She awakens with the sound of laughter in her ears. A mere hallucination to the events of the night before. Christmas day, and it was indeed holy. As well as being sacred to the wintry season, it occurred near the new year. It was now exactly one week until that occasion, and a whole new beginning would soon draw even more celebration in her small town, on the outskirts of Berlin.
She throws her legs over the side of her bed, rubbing her eyes. What time had she fallen asleep? After looking around cluelessly for a moment, she notices the freshly folded dress laying atop of the chest at the foot of her bed. Her 'special-occasion dress'. She throws it on quickly, without question, running down the staircase to find her mother.
Stumbling into the kitchen, the smell of soup fills her curious nose. The aroma sensing her to wonder what time it was. "Dinner?", she asked, hovering in the doorway. Her mother stood stirring the food, the large wooden spoon deep in watery vegetables. "Ah, your up, and yes dinner", she breathes, looking over her shoulder. "It's about time", she adds smiling.
Her parents were kinder than most, not as strict as to those in nearby neighborhoods. That didn't stop them from enforcing rules though. No matter what she thought, she was not to speak her mind. She had been told that the consequence would be a cost which they would all pay for dearly.
"What time is it?", she asks, gazing at the grey sky through the open window. "Almost twelve, I didn't want to wake you. I thought you could use the rest. We have business to attend to later". Business? "My dress", she considers aloud. "Yes", her mother replies, "Your best one. Only the best for father, Hum?".
"Father?", she queries. He had been at war for along time now, forever it seemed. Everyone had, she thought. But she wouldn't dare say it aloud. At the least, she was told why. But weren't there two sides to every story?
"Yes, father", her mother stops stirring, interrupting her thoughts. "He will return with the rest of the parade later today, I was hoping that he would be early, a nice surprise for Christmas for you. But boxing day will do, wont it?". She couldn't help feeling relaxed, exited that he was coming, relived that he was okay. Then she returned to her earlier thought. Two sides to every story. Not everyone would be returning.
"Any day will do!", she reveals to her mother. The first smile that she had owned for months, slowly splaying it's self upon her lips. "I'm glad your pleased" her mother shares her joy. She replies smiling, "Well, why wouldn't I be?"
After they ate, Gretchen and her mother departed in their separate directions, leaving Gretchen to walk around the dull streets alone. She still couldn't keep the smile from returning to her face, even if the weather was frosting right through to her bones.
She wasn't really supposed to go out on her own, it was apparently dangerous. She could handle danger, just not bomb sized danger. And if that was the case, what did it matter if she was outside or not? It wasn't like they even had a basement to hide in. And she was closer to the shelter out there anyway, she thought.
Their town was a pretty safe place to live in, considering. Despite the fact that they lived just a couple of miles off the capital, they hadn't been bombed once. Not close enough to have been directly hit anyway.
There still lay small piles of snow, melting white mountains scattered alongside houses and their rooftops. It didn't always snow there, but the unpredictability of the weather was one of the true excitements to her. Not the boring, useless war.
"BOO!", she jumps, startled, turning to the source of her joker. She sees that it is a boy, her age, fifteen. His hair a mop of charcoal, a ruffled fringe covering one of his blazing navy eyes. He pushes the disturbance away with a gloved hand. She slaps his arm playfully. "And hello to you too, Haim!", she yells. But all he does is laugh. She turns red, embarrassed, still wearing her smile, though it was now in the process of making its way into a cheeky grin. An awkward, blushing, smirk.
She had noticed a bulging bruise atop of his cheek. Reflected purple under the bright sky. She understood that his mother was not as calm as hers. Not as understanding. She didn't like to ask, so instead she diverts her attention back to his lips. Splayed into a perfect grin. She hides her concern, and instead carries on smiling too.
They walked for a while, talking about the little things; school seemed to be a common topic. "Did Mr. Baker cane anyone in class while I was absent?", she had been sickened with the flu during the final terms of school, before Christmas. "Yes", he said boldly, "Me". She was curious now, pausing in her steps. They had been travelling for a while. They now found themselves standing absently by the metallic river, frosted over with ice.
"Why?", she asks, or more or less screams. Fury in her tone, there was no reasoning with their teachers. That would be disrespectful. But that wasn't what had bothered her. "What did you do now?", she questions. He grins, showing off. He was trying to act brave. Gretchen knew that he wanted to be a solider. She also knew that his wish would most likely come true sooner than expected. In fact, she was surprised that it hadn't already. "I got into a fight", he proudly states. And she knew that he had won.
"Why? With who?", she stutters. He was usually sensible at school, despite his childish behavior out of it, with her. "Anton Hertzog", he replies. The most popular boy in their year. A teachers pet that was so full of himself that he could indeed pass for the water of the sea. Thick and dull. Though if you looked too deeply, you would begin to see a storm raging in the calm waters.
"Really?", she stares in disbelief. Despite her hatred for him, she would go beside herself to admit that he did indeed have the body of a solider. He was firmly built for a fifteen year old, and as she knew already, that as soon as he had his birthday next summer he would board an army truck and never look back. That's what made Haim jealous.
She tugs the sleeve of his jacket securely, urging him to sit on the low grey wall with her. Looking over the gleaming liquid, iced over with sharp crystals. It was the colour of Haim's eyes, appearing darker in their reflection that humanly possible. "So, he taunted you?", she questions. "No", he admits firmly. He was blazing with rage now, though he remained perfectly still, huddled in the material of his over-sized woolen winter blazer.
"He hit you?", she went on. He looked at her then, still certain. Still stern. Though nothing could melt the warmth in his glance. "No". He was no longer showing off, in fact he seemed somewhat ashamed. "Then what?", she leans in. She wanted to comfort him but his attitude had changed as surely as the seasons, though as rapidly as the winds direction. "He knows Gretchen.", he speaks low, his head bent. She gives him a confused glance, but before she can open her mouth, he has already said it. "He called me a Jew".
They walked home later that afternoon, though she knew that they had been longer than they should have been. Her mother would be worried. She stood on the top step, before her house, releasing a breath. It appears like white smoke in the cool air, like a lost spirit in the atmosphere. She raises her hand to the door nob. The door opens before it is even halfway past her hip. It was her mother.
She expects a confrontation, but instead she is rushed on into the house. "When's father coming home?", she remembers. But then her mother nods toward the sitting room door, gaping open to reveal a stern solider figure, sitting on their settee, holding a glass of golden liquid. Father? But father didn't drink.
She moves closer, toward the room. Slight stubble, and darkened hair were upon the man's face. Grey blended into the root's ends. It was father. An older version, a cigar in his left hand. He had picked up many unfortunate habits at war. But he had returned safely, although he looked different. She carry's on walking until she is stood right next to him. And smelt different. She gulps, letting his shaky embrace encase her. He was safe now, she thought. But he had changed.
"Gretchen", he whispers, his breath warm against the back of her neck. Goosebumps arising from her skin. "Where have you been?", he sounds robotic, awkward. She tries to lighten the mood. "I was just out, with Haim", he stiffens, though he was now smiling. "He's just a friend", she adds, and he laughs, her mother perching herself delicately on the chair arm behind her. "We were out by the lake, anyway...I could ask you the same thing", his eyes glint.
She was no longer his pretty little eleven year old. She had seen him once in the last four years. He smiles, meeting her gaze. She returns the look as he puts the glass in his right hand down, butting the cigar out and resting it in a metal tray that had suddenly appeared on the wooden coffee table. He reaches for her wavy locks, stroking them, the colour returning to his cheeks. "Good to be back".
Her mother gasps behind her, interrupting the moment. "Gretchen!" she squeals. She turns around, glancing at her mother, surprised. "Yes?" she queries. Her mother grabs the bottom of her flowing white dress, that rested atop of her woolen tights. She glances down and notices a green and brown stain. The moss off the wall by the lake.
Her mother looked like she had lost a dear friend. "Go and take it off" she glares, "I need to wash it before it stains, tea will be ready when you return, me and father have much to discuss". She raises her eyebrows, and Gretchen takes that as her cue to leave. She walks out of the room, curious. She glances back just as the door is pulled shut, capturing a glance of her parents kissing. She couldn't decide whether she was relived or startled. Yikes.
She makes her way down the staircase wearing an old long skirt and plain jumper, the same dull tights. Her dress with a now green patch stained across the bottom, draped over her arm. There were hushed voices portrayed from behind the kitchen door. She runs up to it, her hand pausing on the handle when she recognizes the hysterical voice of Haim.
"Mother's sick", he explained. "They stopped our health insurance a couple of months ago, she can't look after herself. We can't afford the medicine. I've tried but I don't know how to take care of her properly". Her heart stopped. "You're a nurse, please, I beg of your help".
How could she not have noticed? Silence. Then a spluttering cough, so deep and chesty that her throat tickled just hearing it, her pulse quickening. "Young man, your father...", a voice, she recognizes as her mothers explains, "You have to understand, you have Jewish blood. I would be endangering Gretchen as well as all of our lives if I took you in, or even offered free treatment".
Her mother worked at the chemist in the village. She could help them, she thought. But she couldn't help her family if she got caught. "I think you need to leave", she heard her father say. Then..."No! your a solider, your meant to fight for your country, not usher them out of your house just because of their genes, just because of their past!", Haim screams. All goes quiet.
"Boy, it's not up to me to decide, there is much bigger than me, than the whole army. And there is worse to come. You have to leave now, I urge you too. Not just the house, the town, the country. It isn't safe" he assures sternly. They talk longer, she hears her name, but she had been deafened by the truth many words ago. She sat slumped against the door. Not even startled when it opens.
Not much happens after that. Haim stares at her with his navy eyes, full of a harsh innocence, as he and his mother leave, to later return with their belongings. A couple of boxes of books, some clothes. Nothing too big. Too recognizable. That is until the jar; transparent, and full of money and jewellery.
She is told to go back to her room by her mother. But of course she doesn't. Her dress still in her arms, she sits on the stairs. All she can do is watch as her mother carries a tray of medicines into their sitting room. Haim sitting on the step below her. And then her father, squeezing past them with his army rucksack. He pauses by the front door in front of them.
Her mother arrives hugging him, "You don't have to go" she assures him. He bends down to her height, she was very small compared to him, much like Gretchen herself. "You know I do. It'll be safer, I would've had to leave in a couple of days anyway. Look after them, and yourself, Pauline", and he kisses the top of her head.
She stands, rushing up to her father, embracing his firm structure. "Is it still good to be back?", she questions, her eyes teary. She buries her head in the curve if his neck. He pats her curls once more. Then he lets her go, facing her.
"I have something to give you" he says, reaching into his pants pocket. He reveals a small wooden oval, and presses down at the tip. A small, sturdy, blade appears before them. A pocket knife. She takes it from him, careful to grasp the blunt wood of the handle. "I have something to give you too" she says. And with a shaking hand, she rises the knife to her hair. A small brown curl drifts toward the floor, and her father catches it, looking at her with an expression full of withheld shock. Her mother gasps. "You can still stroke it now" she smiles."Thank you" he chokes up. Eyes watery. She had never seen a solider cry, had never even seen a man cry. Had never seen her father cry before that day, that moment, and she knew why. There was always hope, always, but now something told her that it had gone. Evaporated into his silky crystalline tears.
"Your very brave, you know that. You can be the solider now" She wanted to reveal that she didn't want to fight. That she'd rather protect everyone from the real enemy. But she had yet to discover who that was. So she just nods and watches as he turns towards the midnight air, not looking back, closing the door behind him.
"Well then" her mother continues. "We should welcome our new guests", Gretchen turns towards Haim. The boy that she thought she knew. The boy that she truly did have friendship for, but all she felt now was hatred, her father had left forever. She knew that deep down. "Hello" she says, her mind drifting off to the afternoon before. And then she remembers returning to see, to her pleasure, her father. Safe, even if different. "Goodbye" she whispers, hoping that the air will carry that breath to his ear, however far away he now was. Wherever he was. Always.