
Cleansing of what? Fuck if he could figure it out. And all the while, the war continued, taking more than he wanted to give. His people were murdered, raped, and tortured for crimes the military and the paramilitary decided they were guilty of. His head was full of it, nothing switched off his brain.
Nothing allowed him to be the fourteen-year-old boy he secretly yearned for in the dark. He was no longer a boy, but a man who stressed over when his life was going to end. The murmurings over recent days between those brave enough to speak of the atrocities were that the military was coming for the younger boys. Did he want to fight for a country that didn’t stand for its people? He was sure it wouldn’t be long before they came for him, forcing him to make a stand.
It was one more worry he’d discussed with Отац. He had no answer for his son, only more concern about all the possibilities of how things would end for them all.
His mother’s sweet face showed the ravages of hunger and fear. It hardened Zivkovic’s heart to watch her suffer when he could do nothing. Was defenceless when those around him lived with fear, making them too scared of what would befall them.
Death from starvation and hypothermia were high on the list of possibilities for them all, and in some ways, they were kinder than the other options. His eyes darkened with hate for his countrymen. The gnawing pain in his stomach was all-consuming as his arms held on to the wood as if he could use it as a weapon.
Immediately alert, Zivkovic ducked behind a tree at the sound of a breaking branch. Slowly, he lowered the wood in his arms to the hard ground beneath him. Had someone followed him?
His eyes were alert for danger, his hands trembled, though he would never acknowledge it, and his heart thudded hard in his chest. He wasn’t as strong as he’d like. Lack of food had taken its toll on his body. If they took him now and accused him of lies, there would be little he could do. Rage burned through him, giving him some respite from the cold.
There were things that were worse than dying fast. Dying slowly and without mercy. That was his biggest dread.
He kept his breathing shallow as he peeked out several minutes later, hearing nothing but the sounds of birds chirping. Darting back, he repeated the move until he was certain he was alone. His senses were on high alert for danger.
His breath misted the air in front of him when he finally stood on stiff legs and gathered up the meager collection of sticks and continued on his trek deeper into the woods.
The woods offered him some solace and peace from life, regardless of how it took most of his energy in his daily search for wood. He didn’t want to think about how, as the winter sunk its claws into the land, there was less and less wood to find to keep their home warm and beat back the winter freeze.
An hour later, his arms aching, he trudged back along the path with weakened legs. It was a path he knew well enough to walk it in the darkness, as he did now. It led to the tiny home he lived in, sitting on the edge of his hometown, Valjevo.
His heart stuttered in his chest, refusing to beat as a scream rent the air. Before he could fully register his intention, the wood fell from his arms in a clatter, hitting his legs. The pain barely noticeable while he stood frozen in place, his eyes searched the darkness. The next scream galvanised him. He took off running to the one and only house in this part of the tree line. His home.
Blood ran hotly through his veins as he squinted at the house that came into view. There were several military vehicles and his fear competed with his anger.
Through the small kitchen window he could see several reflections. His heart hit his ribcage painfully hard. He tripped and fell to the ground.
“Јебига,” he cursed under his breath as he struggled to catch it. Had they seen him?
Fear gnawed at his innards like nothing he’d ever experienced before. His hands stung from the cuts on his palms, but nothing stopped his need to see what the monsters were doing. He belly crawled over the rocky ground to the house as he heard the soldiers shout obscenities at his mother.
The spit dried in his throat as he reached the base of the wall just below the kitchen window. As his mother begged for mercy, the next scream ripped through his heart. The screams grew ragged as Zivkovic forced himself to stand, to watch.
His eyes ached with the tears that were frozen on his eyelashes. They acted like a prison to stop him blinking and hiding from the horrors beyond the window. His mother’s cries were deafening as the men took turns to violate her, laughing and joking as they held his father’s face so he couldn’t look away.
The fresh bruises he wore showed he’d fought, but to no avail; there were too many men crowding the room to fight against.
His fists were clearly no defence against the men and their guns and knives.
They held a knife at his mother’s throat, cutting her skin when she struggled, which only made them fuck her harder. The table moved as the screams became nothing but strangled gasps until there was no sound at all. That was so much worse.
Zivkovic’s soul turned black. He was sure it had when the world became a dark place as he witnessed his mother give up. Her head flopped listlessly to the side, her soulless eyes meeting his gaze. The last man pulled out of her, cursing her for dying too soon.
His throat burned with bile, but he swallowed it back, not wanting to give these men any part of him.
The man’s comrades laughed at his misfortune, slapping each other as they redressed. Their callousness stamped a path directly to his broken heart.
It was then that Zivkovic looked at his father. The grief etched into his features as he looked toward the window, as if knowing Zivkovic was there. Their gazes held.
His father’s lips parted, and Zivkovic was sure he heard the word ‘run’ in his mind as the sound of shots rang out and his father dropped to the floor. His body writhed as blood stains appeared through his shirt, spreading around him to pool in a macabre red that glimmered in the overhead light.
He wasn’t sure if it was his father’s final word or one he’d spoken himself, but as his gaze swept the room, he knew it was for the last time. His home was broken, much like the people inside.
As he turned away, what was left of his heart was laid in the room with those who’d loved him. He swore, as he ran like the devil was chasing him, that he would not let himself feel for another. That he would never be vulnerable again to the pain that was ripping his innards to shreds.
“Копилад,” he sobbed. His boots crunched into the ground as he searched for the path to escape. Only there would be no escape for his mind, and the pictures impaled brutally on his brain.
He barely entered the tree line before he heard the crashing sound of feet following him. His lungs burned as he used his knowledge of the woods to head deeper into the darkest parts, knowing if they caught him he’d suffer a similar fate, or worse, if they took him alive.
The hate and devastating grief kept him upright. He ran using both, knowing there was nowhere to hide from them. But he could and would hide from those who hunted him and possibly wanted him dead.
His fists balled as his chest billowed from the exertion, using every bit of strength he had to keep going as the shouts behind him grew louder.
He wasn’t ready to die.
His father had always said he had potential to make something of himself and he would, if not for himself but for their sacrifice. Iced tears ran down his cheeks unheeded as he promised himself never to be in a position to care for someone so others could take them from him.
Never again would he hurt like this.
No one was worth this pain.