When the house collapsed, Wilom was still inside it.
It could have been the poor foundations, so close to the sea. It might have been the bad storm recently, swelling exposed wood. It could have been sheer bad luck. Wilom never underestimated the viciousness of sheer bad luck.
He didn’t have a lot of time when he heard the first creaks – and when the first rafter fell, he did the only thing he could think of.
He dived under the table.
The rafter hit the floor in the next room. Something snapped, collapsed. He felt the house shake.
For a long time, there were no other noises. He lay under the table, composing himself. In a moment, he would go out and look in the next room and see what had happened.
When the next rafter fell directly onto the table, snapping it in half, Wilom screamed. He tucked his head up into his arms, and brought his legs up, as if he could hide behind them.
The rest followed, faster and faster. The table was tilted over Wilom; he had his back against the underside of the board, and through the legs he could see …
He buried his head again, whimpering and trying to draw his legs even closer. His fingernails dug into his back through his shirt. He flinched every time the table jerked against his back. There was a small noise and fear like ice rushed up his back. The table legs – they were coming loose! They’d collapse too and then it’d just be him and the table board, and with nothing to support it, it would see-saw down and then the roof would come down and then …
He realised that the noise he’d heard wasn’t the table legs squeaking at all.
It was him.
The table creaked as another section of roof landed on it. Wilom tightened his grip without really meaning to.
After the noises stopped, he waited, just in case. He gave it a few minutes, and then a few minutes longer. Just until his breathing was calm, just until he could be sure that he wouldn’t embarrass himself. Nearly everyone would be gathered by now, he was sure. The curse of the small town. Someone had probably even heard him screaming.
He rolled over onto his back and stretched his limbs out as much as the cramped space would allow. Through the table legs, he could see the sky. No roof.
He could feel the laugh welling up in his chest, but he squashed it down, in case it turned into tears once it got outside his body. Thankfully, his face was, so far, dry.
Wilom reached up to the sky-filled gap, and felt his shaking fingers slip against the rough wood. He tried again. This time, he managed to pull himself up, squeezing himself up until he was sitting on top of the table top, his legs dangling down into the ruins, looking up at the sky and breathing air that didn’t taste like wood splinters. Dammit. He had been right. Everyone could see him. He lifted his legs up and tried to act casual, pretending he was being careful not to trip on the debris of the house, instead of trying to keep his shaking legs holding him upright.
He heard his aunt long before she arrived. She made such a racket running over the wood.
His nice view of the sky was suddenly cut off by his aunt’s shoulders and wispy hair. He didn’t bother answering. He doubted she’d let him get a word in, anyway.
“Are you hurt? Oh, sweetheart, your shoulders…”
She insisted on touching them. Wilom winced. Was that blood on his back, then? Bugger. That wasn’t going to go over well.
“I’m only scratched.” He would have brushed her hand away if she hadn’t been holding him so damn tight.
“Wilom, don’t shove me. Let me have a proper look!”
Wilom finally managed to push her away, and looked around at his house, just to see if any of it was left standing.
“No, don’t look at that, Wilom, not yet. There’s time enough for that later.” Aunt Jali shoved his face back into her shoulder. “It was a bad idea from the start, letting you live in this old place.”
What was he, a child? Who was she to tell him what he could and couldn’t look at? He pushed her away again. “Aunt J, I can’t breathe.”
“Sorry!” She released him. “Why don’t we …”
“Not now,” Wilom said. The crowd had grown. What was that, everyone in town? He sighed. If it weren’t for Aunt J, he could have been long gone by now.
“Come back to our house,” Aunt Jali said. “I know you loved this house, but just stay with us until you get your feet under you again. It’s no imposition – you know you can stay with us as long as you like, it’s no trouble …”
Wilom tried to sound flippant. “There’s a perfectly good bed under there, you know.”
Wilom could have burst out laughing at her disappointed expression. It was absurd. He was lightheaded. His house was gone. “It was a joke. I’m joking.”
“I know, dear.”
The crowd was encroaching on his vision again, that suppressed laugh increasing pressure against his ribs until he felt like it might choke him. “I shouldn’t stay here.”
He pushed past her and picked his way over the rubble towards … something. Immediately, he bumped into his uncle.
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
“Don’t mention it.” Tanim looked over his head, and Wilom realised Jali had followed him. Tanim smiled at her. “Why don’t you reassure everyone?”
Wilom very nearly disguised a snort of laughter. Jali didn’t pay him any attention. “Oh, but …”
Tanim reached past Wilom to put his hand on her shoulder. “I’ll take him back to our house and give him a hot drink. We’ll meet you there.”
Jali squeezed her husband’s wrist. “Thank you, honey. You just wait for me, Wilom, I’ll be home soon. In the meantime, go with your uncle, sit down and have something warm to drink.”
Wilom kept his eyes carefully focused on the pavement, in case he met someone’s eyes as he watched her go. “Thank you,” he said to Tanim. Was he still shaking, or was that his imagination?
“Don’t mention it. Are you hurt much?” Tanim seemed to sense that Wilom didn’t want someone’s hand on his shoulder, and Wilom was glad at least one person had some empathy.
“How are you feeling?”
“What the hell kind of question is that?” Wilom snapped.
Tanim nodded. “Noted. Don’t tell your aunt I let that language slide, by the way. I think, though, under the circumstances…”
Wilom looked away. He knew that hadn’t been fair to Tanim, but really, what kind of a question was it? “I know. Circumstances.”
Jali and Tanim’s house wasn’t far. Tanim pulled out a chair at the table for him.
“I said I’m fine.” Wilom folded his arms and leaned on the table. “I’ll take the hot drink, though.”
“Tea? Or cocoa. I think your aunt might let us use a little of her cocoa.”
“Tea is fine.”
Tanim started the water boiling, and got out the tea things. Wilom tried to still his hands, but every effort only made the shake more. He gave up in disgust.
Tanim handed him the steaming mug, and said, “Listen, I know you’re shaken, and I understand she can be overbearing, but please try not to be too hard on Jali. She very nearly lost her only nephew, after all.”
Wilom tried his very best not to sound sarcastic. “I’ll remember that.”
Tanim sipped his own tea in silence for a moment, watching Wilom. “Are you sure you’re alright?”
Wilom shrugged and sipped his tea. “I’ll be fine,” he said.
“Do you need some time alone?”
“No,” Wilom answered automatically and forcefully. “I mean, uh … no, I’m alright.”
Tanim nodded. “Please tell me if you need anything.”
Wilom really needed Tanim to go distract Jali so she didn’t come back in and talk to him, but he knew that wouldn’t happen, so he kept silent.
“We’ll help you get back on your feet,” Tanim promised.
Wilom nodded. It was a nice offer. But it meant Jali’s help, and that was definitely not Wilom’s idea of help. He could just hear her now, telling him how ‘she always knew that place was going bad’ and ‘wouldn’t it be more comfortable living with her and Tanim’ … but he appreciated Tanim trying to make the offer anyway.
There Jali was, coming down the path to the house. He drained the cup, ignoring the bitter dregs and his burning tongue and put it next to him on the table.
“I think I’m going to my room for a while. I’m tired. Tell Jali I’m alright.”
Tanim nodded, and sipped his tea. “We should see to those scratches first.”
“I’ll do it.”
“Wilom, you won’t be able to reach them.”
But Jali was at the door and Wilom didn’t have time to argue with Tanim anymore.
He closed the door to his room behind him and wished he could lock it, or that there was something heavy to put against it.
It was just like it was before he’d moved into his own house, except that none of his things were there. Jali had kept the bed made. All the requests for him to stay over the night … had she really kept the bed made just in case? Just like her.
He stripped to his underwear and climbed into the bed, so he could pretend to be asleep.