Chapter 13: STANDOFF
By the next morning, all of Berlin seemed to know what was happening at Checkpoint Charlie. Word on the street was that many people had mixed feelings, like me. Yet within a few hours of daylight, despite the potential damage a tank could do, citizens gathered in curiosity to watch the face-off.
It wasn’t long, however, before we witnessed a Soviet tank at the back suddenly reverse and pull away. Then an American tank did the same on the west side. One by one, all the tanks retreated. Commanding officers subsequently released the additional border soldiers from guard duty. No obvious exchange of words was witnessed between the two parties as this equal, silent surrender occurred. Within minutes, it was all over, and the checkpoint appeared exactly how it had been for the last three months.
Once again, I couldn’t quite identify what I felt as I headed to work. Was I sad the allied tanks didn’t tear down the wall? Was I relieved no destruction ensued? One thing I was sure of though, each passing day the barrier remained was another day away from Anton and Josef.
Throughout the day, military trucks with large speakers mounted on the back rolled through the city street by street. They announced the success of the DDR’s ability to lead and protect its own people. This, I was sure, was an attempt to produce continued contempt against the allies. I watched and listened with my own misgivings. My knowledge about the allies or life in the west was minimal, nevertheless, in the few months of employment at the Frankes’ home, I learned very quickly who the leadership in the east really plotted and conspired against. Unfortunately, it was not so much the other countries, but their own . . . the people of East Germany.
Within the next three weeks, a grey kastenwagen stopped at the mortuary twice daily. It just happened that the timing of the van’s second delivery was always around the time I washed the windows in the back part of the house. From this view, I could see several large, black bags being unloaded. By their size and the way the weight shifted when moved, it was easy to assume they contained bodies.
Now, I knew it wasn’t unusual for deceased people to be delivered to a mortuary, I just often thought back to the conversation Herr Mielke and Herr Franke had the night of the standoff. Have they already begun their quest to completely control the city, even if it’s by deadly force?
“Ella, you should really come out with Christoph and me tonight.” I jumped at the sound of Lena’s voice behind me. She giggled. “Well, aren’t you skittish?” I shrugged my shoulders and went back to work as she continued, “Christoph is bringing a few of his University classmates this time.”
“Lena, I’m only sixteen.”
“And I’m twenty. What difference does it make? My father was twenty-eight when he married my mother, and she was only seventeen.”
“I’m not getting married.”
“True, but you are not dating either.” Lena sighed. “Your life is dull, Ella, . . . you work and go home . . . such a waste of your pretty face,” she laughed.
“I’m perfectly fine at home. Besides, there’s only one person I want to be with, and he’s not here.” Lena stopped what she was doing and moved closer to me.
“What’s his name?”
I paused and then realized something—I’d worked with Lena for over three months, and I’d never mentioned anything about Anton and Josef to her. There was no question I trusted her, only it was rather personal.
“What’s his name?” she tenderly asked again.
“It’s Anton,” I whispered, afraid someone else would hear.
“Where is he?”
I still hadn’t moved since I said his name. Lena stared at me.
“Anton,” I said again, enjoying the sound of his name finally spoken out loud. If he was here, we would probably join Lena and Christoph tonight together. Possibly not, but it was a dream I would like to have.
“I know, you said Anton.” Lena watched me strangely. “Where is Anton, Ella?” Her hand went to my shoulder, and tears sprang to my eyes, threatening to spill as she whispered in my ear, “He’s on the other side, isn’t he?”
I nodded. Many people had the same story, but it was still hard to
Lena hugged me tightly. “I’m sorry.”
I shrugged. Their absence became more and more real with each passing day. My fingers immediately found Anton’s tinnie pin inside my dress. I unfastened the clasp and handed it to Lena. She looked at the shield admiringly.
“Is this Anton’s?”
“Yes, it’s from his father. He gave it to me the night he left.”
Lena smiled and handed it back. “What a special gift, Ella.”
I nodded and let the grooves sink into my fingers before pinning it back inside. I pictured the pin once attached to Anton’s collar and smiled at the memory.
“I need to go get more clean rags,” Lena cried. “Why don’t you finish up in here? I’ll get you an Orangensaft as well. I made the juice fresh this morning.”
“Is that OK?” I asked apprehensively.
“Certainly!” She smiled widely. “I’ll be back soon.”
I grinned sheepishly, buoyed by her high spirits. She always found a way to lift me when others couldn’t. As I moved around the room, I reflected on how sweet Lena had been to me since the first day, never judgmental or cruel. She always sought opportunities to put others before herself. How lucky I was to have met her.
My hands worked quickly as I continued to wash the mirrors and await her return. This room had more mirrors and glass than any other room I’d ever seen. Of course, I’d never seen all the rooms in the house, because I only worked in the main areas on the first floor, but I was sure they were equally beautiful.
As I stepped out to get the back side of the veranda door, Stefan and a friend walked into the sitting room. I was suddenly trapped! There was very little chance he’d seen me since I’d closed the doors right before I heard voices. Now there was no way to leave except through the room, past Stefan.
I contemplated my predicament. I could walk in and possibly subject myself to another round of denigration—only with an audience— or I could wait until they left, hoping their stay was short. Breathing as shallowly as possible, I pressed my back against the stone wall and eyed the two through the beveled glass. I could still see them, but they would not see me.
“Stefan! My parents would never agree.”
“They don’t have to know,” Stefan reasoned with his friend. I could not see either face clearly but was sure it was a friend from the park the first night I saw them.
“I know someone who can forge papers. We can cross the border and be skiing in Krkonoše by New Year’s Day.”
“What if we get caught?”
“Ralf, stop being childish. We won’t get caught! Our parents already know we’ll be gone for two weeks. We have the money. I know I don’t want to sit in some boring camp when I can be on holiday.”
“I don’t know, Stefan. If I get caught, I could get in much more trouble than you.”
I rolled my eyes. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one who noticed Stefan’s unique ability to get away with anything.
“I’ll take care of everything.”
“Ella?” Lena walked into the room with a full glass of juice, interrupting Stefan and his friend. My heart stopped. He can’t know I just heard his plan.
“Oh, I’m sorry, sir,” Lena apologized and glanced around.
“Who are you looking for?” he asked suspiciously.
“I . . . I thought Ella was working in here.”
“No.” He peered around himself, taking a few tentative steps towards the veranda. I pressed my back as level as I could against the brick and held my breath. If he stepped out here, I would be done for.
“Nobody is here,” he added.
“Would you or your guest like something to drink?” Lena offered the drink to Stefan. He refused.
“We must go.” He motioned to the door and escorted his friend out. Lena set the glass on a table and scanned the room. Slowly, I stepped forward and opened the door. She gasped.
“Why were you hiding out there?”
Anxiously, I motioned for her to whisper in case Stefan was close—she did not know our history. I pressed the door closed behind me.
“I was working and . . . afraid I would get in trouble . . . if Stefan knew I was out there.” I stammered.
“Well, yes, Ella, if you’re sneaking around.”
“He just—” I wiped the sweat off my forehead as I struggled to explain. “—he just makes me nervous.”
“Stefan?” she laughed. “He’s harmless . . . rotten but harmless.” I shook my head subtly . . . not as harmless as everyone thinks.
“Come on, have a drink.” She hustled me over to the couch. “You look a mess.”
I laughed nervously. My hands still shook.
“Sit down, take a sip, and then let’s get going. The day is nearly over.”
A few minutes later, we stepped out of the room together. She had managed to get me to forget about Stefan and almost agree to go out with her and Christoph tonight . . . almost.
As we closed the main door behind us, Stefan faced us directly. I gasped at the sight of him, and Lena jumped. His countenance clearly confirmed his suspicion. He didn’t say anything. We all realized he now knew I’d somehow been in the room the whole time. He also recognized the fact that I had confidential information against him.
We quickly turned away, arm in arm, hustling down to the staff hall—our safe zone—a place members of the family rarely went. Stefan didn’t follow us. As we arrived at the back room, I finally breathed.
“Well, that was strange,” Lena chuckled awkwardly. It was a peculiar laugh, not her normal one.
“Ya.” I hid my trembling hands behind my back. She did not know the extent of my fear. I slowly untied my apron and put it away, unable to stop thinking about what just happened. Would he corner me? Threaten me? Get me fired . . . arrested? How far would Stefan go to keep me quiet? Never before had I felt the need to reveal anything said within these walls, although Stefan did not know this about me. That thought alone was terrifying.
As I stepped outside of the house, Lena asked me again, “Are you sure you don’t want to join us? It’s not far, and we won’t stay out late.” She pulled her scarf tighter around her neck just as flecks of falling snow settled in her hair.
“No, but thank you.”
I shoved my cold hands into my coat pockets and turned to walk the other direction. Suddenly, an uncomfortable feeling crept up my spine. I gazed around, peering back at the Frankes’. The house was a daunting silhouette against the rising moon. The shaded windows and sculpted stone revealed very little. I could see nothing to make me feel as though I was in jeopardy, yet I could not shake it. There’s no other feeling in the world like the sensation you’re being watched. I pulled my hat lower over my ears. I hesitated, then turned and waved Lena down.
“On second thought, Lena, I would love to go,” I fibbed. Meeting new people truly petrified me, but in the end, it prevailed over my mysterious unease.