Hayato awoke and was suddenly blinded and deafened at the same time. Beneath his eyelids, he could sense a bright, harsh light – so harsh, he could feel it on his skin. He heard sounds, too: screams, yells, flames, pleas for help … No, no, no, no, no, he thought, grasping his head and pulling at his hair, this is all a bad dream, I’m going to wake up any minute now and realize it was a nightmare …
Then he heard his mother scream, and when he turned to look at her, he wished – more than anything, anything – that he was having a nightmare. Because what he saw was cruel, what he saw was horrifying, what he saw was something a ten year old does not have to see happening to his mother. What he saw was permanently scarred onto his brain tissue.
“Mom!” he screamed. He could clearly see what was going on – his mother was on the floor, blood pooling around her abdomen, and she screamed as a knife was carved into her stomach. She choked and coughed up blood as the man plunged the knife deeper and deeper.
It was all Hayato could do not to vomit. Feeling more hopeless than he’d ever felt in his life, he grit his teeth and closed his eyes as tears poured down his face. Never before had he been so paralyzed by fear, horror and disgust. His legs trembled and he was starting to see black spots.
Then he heard something, a sound that echoed through his brain. It was a small sound, but loud.
It was his little sister.
Hayato looked up through foggy eyes and was dimly aware of what had just happened. With a shock of horror, he realized the man had carved open his mother’s stomach to extract the baby. He saw a pile of what looked like his mother’s skin next to her.
Hayato belched and vomited. It was too much, too much – he had just seen his mother’s stomach being opened up, his baby sister pulled through covered in blood, and the leftover stomach skin that had been cut away. His legs gave in and he collapsed to his knees, bending over to vomit again. Taking deep breaths, he spit and wiped away the saliva on his chin. He looked over at the man, and realized what he was about to do. He held the knife over his sister, and aimed it to stab.
“SAIKA!” That was all Hayato could take. Barely conscious of what he was doing, he pulled himself up and ran, ran to his sister, to his barely conscious mother. He didn’t know what happened next, all he knew was that he reached for his little sister, grabbed her in his arms, and shielded her with his body as he felt something sharp slash against his face.
The next few minutes were a blur: he heard voices, loud voices, swearing, wailing, and someone running. A few seconds later, it was all quiet, and the only voices to be heard were his own breathing, which was labored and heavy, and his sister’s cries, weak but loud.
But he couldn’t hear his mother.
Every sense in Hayato’s body became alert then. “Mom?” he called out, still holding his baby sister. No response. A sudden dread loomed up in his chest. “Mom?” His hand, which had been held to the side of his face, now groped at his mother. He felt blood, blood all over, and in a matter of seconds, his hand was soaked and sticky. He kept feeling until he touched her face.
It was cold.
“No,” he whispered. “No, no, no, no, no …” He forgot about everything else, then, all he thought of was his mother, and how she was now lying dead in front of him, with her guts pulled out and blood spilled everywhere. In a sudden wave of madness, he shook her body again and again, tears pouring down his face and dripping onto her dress, yelling, “Mama! You can’t be dead! You can’t! Wake up, wake up! You have to wake up now!” His sobs were mixed with Saika’s, as both children wept for their dead mother. “You have to see Saika, you have to be a mother to her! Can’t you hear her? She’s crying because she wants to be with her mother!” He screamed and buried his face in her dress. “Mom … come back to me, come back to us! Come back! Please come back!” His chest heaved up and down with sobs, and he felt so overcome with guilt and grief. He vomited and sobbed and wished he were never born. His knuckles were raw and bleeding as he pounded them on the floor, again and again. He didn’t feel right; he didn’t feel human at all. He eyed the knife on the floor, covered with his mom’s blood, and thought thoughts that ten year olds do not have to think about. Ten year olds do not think about ending their lives.
After what seemed like an eternity, he got up, feeling very dehydrated and barely conscious. He wrapped his sister in his makeshift blanket, carried her in one arm, and held his other hand up to his face. The left side of his face felt sticky with blood, so he applied as much pressure as he could with his palm. He had to rely on one eye for vision for a while, it seemed.
He decided he had to get out of there, he had to escape and keep Saika safe from harm. He crouched down next to his mother, whispered a prayer, and tried to keep the tears at bay as he closed her eyes. This was the last time he would be seeing his mother.
He got up, took a deep breath and glanced around his home, which was mostly destroyed now. Shattered glass covered the floor, and the furniture was upturned. Most of their belongings were gone. As Hayato stepped through the door, leaving his home forever, he glanced around one last time. He would dearly miss this place, and he steeled himself for the hardships that were to come. Feeling more depressed and lonely than he’d ever felt in his life, he stepped through the door and into the world outside, where he saw nothing but destruction and fire.
The village is burning down, he thought. How did this happen? He was thinking of places to hide when he thought of someone.
“Hiroshi!” he whispered. “Damn it – I forgot all about him!” He started running towards his best friend’s house, praying and praying he was all right. The emptiness in his chest only grew as he ran and ran. It was tough, running with his baby sister in his arms while the glass on the ground cut his bare feet, but that pain was nothing compared to what he was feeling emotionally. I won’t cry, I won’t cry, I won’t cry, he thought, as he reached his friend’s house, which, to his horror, had been mostly blown up. He saw flames dance around, licking the wood. To his horror, he could almost hear the flames lick and salivate over the wood. It was disgusting, it was scary, and he tried to stop his imagination running wild.
“Somebody … please … h-h-help m-me …”
Hayato jumped up. He glanced around frantically, his heart beating, because that voice was frightfully familiar to him. He ran to the back of the house and saw Hiroshi, whose leg was crushed underneath the weight of the entire roof.
“HIROSHI!” Hayato yelled, tears welling up. It seemed all he could do was cry, and yell the names of the people he loved.
“Hayato?” came the weak reply. Hiroshi’s arm was bent at a very odd, frightful angle, and his clothes were burned and blackened with soot. Hayato realized his friend’s breathing was strained, and getting more strained by the second. He had to lift up that roof.
Or your friend is going to die. Your only friend. Tick tock, Hayato.
Hayato grit his teeth and shook his head. He removed his hand from his face and clenched his fist. He wasn’t about to lose another person he loved. He walked over to where his friend lay and gently set down Saika.
“I’m going to save you, Hiro,” he whispered. He crawled over to him, grabbed a part of the roof, and pulled. It wasn’t budging. He tried again, but the roof was stubborn. Hiroshi’s breathing only got heavier, and Saika started to cry.
Hayato felt tears falling down his face. “I can’t do this on my own,” he whispered. He covered his bad eye and started to cry, and felt like a total baby. “I can’t save you, Hiro.”
He felt something grip his wrist. It was Hiroshi. “Hey, don’t cry!” he said gently. Hayato looked up and was startled to see his friend smiling. “I don’t like seeing you cry, Hayato. It makes me feel sad too. I can’t ruin my reputation as Mr. Tough Guy, can I?” He grinned. His leg was crushed, his clothes were burned, his arm was broken, and he was smiling. That filled Hayato with new courage.
He tried again, pulling the roof upwards with all his might. He pushed until his arms ached, until he couldn’t breathe, until his spine felt like it was going to snap, and finally, he felt the roof budge beneath his fists. Sweat poured down his face as he struggled to get up, lifting the roof with him. He grit his teeth so hard, he actually thought he heard a pop in his mouth, and then he was crying, because never in his life had he exerted his body so much.
A few seconds later – or a few eternities, in Hayato’s mind – the roof was completely lifted off of Hiroshi’s back. “Move,” he said, panting. “Hiro, move, you baka!”
Hiroshi slid his way out, using his good arm and leg for support. He made it to where Saika was lying and propped himself painfully against a boulder. Hayato then let go of the roof, and suddenly his arms felt light as a feather. It came down with a loud crash.
Hayato collapsed, mentally and physically drained, and weakly crawled over to his friend and sister.
He lay face-down next to his baby sister. She had cried herself to sleep, the little thing. Hayato suddenly realized her hair was brown, like his mother’s.
He sat up and cleared his head. It wouldn’t do to dwell on his mother. It wouldn’t do at all. Instead, he crawled over to Hiroshi and sat next to him. Hiroshi sensed his friend next to him and opened his eyes. “See? I knew you could lift that roof. You’re a man, after all!”
Hayato smiled and shook his head. “I’m only ten.”
“Aw, don’t gimme that!” Laughing, Hiroshi put his good arm around his friend’s neck and pulled him down, ruffling his hair with his chin.
“Oy!” Hayato exclaimed, trying to break free. But he also started laughing, and his chest felt a little lighter. He clutched Hiro’s sleeve and was glad for him being there, for being safe.
Hiroshi stopped laughing and suddenly pointed to his friend’s face. “Your face!”
Hayato’s hand flew up to his left eye, covering it, feeling it. “What? Is it that bad?” Now that his senses were more acute, he did realize something was wrong with his eye. It wouldn’t open. Or, rather, it was very painful to open.
“There’s a huge line running from just below your eyebrow till the bottom of your nose!” he exclaimed. “Can you open your eye?”
“I-I don’t think I can,” Hayato replied, panic swelling up inside of him. He reached out for Saika and held her close, scolding himself for being such a baby. What was he doing, crying every ten minutes? At least we’re away from most of the chaos, he thought. This boulder is huge, and the fighting is taking place in the center of the village, where the fountain is.
He was suddenly distracted as a wink of light flashed in front of him. It was a dagger, and Hiroshi was holding it towards himself. “No, Hiro! Don’t kill yourself! We’ll get through this, I know we will –“
Hiro laughed – a big, booming laugh. “Baka!” he exclaimed. “You think I’d leave my best friend hanging?” He reached out and pinched Hayato’s cheek. “You sure are cute. And stupid.”
Hayato slapped his hand away and blushed. Then he heaved a sigh of relief. “Then … what are you doing?”
Hiro began tearing away strips of his shirt with his dagger. Once he had decided an ample amount of cloth, he tucked his dagger away in his shoe and gathered up the strips. “I’m going to bandage that eye up,” he said, going behind Hayato. “Hold still, will you?”
Hayato felt the cloth wrap around his forehead, once, twice, and then it covered his left eye. He felt it being secured into place as Hiro tied a knot. He then repeated this process of wrapping and tucking one more time, and finished with a firmer knot. “How’d I do?” Hayato could hear his friend’s grin. He smiled. “Not bad, huh?”
Hayato got up. “It hurts a little, but I’m okay.” He helped Hiro up. “Thank you.”
Hiro waved his hand. “Don’t you get all mushy with me!”
Hayato blushed and shoved him. “I’m not being mushy, I’m just saying thank you!”
Saika started to cry then, and Hiroshi, who had been oblivious to her presence, yelled out. “Hayato! Why are you – who is that?”
Hayato swallowed. This would bring up his mother. “This is Saika. She’s my little sister.” He held her close.
Hiro’s face went through a phase of emotions. First, confusion. Then, realization. Shock. And finally, concern. He smiled, his eyes kind. “Saika, huh?” he said gently. He put his face next to hers. “Nice to meet you, Saika-chan,” he whispered. “I’m your uncle Hiro. You can call me oji-san.”
Hayato rolled his eyes, but couldn’t stop himself from smiling. “You’re already telling her to call you ‘uncle’, huh?”
“You shut up,” Hiroshi replied, shoving him. He still looked down at Saika. “Your brother is really annoying, you know, Saika-chan?” A frightfully loud blast made them both jump, and Saika started to cry.
“What was that?” Hayato whispered.
“Beats me,” Hiroshi whispered. “All I know is that it doesn’t look good, and the sooner we get out of here, the better.”
“Can you walk, though, Hiro?”
Hiro looked at him. He straightened himself up. “What’re you talkin’ about? Of course I can w –” He crashed to the ground as soon as he took a step. “Ow!”
Hayato looked at him, then down at Saika. Then he glanced at his own feet. Hiro can’t walk – that’s clear – and obviously Saika needs to be held. We need to get out of here and we need to be fast. There was only one thing Hayato could think of.
He knelt down next to Hiro. “Oy,” he said. “Lean against my back. I’m going to carry you.”
“Huh?!” Hiro exclaimed. “Don’t be such a baka! You can’t carry me –”
“We don’t have time! If we stay here any longer, we’re going to be killed.”
“Baka! Just shut up. You’re the one who’s going to die! You’ve already exerted yourself too much.”
Hayato sighed. “What do we do, then?”
Hiro glanced around. “I’ll have to use a stick, something I can use to lean against.” Hayato frantically scanned the surroundings and then glanced at the house.
“I’ll be right back,” he said. “Stay here!” Holding Saika close, he ran to the house and found what he was looking for – an upturned chair. He went over to it, grabbed a leg and pulled till it snapped off. Then he made his way outside, back to Hiro.
He tossed it over. “Will this work?”
Hiro planted it in the ground, clenched it with both fists and slowly got up. He grit his teeth as he pulled up his bad leg. “It hurts like the devil, but I can walk.”
Hayato nodded. “Okay.” He and Hiro crouched behind the boulder and peered out. They had to wait for an opening, a chance to run by without anyone seeing.
While they waited, the two friends took in the sights of what was going on around them. There were fires dancing around the village, and they were destroying the houses, slowly burning them to ashes. Shattered glass and broken furniture littered the streets, not to mention a few corpses, much to their horror. The air was pungent and heavy with smoke and the scent of blood.
“What do they want with our village?” Hayato whispered, feeling scared. He held Saika close to him. “What did we do? This is horrible.”
Hiro squeezed his shoulder. “Things always end up like this, Hayato. Sooner or later, thieves and robbers find out about villages located in isolated areas, like ours. This was just bound to happen.”
Hayato shook his head. The thought that they had been living in merely an illusion of peace was too depressing.
“It will only get harder from here,” Hiro cautioned, sounding suddenly years older. This was something that always surprised and startled Hayato: his friend, despite his carefree and cheerful attitude, could also be very wise and serious. Two sides of the same coin, he thought, gazing at his friend. “Now!” Hiro suddenly screamed.
Hayato jumped and almost dropped his sister. “Oy!”
Hiro was already up. “Baka! Get up! Run! We have our opening!”
They both counted to three, and then took off as fast as they could. The smoke clouded their vision and made them cough, and glass cut Hayato’s feet. Their sights were only towards the village gates – or rather, what was left of them. “Hiro! Faster, faster!”
“Baka!” Hiro yelled, limping. “It’s not as easy as it looks!” Something whizzed past them both – it flew through the air and then exploded.
Hiroshi and Hayato flew in opposite directions, Hayato shielding his little sister with his body. He fell with a crash on the ground, and all the air was knocked out from his lungs. Why? Why is this happening? He started crying as he got up – every bone felt like it had been broken.
Hiro – where’s Hiro?
“Hiro? Hiro! Where are you?” he yelled, coughing. His eyes stung with tears and smoke. He suddenly felt something grab his arm and pull him towards the gates. “Oy! Let go! Let go of –”
“Baka! It’s me!” came Hiroshi’s voice. “Run! We’re almost there!” Hayato got a better look at him as they ran and realized his friend’s cheek was bleeding badly.
“Your face -!”
And so they ran, Hiro grabbing on to Hayato’s arm for support, until both of them reached the gates. They stopped, panting and breathing in deep breaths of the night air. “Looks like this is it,” Hiro exclaimed, gazing out at the world that lay beyond the gate.
Hayato swallowed. Goodbye, he thought, as he turned to his village one last time. Hiro squeezed his shoulder as they both looked back at their home. It will only get harder from here. “Ready, Hiro?”
Hiro nodded, and together, the two children set out beyond the gate, out into the new world.