Chapter from The Boy with the Red Bicycle A Novel
by Ashley Theilacker
The air was hot and stale, stumbling and tangling against the trees outside the window.
Alf felt his body numbing in the July heat, a pleasant sort of buzzing in his feet to match the tone of the bumblebees outside. The room was empty and silent save for the man in the reclining chair next to him, and the low murmurs of the radio. He could hear someone in the kitchen, presumably his mother, clanging pots and pans as she hummed slightly off key.
“Jesus, Alice.” The man in the recliner sat up gingerly, rubbing his temples with his fingertips. “If I wanted to hear singing that out of tune, I‘d run a cat over with my automobile.”
“Oh, don’t be silly, Heinrich,” Alice’s voice floated from behind. “It helps me cook a better dinner.”
“The hell it does,” Heinrich muttered, settling himself back into the chair. “Gives me a headache is what it does.“
Heels clicked along the wooden floorboards. Alf felt cool hands on his shoulders, one lifting up to gently tousle his hair.
“Alfie, why don’t you and I run down to the markets to find Elsie and Ingrid?” His mother asked. Her voice remained mostly steady, but her words caught in a waver that Alf immediately understood—a skill he’d acquired over the years.
“Of course, Mother,” he answered, rising quickly and grabbing her hand. She glanced at him from the corner of her eye and squeezed his palm gently, an unspoken thank you which they both understood.
The wind stroked their cheeks with a gentle hum, green July leaves crunching underfoot as they made their way towards the center of town. Alf’s mother was silent at first, but as they distanced themselves from the house, she began to quietly hum again.
Alf hesitated. It was a subject she despised talking because it brought memories of all the instances of the past, partly because she preferred to deny they ever happened altogether. But it was a necessary conversation to have sometimes, and Alf tested his waters as often as he could.
“How many times has it been this month?”
Alice looked at her feet, quickening her pace slightly. Alf gripped her hand, determined not to let her get away from him.
“Mother.” After a moment, she lifted her tired eyes to meet his. “How many times?
After a moment, she replied, “Seven.”
Seven. Alf breathed out a quiet sigh, heartbeat clamoring in his temple. Ever since his father had returned from Junkerschule Bad Tölz a year ago at Christmastime, the whole family had witnessed his steady change. He was colder, stricter. He spoke with a harshness none of them had ever known before, the soft, playful twinkle in his eye Alf had known since birth vanished.
It was only when Alf had caught him yelling at her—real frightening yelling—for the first time, six months ago, that he realized the situation was far worse than he’d ever imagined.
“Come now, no good dwelling on the past,” Alice whispered, squeezing his hand reassuringly and letting go. “I’ll bet your sisters are lost drooling in the candy shop.”
The two stepped forward into the square, struggling to move ahead in the tightly packed cluster of people, all of whom held their gaze firmly to the pavement as though it was showing them some deep and fascinating secret. Alf held his breath as he weaved in and out of shoulders and overcoats, skimming the crowd for a glimpse of Ingrid’s green dress or Elsie’s familiar yellow pigtails.
The shops in the square were packed tightly together, gray and monotone against the hazy blue of the sky. Uneven streams of smoke chugged from the tops of some of them, creating skinny skyscrapers reaching towards the heavens until they drifted out of sight. Alf’s father used to joke that they were industrialization’s Tower of Babel – the modern man’s way of challenging God.
Alice reached out a hand to push open the candy shop door. The small shop was crowded, filled with murmuring voices which overshadowed the feeble bell signaling their entrance.
Young children with their faces pressed to the glass, teenagers watching them with eyes wistfully drifting over the rows of brightly colored taffies and lollipops, adults admiring the neat squares of fudge and caramel untouched on display. But despite the business of the store, nobody
actually stood in front of the register or held a small paper bag of goodies excitedly. They only watched, watched longingly and nothing more.
A flash of green.
“Ingrid,” Alf whispered, tugging on the fabric. The girl turned, surprised, and then smiled.
“What are you doing here?”
“Looking for you and Elsie,” he answered, and then added, “with Mother.”
Ingrid smiled at her mother pleasantly, and then turned back to Alf. “Elsie’s looking at the peppermints. I’ll find her and bring her back.”
The boy’s mother turned to him as Ingrid slipped through the crowd. “Perhaps we should buy something. It’s been so long since we’ve had a treat in the house.”
Alf shook his head, staring at the cakes on the wall. “Father would never allow it.”
She winked at him. “Father doesn’t need to know.”
Alf rolled his eyes as his mother placed two hands protectively over his shoulders, guiding him towards the glass display of colored candies. The idea was tempting. It had been a long time since he’d last enjoyed something sweet himself—but it was 1945, and he lived in
Hamburg, and that was just life now.
Elsie darted between the crowd, light and nimble on her toes as effortless as a ballerina, dragging a much smaller girl (and rather graceless in comparison) behind her by the wrist. Alice tugged gently on Alf’s shoulders to prevent a collision. Her rusted wedding band pricked into his skin.
“We should return home,” she directed, her hushed voice firm with decisiveness. “Dinner will burn.”
Knowing better than to argue with their mother, the girls filed in line behind her and Alf, marching in time together with the lugubrious melancholy of soldiers shuffling towards their doom.
The sun sank in the sky, flickering through the buildings and trees as it fell to the horizon. They stepped through the doorway. The smell of char and smoke submerged their senses.
From the reclining chair in the living room, they heard a steely, raucous voice.
His eyes opened. The uncomfortably damp rayon beneath his ears alerted him to the sweat dripping down the side of his cheeks—a product of the third nightmare in a row. At first, Alf assumed the noise had been in his head, reality and dreams melting into one another again as they so often did for him nowadays. But soon enough it sounded again –
Alf glanced at his watch. 12:46. Who could be outside his room at an hour like this? And why were they crying?
He leaned over to peer out his window, vision clouded by the earliest drops of dew beginning to congregate along the pane. The streetlamp cast a wavering glow onto the wet pavement, shadows huddled in the dark as though whispering about some new neighborhood gossip. Jarring into the light, he could make out a figure of a woman.
He listened closer. Mother.
Quietly, Alf crawled out of bed, unbothered with socks or slippers, and made his way to the window, where he carefully unlatched it and slipped feet-first out into the sticky night air. He’d never snuck away like this before, but scaled the house as quickly and quietly as a squirrel darting about to avoid a predator.
He moved noiselessly towards his mother, mulling over in his mind how best to approach her without startling her enough to create a commotion. At last he decided to reach out and touch her shoulder, gently, and whisper, “Mother?”
His wrist flashed 12:51. His mother flinched sharply.
Alf stepped forward and opened his arms to her. Without turning around (she very well knew her own children by their whispers, after all) she fell into his shoulder, body heaving
erratically as she wet his nightshirt with her cold sobs.
“Let’s walk,” he whispered.
The two of them set pace towards the town, careful to avoid stepping into the lamplight. Alf held her hand and she squeezed it occasionally, but she never spoke.
They reached the square. Deep blues and purples enveloped the usually monotone buildings, moonlight reflecting off the edges in an ethereal haze.
His mother looked up, her blue eyes faded and dark. “The stars aren’t out tonight,” she noted.
Alf glanced down at his watch uneasily. 12:54.
“Mother, we should start walking back soon,” he advised, the loose gravel of the pavement wet and sharp beneath his heels. “Father could wake and notice your absence.”
“It’s alright, Alf,” she replied, still looking upwards. “I’m sure he wouldn’t notice a thing.”
Alf glanced down, and then up to follow her gaze. He could see blinks of light in the far distance, twinkles of the few stars that managed to break through the cloudiest of nights.
“Alfred,” she started suddenly.
A pause. He waited for a response.
“There’s something I need you to understand about your father.”
Another pause. He glanced down at his watch again. 12:56. She tore her eyes from the sky and brought them back down to his, the light shimmering off the tears pooling at their brim. The hum of a faraway motor caused him to jump slightly.
Alf squeezed her hand. “What is it, Mother?”
The noise was growing louder, steadily, droning and buzzing until it was nearly deafening. His mother opened her mouth to respond. Alf glanced towards the sky and then stared, his grip on his mother turning his knuckles white.
Less than a second afterwards, the first bomb hit.