By Jack Zaccaro
This Story Won First Prize in Our Contest
“Nice job, Bennie!! Now, kick it back to me.”
Debris litters the yard from last week’s storm, so we play as cautiously as the patience of my four-year-old brother allows.
I say the fresh air and games are for him, but with the rumors of troop activity near the border and constant fear of rocket attacks, I need the break as much as he does.
What a time for my kid brother to have to grow up.
Benjamin, our little surprise, arrived twelve years after me, long after my parents thought the family was complete. He never fails to bring a smile to my face, and today is no exception—his tongue is sticking out slightly as he focuses on kicking the ball back.
Moments like this bring back favorite memories of time spent with Dad. In a way, I get to relive them with Bennie.
Dad is everything to us, but he’s had to work twice as hard on the farm to make up for the rations and supply shortages. I miss his smile. We all do, especially Bennie. I do my best to fill in, teaching him all the things Dad taught me.
“Great kick, buddy! Now, catch this one.”
The ball sails by him as a shrieking siren pierces our world.
Bennie scrambles towards me as instinct kicks in. I grab his hand and run, pulling him towards shelter. We’ve practiced this so often that we react without thinking.
Dad made sure we’d know what to do if he wasn’t around when the alarm went off, like today. According to government estimates, we have twenty-five seconds to make it to shelter.
Seconds are already ticking away.
The siren is the only thing I hear aside from the thunder roaring in my chest. This could still be a mistake. A false alarm. Two months ago, we’d holed up for three days before the all-clear was finally given. Dad was with us then; where is he now? He had to work the outer fields this morning, but it’s almost lunchtime. He should’ve been home by now.
My mother and sister are scrambling for safety up ahead. Dad isn’t with them.
Where is he?
Bennie’s hand rips away from mine.
I skid to a stop and turn back, finding him tangled in a pile of rubbish and boards. I grab him and pull, but he shrinks down in pain. Then I see the nail piercing his shoe, stabbing into his heel. His leg is scraped and bleeding, but there’s no time for comfort. I rip the board and nail from his foot in one motion. His mouth opens in a wail, but I can’t hear him, only the roar of the siren pushing me on.
How many seconds have passed? I don’t know. I can’t tell. I hoist Bennie up, running as fast as I can with him in my arms, mentally counting seconds in my head. How many? Fifteen? Ten?
The shelter is less than 200 feet away; I’m half-running and half-stumbling. Bennie’s chest is heaving with sobs.
My foot catches on a patch of uneven ground. I can’t stop the fall. Gravel skids beneath me, biting into my face and arm. The screams of the siren block out my pain and desperation.
I haul myself up and stagger forward, balancing Bennie’s limp weight in my arms. How much time did we lose? Impossible to tell, but I’m close enough to see the panic on my mother’s face.
She’s holding the door open, her eyes wild. The shelter’s door is difficult to seal, especially from the inside. Aside from Dad, I’m the only one strong enough to latch it.
I’m not sure we have enough time left.
The siren fades. My mother’s mouth shapes a word I can’t hear. Bennie’s fingers dig into my neck.
I’d do anything to protect them. To protect Bennie—he’s the best of us all. Our joy. Our heart.
I don’t hesitate.
I toss Bennie into my mother’s arms, push them inside, and reach for the door to seal them in.
Realization dawns on my mother’s face.
“I love you!” I yell and move to slam the door closed.
It won’t budge.
My heart stops as strong hands grab my back and shoulder. I’m sent tumbling down the stairs into the shelter. The door slams behind me, and I see my father through the blast window.
I race back up the steps—only to find the door locked shut.
Dad smiles at me, placing his hand on the window. I place mine up to his.
The world outside disappears into blinding light.
My vision goes. I feel my mother next to me holding me up. Squinting, I see the outline of my father’s hand, etched into the window, engulfing my own.
Something inside me breaks. I crumple at the bottom of the steps.
Tiny arms wrap around me. I grab Bennie tightly and think of my father’s face smiling through the window.
He knew. That’s why he smiled. He knew we’d be okay. He built this shelter for us. He taught me well, taught us all.
The rest of the family joins our embrace. Tears flow, but we are safe. Dad made sure of it. And now, it’s my turn.
I whisper into Bennie’s curls, “I won’t let you down.”