We were home alone, the two of us and the dog, while our parents went to see our great-aunt Irma in the hospital. Her skin was all papery and bath-wrinkled, and she smelled of lemons and rotting wood. My brother and I had said our good-byes and we didn’t have to go anymore.
I was watching TV when my brother came to me and put my hand on his forehead, his eyes soft and filmy, a flush on the cheeks.
“You have a fever,” I said, like our mother would say.
I dragged a chair against the kitchen counter and climbed on it, reaching in the back of the small cabinet closest to the ceiling, my fingers searching blind for the ancient thermometer, great-aunt Irma’s, whose cabinets they used to be. I found the glass tube with the metal tip and clumsily wedged it between my middle and index finger, and as I started to climb back down, it slipped from my hand and shattered on the floor, the round scatter of a rung bell, tiny silver beads of mercury spilling out. My brother stood in the doorway with the dog and I yelled my throat raw, get out, close the door, don’t let the dog near it, go upstairs, don’t come down until I say it’s okay. When I was sick our mother would put the thermometer under my arm and tell me you don’t ever break it, because mercury is toxic; it will give you a disease that will make you lose your mind and die. She said the Mad Hatter had it and that night I dreamed of a million Mad Hatters with no eyes, their mouths laughing upside down, in birdsong.
I used a broom to brush the beads into a trash bag and put everything outside, my heart beating fast in my fingers and toes. I found the dog on the carpet of my brother’s room, and my brother in his bed under the covers. I gave him orange soda and a paracetamol.
“It’s okay,” I said and stroked his hair until he fell asleep, and for some time after, until my hand was damp and warm. I picked up the dog and went back downstairs, back to the armchair in the living room, in front of the open TV. I watched but saw nothing, waited for lights in the driveway, and for lemons and wood and birdsong.
Matilda Harjunpää writes in Helsinki, Finland. You can find her on Twitter @matildahrjnp.