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Twenty

A Short Story By Alexis Perno

Twenty. I was so excited to be twenty. Encased in those two small numbers was something priceless- freedom. I wouldn’t have to hide anymore, free from fear that constantly trailed me like a predator stalking its prey. Although I still had quite a while to go, I couldn’t wait until that blessed day. I suppose it is strange how I looked forward to that particular birthday. After all, most people dread the draft. Me? I anticipated it in every waking moment. Now however, I wonder if my circumstances would be different without such an eager mindset. I suppose I’ll never be able to find out.
Nineteen. The last I remember of my brother was his nineteenth birthday. It is not a fond memory to an outsider, but from my weathered eyes that moment holds a bit of untouchable magic. That was the last birthday my family, however partial, celebrated together. It wasn’t too long ago, I don’t think, (one’s perspective of time becomes muddled after a while here), maybe only a few weeks. I wonder what happened to my mother, my sister. I wish I knew but then again, maybe not knowing the details of their likely deaths is a blessing in disguise.
We lacked a cake or candles but made do with a stale piece of bread, celebrating the occasion in the threadbare tents given to us beside the road. They didn’t do much to keep the chill out of the night, but it was better than nothing as some people received in the horror tales spread through the lines. Given our situation, these tents were an act of kindness from the Turkish soldiers policing us.
I love my brother. Looking up, I cringe, the metallic taste of horror heavy on my tongue.
I loved my brother.
Eighteen. This year was a year of celebration across the world. 1918 was a year that would be written in history books, they yelled as the people rejoiced. Relief flooded the streets in the form of people as they celebrated the war’s end. The war may have ended, but the atrocities continued.
Seventeen. A number that is both cause for pain and celebration. I wonder which outweighs the other, given the sins I’ve committed in my seventeen battles and the nightmares I’ve endured since then. I do consider myself lucky for someone as young as me- most don’t make it this far.
Sixteen. I was looking forward to this birthday, too. That would mean an entire year in the service that I’ve survived. I try not to look up again as my thoughts return to my brother, who had just lasted the year. He had already met his fate, and it would not be long now until I met mine.
Fifteen. When the war started, I wanted nothing more to take up arms in defense of my country. It had served me well, and I found it my duty to protect the only home I have ever known. I have always loathed my height, but I have truly come around- it was the only thing allowing me to join the army. Posing as eighteen so I could fight. Enemies- no, people- who shot at me ruthlessly, not knowing I was young enough to be their son.
I wonder if my end would be different if I never enlisted. Never lied.
I sometimes wish it were so, although there are worse ends.
Fourteen. Tensions were so high that year it was no surprise the war broke out. I wonder what would have happened if it never had occurred, but prejudice and hate are not so easily dispersed as it is instilled. These terrors could have happened during any lifetime. It just happened to be mine. It is quite unfortunate, I suppose, but in some selfless way I am glad. May no one else suffer what I have. May the world hear our screams. May this never repeat.
Thirteen. I was thirteen when my brother enlisted. He too acted older than his age, joining just before his eighteenth birthday. My father is the reason he joined, and by some extension of that I suppose the reason my brother met such a violent end. But what was our crime? Joining our nation’s army? Wanting to protect those we love? To avenge those we lost?
To the Turkish Government, our crime was that we are Armenian.
Twelve. I remember the day my father was taken away as if it was yesterday. I was only twelve, still bright-eyed and had retained the childish twinkle to my smile (that has long since faded now). Three firm knocks on the door had made me pause, looking up from a cheery conversation with my sister. My mother’s lovely face had gone ashen, and the dullness in her eyes made me take my sister’s hand. At only seven she eagerly crawled closer to me, her keen eyes observing my father’s stiff posture as he opened the door. Four men stood, looking stern. Their eyes were harsh and their coldness sent a shiver down my back. My brother watched from the dining
room’s doorway. His eyes were bright then, but had narrowed as the men spoke, growling my father’s name. When he nodded, affirming that he was indeed Nerek Kaloustian, the men lurched forward and grabbed his arms. My mother cried out as my brother immediately rushed to him.
“No, Samvel!” My father managed, his voice barely heard over his struggle. “Don’t follow! Don’t risk it! Promise me- promise me this!”
My brother weakly nodded. My father was almost out the door, being dragged by those men. How they could still call themselves men as they ripped apart families, I did not know. I still don’t.
Later that night as I lie awake in the suffocating silence left behind by my father’s absence, I overheard my sister ask what had happened. My mother laughed slightly, trying to exude an air of nonchalance. It didn’t work.
“My love, don’t you worry. It is merely business. Your father will return soon, but for now, you must be heading to bed.” I could hear the barely-there smile in her voice she gave my sister. I wonder if she said those words to placate herself as well as my sister.
Eleven. After months of campaigning, my father was elected as a political official. I was too young to understand exactly what he did; my mother told me he worked alongside governments of all kinds. He held influence, that I know. Looking back, I speculate that his position is why he was one of the first taken.
Ten. I close my eyes as I reminisce, and the sound of the gun conjures up images of my siblings and I playing with our toy guns. I must have been ten when I received my first one, my sister and brother each eagerly received their own. We would run around the yard, laughing as we referred to each other as “General” or “Solider”. The sound effects we would belt out as we aimed our weapons of plastic at each other had even my parents cracking a smile. What we could never replicate was the smell that comes after firing one. Now, we could never escape the stench of death. It followed us like a starving dog begging for scraps.
Nine. The sound of the gun again, but this time something new- a grunt. Looking up I see a man fall to his knees, clutching the wound in his side. The man had missed, and my fellow solider
was now looking to the sky. Shaky Armenian passed between his chapped lips- his last prayer to a silent God.
“My God, My God! Why have you forsaken me?” The man screamed before the gun interrupted him. I looked down.
Eight. It wouldn’t be long now until I was there. My own prayers worked their way up to my throat but lodged in my mouth, blocked by my horror. I was choking, I couldn’t breathe; it was only the suspicious look of a nearby guard that made me force myself to remain calm. Attention was not good in a place like this.
Seven. I try to let my thoughts wander again, delving into more childhood memories. I remember the first dog I ever had, Miro. His sleek fur was so soft against my grubby seven-year-old palms, and I would chase him for as long as I could remain upright. Bubbly laughter always escaped when we played, and even my little sister would try to join in, toddling around on her chubby legs. She always fell, but instead of tears came grins as Miro covered her face in licks.
The sunshine was always warm on those days. It’s eerie that the same sun is shining on me now.
Six. It’s getting harder and harder to keep my desolate thoughts out of my head. I can’t keep the future at bay by relishing in the past much longer, but however futile, I’ll still try. These people, if they are even still that, have taken too much from me. My last moments will not be theirs.
Five. My hands begin to tremble, and I call my sins to the front of my mind. My last confession. My dear family, I hope you can forgive me. My Father, where have you gone? Please, return for if only a few more moments. Please, all I beg for is forgiveness. Please. Don’t let me die alone.
Four. The shoulders of the man in front of me shake as he cries. How did no one notice this happening? First they rounded up our leaders, then our teachers. Then when entire barracks of men began to go missing, entire neighborhoods empty of fighting-age men, entire recruiting centers empty as the Turkish rounded up who enlisted- the world was silent. Even now, they are silent.
Are we just not screaming loud enough?
Three. Not long. Not long at all. My thoughts grow dizzy with fear as the number of men before me dwindle. A weight is suddenly on my shoulder, and I turn to see a man aged by war with his
hand on my shoulder. His eyes stare firmly into mine, and in him I see my father’s eyes, once so determined. I miss him.
“Go bravely, young one. I know you were not old enough to join this fight, and for that I am sorry.” His gravelly voice is parched yet warm as he comforts me. “God is with you. God will be waiting. God is good.”
Two. He drops his hand and begins to pray, holding his palms skyward. None of the guards could be bothered enough to discipline him. After all, he will join the others soon. Along with them, so will I. Looking towards the blue sky, I join him in prayer. My last.
One. I hold my head up high like how my father taught me to face the bullies that once tormented me.
“Do not give them the satisfaction of your fear, Arsham. You must find the bravery to overcome your fear.” Comforted by my father’s words, I fight to remain composed. I refuse to give them the satisfaction of my fear. They can take my life, but they will not have my fear.
Zero. There is no one in front of me. I walk forward without being prompted by the guard. If I am to die, it will be so of my doing. I turn. My eyes lock onto the barrel of the gun not far from my head. I refuse to cry. I refuse to show my terror. My family, oh, my family, I love you. I’m sorry. God is good. God is good. God is-
In memory of those lost during the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1923. (April 24th is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.)

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