(This is a short story I wrote for my creative-writing class, backdated accordingly.)
The chairs stood uncomfortably side by side, and the space between them measured exactly two inches. On one side of them was the wall, which had not been painted in a long time, and on the other side there was a large beige closet. Underneath, the linoleum floor looked worn and neglected. A tall bookcase towered behind the chairs, its glass panes reflecting the yellow light from the ceiling. And in front of them, a sewing machine was hidden in the bowels of a large auburn box.
Larry and Lydia Hilbert shared a bed in this room, which they folded up during the day to make space. Mrs Hilbert was very proud of her garden on the windowsill. A scented geranium extended its flowery arms to comfort two begonias, which were slightly dizzy gazing down from the eighth-story window. Behind them, a mischievous cactus grinned at the cat, who eyed it suspiciously and never ventured a second sniff. The cat was now perched on top of the bookcase, having gotten there by means of a triple jump that made the chairs groan. They were already laden with all the boys' clothes.
Arthur and George were both nine years old. They shared the only other room in the apartment. George had blond hair, a dimpled chin, and a scream that made their grandfather twist in his grave. He liked to take toys apart and put them back together, and he loved to listen to tales enacted on the radio. Arthur had dark hair, alert brown eyes, and a smile that could charm a mummy. He liked to watch his father crunch equations on paper, and his favorite smell was that of cantaloupes. But most of all, the boys liked bickering with one another. Their chairs were a frequent object of dispute, because there was never enough space between them. One day, George's shirt would extend a fractious sleeve over to Arthur's chair. The next day, Arthur's socks would slip under George's chair in retaliation. Order would be restored after a brief quarrel, only to be broken again in a few days.
The Hilbert brothers divided everything with careful precision. The cabinet in their room had two vertical compartments, where the boys kept all of their toys and school things. Each boy guarded his side ferociously from the other. Puck, their neighbors' dog, could be petted by Arthur on odd days, and by George on even days. He smiled with his tongue out and his eyes slightly narrowed whenever the boys were around. Even the trees in the playground outside were divided. George was not allowed to climb Arthur's trees except by express permission, and vice versa. If Arthur wanted to claim a new tree, then George had the right to claim one too, or he could save his choice for later. Meticulous records of tree ownership were kept.
The Hilberts' life flowed through familiar river beds. Mr Hilbert brought home a paycheck every month, fixed dripping faucets, took out the trash, and warmed the couch reading the newspaper. Mrs Hilbert cooked every day of the week, kept the house clean, did the laundry, and called her mother on weekends. The boys did well in school, and they had not yet reached the woes of puberty. Three things were present at every Hilbert family dinner: the frown on Mr Hilbert's face when he couldn't hear the radio because of the boys' chatter, the tricks that Mrs Hilbert employed to make the boys eat spinach, and the cat's tail cadging for scraps under the table.
It was a warm October evening. Dry fallen leaves were being burnt, filling the air outside with a sour smell. The smoke was mixed with a dense fog, engulfing Mrs Hilbert in a bubble of visibility no larger than a few yards across. Her heart beat anxiously as her feet hurried towards home. She checked her watch. Larry's not gonna like this... Two hours ago she should've been home, should've started working on dinner. By now the boys are probably starving, the cat is meowing himself to death, and her husband is likely calling up the police and the morgue. Who knew that stupid application would take so long to write... But Mrs Hilbert had to submit it today, or the budget wouldn't come through for next year, and she would be out of a job. She wished at least that she could have called home, if only they hadn't removed the telephone to 'cut back on costs and increase employee productivity'...
Mrs Hilbert thought of all the little wrongs that she and her husband did to each other. Small transgressions, never big ones, and unintentional most of the time. Forgetting to take the trash out, or jumping to answer a question that was meant for the other. Silently ignoring a chore until the other one was forced to do it. They were like drops of water accumulating in a glass, each one by itself altogether negligible, and therefore never talked about. Until the glass was filled to the brim, the surface tension broke, and all the little wrongs came back to flood them both... Mrs Hilbert shook her head to disperse the thought.
It was Friday, and she did not look forward to the weekend. Saturday was baking day, and she would break her back for five hours in the kitchen making cheese and potato and apple pies. The boys would gobble them up before they even cooled, and their thanks would be frugal. To them, it would be a Saturday just like any other. But it is worth it, the delight with which the boys devour them is worth it. Then Sunday was cleaning day. She would bend down to sweep away all of the week's dirt, hearing exasperated sighs whenever she asked someone to move over. As if they were doing her a favor. What would they do without me? And after that, a whole new week would start, and between cooking and working and cleaning and helping the boys with maths, Mrs Hilbert would have no time for herself left at all. She checked her watch again, and quickened her pace. How many drops of sorrow am I adding to the glass today? She hoped it wouldn't spill.
The fog made Arthur feel lightheaded, as he looked through the window and couldn't see the ground. Every sound of the city seemed more distant in the grayness, and for a minute he thought that the entire building was floating away from the earth. This did not prevent him from calling George, though, and nitpicking about his clothes, which had crossed chair borders illegally again. The boys did not notice the smell of burning chicken, or the sound of their mother's key unlocking the apartment door. Nor did they see their father's look of annoyance as she came in and complained about work. They only turned their eyes to the kitchen when they heard raised voices.
'But you never do anything! I'm the one who washes the floor and cooks every day and then does the dishes. You--'
Their father's voice was quieter and they couldn't hear.
'Look, all you do is sit on that stupid couch and pick your nose. You burnt the damn chicken, not me. Don't you blame me for coming home late.'
After an unyielding silence, their mother spoke again. Hers was a voice that tried to justify itself, attack, and ask for forgiveness at the same time, almost crying:
'What if I loitered around the house waiting for everything to get done? Who would make the boys' breakfast? What if I didn't pull out the vacuum until the dust was an inch thick? And how would you like the smell of the house if I didn't clean up after the cat? What if--'
The boys were stunned into silence, their squabble about the chairs instantly forgotten. (On top of the bookcase, the cat was very much awake, his whiskers probably wondering if he should worry about tonight's dinner.) If Mr Hilbert turned to look at the boys in that moment, he would see two petrified faces peering out from behind the sewing machine, like soldiers in a wartime trench, looking out into hostile and unfamiliar territory. If Mrs Hilbert turned to look, the boys' faces would evoke to her the moment of freefall, when gravity was suddenly pulled from under you at the top of a rollercoaster ride. But neither parent looked.
George wasn't really sure why he thought of Puck, the dog, at that moment. He remembered when the men from the phone company came to repair a switch on their floor landing. The dog somehow got cornered on the staircase, and he was too terrified to flee down past the two technicians. He stood on the landing and barked and growled like it was the end of the world. Mr Hilbert opened the door to see what was going on, and poor Puck darted straight into their apartment. He had never been inside before, but even that was less terrifying than the noise of the workers' drill.
Mr Hilbert caught hold of their cat and locked him in the bathroom, to avoid a brawl. Puck took refuge under the chair with all of George's clothes. When he put his hand on the dog's nape, George found that Puck was shivering. The boy extended his other hand to pet Puck on the head, but the dog squealed and ducked, as if expecting a blow. Whenever the din of the drill reverberated from the staircase, Puck flattened his ears and released a high-pitched whine. George noticed that the dog's pupils were large, and wetter than usual. He told Puck that it was all right, that he wasn't mad at him for going under his chair.
It was a different memory that entered Arthur's mind when he heard his parents shouting. The Hilberts' apartment had old-fashioned radiators, coated in many layers of white paint, which was now chipping away. Every autumn, when the weather got cold, the municipal heating company did a pressure test before letting the hot water through. Arthur was playing hopscotch in the kitchen, when he looked under the radiator and saw a small pool of black liquid on the linoleum floor. The liquid was viscous and opaque, and Arthur saw his own warped reflection in the darkness. He immediately started crying.
The boy felt that he would be sucked into the black pool, or worse, that the liquid would keep dripping from the radiator, until it covered the entire floor. Then the cat would jump up on a chair and meow in loud alarm. The liquid would keep rising, until it reached his waist, and it would trap him like quicksand. His father would try to open the apartment door, but it would be stuck because of the liquid's pressure. The viscous black ink would reach his shoulders, then his neck. He would have to tilt his head upwards in order to breathe. Then even that would become impossible.
Arthur could feel his heart beating violently, louder than his mother's soothing voice. He kept crying long after she made the dark liquid disappear, and took him in her arms. The fear he felt came from a time before he had words. It was worse than his grandmother's stories, where she was running and hiding and bombs were falling overhead. It was as if Arthur knew that something dreadful was going to happen, and he was trying to tell people, but no one heard or understood what he was saying. It was like those terrible dreams where he searched for his parents, and when he found them, they did not recognize him. Their eyes were too white, and they looked at him like he was a stranger.
The clock on the kitchen wall was shaped like a teapot. Its tick and tock were the loudest sounds at dinner that night. Mr Hilbert kept his eyes down, and he did not turn on the radio. The light from the ceiling danced on his face, and the vertical line between his brows was deeper than usual. He wanted to hear the evening news, but he forsook the radio this time to appease Lydia. He knew that he could turn it back on in a few days.
The four of them were gathered around a small table, and Mr Hilbert desperately wished that they had a larger home. A place with a living room and a dining room, and separate bedrooms for the boys. So they could breathe. So they wouldn't have to step on each other's toes all the time. But no matter how many extra hours he put in, he would never afford it. It was hard enough to buy all their clothes, and secure a modest vacation for the summer. Mr Hilbert wanted to do better, but he couldn't see any way out. Not until the boys grow up and become their own men, at least. He felt that every glance directed at him carried a silent accusation.
Mr Hilbert saw his wife bring her hand to her chest several times, taking deep breaths and closing her eyes, which had red around them. She dropped her fork, and the sound made a strange echo. When her shaking hands reached for the pitcher of juice, he picked it up and refilled her glass. Arthur and George kept quiet, and they ate their spinach without a word of complaint. When they were done, the boys said thank you and retreated to their room. Mr Hilbert tasted irony in their voices, but quickly told himself that he was just imagining it. Arthur did not ask for candy, like he usually did after dinner. Mr Hilbert started doing the dishes, and he saw Lydia opening a book with very thin pages. He also did the dishes the next day. The day after that, the fog dissolved, and the crisp air smelled of the coming winter. Mr Hilbert returned to the couch, and from the top of the bookcase, the cat watched the boys bicker about their chairs.