“I wish it would stop.”
She said it like a child. She was a child. Still is. I just couldn’t take much of her whining.
“It’s nothing. Just remember to stay quiet until we’re home. Bad men out here,” I told her.
I tried to keep my cool. It was almost impossible. Anything could go wrong and I would snap. She knew this.
“Why can’t we leave?” she asked.
Her small voice came up in a whisper. I could tell she was on the verge of tears from the waver.
“The bad men wait at the exits. If we go there then we can’t get away from them,” I told her.
She started to drag. I had to grip her hand tighter or it would have fallen away.
We went on. With my daughter dragging behind, walking through the rubble. Our home was under a slab of concrete that used to be a parking garage. It was hard to get to, and difficult to spot. The idea was that the roving gangs would walk right past.
“I don’t like it here,” she said.
“Neither do I,” I said.
She tripped over a small rock. Her feet were dragging extra hard now. I was ignoring her. I just had to hold out until we got back. Then I could let her scream. She could throw things and yell at me all she wanted at home. Just not out in the open.
“I don’t like it here,” she repeated.
Her face was now a comical frown.
“Karen, honey, I need you to hold it together until we get back. I can’t have another one of your tantrums in the street. The bad men…”
“I’ve never even seen a bad man!” she interrupted.
Shit. Here we go. I would have to herd her the remaining block.
“I know,” I surveyed the ruins then went to her, “It’s because I keep you safe.”
“I hate this place!” her voice became higher in tone and volume.
I grabbed her wrist and pulled. If I had to drag her back to the hovel I would. She would understand later.
Her arm slid out of my grasp. She pulled away.
“No!” she screamed.
My breath stopped. My eyes froze. Like a squirrel I watched for any movement. I felt the earth with my feet for any vibration.
“I don’t want to go! I don’t want to walk around anymore! I hate this place! I hate you!” she was becoming hysterical.
She sounded more and more like a steam whistle.
“Karen, I need you to quiet down,” I shot a glance behind me.
Nothing, for now.
“No! I hate you! Where’s dad!? Where’s my room! I don’t even get a room!” she was feeling around for the barb that would get me riled up.
I had to ignore it. I went for her wrist again.
She ran onto a pile of rubble. After some tripping and struggling, huffing from her tears, she made it to the top. She picked up a small piece of concrete.
“Why is it like this now!?” she yelled, holding the concrete.
I couldn’t even begin to tell her. The devastation. The ashes that rained like falling leaves. The bad men. The fear.
How do you explain global war to a five year old?
“Karen, I need you to get down from there,” I told her. I tried a stern tone.
“No!” she threw the jagged concrete towards me.
It was a poor throw. After only ten feet it became part of the other rubble.
“Karen!” I yelled.
She looked around, frozen. After a few moments she burst into hysterics again.
“No! No! No!”
She began lifting and throwing hand-sized pieces of concrete as fast as she could.
I took several steps back and then checked my ammo. Only four rounds left for the pistol. Two might be accounted for. If the gangs came I would spare her, then myself.
I watched her use all her energy. She stomped, screamed, and flailed.
In one of her random throws, the rubble collided with a large sheet of thin material. It broke away, revealing a familiar sight. The subway.
“Karen, look!” I tried to point it out.
She wasn’t done.
“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” she squealed.
I made my way up the small pile of rubble towards the exposed gateway.
She ran away, and I didn’t stop her. Her episode would be done soon.
There was only a small amount of rubble over the entrance. I began to move it out of the way. My hands were well-callused from the years of scrounging in the city. I felt nothing. Piece after piece, I exposed a passage to the underground.
Karen was winding down. Her breathing was too fast for her to use words at this point.
I pulled a larger piece of concrete away and I could see stairs. They led down into pitch black. This could be our way out.
“Karen. This is the Subway. Remember what I told you about the subway?” I talked as I worked.
She didn’t respond. I could hear her sobbing.
“Tunnels. Underground. We could get out, Karen. We could get out!” I exclaimed.
“Stop it. We’re never getting out,” Karen sniffled.
I stood up and made eye contact with her.
“This might go past the bad men. We could get past them by going under them,” I told her.
“What?” she squinted.
“Some of these tunnels lead out of the city. If we can find our way, then we might be able to leave here!” I told her.
She got up and came to my side. I wanted to hug her, but I didn’t want to push her into hysterics again.
“How do we see?” she asked.
I rifled through my pack until I found the transparent survival flashlight. It was powered by shaking it.
“With this,” I gave it to her.
She held it, turned it over, and the copper cylinder inside fell to the other end.
Both of us realized the path before us. The darkness in the tunnels was like a solid barrier.
“I’m scared,” I whispered.
“Me too,” she said.