Lily and her friend Albert came rushing out of the bushes where they’d been chasing one another. Lily laughed as she ran toward the back door of her house with Albert right at her heels. Suddenly she stopped short, hoping that Albert would bump into her. He did—but his bony elbow jabbed her right in the ribs.
“Ouch!” she cried.
“Then don’t stop like that!” Albert complained.
All of a sudden he checked his pockets. His house key was there! He felt the heavy metal object and breathed a sigh of relief. If ever he lost that key, his father had warned him, there would be hell to pay …
They pushed open the screen door and tumbled into the kitchen.
Lily’s mother was preparing vegetables at the sink. She looked haggard. The war years had taken their toll on her. They hadn’t lost a son in the war, as so many families had; but there had been so many other hardships, including the indignity of the Nazi occupation of their town. She peeled and quartered potatoes while Lily and Albert jostled each other and pushed each other about.
“Have some bread,” Lily’s mother said absently. She looked especially distracted today. Lily glanced at Albert. Her look meant She’s sad again. Albert shook his head. That meant Let’s skip the bread and get out of here! Lily nodded her agreement.
“We’ll eat later,” Lily said. “We’re not hungry yet!”
“Not hungry? You’ve been running around for hours.”
She was paying them no attention. Lily watched her for a moment. She couldn’t understand why the grownups in town weren’t happier these days. You would have thought that the horrible war ending would have made them all rejoice. But in her own household, at any rate, everyone seemed more on edge than ever. And even sadder.
Watching her, Lily said softly, “What is it, mama?”
Lily shrugged, grabbed Albert by the hand, and yanked him out of the kitchen. They were off again! They’d known each other forever; he the son of the town lawyer, she the daughter of the town doctor, their homes back to back, their gardens touching, and he just a bare few months older than her, though he did lord that over her, since he was fourteen and she thirteen. They raced toward the “secret” hole in the fence, which was no secret to either family, and darted into Albert’s garden. Compared to her wild garden, his seemed as manicured as a British formal garden.
Lily stopped short. They could see Albert’s father standing at his desk in his second-floor study. The French doors were open and light curtains at either side of the doors fluttered in the breeze.
“What’s he doing?” Lily whispered.
Albert shrugged. “Something important. Men came from Paris the day before yesterday.”
“One was in uniform, but not a uniform I’d ever seen before. Papa was very serious and … I don’t know … he got angry.”
“At one point he shouted. He said, ‘Nobody should have to do that!’”
“I have no idea.”
They shook their heads. Albert grabbed her hand and said, “Let’s go to the bakery!” It was the end of the first week of September. There were only so many days of summer vacation left. They had so much bike riding still to do, so much running and pushing, so much splashing at the river, so much fooling around to get in! They grabbed their bicycles where they’d left them in front of Albert’s house and raced down the empty street toward the center of town. In three blocks they came to the main street.
Lily had seen photographs of destroyed towns throughout Europe, both here in France and in every country you could name, Italy, Poland, Germany, on and on. The war was just a few months over—in fact, it had only ended last month in Japan—and all those places remained completely destroyed. Her town had been spared. Not a shot had been fired here—well, one shot exactly. The butcher shop was still the butcher shop, the town hall was still the town hall, the chickens roasting on spits still roasted on spits, the baguettes still came out fresh three times a day from the baker’s. Lily had been told—and also knew, without being told—how lucky they had been here in Sainte-Therese-Sur-Seine. Sometimes the fact that they had been so lucky made her cry, though she couldn’t have said why she was crying.
At the bakery Albert chose an elephant ear and Lily hesitated between an almond croissant and a chocolate croissant. Finally she chose the chocolate croissant, on the grounds that it would ruin her dinner less. They each paid for themselves and took off on their bikes, eating as they raced toward the river. Hereabouts the Seine was narrow, no broader than a schoolyard, and you could almost wade from bank to bank. There were scores of secret places where you could hide out, hidden from view by trees and bushes.
They had three secret places that they used for different purposes. The first was their “detective place.” There they read Agatha Christie mysteries and dreamed up complicated plots and crazy clues. Lily preferred Hercule Poirot. Albert preferred Miss Marple. Neither could understand the other’s preference.
“It’s his moustache!” Albert would say.
“You like a little old lady!”
In the second, they were resistance fighters. They were a resistance cell of two and planned attacks and plotted how to defeat the Nazis. The set-up was always the same: it was near the end of the war and the Nazis were on the run, back toward Germany. Sometimes Lily and Albert got their orders from “higher up” and sometimes they acted independently. In the beginning of their game they would blow up retreating tanks or ambush convoys but as the summer progressed their ideas got more elaborate and breathtaking and even included a plan to capture all of Hitler’s generals.
The generals were gathering for a “high level meeting” in a certain place, one that Lily pictured as being in the Alsace, where she had visited relatives one summer, and which Albert pictured as near Heidelberg, because something about that ancient university town called to him. In this, their second haunt, they dramatically helped the war effort and sometimes even changed the course of history.
In their third secret place, they kissed. They went there rarely. Albert wanted to go there more often and, truth be told, so did Lily. But she understood that it was her job to keep Albert in check. She knew that intuitively but her older sister Beatrice had also explained things to her.
“It will seem like they have five hands,” Beatrice said. “Those hands will come at you from all angles!”
Lily had laughed and blushed the hottest red of her life.
Today they rode their bicycles to an open spot beside the river where they liked to torment any walking or swimming creatures silly enough to venture near them.
“What do you think those men wanted with your father?” Lily asked.
“I have no idea.”
“That he got so angry?”
They skipped pebbles over the water and waved when a barge chugged by. Finally, their pastries notwithstanding, they got good and hungry.
“We’re having stew,” Lily said.
“I saw. I think we’re having fish.”
“Yuck. Want to eat at my house?”
“Can’t. I was told I had to eat at home tonight.”
Lily stared at him. “You were told that you couldn’t eat with us tonight?”
Albert said sheepishly, “I was.”
Irritated, Lily said, “What’s that about?”
Albert shrugged. “I don’t have the slightest clue.”