Polyxene is holding the red plastic top firmly in her small hand and knocking with its nose at the lacquered wooden floorboards.
‘What are you doing that for?’ Anargyros says. He’s sitting on the sofa, reading comics.
‘Scare the mice away.’
‘Mice are hard to scare,’ the boy says blandly.
Polyxene slaps her left palm against the floor. ‘I will kick them out of here,’ she says. ‘They will bite at the floor and we’ll fall under the ground if I don’t. Help me out!’ There’s a constant creaking sound coming under the girl’s feet as if someone is munching at a biscuit.
‘Only Mama can chuck them out of here. She will throw poison into the chinks and then they’ll all die. We’ll tell her about it when she comes.’
‘Why is Mama late?’ the girl says, her glum, brown eyes homing in on her brother.
‘I don’t know.’
The palm tree outside the dining room window casts shadows onto the table and the walls, its huge, ferny branches like the hairy arms of the Yeti in the Scooby Doo cartoon they saw last night, making at snatching them out the window and into the moonlit sky. A long branch, rustling in the wind, is brushing against the tiled roof, making grating noises as if someone is raking the garden or dragging a huge sack of potatoes along dry weed.
‘She’ll come sooner or later,’ the boy says.
‘Call Yiayia and ask her. She might know.’
‘Mama has told us never to call her, remember?’
‘Yes, but Yiayia will know what time she’ll be back.’
‘No, she won’t.’
‘Yes, she will!’ The girl’s eyes water. ‘I want Mama back home. I’m scared,’ the girl is screeching in a shrill tone now.
‘Oh, ok, ok. I’ll call her.’ Anargyros slaps his comic onto the living room table and stands up. He flicks out a small notebook his mama keeps in a chest drawer, leafs through it and says, ‘Got it!’ He picks up the phone and dials the number. He waits, his breath echoing in the receiver like a panting dog.
‘Hello!’ a woozy with slumber voice replies.
‘Yiayia, it’s me!’
‘Anargyre! What’s wrong, darling? Are you alright?’ the voice has become louder and faster now.
‘Yes, we’re fine. It’s just… Mama hasn’t come home yet and we’re afraid. Do you know when she’s coming back?’
The woman mumbles something under her breath and then says, spelling everything out clearly and slowly, ‘Now, listen, Anargyre. You’re the man of the house. You can’t be scared. You’re frightening your little sister. Your mama will be back soon. She has probably forgotten how late it is. She’ll be there soon. Lock the doors and take your sister to bed. You don’t have to wait up. OK?’
‘OK, Yiayia,’ the boy whispers.
‘If she still hasn’t returned when you wake up, give me a call, will you?’
‘Yes, Yiayia. Bye.’ Anargyros hangs up. ‘She says we should go to bed. Come on!’ He stretches his arm and grabs Polyxene by the hand. She wriggles herself free.
‘No, I’m not going anywhere! I’ll wait for Mama,’ she demurs, arms crossed in front of her chest. ‘We can watch Harry Potter,’ she suggests.
‘No, it’s late. We should both go to bed,’ the boy counters.
‘I’m playing with my top.’ Polyxene twists the plastic top on the floor, making it spin for some time until it loses its dynamics and drops to its side.
Anargyros shrugs with abandon. He picks up his comic and slumps onto the sofa. His eyes roll along the colour pages of the story of Donald Duck who the witch Magica de Spell tricks into stealing Skroutz Mc Duck’s lucky penny. Donald has to transform himself into Phantom Duck and fight the fire breathing dragon and the stupid giant in order to snatch the penny back. He knows the story by heart, has read it so many times, but he still likes it. He admires Phantom Duck’s clever mind, his skillful manoeuvres and the way he outwits all kinds of enemies and outlaws.
He is not aware of how much time has passed when the door lock clicks and Vaso, their mama traipses into the living room. She is wearing a red, mini skirt, a matching sequined blouse and black stilettos, a bottle of beer in hand.
‘Why aren’t you in bed?’ She slurs. ‘You’re not good kids. Good children go to bed early.’ She wags her index finger at them.
‘She didn’t want us to.’ Anargyros points to his sister. Vaso’s eyes are glazed over, unseeing as she swigs from the bottle.
‘Why not?’ She snaps.
‘Because we were afraid,’ the girl says.
‘Afraid of what?’ She goes nearer the sofa and Anargyros can smell her rank with booze breath.
‘Of mice. There are mice gnawing at our floor. They’re going to eat us up too.’
‘Don’t be stupid!’ she blusters. ‘There are no mice in this house.’ She dangles the bottle and a portion of beer spill onto the floor.
‘We… we called Yiayia. We were afraid…’ the girl stammers.
‘You did what?’ Vaso lashes out at her. ‘You did what, stupid thing?’ She raises a hand and slaps Polyxene’s left hand, which was resting on her temple, the plastic top in between.
‘Ahhh!’ Polyxene screams. And then tears flood her face, unstoppable, glistening tears that tumble down onto her white T-shirt, filling it with dark patches. She whines and yowls in agony, cupping her left temple with quivering hands.
‘What’s wrong with you, silly child?’ Vaso rolls the beer onto the living room table, the frothy liquid undulating along the wood and onto the floor. ‘I’ve told you thousands of times never to call my mother. Never! Your yiayia has never given a damn about you. Never spared a single euro for us. Going to take everything to her grave with her, the tight-arsed hag!’ Anargyros wants to interject that Yiayia has given them the house they’re living in and that she always sends them nice presents at Christmas and on birthdays but he doesn’t say a word. Vaso pulls Polyxene by the arm and shoves her into her bedroom. ‘Just like your father. He left us to rot in hell. Too busy crawling all over his new bitch’s podgy legs.’ She pushes Polyxene onto the bottom bunk bed.
Anargyros has followed them into the bedroom and is standing still, paralysed next to the door, his breath baited.
‘Now, sleep! Both of you! Shut up and sleep,’ Vaso says but Polyxene can’t stop crying. ‘What’s this?’ The woman’s tone shows surprise and concern now. Anargyros has climbed onto the top bunk bed when he sees his mama drag Polyxene out of her bed and pore over her left temple, which has turned purplish where the nose of the top had hit her. Polyxene’s hair around her forehead and temples is matted with sweat and tears.
‘Oh, my God! What have I done to you! Oh, my God!’ Vaso breathes fast. ‘What have I done to you, baby?’ Her words come out minced up with sobs, brows deeply scored. ‘So sorry, darling. I’m a monster… I never meant to hurt you, babe.’ She places Polyxene on her lap and rocks her to and fro, moaning. The girl slowly comes to herself, sniffs out her tears and falls asleep in her mama’s lap, the red top still in her pale hand. Vaso lays her in bed clumsily, staggers to her feet and shuffles to her bedroom.
They must’ve slept for an hour or so when the doorbell rings. At first Anargyros thinks it’s the village tower bell tolling in his dream but then he wakes up and hears the insistent chime. It peals out three times until he decides to get up and see who it is. His mama must’ve been sound asleep, unable to hear it.
He peeps into the peephole and sees the bulging, distorted heads of his mama’s best friend Lisa and her husband Stratos behind the thick lens. He unlocks the door and the couple burst into the house.
‘Where’s your mama?’ Stratos booms.
‘In the bedroom,’ Anargyros gapes. He sees them both dash towards the bedroom and come out holding a wraith-wan Vaso, still in her mini skirt and sequined blouse, her arms around their heads. Vaso totters, limbs wobbly, eyes vacant. Anargyros feels a numbing wave seize his brain, creep down his spine. He saw his mama in this state a couple of years ago when she had to be taken to hospital to have her stomach pumped, as Yiayia told him.
‘We have to take your mama to hospital,’ Lisa says in an urgent voice. ‘Now, you stay here and I’ll call your yiayia to come and stay with you.’ They rush out of the house, Vaso slung by their shoulders like a lifeless puppet.
Anargyros locks the door and goes into his mama’s bedroom. Two boxes of medicine, some pill packages – the blisters empty - and her mobile phone are strewn on the crumpled, white sheet on the bed. The room smells of stale beer. He sits on the bed. He feels his legs weak and malleable, his hands tremble. What will happen to their mama? Is she going to be alright?
He goes to the living room and sits on the sofa, waiting. The mice are having a party down there. He can hear them critch cratch and can imagine their pointed teeth having by now eaten their way to the upper layer of the floorboards, licking the lacquer with their ravening tongues, sucking at the gritty sawdust with voracious lips. He shuts his ears but then removes his hands because he won’t be able to hear the door when Yiayia comes.
Then he hears a knock on the door and he knows it’s Yiayia because she always knocks for some reason. Marianthe bursts into the house, a black dressed figure, the pointed kerchief on her head a raven on the top mast of a ship with black sails, on the watch. She slaps her lap indignantly, adjusts her kerchief, wrings her hands when she says, ‘Where’s your sister?’
She marches up and down the living room, rambling on about what a stupid, irresponsible, attention-seeking, egocentric person her daughter is and how she is going to take the kids away from her, pursue custody, become their guardian, save these poor souls from purgatory. ‘Her father and I have given her everything but she’s always wanted more. She killed him with her impudent actions… What else can I give her? The small sum of money I’ve left in the bank is for my funeral. That’s all, and the miserly pension I live on… Why doesn’t she work somewhere? Does she expect to raise two kids on the stingy alimony her ex throws at her? But I guess she’s too busy chasing after men. Poutana! She wants to drain all the blood off me. That’s it. But no! I’m not going to let her…’ She suddenly stops her monologue, looks at Anargyros with pained eyes and hugs him. She squeezes his shoulders. ‘You’ll come and live with me. You and Polyxene. You’ll be fine. We’ll be happy together. Don’t worry about anything, darling.’ She bends and kisses Anargyro on the head and a whiff of camphor fills the boy’s nostrils. ‘As soon as Polyxene is up, we’re leaving,’ she ordains.
Marianthe lives in a small house on the edge of the village, near the cemetery. Before Polyxene is up, she has bundled some clothes in a bag and then she dresses the children and leads them by the hand out of the dark house and down the dimly lit streets, a pale, nascent sun over their bobbing heads.
Anargyros has made up his mind. He’s not going to live with his yiayia. He’s responsible for his mama. She needs him now. He’s the man of the house. As soon as he can, he will go back home. He will pour all alcoholic drinks he will find in the house into a big bucket and throw all medicines there are into it, stir and let them melt. Then he’ll pour the lethal potion onto the house floor and kill the mice with it. He’s not afraid of them.
He finds his idea ingenious. Two birds in one stone, he muses. His head swings around and his eyes swivel at their house on the cliff. Morning mist envelops the twisted streets up his house, the place looking suspended by a flimsy rock, faltering, the mountain breeze pushing it hither and thither. He has to hurry; he can hear the mice pulverizing its roots away.