When the marching infantry turned on to Sycamore Lane that morning, Katelyn felt the fear grip her deep in her stomach, refusing to let go. She and her younger sister clung to the hope that someone might save them. In the stories Katelyn read to little Claudia before bedtime, princesses were always saved at the final moment by some valiant knight or prince. Despite her ten-year-old naivety, Katelyn knew in her heart that no one would come. This isn't a story, she reminded herself.
The sound of rubble-strewn asphalt crunching beneath steel-toed boots was unmistakable, even from this distance. To Katelyn, it was the sound of approaching death. The marching grew closer to the house where the women of the Brennan household had been hiding since Dad and Jared had gone to rally up the neighbors in defense of their homes and families. Their places of business burned to the ground already, they now found their once peaceful neighborhood under attack as well.
Katelyn and Claudia were left in the care of their mother, who quoted words of strength and courage, though she didn't seem to believe any of the empty phrases she spoke. The two girls had asked about their father and brother several times. Each time, their mother would reply curtly, "They'll be back soon."
Soon turned into quite a long time, as Mom grew increasingly more horror-stricken, fighting back her tears as her face drained of its color, and her hands trembled in her lap. Katelyn tried to console her, only to receive a dead stare for her effort.
The marching was louder now, growing closer. The closer it came, the more certain Katelyn was that she would die - here in the very same house in which she had been born. She knew from the loud, relentless sobs of her sister that she was not alone in thinking it.
As Katelyn sat on the living room floor, her back pressed against the wall, she glanced down at little Claudia, clinging to her big sister's arm with visible fear. Claudia's eyes were swollen and moist, her face soaked in tears and snot. Katelyn stroked her little sister's cheek gently.
"I'm going to take a peek outside," she said, speaking to both her sister and mother. Only Claudia seemed to hear her. Mom remained motionless in one of two green recliners, her mind faraway. "Maybe I'll be able to see Daddy coming. They are probably on their way back already. You stay here, okay?" She gave Claudia a forced smile.
The younger girl released her tight squeeze, scooting closer to their mother before hugging her knees tightly and rocking back and forth. The braver sister slipped up to the plate-glass window that took up a large section of their home's front wall. Katelyn pulled back the edge of the heavy blue drapery enough to peer out.
The window looked out on a residential street lined with townhouses on either side. Since the Invasion began, this sector of the city had remained relatively untouched. Here, an occasional broken sidewalk. There, one or two collapsed buildings too structurally unsound to withstand the concussive aftershocks of the downtown bombings. The rest of the neighborhood appeared exactly as she would always remember it. She peeled back the drape a little more, allowing for a wider view. That was when she spotted them.
Serpentine Soldiers moved rigidly in her direction, dressed head-to-toe in polished black body armor glistening in the dawn's light; their faces hidden beneath silver masks that temporarily blinded Katelyn when the sun glanced off them at just the right angle. The infantry came to a halt at the intersection of Sycamore and Dickinson Street - a mere seven blocks away.
Katelyn's heart raced as she let the drapery fall back into place, turning to face Claudia and Mom. One was still cowering on the floor while the other just sat there in a seeming state of catatonic shock. Katelyn thought she could smell the stench of gin wafting off her mother. She supposed she shouldn't be surprised. Mom had a hard enough time keeping away from the bottle on her best days.
"They're here," Katelyn told them. Claudia cried harder, and her mother turned a shade paler. "We should try going out the back. We might still be able to get away."
"But Daddy said . . ." Claudia stammered.
"I know what he said, but we have to go." Katelyn's voice was firm, yet gentle.
"Your father said to wait." The harsh rasp of their mother's voice hurt Katelyn's ears.
"Are you even listening?" Katelyn tried very hard not to sound disrespectful. "I said they're here! If they find us, they'll kill us. Daddy told us that, too. Remember? Why do you reek of gin? Have you been drinking again? The doctor said you shouldn't mix your pills with -"
"Fuck the pills," Mom snapped angrily. "And you had better watch your tone, young lady, or I'll watch it for you."
That doesn't even make sense, Katelyn didn't dare say aloud. If her father found out that she had talked back . . . well, it was possible that nothing would happen. For all she knew, her father was dead. She turned, walking down a hallway just off the living room that led her to the kitchen. She went straight for the back door, peering out the door's cross-frame window.
The backyard was small and enclosed by a short chain-link fence. Beyond the gate, a small set of concrete steps that led down to the weed-choked alley set between the row of houses on her street and the row of houses on the next. Katelyn saw no soldiers back here. Everything appeared quiet; even the horrific screams of her frightened neighbors sounded fainter. She briefly considered making a run for it, leaving her incompetent mother behind, but then she remembered Claudia, all alone and afraid. Katelyn always looked after Claudia. When the other children teased, tormented, and bullied her, it was always Katelyn who had to step in and intervene on her little sister's behalf. It appeared this time would be no different.
Katelyn returned to the living room. Claudia was now curled into a ball on the floor, the tears still streaming from her eyes as her body jerked spasmodically from the labored breathing that came between sobs. Katelyn knelt down beside her, pulling up close and cradling Claudia in her arms. As she hugged her sister's head to her chest, she pushed back a stray lock of hair that escaped the younger girl's pink hair-tie.
"I get that you're scared," Katelyn said with soft reassurance. "But we've got to get out of here. You need to be strong, okay? Stay with me, I promise I'll take care of you. Don't I always take care of you?" The younger girl gave something that passed for a nod, tears dripping from the tip of her nose and below her chin. "Then please trust me when I tell you we need to go," Katelyn continued. "Be strong, Claud. You can do this."
Claudia's sad, puffy eyes met hers. Despite how scared Katelyn felt, she understood she would need to be the rock of strength once again. Being the strong one had always fallen upon her, so she donned the role now, ignoring the heart pounding loudly in her chest.
"You're not taking her out there, if that's what you think," Mom said decisively. "We're safe here. This is our home."
Not today. Today it's our grave.
Katelyn helped Claudia to her feet, casting her mother a disapproving glance. "You ready?" she asked her sister.
Their mother sat straight up in her recliner, eyes filled with fear and rage. "If you go out that door, I will tell your father. He may decide not to come looking for you once he hears how you've disobeyed him."
"If he's even still alive," Katelyn muttered under her breath.
Mom had heard her, though. Her face twisted up angrily. "What did you say to me, Katelyn Marie Brennan?"
Katelyn said nothing, putting an arm around the shoulder of her six-year-old sister as she attempted to guide her toward the kitchen. Claudia would not move, so afraid of the angry tone in their mother's voice that she seemed to have temporarily forgotten the true threat still lurking outside. Claudia was reminded of it once more when a series of gunshots rang out from somewhere out there. The closeness of the sound brought a whole new wave of tears to the little girl's eyes.
Katelyn looked from her sobbing sister to her tensely rigid mother, still seated in the recliner and staring towards the covered window with a panicked look of desperation that Katelyn didn't like. She had seen that face before. It was typically followed by an act of rash stupidity that Mom would spend days apologizing for once she was back on her meds.
Please don't do anything stupid, mommy, Katelyn silently pleaded. She moved back to the window, peeling back the edge of the drapery in the same manner as before.
The Serpentine Soldiers were closer now, but the once marching army-of-one had split into smaller clusters of soldiers going house to house, kicking in doors, and dragging innocent men, women, and children from their homes.
Katelyn watched as Mr. Anderson - the kindly old neighbor who lived four blocks up - attempted to resist against two masked soldiers. They each drew their sidearm and shot him point blank in the chest. His body fell back on the immaculately manicured flower garden that had been the envy of the neighborhood for as long as Katelyn could remember. A third soldier stepped forward, dropping a spherical incendiary device amongst the flowers. A blazing fire rose up where the device landed. Katelyn fought back the scream welling up inside of her as Mr. Anderson's house ignited almost instantly.
"Kate!" Claudia's panicked voice cut through the shock.
Katelyn spun around. Mom gripped Claudia tightly beneath the arms and around the chest as she dragged the kicking and screaming child up the narrow staircase leading to the second floor. The glint in Mom's eye told Katelyn all that she needed to know: this woman had finally given up on all hope of being saved.
"Mom?" Katelyn didn't understand what was happening, but she didn't like the look of it. Perhaps it was the stoic madness she saw reflected in her mother's dark eyes; the way she wrestled Claudia up the stairs despite both girls' desperate please to stop; or even the way Mom marched upstairs with a grim determination, like a hopeless soldier prepared to make a final stand. Whatever it was, Katelyn felt a great terror gnawing inside her. Mom was about to do something stupid. Again.
Claudia seemed to sense something was amiss as well, her voice rising to a shrill scream. "Mommy, you're hurting me! Stop. Stop it, Mommy. I don't want to go. No!"
"It's over, sweetheart," Mom said with an utter lack of emotion. "They've come to kill us at last. Your father is dead. Your brother is dead. All of us are dead. It's time for a bath, sweetie. We will wash away our sins before we die. Come, Katie, help me bathe your sister."
The queer, hollow tone in her mother's voice confirmed what she had already suspected. Katelyn rushed toward the stairs as her mother reached the top landing, pushing straight down the hall for the master bathroom, Claudia's cries ringing out the entire time.
A sudden rush of shouting from outside caught Katelyn's attention. The noise was so loud it sounded as if it were coming from inside the house, drowning out the screams and cries of her neighbors. The new barrage of primal shouts and battle cries were even more ferocious and threatening in their own way; an angry mob hell-bent on not going down peacefully. Then she heard a familiar voice above it all. "Kill the fucking Invaders!"
It's Jared! She recognized her brother's voice instantly. Conflicted, her eyes darted from the window, to the staircase, to the window, and then finally settled back on the staircase.
Her decision made, she darted up the stairs as quickly as she could manage. A careless step caused her to stumble backwards, but she caught hold of the railing and steadied herself, pushing upward and onward. As soon as her feet touched the landing, she burst into a sprint for the half-closed bathroom door. Katelyn heard the rush of water coming from beyond it, but the sounds of her sister's cries were strangely absent.
"I'm sorry, baby," Mom was saying in a hushed whisper as Katelyn pushed into the bathroom. "This is for your own good. I do this out of love."
Katelyn stopped dead in her tracks, her mind erupting with feelings of shock, horror, and helplessness. Claudia was in the bathtub, fully clothed and seated in the rising water. Mom was kneeling down beside the tub, one hand tightly gripping the back of the young girl's neck as she forced her head beneath the water. Claudia wasn't struggling. She wasn't even moving. From where she stood, Katelyn could see the water had a pinkish red hue about it. Stepping closer, her stomach knotted and a tight lump formed in her throat as her breath came in short, sporadic gasps. There was blood in the water. Her sister's blood.
"What did you do?" Katelyn found her voice as tears welled up in her eyes. The world fell away around her, her focus drawn to the red spot on her sister's head where the skin had split; the hair matted down with blood and water.
"She fought." Mom was unable to meet her eldest daughter's eyes. "I don't know how it happened. She slipped. Hit her head. She is safe now. At peace."
"You evil bitch!" Katelyn shouted, no longer caring what punishments might lie in store for a disrespectful mouth. She rushed the tub, grabbing her mother by the wrist and pulling with all her strength. When the hand did not relent, Katelyn resorted to slapping at the woman wildly, hitting as hard as she could.
"It was an accident," Mom repeated continuously, a blank expression on her pallid face. She did not flinch from her daughter's assault; she did not even seem to notice them. Finally, she let go of Claudia's neck, falling back against the wooden vanity cabinet in a state of complete mental checkout.
Katelyn attempted to drag her sister's limp, waterlogged body from the tub. After several minutes of struggling, she managed to heft Claudia out of the bath, and lowered her sister onto her back on the floor.
Please be alive. Oh god, please be alive.
Katelyn didn't know what to do next. Trying to remember things she had seen on the stories her mother used to watch on the Broadcast, she placed an ear to her sister's chest and listened carefully. Nothing.
She heard a loud thump, and thought it might be some small sign of life, but realized it was nothing more than the sound of her mother falling over onto her back; arms outspread as she wept uncontrollably to gods that Katelyn never truly believed in.
Something else she had seen on the Broadcast came back to her in that moment. She placed her mouth against Claudia's and began to blow air into her lungs. She wasn't sure if this was what one was supposed to do, but she had to try. After several attempts with no results, Katelyn placed her head on the younger girl's chest, listening again. Claudia's heart was silent and still. She checked the other side just to be sure. Still nothing.
What am I forgetting? I swear there's something else I'm supposed to do. Something else I'm supposed to check. Why can't I remember? Oh Claud, I'm so sorry. I should have never left you alone with her. What's that smell?
The air thickened around her. Katelyn could taste it as it filled her lungs. On better days, it would have reminded her of the long, hot summers spent with her father and brother out beneath the open sky. It was such a familiar, comforting smell, but it frightened her now. Smoke. Her heart raced as she spotted the first wispy tendrils of crept into the bathroom from the outer hall. The house is burning!
Katelyn began beating against her sister's chest in a fit of panic, tears streaming down her face in torrential globs. "Claudia! Come on, wake up! You have to wake up. The house is on fire! You need wake up now. Don't be dead, Claud. Please, don't be dead."
Claudia just lay there, unmoving. The rush of water continued, filling the tub to its brim and spilling over on to the floor.
"She's dead, baby girl." Mom's voice was calm and flat. "We all are."
Katelyn turned, only to be met by yet another stomach-churning sight. She hadn't heard her mother move, but there she was seated against the vanity again, her legs splayed out before her. She held a straightedge razor in her right hand, the left arm now covered in a crimson glaze from wrist to elbow. Large droplets of blood pooled between the white floor tiles.
The smoke rapidly filled the bathroom. The ghostly grays were now darkening to dense shades of black. At the same time, puddles of water formed beneath her feet, soaking through her shoes and socks. Her sister lied there dead, water rising up around the body. The woman that killed Claudia just sat there, bleeding out from a long, self-inflicted gash. Why do I even care? Katelyn thought, trying to force herself not to, but her conditioning brought her back to reality. She might not love this mad woman she called 'mom,' but she was the only family Katelyn had left. The drunk woman was cruel and negligent, but Katelyn knew that her mother loved both daughters in her own sick, twisted fashion.
It's not her fault. Some people just weren't meant to care for other people. If I leave her here to die, that will make me no better than she is.
Mom spoke weakly. "Death is coming, Katie. Run. Run away like the stupid girl you are, if that is what you mean to do. I would rather die by my own hand than at the hands of Imperialist monsters."
"Why are you so terrible? You're off your meds again, I know it. You don't know what you're talking about. Come on, I'm going to get you out of here."
Mom just shook her head and gave a tiny smile. "No, Katie. I want to die here with my baby. Together. Forever." She coughed as waves of heat and smoke engulfed them, making it hard to see through the haze.
Katelyn took a step towards her mother, but the woman only glared at her. "Stay back," Mom hissed. "Leave me be." Then she began to laugh, out of her head with terror and grief.
Katelyn tried to come closer, but this time the woman gave a half-conscious slash at her daughter, the razor very nearly cutting through the little girl's light yellow shirt with the pink flower in its center. Katelyn dodged, jumping back and almost slipping on the wet floor. This brought another cackle of laughter from Mom.
I can't do this. I just can't. I am a terrible daughter.
She looked towards the bathroom door, still open. Through the smoke, she could see the flames reaching up over the staircase railing as the white walls blackened against the relentless attack of flame.
"Fine!" Katelyn yelled, defiant and frustrated. "Go ahead and die then. You deserve it for killing Claudia."
With that, Katelyn darted to the small bathroom window, flung it open, and peeked out at the yard below. The alleyway still appeared to be her best chance of escape, though the long drop she was about to undertake gave her pause. Behind her, she could hear the maniacal laughter of her mother broken up by coughing fits, the hissing water gushing from the bathtub faucet, and the loud cracking of the wooden staircase splintering and collapsing from the fire. Ahead of her, gunshots and the shouts of soldiers interspersed with the screams of civilians.
"Try to escape," her mother choked. "They'll catch you no matter where you go. They are everywhere. Rape and death will be your only reward. Stay with us, sweet girl. The flames will save us from the bad men."
Katelyn responded with a sad shake of her head. She climbed on to the toilet, and swung her legs up and through the small window beside it, pulling herself out on to the ledge. She sat there a moment, looking down at the yard far below her. She took three deep breaths that forced her heart to settle in her chest. A final glance at the body of her beloved sister, submerged beneath the rising water that was now beginning to flood the bathroom. Tears flowed from Katelyn's eyes. Goodbye, Claud. I am so sorry that I couldn't save you this time. I'm sorry I failed you.
She silently counted to three before pushing herself from the ledge at last.