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All Androids Lie

THE GAME
Kateryna said, “Hold still, Dear,” as she wiped the dirty smudge off the corner of Maria’s mouth.
 
Maria asked, “Why is everyone so excited?”
Kateryna said, “They’re scared of the loud noise.”
“What is it?”
“Fireworks. See the bright flashes exploding in the night sky,” said the girl’s mother.
Maria nodded.
“It’s the start of The Game,” lied her mother. “I told you all about it. Don’t you remember?”
Maria shook her head, puzzled.
“Everyone in the city plays, and there are terrific prizes.”
Kateryna added, “What a pity you’re only four. You can’t play. I’m sooo sorry. You might have been great.”
“What’s the game?”
“It’s a big, big game of tag. Everyone in the city will run to escape. If you’re tagged, you lose. Everyone wants to win. It’s too bad you can’t play.”
“Why can’t I play?”
Kateryna said, “You’re only four. You’d get tired, cry, and make a fuss.”
“I won’t. I won’t make a fuss.”
“You would have been good at this game. The prizes are spectacular. Including that new doll, Laura, that you wanted so badly.”
“If I win, I will get Laura?”
“Yes, and lots more.”
Outside, people were running and shouting.
“There are candies, treats, games, and other toys for the winners. But you could never win. You would cry and quit.”
“No, Mommy. I’ll be good. I want to play and win the prizes.”
“I’m so sorry, Dear. The game is long and hard, and I don’t think you’re strong enough.”
“Oh, Mommy, I really, really want to. I promise to be good.”
Maria looked as if she was ready to throw a tantrum.
“None of that, or you will lose immediately,” scolded her mother.
“Please?” she asked with the most adoring smile.
“Well, I don’t know,” said her mother. “There are many people who can tag you, and you must run away from all of them.”
“I will. Please?”
Kateryna looked appreciatively at her fair-haired daughter. The prekindergarten teacher told her that Maria was her star pupil because she was so advanced with her numbers and letters. She loved her toy piano and played well with the other children.
Kateryna could see herself in the child, not just in the likeness of her face and features but in spirit and desire. Normally, a good-natured and happy-go-lucky sort of woman, she felt she could rise to any challenge. And now, she faced her fiercest test.
“If I let you play, there can be no quitting. Do you agree? Pinky Swear?”
“Yes! Yes! Pinky Swear,” said Maria jumping up and down.
Static from the radio crackled behind them. The news announcer said, “This city has been a center for trade and manufacturing for key businesses along the Black Sea coast. But now its magnificent architecture and unique decor are being wiped off the face of the earth.”
With steely determination, Kateryna suppressed her fears and shut the radio off. As the explosions drew near, she calmly said, “Let’s get ready!
“Keep these documents safe,” Kateryna said, tucking the papers into Maria’s coat pocket. “They are the game tickets with your name. The rules of the game are strict. And you must reach the winning flag without being tagged. You must stay close to me and don’t talk to people. Do you understand?”
“Yes.”
“Whenever I say run, you run. Or else, the bad men will tag you.”
Maria nodded.
She put a scarf around Maria’s neck and buttoned up her coat. Then she pulled up the collar before being satisfied that she would be warm.
“My gloves,” squeaked Maria.
“Here they are.”
As they left their apartment building and stepped out onto the street, they saw people leaving their houses in panic.
“Are all these people playing the game?”
“Yes. See how much fun they’re having. I told you it was a popular game. You must be tough to play. Are you tough?”
“Yes. Mommy.”
“Are you?” her mother asked with a raised brow.
The skinny four-year-old put her hands on her hips, stood like a superhero with her chest out, and shouted, “I’m tough, and I mean it!”
Fairly bursting with laughter, Kateryna said, “Okay, then. Let’s go,”
Kateryna gripped the girl’s hand firmly and said, “This way.”
As they hurried, there were loud explosions throughout the city. When they reached the train station, shells were bursting high above.
“Gosh! Everything is happening so fast.”
“Be patient, Dear.”
They managed to squeeze onto a packed rail car, but the train was slow and made many erratic stops as if it were engaged in a game of dodgeball.
Soon Maria complained, “The people are scary.”
Kateryna touched the girl’s cheek and said, “Be brave. We’re on a great adventure. You must be bold.”
But after two hours, Maria scowled and said, “I’m cold.”
As Kateryna rearranged the girl’s scarf and coat, deep frown lines bit into her face threatening to become a permanent mask. She removed the girl’s gloves and rubbed the tiny hands. Then she planted a kiss on Maria’s rosy cheek.
Maria pouted, “I’m hungry.”
“Maria, you’re a troublesome thing.” Kateryna took a package out of her pocket and unwrapped a Kanapky sandwich for her.
The girl took several bites and then looked disinterested in the rest.
She sulked, “I’m thirsty.”
“I don’t have any water,” said her exasperated mother. “But if you’re going to be a nasty girl, we will have to quit the game and go home immediately.”
“Mommmm,” whined Maria.
Nearby, a very old, cantankerous-looking woman, rumpled and wrinkled as a walnut, said, “Here, I have an extra.” She handed Maria a small water bottle.
“Thank you. That’s generous of you,” said Kateryna with relief.
After another hour, Maria pressed her face against the window, peering into the night as February’s frost crept along the windowpane, forming the jagged lines of an ice blossom.
Suddenly, the train bounced and rocked. Pieces of steel and glass flew about. People screamed in pain.
A bit of shrapnel cracked the skull of a nearby man. It made the sound of a champagne cork popping.
THUNK!
“Mommy, that man is bleeding.”
“Shhh. It was an accident. He will be taken care of. We must keep moving.”
They fled the train and the bombardment area. Kateryna gripped her daughter’s hand tightly and pulled her along as quickly as possible.
When they reached a military checkpoint, a soldier told them it was safer to travel on the back roads.
“He’s dressed like Daddy. Is Daddy playing too?”
“Yes, Darling,” said Kateryna, holding back a tear. “I’m afraid he is.”
“I’m scared, Mommy.”
Gathering her courage, Kateryna said, “Don’t be frightened, Maria. Remember, it’s only a game.
 
And we’re going to win. Just don’t let them tag you, okay.”
“Huh ha.”
In the early morning hours, the rosy glow of the sun kissed the horizon just as they reached the top of a hill.
“Can we rest, Mommy? I’m tired.”
“Not yet. See that bunker across the field? That’s the finish line. When we get there, we’ll win the prize.”
“Oh good,” said Maria, perking up, but she could barely move.
Kateryna picked her up and carried her. But after going only a hundred yards, Maria exclaimed,
 
“Huh, oh. Mommy are those the bad men?” pointing to men with guns chasing them.
 
Kateryna looked over her shoulder and said, “Yes, Maria. They are very bad men. Evil does not sleep; it waits for a chance to catch you. So, we must hurry.”
She put Maria down and said, “See that bunker ahead. That’s the finish line. That’s where you turn in your ticket. Hold it fast to your chest.”
 
Then she leaned closer and whispered, “I love you, Dearest,” though the sentiment seemed more like goodbye.
“I love you too, Mommy,” said Maria clutching her ticket.
The child’s words wrapped around Kateryna like a thick warm blanket. She yelled, “Run, Maria, run!”
The noise from the blasts was terrific and the flashes of the overhead lights cast eerie shadows on their path. Cold breath steamed from their mouths as they huffed and puffed.
Gripped by the full force of her worst fears, Kateryna yelled, “Run, Maria! Don’t look back! Run!”
Maria ran with all the might and passion a four-year-old could muster.
Finally, when she reached the bunker, a giant armor-clad soldier pulled her to safety.
 
Maria jumped up and down and shouted over the din, “Did we win, Mommy? Did we win?”
 
Then, suddenly, and loudly, Maria let out a cry that tore through the night. She sobbed unrelentingly, even as she stuttered out several snot-thick breaths.
In the open field, just a dozen yards from the bunker, her mother lay face-down, sprawled out like a discarded rag doll.
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