Ambitious is a story I wrote for my Year 11 English Extension 1 major work. I had to cut a chunk of action out of the second half to get the story under the word limit, and unfortunately I never got around to rewriting it. Nevertheless, here is Ambitious.
Just for clarification: As my story is set in Ukraine, there are instances where I have chosen to use phrases in Ukrainian, or use terms that one would not hear outside of Ukraine. To clear up these and their meanings, I’ve written out a table showing the translations/meanings of any Ukrainian terms used in this short story.
|Ukrainian||How it is spoken||English|
|здача місто або дівчина помре||Zdaty misto chy divchynka pomre||Surrender the city or the girl will die|
|Не боляче моєї дочки||Ne bolyache moyeyi dochky||Do not hurt my daughter|
|На виїзді з вами||Na vyyizdi z vamy||Away with you|
|Kharkiv, Ripky, Chernihiv, Donetsk, Kiev, Lviv, Gomel, Sloviansk||–||Names of cities and towns in Ukraine/Belarus (see map in logbook for further clarification)|
|Hryvnia||–||The currency of Ukraine|
Screaming’s the only sound I hear anymore.
The fighting is as continuous as the non-stop throbbing in the back of my head made from gunfire, the shouts of the military and footsteps pounding on the pavement. There are rebels and military roaming the streets after dark, taking shots at anything that moves in case it’s an enemy. There’s chaos everywhere I go, and even though I’ve picked up some of the native tongue and learned to mimic the accent, there’s a constant threat of discovery hanging over my head every time I go out and report. And to be honest, at first I thought it was great. Not great for the wounded civilians and burning buildings, but for the story. A story this big could change my career forever, and when I was chosen to take up the dangerous task I jumped on the chance to experience a war firsthand. I couldn’t wait.
Once I got here and started filming, I thought my view would change, but it never did. It never felt real to me. I could see the death and devastation caused by the two clashing armies, yet I viewed it through my media-tinted glasses. I didn’t see fighting – I saw the statistics. The numbers climbing on viewer’s screens as they gasped at the death tolls, fearing for the brave reporter risking his life to show the world how bad the situation had become. I didn’t see pain and loss – I saw an opportunity for fame. The hero’s welcome as I landed back in California with a new legacy, a booming career, and maybe a couple of scars to show off to the nieces and nephews, not to mention the ‘rents. I might even get a girlfriend, have some children of my own.
That is, until two days ago.
For me, it was just another ordinary day at the office – dodging behind cars to avoid troop patrols, keeping my hood low and reporting where I could be safe. Kharkiv’s a big place though, and two days ago I got lost. I ended up stumbling into the town centre, right in the middle of a stand-off between the rebels and the military. Thousands of people were standing, watching, as the rebels grabbed a young girl by the hair and pressed a gun to her temple, before yelling out a string of rapid Ukrainian. “Zdaty misto chy divchynka pomre! Zdaty misto chy divchynka pomre!” I only understood the last word – pomre. Die.
Without warning I was shoved forward towards the stand-off. Stumbling to regain my footing I grabbed hold of the nearest person for balance, which happened to be the woman who’d pushed me. She struggled to throw me off and plowed forward, dragging me with her. “Ni! Ni!” I yelled, hoping she’d understand. I finally managed to pull her to a stop and stand fully when the rebels pulled the trigger, and the woman screamed, right in my ear.
“Ne bolyache moyeyi dochky!” Do not hurt my daughter!
The crowd dispersed quickly after that, but not me. I knew there were eyes on me, but I just couldn’t shake the scream from my head. It had imprinted itself in my ears, and in every quiet moment it echoed through my skull, again and again. And the worst part was I’d gotten the whole thing on camera. The rebels, the young girl being shot, the woman’s scream…
I can still hear that scream in my head now, sitting here in my room. The grief and desperation in her voice just shakes me like nothing else I’ve experienced over here and-
Wait. There’s some sort of commotion going on downstairs. I should probably go see what’s going on. I can hear banging and shouts and… oh god, gunshots? They can’t be here for me, can they?
I can hear the landlady shouting now. “Na vyyizdi z vamy”… what does that mean again? Away? Leave? I’ll look it up later. I should probably go see if there’s anything I can do.
I’ll leave the camera rolling in case something good happens. Who knows? This might even make the news at home!
I won’t be long. I’ll be back in a second.
“…and as negotiations between the two nations begins to deteriorate further, fears for the safety of western media in the Crimea and neighbouring countries has been brought to the attention of governments around the world. All journalists and reporters have been ordered out of the area for their own safety-“
“…was shot dead today, during a military raid on a boarding house in Kharkiv. Earlier that morning he had attended a pro-Russian demonstration where a young girl was shot. His body will be returned home to his family in California as soon as possible, though it may not be in the next few months as the conflict continues to spike. The man’s family declined to comment, though Fox News described their employee as ‘dedicated, intuiti-“
“‘…not the sort of thing that happens every day, is it Sally?’
‘Well, no Manuel, it’s not. This sort of behaviour might be expected in countries like Egypt or Iran, but I was under the impression that Russia had moved beyond their Leninist antics, wouldn’t you say?’
‘Yes, what surprises me though is the violence and unpredictability of these attacks by the pro-Russian fighters. They seem to-“
The TV’s stark light was sucked away with a small pop and the room was submerged into sudden darkness, before the glow of a desk lamp illuminated the lounge room. Where before the room had been alive with the sound of reporters and talk show hosts, only the scratching of a pencil on paper could be heard, scribbling away furiously. Word after word flowed into diagrams and graphs, dot points lining the edges giving a hurried description of the information. It seemed that nothing could sway the concentration of the brown-haired woman as her hand flicked across the paper. Not even the sound of a key in the door roused her from her work.
“Phoebe?” A scruff of blond hair peeked its way into the open doorway, followed by an armful of plastic bags. “You here? Any chance I could get a hand with the shopping? I’m making lasagne”, he said with a smile, not expecting an answer. He knew she wouldn’t respond.
It was the sound of pots and wooden spoons clashing and banging that finally roused Phoebe from her work. She looked around, disorientated, shaking her head to clear the hair from her eyes, and her thoughts from her mind. She’d been researching this project for months now, ever since she’d heard the first report back in January, and she was certain. She could feel it in her gut. Every time she watched the reports or read the statistics, she was visited by a sensation of awe, disbelief and, well, longing. She wanted this story. She knew she had this story – she just needed the chance to prove herself.
But that would have to wait till tomorrow. The office was shut, locked tight and empty for the night aside from a few late workers and cleaners. She piled her notes from the evening into the binder she’d been gathering over the past few months and smiled to herself. The stack was almost half a foot of research notes, lists of conflicts and political conspiracies, maps tracking the forces’ progressions, and photos of the war damage. Anything that went on in Ukraine, she knew about it.
Her stomach rumbled and she stood, making her way towards the kitchen, where the clatter of pans continued. Phoebe loved lasagne more than anything, yet she couldn’t let her boyfriend make the whole thing by himself. She pushed open the door-
-and there, on the bench, a plate of steaming pasta and cheese awaited her.
“You lost track of time, didn’t you?” James smiled at her from the sink, his hands scrubbing away at a tray. “Don’t worry about it, I knew you were busy.”
Sheepishly she slunk over to the bench and took a bite.
The door was locked, but just last week she’d ‘borrowed’ a senior employee’s all hours key card, precisely for this purpose. One swipe, a beep of green light and she was in.
The office was quiet for the morning. The morning news didn’t start until seven am so only the crew was around, fiddling with wires and cameras and the like. Phoebe brushed past them with a curt hello before starting a brisk walk down the length of hallways. She passed conference rooms and green screen studios before arriving in front of the elevator. She stood, pondering her options for mere seconds before yanking the stairwell door open. The elevator was too slow for her liking. Taking the steps two at a time she reached the eighth floor just as the boss was swiping his key card to his office door. The green light illuminated his flushed face as he pushed the door open, Phoebe just slipping in behind him before the door closed.
Mr Tyler’s office was immaculate; every book, every file, every paper had its place somewhere in his filing cabinets. He was the sort of man who thrived on order and made decisions for the greater good – in other words, what sounds to be the perfect recipe for the head honcho of a business. He was also a terrible listener and not willing to disturb order for the sake of his employees – in other words, qualities that are very detrimental for a boss. Phoebe knew her plan was a long shot under the best circumstances, but she had to try.
She waited, huddled under a table outside his office, while Creighton set down his coffee – black, with two sugars and an espresso shot – next to his timetable for the day. As he began to read Phoebe closed her eyes and started counting under her breath. When she reached one hundred she grabbed the folder she had with her and put on the bravest face she could muster, and knocked on Mr Tyler’s door.
“Mr Tyler? Can I talk with you for a second?”
His look of curiosity and confusion was the cue she needed to march in. Mr Tyler was an exceptionally large man, well-built, but taken to wearing tailored suits in an effort to cover his growing beer gut. His beard was well trimmed with a slight curl at the end from where he wrapped it around his finger. Well over six foot, he could intimidate even the tallest of employees with his calculating stare and physique. Phoebe was feeling it – her stomach fluttered as she lay her work down on her boss’ desk; fluttering with the fear that with just one shake of his head, everything she’d been working on for the past few months would be for nothing. So she stood, and watched, as his fingers flicked through the carefully labelled pages of diagrams and reports, waiting anxiously for a verdict.
Mr Tyler looked up. “You’ve done a lot of research on this, haven’t you?
“Four months’ worth of research.” She couldn’t help a glimmer of pride from sneaking onto her face.
“Hmmm.” He pondered the work again. “And what do you plan to do with all this research?”
This was it. Her big chance. “Creighton, I-
“Mr Tyler, please.”
Not a great start.
“Mr Tyler, sir, I think I’ve got it – the big break you wanted me to find for myself. If you look at page 82-” she flicked her hands through the folder to the page “- you’ll see that as of two weeks ago, all western media have been asked to leave the Ukraine on account of heightened violence in the east. That means there’s no one there to report from the inside. Look, I know I can do it. If I fly into Belarus and get a car to the border, I’ll be in the country in under three days.” Taking his silence as him considering the idea, she plowed forward. “I’m going to need a crew, maybe four or five men, plus some form of transport once we get into Ukraine. I’m thinking trucks, a helicopter would draw too much attention. We could get a hire car down to, say, Ripky, or even Chernihiv, then pick up the trucks and make our way around the country. If the station can get us plane tickets to Belarus, then I can-“
Phoebe was thrown off track with one word. “I’m… what? No?”
“You heard me. No.” Mr Tyler pushed his chair back and stood, towering over her. “Just what do you suppose you’ll do once you’re in the country, hm? You can’t do much filming from the inside of a truck. You’ll have to go out and film the fighting and the devastation, and how do you think that’ll work out? If you go strolling through the streets of Ukraine with a crew of cameras following you, you’ll be shot!”
Somewhere in her Phoebe found the courage to stand up to him. “Sometimes, to get results, we have to take risks!”
“No, Phoebe. I will not risk the lives of my staff for your little scheme.”
“You told me to go and find my own story! Those were your words. You said ‘if you want the big stories, get out in the world. Go and find them yourself.’ That’s what you told me to do.” She said, trying very hard to keep her anger under control.
“Yes, but I meant local stories. New businesses, school fundraisers, that sort of thing. Not drop yourself in the middle of a war zone.” He closed the folder. “Now take this research and store it away, and maybe once the fighting is over I’ll consider your proposal again.”
“Miss Jackson, I’m warning you, leave it alone!”
Phoebe stared angrily at him, and he stared defiantly back. Neither of them wanted to back down. At last Phoebe shook her head in disbelief, breaking the stare. “Fine then.”
Mr Tyler’s shoulders dropped in relief. Not much, but just enough to give Phoebe the confidence she needed to continue.
“If you won’t help me, I’ll go alone. Just me, no crew, I’ll film it all myself. A handheld camera might look better anyway. For effect, you know?”
She cut him off. “No, you look. This station is deteriorating. We’re losing viewers and we’re always behind other stations for stories. This is our chance to boost our ratings and get the station back to its former glory! Remember the Pink Batts scandal of 2009? That was us. We got there first; we let the world know the truth. This Ukraine story is my turn to shine, and I’m going to give the people the truth – with or without your help.” She grabbed her folder from his desk and stormed out of the office, leaving Creighton standing alone with a look of incredulity on his face.
The house was empty without her.
James had gotten to work half an hour late without Phoebe to wake him up at six am. He’d made enough eggs for two people, and ended up taking eggs and toast to work with him as lunch. Even the leftover lasagne didn’t taste as good. He sat in front of the TV, chewing slowly as he flicked through the channels. After passing over the seven o’clock news and the latest cooking show, he settled on a movie. Even as he watched and tried to concentrate, he found himself replaying the events of the other day through his head…
“You sure you want to do this?”
God he had sounded just like his mother.
“Yeah, of course. This is my big break! Why not?”
“It’s just that… look, I, uh…”
“Look, I get that this is important to you and all, but… I’m worried. It’s really dangerous over there, and I don’t know if you should go.”
She had sighed at him, a pretty little sigh. “We’ve been over this, James. I’ll stay out of any major conflicts and I’ll keep interviews to a minimum. I’ll be in and out in two weeks.”
“I still don’t like it…”
She could be so stubborn sometimes.
“Phoebe, at least promise me you won’t get yourself arrested?”
And then they had kissed… He shook aside the memory. If the trip was only for a few weeks, then why did he feel like that kiss was so final? With troubles clouding his mind he found he couldn’t pay attention to the film. He began to channel surf again, skipping through a few before catching a snippet of talking that sent a wave of fear through him.
“-two more shot dead in Kharkiv just this afternoon. All up that puts the death toll of journalists in the Ukraine at nine, with most of these deaths occurring in Kharkiv and Donetsk. Any Western media have now been formally ordered to leave both Ukraine and Russia as neither backs down in the violent stand-off.”
James flicked to another news channel, which was reporting the same statistics. Another channel was advertising cheap flights out of Kiev and Lviv for reporters wishing to vacate the country. “The situation,” the solemn faced reporter said, “is growing dire. No one is safe.”
Every channel, every station – they were all sending the same message. Get out of Ukraine! It’s not safe anymore!
James began to pray under his breath.
Her eyes snapped open.
Phoebe’s body moved before her brain. Her hands lashed out at her attackers of their own accord, scratching and fighting them off her. Squirming and struggling, she reached out with one hand to find her camera bag and draw it close to her stomach. Her fingers stretched out, coming back empty. A desperate cry ripped its way out of her throat as she fought back harder, determined to find her bag. She couldn’t lose the camera, the one piece of home she had left. It was all she had to show for everything she’d been through. She couldn’t lose it! She kicked out and pushed herself to her feet, before tumbling to the ground in a wave of dizziness. On her hands and knees, she dry retched in an attempt to gain her breath.
It was then that she noticed the silence. She was alone.
Wait… what’s going on?
Phoebe stood, very slowly, and turned in a circle, taking in her surroundings. She was in the middle of nowhere. Yellow grass stretched out to touch the horizon, separated only by a thin trickle of brown that was the dirt road she had been lying next to. Trees were scattered here and there with haphazard abandon, and apart from a few rusted storage containers dotting the roadside, there were no man-made structures anywhere in sight. And no men, for that matter. No men with brutal faces and guns slung across their backs, no men with hard hands and silver scars, not even the woman who had yanked her hair and screamed at her in a foreign language. Phoebe raised a tentative hand to the painful swelling on the side of her head and winced, drawing her hand back. She wasn’t bleeding anymore; only dry reddish-brown flakes came off on her palm. Her head throbbed painfully as she squinted at the scorching midday sun, and staggered back to the shade of the tree to gather her thoughts.
How many days had it been since she had landed in Europe? Not that many, surely, though her body could say otherwise. Scabs covered her arms and legs, and large purple bruises had begun to blossom. They were reminders of the effort she’d undertaken to get into Ukraine without being noticed, and reminders of how futile that effort had been. She’d tried so hard, worked it out to the last detail, and at first it had all gone as planned – first a private airflight into Gomel Airport in Belarus, hire a car to sneak her over the border of Belarus and Ukraine, and get picked up by her hire van at Chernihiv and travel to Sumy on the Russian border.
From there, things had gotten a little sketcky. She’d hoped to pick up another hire car in Sumy to ditch the plates she’d travelled in to get there, just in case she’d been seen. The locals weren’t kind to strangers, white journalists least of all. As it turned out, they weren’t kind to hire car hopefuls either. She had ended up hitchhiking her way from Sumy all the way down to Kharkiv, taking her most of the day to find willing drivers. In Kharkiv, things had heated up. The pro-Russians were launching an attack against the Ukrainian military, as both sides viewed Kharkiv as the borderline city between the Ukrainians and the rebels. Unable to safely communicate with anyone in fear of being attacked, she had circled the city and set out to travel to her first destination, Donetsk, on foot.
She should have known better. It had been halfway down the road to Sloviansk, the small city between Kharkiv and Donetsk, when the headlights had appeared behind her like beacons of hope. She waved and shouted, and managed to flag them over to the side of the road, before she saw the banners wrapped around the bonnet and realised. Oh god, the rebels. She started to run but they caught her and threw her, screaming for help, in the back of the truck… and then… then…
Oh god. The images began to flood Phoebe’s mind and she curled up into a ball in an attempt to fight them away. She shrieked and hit out at her imaginary attackers but it was no good, until her foot lashed out and connected with something hard. Her head jerked up, and one shaky hand reached out to grab the camera bag from where the strap had twisted around her ankle, and checked the camera for signs of damage. Unbelievably, the camera was still in one piece. Hoping beyond hope that it was still operative, she flipped it around to face her and hit the RECORD button. Her shoulder muscles relaxed as the red light began to flash. Hesitantly, carefully, she began to report.
“This is Phoebe Jackson, reporting from Ukraine, day 4. Last time I reported, I’d just made it over the border after taking a car across Belarus. Now I’m in the middle of nowhere. Once I left Kharkiv I thought I’d be home free but they… they caught me. The pro-Russian fighters. They don’t care that Ukraine is trying to end conflict, all they want is for Ukraine to become a Russian state, and that means removing all members of the Western media who support the Ukraine in trying to return to the way things used to be. I don’t know if-“
The sound of an engine caused a startled Phoebe to almost drop the camera. Grabbing her bag she dove behind the tree nearby and held her breath, waiting for the rebels to notice her. She heard the engine grow louder, louder, louder… and stop. Every pair of feet jumping from the truck jarred at Phoebe’s nerves. One, two, three, four, five… five people, the same number of rebels who…
A string of excited Ukrainian burst from the other side of the tree, and the sound of laughter, getting closer to her hiding spot. Phoebe prayed for them to leave. Go, please, don’t notice me, don’t look for me…
Agonising moments of silence followed, before the sound of feet walking on dirt ground picked up again. As if they had heard her plea, the footsteps retreated and the engine started up with a roar. Though they were driving off, Phoebe didn’t risk a look around the tree until the silence returned. Nothing. No one. She was alone again.
Her hands shaking slightly, Phoebe turned the camera to face herself again. This time she flipped the screen around too so she could see her face. It was bruised and dirty, with a dried patch of blood matting the hair on her left temple to her head. One of her necklaces was missing, the one James had bought her for her 21st birthday, the tiny butterfly. The rebels must have seen it and picked it up – maybe that’s what they had been laughing at. She took a breath to steady her racing pulse, and addressed the camera.
“Honestly? This is nothing like I thought it’d be. James, my boss… they were both right. I don’t… I don’t know how I’m going to get out of here.”
If anyone had been travelling down the E40, they might have been surprised to see a brown-haired girl slumped against a rusted shipping container by the side of the road. If they were kind souls, they may have helped her, even driven her to safety. But no one travelled down the E40 any more, not since the rebels had taken Sloviansk.
Phoebe’s hands gripped the camera tight as she lay in the shade of the container, trying desperately to stay cool. The water she still had in her thermos had almost run out and she was saving the final mouthful for when she was in greatest need of it. To take her mind off of the water, she’d been playing back the reports she’d filmed over the past week, trying to piece together how she’d got here.
“This is Phoebe Jackson, reporting from Ukraine, day 5. I haven’t seen another soul in days, even following this road. True, it is just a dirt road, but I was hoping it’d be close to some form of civilisation. I came across a house a couple of kilometres back with some water and bread. It didn’t look like there was anyone living there anymore, so I’ve taken it with me. Hoping to see some form of life today, maybe some farmers, even the military. Just no more rebels.”
“This is Phoebe, in Ukraine, day 7. I thought I found a main road but it led me to a river, then stopped. I can’t cross the river – it’s too strong – but I’ve decided to follow it instead. At least that way I’ll always have water, even if the food runs out. It’s pretty low at the moment. Still haven’t seen another human being… it’s really quite eerie out here, all alone. Especially at night.”
“Phoebe, day 10. Ran out of food yesterday. This river I’ve been following has ended in a waterfall and I’ve got no choice but to leave it, and hope I find one of the roads. They’re everywhere around here, like veins spreading across the ground. Again, there’s no one else around…”
The loneliness had struck her the hardest, of everything she’d seen here. Phoebe touched the necklace she still had – a locket with a picture of James inside. The other half was still empty, waiting for something, she wasn’t sure what. She lifted it and clicked the locket open, tracing James’ face with the tip of her finger. Why she hadn’t listened to him, she didn’t know. But she knew one thing for sure.
“Phoebe, day 11,” she whispered to the camera. “I miss you.”
Her eyes were beginning to flutter so she turned the camera off. It had been days since she’d slept properly, and the more she rested to save energy, the more the tiredness crept up on her. She rested her head back against the warm metal, knowing if she closed her eyes she might not wake up. She needed to keep her… eyes… open…
A gunshot rang out in the empty plain and Phoebe snapped up, suddenly wide awake. People. There were people close, and apparently not friendly. She ducked behind the container and watched as the plume of dust grew larger, shimmering in the heat. With a screech the truck pulled to a stop, and Phoebe pulled herself out of sight of the ute with a gasp, her pulse throbbing madly. This truck, with its banners printed with Russian supremacy slogans wrapped around the bonnet. It couldn’t be! She listened as the feet hit the ground. One, two, three, four, five. Five pro-Russian rebel fighters. She sat with bated breath, waiting for them to turn the corner with guns outstretched… but no. They were moving further down the row of containers, shooting the locks off the doors with deafening bangs, trying to get inside. Keeping an eye on the rebels Phoebe edged her way around the side of her container, putting it between her and the rebels in a desperate last ditch effort to stay alive.
It was them she noticed the car. The ute stood idle on the roadside, door open, keys in the ignition. The four men had left the woman on guard but she was clearly bored, kicking the dusty ground and taking pot shots at rocks on the road. Phoebe mustered all the energy she had left and drew herself to her feet, swaying slightly. She just had to wait for the woman to turn her head, to walk away…
There. Now. The woman had heard a bird’s shriek and was practising her shooting as it flew away. Phoebe took a breath and ran for the open door. The woman turned at the noise and opened her mouth to shout before Phoebe grabbed her hair and slammed the camera into her temple. She left the woman’s unconscious body on the road as she slammed the car door shut and started the ignition. It spluttered and coughed before dying away. Phoebe swore and looked in the mirror – the men had noticed the commotion and were heading back. She had seconds before she was discovered. She twisted the key savagely and almost cheered as, with a violent splutter, the engine roared to life. She heard footsteps and yelling as she floored the accelerator and the ute leapt forward, hurtling down the E40 and leaving the rebels stranded in the dust, with no food or water. Quite ironic, really. She took out her thermos and savoured her last mouthful of water. Nothing had ever tasted sweeter.
Phoebe drove and drove, reaching Kharkiv just as the sun was kissing the horizon. Making sure to lock the ute behind her, she stripped it of its rebel banners and dumped them in a gutter. She was hungry, thirsty and tired, and she had to book the first plane out of this country, but first there was one thing she had to do. She found a telephone box and spent the last of her hryvnia, hoping the line wasn’t busy. Three dials later she heard his tired, anxious, perfect voice. “Hello? Who’s this?”
“James, it’s me, Phoebe,” she smiled. “I’m coming home.”