The rug made no sound under her feet when she crossed the room. “Good,” she thought, they will never know. Outside, shouts echoed between the buildings and eddied in the corners of balconies and up the stairs. Looking out of the kitchen window she was drawn by a bunch of colourful knitted backs crouched around something fascinating. Calling “Hey Roman,” she slammed the window and slammed the front door. She ran across the smooth carpeted landing along the concrete corridor and down to see what it was.
“What do you want?” asked her brother as she arrived under the tree, where the boys were squinting in the cooling sun and flicking up the dust and fallen leaves. He set his back in a barrier against her. Her gaze fell on their game and she leaned against the trunk to watch. Mounds of smoothed-out crinkled wrappers bearing fruit were laid out on a towel. To one side they had brushed clean a small part of the concrete curb. Here two boys were engaged in battle, and in front of each was a small pile of five or six wrappers. Her favourite, she wondered, did they have it?
She smelt it on the air in a faint gust that drew her back from the game and into the world right next to her. It was carried in the heat from a boy she had seen on the balcony opposite, mending his bicycle, fixing small things. She had seen his brown hair when his head bent down, and his hands big and supple sorting the pieces of things and putting them together. She glanced at his face, and then looked at his mouth. The lips were closed but as he chewed his breath overflowed from his rolling jaw and on it was a mixed-up smell, mostly cherry and a small amount warm bread.
A shout came from under the tree, and everyone turned or stood to look at the two boys crouched at the curb. Under the hand of the taller boy flew a cloud of small papers, one swirled to land on the toe of his shoe, a few landed at the edge of the curb and toppled over onto the dried-out leaves. Only three remained in the pile in front of him, on top was a valuable Bazooka Joe. Three had flipped right over, and although just the plain waxy side was showing, she could smell a mix of banana and mint. His opponent reached out and took the vanquished wrappers, rolling them with the rest of his pile into the pocket of his trousers.
Her brother stood up, “OK, my turn now, put down your Fantiki again Georg,” he looked at the boy, who was turning to walk away. Georg’s eyes moved toward him and looked up at his face, but his feet were already shuffling in the dirt.
“Why not Andrei, he has a black …” and then he suddenly crouched down, “OK, I’ll play,” he said.
Roman was quick and he had tricks. “Thanks Georg, good sport,” Georg looked down and drew his forefinger along the edge of the curb. The sky was violet now, and the buildings on the other side of the street were orange instead of cream and light-grey. Their mother called out supper, and Roman was pleased as he moved away from the group with his sheaf of wrappers. His sister ran into the shadow and took the stairs two at a time to be in the kitchen first. He walked slowly while the other boys looked at him.
At the doorway she watched him pause to shake himself slightly before stepping in.
“Hi Mum, I’m hungry.” He gave her a kiss on the side of the head and walked across the living room towards his room. “Hey, wash your hands, food’s on the table,” she said, he looked back, “OK, just going to put these away.”
“What’s that?” his mother asked sitting down at the table, but he was already gone.
She walked across the living room, her steps made no sound, and looked through the open balcony door. The boy was there on the other side, moving the wheels of his bike slowly round and looking at the sky above her block. All the children had left the street and the building opposite was rose-pink now, the sky behind a darkening blue. In the street and in the apartment the evening was very quiet. “What did you do today,” her mother looked at her, “oh, wash your hands too, dear.”
Roman was back, taller than them his hands raised above his head, his body making strange sharp angles. His voice was very loud. “Where are they, what have you done, I want them now” he was moving fast and shouting her name.
She crouched down, edging toward the legs of the chairs. Her hands were over her head, her head was down. “What do you mean,” she said to the floor. Her mother’s foot was on the ground in front of her, but she was still sitting down waiting for dinner to start. “Stop Roman. Stop, what is lost?” she said.
“My collection, she’s taken some, she’s done something. I will kill her.” He cleared his throat, his normal voice had broken into two parts, higher where it was louder. Her hand reached over beside her mother’s foot, at the edge of the table beyond the chair legs and grasped a ridge of the carpet. Her fingers slipped and her nails dragged along the rough weave and nap. One whispered out in the pause between the two voices, a tiny crackle. “Look,” she said.
“Witch, I will get you,” he pulled the carpet back, it ripped at the edge. Underneath cowered five red cherry papers. He snatched them up and smoothed them out. His foot glanced her leg and she cried, they were gone, Roman had hundreds. “Go and wash your hands,” said her mother, “and then stay in your room.”
Lying on her side stretched out on the bed, the sky filling her view was black and uneven. She could hear the sound of the neighbours’ television through the wall. She could hear her family television through the door, and the sound of of the same show through the window. Footsteps passed her window and her mother knocked at the door with an old brown envelope in her hand.
“That boy from block 29 said you forgot your homework today”.