Chapter Seven: "Making Room"
“Whatcha think?” Hands on his hips, surveying the dusty room that makes up the upper floor of their home, Louk waits for Kaethe’s reaction. He’ll admit the room is unattractive, and that is putting it mildly. It has been years since the upstairs has been used – since his father died when Louk was four and Hale eight and their uncle moved in to take care of them – and during that time of neglect it has become a pit of dust and moths and spiders. Infested with insects, carrying a moldy odor, dank and dirty, Louk wouldn’t even want to be up here.
And this is to be Kaethe’s room for the next however long she and her brother choose to stay in Barrow.
“Um . . . ,” she starts, staring at a large spider that goes scurrying past her boot. “Um . . .”
Louk laughs, diffusing the tension that the girl is feeling but unable to voice. “Yeah, I wouldn’t want to be up here either. But it’s the only other available room and, well, Uncle Den says you should have your own space. You wouldn’t want to cram into mine and Hale’s room with your brother, would you?”
“Uh, no,” she says firmly. “I wouldn’t. This . . . this is fine.”
“No it’s not,” Hale grumbles, stomping up the stairs and then promptly sneezing on the dust that is suffocating the air. “But it will be. It’s just . . . we haven’t been in here since . . . well, in years. Over ten, actually. Not since our da passed. It’s been locked up and we’ve never wanted to come up, so we just left it.” His brother speaks sadly, eyes going distant and darkening as he thinks back on those awful days that Louk barely even remembers.
And even if he did remember he doubts it would be with the same gut-wrenching pain as Hale. He was only four. There was minimal contact between him and his father during those early years. Not the way it was with Hale. When their father died it was a difficult time for Uncle Den and Hale, and while Louk understands it he doesn’t know.
“Oh,” Kaethe says lamely, squashing the spider that has made its untimely return. “I’m sorry.”
Hale shrugs. “It’s fine,” he answers, repeating her earlier words, even though it’s obviously not. “It was years ago.”
“Still,” Kaethe presses, crossing further into the room, a sleeve over her nose so that she can breathe slightly better. “It doesn’t matter how long. It still hurts.”
Hale exhales heavily. “Yeah.” He clears his throat, opening a window to help clear the air, sending dust raining down from the curtains that have become a breeding ground for those stupid bunnies. Hale coughs, waving through it. “We’ll help clean it up. Uncle Den’s already looking to get you a bed and dresser. He should have both by the end of the week if all goes to plan.”
“Thank you. You’ve done a lot already.”
“It’s our pleasure,” Louk promises her with a teasing grin. “It’s not every day that we get foreigners here. Especially ones as short as you.”
His brother goes over to slap the back of his head, the smack ringing in his ears. The older boy hisses for him to use his manners and to think before he speaks and that maybe biting his tongue could do with being bitten every once in a while. Louk does not agree, giving his lame retort that only gets him another disciplinary swat, this time hurting more than the one before.
“OW!” he yells, scurrying away before Hale can do a follow-up.
“Okay. Fine. I’m sorry, Kaethe. It was meant as a joke.” He glares at his brother who is busy opening the other four windows, scattering more dust in doing so.
“I know,” she answers, rolling up the sleeves of her sweater, the bandage wrapped tightly around her wrist stark white against her tan skin. “Do you have a broom or something?”
“Yeah,” Hale says, looking directly at Louk.
He groans. “Fine. I’ll go fetch it. Sure. Don’t even need to ask me.” Louk hurries downstairs, quieting his steps as he passes the open door to his bedroom, Kaethe’s brother sleeping like the dead inside. After the predicament that took place yesterday Doc Ensen had prescribed a nasty, pungent brew that she ordered them to force down Rett’s throat any time he woke before he could come to full awareness and put up a fight. The tea put the older boy right back to sleep, which she said was what his body needed to heal. Louk figured that her mandate was to prove her dominion over the Eivish whose fight with her had been fairly entertaining to say the least.
Louk had never seen anyone brave enough or stupid enough to challenge Doc Ensen and come out the winner. And that is probably because she can do whatever she likes with them, such as keeping them sedated for as long as she wishes.
As he passes the room he chances a glance inside, finding Rett to be in the same sprawl as he fell two hours ago, partially on his side, legs bent and twisted around the blankets and arms clutching onto a spare pillow. The older boy doesn’t look anywhere near waking, too far gone with the tea he has been plied with, but Louk doesn’t want to take any chances. So he tiptoes past, getting the broom and dustpan from the kitchen, and then returning upstairs to find Kaethe and his brother folding an old blanket that had been used to cover a desk that he didn’t even know they had.
“I come bearing gifts!” he declares, brandishing the items like weapons.
“Great,” Kaethe says, leaving Hale with the blanket and taking the broom from him. She starts swiping at the ceiling, having to jump just to graze the highest points while having even more difficulty holding the groom upright with only one hand. Whatever she is intending to do, it is confusing to Louk and Hale. “What?” she asks when she finally takes notice of them staring at her.
“What’re you doin’?” Louk responds, arching his eyebrow.
“Cleaning. Can one of you reach?”
“So you’re sweeping the ceiling?” Hale needs clarified.
“There’s dust up there, too,” she retorts. “Either of you going to help me?”
Hale grumbles under his breath but goes over, taking the job of ceiling-sweeping from her with only a little complaining involved.
The next several hours are spent cleaning the room, dusting the ceiling and the walls, sweeping the floor, washing every single surface, and then tearing off the moth-eaten curtains to be burnt outside. All in all, by the time Uncle Den returns that evening bearing a box of carry-out from the tavern the room looks infinitely better than when they’d first braved crossing the threshold. It actually, almost looks usable.
“Looks good,” Uncle Den declares when he comes up to call them for dinner. He sees the desk and laughs. “I can’t believe that’s still there,” he says with a faraway look in his eyes, remembering something long past that is only just now becoming bearable to think on. “The thing was a horrible attempt at carpentry from your father.” He goes over, pushing against one side, sending the entire thing tilting alarmingly. “He made this for your mother but she never used it. She secretly hated it, too disproportionate and small for her to sit at. She used to swear she would burn it. I thought she had.”
Louk watches as his brother smiles at the memory. He only shrugs, not really that interested in hearing more about a woman he never even met. He’s learned, early on, that it does no good to dwell on what simply isn’t. Sure, there were plenty of times growing up when he wishes he was like the other kids, with a Mam and a Da to annoy with incessant chatter, but . . . well, he got Uncle Den out of the arrangement, and having his uncle as his da was perfectly fine with him.
Things were different for his brother, though, who had memories of a happier time when it was just the three – before Louk was born and things kind of took a downhill tumble. So remembering, at least for Hale, was always something their family tried to avoid because, no matter how calm and collected Hale normally was on a day to day basis, when he got sad and upset he was downright terrifying to be around.
“So,” he begins, clapping his hands and interrupting the moment before it can turn melancholy. “What’s for dinner?”
“Fried chicken, potatoes, biscuits and greens,” Uncle Den replies promptly, turning from the desk and the memory knowing exactly what it is that he is doing. Their uncle looks carefully at Hale, trying to gage the other boy’s state, seeing if he’s been set off or if they were just in time.
So far so good, though.
“And it’s getting cold the longer we stand here talking,” Uncle Den continues. “Go wash up. I’ll have the table set when you finish.”
“Good. I’m starving,” Louk announces, leading the way downstairs and to the washroom. He is the first there and therefore the first done, making towards the kitchen. “Should we try waking up Rett?” he asks his uncle as the older man sets out four plates, holding onto the fifth.
Uncle Den shrugs. “You could try. I believe Doctor Ensen’s tea will keep him sleeping for a little while longer but . . . I wouldn’t put it past that boy to wake up just to spite her.” Uncle Den chuckles, shaking his head. “I’ve never seen someone argue with her like him. She wasn’t at all too happy about it. She almost told me to never call her back wherever he’s concerned.”
Louk grins. “In his defense, she wasn’t being all that gentle when she was digging at him.”
“While that may be the case it could have something to do with him cursing her to O’nah Tyre’in and back,” his uncle suggests with equal mirth. “We could hear him almost back in Knoll. That Eive has a set of lungs on him.”
“Yeah. And a way with words, too.” He spins around to check on Rett, finding that Kaethe is already in the room trying to shake her brother awake. “Is it working?” he asks her in a mediocre whisper, hanging back, giving them space, but still in full view of the older boy remaining stubbornly unresponsive as his sister rolls him forcefully back and forth.
“No,” she sighs, drawing away. “But he needs to eat.” She sounds worried, a little nervous, but she looks passive, completely unaffected by anything and everything. “Would . . . would it be alright if we saved him a biscuit or something?”
“Yeah. Uncle Den’s probably making him a plate right now anyway.”
“Oh. Okay.” She tries one last time to wake him, but then gives up, leaving the room with Louk following along behind her. When they get to the table it is apparent that Uncle Den has already set aside some of the food for Rett in case he wakes and is hungry later. It sits on the counter, covered in a thin cloth. “Thank you,” Kaethe tells him as Hale directs her to the chair next to his.
“You’re very welcome, Kaethe. And how is your brother doing?” Uncle Den asks her.
“Still sleeping like the healer wanted.” She waits as they all take heaping amounts of chicken and potatoes before she dishes herself a small amount, picking at the potatoes and nibbling on the green beans.
“You can have more,” Louk tells her from his place opposite. “There’s plenty.”
Uncle Den and Hale are quick to agree with him, prompting her to take more, but only a little. She tells them that she’s not entirely hungry, a little worried. She explains that she’s not used to chicken or potatoes, having grown up eating seafood that is a novelty up in Barrow. When she takes a strip of chicken and crunches on it, she looks a little surprised as she says that it tastes good before taking another bite.
After dinner she, Hale and Louk take care of the dishes, Kaethe washing, Louk drying and Hale putting. Uncle Den goes to the living room, starting up a fire as the chill starts to enter the cabin with the loss of the sun. When they finish they go and join him, sitting in silence for a while, not tense but not entirely natural.
Sometime later Kaethe disappears into the bedroom and hushed voices can be heard. She fetches the plate from the kitchen and then can hear her talking to her brother, encouraging him to eat even though he whines about being tired and not hungry and ‘Just leave me alone, you nag!’ Uncle Den starts at the venomous snarl while Louk and his brother trade snickers.
An hour passes before Kaethe comes back out, the plate mostly untouched except for the biscuit and greens. She doesn’t look entirely too pleased, audibly grinding her teeth as she passes them all by. There is rummaging in the kitchen, Hale about to ask her if he can help, and then she is returning, a cup in hand that they hear her order her brother to drink and ‘I don’t care if it tastes foul, you’ll drink it or I’m going to make you.’ This gets more grumbling from Rett who they can all tell isn’t pleased with the passing events.
Kaethe joins them once more with a triumphant smile, washing the cup and then sinking back down next to Hale.
“I take it your brother is doing well?” Uncle Den asks after a moment of quiet between them all.
She snorts out a laugh. “He’s being his usual, argumentative, annoying self so, yeah, he’s doing great. Asleep again – or he will be in a minute – so that’s an improvement.” Gone is the worry from before. Left behind is the irritation that can only come from siblings, one that Louk understands all too well and, from the smirk his brother wears, he can tell the other boy feels the same.
“Yeah. Until he wakes up again.”
“. . . Hear’ tha’,” Rett slurs from the bedroom.
“You were meant to,” she retorts easily.