At eight years old, Sara knows how to distinguish bombs by sound. She and her brother have names for them: the nutcracker, which can take out the windows and the roof; the snowman, which turns entire blocks to dust; and the sleepyhead, which doesn’t go off until later when a squad comes to try to remove it.
There is no school. They cannot go to the beach. In fact, the younger kids, including Sara, are not allowed to leave the house anymore. Instead, they spend hours sprawled around the dead television in the corner of the living room, making up episodes for their favorite shows since the electricity is out. They wait for news no television anchor can give them, like what has happened to their father.
It has been weeks since the night their father didn’t come home. Their mother cried at first. It was the not knowing what had happened, she said. Now, she is calm as a statue, stirring the pot on the stove, changing the diaper of her youngest son, cleaning Sara’s face gently with a cloth before bed. The motions she makes are all one, an infinite dance she performs for no one in their two-bedroom apartment.
Sara’s older sister likes to stand at the window, face pressed to the gap in the curtains even though she cannot see. She is blind from a childhood eye infection, but she says there are ghosts outside, and she can see them.
There’s no such thing as ghosts, their mother says. You’re scaring Sara.
I’m not scared, Sara says, even though she is clutching her mother’s arm.
You don’t have to be scared, her sister says. They’re just people.
It becomes their new game: the ghosts. What they are doing. How many there are.
One afternoon, Sara’s oldest brothers do not come home from university. The sky is blue as life. The sounds of machine guns rattle the streets. They hear from someone a few days later that her brothers left the city with a group of students, and they all hope it is true.
It means there is a little more food to go around for a while, though their mother is careful about portions. She doesn’t know how long it needs to last. Even with only four children left, enough food is difficult to find.
Sara wakes to the world sliding and smoke everywhere. She must have heard the whistle and the thump that came first and then the crash and the screams and the dying, but all she knows is she is awake, and everything is broken. Nutcracker.
She had been sleeping under the table in her homemade fort with her older sister and brother, and that was a good thing, because the ceiling crushed where they usually slept.
Holding tight to her sister’s and brother’s hands, they brace together when the floor tilts ominously. All they can hear is a bright continuous ringing. Every breath is dust, and they can’t breathe without coughing, coughing.
When the world settles, they see what is left beyond the table.
Most of the building has been sliced away. The things that are gone: the kitchen, the stove with the red tea kettle, the tin of sweet crackers, the bookcase and the tattered beloved novels, the closet full of clothes. The television. Mother. The baby.
They are what is left.
Mama? Sara’s brother calls, and his voice disappears into this new emptiness that now exists where their mother’s bedroom was before. Sara is crying.
We have to get out, her brother says.
The stairway twists and sags dangerously but three children their size can climb down, and they do, one by one, without it collapsing.
The brother goes first leading their older sister, who feels her way slowly, while Sara and her brother describe to her what she should and shouldn’t do. Foot there. Watch out! Don’t put your hand there. That’s it, keep going, you’re almost there.
They have no terror left. Sara goes last, and then they are safely at the bottom in the lobby of their building. The tiles are covered in dust and concrete and everywhere they step is new.
Children! Come out, quick.
For a second, they think the white powdered figure outside is their father, but it’s their downstairs neighbor. He gestures for them wildly to hurry. He is worried the building will fall down completely.
They hear the wail of firetrucks sweep past, hurrying somewhere else.
The neighbor picks Sara up and tries to take her sister’s hand, too, but their brother intercepts him.
I am her eyes, he tells the neighbor.
All right, all right. I understand, says the neighbor.
Sara looks back at the building and the open cross section of their empty living room. She sees one of her scarves fluttering in the hot breeze. It’s caught on a piece of steel jutting out from the remainder of the floor, and for a moment, she imagines how easy it would be to fly up there, snatch it, and come down again.
The street is pitted and cracked under their feet, and Sara’s sister stumbles over the broken places in the pavement. Half the buildings they pass are tightly shuttered, the other half vandalized. Doors have been kicked down, windows shot through. Someone threw chunks of pavement through an appliance store’s display window leaving nothing of the glass but jagged edges. Of the televisions that once filled the space there, only one remains, lying on its side with a crater the size of a human fist in its screen.
It has been so long since they have left the apartment, it is difficult to recognize their city.
There, whispers Sara’s sister. Do you see the ghosts?
Sara looks around. She sees only shadows.
The dead outnumber the living in the city, and Sara’s sister can see them all. The ghosts save their lives that first night, when they pick their way through the streets.
Not that way, her sister says, when the downstairs neighbor tries to lead them down a narrow street. He says it’s the shortest way. Sara’s sister shakes her head. He insists. She says no. And then there’s a loud rumbling noise, and the concrete walls of one of the buildings sags, then crumbles, and they are scurrying the other way. Sleepyhead.
How did you know? The neighbor asks.
The ghosts told me, Sara’s sister says.
She likes to pretend, their brother says, and he gives Sara a warning look before she says otherwise.
They stay in a compound of houses that belong to the neighbor’s sister. The neighbor’s sister, like so many, has already gone with her belongings, but the rest of the neighbor’s family is there: parents, brothers, cousins. The rooms are crowded with dull-eyed people. Some object about taking in three more children who aren’t family, but mostly people are too weary to say anything at all.
Sara and her sister and brother talk about leaving the city like their older brothers, but they have no money or parents so they must live on mercy.
Their brother goes out during the day to scavenge for food. The neighbor tries to share his own portion, but it isn’t enough even for one.
Their brother reluctantly takes Sara’s sister, and the ghosts tell her where to find a whole box of canned tomatoes. Sara doesn’t like tomatoes, but she eats them until her belly aches.
Sara’s brother and sister discuss whether they would be better off living somewhere else, but the compound at least is safer than the streets. Sara’s brother has seen children out there, bands of orphans. They are often collected by men and made to fight. Sara has also overheard talk in the courtyard that other groups snatch children for eating. She is worried it will come to that in the compound.
The neighbor has covered most of the windows with wood because the glass has been blown out, but from a gap in one of the windows on the second floor of the smaller house it’s possible to see the street. Sara likes to go up there with her sister and report to her all of the things she sees. It usually isn’t much: a column of smoke near the old city hall, the sun sparkling off the ocean, a skinny dog whining and limping along.
Sara’s sister tells her about the ghosts. They are in the courtyard, she says, two children and a man.
What do the ghosts do? asks Sara.
Normal people things, says her sister. They walk around, chit-chat, do their chores.
How do you know they are ghosts?
Because they are not afraid.
Can they see us? asks Sara.
Sara would like to see ghosts. She pretends she’s playing with the two ghost children.
The compound is crowded with people and it smells like sweat and shit and spoiled meat. The family wants the three children to go. Sara’s sister pleads with them to let them stay.
Perhaps if you were my wife, they’d let you stay, whispers the neighbor, looking at Sara’s sister sidelong.
No, says their brother.
All right, says Sara’s sister.
But weeks later, even so, they are made to leave.
The streets are crowded with ghosts, her sister tells them, as they pick their way over rubble.
Ask them where we can find shelter, says her brother. He doesn’t really mean it. He thinks the ghosts aren’t real.
Sara’s sister cocks her head and points. That way. It’s an empty store that once sold antiques. Most of the furniture has been smashed to pieces, chair legs strewn across the floor.
There’s glass, Sara says, pulling her sister’s hand to guide her.
The door in the back is a storeroom, and beyond that is another door that leads out to a courtyard. Sara’s brother insists on going first. He stops in the doorway, hisses in fear. Three bodies lie in the dirt: two big and one small, covered with cloth.
This is not a good place, he says.
What’s wrong with it? Sara’s sister wants to know.
They are dead, he says.
And so? Sara’s sister says. It’s just the storekeeper and his wife and child. Nothing wrong with bodies. They told me we could come right in.
She explains their ghosts are in the courtyard, and they seem kind. They were killed a long time ago and then forgotten. It smells awful.
They climb stairs along the back of the building that go to an upstairs. The door is locked, but one of the windows, miraculously whole, is not, and Sara is able to crawl through with a boost from her brother. It’s the apartment where the storekeeper’s family used to live.
The cupboards are full of food, and the beds are made with clean sheets. There are even clothes that almost fit them. A new change of clothes is almost as good as a bath. The kitchen is stocked with flats of bottled water.
They sleep a long time, and then in the morning their brother goes down and buries the family in the courtyard. Even with a cloth tied around his mouth and nose, the stench makes him retch.
For days, they live in this paradise, careful to stay away from the windows so that nobody knows they are there. They sing songs softly and take turns telling stories. Sometimes Sara shuts her eyes and tries to see the ghosts through her eyelids. It doesn’t work.
They run out of water before they run out of food, and then their brother has to go find more. He won’t let them come. Too dangerous, he says. And I’m the man of this house.
They tell him they can wait. They aren’t that thirsty. But it’s a lie, and he knows it. Their tongues are fat, and their lips are cracked. He goes out.
Sara and her sister wait for him, peeking out through the curtains.
Then, the first miracle: it rains. It’s only a light rain, but even a drizzle feels wonderful. They laugh and run out with every pot and cup and bucket they can find and let everything fill. They stand in the courtyard by the graves and wash themselves in the downpour.
After the rain, another miracle. A plane flies overhead, dropping packages, which drift to the ground.
One lands just outside the store, and before Sara’s sister can stop her, Sara darts downstairs and out into the street to get it. She is quick. Nobody sees her. She retreats quickly, the large parachute bundled so high in her arms she can’t see over it.
The package contains powdered milk and dried meat and rice. It also contains little bandages for cuts and scrapes, which make them laugh. The idea of applying a bandage to a finger or elbow seems so absurd. But it reminds them of home. They had a box like this underneath the bathroom cabinet.
After dark, their brother still has not returned.
Go to sleep, Sara’s sister tells her. I’ll look out for him. She means she will look for his ghost.
Later, Sara wakes up frightened without knowing why. Her sister is standing in the doorway.
We have to go, she says. The ghosts say so.
Sara’s sister has the parachute food in a child’s backpack they found in the front hall. The textbooks that were in the backpack are sprawled across the floor where she dumped them. It’s too small for her sister’s shoulders, so Sara puts it on and takes her sister by the hand.
In the courtyard, Sara looks over at the makeshift graves. She wants to see what her sister sees, but she can’t. Goodbye, she says to air. She tries to swallow, but there isn’t much spit left in her mouth. Her head hurts.
Now it is Sara’s job to look out for the living. She peeks out into the street. There are men out front with a tank attached to horses. The poor horses are straining to pull it down the street. Everything is stretched terrifyingly long by shadows. The moon is nearly full.
They go back to the courtyard and out through one of the other houses next to it.
As they are leaving, a boom knocks them down. A mortar has landed nearby, possibly in the very house they were sleeping in.
They move along towards the seaport for no better reason than they are thirsty again. Sara’s sister is trying to recall how you can turn saltwater into fresh. Something involving boiling, but they don’t have matches. Or sunlight—it’s the middle of the night.
They crouch in the shadows while more men pass. It seems like there are only men and men and men in this city. Sara asks where the ghosts think they should go. Her sister shushes her.
Another group of soldiers come running through the intersection and suddenly there is crossfire. Sara stops to watch, but her sister pulls her along. Don’t let them see us, she says.
A bullet whistles so close to Sara’s arm that she feels a burn on her arm. She is bleeding.
I think I’ve been shot, she tells her sister, and her sister pulls her down behind a broken wall.
Does it hurt?
Only a little.
That’s a lie. It really hurts, but Sara is trying to be brave. Better to move on.
A baritone shout reaches for them across the remains of a building. Girls! Hey, girls! They turn and run, Sara’s sister tripping over her long skirt. Which way? Over there! They do not know anything except that their only protection is escape.
The street signs have been covered with paint. It would be easy to get lost if you had somewhere to go.
It’s a woman! A woman in a window gesturing to come. Sara pulls her sister along.
They wait pressed up against the door for a long time, Sara clutching her sister’s arm, and try to make themselves small so they won’t be shot or seen. She wants to cry. She doesn’t cry.
Maybe she isn’t coming, her sister whispers, but then the door opens.
The woman pulls them inside and shuts the door, bolts it. She shines a flashlight over them, evaluating what she has brought into her home.
The light moves away, and Sara follows, stepping nearly as blindly as her sister.
They climb to the third floor and go into an office space full of cubicles, which have been converted into miniature apartments. Everywhere, there are women, maybe twenty in all. Two girls and a woman sit together on a couch by an empty water cooler, and on a pallet under a desk, two teenage women curl up together.
The office has its own kitchen, and they go there. The woman sits Sara down and examines her arm by flashlight.
Just a graze.
She pulls out a bottle of alcohol and cleans away the blood gently. Even though the sting isn’t so bad, Sara begins to cry silently.
The woman bandages it, and then she’s done.
There’s water—a whole storeroom full of water and pens and tons of paper. The woman gives them crackers, and they taste almost as good as fresh bread.
We’re founding a new nation of women, she tells them. Right here in this building. We don’t allow men. We take care of each other, and we defend ourselves. If a man tries to come in, we shoot him.
You have guns? Sara’s sister asks.
What do you eat? asks Sara.
We have a garden on the roof. We even have two pigs up there and chickens, so we have eggs. Some of us were at the market when there was a riot. It wasn’t too far from here. We took what we were selling when we ran. We knew each other. We saw each other in the streets when the shooting started. We came in here. There were only four of us at first, but then we grew. Other women are left in this city. As our nation grows from here, we’ll have to draw a bigger boundary. We’ve been thinking we’d be happy with this neighborhood to start, but we want access to the sea. That’s important.
She shows them the flag they are making in the conference room. It is made from a burial sheet and mourning clothes. So far it is a white field with a black circle above a dark squiggly line.
It’s the moon and the ocean, the woman explains.
Finally, the woman assigns them a cubicle where they can lie down.
Are there ghosts here? Sara asks her sister.
There are ghosts everywhere, she says.
The women spoil them like princesses. They fight over who gets to braid Sara’s hair, and they are told they are beautiful and brave. Some of the women start to weep when they say this.
In the morning they all do exercises to strengthen their bodies.
We must be stronger than men to survive, says the woman-who-used-to-bake-cakes. She shows them how to push their bodies off the floor until their arms tremble. She grabs the skin around Sara’s upper arms and giggles. She says, well, we have work to do.
Everyone is also expected to do their part: picking tomatoes, weeding, rinsing the ash of incinerated buildings off the lettuce leaves, changing the toilet buckets. Sara especially likes the chickens, though the rooster’s cry is too loud. They are thinking of eating him. In the other corner of the roof sits a bomb, miraculously intact, buried up to its nose in the concrete roof.
Don’t touch that, Sara is told, by the woman-who-once-sold-flowers. It could turn everything to dust.
Snowman. Of course not, says Sara, who is old enough to know better in this city that is more dead than living.
The woman-who-sold-flowers takes her to the edge of the roof and lets her peek over the edge. They are tall and the world around them is short. Shorter now that half of it is gone.
She can smell the fires burning, but up here, with a woman’s soft hands holding her own, she feels safe. Everything below is far away. She sees a group of men burst into view, faces covered, wearing their ammunition like necklaces.
Sara ducks down behind the wall.
Don’t worry, says the woman, stroking her hair. They never look at us up here.
She tells Sara she had a husband, once, and three sons. Now they’re gone. She counts death on her long, slender fingers, and Sara is distracted by the delicate flowers swirling across her nails.
When the war ends, we'll rebuild the city, and it will be our city. Do you understand? What will you do? You could drive a truck, maybe, or be a firefighter. Would you like that?
Sara shakes her head, and the woman laughs.
Their faces are close enough that the heat of her breath brushes Sara’s nose. Then the woman-who-sold-flowers leans in and presses chapped lips to her forehead.
She says, I was very proud of my sons. Now I wish I’d had daughters instead.
Sara panics when she comes back down the stairs with hands full of fresh mint and finds her sister gone. The women decided to put her talents to use. Sara sits down in their cubicle and hugs herself waiting for her sister to return. She hates all of them and cries herself to sleep, then wakes up and cries again.
At last, the women return. They are flushed with triumph. Their whispers are like gunfire: bursts of words in the dark. The ghosts told Sara’s sister where to find canned peaches, and it’s as if summer has come to the Nation of Women.
And there is more: someone found an old ball gown, sized for a child only slightly bigger than Sara. She wears it, until Sara’s sister tells her to take it off because the dead girl who owned it wants them to burn it. Sara wants to wear it anyway, but her sister won’t let her. They fight about it, and the dress is ripped. And then they cry and hold each other, and the fight is forgotten.
Much later, her sister tells her how they went all the way to the square where the students used to protest. There were hundreds of them, she whispers. Two armies still fighting like they didn’t know they were already dead. But one of them did tell me about the peaches.
One night, the fighting comes so close, their building shakes and their boarded-up windows rattle with the hail of shrapnel.
Bad weather we’re having this evening, someone says, as if they aren’t all afraid and huddled close in the office kitchen. To pass the time, the women pester Sara’s sister for news of their loved ones. They know about ghosts: they can feel them at night in the chill of the air and hear them in the distant cries that slip through the window cracks.
I’m sorry, says Sara’s sister. It doesn’t work like that. I can’t find a ghost in a city of ghosts. I can’t even find my mother.
Sara is embarrassed, because she hasn’t thought of their mother at all in a long time.
The nation of twenty-seven women grows to thirty-three when a band of high school girls show up. They say they were held hostage. They are worried the militants will come looking for them. And a few days later, it turns out they were right.
In the night, there’s a bang, and the door breaks in. They pour up the stairs with bright, blinding lights. Sara cannot find her sister. She crawls from cubicle to cubicle. In the chaos, no one notices her. She crawls to the staircase and runs up the stairs to the roof. The big pigs grunt at her. She looks past the lines of drying laundry and the chicken run. Behind the chicken coop is a box of compost food scraps, and she pinches her nose and gets in.
She hears boots on the roof now. The pigs scream death. Then, the sounds of wings beating and bullets, boys laughing. They are using the chicken run for target practice.
The door slams.
What! You idiots! We could have had eggs.
Well, now we’ll have chicken.
Did you find the girl?
I saw her go into the stairs. She must be here. No way she got past us downstairs.
Then Sara hears them searching. She holds her breath and tries to sink deeper down so her face is covered in rotten cabbage and potato peel. Eggshells poke her hair. Worms crawl over her skin, but at least she is warm.
The compost lid opens, and Sara holds still. She thinks, I am not here. I am dead. You can’t see me.
Then she feels fingers in her hair, a hand yanks, and her face is pulled free of the old food. She is looking into the eyes of a boy no more than ten. It’s her brother, carrying a gun that is more than half his size. She squints. Or maybe it’s just another boy who looks like him.
For a long moment they stare at one another in the moonlight. Then he lets go and slams the lid down again.
Ugh! Don’t look in there. It’s disgusting. Rotten stuff.
I don’t think she’s on the roof. We’ve looked everywhere.
Maybe she jumped?
Or maybe she is still in the building somewhere.
Look, at this. One of them says. A bomb.
Let’s take it.
Watch out, you’ll drop it!
Sara holds her breath a long, long time.
Then they are gone. Minutes pass. Sara puts her head up and breathes again. She stays in there the entire day. When she needs to pee, she soils herself and cries a little. Finally, after the sun sets, she crawls out. The rooftop is smeared with animal blood and feathers.
Downstairs, the Nation of Women is gone. Bodies lie in and out of the cubicles. She goes from face to face until she finds her sister and everything inside her and outside her goes grey, like there’s plastic over everything.
She takes the flag and covers her sister’s face. Then she finds a set of clean clothes too big for her and changes into them. She washes her face from a mostly empty water container and drinks what’s left.
Then she slips out into the dusty streets and starts walking. She smells ocean, and the city suddenly seems familiar again. Like her city. Except she was never allowed to go to the beach by herself. She sees no one, but she thinks there must be ghosts around in this city that once was full of people.
It is a short walk to the ocean. She climbs over the stone wall that separates the narrow strip of sandy beach and the boardwalk and looks out at the big grey ships in the water. The sand is cool and moist. Out beyond the shoals, the ships line the horizon like a prison wall. Light flashes. She can hear the percussive sound as the city is deconstructed. Bombs fall in the distance like thunder. The city is burning.
Mama, she says. Are you here? Do you see me?
She wraps herself in an old sandy beach towel and sleeps until the sun comes up.
Sara sits up and looks back at the city, and as far as she can see, she is alone. A hot wind kicks sand up into her eyes. She blinks, and her eyes blur with tears. But through it, she sees shapes moving about: a family at the beach, a couple holding each other lazily in the sun. She turns around and there are shapes on the promenade too. She wonders if one could be her sister or mother.
Her eyes water, she blinks again, and the shapes disappear.
Wait, she says. Don’t leave. I’m here. Let me see you.
She squats down and grabs fistfuls of sand and begins rubbing them in her eyes. It hurts so much, but she continues until her eyes are filled with tears, and she can’t see a thing. Then she turns around and looks back, eyes burning.
The city is full of people going about their business. Chit-chatting about nothing. Reading newspapers and drinking their coffee.
Hello? Sara asks. Have you seen my sister? Hello?
A woman with a bag full of groceries smiles at her, warm as the morning sun. She holds a hand out to Sara to come. Come, child. Come.
“ When I first wrote this story, I was thinking about a particular conflict that was happening at the time. This was several years ago. The detachment from a specific time and place is intentional. ”