The smoke had been drifting in from other areas of the city for some time now. It smelled of wood mostly, but gradually the smell of flesh permeated more and more. It twisted his stomach, and he pulled the window closed and turned away. He didn’t think that would help for long.
The street was silent, but David could sense the frantic activity going on behind each and every door. It scratched at his skin and made him feel like he should be doing something more. But everything was done. He’d been preparing for a while, ever since his father had gone and the rumours had started about German advances, when the talks about what to do in the event of an invasion had become more and more urgent. The old had urged them to leave, head for the East. They’d seen this sort of thing before, but this, they felt, was different. An apocalypse, the pogrom to end all pogroms. They were pushing their young out of the door, determined not to hold them back. David had known from the start that wouldn’t be an option for him. He had Ruth to think about. Her hacking cough haunted all his thoughts on the subject, and he was certain she wouldn’t survive the journey. While he felt the danger of remaining like a cold breath on the back of his neck, there was a slight chance she’d survive if they stayed. He had to take slight over none.
David kept his plans quiet. He knew some people would be leaving their young and sickly behind and he didn’t want to bear those burdens too. If it didn’t work, he could in theory escape with one small child, but that was the limit. He was banking on the flight of the others to save them. He hoped when they came, with everywhere else so deserted, they’d come just to raid and not to search. The cellar was ready. He’d fought the urge to take everything important down; he didn’t want the apartment to look suspicious next to the other abandoned homes. Ruth didn’t understood why she couldn’t save all her favourite things. Really he didn’t want her to. She would have to grow up a lot soon, and he was almost glad to allow her one final childish sulk.
A great heaviness sat in the pit of David’s stomach. He looked properly around the room, perhaps for the last time. It seemed ridiculous to be contemplating such change when everything looked the same as it always had. All the ornaments, all the furniture was unchanged. The same paintings were on the wall and the same books on the shelves. It made him feel like a child, playing at war. How could be sure that his decisions were the right ones? What if he was taking the wrong path. It would take minutes to reverse the plans of months, to run down to the cellar and grab the bags and call to Ruth that they were leaving. Was that little voice right that said she could make it and he was just staying because something in him balked at running away like a victim? He laughed aloud at that. He knew he was a victim no matter what he did. Hiding in Kaunas, fleeing to Russia, it was all one and the same when you really thought about it.
He turned back to the window. People were starting to emerge now, laden with bundles. A soft weeping drifted up even through the closed window. Once the building was empty, they’d go down. He intended to conceal the entrance under a piece of cheap carpet – cheap and filthy. He didn’t want to think about what would happen if someone took a shine to it and found the entrance in the process.
The movement on the street had changed. From a slow, dragging procession it had become jerkier, more nervous. The pace was quickening and heads were flicking back and forth. From behind the houses David could hear shots and shouting. There was frantic babble, and then a deathly hush. People had appeared at either end of the street with clubs and guns. The refugees, his neighbours, looked for escape but they were flanked by their homes on both sides. There was nowhere to go but through them. For a moment, the scene froze and hung in the air. All was quiet. Then everyone seemed to move at once and there was nothing but screaming and thudding and sobs.
David ran into the bedroom and grabbed Ruth. Ignoring her protests, he hurried down the stairs and pulled up the trapdoor in the hallway. He pushed Ruth into the cellar and started to lower the door slowly, shuffling the carpet into place over the top. Every instinct was screaming at him to hurry, but he knew he couldn’t afford to rush. Finally he was done. He fastened the padlock and found Ruth in the darkness. She was crying quietly. He held her against his chest and tried to position her so she wouldn’t be able to hear the noises from outside. All too soon there was a crashing in the hallway above them, and heavy footfalls across the boards. A light shower of dust and grit trickled onto them. David held his breath and prayed.