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Silent Lies: Prologue

Drago

Twenty years ago, Serbia

(Drago, 17 years old)

 

“It’s the blonde one, you idiot,” I mumble and reach for the bottle of beer on the coffee table.

I don’t know why I keep watching these predictable thrillers. Maybe they keep my mind off the shit I don’t want to think about. Like, how I need to tell my old man that I failed the third year of secondary school. Again. Or how my mom will lose it in the morning when she realizes I crashed my bike. It’s not like I can hide the fact that both my right arm and cheek are scraped raw. It would have been nice if the road rash at least erased the ink fucking Adam screwed up on again. I never should have let him practice on me. It’ll take two months for the crap he tattooed on my forearm to heal enough to be covered up. And, hopefully, with something that doesn’t fucking sucks. This shit looks more like a donkey than the reaper I told him to do.

Taking another swig from the bottle, I look over at the clock beside the TV. Three in the morning. I should go upstairs and sleep. I promised the girls I would take them to the zoo tomorrow. Dina will probably freak out and cry when she sees my face. Tara will just try to poke the mangled flesh.

I turn off the TV and toss the remote onto the coffee table. I’m halfway across the room when I’m thrown back against the far wall as an earsplitting boom engulfs me. Pain explodes through my right side.

Everything goes black.

 

* * *

 

My eyes snap open, but I can’t make anything out at first. My vision is blurry. There is a sharp pain at the back of my head and on my side. It takes me a moment to realize I’m sprawled on the floor, but when I try to sit up, another jolt of pain shoots through my right shoulder and down my arm. I grit my teeth and press my left hand on the wall, somehow managing to stand. A wave of dizziness hits me and I pause, trying to make the room stop spinning around me. My vision clears a little, but I can still barely see shit. The air is murky, and the only source of light streams in behind me. Something wet slides down the side of my neck, just below my ear. I swipe it away and see blood on my fingers. What the fuck?

I’m still facing the wall, trying to get my bearings when the smell of smoke invades my nostrils. Slowly, I turn around and immediately take an involuntary step back. On the opposite side of the house, beyond the living room and the stairs leading to the upstairs bedrooms, the door to my parents’ room hangs askew on its hinges. Part of the outside wall is missing, and the glow from the streetlight illuminates debris piled on the bed and all around the floor. Dust hangs in the air.

“Mom! Dad!” I vault over the overturned furniture, but I can’t hear my own voice. I can’t hear anything.

My eyes are glued to the fragmented wall piled atop the bed where my parents were sleeping as I try to move the couch out of the way with my one functional arm. The other is useless and numb. I think my shoulder dislocated when the blast threw me against the wall.

The space is filling up with smoke, and it’s getting harder to breathe, but I don’t see fire anywhere. Frantically, I turn around and catch sight of an orange glow beyond the kitchen threshold. Fear grips me as I shift my gaze to the upper floor, to the door closest to the landing. My sisters’ bedroom. My eyes dart between the upstairs door and the wreckage of my parents’ room, while my heart beats like crazy. Should I go help Mom and Dad first, or get the girls? An acid taste fills my throat as I take in the magnitude of the destruction on the ground floor. There is no way anyone could have survived that. With one last look at my parents’ room, I push down the bile, hurdle the ruined couch and run for the stairs.

When I reach the top step, I’m seized in a fit of coughing. I bury my nose and mouth in the crook of my arm, trying to keep the smoke out of my throat and lungs, and kick the door open.

“Tara!” I shout as I stumble and grab my crying sister off the bed to my left. I shift her to my hip, then turn to find Dina, Tara’s twin, standing in the corner of the room. Her eyes are wide and panicked, staring at me. I try reaching for her, but I can’t make my right arm move.

“Take my hand. We need to get out,” I yell, still unable to hear my words.

Dina shakes her head and plasters her back to the wall. Tara is wailing and thrashing in my hold.

“Fucking now, Dina!” I roar and fall into another coughing fit. “Fuck!” I wheeze.

I try moving my right arm again and fail. The smoke is getting thicker. We have to get out of here, but I can’t carry both of my sisters with one arm. Fear and helplessness are suffocating me more than the smoke itself. I’ll have to take them out one by one. I need to pick. How the fuck can I choose which sister to save first?

Tara is hysterical, and I’ve already got her. She’ll have to be first.

“I’m taking Tara outside, and I’m coming right back,” I yell, looking at Dina’s frightened face. She seems so much younger than her four years when she’s scared. “Just two minutes, Dina sugar. Don’t move.”

Throwing a pleading glance at her to make her understand, I turn around and run out of the room.

I don’t know how I’m managing to descend the stairs. The smoke stings my eyes, making it almost unbearable to look where I’m going, and I trip several times before I reach the front door.

Outside, neighbors stand in our driveway, gaping at the house. There are flickering red lights visible down the street, getting closer. It’s probably the fire department or an ambulance. They will be here any moment, but I can’t wait. I thrust crying Tara into the arms of the closest man and dash back into the burning house.

The smoke is so thick that I’m forced to half run, half crawl across the living room. My eyes water and my lungs scream for air. I reach the stairs just as the edge of the rug closest to the kitchen catches on fire. The flames are spreading fast and moving toward the stairway.

I finally make it back up to the girls’ bedroom, my eyes straining to see my sister. She’s not where I left her, so I lunge toward the bed. Dina is bundled up, hiding under the covers.

“I’m here, sugar.” I throw the duvet to the side, grab Dina around her waist, and lift her onto my hip.

Going back toward the front door is out of the question. There’s too much smoke. I could try to get us out through the window—it’s not too high—but Dad bolted it shut last month because Tara kept opening it, and he was afraid she’d fall out. We have to reach my room at the other end of the hall and use the balcony there.

“Hold on to me!” I can’t assess how loud I’m speaking, so I shout just in case. “We’re getting out!”

Dina wraps her arms around my neck, clinging to me as her small body trembles in my arms. I step into the hallway, then quickly retreat. The fire has spread upstairs and the heat is cutting off the path to my room. Down the stairs is the only way out.

“It’s going to be okay.” I place a kiss on my sister’s hair. My heart beats so fast it feels like it will burst out of my chest. “It’s going to be okay.”

Tightening my hold on her, I take a deep breath and step into the hallway again.

I glance over the railing to the lower level of the house where the flames are licking at the kitchen cupboards and crawling up the curtains. The fire has spread to the stairs, its tendrils are reaching between the balusters. I can’t decide what’s worse: the heat or the smoke. Holding my breath, I sprint down the stairs as fast as I can. The front door is gaping open, and the fire truck has pulled to a stop, firemen pouring out of it. I’m halfway to the entrance when another explosion erupts to my right, the blast throwing me and Dina onto the floor.

It’s so hot that it feels like my skin is melting. My sister is lying sprawled a few feet away, wheezing and fighting for breath. I crawl over and pull her to me, then wrap my body around hers to shield her from the flames.

“It’s okay, baby. Help is coming,” I say next to her ear, just before the darkness swallows me.

 

* * *

 

Fifteen years ago, New York

(Sienna, 5 years old)

 

Sienna

 

I throw myself onto the couch, cross my arms, and huff. “You promised, Mama! It’s Luna’s sixth birthday party! I’m her best friend. We have to go.”

Mama sighs and sits next to me. “I’m so sorry, Sienna. The boss scheduled both me and your dad for this Saturday.”

“You and Papa always work.” I scowl, pouting my lips.

“Sienna, honey, you know that’s not true.” She rubs my arm.

I jerk away from her, mumbling, “If you love me, you’ll take us. You promised! Papa says keeping promises is the most important thing in the whole world.”

Mama throws a look at my father, who’s standing by the bookshelf. “Edoardo and Sara are working at the casino tonight. Maybe we could ask them to switch? We could work tonight, and they can cover for us on Saturday.”

I look up at Papa with wide eyes. Please say yes!

“Arturo? Can you take them?” Papa throws over his shoulder to my brother who’s sitting in the recliner by the window, fumbling with his phone.

“Nope. I have to work on Saturday,” He shakes his head. “But I can watch the pests tonight.”

I snort. Arturo has been so busy and serious since he started working for the don.

My father lets out a sigh and pins me with his gaze. “Is it really so important that we both must go? I can try to arrange something so Mama can take you.”

“Yes, it’s important. Asya!” I wait until my sister looks up from whatever she’s drawing at the coffee table, then yell, “Say something!”

She just shrugs.

“See, Asya wants you both to go, too. Please, Papa. We never get to go anywhere together. There’ll be clowns! I will never ask for anything ever again.”

Papa pushes away from the bookshelf. “Oh, all right. I’m going to call Edoardo.”

I squeal in delight and jump into his arms. “Yes! Thank you!”

“As if I could say no to you, baby girl. I love you too much.” He places a kiss on the top of my head. “Off to the kitchen, you two. Arturo will get your dinner since Mama and I have to get ready for work.”

 

* * *

 

The doorbell pulls me out of my sleep. I squint at the darkness. Did I dream it?

The bell rings again.

I slide off my bed and tiptoe toward the balcony to look down at the front porch. Two men in suits are speaking to Arturo. Their voices are muffled, so I can’t hear what they are saying, nor can I see my brother’s face from this angle, but his body suddenly goes ramrod straight. He buries his hands in his hair, tugging on it, then turns toward the open front door and smashes his fist into it. The men say something else and leave, getting into a black car parked on our driveway. When I look back down, Arturo is sitting on the top step, gripping his hair with his bloody hand.

I run back to my bed and get under the blanket, but I’m not sleepy. Who were those men, and why was my brother acting that way? Arturo never hits anything.

I’m staring at the ceiling when I hear someone climbing the stairs and crossing the hallway. A moment later, the sound of our bedroom door opening fills the silence of the night. I sit up in bed and find Arturo standing at the threshold, gripping the doorframe.

“Let’s wake Asya up,” he says. “I need to tell you both something.”

His voice sounds strange. It’s not teasing like it usually is when he talks to Asya and me.

After flicking the light switch by the door, Arturo takes a seat on the side of my sister’s bed. He looks different from when he tucked us in earlier. His face is pale, and there are dark circles under his eyes. Arturo isn’t typically a cheerful person. Papa always says that my brother is too old for his years, whatever that means, but he’s always strong. Now, he just looks sad. Lightly, he shakes Asya’s shoulder until she sits up in bed, then he taps the spot on his other side.

I go and sit next to him, keeping my gaze glued to his the entire time. A lump formed in my throat when I saw him hit the door outside, but now, I feel like I’m going to throw up. He’s going to tell us something bad.

“Something happened tonight. At the casino.” He takes my hand into one of his and Asya’s in the other, but he doesn’t look at either of us. “I need you two to be brave.”

“What happened?” Asya asks through her yawn. “Where’s Mama?”

“There was . . . a shooting.” He squeezes our hands. “A lot of people got hurt.”

I yank my hand out of his. We never talk about shootings or guns in our house. Papa doesn’t allow it.

“Where are Mama and Pap—?” I sob.

Arturo wraps his arm around me, pulling me to him. I can hear Asya crying as she snuggles into his other side.

“They are gone,” Arturo chokes out. “Mama and Papa are gone.”

“You are lying! Why are you lying?” I cry out as tears pour down my face, but I know he’s not. Arturo never lies.


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