Authors: Harry Steinman
“Flopsy,” Gergana whispered to her rabbit, “Little One is jealous.” Gergana’s words trailed off in an alcoholic haze.
“The boys don’t care about you. I do. You should spend your time with me.”
Gergana’s widening social interests claimed her. Now, when Papa’s clumsy steps shook the stairs leading to the Rozens’ third-floor apartment, the post outside Eva’s door was abandoned. Eva felt helpless. Her father was a big man, and she was small.
An unexpected warning from a surprising source gave Eva a solution to her growing dilemma. It was an ordinary spring day. Eva was dressed in her usual navy blue gabardine cargo pants. These were hemmed to fit her four-foot frame, cinched with a functional black leather belt that matched heavy black boots. A dark green work shirt gave her the appearance of a dwarfish custodian, and Eva’s trademark black cloak made her look like a walking toadstool.
Mama’s shapeless form greeted Eva that day. She was staring through eyes that were partitioned from the rest of her face by dark circles of fatigue. Despair carved hollows into her face. She shuffled along, wrapped in a frayed bathrobe despite the hour.
Mama started to speak, and then stopped. Eva had removed cleaning supplies from a storage area under a rust-stained sink. She held a bottle of bleach in her right hand and one of ammonia in her left.
“What?” Eva asked.
Mama stood just beyond Eva’s reach. “You might not want to mix bleach with ammonia,” Mama suggested.
“It makes a gas if you mix them.”
Three simple questions from this adolescent girl carried the force of a State Security interrogation.
“Um, bleach has chlorine in it.” She pointed to a label on the bottle. “See, ‘chlorine bleach’. If you mix it with ammonia, it makes chlorine gas which can hurt you. What are you trying to clean?”
Eva showed Mama the offending spot. Mama examined the stain on the heavy fabric’s sleeve. She reached for laundry soap and peroxide.
Eva nodded. She offered no explanation nor did Mama ask for one. Mama dabbed the spot with peroxide, waited, and then scrubbed with laundry soap. She handed the cleaned shirt back to Eva and retreated down the dark hallway.
The label’s warning puzzled Eva. It told her what was hazardous but not why. She went back to her room to find an answer on her bookshelf. Every volume was a text. Each bore the bookplate of Sofia’s public library or of its university. Eva enjoyed the feel of paper and the heft of books and she handled them with the reverence of a rabbi cradling the Torah. Textbooks were her playmates and chemistry was her best friend.
Eva found her answer. Bleach breaks down in ammonia to release chlorine gas, a powerful greenish-yellow poison. During a world war in an earlier century, the gas earned the title of civilization’s first weapon of mass destruction. Eva pondered these facts and determined that she must experiment and learn. It would be easy to find a subject for her investigation. Wild dogs roamed the streets of Sofia. Victims were widespread: the deer enclosure at the city’s zoo suffered an attack and only the largest-antlered bucks survived; a British tourist in Nedyalsko, mauled almost beyond recognition; a child visiting her grandmother, dead. Eva had been set upon as well. She’d had the presence of mind to snap open an umbrella into the dog’s face. Startled, the dog ran.
But dogs were fast and unpredictable. She needed a subject that she could anticipate and even control. She pondered this challenge for several days then found an answer, right at home. Why not Papa? Given his drunken gait up the stairs and off-key singing, she’d have enough time to prepare.
She found a squeeze bottle, one that would cap tightly and fit into an inner pocket in her cloak. Next, the formula. Equal parts ammonia and bleach would create a gas that would happily rip apart the delicate lining of a human’s respiratory system.
I’m on the right track, but not with chlorine gas. It’ll get me, too.
There was another option, a favorite tool of the police and military—pepper spray. The recipe was simple. The active ingredients, the ones that burn—capsaicin and dihydrocapsaicin—came straight from hot peppers. The hottest of the many peppers available at Sofia’s markets was Guntar chilies, imported from India’s Spice Coast. This variety possessed commanding levels of the hot capsaicin molecules. The pepper’s oily juice was soluble in oil, mineral oil for example. It would stick to its target and she could use it at close quarters. Or better still, baby oil—the scent reminded her of Gergana.
Eva’s pepper spray ended Papa’s nocturnal visits. The blisters around his eyes and mouth lasted for three days. His hunched-over walk lasted longer. After two encounters he was conditioned to avoid her door.
But he was like a puppy, and had occasional lapses. Eva learned to stay alert. Soon she had the reflexes of a combat soldier and could come out of sleep in an instant, ready to protect herself. Once Papa moved more deliberately. He caught Eva by surprise and she suffered the effects of the pepper spray along with Papa. Soon, her arsenal included a knife.
Papa was thwarted. He turned his attention to Gergana who found safety by increasing her the distance from Papa. That meant more time away from home at a time when Eva needed a big sister all the more.
How could Eva find a way to bring Gergana back to her, to regain the warmth of their earlier years? She decided to appeal to her sister’s vanity.
I’ll find a pretty present. Something for her to wear. She’ll look in the mirror and think of me.
Eva hunted in Sofia’s stores. She sought just the right talisman to rekindle the magic that once existed between the sisters. A week into her quest, fresh from a successful raid at a library branch and clutching a chemistry text thick enough to double for building material, Eva spotted a small brooch in the window of an antiques store. It was a gold beetle studded with red, blue, and green stones.
It’s pretty, but it’s odd,
she thought. It was a scarab, an insect that feeds on feces.
Eva walked into the store. A pleasant musty smell announced a different world. Crowded displays of curios and keepsakes, used furniture and costumes from bygone eras greeted her. A squat man with a gray-speckled beard sat hunched on a stool behind the counter. The shopkeeper looked up from a leather-bound book. His black fedora, fashionable sixty years earlier, topped a bald head ringed with a graying fringe. A necktie from the same era—a wide silk paisley with what Eva thought were impossibly cheerful colors—wrapped his pale neck. He looked up from his reading, registered Eva’s presence with a gracious nod. He moved deliberately as he marked his place with a well-worn leather bookmark and presented a pleasant expression. Eva found herself drawn to the odd-looking man. His eyes narrowed, not with suspicion, but because his wide smile lifted generous cheeks and his eyes had no place to retreat from the spreading grin.
Eva stood motionless, waiting for him to speak.
“What are you reading, young lady?” he asked, pointing to the thick text Eva clutched in her left hand.
“It’s a chemistry book.”
“A serious topic. And on paper, as well. Do you enjoy it?”
“Chemistry or paper?” Eva asked.
“Well, both, I suppose. It is a bit unusual to see anyone carrying paper except collectors. Why not read on your dataslate?” His voice was soft, restrained even.
“I like paper. I can get these out of the library without a fuss.” She didn’t add that “fuss” meant returning the books. “What about you? What’re you reading?”
“Ah. A treasure. A first edition of
Alice in Wonderland.
Would you like to see it? Have you read Alice?” He turned the book around to face Eva.
“No. I don’t read made-up stories.”
“Not at all?”
“No.” Eva’s voice was simultaneously flat and emphatic.
“What a shame! There is a whole world of imagination that’s waiting for you.” The shopkeeper put his book away and muttered, “No fiction. What a shame.” He turned back to Eva, “What about history or poetry? Art?”
“Just chemistry? You must love books to carry one so heavy from the library. What else do you read?”
“Science books. Computer texts.”
“That’s it?” The merchant drew up his eyebrows.
“That’s all I need.”
“What about the classics? Studies of the human soul?”
Eva said nothing.
“Well, my dear, if you ever wish to dip your toe into the ocean of human experience, come back to my little shop. Maybe we can find something enjoyable for a, a
reader. You may well find that the study of people will make you a better scientist. Now. To what do I owe the undiluted pleasure of your company?”
She frowned at his flowery speech and pointed to the pin that caught her attention. “Why would anyone want a shit-eating bug for jewelry?” she asked.
Good for you!”
She waited for him to continue, thinking that he would make a better teacher than the drones at school. This man seemed to invite her into his world, not try to force her. He was as different from her teachers as a guide from a kidnapper.
The shopkeeper’s smile continued to hold court on the man’s face. “Why indeed. Well, the ancient Egyptians held these little insects in high regard. The scarab was a symbol of rebirth.”
Rebirth? Perfect. A gift to renew her relationship with Gergana. But the pin was rare and valuable, the shopkeeper said. He named a price. Eva thought for a moment and made a counteroffer. “Give me the pin and I’ll give you protection.”
He laughed, a hearty sound that rose from a deep well of joy. “Protection from what? Why would I need protection and how would a chemistry student provide this wondrous service?”
“Dogs. I’ll keep them away. I’ll keep your sidewalk clean. No more dogshit.”
The shopkeeper tipped back his fedora and rubbed his forehead. He walked around the counter, navigated between an antique wheelbarrow and a child’s rocking-horse to the window display, his ample body surpisingly agile. He took the pin and returned to place it on a square of black velvet on the counter. The two stood side by side and examined it. Jewels from the brooch sparkled against the cloth’s plush black surface.
“I’ll tell you what, Miss Scientist. You clean my sidewalk for one month and I’ll give you the brooch. Don’t bother the dogs. You could get hurt and I do not wish to risk the loss of such a valuable new customer.”
When the shopkeeper arrived to open his store the next morning, a faint odor of bleach replaced the smell of feces and the sidewalk shone. He stopped and perused the storefront. In a voice louder than one would use when talking to oneself he said, “Beautiful. Just beautiful.” He waited a minute, then without turning, he called over his shoulder, “Welcome back, Miss Scientist. You did a very nice job. Of course, you know that because you heard me say so when I arrived. Would you care to join me for a cup of tea?”
“How did you know I was watching?” Eva asked.
“I heard you. I live in a quiet world. Why would you sneak up on me?”
“I didn’t sneak. My world is quiet, too.”
The proprietor held the shop door open for Eva. Today he’d replaced the fedora with a gray homburg, the wide brim turned up all the way around. A long white feather shot from the hatband, transforming the semiformal headwear into something jaunty. On another, the feather would be an affectation. But on this man, it was an antenna that transmitted his vitality.
The strange pair entered, a sedentary looking older man bristling with energy and a diminutive child brimming with strength. Without a word or backward glance, the man walked into a room behind the store. Eva followed into an office-cum-kitchen. The shelves were lined with books from earlier centuries. An antique red and blue Persian carpet muted their footsteps. Two parallel walls were painted yellow, as bright a color as she could imagine. Their counterparts were a correspondingly deep blue. A triptych of paintings hung along one of the long yellow walls, three masses of color, each swirling in a tight pattern of curves, streaks, and spatters. Along the back of the office was an antique partner’s desk. Both sides were crammed with books and papers. To her right, Eva saw the shopkeeper at a small counter, fussing with a kettle and hotplate. A stained teapot, its glazing cracked with age, matched two antique white ceramic mugs. He whistled tunelessly as he worked, and gave Eva sidelong glances. When she caught him looking at her, he held her gaze and smiled. Tiny pastries appeared on a small plate and suddenly there were two chairs and space on the counter for their impromptu snack.
The store owner gestured with an outstretched hand to the tea and pastries and they began a snack and a silent conversation. Eva nodded acceptance of the invitation and then pointed with her chin to the trio of paintings. The man tilted his head down and formed an arched eyebrow question. She looked at the reproductions and shook her head. Then she spoke for the first time since entering the store.
“What’s your name?”
“Coombs, at your service.”
“Is that your first name or your last name?”
“Just Coombs. And you?”
“Eva. Coombs isn’t a Slavic name. Are you British?”