Max clattered along Herzogstrasse with the handcart, the wooden handle rough and splintering in his hands. He dug his gloves out, but it was too latehe already had three splinters that would take light surgery to dig out. He winced from the cold air cutting through his pants, and stopped at a Konditerei for a coffee and pain chocolat. The woman behind the counter eyed the dolly suspiciously, her face set with deep disapproval. “Moving? At this hour?”
He licked his fingertips. “I have just one thing to move.” He hadn’t thought through a story, so he stayed quiet and hoped she wouldn’t ask questions. She sighed and pulled giant racks of rolls from the oven. The coffee was a mixture of real and ersatz, and tasted almost good to him. He asked for another, placing the change on the counter without rattling the glass. She filled his cup and returned to the oven, the pastries turning gold in the heat. He gulped the second cup and left, the handcart rattling along with him, all the way up Hohenzollernstrasse, to deserted and brown 113. He dragged the dolly inside quickly, trying not to bang it against the door as he pushed his way in. The building was icy and still. The block watcher was still asleep, having made his last rounds at five.
He struggled to get the cart up the stairs, but its metal edges caught on the splintering wood. He had to jerk it hard to make each step, and it rattled loudly. When he reached the top, he paused to listen for people on the street, to make sure no one peeked in to catch him. A pigeon fluttered through the open stairwell window and batted against the ceiling. He clanged up the next flight of stairs and paused, then the next. Finally, he pushed open the door and called out to the little girl. She didn’t answer. Max’s stomach churned from the coffee, the first real coffee he’d tasted in years. It hung in his mouth and squeezed his intestines. He leaned the dolly against the wall and caught his breath. He listened for her, and heard the little scuffling sounds of a person behind the wall.
He crouched next to the wall, coaxing through gentle whispers. A rustle and bump jolted him and he followed the noise, which stopped somewhere near the bedroom. He sifted through a pile of children’s books next to the bedroom door, recognizing several titles from his own childhood. Some of them were old and yellow, the pages aged to a crisp. One story was about a missing baby, carried off by an angry crow. The cover showed the frightened baby dangling from the crow’s claws. He began to read aloud, the familiar words reminding him of his mother’s voice, the stiff boiled-wool blankets she tossed on his bed, the coiled rag rugs in his room. He looked up and saw her. Startled, he dropped the book.
She was cloaked in plaster dust, a shimmering ghost or garden statue in the center of the room. Her feet were planted between two arm-length shards of glass. She stepped sideways, her eyes on Max, scooting away from him. Her feet left a path of white plaster footprints. Her eyes were large on her thin face, her hair tangled and thin, her mouth a huge gash between her cheeks. She scooted a few more steps, edging toward the glass. Max stepped toward her with outstretched arms, but she tottered backward, her eyes locked on his armband. An edge of glass entered the tiny bottom of her foot, but she did not flinch. He watched as it sank into her foot and blood ran into the carpet beneath. She bit her bottom lip. Max sank to his knees and grabbed her. She struggled against his arms, but he managed to hold her by the shoulders and keep her feet still.