Zaida flattened the hairs on her arm, scratched dust from her hair and tried not to think of the first day back to school. She grabbed the pencil tightly in her fist for courage, but the thought of going outside and trying to find the streets choked her tears and scrambled her emotions. She could see it scared her mother too, the way her fingers trembled as she stuffed the remaining cheese between two lumps of bread and stuffed the stray crumbs hastily into her daughter's mouth. Early morning clouds shuffled through the swaying door frame as they looked out and listened to the sky. Her mother breathed in the silence with a sigh, then pushed Zaida out into the dusty path. She didn't venture out anymore herself. Her daughter braced herself, clutched her breakfast in one fist, her bright, new pencil in the other, and didn't look back. Her lunch bag clattered against her knees as she bounced down the street. One hand swung cheerfully while the other was firmly clasped around her pencil, the sharp point biting into her palm with a tickling sensation that made her go all red and weak at the knees. Her legs skipped over loose pebbles, grinding them into the dust with cheerful puffs and squeaks of release. Shouts and screams soared across the battered streets, all converging on a new school day. Shrieks of recognition blossomed after weeks locked away. School stumbled towards her, emerging out of the rubble. Friends gaped and smiled, teased and bickered but she remained apart, unable to find words as her thoughts tangled and she wondered if she would be able to find her way home afterwards: even with a crutch, her mother couldn’t make it out their door.
Scraped knees and bruised fingers, they fought their way onto the shaky platform and cuddled together in a loose knot. Zaida’s legs buckled over bricks and jutting metal spikes, until she took her place on the concrete floor. The girl beside her smiled but Zaida pretended to be busy getting her pencil ready for the day’s work.
Smashed walls opened out onto the skyline. In the pale blue light, beyond missing windows, a smoky dawn hovered uneasily. Puffs of dark smoke scampered across the horizon, as birds wheeled in confusion and the air steamed with the odour of car fumes and cheese sandwiches. Children’s voices clattered and echoed around the hollow remains of a roofless room. No uniform, no books, but her brother had given her the pencil which she clutched firmly in her left hand. Zaida wiped her nose and licked her fingers. The taste of hot milk lingered. She ran her tongue around her lips. They were dry, like her eyes. But she felt like crying. The noise, the chattering, the constant clatter, the silent threat of a whooshing missile kept her shivering quietly while all around children seemed to bubble effortlessly. The teacher called her name. She raised an arm in recognition. It hung in the air lifeless, a pole without a fluttering flag. Timidly, she lowered it and held her hands in her lap, the pencil tip biting into her thumb as she gazed through the huddled heads in search of a friend.
The teacher was spelling out instructions. She placed a corkboard behind her, but it was too small to hold more than a single fluttering math example no one could read. They listened attentively, one ear crooked for the whoosh of an incoming shell, the other for the cries as it fell. They said it was over on the TV. She didn’t believe them. No one did. She shivered as the sun lapped her bare knees and tickled her ears. Her attention lapsed. She held her pencil carefully and doodled on the crinkled pages her mother had stuffed into her free hand. Dangling sketches poured out, fluttered to life with the breeze, etching out words and visions that wouldn’t leave her mind by any other channel. She stopped. She didn’t want to damage the carefully sharpened, lead tip.
They kept their eyes confined to the open space of their new schoolroom. Outside, cars sped by in shrieks of dust while soldiers strung themselves around corners, arms at the ready, chewing, and smoking. A bird flew in close, frightened itself and squawked away to safety. The teacher, tall and thin, watched her wards nervously, smiling any time they came close. Time for French, a little science before a song to cheer them up and change pace. A bell rang out while they were singing. They kept on, until it refused to stop and began to swirl into a siren call for unanswered prayers. The teacher flapped her arms and huddled them off their improvised schoolroom. Parents shuffled in from the side to rush their kids away.
She was left alone as families scattered. The air was thundering with violent explosions, the ground beginning to tremble as panic sparked her senses and she suddenly knew which way to run. Her legs tripped as she reached the flapping canvas of their home. She swept inside, emotions bubbling like the stew her mother was coaxing to life on the stove. She paused, panting, eyes flushed, glinting with the news of the day. The thrill of having survived and managing to return safely to her shelter was bursting from her tongue, dancing on her lips. Then her fists uncurled and slowly sagged to a limp twitch. She’d lost the pencil in the panic. It was gone, just like her brother. She shrank to the floor and began sobbing. Huddled under the table, Zaida knew she wasn’t going back to school, that she would never learn to write the feelings she couldn’t speak
E. F. S. Byrne works in education and writes when his teenage kids allow it. He blogs a regular micro flash story. Links to this and over fifty published pieces can be found at efsbyrne.wordpress.com or follow him on Twitter @efsbyrne