In the middle of a raging war in Europe is orphaned Siani, adopted by a family who was once her enemy. Years pass, and she quickly finds her place in her new countryside community, but the time inevitably comes for her to leave home and start a life of her own. When she ventures outside her little village, however, she finds that the rest of the nation isn't as accepting of her as her adoptive family was. If she can't be seen as an equal, as one of them, maybe it's time to start acting like the enemy she was born to be...
Smoke is a funny thing. You can't just have smoke; something has to burn for it to exist. Like wood or oil. Smoke can be a good thing, sometimes. Like, for example, you get the best flavor from salmon or jerky when it's smoked, you can clear out nasty bugs with a bunch of smoke, smoke is how people stranded on islands are rescued. In cases like those, smoke is made intentionally, for a good purpose. But then there are other times where smoke is an accident, a result of some sort of mistake, and those cases are usually bad, like forest fires, or a car accident, or even a volcano eruption.
And then there’s a third scenario, those times when smoke is intentional, and it’s created for purposes so bad, it doesn't even deserve a place on the chart with these other things.
I sit in the middle of the road and watch the smoke curl up from the remains of what was once my home, my eyes following its fingers as the cool morning breeze gently shapes it, twisting it into grotesque shapes. The fire's been out for several hours now, but I've been rooted to this spot, unable to leave, unsure where to go, lost and in shock. No one else in the neighborhood dares approach me. They're too scared—scared of the ones that started to fire, of the ones that come in the night.
They keep order, so they say. More like keep their order. Anyone who steps out of line or objects to the liberation is sentenced to the same fate as my parents. They turn to smoke.
"Hey, are you okay?"
My mind almost doesn't register the voice at first, but then I feel a hand on my shoulder and I whip around with a startle.
"Woah, sorry hon!"
A woman in iron-gray urban battle fatigues is standing behind me. She retracts her hand and takes a step back.
"LT, forget about her. We're due back in an hour. Curfew is getting lifted in like five minutes."
"Shut up, Grant," the woman snaps to a soldier standing off to the side. She turns back to me and kneels down. I inch backwards but the woman makes no attempt to approach any farther. "Is that your home, sweet? Are you on your own?"
I don't know what it is—maybe the way she phrased it, or the fact that this is the first person I've seen since the fire brigade left—but the empty expression I've worn all night finally collapses, and a torrent of tears cascades down my cheeks. My sobs shake my body and I fall forward with my face buried in the ground. The dull smell of wet pavement fills my nostrils and washes out the acrid smell of smoke—not the smoke that comes from campfires or barbeques, but the industrial, unnatural smell of a burning building.
I feel the woman's hand on my shoulder again, but this time I don't pull away. She may be the enemy, but something about my broken spirit is starved for human contact, regardless of the source.
The soldier takes me in her arms and rocks me back and forth as I continue to pour out every last bit of hurt and anger onto the marine-blue flag patch on her shoulder. I watch the bright white of the falcon turn a light gray as my tears saturate the fabric. It makes me want to throw up. I nearly do.
Eight years later
"The Chancellor of Northeastern Europe has rejected renewed calls for his resignation and trial for war crimes by American President Harrington earlier this week after his plans to posture Coalition troops along the borders of Scotland were made public."
The image on the screen in the corner of the room switches to video of a thin, graying gentleman standing with his hands on a podium bearing the white falcon crest of the Northern European Coalition.
"President Ellie Harrington clearly has no clue what she is talking about, something that has remained consistent throughout her troubled term in office. She should focus on stabilizing her own nation before pointing an accusing finger at the legitimate affairs of others. The American people should take a deep look at their recent bloody history and question if their experiment of freedom has worked out the way they were envisioning, then they can come to us and tell us if they have a better plan. Perhaps it's time for a change."
The image changes to scenes of protesters in streets waving signs and yelling chants in front of the iconic pillars of the Capitol building in Washington. A few seconds pass, then a scene appears of a mob of individuals breaking the windows of an armored vehicle and lighting it on fire. Lines of riot police march down a wide avenue tossing tear gas in front of them and firing blue tipped rifles filled with pellet ammunition. They're met by an equally vicious show of force by rioters dressed in homemade armor and wielding improvised weapons.
"The Chancellor's inflammatory counterattacks only add to the recent rising tensions between the two superpowers, most notably the sinking of the USS Doris Miller that led to the death of almost two hundred American sailors. This comes at a crucial time for the western hemisphere as many countries, including Panamerica, struggle with widespread riots protesting the perceived corruption in representative governments and the deterioration of the democratic system."
"Have you ever wondered how he picks his nose?"
"What the hell?" I say, turning a twisted smile to Ren, my adoptive brother. He looks at the screen—which has now changed back to images of the Chancellor walking across the palace gardens with a gaggle of dignitaries—with his nose wrinkled up in thought.
"Look at it. There's so much flippin' hair coming out of it. I mean, where does it all go?"
I laugh and place my face in my hand. It feels good to laugh; it takes some of the tension away. That's always been one of Ren's strengths, ever since that first day we met, when Eloise—my adoptive mother—brought me home with her from Wales to their cottage just outside of Breteil, France. I was a wreck; I was scared, lost, confused. I didn’t speak the language, and everything I had ever known was taken from me or burned to the ground. Then, Ren poked his head through the front door and, to my astonishment, tossed me a squirt gun before running away into the artichoke fields. My first day in my oppressor's homeland was spent playing games with them. One of the darkest days in my life became one of my most cherished memories, all because of Ren.
The door to the office behind us opens, and Eloise steps out into the waiting room with a sturdily built mahogany-skinned gentleman in his forties or so, with a bald head and a roughly managed beard.
"Alright, ma choupette. We're ready for you," Eloise says, gesturing to the office.