Countdown to Zero, First Prize Winner: MayBea Later Contest, Caper Literary Journal, September 2011
"May? Are you in?" Frau Hessen knocked at the back door again.
May smiled through the window from her bedroom, peering down on Frau Hessen's finely etched part, a tiny slice of skin amidst her dark, lustrous hair. The back door creaked open. Frau Hessen's figure slid out of sight; she had come inside the house. May shivered with pleasure as the woman's footsteps clicked along the kitchen linoleum that May's mother had mopped that morning. It was 1920; the war had ended. But her mother repeatedly scrubbed the house as if to set Germany right again.
May faced herself in the mirror. She had just turned eighteen. Her chestnut-colored hair was pulled back from her face, revealing her cheeks' peachy glimmer and blue eyes that glinted with resolution. Now was the time. She could feel it. She ran her hands over her breasts slowly. I'm beautiful, she whispered, a flush of heat filling her body. Beautiful.
"May?" Frau Hessen's voice resounded in the kitchen, more loudly now, more urgent.
May began to count down from ten. Her mother had always encouraged this in an attempt to instill patience in her restless, impulsive child, often called a tomboy, and occasionally, to her mother's mortification, "boyish". She encouraged May to grow her hair, pluck her eyebrows, always wear stockings. She instructed her on the benefits of long walks, regular hair brushing, the properly fitting bra. All in the purpose of May finding a man so those in their acquaintance could never, would never, allude to her being like one.
Frau Hessen moved about the kitchen in small, ruffled movements, reminding May of a bird rustling its wings in a cage. She had lost her husband in the war. Not quite thirty, Frau Hessen wore snug wool skirts with heels and plum-colored lipstick which May imagined tasting like plum. Now, her heels ticked along the floor like a bomb waiting to go off. A drawer squeaked open—Frau Hessen was searching now—and she began to hum softly, just as May's pediatrician did while inspecting the private corners of her body.
May leaned on one foot so the floor creaked. The sound was subtle, but distinct.
"May? Is that you?" Fright in Frau Hessen's voice—but excitement too. For the first time, they were alone in the house. Three months before, Frau Hessen had befriended May's mother at church, but she latched onto May, hunger in her dark eyes. The war had taken so many men. Like other widows, Frau Hessen went to church to quell the flame of anger and bereavement, and there, she had discovered May, the sweetness of her, the youth of her, the decency of her, a young woman who attended church, volunteered at the hospital, tutored the neighborhood children. She began to knit May sweaters, one the color of sand, one sky blue to match May's eyes. She brought her pies—blackberry, peach, green apple. It seemed so innocent, May thought, all so innocent.
Then Frau Hessen's visits became more frequent, and longer. She began to ask May if she had boyfriends, what body cream she used. She even touched May's hair sometimes, commenting on its silkiness; how did May create such a shine? Women could ask the most intimate questions without suspicion.
May leaned on her foot again; another creak from the floorboards. Would Frau Hessen dare climb the stairs? Would she come into May's bedroom? Ten, nine, eight… May began to count as Frau Hessen's legs whispered as she approached the stairs. May felt a heat glowing inside of her. Still, she waited, pressing up against the discomfort until she completed the countdown
…three, two, one. Ready. She left the shelter of her bedroom and found Frau Hessen, at the bottom of the stairs, pale face upturned. Her hand lay on the banister, her high heel was poised on the first stair.
"That is you," she said, fingering the buttons on her dress.
May didn't move.
Frau Hessen said, "I brought you a pie."
"Thank you, Frau Hessen."
"You're not wearing any shoes," she said. "My dear, it's cold."
Her eyes lingered along May's bare feet and calves.
"My mother won't be returning for a few hours," May said. She lay a moist palm against her thigh. Slowly, she drew her hand upward, lifting her skirt slightly. "We're all alone."
Frau Hessen's gaze drifted to May's face. Her lips parted. "Young lady, I—" she stopped, swallowed.
"I'm eighteen," May said. "Not that much younger than you."
"That's true," Frau Hessen phrased it like a question.
"I have the same desires," May said. Her body pulsed in a warm, delicious heat. Would Frau Hessen climb the stairs? The woman's eyes travelled along May's skirt, tucked about her thighs in a firm embrace. May began counting. Ten, nine, eight… What was Frau Hessen waiting for? May had seen the hunger in her eyes dozens of times, her need to believe there was good in the world, and that desire for one sweet, convincing taste. Four, three, two… Now was the opportunity for Frau Hessen to have it. If she would dare.
Then May saw the squint about Frau Hessen's eyes, the flash of hate.
"You're disgusting," she whispered, twisting away, rushing from the stairs. May heard the indelicate clap of her high heels against the clean, shiny linoleum, tended by her mother's hands. The door slammed. May's heart swelled with sadness—not for herself, but Frau Hessen. Retreat was failure. Every German knew that.