Sofia left a greasy smudge sliding her finger across the flat screen. She squealed in delight as she scored the winning point.
“Dinner is ready,” Mum called from the dining room.
Sofia put the tablet on the sofa and danced to her feet. She skipped past the fireplace and across Mum’s expensive rug before running and sliding down the long corridor right into her brother’s midriff.
“Watch it, midget,” Danny said.
Sofia stuck out her tongue and rushed around him to get through the dining room door first. The table was set and the delicate chandelier hung twinkling above its centre. Sofia dragged out the high-backed chair and climbed up into her usual position opposite Danny. Mum walked in and kissed Sofia on the top of the head, leaving a trail of perfume, before sitting down at the end of the long rectangular table. Sofia was about to ask where Dad was when he came in from the study and slumped into his chair at the head of the table. He took off his glasses and massaged the space between his eyes with finger and thumb. Sofia wanted to try on the glasses, but she couldn’t reach them.
Agna brought out the food and silently put it before them. Sofia didn’t like the squidgy things in shells, so Mum asked Agna to bring her fish fingers to go with the pasta instead. The chocolate mousse dessert was amazing though. Sofia scraped the bowl and licked the spoon clean. Delicious, although it wasn’t her favourite. Her all time best food were the boxes of chocolate biscuits Mum got that came in a dark blue tin.
After a while Sofia started to kick her legs under the table waiting for Mum and Dad to finish their wine. Danny was busy on his phone.
“Can I watch TV?” Sofia asked Mum.
“Not today, dear. They are still showing that message on all the channels.”
“Boring. When will it stop?”
“Soon, dear,” Mum said. “Soon.”
“Why didn’t we go abroad with the Malcolms?” Danny had finally looked up from his phone. “Craig says they are going to go jet skiing.”
“We’ve talked about this,” Mum said, “Your Father feels-”
“But we went last time.”
“It’s so unfair.”
“This is our home.” Dad’s voice made Sofia jump. “I’ve worked hard for it. I’ve provided this family with a good life. Why should I leave?”
Danny was about to answer, but Sofia saw Mum shake her head.
After the table was cleared, Sofia went to play outside. The sky was a crayon drawing of pink and gold. Sofia leapt and twirled in-between the sprinklers playing a secret game of tag with the water drops. She saw a great, striped bumblebee lift off from the rose banks and she followed it as it buzzed lazily across the lawn before rising high over the wall. Sofia cranked her neck to try and see the top, where the evening sun illuminated the concrete. Sofia picked up a small stone and scratched her name into the surface of the wall, her lips pursed in concentration. She decided she would draw a line around the whole length of it, even though it stretched around the entire house. She set off trying to keep the line as straight as possible and it took her ages to get to the gate, which Dad’s workers had blocked off with piles of sandbags. Her arm ached, so she sat down at the edge of the grass. Max waved to her from the top of the wall. He looked like a giant up there. He pulled a face at her and Sofia laughed. Max was Sofia’s favourite worker. He was nice and funny, but the rest of them were mean. All they did all day was smoke and march up and down the top of the wall staring into their rifles. They never smiled like Max did. Sofia didn’t understand why. Smiling was so easy, after all.
It was bed time and Sofia was excited. They were going to sleep downstairs in the basement together. Danny was grumpy about it, but Dad talked to him in his angry voice and Danny put on his headphones and stopped speaking. Some of Dad’s workers brought down their mattresses. Sofia and Danny were next to each other on one side of the basement and Mum and Dad’s big bed was on the other. Mum read Sofia a story about Rapunzel escaping her tower. When it was over, Sofia yawned and rested her head on the pillow. She could hear a thumping noise in her ear. Danny had always said it was her pulse, but Mum hushed her and told her it was just toy soldiers marching. Just marching.
Sofia opened her eyes and sat up. She could still hear the toy soldiers marching, but it wasn’t in her ear anymore. It was coming from outside. Danny wiped his cheeks, put his hood up and turned away. Mum was awake too, talking to Dad in the corner. They were using loud words but in quiet voices. The buzzer at the door sounded. Dad walked slowly over and pressed the button to answer.
“Who is it?” Sofia lay back down and covered her head with the duvet, leaving just a little gap to peer out from. Dad listened, his hand on his hips. He said a bad word then opened the door. One of Dad’s workers was there and he said something about Max. Sofia lifted off her duvet and sat up. “I’ll be back in a minute,” Dad said and he left the room, leaving the door slightly ajar.
“What’s wrong?” Danny’s voice sounded higher than normal. Sofia turned to see Mum sit down on his bed and put her arm around him. Sofia yawned and stretched, then turned to the door. It must be morning. She wondered what Max was doing. She got out of bed and with light footfalls she moved through the door and up the stairs. The noise was louder up here, as if the whole house was vibrating. Dad was moving back towards the basement stairs, shaking his head. Sofia scrambled into the bathroom and let him past. She loved to hide. Maybe Max would play hide and seek with her.
Sofia ran outside, her bare feet skidding on the sleek grass. She covered her ears with her hands. The thudding noise was so loud that she could feel it shaking her bones. She moved deafly, head down, eyes fixed on the wall. It was dark, but there was still light in the garden. She forced herself to look up, find Max. Security lights beamed into the night, clouds of moths bathing in the dirty glow. She turned back to the house to see Mum and Dad stood in the doorway shouting at her. She couldn’t hear what they were saying, the expressions on their faces and the movement of their hands made it clear they wanted her to come back. Mum ducked her head and started to move.
The noise changed. Sharper, faster. Sofia looked up and saw Dad’s workers firing their guns down over the wall. Sofia moved towards the metal steps that zigzagged their way to the top. She needed to know Max was okay. She glanced back for a second to see Mum running towards her. She scooped Sofia up off the first step. Mum’s face was wet as she kissed Sofia and started to carry her back towards the house where Dad was waiting with pale skin and wide eyes.
Sofia looked back at the wall. She spotted Max. He was swinging the end of his rifle down at something. He rose up, his rifle falling from his hands and collapsed, clutching his shoulder. Sofia screamed Max’s name, but the sound was whipped away in the carousel of noise.
Sofia wriggled and kicked, trying to break free of Mum’s arms. Mum held tighter but Sofia’s eyes never left her friend Max and she continued to fight. Mum slipped on the grass and Sofia ran free, using her hands to climb the steps to the top of the wall. She ran behind Dad’s workers who were shining their lights or aiming their rifles. One of them, who was talking into a radio, noticed her, a piece of gum dropping from his mouth. Sofia looked behind her. Something came up over the wall and exploded on the grass in front of her Mum and Dad. Flame and smoke rose and her parents were forced back, screaming for Sofia.
Sofia had no choice. She carried on and reached the corner where Max was sat up with his back against the wall. The hand protecting his other shoulder was red.
“What are you doing, little darling? You should be inside.”
“I saw you fall. Did you cut yourself?” Sofia was shaking, the noise jangling her nerves, making her words tumble out. “I cut my knee once when I fell off my bicycle.”
“Cut? Yeah, I’ve cut myself.” His mouth smiled at her, but his eyes weren’t smiling. “Go now, little darling. Run back inside the house.”
Sofia pouted. “I don’t want to. It’s too noisy to sleep. Do you want to come and play with me?”
A spiky piece of metal hit the concrete floor to their right, bright sparks spitting as it was dragged into place against the wall. More flew over to either side of them. Sofia froze. She didn’t know what was happening. An arm appeared at the top of the wall followed by a man’s face, eyes narrow, nostrils wide, a knife in between his teeth. Max struggled to his feet and grappled with the man with his good arm. The man disappeared from sight. All the wall lights turned their way, the moths scattering. Dad’s workers were running towards them from both directions as more faces and arms rose at the edge of the wall. Bullets spat overhead and Sofia screamed. Max knelt down and grasped Sofia by the upper arm, a red smear painted on her pyjamas.
“We’ll play tomorrow, little darling,” he said. “Right now you need to run. You run faster than you ever have before.” Max rose to his feet firing his rifle one-handed at a figure that had emerged behind Sofia. “Go!”
Sofia ran, avoiding the stamping feet of Dad’s workers, and headed towards the second stairs at the other side of the wall. Within seconds she was alone, away from the shots, running with her head the same height as the top of the wall, but not able to see over it. She ran and ran from the noise and screams of pain. She could see Mum and Dad climbing the second stairs in the distance. Sofia ran towards them.
Sofia thought she heard someone shouting.
She heard it again.
A girl, a little girl’s voice. Sofia could see one of the metal hooks attached to the wall. Mum and Dad were at the top of the stairs, but still some distance away.
Sofia moved to the edge of the wall, stood on her tiptoes and looked out.
At first it looked like water was flowing sluggishly under the night sky, stretching out as far as she could see. Then she saw the head of a woman. She had red hair like Mum. Then she noticed the white hair of an old lady, the brown hair of a man, a hairless head, blonde hair. It wasn’t water, it was people. People of every colour and height and shape and age. People everywhere in every direction, walking so closely together that Sofia couldn’t see the ground. Some wore backpacks, others balanced bags and boxes on their head. Some mums and dads carried little boys and girls on their shoulders. Some of them looked up at Sofia with blank faces. They started shouting at her and the sound of their voices began to separate from their pounding feet and drifted to her ears.
“Give us some food.”
“Water, please, water.”
A sound of shock escaped Sofia’s mouth when she saw shining eyes emerge from the darkness. Two pairs, coming closer, climbing up the rope attached to the hook. Sofia took a step back. A tiny arm swung over the top, then a little girl’s face appeared over the edge. Her mummy would be angry, she hadn’t washed her face in ages. The girl held out her hand. Sofia took it and helped her up onto the wall, the gunfire in the background still making her jump in fright, but she didn’t want the girl to see her afraid.
“Hi. I’m Sofia.”
“You sound tired,” Sofia said. “Were you woken up by the noise too?”
The girl nodded. “My daddy woke me up. He said he wants me to live with a happy family. Do you have a happy family?”
“Yes! I mean Dad is grumpy sometimes and Danny can be mean, but you should live with us.”
“Sofia.” Mum shouted, panting hard from running. She picked Sofia up and looked down at Beth. Dad arrived and put his hands on his knees.
“This is Beth,” Sofia said. “Can she live with us?”
“Please.” A man’s voice said. He had one arm over the wall and his chin was resting on top of it. He had an untidy beard over bony cheeks and his breath wheezed out between cracked lips. He tried to lift himself further up but groaned and stayed where he was, clinging on. “Take my daughter,” he said to Dad, swallowing between words, “Feed her. Look after her. Give her what I can’t.”
Dad looked at Mum like they were talking, but no words were shared between them.
“Can Beth’s daddy live with us too?” Sofia asked.
“Take your daughter back,” Dad said in his cross voice, turning back to the man.
“I beg you,” said Beth’s daddy. “She won’t be any trouble.”
Dad picked up Beth. Sofia looked on, scared, as Dad draped Beth over her daddy’s shoulders so she had to use her tiny hands to clasp together around his neck just to hold on.
“What are you doing?” Sofia said, tears of frustration building in her eyes. “I want Beth and her daddy to stay. We have loads of food and Beth can share my bedroom.”
Dad wasn’t listening. “Climb back down,” he said.
“Please, I’ll do anything,” said Beth’s daddy.
“Climb back down or I will throw you down.”
“Have mercy. Take my Beth. She is my family. She is everything I have. Take her.”
“My family is everything I have too,” Dad said. “Climb down.”
Dad scraped the hook up and over the edge of the wall and Sofia saw Beth’s face vanish over the edge.
Sofia kicked and screamed and cried till her eyes stung. It made no difference, Mum and Dad got her back inside the house and down into the basement again. Dad shut the doors and clicked the locks into place. Danny looked up once, and then buried his head back under the duvet. Sofia crawled onto her own mattress and turned her back on Mum and Dad. The tears dried on her cheeks and her sobs became less violent. Despite the sound of marching feet and the shriek of bullets, Sofia drifted asleep.
The next day the sound of stamping feet had gone. The bullets had stopped shrieking. Sofia dug her spoon into her chocolate mousse, lifted it to her mouth, left it hovering there momentarily, then put it back down into the bowl with a loud clunk. Mum had Agna bring her favourite tin of chocolate biscuits instead. Sofia picked up the tin, slid from her chair and left the room to the sound of Dad’s angry voice.
A couple of hours later, Sofia was crouched behind the sofa. She crept as silently as she could out into the garden. The sky was grey and she had to tread carefully to avoid the grimy little pools that had formed beneath the sprinklers. A bumblebee floated past and settled on a crushed rose dangling from a bent stem. Max met her at the top of the stairs and put a finger to his lips. He smiled. Sofia didn’t smile back. His arm was in a sling but he was still able to help her up onto the edge of the wall and steady her there. The sea of people had gone. All that was left was churned dirt and footprints and some people who had stayed behind to sleep on the ground. Sofia checked to see if the label was still attached to the tin she was carrying. She had tried hard to write the message as clearly as she could in big pink letters: For Beth and her daddy. She looked back at the house, the white walls dull under the low sky, then out to the endless horizon. Nothing moved. Even the wind was silent. Sofia let the tin drop into the mud below.
Damien J Burton asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work