A note: Originally this was supposed to be a historical piece set during WWII, so there are some inconsistencies with setting. You can just ignore that for now :-p
The room was dark. Soft petals of dust fell through the air and landed on Neva’s skin. A thin ribbon of light shone through the crack beneath the door, illuminating the tiny particles that clung to the hairs on her arm. She watched them dance before her eyes, shimmering in the near darkness. When she reached up to wipe away her tears, the dust swirled up and away from her, only to settle moments later, creating new patterns on her body.
Curled up on her side, she trained her eyes on the thin golden line, a barrier that separated her from the outside world. In her mind’s eye, she could picture the massive room that stood empty, save for the workbench covering the door to her hiding place, and the hallway that led to a set of stairs. A bare light bulb hung in the center of the room, the only thing keeping Neva’s world from sinking into total darkness. She could hear people moving around above her, pots and pans banging as someone – probably Mrs. McGarvey – began to prepare dinner. Mr. McGarvey must have been standing near the top of the stairs, because his laugh boomed down into the depths of the house, ringing in Neva’s ears. It was a distinct sound, one that came from so deep within his paunch belly, she wasn’t sure of its origin. She liked to imagine that it started at the very tips of his toes and worked its way up his lumbering body until finally escaping through the mustache-lined hole in his face. It was a pleasing sound, one that had lifted the corners of her mouth on more than one occasion.
But Neva never joined in. She wasn’t sure if she’d ever have a reason to laugh again. The thick scab forming on the inside of her wrist was yet another reminder of everything she’d lost over the last year. First [the country] had lost its leader, only to be replaced by the cold and efficient running of the Guard. Nearly every freedom she’d once had had been ripped away. Everyone living in [country] was forced to have a tracking device inserted beneath their skin, a daily curfew of 8:00pm was set, and everyone was forced to register with the Guard. For the first time in her life, Neva had been unable to hide from anyone; no matter where she was, someone would be watching.
Her back was pressed against the back wall of the tiny room. It wasn’t much more than a closet, with only old, moth-eaten garments to keep her company. They smelled of disuse and old age, the fabrics musty and dank. The air was thick with the smell of fear and dead things; Neva had spent the night curled up next to a dead mouse she’d found in the pocket of an old tartan jacket. It was stiff with rigor mortis, hardly more than skin and bones, but she’d set it next to her head and named it Rufus.
It had been just over a week since Neva came to call this closet home. It was nothing compared to the house she’d spent most of her childhood in, with its posh bedrooms and oversized, updated kitchen. There had been a garden, too, full of rose bushes and apple trees. When she was angry with her parents, she’d often climb those trees and hide there until one of them came to coax her down. They had been good friends, those trees, keeping her company throughout her childhood. When they’d moved to Galway when she was six, she’d lost touch with her old friends, and being the quiet thing that she was, hadn’t really made the effort to find new ones. She’d been perfectly content to sit under the trees all day and read about other girls who still had friends.
That was before the war.
But then, one night, a man came to their door and told them they had to leave. He did not tell them where they were going, only that they had an hour to pack, and they could only bring one suitcase with them. Neva could still remember the crisp lines of his uniform, the baton at his side, and the deadened look in his eyes as he ordered them about. She’d been too afraid to say anything, and allowed her mother to pack her things for her, only opening her mouth to tell the woman that she needed her blanket.
“Of course, pet,” her mother consoled, and immediately folded the ratty yellow thing and tucked it into Neva’s suitcase, which she was forced to carry all the way to the edge of town. They joined a growing number of displaced neighbors, all talking quietly under their breaths, trying to figure out what was happening. But after a lengthy train ride that introduced them to the Warsaw ghetto, Neva and her family found themselves the proud owners of a tiny one-room apartment that was so filthy, even the insects refused to live in it. Her cot hadn’t been much bigger than her closet was now. The only difference was that, in Warsaw, she’d had her family close by. Now, she was completely alone.
She shifted slightly, so that her back came to rest against the knotted floorboards, her knees bent because the three-foot space couldn’t even accommodate her tiny limbs. Though the vortex above her was nothing but darkness, she knew there was a spider web draped across the left corner, its maker’s home now on the bottom of her shoe. Her toes just brushed the metal can she used as a bathroom throughout her day, though today, like many days, it was empty; the acrid smell of stale urine was something Neva could not get used to.
Closing her eyes, she strained her ears for any signs of life. Something scuttled across her fingers, and she jerked her hand back, flinging the creature into the bucket. There was a tiny ping as it landed, and then a succession of quiet tap-tap-taps as the critter continued to hit the side of the can. Through the brick wall and the cabinet that kept her hiding place secret, Neva could just make out the tinkling sounds of Mrs. McGarvey’s voice as she asked her husband about his day. She couldn’t quite make out his response, but he seemed to be in a good mood. That meant no one had grown suspicious yet, and Neva felt herself relax, if only slightly.
Just as the smell of stew began to suffocate her, she heard the telltale scraping sound of wood against wood. The light beneath the door grew to a luminous glow, warming the lower portion of her face as the sun had once done. There was the sound of a key jiggling around in the lock, and finally the door swung open, revealing a boy not much older than Neva herself.
“Miss Shulman,” he nodded. “And how was your day?” Bending down, he offered her a hand that she readily accepted. Being pulled into a standing position resulted in numerous pops as her cramped bones and muscles relaxed.
“August,” the boy’s mother called from the kitchen, “dinner’s almost ready. Could you tell Neva?”
Cracked lips strained against a smile as August imitated his mother’s high soprano. “Neva, I thought you should know that dinner is almost ready. Would you care to join us?” He gave her an impish smile, knowing a response would never come.
Hesitantly, Neva nodded, and slowly followed August down a dark, soggy corridor and into the kitchen. At seventeen, he’d surpassed the height of everyone in his class, and loomed over Neva’s petite frame as he pulled her chair out for her. She had to shield her eyes for a moment, letting the dull ache behind her eyes slowly subside. The McGarvey’s kitchen was always glowing and warm, but after countless hours spent in darkness, it still took some getting used to.
The family’s politeness had been overwhelming at first. Mr. McGarvey had insisted on carrying her bag, despite the fact that all it contained was her blanket, a worn copy of Romeo & Juliet, and a spare dress or two. His wife had provided her with a comb and a clean set of clothing, as well as a pillow on which to lay her head. Not unlike his parents, August had given her a tour of the home, and had thus far pulled her chair out each and every evening. He also held doors open for her, and helped her up whenever he came to let her out of the closet. At first, Neva had wondered if they were merely putting on a show, but nothing had changed during the past week, and she had heard others come and go throughout the day, each treated with the same level of kindness and propriety. She was left to assume that the McGarvey’s really were just a descent lot.
Already familiar with the drill, Neva nodded her thanks and took the seat offered to her, patiently waiting for a plate to be set in front of her. She nodded once more when Evie McGarvey set a steaming bowl of lamb stew in front of her, and offered the tiniest of smiles when the woman asked if she was doing all right.
“I really wish we had somewhere more comfortable for you to stay,” she babbled, dishing up food for her husband and son. “But I’m afraid anywhere else in the house, and you might be discovered.”
“I cut up an old mattress for you,” Carl joined in, tucking his napkin into his collar. “It’s a little lumpy, but it has to be more comfortable than the floor.”
Neva appreciated the effort her new family was making. Where her real parents had tried – and failed – to provide for her, the McGarveys were wealthy enough that they could afford real food, and a roof that didn’t leak. The cold that had settled in her chest long before she arrived had been cured with a few doses of medicine, and while most of her day was spent alone, they welcomed her each evening, handing her books and magazines to read, or letting her listen to the radio. It wasn’t a great life, but it could have been much worse.
“Go ahead, dear. Tuck in,” Evie urged, smiling kindly at Neva, who had yet to begin eating. Maybe it was out of habit, or just consideration, but she couldn’t bring herself to start before the rest of the family. They continued to feed her first, but she always waited until everyone was seated, food in front of them, before picking up her fork.
August, noticing her discomfort, immediately grabbed his utensil and dug in, mumbling praise around a mouthful of lamb. Silently thanking him, Neva finally reached for her own spoon and let it sink into her bowl. Over the tip of her nose, she regarded the boy across from her with quiet interest. He was tall and lean, but didn’t look starved like all the other boys she’d seen recently. His sandy curls were unruly and hung a bit low for his mother’s taste, and yet he somehow managed to avoid getting a haircut. But what Neva really liked were his eyes. They were a clear opalescent blue, and shockingly wide. It made it appear that whatever August was looking at, it was the first time he’d seen it. When he smiled, two dimples formed on either side of his mouth, a characteristic Neva found rather charming. In her seventeen years, she’d seen only one boy as handsome as August, and that was the boy who’d lived across the street from her. But she’d watched the Gestapo beat him to death just last week.
“I had Carl draw you a bath,” Evie said after a while, concerned eyes roving over what Neva presumed to be her disheveled appearance. “Do you remember where the upstairs bathroom is?”
Neva nodded. Though she’d only been shown the second floor upon her arrival, she’d spent countless hours during the day mentally retracing her steps. And even if her memory wasn’t accurate, it couldn’t be that difficult to find.
“Take as long as you’d like.” Evie reached over and patted her hand, a gesture that caused Neva to shrink back in surprise. It hadn’t been that long since she’d last seen her mother – just over a week – but the wound of losing her parents was still fresh in her mind. Though the McGarveys had been nothing but kind to her since her arrival, allowing Evie to touch her was still terrifying. She liked the woman, but she couldn’t allow herself to grow close to these people. What if she lost them, too?
No, it would be better to keep her distance. In the end, it would be easier on everyone.
An expert at covering up awkward moments, Evie drew her hand back and immediately turned to her husband, asking about those others they knew who were harboring Jewish children. Neva listened for a while, cherishing the stock that burned her throat as it slid down like butterscotch. She tried to keep her eyes trained on her bowl, but on more than one occasion, caught August watching her from across the table, his eyebrows knit into a frown. She wasn’t sure it was because he disapproved of the way she acted around his mother, or something else entirely. She didn’t care enough to ask, so she finished the last of her dinner, never asking for seconds, and disappeared into the front hallway.
Neva liked the McGarvey’s parlor. It was lined in dark mahogany and plush couches, and an ornate crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling. There was a large bay window that overlooked __ Street, and exerted a strange pull on her as she stared at it from the doorway. The sun was still out; she could tell by the copper light streaming in through a gap in the curtains. As a girl who enjoyed spending time outdoors, it had been difficult to spend the last week cooped up in a closet. All she wanted was a glance, a quick peek. She needed to feel the sun on her cheeks, to see others strolling about. She needed to know the world hadn’t ended while she was locked away.
The sound of footsteps brought her back. Turning, she wasn’t surprised to find August standing a few steps away, hands shoved deep in his pockets. He glanced toward the window, then back at Neva, his expression sad.
“I’m really sorry,” he said, his voice gravely and low. Neva always wondered how someone so handsome could have such an ugly voice. “Maybe you’ll be able to go outside soon.”
But they both knew it wasn’t true. Based on the snippets Neva had caught on the radio, it was unlikely that things would improve any time soon.
August’s fingers reached out to her, brushing against the tender skin on the inside of her palms. The heat he transferred to her, if only briefly, was enough to replace the missed sensation of sunlight. He was the only person Neva trusted to come near her, and she allowed him to touch her like that for a few lingering moments. His eyes bored into hers, sending shivers down her spine. To Neva, it always seemed as if August was trying to piece her together, like one of his father’s complex puzzles. He’d told her just yesterday that she was a mystery he wanted to figure out, but had no idea where to begin.
Uncomfortable by his sudden closeness, Neva took her hand back and turned on her heel, taking the stairs two at a time. She heard August blow out a sigh, then his receding footsteps as he returned to the kitchen. He was only trying to get to know her, but beyond the few times Neva let him touch her, she couldn’t bring herself to make an effort. August was a nice boy, who, unlike her, had his whole life ahead of him. No one was going to come to his home in the middle of the night and drag him out into the streets. He was German, through and through, with an uncle and grandfather serving directly under Adolf Hitler. He still had parents who loved him. Instead, Neva found herself living in constant fear of being discovered, completely alone in the world. She’d watched a Nazi soldier shoot both her parents from where she hid in an alley beside her building. So while she appreciated August’s concern, he just couldn’t understand what she’d been through, and she didn’t have the strength to try and explain.
Her feet padded along the carpeted hallway towards the last door on the right; inside was the bathroom, just as she’d remembered it. The dark maple floor contrasted sharply with the creamy white tiles, offset by the burgundy towels Evie had provided. The tub was filled to the brim, a small selection of salts and perfumes lined up alongside it. Eager to rid herself of the stench imbedded in her clothes, possibly even her skin, Neva tugged off the filthy dress she’d been living in all week and slipped into the water. It was still warm, and she took her time testing each and every bottle. The scent of roses and chamomile wafted over the surface, curling around her and enveloping her in quiet luxury. She washed her hair with a bottle of shampoo she recognized as August’s, and lingered in the plush towel left for her to use. She couldn’t remember ever having felt this clean.
As she sat in the humid bathroom, staring at the heap of clothes at her feet, Neva felt a wave of shame wash over her. The floral pattern was faded and yellow, the spots beneath her arms discolored and in need of repair. Dust and dirt cling to the fabric, and as she peered at herself in the mirror, wondered if the rest of her had looked the same not half an hour ago. There was still dirt stuck beneath her fingernails, but she’d long since given up trying to rid them of it. Her skin was cracked and dry, her lips chapped, but at least her hair was clean now, and she didn’t smell of decay.
It took another half hour before she could bring herself to go back downstairs. Knowing that she’d soon have to go back into hiding, she dawdled as best she could, slowly combing out her shoulder-length brown locks and buttoning up the dress she’d been given. She made sure to drain the tub and clean up any mess she’d made, glancing furtively at the bottles. She hoped no one would notice that each was missing a little more than necessary.
Around nine o’clock, she poked her head into the parlor, where everyone was gathered around the radio. She took her place on the divan and waited for any news about the war, but after half an hour, grew bored. Nothing had changed in Germany that day, and as much as she disliked her cramped quarters, found herself returning to them nonetheless. August followed her, despite the look she sent him.
While she’d been cleaning up, Carl had shoved the tattered mattress into the closet, along with another pillow and blanket. There was also a parcel wrapped in butcher paper. She looked questioningly at August, who was grinning.
“I thought you might want some candy. The corner store had a special on chocolate today.”
It had been over a year since Neva had had anything sweet, let alone something as expensive as chocolate. She couldn’t repress the grin that leaked out, and without thinking, reached out to give August’s hand a squeeze.
“You’re quite welcome,” he said matter-of-factly. “But you know what would be an even better thank-you?”
Neva could only hazard a guess.
“You could say something. Anything. Just ‘hello’ would be fine.”
She shook her head sadly, and sank down onto the uneven mattress. Carl was right – it was infinitely better than the floor.
August loomed over her, blocking the faint light that had made it to the end of the hallway. He looked… not frustrated. Sad, maybe. Confused. “I just wish I knew what to say to you, Neva.”
And while a small part of her wanted to tell him he’d already said more than enough, done more than enough, the words just wouldn’t come out. The overwhelming sorrow of losing her parents had knocked her voice right out of her. And if she were being honest with herself, she wouldn’t really mind if it never came back.
Knowing their one-sided conversation had ended, August said goodnight, taking his time closing the door. It was almost as if he was waiting for her to stop him, Neva thought.
Well, she couldn’t provide that kind of satisfaction. So she sat there, watching the light slowly fade, until all there was was darkness once more.