THE DEAD SOLDIER'S SISTER
BY YARON KAVER
Photo © Walter Nguyen
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The dead soldier’s sister opened the door to the apartment and turned so quickly that he did not even see her face. The bereaved mother took her place, invited David in and led him through rooms lost to shadows, curtains drawn, lamps fixed with weak bulbs.
The prospect of entering this shrine had thrilled David for days. The soldier had died two years before in Lebanon, in March of 1994, and David wondered if the walls and the furniture had absorbed the grief and changed somehow, melted or sagged. He drank in every detail, every picture on the wall, every memento on display. Arriving early in his eagerness, he’d stood in the hallway for half an hour and stared at the apartment door, reading the name on the doorbell as if it were an epitaph. Earlier he’d spent hours picking out the right clothes for the occasion, somber but not overtly formal, “mourning casual”.
The bereaved mother stepped into the kitchen to tend to her stovetop, and David dragged his feet, peeking into the living room. The television flickered with the sound muted, and a round figure sat on the couch. Another step revealed the fifteen-year-old girl who’d let him in. She wore gray sweats that blurred the outline of her body. The television glow lit up the peach fuzz that ran along her jawline down to her chin.
“Honey, could you get the pictures from my drawer?”
Ashamed to be caught staring at her, David hurried into the kitchen before the dead soldier’s sister turned to obey her mother’s call. The smell of food was overwhelming. It did not belong in this house. He did not belong in this house. He thought back to the excitement he’d felt when his teacher had asked him to do this, lend his video equipment and editing skills to a good cause, a short movie commemorating a former student killed in action during his military service. For some reason, David had imagined his presence in their home as heroic and laudable. So far he felt cowardly and out of place.
The dead soldier’s sister walked into the kitchen and slapped a large envelope onto the table. He stared at her. At the dinner table back home, after he told his family about his noble memorial project and received his due praise for honoring a fallen soldier, his little sister Dana said, “Yeah, I remember when he died. His sister’s in my grade, it was really sad. She’s a super slut now. There’s like two guys in my class who lost their virginity with her. They said she’ll do anybody.”
“Dana!” their mother cried out. “What kind of a thing is that to say?!”
“What?” Dana cried back. “I said it was sad!”
So this was the girl who fucked anybody who wanted her. But who would want her? She was overweight and reeked of death. He caught her eye and was taken aback by her scorn, as if she could read his thoughts. She left the room, and he grabbed the envelope from across the table and ran his fingers over the photographs inside, thirty or forty of them.
“Do you want to do the interview now?” he asked the dead soldier’s mother.
“We don’t need any interviews, sweetie. Just the pictures.”
“But I can make something better than that,” David said. “I mean, like, longer, more serious.”
“That’s not necessary.”
The bereaved mother sampled her stew and added spices. She stirred her pot. As the silence stretched, he realized she was not going to accept his offer.
The pictures would have to do.
* * *
David’s desk was transformed into a makeshift mosaic of photographs. The dead soldier appeared as young as fifteen and as old as twenty-one, wearing his pressed Israeli army dress uniform or his baggy, sun-faded field uniform or his civilian clothes, and always the same tight-lipped smile. Studying the soldier’s features, David felt no sadness. The odd sense of pleasure that swelled in him left no room for anything else, as he arranged the pictures in order and gathered them back into a pile like a deck of cards at the end of a round.
He propped the photographs up against the wall beneath the desk lamp and shot them one after the other, methodical, unrushed. He sat on the floor and hooked his camcorder up to the VCR player, transferring precisely four seconds of each image onto a VHS tape, tapping the remote control vigorously, as if playing a video game. When the tape was paused, the frozen image came alive and quivered. When he hit play, it reverted back to a still photograph, motionless and dead as its subject.
As soon as the title card came up with the dead soldier’s name and the two dates that framed his parenthetical existence, David stopped the tape, rewound it, and watched the movie again. When he’d spent as much time re-watching the movie as he had assembling it, he felt sad at last, not that a boy had died of injuries sustained by a roadside bomb in Lebanon, but that his own flimsy connection to the death was now over.
* * *
At the bereaved family’s home she’d been a stranger to him, but the next day at school, the dead soldier’s sister seemed to materialize wherever he turned. There she was, sitting on a stone bench in the courtyard when he arrived in the morning, and there she was on the bleachers at noon during gym class, and there she was again between classes, on the bench in the smoking nook, reading a book. Even when immersed in another world, she retained her look of resentment, as if the words themselves were walking a fine line, and one wrong move would cause her to slam the book shut on them.
She looked up, and her eyes found his like a whip. She couldn’t possibly have seen him; he was two stories above her in a gloomy classroom, and the smoking nook was bathed in sunlight. He rushed out of the classroom, ran through the main doors, turned the corner and there she was.
The sight of the dead soldier’s sister came with a different rush than the one he normally associated with girls, broader and free of sexual desperation. The dead soldier’s sister wasn’t a girl at all but a key to a world he wanted to enter. “Hey,” he said.
She made a point of pausing before saying, “Hey,” in a way that made it sound like “go away.”
“I know who you are. You were at our house.”
“Can I talk to you for a minute? I mean, I want you to help me… like, with the movie.”
Her eyes pinched. “What kind of help?”
“I don’t know, maybe you could talk to your mom, see if you can get her to do an interview…”
“What? I don’t understand anything you’re saying. You’re mumbling.”
“I want to put your mom in the movie.”
She frowned. He wished he hadn’t said it quite like that. His intentions were good; why did his words sound so smarmy, so needy? The school bell rang like a game-show buzzer. They were out of time, yet neither of them moved. Somehow he found himself in a staring match with the dead soldier’s sister. Finally, she broke away and pushed into the flow of students headed back to class.
He looked up to the window of the class he’d just come from and saw two vague blobs, his best friends looking down on him. During class they whispered insults at him. “What were you doing out there with that sophomore cow?” they said. Mistaking his silence for evasion, they hissed, “We saw you!”
He wanted to shame them. His face hardened, and he replied, “That’s the dead soldier’s sister. She was thanking me for making the memorial movie.” But the revelation didn’t embarrass them at all. They said, “Too bad she wasn’t hot, then you could’ve let her thank you all she wanted to!” He watched them laugh and imagined them crying instead, wailing at his funeral, and he loved them dearly.
* * *
She appeared again after school at the bus stop along the gate, distanced from a group of her classmates. David looped around and approached her from the other end of the block. She took him in with visible disgust, but he kept walking. Why couldn’t he be this courageous, this undeterred when it came to a girl he actually liked?
“I wasn’t trying to insult you,” he said.
“I wasn’t insulted.”
David thought he’d ditched his friends by taking the long route, but he was wrong. He saw them now, leaving school behind her. To be spotted with the dead soldier’s sister once was excusable; twice was a rumor waiting to happen. He blurted out, “Are you in a hurry? You wanna go to the playground? It’s really noisy here.”
“You wanna go to the playground?”
“I just wanna talk. Whatever, you don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
“Why?” she asked. “What is there to talk about?”
A crowd would soon gather over her shoulder, his friends and their friends and girls from class. “Never mind, forget about it,” he said.
And she said, “Fine, let’s go.”
* * *
David marched with forced confidence over to the far end of the playground, crunching dead pine needles under his shoes and watching for used condoms or shards of tinted glass from broken beer bottles. He glanced back at the dead soldier’s sister with concern, finding nothing new in her expression. She followed him to a bench and sat down, while he remained standing, too charged to keep still.
“You’re not going to sit?” she asked.
“Do you think you can do it? Get your mother to talk to the camera?”
“Is that seriously why we came here?” Her look of confusion was contagious. She rose from the bench as if to assault him. The mistake of approaching her was no longer vague and uncertain as it had been in the smoking nook. “Why don’t you leave us alone? Make a movie about someone else who died.”
“I don’t know anybody else who died,” he said.
“That’s bullshit. You have to know someone who died.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Don’t be an asshole. Your grandfather? Your grandmother?”
“I never knew them.”
“So what? You never knew my brother. I bet you know someone who knows someone who died.”
“I don’t know. Maybe. I know you.”
“Oh, really? You know me? You’re an asshole.”
“I told you, I can’t help you.”
“My mom doesn’t want to do it. What are you going to do, force her?”
“No, of course not.”
“Then what the fuck do you want?”
“I don’t know. Anything. Anything I can get,” he said. Words were flying fast between them now. They circled each other like boxers in a ring. “More footage, more interviews, more people in the movie, you, his friends, his girlfriend if he had one, something he made, or, like, his room. If I could show his room ...”
At that, she paused. His stomach filled with the heat of expectation. The dead soldier’s sister was essentially unreadable, most of her expressions coming off as shades of disdain. He thought that she was considering his offer, but then she came back with, “You have to know someone who knows someone who died! What about your parents?”
“They’re not dead.”
“But they know people who died. And you know them.”
“I don’t know them; they’re my parents.”
“Okay, then, how about your friends?”
“I don’t have any friends,” he said.
“Sure you do.”
“No, I don’t.”
This was a lie, he had plenty of friends, but he knew she would like that, and at the moment he felt a compelling need to please her. She locked her jaw, and her eyes grew round again. She didn’t seem as ugly to him just then, when she had forgotten to frown.
“If you want to shoot in his room you’re going to have to cut class tomorrow and be at my house at ten,” she said. “My parents won’t be home.”
He contained his excitement, sensing that any display of joy might cost him this opportunity. She sneered and left him with that.
* * *
The dead soldier’s home was as dark in the morning as it had been in the afternoon, though it seemed softer now, a shelter from the day raging on outside. She walked him down the hall that led to her brother’s room, where the illusion of familiarity wore off, and he followed like a tourist. She faced the shut door while he stood behind her, his toes curled in his shoes.
“All right, get in there,” she said.
His hand barely touched the doorknob, and the door melted open. The walls were white and bare save for two small posters, Pink Floyd and the Israeli band Mashina. The bed was white as well, smooth and spotless. The desk was silver and grey, a stain marking where the computer once stood. Drawer boxes of the same silver-gray framed the desk on either side. There was no stereo system, no TV, no CDs or photo albums, no bookshelves and no books. It was not so much a room as a cell.
David asked, “Can I open these drawers?”
The dead soldier’s sister shrugged from the hallway. Her feet remained outside the room, as if the floor ended at the door. Trying his best to ignore her, he opened the drawers slowly for the benefit of the camera. Had he been alone, he would’ve added an excitable whisper of narration, logging the discoveries: notebooks, binders, a necklace, playing cards. He flipped through a notebook, hoping to see something unique to the dead soldier, something personal. Maybe he’d been an impatient doodler, like David. Maybe he’d quoted the lyrics of his favorite songs in the margins. Or was he one of those popular boys whose notebooks were filled with flirtatious messages from would-be girlfriends? But all he found was high-school dictations jotted down in a boy’s sloppy, graceless handwriting.
David turned off the camcorder. The dead soldier’s sister leaned against the doorframe. He wished she would leave. The longer she stayed, the more likely he was to speak his mind. The silence only made sense without her there. Finally, he said, “I think everybody in this country should have a will in their drawer, just in case they die all of a sudden. Even if they’re, like, six years old.”
“Why,” she said. “Have you got a will in your drawer?”
“No.” He had to smile at the quickness of her response.
She straightened her slack, faded sweatshirt. “You can be here till my mom gets home. So, like, two hours.”
“Okay, thanks. I won’t need that long.”
She lingered another moment, then shut the door behind her.
David turned the camcorder on again, this time imposing a maturity on his cinematography. He captured the room in a simple, static frame. When he was convinced that the dead soldier’s sister would not return, he set the camcorder aside and carefully positioned himself on his back in the middle of the bed. The mattress was firm and unyielding. He kept still, staring at the ceiling.
His own bed was where it had first dawned on him that he was going to die. He was five years old. Huddled to the side of the bed, he stuffed his small head into the space between the mattress and the wall, opened his eyes and stared into nothingness, evoking the day when he would stop being. That night he fell farther and deeper than the floor, as death ripened into knowledge.
* * *
David watched the footage of the dead soldier’s room for hours, then turned off the television and looked around his own room. What if he were dead and it survived him? Exploring the space like an archeologist, he noted the posters on the wall, the CD collection and the bookshelf, all of which revealed nothing of substance about him. The real goldmine was the drawer full of Hi8 video cassette tapes, though acting as his friends’ official cameraman, David himself was largely absent from the screen.
He shut the drawer in a panic. What should he do now, knowing that if the inevitable were to become imminent, his legacy would be sorely unprepared? He rushed over to the kitchen, pulled the phone book from its perch on top of the fridge, found the number for the dead soldier’s family and dialed, moving fast, before disaster struck.
The softness of her voice took him by surprise. He asked, “Are you in your room?”
“Yeah,” she spoke slowly, apprehensively. “Why?”
“I’m in my room too. Do you want to write a will?”
“What? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Write a will. So we have one in our drawers.”
“I don’t get it.”
But she did get it, he was sure of it. She was the only person in the world who could possibly get it, the only person in the world he could be talking to right now. “I’m serious,” he said. “I’m going to do it.”
“What, like, right now?”
“Yeah. I’m going to write one right now.”
He bit down on his smile. It was all up to her now. He couldn’t explain it, but he knew he wouldn’t see this through without the dead soldier’s sister as his partner and witness. She made the difference between a pathetic, lonesome exercise and an act of profound significance.
“Okay …” she said. “But what … I mean, what do you expect me to do?”
“Get a pen and paper,” he said, and flattened a notebook on his desk. “We’ve got to write an opening statement.”
“Well ... whoever reads this will find it after we’re dead, so how about ... Rumor has it that people listen after you’ve died in a way they’ve never listened before. They stop and take in every single word.”
“That’s creepy,” she said.
“Really? Felt all right to me.”
“Okay ... It seems important that I leave behind a few instructions. I care about you all, and wouldn’t want to leave you in the dark. I hope I can help you with my silent writing.”
“I like that part,” she whispered. “My silent writing.”
The pen and paper were slowing him down, so he abandoned them. “In the bottom drawer on the right you’ll find my videotapes. Copies of the tapes can be made, upon request, for anyone who asks to watch them, but for an optimal viewing experience, they should come and watch the originals in the same room where I watched and edited them while I was still alive.”
On the other end of the line, he heard rustling and rifling. Her voice wavered as she countered his passage with one of her own: “In the drawer under my bed you’ll find a red notebook that says 'Sociology' on it. In it, from the fifth page on, you’ll find poems and short stories I’ve written. Anybody who asks for a copy can get as many as he or she wants to have.”
She wasn’t writing down her instructions either but speaking them for his sake. Neither of them was able to sit at a desk at that moment, and they bounced around their small rooms. He held up his camera case like a flashy prosecutor in a courtroom melodrama and said, “I leave my video camera to my best friend, Oded Ben-Shabat. In honor of my life and death, he has to videotape all the people dear to him, and produce at least one tape per month.”
She laughed. It was the first time he’d ever heard her laugh. “Wow, has to. That’s brutal.” She took a breath of courage and said, “In my drawer you’ll find a brown book I stole from the Rosenthals when I babysat for them last mo— I mean, in February of 1996. You’ll recognize the book by the inscription that reads “From Shimon, with love”. The book must be returned to Amos and Irit. Tell them I’m sorry, but that the book really helped me out.”
He knew better than to ask for the name of the book. He hopped onto his bed and ran a finger along the top shelf of his bookcase. “In my room you’ll find a VHS tape that has a sticker on it that says '1987 Eurovision Song Contest'. This is a copy of the first porno I ever saw, and I bequeath it to my friend Slava Yagman, to do with it as he pleases!”
She let out a giggle. After more rustles on her end, she declared, “I bequeath all of my fat clothes to my cousin Meital Lavie, who has to take them all to the Lag BaOmer bonfire and burn them!”
“All right!” he laughed.
They continued to rip through their rooms, cataloguing and defining, assigning owners and gravity to objects small and large, saddling them with instructions, commands, reaching out from the grave and shaping the lives of those left behind, sharpening their own deaths into aesthetically pleasing pinnacles, exposing themselves through their possessions, showering each other with clues.
When they had itemized their rooms down to the furniture and the tiles, he said, “Wow. Fuck. That was awesome.” He was sweating, and smiling so hard his cheeks hurt. She was panting into the phone. Their rooms were spinning, two satellites in orbit around the same world. He had to sit down.
* * *
They met the following afternoon and every afternoon after that, until the playground became theirs. David lied to her about his schedule, adding an hour to the end of his day to ensure that his friends were long gone by the time he set off to see her, while she arrived before him and left after he did, hiding the sight of her body in motion. A frown greeted him on that first afternoon, then a pursing of the lips, then the tightest, faintest smile.
At the top of every meeting she presented him with a gift for his movie-in-progress, a piece of her brother. The first relic was a baby picture, browned and creased. David held it between his fingers with reverence. Next was a holiday card made with construction paper and crayons. Then came her brother’s report cards, climbing up through the grades day after day. The articles were stolen from a special drawer in her parents’ bedroom and could only be removed one at a time, or her parents might notice their absence.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked one day.
“Because ... these things just make my parents sad. But they make you happy.”
His cheeks flushed with shame. “It’s not like that, they don’t make me happy.”
“Yeah they do.”
“I’m not happy that your brother ...”
“I know that. It’s okay, you don’t have to, like, explain yourself to me.”
They sat closer together on the bench and discussed her latest finding, though they spoke of her brother less and less and talked about themselves instead, their own baby pictures and kindergarten drawings and report cards, their lives as collages of found-object art. After he’d preserved it on tape, the latest object borrowed from the dead soldier’s sister – his very own library of death – could fulfill its true function as a talisman. David kept it on his person at all times, and whenever he sensed his appreciation for life dipping, or his anxiety rising, he used the reminder of mortality concealed in his pocket to inject vitality and hope into his heart.
He gripped the latest artifact when, in the aftermath of yet another suicide bombing, the day’s lessons were canceled in favor of a class discussion about feelings.
“I’ll start us off,” the teacher said. “Ever since I heard the news, I’ve been feeling angry. That might not make any sense, but it’s how I feel.” She etched the word anger on the blackboard. Hands rose on all sides, quick to appease, relishing the break from studying.
“I think what scares us is that we all could’ve been there. Like, I take the bus to school every day,” one boy said.
Another girl said, “It’s really sad to read about all the people who died, to hear about their lives and their families and all that.” The words fear and sadness were dutifully added to the board.
David raised his free hand, the one not caressing the dead soldier’s report card.
“Yes, David? What do you feel?”
“Teacher, I feel like I have to go to the bathroom,” he said. His friends choked on their chuckles. “May I be excused?”
Alone on the bleachers, he studied the report card, which seemed to him now a summary of wasted time. It spoke to the tragedy of the dead soldier’s short life, squandered on pointless preparation and blind obedience. David longed for more than these byproducts of the dead soldier’s existence. He wanted to swim in the dead boy’s soul.
* * *
Once they had cycled through childhood drawings, greeting cards, and twelve years’ worth of report cards, the dead soldier’s sister presented him with military documents, a few of which were identical to the brown envelopes David had been receiving in the mail lately, military summons to the recruitment center for medical and psychological evaluations. When his father asked him about these summons at the dinner table, David mentioned the dead soldier’s paperwork aloud for the first time.
“He wanted to serve in the army radio unit,” David said. “But his medical profile was too high, so they sent him to combat.”
“Lots of people want lots of things,” his father said in the weary, knowing voice he employed when dispensing worldly advice. “You think I wanted to be an insurance claims adjuster? You think your mom wanted to work at the post office?”
“Excuse me,” his mother said. “I like my job.”
“How about you?” his father said. “Are you getting in shape?”
His sister Dana laughed, and his mother said, “He doesn’t need to get in shape. He’s going to serve in the video unit.”
“If I was the chief of staff, he’d be in the video unit,” his father said. “But I’m not. How many pushups can you do? Let’s see you.”
“Moshe, please, we’re eating here.”
David shrugged and rose from his seat. His little sister turned in her chair, poised greedily. His mother sighed. David flattened his body by the dinner table and pushed away from the floor, counting up and one, up and two, up and three, up and four. Blood pounded in his ears.
“All right, David, that’s enough.”
Clearly his mother did not understand what was at stake. As long as he had a trace of will left in him, he was committed to pressing his body away from the ground that wished to swallow him whole. Time fogged his eyes, or was that sweat? Dropping down was easy, rising up increasingly impossible. His muscles burned, his stomach cramped, his face reddened to a boil. He froze midway, able to arrest the fall but unable to reverse his trajectory. The flecks of orange in the kitchen tiles arranged themselves as faces mocking him.
“All right, that’s enough, get up. Go wash your face.”
His reflection in the bathroom mirror was an unexpected sight; instead of a pale, clammy, blue-lipped boy he found a rosy young man whose hair had matted perfectly to his forehead, refreshed and alive. He couldn’t wait to tell the dead soldier’s sister all about it.
* * *
Throughout the school day, under the watchful eyes of his teachers, David communed with the latest souvenir as best he could, often losing himself in a reverie that lasted entire periods. If the object in his possession had any writing on it he would read it and mumble it under his breath like a mantra. When there were no words, he gently explored surfaces like a blind man—a photograph, a keychain, and once, for a spine-tingling twenty-four hours, a plastic bag packed with the dead soldier’s curls, swept up and gathered after his first ceremonial haircut at the age of three.
When his homeroom teacher plucked him out of the flow of students rushing past her desk on their way out, he assumed she’d noticed his attention straying, and he braced for the reprimand. She remained seated, sorting through papers that might someday be archived in memoriam if their composers were to die too young. “David. I need you to bring the memorial movie to the teacher’s lounge tomorrow,” she said.
“What?” he spoke softly, ashamed. “No, teacher, it won’t be ready by tomorrow.”
“Well then finish it.”
“I can’t finish it by tomorrow. I’m still getting footage.”
“Footage? What footage? Didn’t you get the pictures from the family?”
“Yeah, but there’s more.”
His teacher paused her shuffling to look up. “I told you we needed pictures and music, something simple and respectable. What kind of movie are you making?”
“A good one,” he said.
“Well, I need you to bring me whatever you’ve got by tomorrow.”
“Teacher, no. I’m not going to give you something that isn’t finished.”
She rubbed her fingers across her forehead. “You understand it’s very important that we have something to show at the ceremony.”
“I know that,” he said. “It’s the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
David’s teacher had always appeared bigger than the students she summoned to her desk, even as they towered over her, precariously balanced after spurts of growth. Yet at that moment she seemed small and lost. Bolstered by her silence, David said, “I saw his report card. You were his teacher, too. You gave him a 70 in history.”
“I need that movie, David,” she said quietly. “Finish it. Okay? Thank you. You’re dismissed.”
* * *
His time with the dead soldier’s sister was nearing its end. He could not bring himself to say this to her face in the playground, but later that evening, over the phone, he announced that tomorrow would be the day of the interview. She would take her mother’s place as the highlight of his movie.
Over the years he’d filled countless notebooks with high-school teachings, answers and questions and problems to be solved, and here, concentrated on a single page, were the only questions that mattered: Describe the moment when you heard of his death. If he could tell us one last thing, what do you think he’d say? Where do you think he’d be today if he were alive? Was he afraid of death? Describe your most intimate moment with your brother. What was his biggest dream?
The dead soldier’s dog-tag was the latest offering, and David gripped it throughout the day, never once pulling his hand out of his pocket, the engraved metal etching lines into his palm. He waited for the dead soldier’s sister at the playground, unsure whether she was late or he was early, knowing only that it was unusual, that he’d never waited for her before. When she finally appeared he welcomed her silently, staring at her with glassy eyes until she sat down on the far end of the bench and he smelled her unique blend of sweat and perfume and snapped into place beside her.
“Hey,” he said.
Though her clothes hung loosely around her like a tent, she still hugged her backpack to her body to shield her breasts. There was the camcorder’s case too, a wedge between them, set in the middle of the bench. David ripped off the Velcro straps and slipped his right hand into the camcorder’s strap.
“Do we have to start right away?” she asked.
“Yeah, why not?”
He pushed the eyepiece up to his skin, blocking out everything that wasn’t her. Already she was immortal, cut out from time, potentially replayed over and over.
“You all right? Can I start asking questions?”
Her aversion to the lens was instantly apparent. She barely nodded, her chin tucked in.
“Give me an example of the sort of thing only your brother would say or do. Something that couldn’t come from anybody else.”
She pressed her chin harder into her breastplate, as if trying to break through her body, to fold herself flat. Sitting like this was torture for her, that much was clear, but to David’s eye, every second of her squirming was refined truth.
“Can you turn the camera off for a second?” she asked.
He did not turn it off, but set it down in his lap, the lens pointed away from her at an awkward angle, capturing his inner thigh and a patch of sky.
She said nothing.
“We can stop,” he said, hoping she would reject the offer immediately.
“Can I see the questions?”
“I think it’s much better if you hear them one at a time, that way you can answer them on the spot, from the heart.”
“I want to see the questions.”
Her expression hardened. She would not relent, and for the first time in weeks he felt the distance between them broadening. It pained him to hand her his notebook; it was too personal, too revealing, and he recognized his hypocrisy, considering what he expected of her.
She studied the page and frowned. “Are all of these questions about him?”
“Yeah ...” he said. “Why ... who else would they be about?”
He noticed then the sheen in her eyes, the effort to hold back tears. He had seen her angry, seen her bitter and begrudging and embarrassed and suspicious and even excited, but it occurred to him just then that, though she was his ambassador of grief, he had never seen her sad. It was a terrible, sobering sight.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to …”
“I don’t want to talk about him.”
She said, “Don’t be mad.”
“I’m not. You’re the one who should be mad …”
Two tears raced down her cheeks. She wiped them away quickly, but without shame. Her features scrunched together and then evened out. She did this again and again. When she was tight she was uglier than usual, and when she was smooth she was beautiful. He fought the urge to fix the lens on her in this revealing state, a dance of weakness and strength. It lasted no more than a few seconds. The dead soldier’s sister took a deep breath and stared off into space.
“I can’t do this,” she said.
“Let’s do something else.”
“Okay ... like what?”
“I don’t know ...” she spoke to the trees. “Go to the beach. Go see a movie. Take the bus to Tel Aviv and walk around.”
They should have done just that, put the camcorder away, left the bench and set off together. Why hadn’t they? Why wouldn’t they?
He said, “What if instead of an interview, you wrote me a letter?”
“Yeah, a letter from your brother to me. You knew him well. You can probably guess what he’d write. Do you think you could do that? Write a letter from him?”
Now she turned, and he saw his transformation in her eyes, the slight dilation of her pupils adjusting to his darkness. The camera was pointed away from her blank expression, but the audio track on the surreptitious recording captured the chilling delay, a silence that lasted a full seventeen seconds before the rustling of her clothes and backpack was heard. She gathered herself and walked away.
Later in life, when the full weight of conflict struck him down, when actions and reactions drew blood and left scars, when crossroads rushed at him like walls thrusting out of the earth, David would look back on this moment as the key to accepting his misfortunes. He would always be the boy who asked a girl to fill her fallen brother’s shoes – charred, the smoke still rising from them – and for this he felt deserving of all forms of retribution that came his way.
As if to honor her final request, he left the playground for Tel Aviv, passing by the newly infamous crosswalk where only a week earlier a suicide bomber had killed thirteen, mostly children. The dead appeared on television in hastily assembled memorials made of pictures and home movies set to mournful music. They were formally discussed in his classroom in tones of increasing resignation and, in private, among his friends, creeping cynicism, a reckless, youthful disregard for anonymous lives extinguished out of sight. Death could lie on their doorsteps all it wanted; as long as they didn’t open the door, they remained untouchable.
* * *
He ignored his father and turned right down the hallway toward his room. Motion flickered in the corner of his eye. A hand grabbed his shoulder.
“David. We have company.”
Stepping back, his father revealed the stage set in the living room. His mother was standing across from an older couple. David recognized the woman, the dead soldier’s mother. The round, bald man by her side had to be the dead soldier’s father.
His mother introduced David to the bereaved parents, her voice restrained and unnaturally soft. The bereaved father offered David his hand. “We don’t know each other. It’s good to meet you.” David lost his fingers to the large man’s fleshy palm. The dead soldier’s mother looked away as they shook hands.
“I’m sorry,” David said. “The movie’s not ready yet.”
“That’s not why we’re here,” the bereaved father said. “We know you’ve become ... friendly with our daughter. When I first heard about that, I was happy that she had a friend. She’s not very sociable. She doesn’t leave the house that much. But now that I understand what the two of you have been doing together ...” He glanced over at his wife, who glared at him, lips pursed. As if suddenly disappointed, he turned back to David. “She’s always been a good student, and now she’s failed two tests. She’s been cutting class. She’s not focused. And she’s been spending time in her brother’s room. She’s not present, you understand? She’s not with us. And your parents tell me you’ve been a little distracted recently too.”
“She thinks you’re in love with her,” the bereaved mother blurted. She covered her mouth with her hand. The grownups shifted in place. The dead soldier’s father looked down on him with such pity that David felt his knees melting away.
“You have to understand,” the bereaved father spoke calmly. “It took her a while to recover after what happened to her brother, but she made it through the worst of it, and now you’re digging up all the hurt she’s worked so hard to overcome. She came to us today, this afternoon, she told us everything. That wasn’t an easy thing for her to do. She was very troubled, David. We would appreciate it if you left her alone. We know you meant no harm, but all good intentions aside, you are the older one. You’re practically a soldier yourself. It’s too much for her. Do you understand?”
“Did she give you anything that belongs to our son?” the bereaved mother said. The cracks and bubbles in her voice contrasted with her husband’s eerily measured tone. “You give it back right this instant. It doesn’t belong to you.”
David rocked like a man in prayer. His mother urged him to answer. He shook his head and said, “I don’t have it. I gave it back.”
“All right,” David’s father said. “I think David understands everything that’s been said here. Isn’t that right, David?”
“You’ll make sure he stays away from our daughter?” the bereaved mother said.
“He’ll stay away.”
“I don’t want him anywhere near our daughter!”
“We understand,” his father said, the words slowed by the friction of his anger.
“Make him say it. I want to hear him say it.”
“That’s enough. They’re just children.”
“Children? You call an eighteen-year-old a child?”
“He’s seventeen. And yes, he’s a child.”
“No, I’m starting to get mad here. You don’t come into my house and call my boy a monster.”
The bereaved mother turned to her husband. “They need to make him say it.”
“I’ll stay away from her,” David said. “I promise.”
“There you go,” the bereaved father said, and smiled around the room, a true diplomat. “Thank you. We appreciate it.”
The bereaved father initiated a round of handshakes with such confidence that no one dared object. David stood by untouched, neither child nor monster yet excluded by nature from this civil farewell.
In time his parents would forget, and he would forget, and the shame would scab over, turn to flakes and dust, but the dead soldier’s sister would never be his.
Worse still, thinking that he might die tomorrow did nothing to alleviate the pain.
He’d come to rely on the presence of death to strip his woes of their significance, to act as an antidote to fear. He nestled into his death at night, and it handily dwarfed his life, sorrows and all. Until now. His death was meant to diminish the loss, but instead, the loss somehow amplified his death. He would never see her again.
* * *
After that day, David practiced habitual lateness, cutting across the empty school courtyard fifteen minutes after the first bell rang. He hid in the bathroom for hours after his last class had ended, and left through the side entrance. He developed a fear of the outdoors, not because there were men with explosives strapped to their bodies roaming the streets but because she was out there, somewhere. He surrounded himself with friends but seldom spoke and half-listened. His parents did not mention the dead soldier’s sister again and soon buried the incident and relaxed back into carelessness.
A week before Memorial Day, he sat with other boys and girls in a hallway at the military reception and sorting base that seemed to him identical in every way to a high-school hallway. Some of the soldiers around him were no more than three or four months his seniors, yet their world existed beyond a threshold. He was called into a small room and asked to breathe deeply into a machine and cough while a military nurse propped up his testicles.
A female soldier framed by a hole in the wall said, “Were you told to fast?”
“No one told you that you had to fast?”
“It wasn’t in your summons?”
“When was the last time you ate?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you have any breakfast? Any coffee?”
“Did you have dinner last night? Or any late-night snacks?”
“Then you did fast. Why are you wasting my time? Follow me.”
She led him to a nurse who took his blood while he looked away.
The next day, his teacher took the memorial movie from him in its original version, thin and bare, pictures and music and nothing more.
He waited for the day of the ceremony.
* * *
The dead soldier’s family had donated money to reconstruct the school’s memorial wall. For decades, rows of photographs commemorated the fallen alumni, their portraits stamped into faded, scuffed wood outside the principal’s office. The pictures at the top were black and white. Color first appeared in the late seventies, faded like old newspaper. The pictures at the bottom were glossy and sharp. David’s dead soldier appeared third from the last, familiar to David like a brother.
The wood of the old memorial wall had been functional and unadorned, modest as a synagogue bench, while the new wall was made of a deeper, richer wood the shade of dried blood, sculpted out of a tree with the knobs and bumps still artfully showing. Volunteer students pushed a rolling stand with a TV and a VCR out to the hallway and ran cables back to the principal’s office. A photographer from the local newspaper snapped a dozen pictures of the wall and the guests who had come to witness the recasting of their loved ones’ images.
David kept his distance. At first there was no sound at all, and the student volunteers rushed up and pressed buttons in a fright. The green bars of the television’s volume display lingered on the screen for too long afterward, marring the images of the dead soldier. Eventually they disappeared. David studied his audience. The dead soldier’s sister watched his movie with red eyes and dry cheeks.
When it was over, the dead soldier’s mother excused herself and vanished. The dead soldier’s father walked up to David and shook his hand. “You did a very good job with the movie,” he said.
“Is it okay if I talk to her, just for a second?” David asked.
“Of course,” her father said, as if nothing had ever happened between them. “Go on.”
David walked up to the dead soldier’s sister and asked her to step aside. They rounded the corner and stood in the open hallway. He asked if he could hug her, and she agreed. Her body felt small against his. When she pulled away, it was like turbulence.
He said, “It’s been so weird for me, not seeing you.”
She said, “Yeah, it was weird for me too.”
“Yeah. I mean ... I got used to it.”
He shoved his hands back in his pockets and closed his fists on nothing. He took a deep breath and recited the words he had practiced for days. “I don’t want things to end like this. I don’t want to die while you’re not talking to me.”
The dead soldier’s sister nodded, as if his words made perfect sense, as if she’d known he would say just that.
She said, “Then don’t die.”
Yaron Kaver has written for Israeli television and translated screenplays for hundreds of Israeli films and shows. His fiction has appeared in Cold Mountain Review, Read Short Fiction, Fractal Magazine, MonkeyBicycle and Crack the Spine. His short story “And the Oscar Goes to Jail” won first prize in the 2014 Mark Twain House Humor Writing Contest. He has a BFA in Film and Television from NYU and an MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Read another story by Yaron Kaver ('And the Oscar Goes to Jail') at Read Short Fiction.
Walter Nguyen is a French photographer. View more of his work on Flickr.