It was five o’clock in the morning when we first heard the planes. Mama had rushed us into our bunker, while we turned corners to see our house engulfed in flames.
“Evan! Take Astri and go, I’ll take care of Else and Aoife.”
The world spun around before me; we heard a powerful aircraft above us, dropping bombs in our midst. The shells exploded upon impact, shaking the house from side-to-side as I made my way down to the bunker. The wind whistled in my ears and crockery rained down.
Astri came barrelling into me, and I held her close, in fear of losing her in the scrimmage.
We clambered down the steps, and I pushed Astri roughly down into the depths of the bunker, after yanking the trapdoor open with as much strength as my 12-year-old self could muster. Clicking the cord that turned on the light, I saw Else coming down after me her hands clapped over her ears.
“Where’s Aoife?” I asked fearfully.
Else stopped short, her eyes widening.
Frustrated, I hissed through my teeth. Poor Astri was shaking with terror, while Else placed a comforting arm around her. The twins were exceptionally close.
Then Mama came down the steps, right as the light swayed on its string and flickered ominously. Aoife was with her, with a large gash down her left cheek. Tears poured down as she stumbled out of Mama’s arms and into Astri’s.
Mama ducked her head below the low ceiling of the bunker and pulled as all towards her. She kissed us each on our heads before enveloping us in a hug.
A single tear ran down her face as she climbed upwards and closed the trapdoor behind her.
That was the last we saw of Mama.
“Evan, get up!”
My eyes flew open, to see Else standing overhead, her martyr being the first thing I saw this morning. She looked as though she was suffering just by watching me sleep in. Pursing her lips, she started to pull the covers off of me.
I yanked the sheets up to my chin, despite wearing a woollen vest.
“Honestly Ev, get dressed,” she said snappily, tossing some clothes over to me. I closed one eye tiredly but kept the other open, watching her shake the twins awake with the same treatment.
“No, Astri, you can’t sleep in for ten more minutes. It’s eight o’clock. Half the day is gone! You too, Aoife. Get up!”
She switched on the bright luminescent lamps, and we all groaned with exasperation, pulling our quilts up over our dazzled eyes as she stomped about, clearly in a bad temper.
I’d almost fallen asleep again before Else strode over to my bed for the second time, this time sounding extremely irritated.
“Evan! I’m counting to three otherwise you’re getting sponged. One, two, three-“
“Alright, alright!” I cried, leaping out of bed, feeling sorry for the twins, since they were inevitably going to receive the same punishment. I quickly pulled some more clothes on, while Else watched me like a hawk, fearing I may drop back into a slumber.
Murmuring in disdain, she turned away and proceeded to extract the sheets of Astri’s bed with a well-practised flourish. Astri groaned and sat up, her white-blonde hair shining under the dim lighting, which was unusually bright today.
“You’re a meanie!” she cried. “We have nothing planned today!”
“As a matter of fact, we do,” said Else, bustling about and fetching some socks – it was a cold morning as usual. “We’re going out.”
“Out?” Astri repeated, her eyes widening. “Is that safe?”
“We need more food,” Else answered. “We barely have any soup left, and we need more ration cards.”
“But Else, we aren’t exactly supposed to be here,” I pointed out. “Most of the children have been evacuated to the countryside. The government isn’t going to issue us ration cards anytime soon.”
“No,” Else said impatiently. “I found an old lady down the road, she’s a dear. She promised a pack of ration cards in return for something else equally valuable.”
“Which would be?” Aoife asked, raising her eyebrows. Even though she’d inherited Mama’s white-blonde hair along with Else and Astri, she’d still gotten darker brows. The colour matched Papas.
I myself had wholly inherited Papa’s dark brown hair and eyes, which resulted in me looking absolutely nothing like my white-blonde haired sisters.
“I don’t know yet,” Else admitted. “But we can bring some things.” She proceeded to take a large box down from a shelf and dropped it on the floor with a thud, causing a considerable amount of dust to rise in the air.
“Anything you don’t need or want, goes in here.”
“But we barely have any possessions of our own!” cried Astri. “I don’t have anything to give!”
“We need the rations,” Else replied sternly. “Don’t contribute, don’t get your share of the ration cards.”
Astri’s mouth dropped open at this, while Aoife and I shared looks.
But she didn’t argue.
“Fine,” she said, giving in with a small sigh.
But Else stopped in her tracks, before massaging her temples.
“I have something to tell you three.”
“And this couldn’t wait until morning?” asked Aoife incredulously. I gave her a small nudge; it wouldn’t do to upset Else. But Aoife and I had always gotten along and I knew she looked up to me. So she listened and closed her mouth.
“Sit down,” commanded Else, pulling up some rickety chairs. We all sat, Aoife eyeing her and giving me a look of disbelief.
Else took a deep breath, cradling a cup of tea in her cold hands. There were bags under her eyes, and I felt a pang of guilt for her. She had to grow up extraordinarily quickly in order to take care of us all.
“As I said, I have something to tell you,” she repeated unnecessarily, her eyes flickering between the three of us.
“You’re seeing the boy next door?” Aoife interrupted cheekily. “We already knew.”
Else flushed a deep crimson and shook her head, her white-blonde curls bouncing around her head. “No,” she said, glaring at Aoife. “I’ve quit my job.”
“What?” Astri asked, sitting up, while Aoife repeated at the same time, “Quit your job?”
I just stared at her, speechless.
Else actually looked grateful for that.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ve got a new one instead.”
Aoife raised her dark eyebrows so high they almost disappeared into her snow-white hair.
“Well at least you got a new job,” Astri commented, blowing out a candle resting on the shelf. But I could tell she didn’t approve of the news. The tension in the room was growing and could be sliced by a knife.
Else looked uncomfortable, but Aoife was too blunt to notice.
“Well you see, it pays really well, enough to properly support all of us,” she started, twisting her slim fingers through the handle of her mug.
“But?” I pressed, knowing there had to be a catch.
Else took a deep breath.
“As I said, it pays really well. But I have to leave for some time.”
“How long is ‘some time’?” demanded Aoife, narrowing her blue eyes.
“Half a year,” Else replied heavily, looking stricken with guilt.
A curious noise that sounded like an explosion issued from Astri, while Aoife’s mouth dropped open like a broken glove compartment.
* * *
We all stood on the front steps of a charming little cottage, surrounded by other charming little cottages, which were all in turn surrounded by even more charming little cottages. Aoife looked around nervously – we weren’t supposed to be here by any means.
Else stepped forward and rapped sharply on the door. We were all dressed in our smart coats on Else’s orders.
We waited for a few minutes, Astri checking her watch and tutting.
But then, the door slowly opened with a creak.
An old woman with a shawl draped around her bony shoulders looked at us. She gave a single nod to Else, who she recognised. One beckon later, we were all inside.
The interior of the cottage was dark and gloomy, like that of a sewer.
She brought us to her sitting room, as we all emptied out the contents of the large box on the floor for her to see.
“Here are our finest possessions,” Else said to her.
She studied the necklaces, finely laced dresses, blankets, shawls and odd coins that were worth more than usual value. But then she shook her head. When she spoke, she had a thick German accent.
“No. I do not find these valuble,” she said, glaring at us.
“Oh?” Else said, trying not to sound desperate in front of us. “What about these-” she held up some fine china that had belonged to Mama. “-They’re of the finest quality, Madam-“
“No!” she repeated, shaking her head more than ever. “I not like! I not accept!”
“But-” Else began, pleadingly.
But the old woman suddenly lunged forward, and Astri screamed. I ran forward and grabbed Else, while the twins went straight out the door, holding it open for us. The woman ran after, shaking her fist manically.
“Police!” she screamed. “POLICE!”
About five officers appeared at her call; they were nearby because of curfew. But we weren’t supposed to be here. We were meant to be deported to the countryside. They spotted us and gave a roar of surprise.
I vaulted over a barrel while Aoife did God knows what; Astri tried copying the difficult maneuver and ending up falling flat on the ground. I ran back and pulled her to her feet as we sped to the entrance of our house.
We climbed through the rubble, ripping our clothes as we went. Then I realised. We’d left the box back there.
“Else!” I yelled. “The box!”
Her eyes widened and she hurried back. I could hardly believe it. I was merely sharing the news with her, I wasn’t intending on asking her to get it back. My message had gotten across the wrong way.
“Else! No!” screamed Astri. “Leave it!”
“We need the money!” shouted Else, bolting past a police officer and disappearing out of sight.
“I’ve got to get her,” Aoife said, shaking her head and out of breath from running.
“No,” I said firmly, grabbing her arm. “You’re my responsibility now. She’s the eldest. She can do whatever she wants.”
She looked as though she was about to argue, but she didn’t attempt to wriggle out of my grasp, which I took as a good sign.
We all kept looking back behind us, while tears filled Astri’s eyes. We were already inside what remained of our house, and the girls sat down while I paced the length of the room for a few laps. Eventually, Aoife sighed.
“Evan, stop that. You’re going to wear a hole in the carpet.”
I smiled half-heartedly at her.
“You’re beginning to sound like Else.”
“Oh, shut up.”
We all sat in silence, thinking of a plan. But we came up with nothing.
“You two go to bed,” I ordered. “We’ll deal with this in the morning.”
“We don’t have until the morning!” Aoife shouted.
I rubbed my eyes tiredly. Now I knew what it felt like to be Else.
“I’m in charge,” I said firmly. “So, you two do as I say.”
Astri defeatedly climbed into bed, while Aoife, never resisting a fight, glared at me hard as she got in and drew the covers to her eyes. I decided to get some sleep as well and flicked off the light.
* * *
“Aoife? What’s happening?!”
I quickly sat bolt upright in bed, expecting to see police officers crammed inside of our bunker. But there wasn’t anything there. Half annoyed, I turned to Aoife to see what all the fuss was about.
She looked as though she’d been crying – I’d never seen her cry before. Her lip trembling, she held out a note to me. I quickly unfolded it.
Dear Ev and Aoife,
I know where Else is. And I’ve gone after her. But don’t go looking for me – I shan’t come back. You see, this was almost a plan of Else’s. Of course, she didn’t get caught on purpose, but it’s worked out for her in the long run. It’d be a fun adventure to tag along and support her – I know that Aoife wouldn’t mind too much; Ev’s always been closer than I have with her, and I’m her twin!
I know you two will probably never wish to speak to me again, and I don’t blame you, I really don’t. You may not understand why exactly I have left, but don’t ask. I won’t be able to reply.
I took a small portion of our savings, but only a tiny bit, just enough to get me onto a steam-boat nearby. I just wanted to let you two know that you were the best siblings I could ever ask for, and no matter what happens in the future, I’ll never forget you, even if it means that you’d both try your hardest to forget me after doing something so wicked.
Your sister, Astri.
I stared down at it for a few more moments, dumbfounded. Then, I crossed the room in two strides and emptied out our money-box. Sure enough, barely any coins dropped out and clattered onto the floor.
Dry-eyed, Aoife raised her head and looked at me.
“Well, I suppose it’s just the two of us now,” she said shortly, busying herself with getting ready and filling her satchel with supplies. I knew she wasn’t alright, but keeping her emotions locked up was her style, and I wasn’t about to destroy the dam wall she’d created.
“So… what now?” I asked her.
She shrugged her shoulders, looking tired beyond belief. I had a feeling she’d found the letter much earlier and had been dwelling on it for at least a few hours now.
“We find Else,” she suggested.
“But what about the note?” I pointed out, beginning to feel angry. “She specifically said not to go looking for her!”
“And you’re going to listen to that note?” Aoife asked incredulously. “We can’t just forget about them! You’re almost making it sound as though you don’t want them to come back!”
“Of course I want them to come back! But what about Mama? We have to find her!”
“Mama is dead!” Aoife screamed, stamping her feet and causing even more tears to spill out of her eyes.
“You don’t know that for sure!”
“Well, I’m finding Else and Astri!”
“They don’t want to be found, don’t you understand? They don’t want you there!”
Aoife stopped, her eyes glinting so dangerously I seriously feared for my life. She balled up her fists, before relaxing them and fixing me with a hard look.
“Fine then,” she said shortly. “I’m heading out. You do what you have to do.”