“Can't you sleep?” August asked his little brother from the open balcony where they would normally play and watch the streets of the grey ghetto.
Ludwik was standing inside, by the doorway of the room they shared, stretching. “I couldn't sleep at all,” he replied. “Are you spitting again?”
“No,” said August, who then sighed instead of laughing.
“Where's your arm band?” asked Ludwik.
“I was getting tired of it.” August added, “Because the night felt like forever.”
Ludwik nodded in understanding. “Where's mama, papa?”
By their parents' bedroom, the door was shut. “Still sleeping, probably.”
“Let's go wake them.”
“You know we're not allowed to go in there,” recommended August.
“Close the balcony door, then,” said Ludwik, shivering. “It's getting cold.”
“First come see here,” said August.
“What's going on?”
“Remember what mama and papa said, the rumours?”
Ludwik leaned on the railings with his brother. The lamp posts were still lit below. “Hm?”
“The ghetto's been talking about a purge lately.”
“A purge? What did mama and papa say?”
“I think the rumours are true, Ludwik. They're coming to take us to the camps after all. I knew it.”
“Who?” Ludwik's voice trembled a bit, his teeth chattering.
August pointed to the leftward horizon, where the sun was only beginning to rise. It was there, up the street, from which a rumbling noise, commands, could be heard. The smoke of transport trucks parked there made it seem as though there was a new mist. Shadows emerged, becoming figures. Rows of infantry could then be seen, urgent in their march, intent on occupying the street. The soldiers gathered neatly on the pavements both sides of the street and readied their rifles, taking orders from a pair of frothing commandants. All of them wore the swastika on their uniforms, and the two boys knew this symbol well, too well.
“The monsters,” said August. “The monsters have come.”
Ludwik looked up at his brother, distraught. “Are they going to kill us, August? Tell me they're not, brother.”
“Don't panic,” said August, holding Ludwik's hand. “They can come and try, but we'll fight back.”
“Are you sure we can take them?”
“I promise you, we'll be fine.”
“I can't fight, August. We should really wake up mama and papa.”
“Don't be silly. Leave them.”
“But this is important, August. This is our lives.” Ludwik's heart was beating out his chest. He couldn't bear August's composed demeanour. He didn't understand it. He wormed out of his brother's grasp and stormed back inside.
“It's no use,” said August, solemnly.
“They can't be asleep,” protested Ludwik. “Not at this hour, surely?” Half sobbing, Ludwik turned the handle of their parents' bedroom door several times, then gave up.
“Do you see?” said August.
Ludwik, slumped, returned to his brother's embrace. “What do we do?”
“We hope.” August pointed to the building opposite theirs, the one the soldiers were instructed to first enter. “Look.” Lights were turning on in some of the apartments.
“What are the monsters up to? They better not come here.” Ludwik was trying to sound menacing. But when that bloodcurdling scream came from their neighbours, Ludwik couldn't help but sob more violently.
The soldiers came back out of that building, this time escorting fifteen of the ghetto's tenants, who had their hands touching the backs of their heads. They were shoved, mocked, and then told to get on the ground, on their stomachs, on the gravel of the street, where old death lingered. An elderly man was shot first, and then a child, who couldn't have been older than Ludwik. And then a pregnant woman.
Ludwik was on his knees, clutching his ears against the gunfire, so stunned he didn't notice the dribble hanging from his mouth, the tears pooling on the balcony floor, the wetness in his pants. August forced his brother to his feet and hugged him, and wouldn't let go. There was a river of blood in the street, a strange quietude that even the commandants were inclined on assuming for a forever-minute. The bodies went into the trucks.
“The monsters won't touch us,” said August. But this time August wasn't so sure; he was trying to convince himself. As he held Ludwik's head, he saw that his own hands were shaking involuntarily. “They'll go away. They'll leave us alone.”
“Breach the fifth,” they could hear a commandant say. Unit five—that was their building.
There were sounds of footsteps on the stairs, in the passage. Then hammering. At the front door. Once, twice, and there wasn't time for the boys to think, and the door came unhinged, and the monsters were inside their home, stalking their prey with their big guns.
“Hide,” August told his brother. Ludwik did what August was doing, hiding by the walls of the balcony beside the door, where they couldn't be seen from the inside. They didn't dare breathe. They didn't dare spy, although they could hear the destruction the soldiers were wreaking on their possessions. With every crack and shattering, the boys were jolted, and as they could hear the soldiers nearing, their knees grew weaker.
Ludwik wanted to hold his brother's hand, so he reached out, despite August shaking his head, telling him not to. Then they were found. They were staring right into the cold, blue eyes of one of those monsters, one who had come to the balcony for a brief smoke. It happened so fast.
He had them in his sights.
And he was doing nothing, but they swore the monster could see them. Yet the soldier turned away, flicking his cigarette into the air before going back inside, having had his name called. August and Ludwik looked at each other, in awe, wondering if they had been made invisible by prayer.
“They must be in here,” said a voice inside; another monster.
August and Ludwik could tell where the ensuing bang had come from: the door to their parents' bedroom. They winced with the noise.
“Bastards,” said the same voice with a chuckle. “They've already done themselves in. All four of them.”
“9mm Luger,” said another voice, scoffing. “Where could they have gotten this?”
“Never mind. Get to the next door. On the double.”
There was complete silence in the home when the monsters left. The brothers stood in the doorway of the balcony, peering in. The dining table was split in two, the cupboards undone. What remained of the family cutlery, shards. Their photographs on the wall, on the ground.
“Do you think we can go see mama and papa now?” said Ludwik, wiping away his last tears.
“No, Ludwik,” replied August. “Let them sleep.”
“What about us? Where do we go? What do we do?”
“Imagining things will help us through the rest of our journey.”
“You mean like when we play?”
“Yes. We can imagine fun things, what can be.”
“What could've been,” said Ludwik.
“That's right, brother. We can imagine what could've been.”