Even before she opened her eyes, Niana suspected something was wrong. For one thing, it was totally dark. Where was the security light that lit up the alley between her apartment and Matt’s factory? The reflection from this always lit the top window above where the curtains were drawn. She glanced at the bedside digital clock. It was also too early for the delivery trucks.
Two of them called every morning, entered the alley via an L shaped service lane that came into Matt’s back parking area from the next road. There was a small garage door at the side of the shop, really a smaller version of the one in Matt’s workshop; the truck drivers had keys so it could be unlocked, they delivered their produce and remove the empty containers. Usually these vehicles arrived with in fifteen minutes of each other just after four a.m. and were used as a wake up alarm to signal Niana that another morning had arrived.
Perhaps it was another bad dream! The young woman frowned and listened. A very faint hissing noise disturbed the silence.
Oh my God! She knew the sound. In one leap she was out of bed and, not even waiting to grab a dressing gown or flick on the light, tore along the corridor into Halia’s room and shook him.
“We have to go, Halia,” she cried, not realizing she was speaking Albanian. “Quick. I’ll get Adona.”
None too gently, she hauled the sleepy boy out of bed, almost dragged him with her as she ran across the corridor and lifted the little girl, blankets and all, into her arms. Two blankets slid to the floor but one remained around the child.
“You’re hurting my arm, Mummy.” Halia cried in alarm.
Niana ignored him and tore along the totally black corridor to the side door. It was hot outside and stones from the driveway cut into her bare feet. She hesitated and swung her head from side to side. Should she head for the road or back down the alley? No, her innermost thoughts told her there was no time. There was only one possible place.
“Quick,” she whispered, this time in English. ”Over to the men’s restroom in Matt’s place.”
She guided the now weeping boy in front of her while trying to reassure a half awake Adona all was well. The restroom door was unlocked, as usual. She pushed Halia in, squeezed behind and slammed the door.
“Get down,” she ordered, and wrapped the one remaining blanket with Adona still inside around them all.
Niana pushed the children down by the interior door, placed the blanket around them and almost crushed them in her attempt to use her body as a shield, when the world erupted. The corridor lit up in ghastly white light, the building shook and a blast of superheated air crashed through the splintering glass above. Pungent air engulfed Niana. Burning debris hit her hand but she refused to release the blanket. She could smell burning, hair burning. Her own hair!
Now the noise arrived, roars that throbbed on her eardrums, a high pitched ringing and then … silence. Had her eardrums burst? No, everything was shrieking or pinging. A whine like a bullet made her jump in fright. She remembered the noise from the border where a Serb had taken a pop shot at her as she crossed into Albania.
Thoughts filled her conscious brain. The air was like molasses, so thick she couldn’t breathe. Her chest was tight and her head began to spin.
More sounds. The children were crying. She could feel their little bodies shaking beneath her but they were both alive and clinging tightly around her neck. She held them to her bosom and kissed them both.
“We’re safe, children,” she whispered and lapsed into silence.