Chapter Three- Promises

We eased into the Underbelly at the closest access point, ducking under torn textile, withered ropes and creeping over years of accumulated dirt and trash.  The intermittent light cast by open fires only penetrated dusty patches of our path where the rickrack shelter had given way to years of heat, wind and abuse. It wasn’t long until we entered what must have been an alley, its characteristics defined only by the open sky above and slightly less toxic smell of rot and decay. 

“Are you sure this is the only way?” My words flowed a bit more freely here.  Though the drones still patrolled, they tended to patrol at a higher altitude more concerned with pattern, congregation, and a broader scope of random communication. It was generally believed by the Elites that should there be any amount of dissent amongst the inhabitants of the Underbelly, they lacked the means, resources, structure and even the intelligence, to pose any true threat to the Nation.

“What’s your plan?” His agitation practically clawed at my skin.

“Colton, this…. I…. okay. Maybe I don’t have a plan,” I rushed to keep up, pulling at his arm, “but if we stick to the last plan, it could have just been a…. a misunderstanding.”

He turned on his heel, bringing his eyes directly before my own, furious. Instead of exploding at me he took a knee before Emilia. Scanning our surroundings wearily, I spotted dozens of anonymous eyes and shadows peering at us, but it was only mildly unnerving. They were the neglected residents of the Underbelly. The instinct to survive left them anxious of everything, everyone. They were watching us keenly, for here, we were outsiders.

I was far more concerned with the possibility of shadows that might have followed us from the Middle than any Underbelly residents, or even the prying eyes up above, who wouldn’t yet be able to identify us.

“You doin’ ok?” His words were soft, caressing her as he spoke.

Emilia only shrugged and looked toward the cracked concrete at our feet.

“I know this is a lot, but you’re doing great.”

She began tracing a half circle to her left with the toe of her shoe.

“That man you were talking about, the one who looked like he might have been in a fire, do you remember anything else about him?”     

Another shrug. “I dunno.”

“Ok. That’s ok. How long ago did you see him? Do you remember that?”

“Hmmmmmmmmmm, six days ago!”

I caught Colton’s fleeting glace of fear.  “Are you sure?”

“Uh-huh.”

More concerned with this than any attack from outside, I too bent down to Emilia’s level, my hands to the sides of her small shoulders. “Do you remember anything else about him? What about his face? Do you remember anything else about his face?”

“Hmm….. Yeah! He had a, uh, a thing” she motioned with her fingers just below the bottom right corner of her mouth, pinching, “A, ah,” she gave a bit of a growl, struggling for the word, and, then finding it “Pucker! He had a pucker right, here.” She again motioned with her fingers. “And he had one eye that was kinda…. It was slower than the other one.”

I felt the remaining denial I had clung to so desperately drain away as my head fell to my chest. That was him; a nice man who carried candy, looked like he might have been in a fire, lack of hair, deep scar just below the right corner of his mouth and lazy right eye. That was the exact way most anyone would describe the Leader of our beloved Legion, Mr. Braden James.

Yep. The Leader of the Legion had been working to betray us.

Unable to think of what to do, what to say, I instead fell forward to my hands and knees, my breath uneven as panic snaked into every corner of my thoughts. If what she said was correct, if this was the truth, the resulting reality was so terrible, the corruption so complete, living through the next twenty-four hours was only the tip of an ever-expanding iceberg.

From the time we’d been just children Colton had been cursed with the desperate need to dissuade uncomfortable situations. When faced with a difficult scenario, he always offered an inappropriate joke; it always made him appear callous, but in truth, he did it to veil his vulnerability.

It was this moment that Colton chose to say, “Well, there is some good news here.”

Seeing my reaction and undoubtedly thinking of her parents, I watched a solitary tear roll down Emilia’s pale cheek. “He’s not a good man is he?”

Unable to think of any possible answer, I could only shake my head.

“Good news.” Colton repeated with a sheepish grin.  We both looked to him befuddled.

“What?” I finally conceded.

“This means I was right.  Again.” he snickered, despite the sorrow in his eyes.

Appreciative of his attempt, I chose to focus on action and rose to my feet. “Ok. New plan.”

“New plan?”  he asked feigning intrigue and shooting Emilia a quick wink.  “And what plan would that be?”

“I don’t know yet. For now, we just have to find a place to crash, to sleep, to think.”

His demeanor softened, recognizing my acceptance of our new predicament. “Good call Chief. Let’s see what we can find.” 

Having never been in the Underbelly before, Emilia kept a tight grip on each of our hands. The shadows danced ominously, taunting us and constantly moving in the dark, dank tent city as sinister flickers of light teased in the wind.  Shadows wrapped around us, drawing us in.  The resulting anonymity brought a bit of reassurance as we delved further into the maze, deeper into the obscurity.

After just thirty minutes of walking, Emilia began to slow, her eyes growing heavy. When Colton scooped her up, she quickly nestled her cheek atop his broad shoulder. She drifted off in a fitful sleep as the surroundings hardened, grew more primitive. Light sources became more infrequent while the division between dwellings blurred.

Though the location wasn’t enough to jar my nerves, our situation, coupled with the surroundings and exhaustion was enough to weaken my resolve. Surrendering to the need for reassurance, I allowed myself an ounce of weakness and I too fell into Colton’s side.  Of course, there was no escaping the guilt which gnawed at me as the dust that surrounded our new reality began to settle.  With every step it became clearer that Colton had just given up everything for me. If this went south, if something happened to him, or to Emilia, the culpability would rest solely with me.  

I had cost them their world.

We wound our way through yet another ominous section of the Underbelly before clamoring into what appeared to be an uninhabited storage area. Groggily, Emilia helped me place her backpack under her head as a pillow once she curled in the nearest corner. My sweater acted as her blanket as I snuggled into her side tightly, allowing just enough room for Colton to slide in next to me against the makeshift wall. He placed his right hand on my propped knee, giving it a gentle squeeze as he kept watch on the world just outside the wall.  Though terror clung to every one of my thoughts, Colton’s presence granted me the sanctuary needed to fall asleep.

After little more than an hour or so, I felt a quick rap to the inside of my knee. Jolted back into a nightmare more horrid than any that could be found behind closed eyes, I snapped my head up to meet Colton’s gaze. The night only allowed enough light to see his silhouette raise his index finger to his lips. He was still crouched as he spun on the ball of his right foot to peer through a tear in the upper portion of the canvas wall.  Hushed voices could be heard outside and footsteps moved in unison toward our location. 

I counted six sets of footsteps. Aware they would likely be able to see our heat signatures, I fought the urge to see, to move. Undoubtedly, the death we had painted within Emilia’s home earlier that night had been discovered. Despite the retrieval being a farce, her parents still had to be eliminated if we were to have any chance of making it out alive. Allowing them to live would have made Emilia more easily tracked, more vulnerable, and after intense interrogation, her parents’ lives still would have been taken.

We’d had no choice but to kill them. After all, they had wanted her safe, no matter the cost.

However, the men we killed inside their home had been reporting to somebody, and when they didn’t check in, we could be certain their bodies, along with those of Emilia’s parents, had since been collected. If they truly had been connected to Braden James, I was being hunted. My orders to retrieve Emilia had come from the Legion, meaning they had sent me to my death.  In the wake of my survival, drones were unquestionably patrolling the skies above, and their infra-red cameras would be monitoring and recording, searching to destroy us.

While their technology and manpower made it impossible to hide, we were still allowed anonymity. If able to maintain our composure and act like any other residents of the Underbelly, our heat signature silhouettes were just like those of the residents all around us.  

The waning moonlight illuminated a slant of Colton’s face as he continued to observe the men outside. Squinting in an effort to see them a bit better, I saw his eyes close in disappointment as, with the slightest shake of his head, he confirmed that these men were indeed what we feared.

Voices called out in the night, some irate and surprised, while others ordered the armed strangers from their makeshift homes. The uproar indicated one thing: Premises Inspections.

The six soldiers we had concerned ourselves with clearly were not alone. Throughout the night, soldiers inspected the various pockets of the Underbelly, searching for young Emilia and more to the point, looking to eliminate us before we became a threat. I was being hunted by the Elites and by my beloved Legion alike. Emilia’s future was in jeopardy, she and Colton’s lives were at risk, and the guilt for such truths cinched ever tighter around my heart.

As the voices moved ever closer, Colton gathered the fabric that had been covering the items stacked behind him. I used my hand to cover Emilia’s mouth and woke her. I shushed her at her ear, no louder than a breath as her hands came to mine in alarm. Hearing me, she slowly nodded in my arms, and releasing her mouth slowly, I gathered her hair back into a tie before easing my own hat onto my head. Colton gathered the fabric around his torso and arms. In the light of day, it would look as though he had in fact, wrapped worn canvas fabric around him. However, by the isolated beam of a flashlight, it might just appear he was wearing tattered clothing like any other resident here. He moved silently, placing himself between us and the entryway. Without turning to face me, he placed himself into another patch of moonlight and motioned for us to stay down.

I tightened my hold on Emilia as the footsteps outside broke into three teams. They moved almost silently; the loudest sounds were those of them chambering their next rounds and engaging the lights mounted atop their weapons.

“Clear.” A calm voice called from thirty yards away.

“Clear.” echoed another from a different direction.

Within moments, an altercation could be heard, this one only fifteen feet from us, “Hey, you get the hell outta my quarters!” 

“Sir!” a strong voice cautioned. “I am a Soldier with the Military Nationals. We are conducting a -”

“I don’t give a rat’s fart who you are. You ain’t got no right bein’ in here. That’s plain. So, you need to be gettin’ on.”

There was a brief scuffle before a solid punch landed and a body dropped to the floor.  “That’s enough.” Ordered another male. “We are not to engage.”

“Clear.” said the first bitterly.

Knowing we were next, I tucked Emilia in my embrace. “Shh.” I urged once more as I felt her little head nod again against my chest.

Colton was ready to spring, and as the tarp that served as the door was lifted and the first flashlight beam searched the room, we both knew the clutter was not enough to conceal us. That, coupled with their night vision readings ensured we had no choice but to react to their presence.

Colton leapt to his feet, angry, hostile. Then, sounding slow and uneducated, he challenged the men “Ay, you people killed our parents and what? That ain’t ‘nough for you. You gotta come here’n harass me and them? Huh? You already took all our parents. What more do ya want?”

Ignoring him, the two flashlight beams continued their search until they landed on Emilia and I in the corner.

“Hey!” Colton roared, banging on a metal cabinet to his left, establishing himself as the aggressor, the interest in the room. “You hear me?”

Both lights moved to him. Watching. Waiting.

“What more you people want, huh?” Acting as though nerves and emotion were causing his voice to teeter and crack, he continued. “We ain’t got nothin’ left to give.”

The first man who had entered the room again moved his light to us.  Overwhelmed by everything she had endured, suffering the loss of her parents, having been subjected to this environment and having to tolerate my embrace when it was I who had caused all of her pain, Emilia’s resolve finally broke and she began to sob uncontrollably in my arms. Her emotion was raw and powerful enough to move me. I felt my own tears break free as regret took hold of my heart. I had taken everything from her and yet, I was demanding she play along, that she participate in a ruse for my benefit.

I began to recognize a hollow, a void in the center of my being as I accepted a single truth: I was the most horrible person in the world.

I held Emilia tightly as we remained on the floor, my guilt-ridden tears falling to her dark hair as she wept. Her anguish came in loud jerks and shudders. I kept my head tilted low, kissing the top of her head repeatedly in a futile attempt to quell her grief and admittedly, to limit the likelihood of being identified by the armed men in the room.

Witnessing the torrent of emotion and receiving it as genuine fear and panic, the flashlight returned its unwavering focus to Colton, who then leaned against the cabinet, his hands continually moving to his face in what appeared to be an attempt at maintaining his masculinity amidst his forced emotions, but was really nothing more than an attempt to keep his face too, concealed.

“If your parents died, it wasn’t our fault. Our job is to protect trash like you.”

Giving an ironic chuckle, Colton spat on the ground between them in response.

“Clear.” the second man issued as they moved back through the doorway. “Freakin’ parasites are so ungrateful; everything we give them, and they always want more.”

“The damn truth.”  The first man snorted in agreement.

The tarp fell closed behind them and we listened as they cleared various quarters moving down what seemed a long alley or corridor. We must have taken refuge in a storage room for a Compound in the Underbelly. Those who were deemed even less worthy than other Underbelly residents were often grouped into the larger of the few remaining buildings here, in Compounds. Often, they were filled with the old and dispensable, the irate and intolerable, anybody they thought useless. Stacking them in broken buildings that had once been apartment complexes allowed the Municipal Capital Elites an easy source of fresh meat. It made it easy to select people from a sardine can to throw into the next skirmish or anything else to suit their needs. After all, why throw away good meat?

Occasional altercations were heard amongst various teams and residents, but thankfully, their voices continued further into the night.

As they progressed, I persisted with my attempts to sooth Emilia. Slowly, her sobs lessened even as she clung to me, her arms wrapped around my neck. I stroked her hair and rocked her while Colton walked the perimeter of the room. We were less concerned of how our heat signatures might appear to the surveillance drones above now that we had been deemed no threat. We could be all but certain that the audio surveillance had moved on as well as they too searched for us further into the Underbelly.

 “I’m so sorry.” I whispered. Emilia’s breath continually caught in her chest, causing her to suffer three convulsive sobs with each inhale. “I’m so sorry, Sweetie. There is nothing I can say or do to make up for what I’ve taken from you.”

Before she could utter a response, the tarp that served as the doorway was whipped back. Colton sprang toward the doorway to meet the aggressor.

“Hey!” the same voice we had heard earlier arguing with the soldiers called to us. “How’d you get in my quarters, huh?”

“We don’t want any trouble, Sir.” Colton issued, steadying himself as he halted his attack.

Stepping into a patch of moonlight we saw that the man was older, appeared to be in failing health and was holding his hand to the side of his bloodied head. “No trouble.” he muttered sourly. “You don’t go on into someone’s quarters if you don’t want no trouble.”

“Look, we just,” I rose to my feet, Emilia still crying in my arms. “We just needed someplace to sleep for the night. We’ll be gone in the morning, Sir. Please.”

He looked Emilia and I over, then back to Colton who was circling behind him. “You the ones who was just talkin’ to them?”

“Yes, Sir.”

He sighed and looked at his blood-soaked hand, shaking his head in disbelief. “Anyone who hates them Elis much as I do is ok in my book, I ‘spose.” He sighed heavily. “Don’t touch any a’ my stuff.” He turned back to the doorway and with his arm still holding the tarp up added. “And, sorry ‘bout your parents.”

“Thank you.” I called as the tarp returned to its post.

“I am sorry.” I reiterated to Emilia, my hands rubbing the sides of her arms. “So sorry.”

I felt her small right hand come to rest on my cheek as she whispered, “I know.” The gesture brought more tears to my eyes. She had more strength, resiliency and heart than I could ever know.

Pulling away, she adjusted her backpack a bit as I covered her with my sweater once more. Colton returned to us, but I scrambled to where he had been earlier, peering through the tare in the wall.

He looked at me expectantly.

“What?” I whispered, patting the floor between us. “You gotta get some sleep.”

He said nothing but I knew he was weighing his options. He had known me long enough, and knew me well enough, to understand that arguing was futile. Conceding, he dropped into the spot between us with a frustrated sigh.

She instantly turned and clung to his hand, pulling it closer in an embrace. He scooted down a bit, trying to get comfortable while I kept watch over them both.

“You good, Sport?” he asked, his voice showing fatigue.

Emilia nodded with a grunt.

“You, Chief?” he asked me in turn.

“Don’t know about good, but I got this.”

With balled fist, he gently knocked me on the knee. “This isn’t your fault.”

“No, but it’s up to me to fix this.”

We’ll fix it. Together.”

“I’m sorry I got you…” Emotion cut off my whisper.

“My choice. Nothing for you to apologize for.”

I took a deep breath, fighting back a wall of tears.

“Hey, Chief, this … I couldn’t have it any other way. If you’re in the shit, I’m right there with you. If I can go into it and keep you out of it, I do. But, I will never let you be in it without me. Just how our world works.”

Hot tears rolled down my cheeks yet again as I continued to stare into the night.

“Can’t let you have all the fun without me.” He paused, his voice sobering. “I’ve always got your back, Chief. Only way to get rid of me is to kill me.”

To that I gave a small laugh. “Don’t tempt me.” I grasped his hand, which he squeezed.

“Me too?” Emilia’s small voice wondered.

“Absolutely!” we whispered in unison.

“We’re not going anywhere, Champ.” he reassured her.

“We’ll never leave you.” I agreed.

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

We eased into the Underbelly at the closest access point, ducking under torn textile, withered ropes and creeping over years of accumulated dirt and trash.  The intermittent light cast by open fires only penetrated dusty patches of our path where the rickrack shelter had given way to years of heat, wind and abuse. It wasn’t long until we entered what must have been an alley, its characteristics defined only by the open sky above and slightly less toxic smell of rot and decay. 

“Are you sure this is the only way?” My words flowed a bit more freely here.  Though the drones still patrolled, they tended to patrol at a higher altitude more concerned with pattern, congregation, and a broader scope of random communication. It was generally believed by the Elites that should there be any amount of dissent amongst the inhabitants of the Underbelly, they lacked the means, resources, structure and even the intelligence, to pose any true threat to the Nation.

“What’s your plan?” His agitation practically clawed at my skin.

“Colton, this…. I…. okay. Maybe I don’t have a plan,” I rushed to keep up, pulling at his arm, “but if we stick to the last plan, it could have just been a…. a misunderstanding.”

He turned on his heel, bringing his eyes directly before my own, furious. Instead of exploding at me he took a knee before Emilia. Scanning our surroundings wearily, I spotted dozens of anonymous eyes and shadows peering at us, but it was only mildly unnerving. They were the neglected residents of the Underbelly. The instinct to survive left them anxious of everything, everyone. They were watching us keenly, for here, we were outsiders.

I was far more concerned with the possibility of shadows that might have followed us from the Middle than any Underbelly residents, or even the prying eyes up above, who wouldn’t yet be able to identify us.

“You doin’ ok?” His words were soft, caressing her as he spoke.

Emilia only shrugged and looked toward the cracked concrete at our feet.

“I know this is a lot, but you’re doing great.”

She began tracing a half circle to her left with the toe of her shoe.

“That man you were talking about, the one who looked like he might have been in a fire, do you remember anything else about him?”     

Another shrug. “I dunno.”

“Ok. That’s ok. How long ago did you see him? Do you remember that?”

“Hmmmmmmmmmm, six days ago!”

I caught Colton’s fleeting glance of fear.  “Are you sure?”

“Uh-huh.”

More concerned with this than any attack from outside, I too bent down to Emilia’s level, my hands to the sides of her small shoulders. “Do you remember anything else about him? What about his face? Do you remember anything else about his face?”

“Hmm….. Yeah! He had a, uh, a thing” she motioned with her fingers just below the bottom right corner of her mouth, pinching, “A, ah,” she gave a bit of a growl, struggling for the word, and, then finding it “Pucker! He had a pucker right, here.” She again motioned with her fingers. “And he had one eye that was kinda…. It was slower than the other one.”

I felt the remaining denial I had clung to so desperately drain away as my head fell to my chest. That was him; a nice man who carried candy, looked like he might have been in a fire, lack of hair, deep scar just below the right corner of his mouth and lazy right eye. That was the exact way most anyone would describe the Leader of our beloved Legion, Mr. Braden James.

Yep. The Leader of the Legion had been working to betray us.

Unable to think of what to do, what to say, I instead fell forward to my hands and knees, my breath uneven as panic snaked into every corner of my thoughts. If what she said was correct, if this was the truth, the resulting reality was so terrible, the corruption so complete, living through the next twenty-four hours was only the tip of an ever-expanding iceberg.

From the time we’d been just children Colton had been cursed with the desperate need to dissuade uncomfortable situations. When faced with a difficult scenario, he always offered an inappropriate joke; it always made him appear callous, but in truth, he did it to veil his vulnerability.

It was this moment that Colton chose to say, “Well, there is some good news here.”

Seeing my reaction and undoubtedly thinking of her parents, I watched a solitary tear roll down Emilia’s pale cheek. “He’s not a good man is he?”

Unable to think of any possible answer, I could only shake my head.

“Good news.” Colton repeated with a sheepish grin.  We both looked to him befuddled.

“What?” I finally conceded.

“This means I was right.  Again.” he snickered, despite the sorrow in his eyes.

Appreciative of his attempt, I chose to focus on action and rose to my feet. “Ok. New plan.”

“New plan?”  he asked feigning intrigue and shooting Emilia a quick wink.  “And what plan would that be?”

“I don’t know yet. For now, we just have to find a place to crash, to sleep, to think.”

His demeanor softened, recognizing my acceptance of our new predicament. “Good call Chief. Let’s see what we can find.” 

Having never been in the Underbelly before, Emilia kept a tight grip on each of our hands. The shadows danced ominously, taunting us and constantly moving in the dark, dank tent city as sinister flickers of light teased in the wind.  Shadows wrapped around us, drawing us in.  The resulting anonymity brought a bit of reassurance as we delved further into the maze, deeper into the obscurity.

After just thirty minutes of walking, Emilia began to slow, her eyes growing heavy. When Colton scooped her up, she quickly nestled her cheek atop his broad shoulder. She drifted off in a fitful sleep as the surroundings hardened, grew more primitive. Light sources became more infrequent while the division between dwellings blurred.

Though the location wasn’t enough to jar my nerves, our situation, coupled with the surroundings and exhaustion was enough to weaken my resolve. Surrendering to the need for reassurance, I allowed myself an ounce of weakness and I too fell into Colton’s side.  Of course, there was no escaping the guilt which gnawed at me as the dust that surrounded our new reality began to settle.  With every step it became clearer that Colton had just given up everything for me. If this went south, if something happened to him, or to Emilia, the culpability would rest solely with me.  

I had cost them their world.

We wound our way through yet another ominous section of the Underbelly before clamoring into what appeared to be an uninhabited storage area. Groggily, Emilia helped me place her backpack under her head as a pillow once she curled in the nearest corner. My sweater acted as her blanket as I snuggled into her side tightly, allowing just enough room for Colton to slide in next to me against the makeshift wall. He placed his right hand on my propped knee, giving it a gentle squeeze as he kept watch on the world just outside the wall.  Though terror clung to every one of my thoughts, Colton’s presence granted me the sanctuary needed to fall asleep.

After little more than an hour or so, I felt a quick rap to the inside of my knee. Jolted back into a nightmare more horrid than any that could be found behind closed eyes, I snapped my head up to meet Colton’s gaze. The night only allowed enough light to see his silhouette raise his index finger to his lips. He was still crouched as he spun on the ball of his right foot to peer through a tear in the upper portion of the canvas wall.  Hushed voices could be heard outside and footsteps moved in unison toward our location. 

I counted six sets of footsteps. Aware they would likely be able to see our heat signatures, I fought the urge to see, to move. Undoubtedly, the death we had painted within Emilia’s home earlier that night had been discovered. Despite the retrieval being a farce, her parents still had to be eliminated if we were to have any chance of making it out alive. Allowing them to live would have made Emilia more easily tracked, more vulnerable, and after intense interrogation, her parents’ lives still would have been taken.

We’d had no choice but to kill them. After all, they had wanted her safe, no matter the cost.

However, the men we killed inside their home had been reporting to somebody, and when they didn’t check in, we could be certain their bodies, along with those of Emilia’s parents, had since been collected. If they truly had been connected to Braden James, I was being hunted. My orders to retrieve Emilia had come from the Legion, meaning they had sent me to my death.  In the wake of my survival, drones were unquestionably patrolling the skies above, and their infra-red cameras would be monitoring and recording, searching to destroy us.

While their technology and manpower made it impossible to hide, we were still allowed anonymity. If able to maintain our composure and act like any other residents of the Underbelly, our heat signature silhouettes were just like those of the residents all around us.  

The waning moonlight illuminated a slant of Colton’s face as he continued to observe the men outside. Squinting in an effort to see them a bit better, I saw his eyes close in disappointment as, with the slightest shake of his head, he confirmed that these men were indeed what we feared.

Voices called out in the night, some irate and surprised, while others ordered the armed strangers from their makeshift homes. The uproar indicated one thing: Premises Inspections.

The six soldiers we had concerned ourselves with clearly were not alone. Throughout the night, soldiers inspected the various pockets of the Underbelly, searching for young Emilia and more to the point, looking to eliminate us before we became a threat. I was being hunted by the Elites and by my beloved Legion alike. Emilia’s future was in jeopardy, she and Colton’s lives were at risk, and the guilt for such truths cinched ever tighter around my heart.

As the voices moved ever closer, Colton gathered the fabric that had been covering the items stacked behind him. I used my hand to cover Emilia’s mouth and woke her. I shushed her at her ear, no louder than a breath as her hands came to mine in alarm. Hearing me, she slowly nodded in my arms, and releasing her mouth slowly, I gathered her hair back into a tie before easing my own hat onto my head. Colton gathered the fabric around his torso and arms. In the light of day, it would look as though he had in fact, wrapped worn canvas fabric around him. However, by the isolated beam of a flashlight, it might just appear he was wearing tattered clothing like any other resident here. He moved silently, placing himself between us and the entryway. Without turning to face me, he placed himself into another patch of moonlight and motioned for us to stay down.

I tightened my hold on Emilia as the footsteps outside broke into three teams. They moved almost silently; the loudest sounds were those of them chambering their next rounds and engaging the lights mounted atop their weapons.

“Clear.” A calm voice called from thirty yards away.

“Clear.” echoed another from a different direction.

Within moments, an altercation could be heard, this one only fifteen feet from us, “Hey, you get the hell outta my quarters!” 

“Sir!” a strong voice cautioned. “I am a Soldier with the Military Nationals. We are conducting a -”

“I don’t give a rat’s fart who you are. You ain’t got no right bein’ in here. That’s plain. So, you need to be gettin’ on.”

There was a brief scuffle before a solid punch landed and a body dropped to the floor.  “That’s enough.” Ordered another male. “We are not to engage.”

“Clear.” said the first bitterly.

Knowing we were next, I tucked Emilia in my embrace. “Shh.” I urged once more as I felt her little head nod again against my chest.

Colton was ready to spring, and as the tarp that served as the door was lifted and the first flashlight beam searched the room, we both knew the clutter was not enough to conceal us. That, coupled with their night vision readings ensured we had no choice but to react to their presence.

Colton leapt to his feet, angry, hostile. Then, sounding slow and uneducated, he challenged the men “Ay, you people killed our parents and what? That ain’t ‘nough for you. You gotta come here’n harass me and them? Huh? You already took all our parents. What more do ya want?”

Ignoring him, the two flashlight beams continued their search until they landed on Emilia and I in the corner.

“Hey!” Colton roared, banging on a metal cabinet to his left, establishing himself as the aggressor, the interest in the room. “You hear me?”

Both lights moved to him. Watching. Waiting.

“What more you people want, huh?” Acting as though nerves and emotion were causing his voice to teeter and crack, he continued. “We ain’t got nothin’ left to give.”

The first man who had entered the room again moved his light to us.  Overwhelmed by everything she had endured, suffering the loss of her parents, having been subjected to this environment and having to tolerate my embrace when it was I who had caused all of her pain, Emilia’s resolve finally broke and she began to sob uncontrollably in my arms. Her emotion was raw and powerful enough to move me. I felt my own tears break free as regret took hold of my heart. I had taken everything from her and yet, I was demanding she play along, that she participate in a ruse for my benefit.

I began to recognize a hollow, a void in the center of my being as I accepted a single truth: I was the most horrible person in the world.

I held Emilia tightly as we remained on the floor, my guilt-ridden tears falling to her dark hair as she wept. Her anguish came in loud jerks and shudders. I kept my head tilted low, kissing the top of her head repeatedly in a futile attempt to quell her grief and admittedly, to limit the likelihood of being identified by the armed men in the room.

Witnessing the torrent of emotion and receiving it as genuine fear and panic, the flashlight returned its unwavering focus to Colton, who then leaned against the cabinet, his hands continually moving to his face in what appeared to be an attempt at maintaining his masculinity amidst his forced emotions, but was really nothing more than an attempt to keep his face too, concealed.

“If your parents died, it wasn’t our fault. Our job is to protect trash like you.”

Giving an ironic chuckle, Colton spat on the ground between them in response.

“Clear.” the second man issued as they moved back through the doorway. “Freakin’ parasites are so ungrateful; everything we give them, and they always want more.”

“The damn truth.”  The first man snorted in agreement.

The tarp fell closed behind them and we listened as they cleared various quarters moving down what seemed a long alley or corridor. We must have taken refuge in a storage room for a Compound in the Underbelly. Those who were deemed even less worthy than other Underbelly residents were often grouped into the larger of the few remaining buildings here, in Compounds. Often, they were filled with the old and dispensable, the irate and intolerable, anybody they thought useless. Stacking them in broken buildings that had once been apartment complexes allowed the Municipal Capital Elites an easy source of fresh meat. It made it easy to select people from a sardine can to throw into the next skirmish or anything else to suit their needs. After all, why throw away good meat?

Occasional altercations were heard amongst various teams and residents, but thankfully, their voices continued further into the night.

As they progressed, I persisted with my attempts to sooth Emilia. Slowly, her sobs lessened even as she clung to me, her arms wrapped around my neck. I stroked her hair and rocked her while Colton walked the perimeter of the room. We were less concerned of how our heat signatures might appear to the surveillance drones above now that we had been deemed no threat. We could be all but certain that the audio surveillance had moved on as well as they too searched for us further into the Underbelly.

 “I’m so sorry.” I whispered. Emilia’s breath continually caught in her chest, causing her to suffer three convulsive sobs with each inhale. “I’m so sorry, Sweetie. There is nothing I can say or do to make up for what I’ve taken from you.”

Before she could utter a response, the tarp that served as the doorway was whipped back. Colton sprang toward the doorway to meet the aggressor.

“Hey!” the same voice we had heard earlier arguing with the soldiers called to us. “How’d you get in my quarters, huh?”

“We don’t want any trouble, Sir.” Colton issued, steadying himself as he halted his attack.

Stepping into a patch of moonlight we saw that the man was older, appeared to be in failing health and was holding his hand to the side of his bloodied head. “No trouble.” he muttered sourly. “You don’t go on into someone’s quarters if you don’t want no trouble.”

“Look, we just,” I rose to my feet, Emilia still crying in my arms. “We just needed someplace to sleep for the night. We’ll be gone in the morning, Sir. Please.”

He looked Emilia and I over, then back to Colton who was circling behind him. “You the ones who was just talkin’ to them?”

“Yes, Sir.”

He sighed and looked at his blood-soaked hand, shaking his head in disbelief. “Anyone who hates them Elis much as I do is ok in my book, I ‘spose.” He sighed heavily. “Don’t touch any a’ my stuff.” He turned back to the doorway and with his arm still holding the tarp up added. “And, sorry ‘bout your parents.”

“Thank you.” I called as the tarp returned to its post.

“I am sorry.” I reiterated to Emilia, my hands rubbing the sides of her arms. “So sorry.”

I felt her small right hand come to rest on my cheek as she whispered, “I know.” The gesture brought more tears to my eyes. She had more strength, resiliency and heart than I could ever know.

Pulling away, she adjusted her backpack a bit as I covered her with my sweater once more. Colton returned to us, but I scrambled to where he had been earlier, peering through the tare in the wall.

He looked at me expectantly.

“What?” I whispered, patting the floor between us. “You gotta get some sleep.”

He said nothing but I knew he was weighing his options. He had known me long enough, and knew me well enough, to understand that arguing was futile. Conceding, he dropped into the spot between us with a frustrated sigh.

She instantly turned and clung to his hand, pulling it closer in an embrace. He scooted down a bit, trying to get comfortable while I kept watch over them both.

“You good, Sport?” he asked, his voice showing fatigue.

Emilia nodded with a grunt.

“You, Chief?” he asked me in turn.

“Don’t know about good, but I got this.”

With balled fist, he gently knocked me on the knee. “This isn’t your fault.”

“No, but it’s up to me to fix this.”

We’ll fix it. Together.”

“I’m sorry I got you…” Emotion cut off my whisper.

“My choice. Nothing for you to apologize for.”

I took a deep breath, fighting back a wall of tears.

“Hey, Chief, this … I couldn’t have it any other way. If you’re in the shit, I’m right there with you. If I can go into it and keep you out of it, I do. But, I will never let you be in it without me. Just how our world works.”

Hot tears rolled down my cheeks yet again as I continued to stare into the night.

“Can’t let you have all the fun without me.” He paused, his voice sobering. “I’ve always got your back, Chief. Only way to get rid of me is to kill me.”

To that I gave a small laugh. “Don’t tempt me.” I grasped his hand, which he squeezed.

“Me too?” Emilia’s small voice wondered.

“Absolutely!” we whispered in unison.

“We’re not going anywhere, Champ.” he reassured her.

“We’ll never leave you.” I agreed.

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

After all the pain I had caused her, after stripping away her entire world, it was the least I could do.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: