“I’ve got this depression thing.”
“That’s awful,” I say. “What’s depression?”
“It’s a hole,” he says. “A depression is a hole. I have a hole inside of me.”
But he looks so normal. He is wearing his favourite overalls and his bracelet and the thick black grit under his fingernails looks the same as it always did, like the mould between the bathroom tiles. He is smiling his silly little smile. I can’t imagine a hole inside of him, sucking his insides out.
“How do you know you have it?”
“I can feel it. It’s like I’m always breathing in.”
“Will you be alright?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
I don’t know what to say so I say nothing and then silently hate myself.
“Don’t fret, Kat. You will have a new brother or sister soon.”
“I don’t want a new brother or sister! I want you!”
He sighs and shrugs and I look away. I look at the musty clothes tossed across his bedroom floor and the rot painting beautiful patterns across the walls and the sea breeze beating at the windows. I can hear the waves stretch out in long lines behind the beach shacks. I can see them in the dark behind my eyes, lazy and messy and grey. My mother’s snores mess with the rhythm of the waves and my breath falls somewhere in between. Again and again and again.
“Do you think it will be a brother or a sister?” he asks.
“It might be twins again.”
“If they are twins then do you think they will be like us?”
“I hope so.” I don’t know if I really do, but I just keep talking. “We’ll know how to make them happy.”
“We’ll know how to hurt them.”
“But then we will be hurting ourselves. I don’t want to hurt myself.”
“But they are not us. They are how we were in the past.” He pauses. “Do you think we will remember how we are now?”
“Of course we will. I’m never going to forget this. Never ever.”
“Promise.” He grabs my hand and squeezes it. His skin is soggy and gritty and warm. He sits on the bed and I sit beside him and place my head into the nook of his shoulder. He fiddles his fingers through my hair like I was hoping he would.
“Do you love mum.”
I don’t say anything, I am too surprised. To me, ‘love’ has always been associated with ‘mum,’ like a synonym. She calls me Love sometimes, like Darling or Sweetie. I am her Love.
“I don’t think I do,” he says.
“Me neither,” I say. “What does love mean?”
“I don’t know.”
“Mum calls us Love.”
“And we call her mum.”
“Do you love Dad?”
He laughs and drops my hair.
“How could I love someone I don’t know?”
“But he gave you life. Phyllis Johnson at school says that we are made half of mum and half of dad, so all the stuff in you that’s not from mum must be from him.”
“So then the twins will only be like us if he is their dad.” He lies on his back and strokes his fingers along the grain in the wallpaper.
“No. He can’t be their dad. If he was then he would want to meet us.” I can tell he is getting irritated but I push on anyway.
“But he doesn’t love us.”
“He’s not the dad,” he shouts. His face is scrunched up and his biting hard on his lip and suddenly there are tears in the corners of my eyes and everything goes blurry.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He holds me and pushes his chin into my chest and his neck smells of damp and burnt toast and then I am crying. He lifts my chin to his face and kisses me on the forehead. “I love you, Kathrin,” he says.
“I love you too.”
I stare at the roof until I can focus on the rot. One patch looks like a dragon with a flared tail and breathing sodden fire. I imagine myself retreating into dreams, staring at the ceiling.
“I heard the boy again last night,” he says.
He places his palm against the wallpaper as though listening for its pulse.
I lean my ear against the wall and hear nothing but my mother’s snores.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. He was crying.”
“Do you think that’s how the roof gets damp?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. He was whispering too. He was whispering to himself and it sounded like the waves. It was slow and hostile.”
I close my eyes and imagine that I am lying between the walls and listening to the faint mutters and snores on the other side. I stretch my arms out and feel the cool plaster jut against my elbows. One. The other. So close. Maybe they are closing in and sucking out the dark. Maybe I will run out of air. I don’t know when. But everything’s wet. Everything’s close. Closer. My head starts to spin.
“We have to get him out,” he says.
“Where will he live?”
“He will live in here. He can live under my bed and come out in the night and I will feed him scraps from dinner. He can be the monster under my bed.”
“So we won’t tell mum?”
He jumps on top of me and the bedsprings scream. He rolls me onto my side and his fingers dig into my chest and then he leans into my ear and whispers.
“There are rumours going around that Jews and gypsies are hiding from the Nazis inside the attics and cellars of houses. We can’t tell anyone. Can you promise to keep a secret?”
“No. We have to tell her.”
He rolls me onto my side and pushes his fists into my collarbone. He straddles me. He leans in and presses his lips into my lips and holds me still. I kick out but I can’t reach him and my legs fall lamely back into the howling matress. I try to open my mouth to say “stop! I relent!” but he is inside me and I can’t breathe. I kick and squirm and stare at the sodden dragon on the roof until everything fills with damp and I lie still. He lifts his mouth to my ear.
“Well?” He says. “Can you keep our secret?”
“Yes,” I whisper. “I can keep a secret.”
I scramble onto my knees and lean against the cool wallpaper. He is tossing aside clothes and stuff until he finds a baseball bat. The snores have stopped and all I can hear is the metronomic waves, soothing me.
“Do you think maybe he is our brother?” I ask loudly.
“I don’t know,” he says. “No. He will be a Jew or a gypsy.”
“But what if he is our brother?” I ask. He is running his palm across the wallpaper, looking for that pulse. “What do you think he will look like?”
“I don’t know. We’ll ask him when we get him out.”
I shuffle across the wall.
“I think he will be thin, like a skeleton tied up with skin. And he will always be tired. But he will care for us and he will love us very much.”
“Please move aside, Kathrin. You’re blocking the spot.”
“I think mum is awake. We should do this later. When she is out.”
“She won’t be going out. She is all dopey. We have to do this now or he might be dead later.”
“Please!” I beg. “Let’s just wait a minute. I’ll tell you a story. You like my stories.”
He drops the bat to his side.
“Kat. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing is wrong. Let me tell you a story. It will only take a couple of minutes.”
His wrist goes limp. He climbs onto the bed beside me and wraps his arm around my shoulder and toys with my hair. The bat lies across his lap.
“Ok tell me your story.”
“It was in a picture book which I found in the library in town before the all the books got burnt.”
It begins with a boy. He is asleep in the dark of but it is a picture book so we can see him asleep with the blankets to his chin and his moth ajar. Then the glass of water on his bedside table falls over and spills all over him and on the next page he wakes up suddenly and he is sitting up in bed with his eyes open so wide that you can see them curl back into his forehead. Everything is perfectly dark but on the next page we see a light and the boy thinks he is dreaming. There is a dragon, only a few inches high, flapping against the window like a moth. On the next page, in the perfect dark, he sneaks up behind the dragon that is blowing its fire breath at its reflection in the glass, and he drops the cup over its head and he places the cup on the bedside table. The dragon fumes and breathes fire but it can’t break through the glass. Its tiny tale whips at the glass but it is no more powerful than a fingernail and it can’t break through. The boy thinks it is a dream so he returns to sleep but on the next page he wakes up and finds the dragon is still there, staring at him. Suddenly everything he knows is wrong and everything he doesn’t know is possible.
“And what happens in the end?”
“He can’t stand it so he lets the dragon go and on the next page he goes back to bed.”
His arms are on my shoulders, stroking back and forth until I feel them begin to tighten.
“Ben,” I try to say, “What are you doing?” but he pushes me from the bed with a scream and a grunt and I fall into a pile of scrunched up clothes with my ear to the floorboards. That is where I hear the thump of plaster and the wallpaper tearing and then the waves as if nothing has happened. Then another thump and again and again and again and again.
“I can’t see him.”
I sit up and he is pulling out hunks of plaster and tossing them on the bed. The bed is dusted in white powder and strips of wallpaper and suddenly he stops.
“Oh my God.”
I climb onto my feet but everything is spinning and I fall onto the mattress. He leans into the hole and there is a scraping and a fumbling and when he leans out there is a hand pressed firmly into his own. He drops the hand and it falls back into the hole.
“Who is he?”
“I don’t know,” he says. I lean into the hole and wait for everything to come back into focus. He is a kid, maybe eight or nine, with sooty hair and ghostly skin. He is wearing no shoes and there is grit under his nails as dark as darkness.
“He doesn’t look like us,” I say. “Maybe he looks like our father!”
“We have to cover him back up,” he says.
“So the Nazis don’t find him. So we don’t get locked up for hiding Jews and gypsies.”
“What if he’s our brother?”
“He’s not our brother! We don’t have a brother!” He shakes me and his knuckles are white and his eyes are yellow and I can’t help myself and I start to cry. Then his arms fold around my shoulders and he holds me close.
“Come on Kat, I’m sorry.” He kisses me on the forehead. “Remember Kat, I love you.”
“I love you too.”
“Come on. I need you. We need to sneak into mum’s room and find the wallpaper.” He pulls me up and off the bed in his arms and we walk along the corridor to our mother’s room. Inside it is dark and reeks of must. The blinds are drawn and a slit of light bleeds through the fold. She is asleep again, on her back, snoring long low grumbles that shake the air and jangle my head.
“There,” he says. He points to the rolls lying in the far corner of the room. Between here and there are strewn clothes and books and plates smeared with scraps and odds and ends from a draw that has upended on the floor like a fried egg. He leads, picking between obstacles in his tiptoes until we reach the wallpaper. Our mother snores loudly and rolls over onto her chest. I can see the bones in her taught arms jut against her skin.
“Now all we have to do is sneak back undetected and we win!” he says. He kisses me on the forehead. “Stay strong.”
He starts back across the room. He is dainty on his toes, edging around a broken saucer then over a dusty old medicine manual but his arm flings out and catches a glass on the dresser. The glass falls onto the floorboards by his foot and splashes water across the plates and the clothes and he slides forward into a pile of clothes and his face goes white. He rams his fist between his teeth and his eyelids closed and the scram of pain comes out as a drowning whine. He runs from the room, cracking plates and crushing matchboxes and books and he disappears around the corner. My mother grunts and buries her head under her pillow. I can hear muffled yelps of pain coming through the wall. I run back across the room and back to his bedroom. He is lying with his head on the pillow and his foot up to his eyes.
“Are you alright?”
“I stepped on a needle.”
“Mum’s relaxing medication?”
“I don’t feel so good.”
He lies back and closes his eyes. The wallpaper lies unravelled across the floor. I climb onto the bed and hold him in my arms.
“My stomach aches,” he moans. “My head feels funny. I think I’m going to be sick.”
I stroke his forehead and my hand quickly becomes wet with sweat.
“It will be alright.”
“I can feel my depression throwing everything out again.”
“We have to cover up the hole.”
“Mum will be awake soon.”
I stare at the hole filled with perfect darkness. Through the wall I can hear whispers. I try to talk over the top. I try to calm him down.
“Ben, do you think the waves will ever stop?”
“I don’t know.”
“I didn’t tell you how the story ended.”
One page later he is asleep with the blankets to his chin and his mouth ajar. In the dark of the night the dragon returns. It slips under the door and flies across the room, glowing softly. The boy wakes up and in his half-sleep the dragon spots its chance. It flies into his mouth and down his throat and there it stays.
“And then what happens?”
“And then the boy goes back to sleep.”