home wie ben ik? boeken bezoeken verhaal 1 verhaal 2
  • summary

    Chapter 1

    The key still fits. With a dry click, the door bursts open and the warm, musty air hits Bart in the face. He puts his carryall and the bag of groceries in a corner, gathers up the mail and walks into the living room. Sliding letters and newspapers onto the buffet he pulls up the handle on the garden doors and opens them slowly. For a moment, he pauses to take in the cool gust of wind that strokes his arms and rustles his hair.
    His mother lets the garden do as it pleases. That means a lot of unruly bushes that rarely, if ever, see a pair of pruning sheers. She calls it her ‘hands-off’ garden. In any case, leave it alone, she means.
    The big, red tomcat approaches him from among the bushes. Bart scratches his ears for a moment. Willingly, the animal offers his head so that Bart can reach the really good spots but, after two minutes, he starts meowing impatiently. He needs food.
    Bart walks to the kitchen with the red tom at his heels. He chuckles when he sees a colourful castle of cat food cans on the counter; enough for the next two weeks. That’s certainly Nina’s work, although his mother would certainly also do something like this. There is a note.

    Dear Bart,

    Welcome home! (His mother still insists on calling it home, as if he still lived there). We hope that you will enjoy your weeks here! Enjoy the garden. Would you slosh some water on the plants if it stays so warm?
    These are the victuals for our two hairy gentlemen. Would you comb them, too? That’s a good idea in this heat. They don’t necessarily have to come in at night, just see how it goes. Our address in Florence is next to the phone, just in case. Now, darling, have fun, don’t work too hard, maybe we’ll get a chance to see you (?). We’ll be back no later than August 2nd.

    Kisses from all of us,

    Mama, Robert, Nina and Brit

    Tucked into a corner, Nina has left her own message.

    Dear Bart, Can Rosso please sleep in your bed? He always does.

    Rosso circles his legs as if he had read Nina’s entreaty, too. Bart picks him up and dances around in circles with him. “Nope, old man,” he growls, ”no chance of that. If all goes well, a lady will be sharing my bed and I’m sure she’s not a fan of farty old tomcats between her sheets.”
    He hasn’t told his mother, about Rose. But she’ll find out soon enough; the neighbours are home. The lady next door has already waved to him.
    With a grimace, he opens up a can of smelly fish and picks out the glop with a fork. Now, the white tomcat comes sauntering up, too. He tosses Bart a careless glance and then pounces on the food bowl.

    The bedroom belonging to his mother and Robert overlooks the garden. Here, you are awakened by the singing birds. If that’s not an idyllic setting for Rose…
    He opens the linen closet. What kind of duvet cover should he use? Pale yellow? Lilac? No, something a bit spicier, more cheerful. Huge sunflowers, honest imitation Van Gogh, that should certainly guarantee a good night’s sleep. He puts it to his nose and smells. Mmm, his mother still uses way too much detergent. Delicious.
    In the mirror on the linen closet, he sees himself battling with the duvet cover. His blond hair is stuck to his temples and his T-shirt is full of sweat spots. He can’t see Rose looking like this.
    He straightens the duvet neatly on the bed and pulls off his clothes. Again, he glances in the mirror: what a pale ass! He probably glows in the dark.
    Onward to the bathroom, bundle of clothes under his arm. He tosses everything into the empty hamper and steps into the shower. From the familiar rack, a row of shiny bottles and jars grins down at him: shower gel, special shampoo for dry hair, for greasy hair, with jojoba.You need to go back home every so often. He takes the jojoba.
    In a bit, at seven o’clock, Rose will arrive at the station and everything needs to be ready by then – the bed made, a casserole in the oven. He is going to throw in a fantastic recipe. He has three and this one is the best. A sure thing.

    When his mother mentioned house-sitting a couple of months ago, he jumped at the chance: “Of course, Mom, I’ll sit with the cats and plants. I have to study for exams, anyway.” In his mind’s eye, he saw himself sitting there with Rose – or lying in the garden. They’ve got one week here together. He would have liked her to stay with him for the whole two weeks, but she’s too busy. She is sick and tired of working in the archives, she says, but it has got to get done.
    How will she like it here? Good food and drink, long walks and, of course, lots of love.
    While he dries himself, he inspects the bedroom again. Little trickles of water tickle as they run along his ears. Once again, he runs his hands over the duvet, smoothing it out.
    His eyes scout the walls. Anything weird hanging there? Some awful portrait of himself on the nightstand?
    But it’s only the old, familiar junk: last year’s graduation picture, with one arm around Nina and the other around Brit, the one of Mom and Robert on vacation.
    Back in the little hallway, he sees that half the groceries have rolled out of the plastic bag. The iceberg lettuce is all alone under the coat rack. Stupid, of course he should have put the butter in the fridge. Carefully, he carries the greasy bag into the kitchen and sets up his treasures on the counter. There is a moment of delay – his eyes sweep over the eggplants, the eggs and the ground beef. He thinks about what he has to do first and what needs to be done later, but then, quick as a flash, he gets started washing, slicing, baking and turning. With two fingers, he greases a large casserole dish with butter and arranges the contents of the frying pans in layers. Two bags of grated cheese and he’s finished. Satisfied, he nods at his creation.
    One button and – presto – with a short, but noisy little thud, the oven turns on. He has always been a bit afraid of the thing because you can hear gas whooshing. It is as if it slowly fills the space around it. First, only the oven, but then the whole kitchen, the hall, the stairwell. Whenever he used to hear that frightening sound, he always had visions of a house at the point of bursting: a roof that could fly off at any moment. No, he sure didn’t like coming into the kitchen when his mother was baking, even though it smelled so good.
    The clock on the oven says six-thirty. He just has time to put the plates on the table in the garden. Ouch! For the hundredth time in his life, he bumps up against the buffet. If he ever accidentally inherits that bit of antique, he’ll get rid of it immediately – or use it as kindling.
    Because of the thump, the pile of mail has slid onto the floor. His eye catches a black border – a death announcement. He pulls it out. For him?
    Bart Halberstad p/a Julianalaan, 23. The tiny, even handwriting looks vaguely familiar. Whose was that? His hand shakes as he pulls the card from the envelope. Large black letters contrast threateningly with the white, textured paper: ABEL TEUNIS.
    Abel? His eyes quickly scan the text.

    Through a fatal accident, our beloved


    Has been taken from us

    July 14. Four days ago. What kind of fatal accident? A car crash?

    Abel is at home. There will be an opportunity to bid farewell to him on Thursday, July 19 from 3 to 6 pm.

    In his hand, the announcement folds over. It gets greasy fingerprints on it.
    ‘Abel,’ he says softly, as if he wants to taste the sound of it. ‘Abel Teunis.’
    How long ago was all that? When was the last time he saw Abel?
    He still remembers the beginning very clearly; how they met in the 5th grade. They were ten years old.

    * * *

    “Isn’t your mother here?” whispered Bart, leaning slightly over Abel’s chair. Nervously, he fidgeted with the straw poking out of his glass of pink lemonade. The young woman at the head of the table had heard him. She smiled.
    “Oh, silly boy, that’s me.”
    He blushed. How could he be so stupid? How could he think that she was Abel’s big sister? He stared at the floor, at his feet shuffling hesitantly, trying to find another place to put themselves. But it wasn’t just his blunder that made him blush. It was the fact that he had never before been so close to such a beautiful woman. Mrs. Teunis’ dark-red dress made a beautiful contrast to her light-brown skin. With her slender face, her huge brown eyes and her white teeth, she looked like a princess out of an Oriental fairy tale. When she smiled, he could hardly take his eyes off her.
    “Are you from Limburg?” she asked.
    “Yes, Ma’am.”
    “I can hear it. The Limburg accent is so musical.”
    He smiled vaguely and thought about his new class, where everything he said was greeted with giggles. Every time he opened his mouth, someone was there to imitate him. The only one who didn’t join in was Abel. It seemed to escape him: the fun of teasing someone. He usually just shrugged his shoulders and kept writing in his notebook. After ten days, he asked Bart to come over to his house to play.
    “We were there once on vacation,” said Mrs. Teunis. “Before Abel was born.”
    “I was already in your tummy,” Abel said.
    “That’s right, you were there.”
    “I can still remember. Even from there, the commands were easy to hear. ‘Come on! We’re going! Wait here! I thought I was going to be born into the army by accident.”
    “Shh. Shh,” whispers his mother. “Will you please be quiet.” She looked at him disapprovingly.
    Bart pretended not to hear.
    “Where did you go?” he asked.
    “Oh, Um… what’s it called? It was eleven years ago.”
    “Valkenburg,” said Abel. “You must remember that? It was the only vacation you ever had with him; the only one he would ever pay for.”
    Abel’s mother stirred her tea and looked at Bart apologetically. She slid a plate of cookies towards him. He hesitated.
    “Try them. Home-made!”
    When the front door slammed shut a bit later, Abel and his mother shot up straight. They waited without saying anything. A short man entered the room. That had to be Abel’s father. He had a thin face with piercing, dark eyes and a wrinkled neck, which made him look at least sixty. He nodded cursorily at his wife and son and stared at Bart.
    “Who is that?” he asked with a grating voice, without taking his eyes off Bart.
    “That’s Bart,” answered Abel’s mother softly. “A friend of Abel’s.”
    “A friend?” he repeated. “He’s in Abel’s class?”
    Bart nodded. His ‘Yes, sir’ got stuck in his throat.
    “Yes,” said Abel’s mother, quickly. “Bart is new at school. He just moved here.”
    Abel’s father laughed. Bart was startled by the funny, dry sound: è-è-è. It was the scream of a bird, of a parrot in his winter dwelling.
    “A new victim, è-è-è,” he said. Now he wheeled his eyes towards Abel.
    Abel sunk a bit deeper in his chair. He said nothing. He looked at his father guardedly, as if he expected more bitter words.
    The instant Abel’s father turned his head, Abel gave Bart a sign, a quick nod in the direction of the door. They slunk up the stairs to Abel’s tiny room.

    On the wall opposite the bed, there was a large piece of polystyrene foam on which someone had drawn a man, an Indian. A brave Indian, you could see that by his bearing and his coat of animal skins. His feather headdress, with certainly ten different colours, was fanned out. There was a huge bow hanging over his shoulder. He held his quiver pressed close to his body. But his long braids gave him a gentle look, or maybe that was also because of his eyes. He looked at you warmly.
    “Who drew that?”
    “I did.”
    Without a word, Abel went over to a small, low table. With thumb and forefinger, he picked up a small box and held it out to Bart. There were plastic darts in it.
    “What are we aiming at?”
    Abel nodded in the direction of his Indian.
    “You have to aim as close to him as you can without touching him. Like a knife thrower.”
    Hesitantly, Bart’s glance went from the dart in his hand to the powerful warrior in front of him.
    “And if I hit him?”
    “Then he’s got a leak,” Abel laughed.
    Bart threw the dart. Quivering, it landed in the shoulder, right next to the bow.
    “Once more,” said Abel. Abel nodded. “That’s better already.” He picked up four darts and threw them in quick succession right past the left cheek. Triumphantly, he looked at Bart. “I would love to throw at a real person.”
    “Not at me!” Bart said.
    Smirking, Abel pulled out the darts and threw them back in the box.

    * * *

    “Did you dry your hair?” Mrs. Teunis asked.
    Bart nodded. He rummaged around in his toilet bag for his comb and tried to get his curls to lie flat. That was the best way to let his hair dry. In the mirror, he saw that Mrs. Teunis was watching him.
    “Your mother must certainly be busy with the two little ones. Do you ever give her a hand?”
    “I don’t have to,” said Bart. “She doesn’t want me to.” He thought about his mother’s overloaded bedroom. Everywhere you looked there were baby wipes, bottles, little bags, baby clothes, presents. Mama lay in the big bed with a puffy face; in her pyjamas – always in her pyjamas. He didn’t want to think about her. She sure didn’t think about him, did she? Now she had new children and a new husband.
    “Are we still on time?” Abel asked while he shoved a foot into a slipper.
    “It will start in a moment. The TV is already on.”
    Abel flew down the stairs. The last three steps he took in one go, with his arms flung out. ‘Zorro!’
    Mrs. Teunis came up behind him. “Are you a Zorro-fan, too, Bart?”
    “What’s it about?”
    “A masked man,” Abel said. “He goes out at night and does all kinds of good stuff – freeing people or returning things that were stolen. During the day, he’s just a normal guy, and nobody but his servant knows that he’s Zorro.”
    Hastily, Abel climbed into the large armchair in front of the TV. “Come sit here. He scooted his bottom to one side. Bart crawled in next to him.
    “It’s starting, said Abel, as he threw his arm around Bart. “It’s sooo exciting!” The tips of his fingers pressed Bart’s upper arm for a moment.
    Click! A bright light from the corner startled both of them. Mrs. Teunis had taken a picture. With her camera in her hand, she smiled at them. “You two look so nice sitting there together.”
    Bart nodded. He felt the last few droplets from Abel’s wet hair sliding onto his shoulder.
    Slowly, the music started up. Abel hummed along. They saw Zorro riding through the forest on his black horse. Lightening flashed in the dark night and, a moment later, formed a large Z in the sky.
    “The Z for Zorro,” said Abel. “He leaves that sign – with his sword – whenever he’s been someplace.”
    A moment later, Zorro slid off his horse. With huge leaps, he climbed a pile of barrels to get up to a thick wall that he climbed over. Bart could tell from the music that something was going to happen. Of course, someone was waiting for Zorro – in a dark corner – on the other side of the wall.
    “If it gets scary, I’ll tell you,” Abel whispered. “Just close your eyes, then.” His hand tightened, ready to warn him.
    “Now!” Immediately, he pinched with all his might. His fingers clawed Bart’s arm.
    Bart had already shut his eyes. The music got even louder and shriller. There was screaming. Through his eyelashes, Bart saw Zorro fighting fiercely with his enemy. The swords clashed together. He felt Abel’s muscles tense, his heart pound; it seemed to last for minutes, until a deep sigh made Abel’s chest slowly rise and fall. His body relaxed.
    “Done,” he said.

    Bart was allowed to sleep in Abel’s bed. Abel himself lay on a foam rubber mattress on the floor, in a sleeping bag.
    “The guest always gets the best spot,” said Mrs. Teunis. “Wait, I’ll tuck you in.”
    She walked to the foot of the bed.
    “Now you have to pull up your legs.”
    Bart pulled his knees up under his chin. He felt Mrs. Teunis fiddling under the mattress. Nice, a tightly tucked duvet. Nobody had done that for him in a long time. Mama couldn’t even bend over with her fat stomach. And Robert never thought of stuff like that.
    “That’s that,” she said, satisfied. “That won’t come untucked, at least if you lie very, very still.”
    Fifteen minutes later, Bart was still in exactly the same position, rolled up like a porcupine. Mrs. Teunis had gone downstairs awhile ago. Very carefully, he explored the smooth sheet with his feet. He stretched his toes to feel just how much room he had. With a sharp stab, a cramp shot through his foot.
    "Ow!Ow! My foot!" “What’s the matter?”
    “Ow! A cramp!”
    “You have to pull your toes up.” Abel wrenched himself out of his sleeping bag. “Look, like this. I learned this at gymnastics.”
    Bart sat up and tried to grab his foot.
    “I can’t! Ouch!”
    “No, towards you,” said Abel, again. He came and sat crossways on the bed, at the neatly tuck-in foot. Carefully, he pulled back the blankets, almost curious.
    “This one?”
    Abel took the cramped foot between both his hands and pushed gently.
    “Does that help?” he asked. He didn’t really seem to believe that it would work, but Bart felt the pain slowly ebb away.
    “Oh, yes,” he said. “Almost gone. But hold onto it for a minute, or else it will come back. I always get this if I keep my foot too flat.”
    “Can I let go now?”
    And Abel slowly released the foot.

    The next afternoon, they played Zorro. There were two Zorros. Neither of them wanted to play the servant or Sergeant Garcia, the one Zorro always jokingly mocked.
    “Let’s go to my father’s study,” Abel suggests.
    “We can’t. That’s not allowed, is it?”
    “As long as we don’t touch anything. We’ll just look.”
    Even that was actually strictly forbidden. Abel’s father’s study could only be entered if he was in it. Slowly and carefully, Abel pushed open the door, as if he were afraid that his father – who had gone into the city an hour ago – would suddenly be sitting at his desk. He beckoned.
    Once he was in the room, Bart held his breath. He didn’t dare move. His throat started to tickle, but he didn’t even dare to swallow. Just imagine if he had to cough here.
    Once before, he had been allowed to get a glimpse of the collection of Malaysian daggers that Abel’s father kept here -- from the threshold. Abel walked over to the back wall to get a closer look at a long dagger.
    “I have held this before,” he said. “Do you want to?” He took the sword down from its nails.
    “You’re not allowed, are you?”
    “We’ll hang it right back up.”
    Hesitantly, Bart’s fingers slid around the handle. It felt strangely cold and thoroughly forbidden. He looked at the hand sticking out of the black cape, his own hand, with a real dagger in it.
    “I’ll take this one, then,” said Abel. He held the shinning metal at an angle in front of Bart’s face. “Cross swords.”
    With knocking knees, he surrendered to the duel that Abel challenged him to.
    It was fun, that afternoon. When Abel’s father came home later, the sweat tickled the palms of Bart’s hands. The è-è-è sent chills down his spine. His heart skipped a beat when he heard the door to the study creaking. But Abel’s father didn’t notice a thing. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that they got caught, when their flying saucer accidentally glided through the open window. They were only inside for a moment.
    Abel’s father was furious. He rolled his eyes and swore at them in a weird, high voice. Spit sprayed out of his mouth with every word. He grabbed Abel’s arm and twisted it until Abel cried out.
    Bart was sent home.
    “Don’t come anymore. If you can’t obey my rules, you are no longer welcome here.”
    For a week, Bart and Abel only saw each other at school. Neither of them mentioned what had happened. When school was over and it was actually time for them to play together, they stood awkwardly facing each other.
    Once, Bart had hesitantly made a start.
    “Do you think that…? Would it maybe…?”
    But Abel had decisively shaken his head and had then quickly walked away.
    A couple of days later, the ban was suddenly revoked. Mrs. Teunis had undoubtedly gotten involved. There would be no more duels, at least not in his Abel’s father’s study.

    Chapter 2

    Ten to seven. He has to hurry. While he dashes passed the familiar houses, he listens to his own footsteps and the pounding of his heart. His feet pound out a fixed rhythm on the cobblestones. He feels every muscle in his body.
    When he turns into the Station Road, he can already see Rose in the distance. In a short, black dress, she is leaning against a lamppost. She peers down the road, her coat draped over her arm. When she sees him, she tilts her head and smiles. In his chest, something leaps. He waves. He feels so completely alive.
    Standing in front of her a moment later, he folds his arms around her and holds her close.
    “Ouch! You’re squashing me.”
    “I just want to feel you,” he says. “That’s all.”
    And he hugs her again, as if he’s afraid that she will slip from his hands.
    Rose is surprised and amused at the same time.
    “ Is everything alright?”
    “Yes,” he says, “Everything is fine.” He hides his face in her thick, black hair.“I’m so happy that you’re here.”
    “Silly! ” Rose rubs her hand over his back. “Oh, of course, you’ve been alone for half the day.”
    “It’s not that,” says Bart. His hands slide off Rose and hang hesitantly in the air. “I found a death announcement in the mail just before I came to get you.”
    Rose studies him intently, as if she is trying to assess how bad it is. “From whom?”
    “A boy who used to be in my class .”
    “A friend?”
    “Yes, in elementary school we used to play together all the time. Later, we drifted apart.”
    He hears himself talking. That’s one way to say it, he thinks, and then it’s not even such a terrible lie. It is the painless version, with a bit of truth to it.
    “Do you have to go to the funeral?”
    He stops walking. He hasn’t even thought about the funeral, yet. But he doesn’t have a single excuse, he is already here in the village, after all.
    “I haven’t yet looked to see when it is,” he lies. He knows exactly when it is. The day after tomorrow, at two o’clock. Abel loved flowers.
    That’s only half true. Abel loved wildflowers and bushes, in nature, anything that grew wild in a jumble, but not bouquets of tulips.
    “I can also just go to the viewing and say my good-byes there. Maybe I’ll do that. Then I won’t have to sit and listen to some minister -- or whoever -- for an hour.”
    They turn the corner, into Juliana Lane.
    “That’s it,” Bart points. “That white house with the green shutters.”
    Rose nods. “So this is your street.”
    “Lane. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve got class here.”
    “Did you like it here, when you were young?”
    “No, it was all too boring for me. I’ve always thought that I would have become a completely different person if I had been born someplace else.”
    “A whole different Bart.” Rose squeezed his arm gently. “Lucky me that you just come from little old Juliana Street.”

    In the narrow hall, Rose nearly trips over the red and the white cats who are waiting there next to each other.
    “Wouldn’t you know, and I’m allergic,” she says.
    “Oh, no!”
    “Just kidding. But I hope they aren’t lap cats.”
    “As long as they can sleep in our bed, they won’t be a problem.”
    Bart turns and walks towards the kitchen.
    “What!?” With three quick steps, Rose is behind him. “You can’t be serious.”
    “Isn’t that one of your favourite things? Nice, soft fur snuggled up against your bare tummy. Mmm., I can hardly wait.”
    “Great. Then I’ll take the guestroom.”
    “OK, OK,” Bart laughs. He raises his hands in mock desperation. “If you’re forcing me to choose.”
    He takes the note from the counter and holds it up to Rose, his thumb indicating Nina’s corner.
    “Is that one of the twins?”
    “Yes, Nina. She’s the one who is crazy about cats. Brit likes them, too, but not like Nina. She is always dragging them around.”
    “How old are they?”
    “The cats?”
    “No, the twins.”
    “Cute; little sisters.”
    She says it endearingly, like she would have liked to have had six herself. His shoulders shrug of their own accord. Little sisters. He doesn’t know how he feels about them. They’re just there.
    Rose wants to see the whole house: the bathroom, the twins’ room, his little room. He tries to walk through quickly, but Rose pushes the door open further and looks.
    “Were you up here a lot?”
    “No, I was mostly gone.”
    At Abel’s house. Playing at Abel’s, staying over at Abel’s. After his sisters were born, he spent more and more time there, it became a sort of second home. Until that Sunday when he was allowed to join them for Chinese food and he, his mouth watering, took too big a helping.
    “We should apply for child support for that boy. E-è-è.”
    Stunned, he dropped the spoon. Greasy, yellow grains of rice rolled over the clean tablecloth and left dirty grease spots. He stared at his plate, at the ridiculous pile of rice.
    “It doesn’t matter, Bart,” said Mrs. Teunis, soothingly.
    But it was perfectly clear to him. Child support. He came here too often and ate too much. For a long time, he hardly dared go over to Abel’s.
    He grabs Rose’s shoulder and pushes her gently ahead of him.
    “And this is my mother’s bedroom.”
    The red tomcat is lying on the golden sunflowers elaborately licking himself.
    “Oh, you dirty old thing!” With one sweep, Bart pushes him off the bed. “Get out, you.”
    He swats a couple of imaginary hairs from the duvet.
    “We can sleep here? In Mommy and Daddy’s bed?”
    Bart nods. The mocking undertone does not escape him. Rose falls back onto the bed and stretches out.
    “Is this the right side?” she calls. “I want to sleep on Mommy’s side. Come on, Daddy, let’s try it out.”
    Hesitantly, Bart sinks to his knees. It suddenly feels weird just lying in Robert’s place. In his mother’s bed.
    Rose places her hand in his neck and pulls him to her. “Did you choose these beautiful sunflowers for us all by yourself?”
    He feels the blood creeping into his cheeks.
    “Oh, you’re blushing,” says Rose. She kisses him softly on his forehead. “I love that, a blushing man in bed.”
    “Wait a second,” he says. He pulls himself half up, gropes around the shelf above the bed and turns Mom and Robert around so they face the wall.

    “What’s that smell?”
    “Shit. Dinner. What time is it?”
    Bart shoots out of bed and runs to the kitchen. Thick blue smoke hangs in the air. The gas oven is hissing just like it was two hours ago. He quickly yanks open the oven door. In the semidarkness, there is a casserole dish with something dark brown in it.
    Rose comes into the kitchen in Robert’s bathrobe. She crouches down next to him.
    “My fault,” she says. “I shouldn’t have lain down on that bed.”
    “I should have turned down the oven – I could have guessed that you would jump into that bed right away.”
    Rose rests her hand on his shoulder. “Oh, it’s a shame, your lovely casserole.”
    “What do you think, shall we order a pizza?”
    “No, we’ll just scrape off the top. The rest is still good, isn’t it?”
    “Love is blind, of course, but this looks suspiciously like asphalt.”
    Just as he is putting the damaged casserole on the counter, the phone rings.
    “Let it ring,” says Rose. “It’s for your mother, anyway.”
    “It ís my mother,” says Bart. “She’ll want to know if I really got here. I’ll keep it short.”
    He picks up the phone and walks into the garden.
    “Bart?” he hears on the other end.
    “Yes, this is Bart. With whom am I speaking?”
    “What a coincidence that you are home. This is Mrs. Teunis.”
    An electric current surges through his body.
    “Oh,” he says, much too loud.
    “Did you get the card?”
    “Yes, how awful, how terrible.” Feverishly, he searches for words, for other, more meaningful words. “I uh…I was so shocked.”
    “It is terrible. We can’t believe it ourselves.”
    She says ‘we.’ My husband and I. He has never heard her say that before.
    “What happened?” Bart asks. His voice is barely inaudible. How can Mrs. Teunis simply be talking and answering his questions when Abel is dead?
    “Abel had an accident in the mountains,” she says. He was with a group, a touring party. One afternoon, he left the group. Oh, you know how he is. And he never came back. They went to look for him -- even brought in a helicopter later -- and found him towards evening. He must have fallen from a plateau, into a crevice, not even very deep.”
    Bart nods and, at the same time, realizes that Mrs. Teunis can’t see him.
    “Yes,” he manages to whisper.
    Behind him, one of the garden doors squeaks. Rose. He waves with his hand. Rose shrugs her shoulders and leaves again.
    “And then they called us,” says Mrs. Teunis. “I flew to France. I wanted to see him, to be with him.”
    She talks calmly, her voice sounds frighteningly familiar. It’s as if nothing has happened. As if he has simply been coming over all this time, drinking tea at her kitchen table and eating her homemade cookies.
    “It’s good to hear your voice, Bart. You meant a great deal to him. But you know that, don’t you?” A sad little laugh was caught up in her words.
    Yes, he knows that only too well.
    But what about her? How much does she actually know? Does she know what went wrong? He has often had the feeling that she knew but was playing dumb.
    “Are you going to come over?” she asks. “To say good-bye to Abel?
    “Yes, of course.”
    Then, at least, I won’t have to go to the funeral, he thinks. I’ll say my farewells to him -- if only just for her -- but that’s all.
    “Tomorrow, two o’clock?” she asks. “Nobody else will be here then. We’ll have all the time we need.”
    “That’s fine.”
    Feeling awkward and embarrassed, Bart brings the phone back to the living room. He feels Rose’s eyes boring into his back.
    “Sorry, that was his mother…eh, Abel’s mother.”
    “Did she want anything in particular?”
    “No, just to talk. She asked if I would come to the viewing. To say good-bye to Abel.” Again, his voice slips away.
    Rose looks intently at him.
    “Didn’t you say that friendship was over?”
    “Yes, it was from elementary school. And a bit of high school. At a certain point, it was over, but his mother doesn’t want to accept that. Hey, what about dinner? Why don’t I just call for a nice pizza?”
    “Yea, sure,” says Rose. Slowly, she walks upstairs to take a shower.
    In the yellow pages, he finds three pizzerias listed. He takes the first one and orders two ‘house pizzas.’
    “That, we don’t have, sir. We have house wine but no house pizzas. Do you want something simple? Margarita or Quattro Stagione or ….”
    The man rattles off the whole list. It’s completely unintelligible.
    “That last one. Two, please.”
    Bart strolls into the garden. It’s still a bit windy. He drops down into the large deck chair and watches the pale evening light peaking through the leaves of the trees.
    When did things go wrong between Abel and him? In the eighth grade? In the seventh? Or even earlier?

    * * *

    “What do we have first period?”
    “Do you know where that is?”
    Abel dropped his schoolbag onto the floor and took out his brand new diary. He flipped through the pages for awhile.
    “Here.” His finger swept down the page with the schedule. “B4, that’s over there, on that side. We have to go past the main staircase.” He put his diary back and hung his backpack over one shoulder.
    “Hey, you nerds!” Somebody tugged on his backpack. Simultaneously, Bart and Abel turned to look. Dirk.
    “The two of you. You’re just like ‘Tom and Jerry.’ Where do we go, guys?”
    Abel turned away from Dirk and, without a word, walked towards the stairs.
    “B4 biology,” mumbled Bart. He did a short sprint to catch up with Abel.
    “Why did you answer the guy?” Abel asked.
    “Oh, I dunno, he’s new here, too.”
    “Unfortunately. Let him find it himself, him and his big mouth.”
    Bart knew full well that Abel hated the fact that Dirk had come to the same high school. And that he still wouldn’t leave them alone.
    In the biology classroom, the teacher was already waiting at the front of the class.
    “Take a seat, boys. A bit difficult finding your way?”
    Searchingly, they looked around. There were no empty tables next to each other. Abel took a step forward and tapped with one hand on the back of an empty wooden chair. He gestured to another, diagonally in back. Bart nodded, but Dirk got there first. As if he had no clue, he shot towards the empty chair and dropped into it. For a second, Bart was confused.
    “Oops, sorry,” said Dirk, suddenly looking sideways.” “Tom and Jerry have to sit together, of course.”
    He stood up and, glancing nonchalantly around the class, strolled over to another empty table, next to the window.
    The teacher raised his eyebrows.
    “Do you have a problem with friends wanting to sit near each other?”
    “Not me,” said Dirk, while he leaned over to get something out of his backpack.
    “I beg your pardon, what was that?”
    “I wouldn’t dare, sir. Those two are so close.”
    The teacher rested his eyes on Dirk for a moment and then on Abel and Bart. He nodded warmly at them.

    Chapter 3

    The photo albums are in the buffet. He hasn’t looked at them for ages, but now Rose wants to see a picture of Abel. While she waits, she thumbs through the local neighborhood newspaper.
    Bart lets his hands glide slowly across the volumes.The soft, old albums feel familiar; the baby pictures are here. Nonchalantly, he slides one of them onto the table.
    “Bart as a baby,” he says.
    Rose folds the newspaper and puts it aside. Eagerly, she pulls the album towards her.
    Bart’s fingers wander further over the books, along the spiral bindings. At random, he pulls one of them out.
    “Hey, you look like your father,” Rose calls out suddenly.
    Curious, he leans over Rose’s shoulder. She’s right. There’s something in his father’s face that’s like his own: the eyes, the cheekbones. Even the mouth.
    “Look how you’re father is standing here, with his hands on his waist. You stand like that all the time,” says Rose.
    “Really?” Surprised, he looks at the picture of his father.
    Can you inherit posture? Has his mother ever noticed that? Or has she forgotten how his father looked when he stood still? Just imagine that she had often fleetingly thought: Hey, Barend? Oh, no, it’s Bart. Just a fraction of a second, just enough to bring his father back to life; just enough to really be startled.
    In any case, his mother has never said anything about it. Her first husband’s name is no longer mentioned.
    “When we first moved here, I used to look at these pictures all the time in order to find out who my father was. Then I tried to stare at a picture like this so long that I could make him move and smile. Sometimes, I asked my mother something about him, but she didn’t want to talk about it. I think she had the idea that that meant I was rejecting Robert.”
    “Were you?”
    “Yes and no. First of all, I wanted to see the pictures, but I was fine with the idea that Robert realized that he was in second place – that he wasn’t my real father and never would be. I can still remember the time that I was sitting here at the table again with the whole pile of photos when Robert came in. I broke into a cold sweat, but pretended to calmly continue paging through the albums. He came over and asked if he could join me, and if I would tell him what I still remembered.”
    “Hoe did you feel about that?”
    “Terrible. I didn’t want to at all. I had wanted to talk with my mother about it, but not with him. I made up something about eating ice cream on Saturdays and that my Dad could break an egg on his head and that he played football with me – all kinds of stuff that our neighbour in Limburg did.”
    “Do you remember any real stuff about your father?” Rose asks.
    Bart sucks on his knuckles. “Actually, I hardly remember anything, anymore: a vague image of sitting on the crossbar of his bicycle. We were climbing a hill and I felt his breath in my neck and sometimes he put me to bed and tickled the soles of my feet. Stuff like that.”
    Once again, he dives into the buffet. He opens an album from the pile on the right: pictures of this house; the remodeling, Robert at his workbench, his mother painting, very pregnant. He can still see the stained overall very clearly. She was waiting to pick him up after school once wearing that thing. He pulled her home as fast as he possibly could.
    He thumbed further until the first class picture was staring back at him. Mr. Pieter’s class. The familiar setting on the square, with the school in the background. The sun must have really shone in the eyes of the kids in the back row, because most of them were squinting. Two boys are stretched out on the ground in front.
    Abel has to be in here somewhere. There, in the second row, there he is. They are sitting next to each other, arms entwined, grinning together into the camera.
    “Here,” he says to Rose. “That’s Abel, next to me.”
    Rose bends over the album. She peers at the photo, mumbling something about ‘well-scrubbed little faces.’
    Why doesn’t she say anything about the arms? Doesn’t she see it? Why doesn’t she ask about their friendship?
    Rose turns the pages. What other kinds of pictures are in here? Does he want her to see them?
    “A campfire,” she says. “You don’t look very sunshiny. Is this your class, too?”
    “High school,” he says. “Tenth grade, a kind of biology triathlon. There’s Abel.”
    His index finger pokes Abel’s chest. He knows that, with that gesture, he is actually pointing to himself, is handing himself over to Rose’s questioning. She’s right there.
    “What’s wrong with his hand?”
    Abel’s hand is wrapped in a spotless, white bandage – administered a few minutes earlier by the mentor, Mr. Freeman. There is no Bart’s arm around him here. Abel and Bart are sitting on opposite sides of the smoldering campfire.
    “Burned.” Bart fans out his fingers and places them on the table. “He fell and had to catch himself in the ashes.”
    It’s a perfectly correct rendition, he happens to be very good at that. Cut out the rotten bits and see what you’ve got left: a flawless story, a true story. Just like the real thing.
    Who took that picture, from the side, so that they are both in it with a column of smoke between them?
    “That’s enough pictures,” says Bart. He takes the album from Rose and snaps it shut. A little too roughly, he shoves it back into the buffet.

    That night he awakens with a start, panting.
    “What is it?” asks Rose. With her hand, she feels for the lamp switch.
    “Such a weird dream,” he says as he sits up. He massages his temples with his fingertips. “About Abel.”
    “Tell me about it.” Rose raises herself on one elbow and turns towards him.
    “I was hiking with him in the mountains, with a whole group, over a narrow path. And suddenly he slipped over the edge. But he was just able to grab onto the ledge.
    I tried to save him by pulling him up by his hands, but I couldn’t.”
    Bart sighs. “This is all because of those blasted photos.” With both hands, he gently taps the duvet. How ridiculous to have had that dream. What does that have to do with anything?
    “You can turn the lamp off now,” he says, “I’m fine.”
    Rose turns over. A few moments later, he can hear her even breathing.
    In the semidarkness, he stares into the room. The images were so real. The mountains, Abel’s face so close to his. He had seen him move, heard him talk. Crazy, that he’s still got Abel imprinted so precisely in his head. Once again, he tries to conjure up that face, but now Abel is keeping himself hidden.
    Bart throws off the duvet and steps out of bed to get a drink of water. In the bathroom mirror, a confused face looks back at him: two frightened eyes topped by a wild head of hair going every which way. Half asleep, he starts to comb it. Then, he makes his hands into a little bowl which he fills with ice cold water. He splashes it onto his face.
    Carefully, he slides back into bed.
    “What was all that in the bathroom?” asks Rose, sleepily.
    He chuckles.” I just did my hair.”
    “In the middle of the night?” She turns to him again and smoothes her hand over his head.
    “It’s soaking wet!”
    “How else are you supposed to get a decent hairstyle?”
    “You’re a real nutcase, you know that.” With the palm of her hand, she pushes softly against his chest. “Just lie on your back.”
    Relaxed, he stretches out. Her hand tickles his chest.
    “I’m going to tell you a story, and you are not allowed to interfere.”
    He grins.
    “You were lying on the beach, in a deep, deep sleep. And I was a woman who happened to be passing by and was very much in the mood for a nice tidbit.”
    Obediently, he closes his eyes. Unbelievable, what a good hair day can do for you, he thinks.


    Freeman hadn’t even asked. As a matter of course, he assumed that Abel and Bart would be sharing a tent during the biology camp that is always organized for the freshmen kids.
    “Tom and Jerry have to be together, of course,” was whispered. They’re doing their own biology project.”
    Startled, Bart looked back over his shoulder. Dirk, again?
    But this time, it was Joris. Fortunately, Dirk hadn’t heard anything. He was bent over a piece of paper, his hands burrowing deeper and deeper into his curls.
    “Who are you sharing a tent with, Dirk?”
    “With Bart, sir.” He hardly look up.
    “He has already been placed. Who is your second choice?”
    “Marisa, sir.”
    There was loud laughter, Marisa louder than anyone else.
    “Dirk, you’ve got one more chance, otherwise I’ll place you.”
    “Then you get to sleep with the teacher,” whispered Joris. “Great kicks.”
    Slowly, Dirk turned around.
    “Then I’d rather sleep outside.”
    “OK Dirk, I’ve put you down with Joris. It looks like the two of you get along just fine.”
    “Yup, bosom buddies,” mumbled Dirk. “Very clingy.”

    Three weeks later, they set up their tents in the Veluwe, at a cluttered campsite in the woods. Everyone was especially enthusiastic about the small stables right near the entrance. Marisa and Desiree had already found a favorite horse to pet, before they had even looked at their tent.
    “That’s being done for us,” called Marisa. “Hey, Dirk, the hammer and pegs are in my saddle bags, on the right.”
    “In your dreams,” said Dirk, and he walked on, whistling.
    “OK, you guys,” said Freeman a bit later when they were all sitting on the grass with their tea. “This afternoon, you can have some time to take a look around, but towards evening we’re all going to head off together. I’ll expect you back here at six o’clock.”
    “What are we going to do?” Inge wanted to know.
    “Out behind us here in the forest is a hide. It’s a kind of a fence with holes in it, through which you can watch the deer. They’ve made a feeding trough just behind the lookout holes. And if you get there at dusk and keep very quiet, you’ll have a good chance to see the deer coming to feed.”
    “Deer watching….” repeated Dirk.
    “Or, if you’re lucky, wild boar.”
    “Now you’re talking.”
    “And before we go there,” Freeman continued, “actually, on the way out there, I want to show you something else. What that is, well, I’ll tell you when we get there.”
    “Oh, come on, we’re not little kids anymore,” said Marisa.
    “It a story that is best told on location,” said Freeman.
    “I bet,” grumbled Marisa.
    But it was true. When they stood in an opening in the forest at dusk and Freeman started to tell his story, nobody said a word.Even Dirk kept silence.
    “Right here, during World War II, this was a village for people in hiding from the Germans. There were twelve underground huts where all kinds of people – Jews, people in the resistance, allied soldiers – had a safe hiding place. Right here,” he pointed to a densely overgrown hill right next to him, “is the roof of one of these huts. Well, this hut is a reconstructed copy that was built after the war to show everyone what they were like. The original huts were all blown up by the Germans. You have to imagine that right here, from April 1943 to October 1944, a total of around two hundred people lived here.”
    “On this bit of open land?” Bart asked. “But you can see it clearly from the road.”
    “Not during the war. The forest was very thick here and there were a lot more bushes. You couldn’t see more than about two meters in front of you.”
    “How did they get food?” Inge asked.
    “There she is, thinking about food, again,” said Dirk. “Berries and toadstools, kiddo. And rainwater from a hollow tree trunk.”
    “Good question, Inge” said Freeman. “It was quite a job to organize it all. A good many people from Nunspeet risked their lives for that. In October, 1944, the village was accidentally discovered by an SS patrol. At that point, more than eighty people were living there, nearly all of whom could escape. Eight of them were captured and shot.”
    Bart looked around at the huge holes and pits in the bare floor of the forest. Bomb craters. It looked like there were even some old building materials lying around.
    “That’s where the other huts were located,” Freeman pointed out.“Any of you who want to see the inside of this hut can take a look now.”
    Hesitantly, Bart walked into the pitch dark space. A couple of classmates followed him, whispering softly.
    “Was it this dark then, too?”
    “How many people lived in a hut like this?”
    “You can’t live like this, can you, for a whole year and a half?”
    “There were all kinds of provisions,” said Freeman.” They had a water pump and butane lighting and heating.”
    The group stood closely together in the middle of the hut as if the menace of all those years ago was still tangible. Freeman felt the walls with his fingertips. He then walked out slowly. The group shuffled along behind him, with Bart bringing up the rear. He jumped when something suddenly moved in a dark corner.
    “Shh.” It was Abel. “We’ll stay here a bit longer,” he whispered. “Let them go first. If that whole group gathers at the hide at once, not a deer will come out. They can hear and smell humans and just stay hidden in the bushes until everyone leaves. We’ll go later, just the two of us.”
    Bart pressed himself against the black wall and waited. Outside, the sounds of the group slowly faded away.
    Abel walked to the entrance of the hut. It actually looked more like a cave, a large rabbit burrow, but with a neat little peaked roof.
    “Just imagine,” he said. “A year and a half in a burial mound like this and frightened all the time.”
    Bart came up and stood next to him. Together, they looked at the heather bushes, moving softly in the late afternoon yellowing light.
    “The craziest thing about this is that those people saw these bushes, too, on evenings like this, and that they were actually prisoners here.”
    Abel nodded. He grabbed Bart’s arm and gently pulled his sleeve. “Come on, let’s just sit here for a moment.” He dropped down and stretched out against the upright trunks that formed the facing along the path to the hut.
    Bart slid next to him and took a deep breath. Instead of the clean forest air that he had expected, the sour smell of mildew penetrated his nose. Suddenly, he shot up straight.
    “They weren’t pissing here, were they?”
    “Then you’ve already sat in it, anyway”
    “Goddammit, don’t be so vile.” He sniffed again, but stayed where he was.
    “And now you have to pay attention.” With on hand, Abel raised his backpack up in the air. There was the sound of metal on metal. He then produced a can of beer.
    “Hey? Did you have that in there the whole time?”
    ‘Nope, I just found it here. Beer from…let’s see….1944. Good beer year.”
    “You’re crazy, man. Did you just pinch that from the little kitchen?”
    “Sure. Won’t notice a thing,” said Abel and he pulled a second can out of his bag. “And if they ever notice anything, they’ll never find the perp.”
    Nope, we’re gone and the beer is gone, Bart thought. Three guesses.
    Abel pulled up the tab. Foaming beer rose up through the small opening.
    “Drink up!” he said and pushed the can up to Bart’s mouth. Bart felt the beer dribble along his cheeks and into his neck. The first taste was always awful, but he knew that would pass. Just keep drinking.
    “Hey, can you hold your liquor?” asked Abel.
    “You’ll soon find out.”
    With his head back, Bart let the last bit slide down his throat. He slumped back a bit and looked at his sneakers that each pointed in a different direction.
    “So, now let’s see if I can walk a straight line.” Laboriously, he pulled himself up and sauntered about in front of Abel with huge, wobbling steps as if he were drunk. He let himself fall halfway backwards and flailed with his arms.
    “N-n-no p-problem, whatsoever-r-r,” he said thickly, while repeating his drunken fall. “Fortunately, I’m not d-d-d-drunk at all.” When he let himself fall backwards for the third time, two arms caught him.Abel was there and held onto him tightly.
    “Just come along with Mr. Policeman.”
    Bart tried to pry himself loose, but Abel held him more and more tightly against his chest. Abel was everywhere at once, he surrounded him like a scratchy woolen blanket.
    Then Bart wretched himself free with one jab of his elbow. He slammed over backwards, dragging Abel with him as he fell. Together, they rolled over the ground, right up to the entrance.
    Abel threw his leg over Bart and wrenched himself on top of him. Bart kicked wildly and turned his hips as much as he could, but then Abel’s knees pressed forcefully into Bart’s upper arms.
    “Where are we off to?” he panted, with a laugh.
    “Ow! Let me go,” said Bart.
    “I’m afraid that I can’t understand you,” said Abel with one hand on his ear. “What is it that we say?”
    He bent over until his face was right over Bart’s, so that Bart could smell his warm beer breath.
    “Uncle,” groaned Bart. The knobs in Abel’s knees stabbed more viciously in his arms.
    “Is that all?”
    “Let’s be polite, now.”
    “Uncle, please, Abel.”
    Bart felt Abel’s knees relax, so that the piercing pain in his muscles subsided, but Abel stayed on top of him and looked at him, smiling. His eyes glowed feverishly; there was something soft and sweet in those eyes. It was something that seemed to affect Bart’s stomach, which contracted into a hard lump.
    Abel slid off of Bart and walked a few meters away from the hut. Bart looked at him, at his shoulders that seemed more angular than ever, while he gently rubbed his bruised upper arms. Twilight had already set in. “We have to go,” he said.
    But Abel stayed right there. He didn’t move.
    Bart scrambled to his feet and, without a word, walked past Abel, back to the road. He kept seeing Abel’s shinning eyes, the soft expression in them. Was this actually normal, the way they were together? Horsing around like that? Did other fifteen year-old boys roll around with each other like that, too? During gym class, he had also seen a couple of guys rolling around on the floor. It happened often enough.
    But that look on Abel’s face? Or was he imagining things?
    Suddenly, something brushed along his back. He huddled down quickly.
    “It was nothing,” said Abel, who was again walking diagonally behind him. “There was some stuff on your jacket, a bit of dirt. Wait a sec, I’ll brush it all off.”
    Bart shook his head. He stuck his hands deep into the pockets of his jacket and pulled up his shoulders. He didn’t want to stand still anymore, at least not before they got to the hide.

    On the evening of the second day, Freeman called everyone together for a group discussion.
    “We have to go all clingy again,” grumbled Dirk.
    “It’s called ‘evaluating,’ said Marisa, laughing.
    “More booze,” someone called out.
    “Less bullshit.”
    “Tonight, We’re all going to take a trip a bit back in time,” Freeman began. They were still giggling, pushing and pulling at each other.
    “Shut up!” Dirk yelled. “Or we’ll never get this over with.”
    “Thanks, Dirk,” said Freeman. I would like to look back with you at your school years, starting with elementary school but also, of course, with your first steps into high school.”
    It became quiet in the little wooden building.
    “How would you describe your worst school experience?” Freeman looked around the circle. “Who dares to go first?”
    “The first day of kindergarten,” said Joris. Everybody laughed. Freeman frowned.
    “Hey, you guys, can we get serious here?”
    “When my favorite teacher left,” said Marisa.Hesitantly, the stories started to come out. It seemed as if the class was feeling the excitement.
    “And the best experience?” asked Freeman.
    Abel spoke up almost immediately. “The day Bart came to my school,” he said clearly. “In the fifth grade.” It was completely quiet. Here and there, someone coughed, shyly.Then Dirk, in a high little voice, said, “Oh, Bartlett, how cute!” He gestured frivolously with his hand. Laughter thundered through the wooden barn, the class was doubled over. Freeman tried his best to save the situation.
    “I think it’s fantastic that Abel has the courage to be so honest. And I really don’t understand why….”
    But the class had gone absolutely wild.
    Abel stared at this feet and Bart sat there, flushed with anger. He was furious. Why did that idiot say something like that?
    A bit later, around the campfire, Abel stepped in front of a couple of classmates so that he could sit next to Bart. He leaned on Bart’s shoulder to keep his balance before he could sit down. Irritation flashed through Bart. Was that really necessary? Now, of all times?
    He jerked away angrily, as a result of which Abel tumbled backwards and, screaming, burned his hand in the ashes. Freeman went off with him, but his wailing could be heard in the background for a long time.
    A half an hour later, he appeared again with his hand all bandaged up and quietly went to sit on the other side of the campfire.

    * * *

    Long after Abel had gone to the tent, Bart was still sitting by the glowing embers of the campfire. He talked to Inge about the camp; about what they had done that day and what they were going to do tomorrow. He talked about everything, except about Abel. If only she would ask something, say anything at all, Bart thought. Inge was the only one to whom he would be able to explain what just happened.
    He stared at the fire for awhile, at the branches that crackled as they disintegrated and at the ashes so close to his feet. Was Abel’s handprint still visible? No, of course not.
    How was Abel doing? He didn’t dare go find out.
    A bit further down, Marisa was sitting; well, actually lying. Relaxed, she turned her face towards the warm glow of the embers. Her long, blond hair seemed to be on fire, a golden halo surrounded her head. She stretched her neck a bit further, slowly, as if she were taking a sunbath, so that her windbreaker was pulled even tighter. He could clearly follow the outline of her breasts. She suddenly looked directly at him. He turned away quickly. Had she noticed that he was staring at her? Again, his eyes drifted sideways. Her brown eyes were still focused on him. She smiled, while she pushed her hair back with one hand.
    “Have you already been in to see Abel? It was Freeman’s voice, right behind him.
    On all sides, the whispered conversations came to a standstill. Everyone had heard the question and was waiting for an answer.
    “He’s not my little brother, is he?”
    “No, but I thought that you were friends.”
    “Does that mean I have to be his nurse?”
    Freeman turned and walked away. Nobody reacted. Did anybody actually see what had caused Abel to fall? Maybe everyone thought that Abel had simply lost his balance….

    It was late by the time Bart came into the tent. He gave his eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness and stared in Abel’s direction. Was he awake?
    “Does it still hurt?” Bart whispered.
    Oh, half awake.
    “Your hand. Does it still hurt?”
    “What do you care?”
    “Of course I do, otherwise I wouldn’t have asked.”
    Abel pulled himself up on one elbow.
    “If you didn’t want me to sit next to you, you could just have told me. You didn’t have to push me into the fire.”
    “I didn’t mean to. Honestly. It was an accident. I just wanted to …..
    “You just wanted to give me a shove, and the fire should have moved aside.”
    “I wasn’t thinking about the fire.”
    It was quiet for a moment.
    “Well, I got the message. I’m not going to sit next to you anymore.” Abel fell back onto his air mattress.
    There was a rumbling sound in the tents around them, somebody was calling, a flashlight shone on their awning.
    “Who’s in here?”
    “Abel and Bart.”
    There was the sound of laughter. Voices drifted off, others replaced them. Again, a bundle of light hit their tent.
    “Hey, man, leave them alone. Abel is in there, maybe he’s already asleep.”
    Bart took his toilet kit out of the side compartment, crawled out of the tent and walked towards the washhouse.
    There, in the harsh light of a florescent tube, stood Dirk. He had one hand on the faucet and was shrieking with laughter. With his thumb, he had partially covered the mouthpiece, so that the water spouted with full force directly at Joris. There was already a good-sized puddle of water in front of the washbasins. As soon as he saw Bart, he let go.
    “How’s Abel?”
    “Does he still want to share a tent with you?”
    “What do you mean?”
    “If you’d given me a shove like that, I’d go sleep someplace else.”
    “Don’t worry, I’d never share a tent with you.”
    “Oh, Bartlett, really?”
    With both hands, Dirk grabbed him by his arm. Bart jerked free and punched Dirk as hard as he could in his stomach.
    “Get the hell out of here, you idiot.”
    He stamped back to the tent. Furious, he pulled open the zipper and tossed his toilet articles on the foot of his sleeping bag.
    Abel was already asleep. Or else he was playing possum.
    Bart listened to the campground sounds. He heard some laughter a few tents further up. Sometimes, there was the droning monotone of a single voice and then a chorus of shrieks. Until Freeman thunderously broke up the group. Then, there was only some whispering here and there and some suppressed sneezing and sputtering.
    In the semidarkness, the white bandage on Abel’s hand was clearly visible. Again and again, the hand moved, fluttering like a wearied bird looking for a place to rest. Bart watched it until the bird settled in between them, on the bare ground cloth.
    Hesitantly, he pulled a sweater from his pillowcase and made a small pillow. He lifted up the white hand – carefully, please don’t let me wake him! – and slid the sweater under it.
    It took hours before he slipped into a restless sleep. He heard Abel’s every groan.

    Chapter 4

    It is precisely two o’clock when Bart arrives at Abel’s house. He looks up. Behind that triangular window-frame is Abel’s room. There are two windows, two tiny triangles that have been left ajar – as if Abel were simply home.
    He takes a couple of steps backwards. No, you can’t look into the room from here. Would everything be the same as before? Abel’s bed, his desk, the Styrofoam Indian on the wall that they had practiced on for hours on end, that they had played competitions with. He got better and better, but was never as good as Abel. And he had never dared to take the Indian’s place.
    “If you miss. ….”
    “I won’t miss. ….”
    “I still won’t do it.”
    The green cardboard folder with his drawings was under Abel’s desk. Maybe his portrait is still in it – the drawing that Abel once did of him.
    When Bart rings the bell, something moves immediately in the hallway.The door opens. Abel’s mother is standing there in a tight, green dress with a wide belt. It looks like a party dress. Her face relaxes in a gentle smile as soon as she sees him.
    “Come in, Bart.”
    “Hello, Mrs. Teunis.”
    Shyly, he extends his hand, but she takes his head in both her hands and kisses him on both cheeks. A slight uneasiness creeps over him; what does she expect of him?
    Mr. Teunis is standing in the middle of the room, wringing his hands, just like he used to. He gives Bart a handshake that is both firm and stiff.
    “Perhaps you want to go see Abel first?” asks Mrs. Teunis. It sounds like Abel is waiting for him somewhere in the house.
    He nods because he’s not sure of his voice. What will it be like to see Abel again? Will he be shocked?
    Mrs. Teunis walks to her own bedroom and carefully opens the door. She peeks inside for a moment, but stays on the threshold, her head bowed respectfully, to let Bart through. He hears her soft footsteps on the stairs.
    Bart stays at the door for awhile. Slowly, he gropes around with his eyes towards what he will be looking at more closely in a moment. Somebody is lying there and that somebody looks like Abel: in a neatly ironed shirt, hands folded on his chest.
    Bart swallows. His heart is pounding in his chest. He does not dare get any closer. What right does he have to be here?
    On the nightstand next to the bed there is a tiny light in an open, earthenware pot. It is covered with dried flower petals. That is certainly where the sweetish smell is coming from.
    Hesitantly, he takes two steps forward. He recognizes Abel’s face, the deep-set eyes -- not completely closed – with the blue circles under them. There is a deep scratch across his forehead. From the fall, probably.
    Bart’s eyes slide downwards past the ironed shirt, to his hands. The scar didn’t disappear. The shadows of the fire are still visible: pale pink paths over the brown landscape. Abel is taking it to his grave.
    Seeing that delicate pink makes him nauseous. He staggers and grabs onto the chair next to the bed. He swallows.
    Does he dare touch that pale, motionless hand? To warm it with his own hand?. That’s certainly the least that he can still do for Abel now, isn’t it? Slowly, he comes closer, with his arm outstretched. But ah, how cold his skin is and how strange he feels, almost rubbery! Bart pulls back quickly. He rubs his hands on his pants, again and again, afraid that they would never be warm again.

    On the landing, he stands still, blows his nose and takes a deep breath. Then, he slowly walks downstairs.
    Mrs. Teunis looks at him closely. Will his face betray how shocked he is? Or will his trembling hands?
    “Come in, Bart” she says. Her hand rests very lightly on his arm. Not too long, he thinks.
    He drops down onto the couch and starts. Right in front of him, in the bookcase, is a picture of Abel, with a girl. If you didn’t know any better, you would think that she was his girlfriend. Why is that picture there?
    Mrs. Teunis has given him a cup of tea and slides in next to him on the couch. She hands him a plate of peanut cookies.
    “Homemade?” he asks and immediately feels a blush flooding his face. How can he say something so stupid? Mrs. Teunis smiles.
    “You’ve changed, Bart,” she says. You’ve blossomed. The last time I saw you, you were still such a little kid. Now you’re really a… a real grownup.” A real man, she had wanted to say. He feels flattered, in spite of everything.
    His innocent ‘Homemade?’ brought them both, in one fell swoop, right back to how it used to be.
    “I can still see the two of you playing behind the house.” Dreamily, Mrs. Teunis gazes outside. “You used to shoot the neighbour behind us with your blowpipes. It made the guy furious.” Her face lighted up. “Such a bad sport, that guy.How old were you kids, then? And how much damage can you do with paper darts? A bit of clutter, that’s all.”
    “Oh yeah, the blowpipes.”
    “Do you ever see anyone from school?” asks Mrs. Teunis.
    Bart stirs his tea slowly. When he spends a week-end with his mother, he sometimes goes to The Firefly for a drink. Now and then, he runs into an old classmate. But with most of them, he just says ‘hello.’
    The phone rings. Mrs. Teunis answers it.
    “This is not a good time,” she says. “We have Abel’s best friend here, now.” She sounds delighted, almost as if Abel himself has just quietly settled down on the couch. I’m part of Abel for her, thinks Bart.
    “You were his best buddy, è-è-è” says Mr. Teunis, suddenly.
    Oh, God, that laugh. What a creep. That guy is positively reptilian, with that leather neck. And the way he stares at you with those squinty eyes, never even blinking at all.
    “He never again had that with anyone else.” That leering look is now fixed on him.
    “No,” says Bart flatly. He doesn’t know where to look.
    “Do you mind if we look at some pictures?” Mrs. Teunis asks. She walks over to a small wooden table where a photo album seems to be waiting. “The class pictures are in here. I would really like to write down the names next to the pictures. Then I’ll know who was in his class, that final year.”
    She starts to thumb through the pages. Childhood photos of Abel sail past, vacation pictures and there are the pictures of the biology camp.
    Without thinking, Bart holds back the page. It startles him, that he did this, but Mrs. Teunis seems to enjoy looking over his shoulder.
    “Yes, these are beautiful pictures, you were still little here.”
    Abel with his binoculars. He and Abel together in front of the tent. And there is Abel with his bandaged hand.
    Slowly, Mrs. Teunis turns the pages. In the middle of the album, she stops.
    “Here it is.” Carefully, she pries a class picture loose. On the back, the outline is already visible. She pulls out a crumpled list of names from the back of the album.
    “This is from an old diary of Abel’s,” she says. “I just don’t know which name goes with which face.”
    Bart lets his eyes glide over the rows of classmates. What is Freeman doing right there in the middle? He wasn’t even their mentor that final year. Is his hand resting on Abel’s shoulder, or is that just his imagination?
    Then he begins to recite the names. He is surprised at how many faces he still remembers. When the name Dirk comes up, Mrs. Teunis brightens.
    “You’ll see him at the funeral, too,” she says. “He called me this morning.”
    Bart is startled. She simply assumes that that he will come to the funeral. Can he still make up an excuse? Does he dare say that he’s not coming? No, he doesn’t.
    “And that’s Freeman,” he says, in conclusion.
    “That man?” she sounds hesitant. Mrs. Teunis takes a closer look. “Freeman. Abel sometimes went over to see him.”
    “To his house?”
    “Yes, he used to go there. For homework and stuff like that. He could talk to that man, but I’ve never met him.”
    Again, she studies the outlines. She searches for Abel’s silhouette and scribbles ‘Abel’ in tiny letters. She stares at it for a moment. Then she writes: († 14-7-2001) and snaps the album shut.