Hathaway Brown School
Instructor: Scott Parsons
The Lily in War
The Lily in War
This is the story of a girl in a warlike universe.
A girl of fifteen years. People said she was as beautiful as the moon. Her skin was shiny cinnamon, and her hair grew fiercely from her head in wild curls that refused to be tamed. She was skinnier than a pencil and tall like that maple tree that grew in the distance of the valley. Boys stopped to look at her eyes, those dark oceans of fiery amber that glowed gold in the sun. When she smiled, if she smiled at all, people smiled too. People also smiled at her name: Kaia.
The year is 2167. Countries have been tearing away at each other for nearly a century in World War III. If only those idiots back in 2040 had played nice with the Iran Republic, which has taken over almost all of Southwest Asia and all of the Middle East. Even the Taliban was torn to shreds in the same amount of time it took them to take over Afghanistan in 2021. In the global chaos, the US unwisely made Canada their enemy. Kaia's home, a city conspicuously placed too close to the border for Canada's liking, is under occupation from the north.
Out of Kaia's fifteen years she only remembers eight. The memories ceased after an explosion on the streets grabbed her parents from the world and took them away in an eruption of flames, metal, and flesh.
Kaia doesn't bother remembering because it isn't worth it. You must live by the day, not by what's happened. She's just waiting for the time the door will come down and the C.R.K. will burst in looking for insurgents.
Those damned Devils work for a Canadian intelligence service, but everyone knows they're a cover for a secret police. Their job is to root out insurgents, dissenters, and "aliens." Hundreds have disappeared into thin air.
She hears the stories and the exploding fireworks from across the street and in the distance. It's the same as walking across the street. Imagining what it would be like to sleep at night without the sonic jets shrieking like shrill bombs overhead is impossible.
Only the old folks remember when Ashland, a city that used to belong to New York, was painted differently. James Alvin, Kaia's grandfather, is an example. Folks say he has the whole war written down in his brain. He'd lived two years shy of a century, and those years thoroughly aged him. His ebony face was wrought with tiny wrinkles that multiplied when he blinked; many wondered how he kept his thin, snow-colored beard. When he studied someone, they froze. For Kaia, who loved him but refused to show it, he was a reverend cynic who enjoyed his booze.
It's late in the afternoon. Kaia, blowing out smoke, walks into the living room. She peers out the window, watching the swamp-colored motorized monsters roll through the broken street accompanied by figures in armor. She focuses on their guns, which erupt deadly explosions when their triggers are pulled. Her grandfather, with a bored look in his stonelike eyes, sits silently in his recliner with a fermented beverage.
"Where's your sister?" he asks her through a raspy tenor.
Kaia snorts and sticks the cigarette in her mouth. Those old filthy tobacco sticks have long been forgotten in favor of the new ones: oxidized lactic weed. "Which one?" she asks.
James' laugh, forced, sounds like a broken record player. "You little fool, Talia's at work. The little one, of course."
"The little one." Kaia blows out a puff of white smoke. "She's running around in the field. She's been out there all afternoon gallivanting with her lilies."
She's referring to her sister, Nina, who came into the world fewer than eleven years ago in a picture of God's innocence. Her chocolate cheeks, plump and round, have not left since she was born. God Himself blessed her with large, naïve eyes that held an ocean of pure emerald inside. She smiles every day with the sun in her teeth, and when people looked at her, they smiled too. Sometimes they laughed.
James lets out a hearty chuckle that is reminiscent of low thunder. "That girl and her flowers," he rumbles.
There's a short story in the memory books that says Talia gave Nina the flower on her sixth birthday, and she's treasured them ever since. It's become Nina's tradition to pick one every day from the backyard and keep it in a vase on the shelf by her bed.
"When's Talia coming home?" Kaia asks.
James grumbles to himself as he chugs the rest of his drink. "I—I don't know what that woman's doin'. Curfew's in an hour."
Kaia sniffs out smoke. "I guess I should bring Nina in, then."
James taps his fingers to his drink. "There's still time. Let that little girl enjoy what she has before it's gone," he tells her severely. "You know everything goes down at night."
"We all need to grow up at some point," Kaia exclaims crossly, rising to her feet. "Dancing with flowers is for babies. She's ten years old now."
James shrugs and raises his brow and clears his throat. "You're a young woman. You chose to group up, and you can't turn back. Don't make that choice for her."
Kaia's brow raises an inch. "This is war. Nice things don't last."
James gives his granddaughter a look beneath a raised brow. In a right mind, he or she knows that the day will come. It always does, even if you are an innocent bystander. In war, no one is innocent. But they need to be ready.
The sun takes half an hour to sink behind the barbed wire and the sky shifts from amethyst and orange to navy. The lavender light over the field illuminates the lilies' silhouettes. The streets, usually busy, abruptly go silent.
It's seven minutes past eight. Curfew's in twenty-two minutes. Kaia puts out her cigarette and heads to the back of the house. "Nina, time to come inside!" Kaia calls from the door.
The child is a dark spot in a large field of apricot striped with maroon. The flower field is a dot against the remains of a charred cornfield. It got burned during the Battle of Alvin's Plain when Canada and the U.S. clashed over disputed territory.
Upon hearing her name, the little girl turns, eyes bright, and starts running, a brown ripple in the peridot-ivory water. "Come on," Kaia says to her sister, taking her hand firmly. "We have to get ready."
Nina nods. "I know." She spins a lily she picked between her fingers. To her, they're magical, as they come back to life again after they die, just as beautiful. "I'm ready."
Kaia makes sure the door is locked before she presses the house shield, reinforcing the frames. They clatter as they leave dents in the wooden floor. After Kaia herds Nina upstairs, she's surprised to see Talia in the living room.
She's Kaia's elder sister by eight years with a feisty streak and a fervent speaker for change; she is pacing the area in front of the couch. Her dark hair is wild, like her words, with defiant gray eyes and an arched brow.
"The C.R.K. is coming tonight," she tells Kaia. "You know what to do. But we need to be careful because we're sheltering some refugees who escaped a quarantine center."
Kaia, appalled, watches her sister activate the window shields, heavy barriers designed to be bulletproof. "Why are we hiding them here?" she demands.
"They don't have anywhere else to go," Talia tells her. "We're just going to hide them in our cellar for the night until we can get them out of here."
"Have you lost your damn mind?" Kaia demands loudly. "You're just asking for us to be killed!"
"We don't turn our backs on people who need help," Talia tells her firmly, ignoring her sister's look of fire. "And we certainly don't turn our back on our community."
Kaia shakes her head. Anyone suspected of being associated with any form of trouble is detained, questioned, and persecuted. If they are found guilty, which they always are, they're sent to Alaska for "rehabilitation." Bottom line, it's a death sentence. But Kaia knows she can't do anything to change her sister's stubborn mind.
Ten painstaking minutes elapse, and the group of refugees come. The night sky is eerily onyx. Kaia grinds her teeth as she anxiously paces an area of the dining room. The C.R.K. is coming soon. "Come on, come on," Talia says, hushed, as she directs the strangers through the back door. The hidden wall that hides the cellar is behind James' bookcase. People, figures with thin limbs and pale faces file in. Kaia herds them down the ladder with a stone face. We're digging our own graves.
The cellar is dark, hidden under four feet of iron and reinforced material. Fourteen occupants are inside, including her, as Kaia's keeping them quiet. Six of the figures are young children. These faces, many colors, are blackened by the darkness. Kaia passes them rations of food; they are nothing but poles in dirty clothes. Five minutes of agonizing silence hold the air tight. And right when the nerves are at their limits, they snap.
Then sharp thunder roars loudly and the ground starts to tremble from above. Metal shrieks as the front door slams open with the bang of an M4 silencer. The refugees immediately start whispering, but Kaia shushes them in haste.
The footsteps of the C.R.K. hunters shake the house with a tremor. After thirty seconds, the shattering drowns out a man yelling, "C.R.K. intelligence! Come out!" Kaia promptly hears pistol blanks.
Kaia climbs the ten feet up the ladder and presses her ear against the trapdoor. Several escapees are frantically whispering for her to stop. The sounds screeching above them are close enough for her to know that there are snipers standing directly over them. Talia's brazen voice is loud, followed by a man hissing, "Shut the hell up, woman!" There's a thump that follows, completed by a terrified yell from Nina.
Kaia hears Talia's voice again. It was harsh and defiant; several C.R.K. agents are barking orders. Nina's frantically screaming for Talia. Kaia decides to risk it and open the cellar door; the square in the floor is surrounded by thousands of miniscule pieces of glass. Her grandfather's chest of drawers has been knocked over. Glass litters the floor along with pieces of porcelain and ivory. Not one thing inside the bookcase remains intact. Appalled and horrified, Kaia gingerly peers through the doorway. The C.R.K. is still flooding the house. A man has restrained Talia, while Nina is curled in the corner, her eyes wider than full moons.
"Stop!" Kaia yells angrily.
"Hey!" Suddenly three agents are upon her; then she impacts the wall. With stinging eyes, she sees them entering the side room, searching for the door that's hiding the escapees under four feet of metal.
Kaia doesn't move. There's an agent less than four feet away from her, his fingers teasing the trigger of his rifle. Her older sister is furiously tussling with one of the agents. His face, like all the others, is dead, cold, and his eyes are black stones. More and more agents flood into the side room. They've picked up human matter on their detectors. It's over. Kaia's shaking her head in dismay when her eyes land on the lighter sitting by the cable fuse.
Several agents are now shooting and attempting to force the trapdoor open. While it's made of strong material, it will eventually yield to the forces. Under this much g-force, the material's going to snap soon. She doesn't have much time. Thinking quickly, Kaia rushes to the fuse radiator when the agent's back is turned.
It's designed to power all of the electric cables and wires through the house and keep them from short-circuiting. Two solar and lunar panels on the roof power it. But the sensor itself is vulnerable to abrupt high temperatures. That's why the sensor is equipped with a fireproof cap to shut itself off in case of house fires. If the surrounding temperatures get close to the danger zone, the cap automatically activates.
Kaia subtly grips the lighter. Am I going to do this? Her eyes land on her little sister, shaking with terror as an agent aims a gun at her, and Talia, who is being restrained with two weapons aimed at her head. If she doesn't, she and her entire family will be killed. She carefully holds the tip of the lighter just underneath the heat-sensitive electric sensor.
Suddenly, one of the agents standing by the steps spots what she's doing. "Stop!"
With her fingers crossed behind her back, Kaia squeezes her eyes shut and pulls the trigger.
It takes a mere few seconds for something to happen. The sensor releases a shrill, high-pitched shriek. Sparks jump out from the heated wires and smoke wafts out from the radiator panel. The entire house briefly shakes. Kaia dives for the floor as fire roars over her. The skin on her back blisters. Within a moment, the wall the connected wires run through explodes in flames, and intoxicating fumes start to thicken the air with smoke.
Clamor immediately follows. With satisfaction, Kaia watches the agents make haste to flee the partly-burning house. The ground quivers as the volume of footsteps increases, and then vanishes. She slowly rises to her feet to assess the destruction. From within the thick cloud of smoke, Talia emerges, soot staining her face and clothes.
Kaia's face is coldly placid as the smoke concentrators activate to clean the air. There's a moment of silence. At least the refugees are safe, Kaia thinks mockingly, turning her head towards the cellar. The wall is still burning, but like any other wall in the house, the fire will extinguish itself in a few moments. She's about to say something to her sister when suddenly, Nina emerges from the smoke and takes off like a jackrabbit.
"Nina!" Kaia instinctively runs after her as Talia screams her name. The former follows her little sister outside to the backyard to see that everything is gone.
The flowers, the grass, are all razed and stomped. Some are still burning. Most of the remains have evaporated; lucky ones are marked by ashes. At the girls' feet, the bent and broken stems are little skeletons of something that made people smile. The smell of smoke and hot rubber in the air burns their nostrils. Kaia looks around at the orange-stained grey sky. In the distance, the tops of trees are hued by flickering yellow and crimson.
Nina sighs. "It's all gone," she says, her voice fragmented glass.
Kaia nods. "I know."
The little girl tugs on the hem of her sister's shirt. "Why did they do it?"
Kaia can't give an answer. Personally, she didn't care about the plants, but she knew how much her sister loved them. Even on the days she cried, she could play with one and smile again. "I can't say why people do things," Kaia says finally.
The little girl doesn't respond. Her head is bowed as she's staring at something in the scorched grass. Kaia waits, listens to the howling sirens echoing in the distance. Smoke and steam erupt from the blazes. Nina stands again and faces Kaia, holding something in her hands.
One lily survived. The stem is badly misshapen and the petals are crumpled, but it's intact. The tip of a petal is stained. Nina stares up at Kaia, her green eyes suddenly six years older.
"You should keep this," she says softly. "It might make you smile."