His name was Niels. Her brother’s new friend. He said hello to their parents, introduced himself, and shook hands. He had his other hand behind his back; he stood as straight as a soldier. They smiled; they set an extra place. They left the television on while they ate and talked about the weather and about nothing in particular. They never looked directly at each other; no one said anything that meant anything. Heidi secretly looked at Niels and saw his smile. He was the only whose face was lifted. He looked intently both at her mother and at her father, and at one point he even caught Heidi’s eye and winked. She hurried to look down at her plate and did not dare to look up again.
Every day her brother either visited Niels or had Niels over for a visit. They spoke clearly; they walked with long steps and with their hands in their pockets. Her brother began to behave in that way when he was alone, too. Neither her mother nor her father said anything about it—about the change. But they stopped going on Sunday excursions.
The only thing they—all of them—had used to do together. It was on these outings that Father had spoken—had taught them.
The first Sunday they did not go anywhere, Heidi did not understand why. She was thirteen years old—there was so much she did not understand. So much that could not be said directly. She pestered her parents. She knew enough to use different words, but she kept it up; she wanted to go. Her mother stroked her hair, did not say anything, did not look Heidi in the eyes; she bit her lips and then she went out on the balcony. Heidi followed her, stood next to her. They stood for a long time and looked at the building opposite theirs, at the children playing in the courtyard. Several times, it seemed as though her mother was about to say something, but then she did not do so after all.
It was a Tuesday afternoon, only a few weeks later. They waited. Father did not come home. Heidi sat on the sofa with her mother; her brother came home from school and went directly to his room. The longest night. Heidi fell asleep from time to time; she went to the toilet; she drank a little water. Mother did not move. When morning came, Mother stood up and went into Heidi’s brother’s room without knocking. Heidi followed her. He was sitting straight up at his desk. He was wearing the clothes he had come home in.
“Who are you?” whispered Mother. “How have you become such a monster? What did we do wrong?” He turned and looked at her.
“I did it for our sake, of course,” he said. “It was our only chance.” Heidi looked at him and Mother. Her face. Her eyes, spherical, milky. Heidi looked from the one to the other of them without understanding what was happening. Then she did not understand it. Mother put her hand to her throat and fell to her knees, sank down further, lay on the floor completely limp as though there were not a single bone in her body. As though she could spread out completely and dissolve into nothingness.
Heidi closes her eyes and sees the scene before her. Sees her mother’s body spread out and seep down through the floorboards and disappear. Heidi’s father disappeared that night; he never came back.
That kind of thing happened. It was not abnormal.
But in contrast to what everyone expected nothing else happened.
Their mother could continue working at her usual job; they kept their good apartment. Niels and his family continued to keep company with her brother. One day they also invited Heidi and her mother. It was unmistakable: they were not pariahs. Despite their father’s disappearance.
People relaxed. No: they pretended to relax. They dared not do anything but return to earlier routines. Heidi was still invited to her friends’ birthday parties. Her teachers still treated her as a model student. Her mother still taught the same classes, and her colleagues drank coffee with her as if nothing had happened. Their father’s disappearance was never mentioned. No one asked. It was as if he had never existed.
After a while, Heidi was able to figure out what had happened, and she was no doubt not the only one who could see how things were related. Heidi’s brother had exposed their father. He had exposed him and somehow convinced them that he was valuable enough that they let the rest of the family go. Niels’s father was sufficiently highly-placed. It was an agreement that benefited everyone. They got a loyal supporter in her brother. A worker who was forever grateful and, they thought, a sister and mother who, despite everything, must be grateful because they had been spared. After finishing school, her brother got a good job in the bank’s main office. Heidi also achieved advancement. Heidi has understood that it is only thanks to him that she received a good education and that it was he who saw to it that she also got work here. Far from Mother.
Heidi does not know whether they had figured out in advance what bonus benefit they would secure by not acting in accordance with people’s expectations. One would have thought that people would have been encouraged when a family was saved in that fashion, but it had the exact opposite effect: people became afraid. They did not know what was expected of them. They did not know what else could turn out to be different from what they believed. Of course no one said this out loud. But Heidi could feel it. It was in the air.
It was all around her. The air vibrated with it.
She was in a state of emergency that never ceased. Heidi and her family had become a flickering, incomprehensible quantity no one knew how they should behave toward. They were either too effusive or too awkward, too polite or too subdued.