THE SCHOOLBUS passed U-Kottbusser Tor and continued down Kottbusser Strasse. From the second-to-last window of the bus, out hung the bracelet laden arm of fifteen-year-old Mirela Diaconu. Leaning back against the headrest of the seat, her blue eyes absently staring at the passersby on the street, one hand occupied in twirling the end of her brunette braid around, her mind waded deep in thought.
Mirela thought about many things. She wondered about the lives of the random people she saw, but only because she didn’t want think about her own life. Otherwise, she wondered about how many ‘clients’ her mother must have tended to by now, and how many were satisfied with simple sex and how many demanded attention for their perversely debauched needs. Mirela wondered if she’d enter their apartment to be greeted by the blasphemous sounds of her mother working. She wondered if it’d be one of those rare, special days when her mother would be waiting for her with tea and macaroons, or a rented, low-budget movie that they’d enjoy with pizza for dinner while making fun of the bad cinematography. She did ardently hope for the latter, but then again, she hoped for so much.
Mirela thought about many more things by the time the bus stopped at the intersection of Kottbusser Strasse and Paul-Linke-Ufer. Picking up her bag from the next seat, she hefted it upon her shoulder and made her way to the front. She said goodbye to the nice bus driver and got off, proceeding on Paul-Linke. From the bus stop, her home was a good ten minutes’ walk into the winding maze of side-alleys in the borough.
Berlin’s most deviant activities showcased along the route - strip clubs hazed up in a myriad of intoxicants, alleyways with either a drug deal or a blowjob underway, the occasional turf tussles between the local gangs - had instilled a good sense of survivalism in Mirela; she knew the only way to keep herself safe in this world was by not getting into any trouble in the first place. She knew how to keep her head down and not attract attention, she knew to turn the other cheek and to not try to be a hero. She was a shadow and she existed without being, she existed like something as artless as the suburban cement.
Those survival tactics helped Mirela reach her building, like always, without incident, and she almost believed that it was going to be a good day for it didn’t sound like her mother had any clients over. But as she climbed the stairs to her floor, something felt not quite right. Subtle warning signs flashed - the prickling hairs at the nape of her neck, the pimpling gooseflesh across her skin. The apartment was too quiet, and further heightening her unease was the slightly ajar door.
The unsettling silence was suddenly pierced through by a scream that set Mirela’s ears ringing and her heart hammering like parade drums. It was her mother’s voice. And it sounded like she was in unimaginable pain. Without a second thought, Mirela scaled the last few steps and burst into the apartment just in time to see a burly, bald man straddle Zarina Diaconu’s sprawled out body and wrap his fingers around her neck.
“No!” The scream ripped out of Mirela as she threw herself at the stranger choking Zarina. The momentum of her assault surprised the man enough that he let go of his victim. And before he could recover, Mirela flung her backpack at his face. The man howled and tumbled off Zarina as she took the opportunity to scramble to her feet and pull her daughter behind herself.
The assailant recovered quickly and was upright within seconds, stalking forward as the two females matched his movements backward. He examined Mirela, face contorting in a sick grin, the gold fillings in his teeth glinting sinisterly. “Got a fighting spirit, eh girl?” he mocked, “we’ll see how much of that is left when I’m done fucking the two of you.”
“Mirela,” Zarina said under her breath, “run!”
Mirela had heard her mother, but her feet stayed rooted to the ground. By then, the man had closed the distance and swung a slap at Zarina so hard that the force of it slammed her against the kitchen counter. With a pained cry, she crumpled to the floor.
“Mama!” Mirela cried out, drawing the man’s attention back to her. He advanced on her.
Thinking quickly, Mirela clambered over the counter and dropped on the other side. She grabbed the nearest thing she could find - a plate - and chucked it him with all the strength she could muster. Without waiting to see if her arsenal hit its mark, she picked through drawer after drawer, looking for a weapon, all the while throwing whatever cutlery she could at the man to slow him down and to cause enough ruckus to attract attention. Unfortunately for her, nobody else lived in that building except for the transvestite gigolo in the apartment above them, who had already left for work. There was nobody close enough to help, and this was not the friendly neighborhood where people aided one another, but Mirela still hoped. She hoped for some good soul to be passing by, hear the alarming cacophony, come up to investigate and help. She hoped for her mother and herself to come out of this alive. But then again, she hoped for so much.
All of those hopes were extinguished when the intruder rounded the kitchen island and cornered her, unfazed by the utensils Mirela kept launching at him. The following series of events happened so rapidly, with such an overwhelming surge of adrenaline in her system, that she wouldn’t fully be able to recall them later. With the man only two feet away, Mirela cast one last desperate glance at the open drawers, saw a knife, and quick as a cobra striking, she lashed out and grabbed it. She swung it in a wide arc towards him and caught him on the arm he’d raised in self-defense. Thoughtless in panic, impetus fight mode kicking in, she rushed forward and thrusted the knife with all her might, lodging it handle-deep in his gut.
Time seemed to stand still; everything was suspended for a while. Mirela and the man both stared at the knife planted into him, equally surprised. Only when a redness began blooming into the gray of his shirt did she let go of the weapon, moving back as her hands came up to cover her mouth. He reached up and pulled out the knife, and the blood gushed now - saturating the fabric, spilling between the fingers of the hand that he had pressed against the wound. Knife slipping from his grip, he took a step towards her, stumbling and falling unto his knees. A coppery odor permeated the air, summoning the taste of bile, and she tried not to vomit as she backed away from him.
I murdered a man! I murdered a man! I murdered a man! played like a sadistic auditory torture-tape in Mirela’s head. Zarina’s groan broke through her terror-addled daze. She dashed to her side, taking her face in her hands. “Mama... mama?”
“Mirela?” Zarina’s eyes went in and out of focus, trying to fixate on her child’s face.
“I’m here,” said Mirela. “Mama, can you stand? We have to go. Now.”
Zarina nodded jadedly. With Mirela’s support, she got her feet underneath herself and struggled upright. They had only made it to the hall when a deafening crack echoed throughout the apartment. Mirela looked over her shoulder, sighting the assailant falling against the counter, right where Zarina had been only minutes ago. The pistol he had in his raised hand clattered to the floor. He made no move to reach for it again, weakened by the loss of blood, and instead slumped like a hefty ragdoll.
Before the realization could make itself clear to Mirela, Zarina had pitched forward heavily. Mirela screamed, seeing the sanguineous blossom spread over the small of her mother’s back, drenching her shirt and the waistband of her pants.
“No, no, no... mama.” She turned her over, whimpering at the shock and fear that masked her beautiful face. “Mama, no... you’re okay. Everything is okay.”
“Mirela...” Zarina’s voice was dry, hoarse, tripping over her words. It cracked like dying embers - so faint, so weak. “Mirela, I... I--”
“I’m calling an ambulance,” Mirela said, wiping wisps of Zarina’s dark hair back, “just hold on. Everything is okay.” She made a mad beeline for the telephone that clung to the hallway wall. With shaky hands, she dialed the emergency services.
Everything is okay, she told herself, but it felt like she was standing in a cloudburst of hopelessness. It was always raining hopelessness.