By Quenby Eisenacher
The Narrow Road
The road doesn’t run in a straight line, splitting the vast plain in half. It curves back and forth, winding around nothing, a ribbon of hard-packed dirt and stones that meanders toward the silvery haze of the horizon. There’s a cloud of dust thrown up behind the bus, the rear windows already coated with a layer of grime that even the daylight can’t penetrate. Every few minutes, one of the larger stones gets chucked up into the undercarriage, striking hard and fast, the sound too much like a gunshot. A few of the children wince at the noise, their eyes squeezing shut, scuffed skin pulled taut over their white knuckles. Karin glances at the boy beside her, the one with the mud caked into the ends of his straw-colored hair. She could speak to him, she thinks, just a few words to show that she doesn’t want to be a stranger. But the words fail to come, her tongue clinging to the roof of her mouth, swollen and thick, as if she’s forgotten how to make it work.
Over another bump and she closes her eyes, her toes curling inside the stiff brown shoes on her feet. Swinging her right leg, she taps the seat in front of her with the tip of her cracked toe, the edge of her blue sock just visible where the upper pulls away from the sole. The head in front of her doesn’t turn, black braids neatly parted and tied up at the bottom with little bits of red ribbon. Karin looks at the ribbon for a moment, at the dull film of dust hiding the shine of satin from view. Her eyes are still fixed on the vivid strips of cloth as her fingers find her own hair, loose and scraggly around her shoulders. She wishes she had ribbon like that, and swings her foot into the back of the seat one more time.
The window is on the other side of her, close enough that she can press her left shoulder against the glass and silence the rattle inside the frame. There’s not as much dust either, being only a few seats back from the driver. For a moment, she feels bad for the children in the rear, the ones next to the filthy windows, cut off from the light and the scenery trundling past them on all sides. Not that there’s much to see, but it’s better than staring at the floor. Crossing her arms until her hands are hidden inside her sleeves, she leans back, her chin tucking into her shoulder, one dirty lock of hair sliding out from behind her ear as she fixes her gaze on some imaginary spot far off in the distance.
It might be sleep that takes her, but when she opens her eyes again, the light is at the same level, glinting off the glass as the bus rounds a sharp curve. A low hum of whispering breaks out across the aisle from her, a few kids pressing their faces against the windows, lips parted with the numb slackness in their jaws. Twisting the edges of her skirt in her fingers, Karin watches the backs of their heads, all of them shifting and bobbing to get a better look.
The bus groans as the driver puts his weight on the brakes, a shudder passing through the metal framework. A few children grip the edges of the seats, or lean forward, clinging to the benches in front of them. Karin shifts when the boy moves beside her, his thigh brushing against her own. Closer to the window, she peers out through the glass, the dark outline of a building blocking out the light, casting the bus in shadow. Not until the brakes let out a final squeal does she see the other children, stepping back, making room for the new arrival without bothering to acknowledge it with a glance. A few are kicking a partially deflated ball between them, the flatness on one side of the sphere causing it to roll in a crooked line. Karin watches the uneven progress of the ball until a hand touches her upper arm.
“C’mon,” the boy says, his voice cracking, as if he’s unsure of the strength of it. “We gotta go.”
She stands up, her legs still bent as she moves sideways, shuffling into the aisle. The boy doesn’t look back. He’s done his duty, and so she merges into the line of children, no one speaking as they make their way towards the front of the bus.
The heat is palpable. Karin tries out the word, her lips moving without sound. She hasn’t known it long, so she says it again, a faint whisper that barely pushes at the air outside her mouth. But it fits. The heat is there, in wavering lines rising up from the bus’s engine, pressing in at the edges of everything, filling her lungs with every breath.
The last of the children step down from the bus, scratching at collars that now seem too close under the gleaming sky. Sleeves are pushed up past elbows, the boys fussing with the buttons of their shirts, undoing one or two before glancing over their shoulders, waiting to be reproved. Two dozen pairs of eyes stare out from the group, scanning the buildings, the faces of the other children, the small stones thrown by the shoes of the woman walking towards them.
She doesn’t smile when she reaches them, the lines set in her face, creased with dust. When she lifts her chin, the light shines off her forehead, her pale hair disappearing against her skin.
“Let me see the young ones in front,” she says, her voice deep. Another step, and the rustling of her dark skirts is audible. “Who’s the youngest? Step forward, now.”
A frisson passes through the group, a few children shifting from foot to foot, stepping aside as the three smallest work their way towards the front.
“Yes,” the woman says, and bends at the waist, putting herself at eye level with the smallest girl. “Do you know where you are, dear?”
The little girl pulls her chin back, one shoulder raising to brush against the side of her jaw.
“Now, that’s alright. No need to be scared. We’re all friends here. Just look around you, there’s an entire group of little ones waiting to be your friends.” She straightens up, back to her full height, still an inch shorter than one of the older boys at the back of the group. “My name is Helena,” she announces, her voice smoothing out as she speaks. “If there are any problems, any questions, you will come to me. Now, can I see the boys over here,” her right hand makes a small gesture. “And the girls lined up along there?”
As if by instinct, everyone moves into their rows, from tallest to shortest, backs straightening as Helena’s eyes move over them. Karin looks up and sees a flash of red ribbons two spaces ahead of her. She feels pride at being taller than the other girl, and when she looks down at the girls shredded tights, a hint of satisfaction that her own knee-high socks boast only a few small holes.
“This way,” Helena says, her feet kicking up a small cloud of dust as she turns, heels striking the hard ground, crunching on the stones. A few children move out of her way as she passes, one of them averting his eyes, his chest stilling with a held breath until her shadow moves on.
Karin looks up as they pass into the shade of the buildings, her eyes adjusting to the sudden change in light. Ahead of her, Helena pushes at one of two large, rectangular doors, scuffed at the bottom, the green paint worn away to the faint shade of a stain. It’s cool inside, footsteps echoing on the swept stone floor, while a few whispers break out near the rear of the columns. The walls are thick, and Karin reaches out, brushes her fingers over the dry surface.
“Girls, this way.”
The group moves on, the boys left to loiter near the entrance. As they walk, the line begins to lose some of its shape, a few girls pausing in front of a closed door, or rising to the balls of their feet to look out at the courtyard through one of the small, immaculate windows.
The room they’re led into is the largest that Karin has ever seen. Longer than it is wide, the ceiling is high, arched near the top, with great wooden beams criss-crossing each other, holding the stone in place. The first thing she thinks of is a hangar, but though she’s never seen one, she remembers the descriptions. They could keep whole airplanes in here, she thinks. Or maybe even one of those large zeppelins she’s seen pictures of. Too late, she realizes Helena is talking, and then the girls spread out, each one moving towards one of the dozens of small beds lining the walls.
“Boys do not belong in here,” she says, slowly walking down the center aisle. “Just as you do not belong in their rooms.”
A few girls nod, while the others pick at the folded white sheets sitting on top of their flattened pillows.
“There are only a few rules here, but they will be obeyed. Now,” she pauses as four women enter the room, lugging large metal tubs between them. “I want you all to undress, and then you’ll be bathed. Don’t worry about your old clothes. Just leave them at the foot of your bed and they’ll be taken care of.”
The water steams as the women pour it into the tubs, the surface bubbling at the edges and then going still, before another pitcher is emptied into it. The youngest are washed first, their soft, pale bodies scrubbed to pink with a bar of white soap and a course cloth. By the time Karin steps into the water, it’s almost cool, lapping at the layers of mingled dirt and sweat that had been hiding beneath her socks, sticking to her skin. The women allow her to do most of the washing herself, only stepping in to help scrub the filth out of her hair, one of them clicking her tongue as she dislodges a few gritty stones from a thick tangle. She’s wrapped in a towel as soon as she steps out, her feet leaving little puddles on the floor. Before her hair finishes dripping, a small stack of clothes is handed to her, plain underwear, socks, and a faded grey smock that could’ve been made to fit any of the other girls in the room.
As soon as she’s dressed, she sits on the edge of her bed, her crisp sheets still stacked beside her. A few other girls are making their beds, fitting the corners under the thin mattress with an adeptness that makes Karin study them, ready to emulate them when she makes her attempt.
It takes her only a few moments to realize that no one is talking. The girls give each other strange glances, trying to see without being seen, quickly looking down at their hands when they think that someone else’s eyes have found them. She spots the girl with the red ribbons at the end of the row, combing her fingers through one side of her thick, black hair, the other side already done up in a fresh braid, the red bow at the bottom carefully tied.
Her eyes sweep over the next girl in the row, and then she stops. When she looks again, she feels the crinkling of the skin above her nose, her eyebrows pulling together. The girl is several years younger than her, maybe as young as five or six. Her hair is brown, black at the ends, still damp from the bath. When the girl raises her eyes, Karin feels a swift jab of recognition, but then it’s gone. A silly thought. Of course she doesn’t know her. She doesn’t know any of these girls. It had taken her most of the morning just to remember her own name.
When the last of the girls is bathed, the tubs are carried out, the clean smell of the soap lingering. No one is dressed the same, everyone having put on what they were given before reaching under the beds for their own shoes. Karin steps into hers, grimacing at the size of them, the thinness of the soles beneath her heels. She ties them quickly, neatly, pinching her finger in the knot as she gives the laces a final tug.
Everyone looks up when Helena returns, the click of her heels preceding her appearance at the door. One of the girls hastily finishes tucking in a corner of her sheet, the edge left to stick out from beneath the mattress.
“All better?” she asks, the question answered with a few nods and a trace of a smile. “Now, this is when you all go out to play with the other children. At dark, you will be called in for dinner, and then it’s bedtime.” She pauses, as if waiting for questions, or a sign that this new information is satisfactory. “Outside,” she says at last. “This way.”
The courtyard feels hotter than before. A handful of children are playing under the full light of the sky, winding up a game of Tag that brings out a round of squeals every few seconds. The rest of them keep nearer to the shadows, tracing patterns in the dirt, a game of Hangman, or Tic-Tac-Toe. Karin picks out the newest arrivals without having to look twice. They remain huddled in their group, without talking to anyone, just watching, being watched. The older girls cling to one section of the outer wall, open derision on their faces when a younger child runs past them, mouth open, baby teeth gleaming in the light.
Karin paces at the edge of her group, scuffing her feet through the dirt, making ruts that are obliterated on the next pass. A noise from behind her draws her gaze, a group of children maybe a little younger than herself pitching stones to see how far they’ll fly. She watches for a moment, her feet ceasing to pace, fingers twitching with the urge to pick up a pebble and join in. A couple of girls beside her trade a few whispers before falling back into silence, the first awkward steps towards conversation. Turning away from them, she scans the children lined up along the wall, two of them with their heads together, snickering over a worn comic book.
She sees the boy standing by himself, sketching shapes in the dirt with his finger. The boy from the bus, the one with the dried clots of mud in his hair. Except he’s clean now, like everyone else, his hair washed and combed, his clothes freshly laundered, if a few sizes too large.
“What’re you doing?” she asks, standing a few feet away from him, the tips of her shoes just outside the border of one of his drawings.
“Just…” he starts, but doesn’t finish.
His finger presses harder into the ground, creating a deep groove that cuts in a circle until he runs into a rock the size of his thumb. Digging it out, he chucks it over his shoulder and continues on with the shape.
“The wind’ll blow it away,” Karin says, eyeing the small hills of reddish-brown powder.
“There ain’t none,” he reasons, and begins adding features to the blank canvas.
The boy is right. With her hands teasing one of the buttons on her skirt, she looks around, as if expecting the air to move, to prove its existence. Blinking rapidly, she wipes her hand across the back of her neck, searching for perspiration that isn’t there.
“What’s your name?”
“What’s yours?” he counters.
“Karin,” she offers, when she realizes hes not going to give in. “I was named after my Granny.”
His mouth pinches in concentration. Shaking his head, he wipes out the trunk of a tree and starts over. “I’m Peter.” He says it without looking up, his attention focused on the curve of a branch. “But I didn’t take it from nobody.”
She stays at the edge of the picture, rocking onto the balls of her feet and then back onto her heels. He continues to draw as she watches, each finger of his right hand used for a different task. His thumb traces the roots, his index finger the branches, while he saves the tip of his little finger for the smudges meant to stand in for the leaves. A few more scratches, and there’s a knot in the trunk, large and oblong, dark like a gaping mouth, like a yawn.
“I’ve seen that tree,” she says, and Peter pulls his hand away from the sketch.
“Where?” He looks up at her, his face smudged in the shadow of the building.
“I dunno,” she shrugs. “But I’ve seen it. I’ve climbed it.”
He sits up, his knees sliding in the dirt as he backs away from the picture. “So have I.”
The both of them study the drawing for a moment, Karin imagining that the leaves are twitching on the branches, the more slender of the twigs bending with the breeze. There should be a road, she thinks, running behind it. A paved street, buckled and potholed from years of traffic. And a wrought-iron fence standing in a foundation of red bricks. She can see the bricks in her mind, feel the roughness of their edges scraping the tough skin on her knees.
The ball comes from behind Karin’s left shoulder. Heavy and still slightly lopsided, it bounces off the edge of the sketch, sending out a spray of debris before it rolls across the rest of the picture, only the base of the trunk still visible after it moves on, ricocheting off the wall with a dull thump. The boy who comes to collect the toy doesn’t glance at either of them, or at the demolished picture. A shout to his friends and he braces the dying ball under one arm as he runs back to join the game.
“You can draw it again,” Karin says as Peter stands up, brushing the dirt from his pants. He looks at the disturbed plot of dirt for a moment, before wiping out the rest of it with a kick of his foot.
“It wasn’t any good,” he says, his voice hollow.
“I liked it.” And she nods, an action she hopes will pull his eyes away from the ground.
“Nah,” he wipes his nose with the back of his hand, finishing the movement by passing the same knuckles across the seat of his pants. “It wasn’t tall enough. And the fence…” He trails off, swallows, and looks at her.
“Just put the fence in next time,” she tells him, and waits for his head to move, the steady up-and-down motion of his chin.
“Yeah, I will,” he says. “Next time.”
A tray is passed back to her, and then there’s a bowl, a dented spoon, the steam from the soup curling upwards from the surface in translucent wisps, moistening the underside of her chin. The bread is hard, but she drops it into the soup, hoping the broth will do something to soften it before she attempts to tear into it with her teeth. Her gaze darting from one end of the room to the other, she searches the rows of tables and benches for an empty space, preferably near an end, so she won’t have to make as many apologies as she sets down her tray.
All of the boys are on one side of the room, the girls on the other. It’s a gulf that separates them, a wide aisle of freshly scrubbed stone. A nudge in her back and Karin moves forward, her arms under her tray, holding it out like a gift. In the end, she has to squeeze between two other girls, her elbows tucked against her ribs as she tries not to garner attention from either of them. But no one looks up, and she rips into her bread, her thumb punching a hole through the crust, digging at the moist stuff inside, broth dripping from her fingers.
There’s conversation around her, most of it conducted in whispers, punctuated by glances over shoulders, shoulders that rise as heads lean forward. The girl across the table spends a long minute slurping the broth from the edge of her spoon, her dark eyes blinking as a drop splashes on her chin. “I’m just sayin’,” she mutters, and wipes her mouth with her hand.
“She was here this morning,” another girls says. “I saw her at breakfast. I’ll bet she ran off.”
“That’s silly.” The first girl rolls her eyes, her blonde bangs brushing the tops of thin eyebrows. “If you run, you’re gonna disappear. There’s nothing round here, not for miles.”
A mousy girl, taller than the rest, drops her elbows on the table. Under the dim lights on the ceiling, her freckles blend into the shadows beneath her eyes. “Would you rather go back?” The question hangs in the space above the table, aimed at no one in particular. “Hop on one of the buses, then. Just make sure Miss Helena doesn’t catch you. She’ll drag you off to the office before you can spit.”
“I don’t wanna go back,” a young one mutters, ginger curls trembling as she shakes her head. “I think we’re safer here.”
“That’s probably why they shipped us all this way,” the mousy girl says, her voice mimicking wisdom. “To keep us from getting killed.”
Karin scrapes the sides of the bowl with her spoon, careful not to make too much noise, to miss any of the words flying over her head. The broth is thick by the time she gets to the bottom, clogged with crumbs and globules of yellow grease. But she eats all of it, even running her finger along the inside of the bowl to scoop up the dregs. It isn’t until it’s gone that the taste of it comes back to her, the saltiness, the chewy bits of vegetable that weren’t cooked through.
“Someone should tell Miss Helena.” It’s the girl on Karin’s left that says this, her voice a series of sharp hisses. “If Simone ran away…”
“I’m not telling her.” The mousy girl dunks her spoon into the depths of her uneaten soup. “I’ll bet she knew before we did. And she won’t say anything about it, either.”
Karin sets down her bowl, her spoon clinking softly against the rim. It takes her a moment to decide who to direct her question towards, finally settling on all of them. “What are you talking about?”
A few of the girls continue their muttering, pausing to take a bite and grimace at the flavor as their broth turns cold. The mousy girl fixes her with a dark-eyed stare.
“How old are you?” she asks. “Ten? Eleven?”
“I’ll be twelve soon.” Karin sniffs. “Next month.”
The other girl makes a small sound, dismissing her with a breath. “I’m older than you.” She smiles, two rows of shining braces put on display. “So I’ll bet you wouldn’t understand.”
Above her, the windows are black squares of nothing, barely distinguishable from the walls, but her gaze rests on one of them as she hopes for a sound from outside, something that will reassure her with its familiarity. At night, she should hear the rumbling of traffic from the street below, planes buzzing across the sky. A glance at the wall and she thinks of pipes clanking, knocking away as if someone was using them to tap out some kind of code.
Another cough and she sits up, one hand pushing the hair out of her eyes as the other tugs at the blankets, the sheet twisted around her ankles. There is movement in the dark, at the edges of her vision, but when she turns her head, the disturbance disappears. A rustling sound propels her off the edge of the bed, the girl in the bed beside her rolling from one side to the other in her sleep. To her own ears, she is too loud, the thin mattress creaking beneath her, the soft slap of her bare feet on the stone floor. Even the brush of her hand across her mouth to dislodge a strand of hair must be sound enough to alert even the deepest of sleepers.
Without the light of day to illuminate the room, the rows of beds seem to move on their own, shifting closer together, ready to catch the edge of her foot or her hand if she’s not careful. At the door, she stops and breathes, hoping that the narrow space between the girls’ dormitory and the corridor will muffle the sound. She remembers Helena, and the memory makes her hesitate. She should go back to bed, bury her face in the flattened pillow and pull the blanket over her eyes. She should, she thinks, and takes another step forward.
The corridor seems larger now, without other bodies to eat up the space. She clings to the inner wall, away from the windows, until she sees the edge of the doors that lead outside. There is someone else nearby. She knows this, but she doesn’t call out into the dark in hopes of a response.
Her cheek is pressed against the wall. She waits for a minute, maybe, and then a smudge of shadow seems to separate itself from the darkness. It moves slowly, slow enough that Karin blinks several times until she’s certain it can’t be a trick of the light. She watches the door, expecting it to open, but the great slab of wood remains shut. The smudge continues its motion forward, hesitates for a moment, before passing through the door and out of sight.
She should follow, she tells herself, but her feet refuse to move. Better to stay where she is, until she can see in the dark, and then return to her own room, her own bed. She turns, slowly, without a breath escaping her lungs, but another figure is there, watching her.
“You,” she whispers, and seals her lips together. The boy from the bus, from the courtyard. Peter. Peter with the pictures. The picture of the tree they both had climbed.
He puts his finger to his lips, shakes his head twice. Karin nods and raises her shoulders against the urge to speak a second time. A slight tilt of his head tells her to follow him. Towards the boys’ dormitory, she notices, but she doesn’t say a word.
His hand catches her arm, tugs at her nightdress until she ducks around the corner with him.. She hears his breathing, feels the warmth of it on her shoulder, along the side of her neck.
“Did you see him?” he asks, his voice so low she has to turn her head and watch the movement of his lips to understand what he says.
“I saw… Yes.”
“He was in the bed near mine. I heard him get up and… and…” He swallows, the sound of it louder than his words. “The door,” he says, and nothing more.
Karin glances to her left, down the length of the hall, but everything is still again, the shadows staying in place. “Should we tell someone?”
“I dunno, maybe…” She looks at his eyes, white and black and glimmering in the darkness. “The lady, Helena.”
His mouth thins until it disappears. “We’re not supposed to be out of bed.”
Karin shakes her head.
“We didn’t see nothing,” he tells her, and says it again. “We didn’t see nothing, okay?”
Peter isn’t there. She searches for his straw-colored hair among the heads that surround her, and then her gaze drops down as she looks for any scratches or drawings on the ground. She tries not to think about the night before, the darkness of the corridors, and the smudge of shadow that flickered in and out before it passed through the door.
Karin jumps at the word, spoken so close that she feels the air move across the top of her head. She looks around, and everyone is quiet, every pair of eyes trained on her.
Behind her, Helena stands outside of the shadows, her eyes hardly squinting against the bright light of the sky.
“You will come with me,” Helena says, and waits for Karin to move before she turns away.
Indoors again, and Karin finds herself blinking rapidly until her eyes acclimate to the darkness. She tries to recall the morning, the dawn and the steady brightening of the light outside the windows that signals the beginning of another day, but there was no steady progression from darkness to light. She closed her eyes after returning to her bed, and when she opened them again, it was as bright as midday.
She closes her eyes now, puts out her right hand and trails her fingers along the wall. It’s a solid thing, and she wonders at that, as if she might have been able to discover some sort of weakness in the structure, something that would permit one solid object to pass through another.
“This way,” Helena prompts her, and Karin looks up to realize that she has fallen behind. The corridor is unfamiliar to her, and she glances at the windows, wondering how far she has been led from the courtyard. She can’t hear any voices, no sounds of play or discord. Helena is several paces ahead, her neat skirt swaying softly with every step, the hem long enough that it nearly hides her feet from view. The dress is old, she thinks. A style that she hasn’t seen before, only in pictures and portraits. But when she tries to remember a particular image of a woman wearing such an outfit, the memory shudders and begins to fade away.
They turn around a corner, into a hall without windows but boasting a single door. Helena places her hand on the knob and waits for Karin to come up beside her before she opens the door and motions for her to step inside.
The light is the first thing Karin notices. There are no windows, no other doors, but there are lamps – two, three, maybe more – scattered around the large room, teetering on the edge of a shelf, a tall lamp arching over a worn armchair, and yet another on the end of a desk. The desk is flanked by mismatched chairs, and in one of the chairs sits Peter, the tips of his shoes barely brushing the bare floor as his legs swing forward and back.
“Sit down, over there,” Helena says, and directs Karin toward the chair closest to Peter. Her skirt rustles softly as she moves to the other side of the desk, but she remains standing as she regards the two of them. “Tell me,” she begins, and then a pause. Her lips seal together, one corner of her mouth quirked before she speaks again. “Tell me what you remember.”
Karin looks down at her lap. She feels Peter’s gaze on her for a second, before he follows suit and drops his chin against his chest.
“Now, now. There’s no reason to be shy. You’re not in any kind of trouble. I would just like to… Here.” Helena takes a step forward, and Karin studies the polished tips of the woman’s shoes. “Just tell me your name. Surely, you can do that. Child,” She places her fingers on Karin’s shoulder, the touch so light it causes her arm to twitch at the slight contact, but it succeeds in drawing her gaze up from the floor. “Do you know your name?”
“Karin,” she says, and then says it again, for fear that Helena didn’t catch it the first time.
“Karin. Good. That’s very good. And you?” She looks at Peter. “Do you remember your name?”
“It’s Peter. Ma’am,” he adds, before he coughs and clears his throat.
“Karin and Peter.” There is almost something of a smile carried on her words. “And can you tell me how old you are? Do you remember that as well?”
“I’m ten,” Peter pipes up. “But… no. No, I’m eleven. Because I had a birthday, and… and…”
“I think…” She begins to lace her fingers together, to pull at them until she feels the knuckles crack. “I’m eleven,” she says. “But I’ll be twelve soon.” And as soon as she says it, she knows that it is true. She will be twelve years old, and her mother promised to buy her a new dress, and her father said that she could have a new pair of shoes as well, because she had taken to growing so fast… so fast…
She looks up quickly, and Helena’s eyes are fixed on her. “I-I’m sorry,” she mumbles, but doesn’t turn her head away. “There was… My parents…”
“What were their names?”
Karin feels the skin crinkle beside her eyes as she tries to think. “I don’t… I don’t…”
“It’s alright,” Helena tells her, cutting her off before her voice continues to deteriorate. “You’re doing very well. Now,” she tilts her head to one side, somehow able to watch the both of them without changing the focus of her gaze. “Is there anything else you would like to tell me? Either of you?”
“We…” Karin begins to speak, but a movement from Peter, a small shift of his elbow is enough to close her mouth again.
“N-Nothin’,” Peter stammers, and finishes it with a shake of his head, sending a few strands of pale hair across his brow. “Nothin’, Ma’am.”
Karin hears Helena breathe, a slow breath drawn in through her nose before the air slides out from between the woman’s thin lips. “Very well.” She raises one hand, a gesture devoid of meaning until she speaks. “You may go now, both of you.”
Karin’s feet are the first to touch the floor, Peter only a moment behind her. She walks toward the door, her hand reaching out for the knob while she attempts to glance back over her shoulder, to keep Helena in sight as she leaves the room.
“C’mon,” Peter whispers, his voice urging her forward.
In the hall again, and the light startles her. She waits until Peter closes the door behind her, and then he takes hold of her wrist, his arm tugging at hers until she begins to walk, until she begins to run. Their steps make dead sounds on the hard floor, without any sort of repeat against the equally hard walls. As Peter leads her around the corner, he glances back. His hair is in his eyes, his mouth set. Without a word, he pulls again, and they slow to a walk until the broad expanse of the main doors comes into view.
“No,” he says as she moves toward the building’s exit. “Wait.” He looks back over his shoulder, and then he raises a single finger to his mouth. The two of them stand still, holding their breath as they listen. Karin hears noises coming through the doors, the other children at play, the deep voice of an adult saying a few words that she can’t quite make out, but there are no other sounds inside, no footsteps indicating that someone else is about to walk around the corner and find the two of them standing there.
“I don’t like her,” Peter says, all in a rush. He brushes his hair out of his eyes, only to have the same strands sweep back across his forehead.
“Is that why you didn’t tell her about…?”
He looks at her then, his eyes bright in the light from the windows. “We weren’t supposed to see him. That boy. But she knew, didn’t she?”
Karin nods, the only response she can manage before Peter speaks again.
“I’m going to leave. Tonight. I want to see what’s out there, see if I can find that boy, and… the others…”
She looks behind her again, every nerve on alert as their voices lose strength. “You could follow the road.”
“Yeah. If I go back the way we came… the bus…” He squints, the skin between his eyes crinkling with some kind of internal effort.
Karin moves a step closer to him. “You don’t remember, do you? How we got here?”
He shakes his head, his eyes closing, as if defeated. “Something happened. It was… there was noise. And my mom and dad… they weren’t there.”
“Neither were mine.”
“But that Helena,” Peter tilts his head toward the end of the corridor. “She knows. She knows everything.”
Karin nods again. She licks her lips, and suddenly she wonders when the next meal will be, but she can’t remember how long it’s been since breakfast, and then she looks at the windows, even though she knows the angle of the light won’t help her.
“C’mon,” Peter says, and tugs at her elbow. “We should go back outside.”
“Yeah, okay.” She begins to follow him, but her eyes are drawn back towards the window, at the square of sky visible to her through the panes. There’s a tingle at the back of her mind, and she closes her eyes long enough to see on the back of her eyelids what she doesn’t see through the glass.
“What is it?” he asks her, his voice louder now, as if he’s no longer afraid of being caught.
“It’s…” Karin walks away from him, until she is nearly against the wall and her eyes are just level with the windowsill. “It’s the sky. It’s bright and all, but… there’s no sun. If there’s light, there should be sun.” She looks back toward Peter. “Shouldn’t there?”
“I’m going outside,” he says, ignoring her question.
She sighs, and then she follows him through the door.
As soon as she slips into her nightgown, she sits on the edge of the thin mattress and begins to comb her fingers through her hair. The girl behind her, the one with the dark hair and the braids unties her red ribbons, places each one beneath her pillow, and shakes out the soft waves that hang over her shoulders. Karin picks at a strand of her own lank hair, and in that instant she knows that she’s always disliked her hair, that her sister’s hair was so much thicker, so much softer than her own, that… that…
Her gaze darts from one corner of the room to the other, searching everywhere for a girl, for that girl that had been so familiar to her on the morning of their arrival… just for a moment, she almost remembers…
She feels her shoulders sag as the memory slips away. One by one, the other girls are climbing into their beds. Karin slips between the sheets, stretching her legs out as she waits for the blanket to warm against her skin. As soon as the last girl is tucked in, one of the women appears in the doorway, her hand crossing the wall as she reaches for a switch. A click, and the lights go out. Karin stares up at the ceiling, blinking away the white spots where the lights had been.
The pillow is flat and firm beneath her head. She rolls onto her left side, the side she always sleeps on, and closes her eyes to the rustle of other girls shifting in their beds, the creak of mattresses protesting the change of weight above them. She tells herself that she won’t fall asleep. There are too many thoughts in her head, all of them tumbling against each other, fighting for her attention. She won’t fall asleep. She won’t…
A hand on her arm, a blast of warm breath across her cheek, and her eyes open wide. She doesn’t move, but Peter places his finger to his lips, warns her before she can even think to open her mouth.
He nods towards her neat stack of clothes, and she notices then that he’s fully dressed. She sits up slowly, her teeth clenched as the bed releases a small groan. Her dress is folded again, neat and square, but there’s no time to dwell on it. Peter picks up her shoes as she slips her dress over her head, her arms wriggling as she slips her nightgown down, down her waist and over her hips. Her bare feet find the floor, and then she follows him, out of the room, into the corridor, and then past the windows as they make their way toward the main entrance.
“Here.” Peter pauses long enough to pass her shoes back to her. She steps into them, feeling clumsy in the dark.
A gesture from Peter, and they move toward the doors. He puts his hands out, palms forward, until he touches the wood. And then he waits.
Karin doesn’t look behind her. If they’re being watched, she doesn’t wish to know. She keeps her eyes forward, watching Peter’s left hand as it slides across the door, his fingers pale white in the darkness. He looks at her, expectantly, and the question is there in his eyes. But despite what they saw the previous night, the door remains a solid thing. He sighs, and there is a soft click as he raises the latch, and it’s then that Karin realizes she’s holding her breath, her shoulders raised high as if that enough would block out any more unwanted sound.
As soon as they are outside, Karin searches the sky, for stars, for the moon, but there is nothing. Yet she can see the lines of the walls, the shallow indentations in the ground from an afternoon of muted play. She puts her own hand out in front of her, her fingers flexed, and she can count all five of them, the nails, the knuckles, the veins and tendons all clearly visible, even without any light from the sky.
Their steps fall quietly on the ground, a dead sound that makes Karin uncomfortable. Peter leads her to the edge of the yard, and then a few more steps, and they arrive at the line that the road draws through the land. Karin moves to stand beside him, her shoulder just brushing against his own.
“Which way?” she asks, but she’s sure that she already knows.
Peter doesn’t look left or right. His chin raises slightly, hardly a movement, and then he breathes. “You can go back, you know.”
Karin nods. “I know.” Her fingers twitch. She reaches across the few inches of space left between them, touches her fingers to his.
“C’mon,” he says, but he doesn’t move. Karin circles her hand around his wrist, gives his arm the gentlest of pulls. They move forward, not left or right, but across the narrow road.
She breathes slowly, focusing on each breath, on the way her chest expands and contracts, at how each inhalation and exhalation sound inside her head. She counts her heartbeats, up to ten before she starts over, again and again until another noise distracts her.
The curtain again, and then footsteps. A shadow passes over her, blocking out the light for a moment, and then a hand touches her arm, cool fingers turning over her wrist before pausing for several seconds. The hands move to her body, pressing gently against her ribs, and then upwards, across her shoulders, over her neck, touching her jaw long enough to turn her head from side to side. The fingers leave briefly, and then her right eyelid is pulled open, a bead of light shining directly into her eye.
“Stop.” Her mouth moves without sound. Her throat convulses, and then a shudder – almost a cough ripples through her chest. Immediately, the light is switched off and the hand pulls away from her face.
“Karin?” A man’s voice. She knows she’s never heard it before this moment.
She opens her eyes, but nothing is clear. A white spot still floats in front of her right eye, and she blinks until it begins to fade.
“Karin, can you hear me?”
The smell… There’s something chemical about the smell, and when she turns her head to one side, even the pillow has a harsh, clean odor to it.
“Peter.” She blinks, runs her tongue over her bottom lip, and tries again. “Where… Where’s Peter?”
“Karin, can you see me?”
More blinking. The lights are too bright, and the smell… every time she breathes, it makes her eyes water and burn. She wants to speak, but her throat feels strange, tight. So she searches for the muscles in her neck and gives him a slow nod in response.
“Good. That’s good. And do you know where you are?”
No, no, no. She wants to shake her head. But the light, the sounds, the smells, the gentle fingers of the man standing over her…
“Good. And… do you… do you remember? Do you remember what happened?”
What happened… She remembers the feel of Peter’s skin, his wrist warm and slender in her hand. She remembers the hard-packed dirt of the ground as they walked to the other side of the road, and then…
“What…” Her voice is a croak. She forces out another cough, and then tries to swallow. “What happened?”
“Now, Karin. I want you to rest. Can you do that for me?”
“No.” She reaches out, her hand sliding over stiff sheets and a blanket before her fingers encounter cold… cold, smooth metal. A bar, she thinks. Or a kind of rail. She slips her hand through the rail, grasping until she finds the edge of the man’s white coat. “No, no. What… What happened?”
She hears him sigh. He wants to leave her, leave her to sleep, to dream. But she wants to stay awake, with her eyes open, and she wants him to tell her everything.
“You were at school,” he says, his words slow, so that she feels young and small in the large, metal bed. “Do you remember that much?”
A nod. That is all she can give him.
“You were at school, and there was an attack. A bomb. And there was… there was an explosion. There were… A lot of people were hurt. Do you… Do you remember…?”
But already, her head shakes, side to side, side to side. They were on the bus, and they were safe, and there was Peter…
“I want… I want to go back,” she says. “I want to find Peter…”
The man steps far enough away that the edge of his coat slips from her fingers. “I’m going to call someone, one of the nurses who’s been taking care of you…”
She can’t fight. She doesn’t have the strength to fight. And everything hurts, even the parts she hasn’t tried to move. “Please,” she says, and her throat tightens around that single word.
He presses a button, and then he returns to her side, one hand patting her gently on the shoulder. “I’ll fetch your parents. They’re with your sister right now. She was in surgery this morning, but she’ll be fine. You’ll both be fine, okay?”
Her eyes close, and maybe she sleeps, because when she opens them again, her mother is beside her, and her father is in a chair, his elbows resting on the foot of her bed. Her mother speaks to her in hushed tones, about survivors and about the children who didn’t make it, as if any word spoken in a whisper will not hurt. Her father sits with his hands clasped, pressed against his forehead. He doesn’t speak, but every few minutes he unfurls one hand and rests it against her knee.
A nurse enters while her parents are still there, and the woman asks if she would like something to eat, or if she would like more pillows. She turns to leave, and then she stops, her white shoes squeaking softly on the shining floor.
“Oh, I just remembered.” She returns to the bedside, sets both of her hands on the metal rail. “You had said something about a boy. A boy named Peter, I think?”
Karin shifts in the bed, her elbows digging into the mattress as she tries to sit up.
“Karin, just calm down…” her mother says, but places a hand beneath her arm and helps to move her upright as she adjusts the stack of firm pillows behind her head.
“Well,” the nurse says. “I checked, and there is a boy who was brought in with you. He’s not from your class, but he woke up around the same time as you, and he…”
“I want to see him,” Karin says, and she feels her mother’s hand tighten on her arm.
There is a silent dialogue between her mother and the nurse, entire sentences spoken with the lift of an eyebrow and the dip of a chin. “Alright,” the nurse says after a minute. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Karin closes her eyes and leans back against the pillows. She feels her father’s hand on her knee, giving it a squeeze. When the curtain is pushed back again, she raises her head, but her mother’s arm blocks her view, and she has to tilt her head forward to see.
His hair is the same, the color of straw, but its shine is muted beneath the artificial lights all around them. He moves awkwardly, his left arm in a sling, and across the bridge of his nose is a dark bruise with a gash in the middle of it, so swollen that it makes his eyes look red and heavy, as if from crying.
She opens her mouth, ready to speak, but her voice dies in her throat. A sigh, and she tries to smile, but in the end, she simply nods once, and after a moment, he does the same.
“The Narrow Road” Copyright © 2012 by Quenby Eisenacher, All Rights Reserved