Chapter one: Nightmares
Before my back hit the headboard I slammed on the sidelight. The bulb illuminated every corner of the room. There were no riflemen at the doorway.
I grappled with the sweat-soaked sheets that were knotted around my legs and once free, I rocked back and forth, desperately trying to breathe through the pain.
People say you can’t die in your dreams … they’re wrong.
Finally I slumped down with my hands lying limp over the phantom bullet holes that riddled my chest.
After a moment I took a shuddering breath and fumbled my book from the bedside table. I didn’t need to find my place, I’d read it a dozen times. The important thing was how fast I could be lost in the story; how far I could be pulled out of my own head.
As I read my eyes grew heavy but I resisted the tug of sleep. Zillah was lurking in the shadows ready to draw me into the field and I didn’t want to go back. I glanced at the clock: 1.06.
Five hours till morning.
The men won’t stop to let us clean up Amos’ sick.
It oozes into the grooves around our shoes and the smell mixes with the reek of petrol until I feel sick too. I swallow and cover my mouth.
Daddy squeezes my knee. His face is white, so I cuddle closer to him.
Amos is sitting across from me. Our knees bump and I catch his eye, hoping he might play I-spy for a bit, but he starts to gag.
I pull my legs back. “Daddy, Amos is going to be sick again.”
Daddy jumps to his feet and bangs on the partition but the driver won’t speak to him.
With my toes I prod the satchel that contains my most precious things. The picture of Mother is on top and I wonder if I should check that it’s still clean. Amos gulps and covers his mouth.
We’ve been driving for almost two hours now. When are we going to stop?
“Don’t make me go through this again.”
The thought pulled me out of the girl but I stayed inside the dream and was forced to watch the trucks draw up to the field, a detached observer.
“I have to wake up, please, please, please.”
It was no good. I snapped back into the little Jewish girl.
Amos jumps up as soon as the engine stops. He knocks my knees to the side and runs to the back of the truck. But before he can stick his head through the tarpaulin, it opens from the outside and the men are there.
They glare at us with mean eyes and Amos staggers back to his seat with his hands over his mouth.
The youngest of them gestures. “Raus, dreißig Minuten Pause.”
I don’t like the men, but I’m happy to be getting a break.
Daddy lets Amos and his family out ahead of us then he helps me onto the road. He stands next to me as I clutch my satchel and blink in the bright sunshine. Then my eyes adjust and I see a field of gold right next to us. After being stuck in the truck all morning it’s tempting.
Daddy catches me as I start towards the barley. “Stay by my side, Zillah,” he murmurs.
I hold a sigh and watch the other trucks empty until around twenty of us are standing by the side of the road. I wave at my singing teacher. She looks away sadly.
The horrible men point to the field. “Los dort entlang, da gibt es Mittagessen.”
I check Mother’s watch. It’s early for lunch and I’m not hungry, not even for my sweets, but everyone else starts to go where we’re told so Daddy and I have to follow.
A couple of the younger children start to run around, but Daddy keeps hold of my hand. Some of the women sit and spread their skirts. Then they turn their faces to the sun. They remind me of flowers … so pretty. I look up as well and smile as the breeze sweeps away the memory of the awful journey. Birds wheel overhead. They make me feel dizzy so I look back down.
In the distance two hills create a deep valley. Standing exactly between them I face a Burg which hunches between the hills like an old chaperone. I almost giggle but my stomach rumbles, surprising me. We didn’t eat this morning; we didn’t have time. Maybe I could manage lunch after all.
I look for the men.
Irresistibly I floated upwards again.
“For God’s sake … run!”
I shouted so loudly my throat hurt, but the girl didn’t hear. She never runs … until it’s too late.
“Please let me wake up before I …”
… My singing teacher falls into the mud. Her skirt crumples and she looks into the sun with the new eye in the middle of her forehead.
I can’t scream. My mouth won’t work.
Some of Daddy’s friends are running towards the trucks, but they keep being knocked back and the air fills with crimson rain, the crackle of gunfire and endless screaming.
My friend Amos falls next to his mother and his brother, Isaac, crawls towards us with blood all over his face.
Daddy shakes me and my head snaps back. “Zillah, run!” He’s wheezing. “Get deep into the field and hide.”
Why does he sound so strange?
I stare at him. He’s holding his arm and his hand is red.
“Daddy!” I reach up to touch him but he shoves me away. I burst into tears, drop my satchel, and start to run.
I’m crying and coughing. Yellow dust chokes me and the barley stalks are taller than my head. I can barely see. Daddy keeps his hand on my back and pushes me on.
Then, over all the noise, I hear him grunt. His hand falls from my back and the sun catches my face. His shadow isn’t over me any more. I turn and find him face down on a line of grain.
My heart stops beating as it breaks.
Then the gunfire stops. It leaves behind a sickening silence. I struggle to see through the barley as the terrible men move into the field. Some of them are carrying shovels.
I crouch next to Daddy and shove my fingers in my mouth. I mustn’t make a sound.
Then I hear Isaac’s voice. He’s begging. He invokes the name of G-d but the men ignore him. The sound of the gun going off is like the crack of ice on the winter river.
I shut my eyes.
The barley rustles right beside me but I keep my eyes squeezed tight. I don’t want to see the man who has come for me.
But there is no other noise and after a while I have to look.
One of them is standing above me, looking down with a half smile on his face. He is young. My lips tremble hopefully.
“Da bist du also Mäuschen,” he says.
Then he raises his gun.
As I staggered into the bathroom I knocked my elbow on the doorframe. Wincing and rubbing my arm I narrowed my eyes at the mirror. Today of all days I’d wanted to look halfway decent but my hair was snarled into straggly knots and a deep itch on my forehead warned me that a spot was on its way.
That’s just great.
I stepped into the shower where I held my head under the hot water for as long as I could. As streams flowed between my toes I half dozed. Then I shook myself awake, washed my hair and dried off with one of Dad’s towels. It went round me twice.
I’ve lost more weight.
My face swayed in the steamy mirror and for one confused moment I thought Zillah had broken out of my dreams. Quickly I wiped the glass. The long wet hair could be Zillah’s, but the eyes looking back at me were grey, not brown and the face was older and ravaged by tiredness.
I fumbled with my concealer and tried to cover the red blotches that flowered on my skin. Then I rubbed the stick back and forth under my eyes where the bags were nearly as dark as my pupils.
Pale as the dead I stared at myself: at my narrow, pinched lips, my long straight nose, the straggles of hair that wrapped around my shoulder blades.
Then I groaned and went to get dressed.
In the kitchen I reached for the coffee. Mum stopped laying out the breakfast things long enough to knock my hand away. “You know I don’t like you drinking that stuff.”
I tightened my ponytail and let her see my bloodshot eyes.
“Oh, Cassie.” Her shoulders slumped and she slid her own drink towards me. “The exams are in a couple of months … after that it’ll get better.” But she didn’t meet my gaze. Instead she pulled on the cord of her gown and rubbed her slippers on a patch of faded lino as if to buff it up.
Yeah, right. I’ve had these nightmares as long as either of us can remember.
She looked up hopefully. “Did you read that book?”
I wrapped my hands around the mug and nodded.
“She’s an expert. I thought it might have the answer.” Her eyes dimmed. “It didn’t help, did it?”
I shook my head. “No, it didn’t.”
The book, Learn Lucid Dreaming by Leaza Ashworth MD, was in my wastebasket. I’d hurled it there this morning as soon as I got out of bed.
According to Doctor Ashworth I should be able to rewrite and redirect my own dream scripts: CHANGE negative dream dimensions into their opposite, positive sides. There was even an example: if someone is trying to shoot you, replace that gun with flowers or give them a hug. If that proves too difficult, make the gun misfire, or the bullets whizz overhead.
Pain throbbed around my heart, where the last bullet had ended Zillah’s life.
Mum touched my hand and I jerked. Coffee slopped over my knuckles.
I didn’t know if her apology was for the coffee, or the book, but I grabbed a jay-cloth from the cupboard under the sink and wiped the table before it could leave a mark.
“Have you brought your bags down?” Mum glanced into the hallway.
I nodded as I snagged a slice of toast from the grill.
“Good, your Dad’ll drive you to the airport before work.”
I almost dropped my toast. “I thought I was getting a taxi!”
Mum’s knuckles whitened on a chair back. “We can’t afford a taxi. Eat your breakfast … he’ll be down in a bit.”
“Great.” I sprawled on the chair and she half turned, unable to meet my eyes as footsteps sounded on the stairs.
A grunt heralded Dad’s discovery of my bags. Then he entered the kitchen and the atmosphere crystallised.
Mum looked as if she was going to speak but the pan on the hob boiled over. She leaped to lift it from the heat. “Damn … that’s the porridge.”
Drops continued to splash and sizzle on the ring, curdling the air with the stench of burnt milk. Mum swiped a towel over the mess and Dad tilted his head meaningfully.
I took the pan and turned to face him. If I had to be stuck with him in the car for an hour I had to try one more time. “Dad … I know you don’t want me to go to Germany, but I have to. I won’t be able to do my History coursework properly if I don’t.”
Dad said nothing.
“Miss Barnes explained the coursework system to you, I heard her.”
Impossibly, his face hardened further. “This isn’t something we can afford, Cassie. … Maybe if you were doing better at school it would be worth it. … ”
“You are such an asshole.” I dumped the pan next to the sink and slammed the back door open with my palm. The strains of next door’s radio wafted into the kitchen and I paused with my foot on the back step. “I’m paying for most of this trip with the money I earned at the restaurant. … And if you’d have let me do German I’d be getting straight A’s”
Dad rubbed his chin, raw from his recent shave. “We talked about this, Cassie. History and the Sciences will be more useful to you in the long run than a language you won’t use outside the classroom.”
“It isn’t fair. You can’t complain if I’m not doing well in subjects you made me take.”
“Cassiopeia Farrier.” Mum dropped the tea towel in the sink. “Apologise to your father.”
“No!” Rage washed over me, red hot, and I glowered at the veins of crimson that bled through Dad’s pot-hemmed Begonias. “I was looking forward to going to Germany and he’s ruining it.” My voice broke and I bolted into the back garden. “It’s not as if I’m not trying at school. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not sleeping too well.”
Mum’s voice was muffled by the closing door, but her words darted after me. “You aren’t being fair on your father. It’s hard for him … seeing you like this.”
I barely heard his reply. “Just leave her Marie. I’ll take her to the airport - but I still think it’s a mistake.”