Alena could never replace his mother. He observed her from the corner of his eye as she moved about the kitchen with the authority of a general. She might have been one, for all he knew, as his sister seldom talked of her years in the army. But in the kitchen, she spent her evenings mixing liquors and lighting one cigar after the next. And in her shadow he sometimes saw the ghost of their mother. Faint as ghosts are, with glass eyes, gliding across those decorated marble floors she had adored in life. She faded as soon as he focused his eyes.
Alena could never replace his mother. He accepted it. The acceptance of her death had lasted an indeterminate time, as by then Kafka had ceased counting the days. Much about her death and the months following it held the vagueness of dreams. God would speak to him regularly at the time. Told him about how his mother’s death had been forged, how he and only he could resurrect her, through sacred rituals such as fasting and shutting off the mansion’s top floors. Alena refused to hear any of it. She had forced pills down his throat and called someone to clean the first floor. Alena did not believe in God. She regularly imprecated against the heavens and had cursed every saint Kafka knew, and some others he had never heard about.
Kafka spent his insomniac nights wandering the mansion’s halls like the ghost of his mother. When the sleep deprivation clouded his thoughts more than usual he came to believe that, he too, had become a ghost. A ghost of himself. And those dreadful nights he longed for God’s cruel orders to clear his confusion. But God refused to talk to him lest he ceased taking those pills, and Kafka knew better than to stop taking them. When he did not wander the halls in the dead of the night he slept eighteen hours straight. And when he did neither, he lied in bed staring at the ceiling. He tried crying himself to sleep like he used to years prior, but the tears eluded him, and he whimpered like a grieving animal until dawn.
“Kafka,” Alena pushed open the door to his room without knocking. His mother used to knock, at least. “I’m going out.” She paused as if to assert Kafka was awake. “I’ll be back tomorrow morning.”
From his lying position on the bed the man merely raised his head. He would have wanted to turn his eyes towards her, but found his sleepless lids too heavy to raise. His sister took two steps outside the room. Stopped. Stepped back inside. Although he could not see her, Kafka imagined her cruel gaze.
“And try not to hang yourself before I come back, yeah?”
She walked out of the room without shutting the door.
Alena possessed, as Kafka had learned, the mercilessness of a predatory bird – and her mercilessness might have bordered on sadism. Not the sadism of humans, but the sadism of a weary animal. She sought weakness and struck when the chance seemed more apt. With Kafka, her cruelty limited itself to venomous words and unkind stares. She had punched and pushed him, often with enough force to make him fall on the floor and curl up in pain, before, but had stopped eventually. Alena did so whenever he mentioned God or the woman he loved. And in those moments Kafka realized that she truly could never replace his mother.
His mother’s stares had never been gentle. They were somewhere between pity and discomfort, akin to the way one looks at roadkill. Kafka chose to focus on the pity.
The doorbell rang frantically. Kafka rose from his light sleep and looked about the darkened room. He had briefly forgotten what the doorbell meant, and thought to himself he had never heard thunder like that. The doorbell rang again and he remembered. The man stumbled briefly in the blackness, turning on every light he could find. He opened the door, and beyond the threshold stood a darkened figure against a car’s headlights, from which a metallic odour emanated. Alena spoke before her brother’s half-asleep brain could process anything.
Kafka nodded hesitantly and held his breath. Alena walked inside the mansion, in the new light, her coat shone red. Blueish bruises decorated any exposed skin; one of her eyes’ white had turned completely scarlet.
“Are you… Okay?”
Kafka took a single step backwards. Out of any reaction Alena could have had, she laughed. Laughed! A raspy, low laugh, like something she would have wanted to hide, but lacked the motivation to do so.
“It’s not my blood. Not most of it.”
And with that, her previous apparent happiness faded grimly. The woman’s brows furrowed. She muttered some vulgarity, but Kafka could not make out which one, and did not dare ask for clarification. He noticed how her hands shook. Behind her, the Toyota Corolla haphazardly parked in the street, hummed.
“Go grab a bedsheet.” Kafka turned to follow the command. “The biggest one you can find!”
By the time he returned with said bedsheet, the car had been parked somewhat decently and the headlights had been turned off. Alena stood by the open trunk. She wordlessly moved, and with her eyes invited Kafka to look inside. The corpse had not begun rotting yet. Were it not for the blood on his chest and the open bullet wound on his neck, Kafka might have assumed him to be asleep. The absence of rigor mortis dated the man’s death to mere hours before. He saw himself shocked, bending over in disgust and emptying his stomach’s contents, maybe even crying some. He felt he should have had such a reaction. But Kafka merely stared; fascinated, much differently from how his mother used to stare at him.
“Stop staring.” Alena ripped the bedsheet from Kafka’s hands and begun laying it over the dead man, enveloping his head in the cloth.
“What if the neighbours see us?”
“It’s too dark, they won’t see anything. And if they do, we’ll say I hit a deer on the road or something. Now grab the other side and help me out.”
Kafka opened his mouth, ready to say something else, but stopped himself. He began imitating his sister and wrapping the man in the sheet. Thoughts of his mother, or God, or the woman he loved, did not cross his mind – for the first time in years, Kafka found himself immersed into something new. He and his sister wrapped a body in a bedsheet in the dead of the night, and he dissociated from the situation to such extent it became fictional. And as with any work of fiction, Kafka excitedly anticipated the end.
“Grab the feet and let’s get it out of here.”
It. Kafka did as Alena said. She lifted the corpse’s torso and begun dragging him out of the trunk, but once the weight resided on Kafka’s arms, he dropped it. The dead man fell to the cement like a downed tree. Alena hissed a shh! under her breath and raised a hand as a threat. Kafka’s thin arms, unaccustomed to weights, already ached. She insulted him and once more grabbed the man, from mid-way down the torso, using her own chest to support part of his weight – and taking most of Kafka’s burden. He too tried again, holding the man’s legs right below the knee.
“Are you going to bury him?”
He spoke through panting and fatigue.
“The basement’s still empty, right?”
Carrying the dead man and talking simultaneously proved too arduous. Alena took the lack of response as a yes, or so Kafka assumed.
By the time the body had entered the mansion, the smell of blood had become a refreshing change from the mansion’s usual stiff and claustrophobic odour. Alena led him towards the stairs to the basement, considerably distant from the stairs to the top floors, and with a door at the bottom. The basement had been a wine cellar in some vague past. The woman gestured to drop the body, Kafka gladly obliged.
“Get down there and open that door.”
His racing heart pulsated in his ears and muffled Alena’s words. Kafka placed a hand on his chest, hunched slightly, amazed by the organ’s ferocity. His lungs too had become ferocious, taking in oxygen as starving wolves.
“God you’re useless.”
Alena trotted down the stairs, opened the door, and just as swiftly climbed back up. Kafka grit his teeth and expected them to pick the body up again. He attempted to stop his panting. But there was no need, as Alena gave the corpse a tentative nudge with her boot, and then, without warning, kicked it. The dead man tumbled down the stairs with more movement than Kafka would have expected. At irregular intervals, the softer, mushier pounding of muscle on marble would be broken up by the sound of fracturing bones. Eventually, any sound ceased, and shadow engulfed the cadaver.
“I’ll take care of it tomorrow. Get some sleep.”
Alena maintained her composure and marched upstairs to her room with the dignity of a general. Kafka’s eyes followed her briefly, then returned to gazing at the basement where the dead man lay. Perspiration soaked his forehead, his arms trembled, his face had taken on a fatigued, reddened shade. How could he have slept in such a moment? Had his body not reached its pathetic limit, he would have gone to the basement to observe the man again.
Kafka gave a final stare. He took a deep breath and made his way to the sofa, too tired to sleep on a bed. The night’s events played again in his mind. Kafka could not have known, but that body was only the first of what he would later think of as Alena’s corpses.