The German shuts the wardrobe doors and hobbles away, and Marie-Laure stays on the bottom rung of the ladder for a count of forty. Sixty. One hundred. The heart scrambling to deliver oxygenated blood, the mind scrambling to unravel the situation. A sentence Etienne once read aloud returns: Even the heart, which in higher animals, when agitated, pulsates with increased energy, in the snail under similar excitement, throbs with a slower motion.
Slow the heart. Flex your feet. Make no sound. She presses her ear to the false panel on the back of the wardrobe. What does she hear? Moths gnawing away at her grandfather’s ancient smocks? Nothing.
Slowly, impossibly, Marie-Laure finds herself growing sleepy.
She feels for the cans in her pockets. How to open one now? Without making noise?
Only thing to do is climb. Seven rungs up into the long triangular tunnel of the garret. The raw-timbered ceiling rises on both sides toward the peak, just higher than the top of her head.
Heat has lodged itself up here. No window, no exit. Nowhere else to run. No way out except the way she has come.
Her outstretched fingers find an old shaving bowl, an umbrella stand, and a crate full of who knows what. The attic floorboards beneath her feet are as wide across as her hands. She knows from experience how much noise a person walking on them makes.
Don’t knock anything over.
If the German opens the wardrobe again and yanks aside the hanging clothes and squeezes through the door and climbs up into the attic, what will she do? Knock him on the head with the umbrella stand? Jab him with the paring knife?
She crawls along the center beam, from which the narrow planks of flooring emanate, toward the stone bulk of the chimney at the far end.
The center beam is thickest and will be quieter. She hopes she has not become disoriented. She hopes he is not behind her, leveling a pistol at her back.
Bats cry almost inaudibly out the attic vent and somewhere far away, on a naval ship perhaps, or way out past Paramé, a heavy gun fires.
Crack. Pause. Crack. Pause. Then the long scream as the shell comes flying in, the fhump as it explodes on an outer island.
A ghastly creeping terror rises from a place beyond thoughts. Some innermost trapdoor she must leap upon immediately and lean against with all her weight and padlock shut. She takes off the coat and spreads it across the floor. She dares not pull herself up for fear of the noise her knees will make on the boards. Time passes. Nothing from downstairs. Could he have gone? So quickly?
Of course he is not gone. She knows, after all, why he is here.
To her left, several electrical cords wind along the floor. Just ahead is Etienne’s box of old records. His wind-up Victrola. His old recording machine. The lever he uses to hoist the aerial alongside the chimney.
She hugs her knees to her chest and tries to breathe through her skin.
Soundlessly, like a snail. She has the two cans. The brick. The knife.