“Remember our little playhouse? That we built from scraps of lumber and cardboard?”
“I remember, Yulia. We used to hide from our brothers in there for hours.”
Now she looked over her shoulder before helping her friend into a rubble-strewn shed and ducking in after her.
“How many days has it been, Vika, since you found me outside your building?”
“Too many, Yulia.” Vika swept at the crumbled mortar with a corner of the blanket she carried before arranging it on the cold floor.
“There. This is like our playhouse.” She moved some loose bricks to make more room. “We had a little oven we formed from stones.”
“Yes. We’d gather leaves and sticks and pebbles and make the most fantastic stews.” Yulia’s weak laugh disintegrated into a cough. “I was bringing you a homemade stew!”
“Shh, Yulia. Save your strength. Your wound is healing, but you lost so much blood.” With a gentle finger, she swept her friend’s hair from where it had fallen across her thin raised cheekbone before laying it against her pale lips. She cradled her friend closer, pulled the single blanket tighter around them. “And yes, you have always made the best stews ever. Always.”
Outside, the Russian artillery continued to pound and pummel the neighborhood.
“Remember that time when our brothers threw rocks at the side of our playhouse? Kept throwing rocks, over and over, for what seemed hours. I felt so trapped. The rocks banging endlessly against our thin walls.”
She held her friend, trying to stop her shivering. “We made mud pies in our stone oven.”
“Made from dirt and water. I remember. Do we have any water left?”
“Here, suck on this hard candy.” She placed a pebble in her friend’s mouth.
“Trapping us in our playhouse, throwing rocks at their sisters. Tsk. I didn’t think they’d ever stop.”
“But they did. They remembered they were our brothers. They let us trade our mud pies for our freedom.”
“I would eat one of those pies now.”
Vika kissed the top of her friend’s head. “We gave them all to our brothers.”
Outside, the shelling continued.
“I’m so worried about our brothers, Vika. They weren’t meant to be soldiers.” Yulia’s voice was feeble.
Still cradling her friend with one arm, Vika stacked the bricks with her free hand. “Here’s our stove, Yulia.”
“I remember,” Yulia whispered.
“We’ll make them a stew.”
Yulia did not respond. The dust and debris that Vika scooped into a little pile was wet by her tears.