The Days I Hope For

Jessica Duling

Jessica Duling

“The Days I Hope For” was a Write on the Sound 2018 Contest winner. Jessica Duling is a high school student. When she’s not writing, she loves to read, listen to music, exchange bad puns with her family and friends, and play with her two dogs and one cat.

I walk with the weight of the water barrel heavy and full against my head. I glance around me, keeping my neck as stiff as possible as to not disturb the sloshing water that rests atop my head like a crown. Once, when I was young and foolish, somebody called my name and I eagerly turned my head so quickly that I lost control of my bucket and spilled lukewarm, dirty water all over myself. With my head hanging low, I trekked the half mile back down to the well to refill my bucket. I was slowed further by the chills of my body and the labor of lugging a hefty bucket up a long hill. By the time I arrived home, the sky was dark. Pa was bent over the fire, feeding its welcoming warmth, and Mama leapt from her cooking at the sound of my footsteps.
"Where were you, Evana?" she chastised me. "We've been worried sick! Your papa was just about to go after you!" My eyes filled with tears, arms aching from the lonely journey home. My blurred vision caught the movements of my little sister, Milana. Milana was as gracious as her lovely name implied. I've never seen a young girl so cheerful and thankful. I don't see much of that in anyone anymore. Especially in me. 
Mama's piercing gaze softened as she analyzed my shivering body. She took the water bucket from me and set it by her feet. Then, she wrapped a ratty blanket around me and ordered me to sit in front of the fire. Dinner that night was hot soup and rice. Mama even let me have seconds! Later, when Milana and I were snuggled under our blankets, Pa told us a captivating tale of a young boy who had ventured into the woods in search of treasure. We leaned forward in order to hear Pa's whispered words. Just as he was getting to the end, he examined our tired but eager faces and ordered us to bed.
"No!" Milana and I protested in unison. Milana tugged pleadingly at Pa's calloused hands. 
"I'm sorry, girls, but that's enough," Pa said gently but firmly. "Say your prayers and go to sleep." Papa kissed our bowed heads.
That's one of my best memories of Pa before he left us. I went to sleep that night warm, safe, floating on the love of my family and the gift of stories. I haven't felt that way for so long. I didn't even notice Pa's weary eyes, the lines on his face. All I saw was his love for his stories and his girls. But then, I was a child.
This is now. Pa is gone. I don't think he ever finished his story.
Out of the corner of my eye, I catch Delavan on my left. He shoots me a goofy expression, and then, when people pass us, he smooths his face into a guileless mask. I feel a faint smile tug my lips. Delavan has that sort of power. Pa did, too. Maybe that is why I had a crush on Delavan once, a long time ago. At least, until he started talking about the fruit stand owner's daughter.
When we reach our neighborhood, we part, and I creep into my home. Mama and Milana sleep back-to-back, and Milana's ragged breathing is so quiet, I have to stand at her feet and lean forward to hear. 
I head to our small, primitive kitchen. I take the last of our rice and bean rations, and set some of the water I fetched to boil. Tomorrow, I'll have to go to the marketplace with Delavan and buy more food for the week. 
As I'm preparing dinner, I hear a knock at the door. I open it to reveal Delavan's grinning, gap-toothed face. His hazel eyes shine like he just found a treasure trove. Knowing nosy Delavan, he probably has. He shifts his weight from foot to foot, a sign that he has news.
"Um, is your Ma awake?" he inquires.
"No," I say slowly, suspiciously. "She and Milana are asleep. Why?"
Delavan lowers his voice conspiratorially. "Some of the boys are talking about this cool abandoned place that they found. Wanna come?" When my face twists into an uncertain expression, he whines, "Please, Evana. Come. It'll be fun! And we'll be back before dinner. I promise. Plus," he adds. "it's got a pretty cool view."
I hesitate.
"Please?" he wheedles.
"Fine," I cave. "But as long as we're back before dinner."
"Yes!" Delavan cries. "You won't regret this, I promise."
The enticement of adventure is overpowering, and I follow his lead. We venture far away from the village, through unfamiliar, desolate streets, and old, dilapidated buildings. My feet don't even sting against the rubble and hot, cracked dirt. 
Soon, we reach an old barbed-wire fence with a sign reading, NO TRESPASSING. In the corner of the fence is a hole that a small child could squeeze through. I stop, nerves twisting my stomach. I catch a figure scampering away that looks suspiciously like a rat.
"Stop, Delavan. Let's go back. We could get in trouble," I beg him.
"That's what makes it exciting," He exclaims, unperturbed. "Oh, don't worry, Evana. We'll just take a quick look and go back."
Delavan squirms through the hole, and I follow. There are a few kids who linger around the yard, but they pay us no mind. 
We reach an old, abandoned ladder, and he starts to climb, the ladder groaning beneath his weight. Reluctantly, I grab onto a rung and hoist myself up.
At the top, we walk onto a thin walkway guarded by a rail. Delavan sits and dangles his leg through the rail and out to the space below. I copy him, though slower and more nervous. 
"A watchtower," I say, and shudder. "That means that—"
"This used to be a prison yard." Delavan finishes. 
"Look at the view," Delavan sighs, and I do. It is pretty amazing. I can see a sliver of my house over the rooftops of buildings. The kids in the yards look like ants. City noise reaches us from far away. Leave it to Delavan to find the beauty in an abandoned prison yard. 
"One of these days, I'm going to save up enough money to leave," Delavan says. "I want to go to the woods. I want to sit by the crystal blue lake, with the animals and the lush, bright green grass you see in photos. I want to sit on that grass and listen to the birds in the trees. I want to feel so tethered to the Earth that it makes up for all I have seen." He gestures to the dismal village. In the marketplace, I see people dragging crates and wandering around, longing for purpose. They look so sad from up here. I turn my eyes to watch Delavan as he speaks, his face dreamy and hopeful. I watch his dimples activate as he smiles to himself. His eyes crinkle at the corners.
We watch as the sun begins to set, streaking the sky with its fingers of color. As the darkness seeps in, Delavan and I make our way down the ladder. 
"Evana," Delavan starts.
"Yes, Delavan?"
"What is your dream?" I'm so taken by surprise, I don't even hear the authoritative voice as we scurry under the fence.
I look up, stunned, my eyes locking with the bearded man before me. 
"You are trespassing! Come here now or I will have to arrest you!"
"Run!" Delavan urges me. My feet are in command of my brain, and I start to run down an alley, two pairs of footsteps pounding behind me. 
I hear a bang behind me. I freeze.
Years later, I realized that Delavan helped me remember my dream, too. It was my childhood. I lived my dream without even realizing it. The times when Pa was here, Milana was healthy, Mama smiled, and Delavan and I could play freely in the streets without the fear of being shot. Since then, I've shed my innocence like a dog sheds his coat. I've had to become more.
My name is Evana. I am thirteen years old, and the caretaker of my family. I have not known a world without war. My Pa was traveling, when he stepped on a landmine and was killed. My Mama doesn't smile anymore, and I'm not enough to make her happy. My sister, Milana, is sick, and possibly dying. She hasn't seen the sun in so long. My best friend, Delavan, was shot and killed right before my eyes. He died in my arms. 
I've lost so much. But I continue going. And as I dream, I dream of a beautiful place, where my family isn't in pain, and I am a child at peace, because in the end, childhood and peace are the same. This is my prize. These are the days I hope for.

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