What felt worse, how normal things used to be, or how terrible they became?
I laughed when they came. I did your job, I told them. Laughter was the best medicine, but it wouldn’t cure the gaping hole in their chests, which appeared to be true agony, from where blood oozed like the toothpastes they gave us. Just a little pressure, and it all came rushing out.
How could you laugh when you might break at any moment?
How could you laugh when you weren't human anymore?
Annalise was determined to talk to Aaron, despite the fact that his father probably wouldn't let her meet him tonight. They shared birthdays (along with a remarkable friendship), but when she went to his house for the party, his father was at the entrance.
'Hello, Mr. Hart!'
'I'm afraid that we will not be celebrating with you today. Aaron told me he does not want you to come.' He said it smoothly, but when she glanced at the house, she saw Aaron with the mean boys, the ones who mocked and teased all the young kids. He looked sadder than he had when Mrs. Hart had died. Their eyes met, but when Mr. Hart turned, he quickly looked away. Annalise saw how unhappy he was, and trudged back to her own house.
The fog is going to be terrible tonight. Uncle won’t come. Mr. Hart hates me suddenly. Some birthday! Annalise was dismal.
The cake was ready, and Mama rushed past the simmering Sauerbraten to hide it, as Annalise rushed in, her face flushed poppy-red due to the freezing air. The velvet curtain behind her concealed Vati, his breath hushed, lest the curtain flutter.
They were both going to pretend that they had forgotten her birthday. It was a terrible strategy to duplicate so frequently, but it always seemed to work.
‘Mama, what- ‘
‘Now, now, Schnuki, you know that Vati will be home soon. You wouldn’t want to go to bed hungry, would you? So, let me make dinner peacefully.’
‘But, Mama- ‘Annalise's protest was feeble. But her voice had the slight tremble in it that preceded crying. As she turned, her parents shared a glance and thought together: ‘Happiness before surprises.’
Suddenly, she looked up. ‘Is that- Uncle! Uncle!’ Annalise bounced with joy. Uncle was Vati’s friend, and her favorite person in the entire world. His nature was just like the chocolates he made: sweet and soft on the exterior, but stuffed with even more candy and sweet things inside. She hadn’t expected him to come at all, he was so busy nowadays.
As he appeared, the cold wind whistled in. Something seemed to be amiss. His kind face looked downcast, resembling her own, when she didn’t want to eat her vegetables but was trying to please Mama. It was probably because of the stress of the police job he had been enlisted in.
Vati emerged from behind the curtain- So they hadn’t forgotten after all! - with balloons full of candy and éclairs. It would be fun to pop. He and Uncle looked at each other, talking without words.
Vati’s face, wrinkled with smiles and tension, suddenly sagged. ‘You said you’d tell us days beforehand, Warin!’
‘I did tell you about the inspections! I told you that all the Jews from Vienna have left, but you insisted on staying! There's no time for all that now! I can take Anna, but- but-’
‘That won’t be necessary.’ Vati’s voice was icy.
‘What? You can’t- ‘
‘Dan! Warin!’ Her voice softening, Mama turned to Annalise. ‘Let’s see the decoration!’
The candles on the cake flickered with the wind. Mama smiled, but she looked like Ms. Boesch had when she had given them the Speech.
First, Miss had said that the special kids had left school. After a few seconds, she added that the Jews were special too, so they couldn’t attend school anymore. Jews weren't even allowed on the streets which led to school. Now, Uncle taught her.
She could still hear him shouting at Vati.
‘Mama, why is Uncle speaking in the forbidden tone? Is it related to the disappearances?’
Every night, more of their neighbours were disappearing. All their belongings were intact; they were the only elements missing from the houses. The street was almost empty now. Mama and Annalise spent many nights trying to solve the mystery. Whenever Vati saw them, he pursed his lips in a disapproving manner. It was probably because Vati hated anything reminding him of the police.
‘They are inhuman, greedy, cruel mercenary villains. You shall never join them.’ His tone suggested not that she couldn’t, but that she wouldn’t be able to.
‘What do those big words mean?’
‘I’m afraid you’ll know soon,’ Vati had said sadly, but why would learning the meaning of words be sad?
Maybe his hatred for the police was why Vati and Uncle were fighting?
A loud explosion shook the walls. Mama tried to stop Annalise from rushing out, but she fought her way out. What if Vati disappeared too?
She saw the curtain first. The beautiful velvet, the one thing Mama had asked for on her birthday, was ruined due to red drops. Vati smiled and beckoned to her. Blood, blood, blood. Pain, suffering, agony. He smiled as he clutched his chest, soaked with scarlet. ‘Ich liebe dich, meine kleine Prinzessin.’
I love you, my little princess.
He winced as he lay down, and closed his eyes.
'Vati? Vati?' As the world whirled to an end, her head was spinning. As tears swimmed in her eyes, she shook him awake, the way he did, tenderly, careful not to disturb her dreams, which hung like threads everywhere, drifting through her mind. His face finally looked peaceful, the way it did when he fell asleep telling her stories. A lump formed in her throat.
When she turned, Mama smiled, even as Annalise took in the blood pouring from her, the way love did.
What is happening?
Why are Vati and Mama looking like they are sleeping?
Behind Mama, there was a faint click. There was something whimpering quietly, like the lone wolf in a story, who roamed the streets, howling despite knowing it cannot bring anyone closer. Uncle was sobbing quietly, a small device in his bloodstained hands. A gun.
Was it him? But how-
How could a man who made chocolates for her have given people she loved pain?
Was this a play for her entertainment?
She giggled hysterically. She was suddenly scared that if she did not call them out right now, they would not wake up.
'You can wake up now, I know you're acting!'
Uncle came up beside her. 'Uncle, nice play, but tell them to wake up. The act's over. I want cake.'
'It's not an act, Schnuki.'
She wanted to argue, but something stopped her.
If it was an act, why were they as still as the fish Vati sometimes brought for dinner?
Where was all the blood coming from?
'I did this, Anna. It was me.'
A click. He was still doing something with his fingers to the gun-
‘Happy birthday, Lisa.’