Chapter 24: CHANGE
A week later, Lena met me in the staff room as soon as I walked in. “Ella, I saw an old acquaintance last night.” She had a wide, sneaky smile. “Remember Rainer?”
I didn’t flinch. Of course, I remembered him, but I kept quiet.
“He asked about you too,” she slipped in slyly.
I grinned, but it was a fake one. The only reason I even knew this man was because Lena and Christoph convinced me to go to the café one
night. Bringing up anything that had to do with
Christoph made me uncomfortable. She read through me.
“It’s OK, Ella,” Lena whispered.
“Did Christoph . . .” I couldn’t even finish the sentence. I had not heard his fate.
“We haven’t heard anything.”
“Nothing? You don’t even know where he is?”
“No.” Lena’s voice was strained. I’m sure she had done everything to find him.
I turned away, my eyes filling with tears. “It’s my fault, Lena.”
“No, Ella. Don’t. It—” She stopped herself and placed a hand on my shoulder. “—Please don’t, Ella.”
I should’ve been the one who consoled her, not the other way around.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t even mention his name.”
“No, Ella . . .” Lena insisted, “I like talking about Christoph. His memory brings me peace.”
I smiled . . .genuinely this time. “But . . .” she grinned. “ . . . Rainer?” I groaned.
“Rainer asked if you would meet him at a café this weekend.”
“Oh no, I don’t think so.” I shook my head nervously from side to side.
“Come on, Ella. Have you even gone out since that night?”
I already knew the answer, but pretended to think it through. Lena laughed. She knew me too well.
“Ha, don’t fib. I already know your answer.” She grabbed my hand and patted it tenderly. “You are going, even if I have to drag you there myself.”
“Well, in that case, Lena, I would love to go with you,” I chuckled.
When Friday night rolled around, I was sure I’d made a mistake. Going out with Lena is one thing but having a man there too? Especially one who seemed interested even though my affections were bound. It would be a waste of time I thought, but I agreed . . . for Lena.
As we entered the warmth of a place called Dafne’s, not too far from work, I removed my coat and left it on a hook by the front door. Lena and Rainer did the same. I circled around. A pair of baby blue eyes instantly met my gaze as I unraveled the scarf over my hair. My shoulders dropped.
Stefan . . . here with a friend, a female friend. I tried not to stare, but he seemed quite happy to have seen us, immediately waving us over to his table. I wanted to pretend I didn’t know him, but Lena responded happily.
“Come join us.” Stefan pointed to the extra chairs that surrounded his unusually large table for an intimate dinner.
“Oh no, we don’t want to bother you,” I spoke quickly.
“No, it’s no bother.” He motioned for us to sit down.
Rainer seemed to love the idea. Lena appeared intrigued. I wanted to crawl under the table and hide.
“This is Marion, an old classmate of mine,” Stefan introduced his date. “These are my friends, Ella and Lena and . . .”
“This is Rainer,” I mumbled. They all shook hands as I scouted the exits.
As the night wore on, Rainer and Stefan hit it off. I barely spoke to anyone, and Lena was her usual enchanting self.
I stood to leave precisely at 9 o’clock.
“I’m going to say goodnight.” I had literally counted the minutes until my exit would seem appropriate. Stefan stood as I did and extended his hand.
“Let me walk you home,” he suggested.
I shook my head. “No!”
It was suddenly awkward. Rainer eyed us both, then stood as well. “I should walk you home, Ella.”
I scrutinized him and answered the same way. “No,” I snapped and then backpedaled, “I mean no, thank you.” I realized I was a horrible date.
Lena sat back and watched. Her grin was evidence of how ridiculous this must have appeared.
I smiled uncomfortably and turned to Rainer, “Thank you for tonight.” He nodded.
I wanted to hug Lena goodnight, but instead I searched for a way to get out of there quickly and rushed for my coat. Bursting out the front door, the agonizing cold hit me fiercely and caught my breath, but it didn’t stop me. Once again, Stefan appeared behind me as I struggled to secure my coat in the chill, something that had become a bad habit as of late. He grabbed the loose sleeve.
I shook my head and confronted him, “What are you doing,
“I’m trying to be a gentleman.”
“A gentleman doesn’t leave his date to help another woman.”
“Marion is not my date. We are friends out for coffee, and didn’t you just leave your date?” He smiled.
I groaned. I was tired. “Just friends, Stefan, no date. Goodnight.” He grabbed my arm and brought me to a solid stop.
“Ella, I only want to be your friend.”
Agitated, I pulled my arm away. It was rude, I knew this even as I rushed farther down the sidewalk. It was irritating that this man had such an effect on me. Somehow—being around him—carefully concealed emotions seemed to rise to the surface. Anger, sorrow, grief, revenge, all present and accounted for. Instantly, my thoughts surprisingly turned to Lena. She too suffered great loss that came at the hands of someone else’s choices. My choice changed her life and she had every reason to hate me, but didn’t.
I stopped walking and turned around. Stefan hadn’t moved. This man, who for so long had reduced me to nothing, stood there facing me with a perplexing countenance. He appeared discouraged. I was being the jerk this time. It wasn’t who I was, and it bothered me enough to force a surrender.
“OK, . . .” I relented, “friends.” I closed the distance and reached out to shake his hand, the same way a business man would seal a contract. He smiled. I said good night and walked briskly to the bus stop.
When I got home, I felt weird. It had been such an emotionally exhausting night. I was completely spent from the conflict I’d fought with myself. Stefan simply happened to be there, but it was me I battled.
The apartment was dark. Mama G had already retired even though it was only half past nine. Her bad health seemed to take a toll on her. This caused great concern since I’d seen this happen too many times in my short life. By instinct, I went to her room and checked on her. She wasn’t anything like Mama and Papa. She had a loud snore. Once I opened her door, it reassured me to hear the snorts come at a steady pace and brought a smile to my face. She appeared well. As I approached my room, a paper tucked into the crease of my door attracted my attention. I retrieved it as I turned the handle then quickly flipped my lamp on and carried it to the bed. It was in Mama G’s handwriting.
A man by the name of Lenin Brauner stopped by this evening. He said you have been looking for him.
My heart raced. Why wasn’t I here? The only night I go out in months, and I missed Herr Brauner, the very man who saw and spoke to my Anton last!
His home address is Strabenstrausse 12. Lichtenberg
I almost cried aloud! Finally, after all those months of tracking neighborhood after neighborhood, shop after shop. I left notes and messages, then finally he found me! I sat on the side of my bed and cried my first tears of happiness since the boys left. It felt oddly similar to the very day I left the orphanage—unsure of whether I would see Anton again and then all of a sudden, there he was.
The woman who would be my new Mutter took my hand gently. It was the softest hand I’d ever felt. She smiled like she meant it, and it didn’t seem like she was hiding anything. The man, Herr Kühn, walked with a funny limp and used a black cane for assistance. When he opened the automobile door, he smiled as he waited for me to enter. I’d never been in a car before, but at eleven years of age, I realized I’d never done a lot of things. There on the back seat—sitting straight up—was a doll, a real glass doll with brown hair and a dress and both arms and both legs. I was afraid to touch it, afraid they would tease me and say I really couldn’t play with it, but as the man opened the door for his wife, he motioned to the doll from up front.
“It’s yours, Adela.” He smiled widely. “She belongs to you.” He pointed to her and encouraged me to pick her up.
Next to the doll was a small boy. He appeared to be no older than six or seven. His wide brown eyes stared at me.
“Adela,” —Frau Kühn shifted around in her seat— “This is your new brother, Josef.”
Neither one of us moved.
“Ella,” I whispered. “My name is Ella.”
“OK, Ella.” She smiled. “Are you ready to go home?”
I wanted to cry. I was afraid this was all going to suddenly disappear. In one day I received a mother, a father, a brother, and a doll.
I sat back against the seat. The smell of plastic permeated the car. Everything in it was blue and felt warm to the touch. As the Kühns settled in the front seat, the vehicle made a loud noise. My legs shook as a weird vibration rumbled beneath me. I gripped the edge of the seat, afraid to let go. Frau Kühn turned back to me and laughed. “It’s OK, Ella. It’s safe, it’s an automobile.” I had often times seen them from the upstairs window, but never this close and never inside.
“Look,” Frau Kühn continued, “there on the door is a round knob.
If you turn it, the window will roll down.”
She pointed to a small button with a handle. I reached out and moved it then gasped out loud as the glass dropped simultaneously to my turn. I let go, anxious, but I could feel a taste of the warm wind slip through the crack I’d created and wanted more. Two more turns until it was halfway down, and I touched the edge of the glass. It wasn’t sharp. I stuck my hand out and felt the air slip through my fingers as we started to pull away from the curb. Then I saw him.
He wore a shirt I’d never seen and a pair of trousers too big for him, but Anton was there. He ran on the sidewalk and kept a steady pace with the car. My eyes lit up. I waved but was careful not to say his name. Without knowing what kind of people, the Kühns were, I feared they would lose him on purpose. One . . .two . . . three . . . the streets passed and I continued to count . . . seven . . . eight . . . but I didn’t know any more numbers. Despite the new sights and sounds as we traveled, my eyes were glued to Anton who never lost pace. We came to a stop in front of a tall building where there were two windows on each side of the main doors. One, two, three, four, five stories high. My eyes were like saucers, my mouth gaped wide. It was the best building I had ever seen.
When Herr Kühn opened my door once again and said, “Welcome home, Ella,” he held out his hand for me, but I did not reach for it. I had never been around adult men. He and his cane scared me. Frau Kühn then met me on the sidewalk.
“You forgot your doll,” she whispered as she reached back into the car and pulled the figure out and cradled it gently in her arms. I didn’t move.
“This is where we live, Ella.” Herr Kühn pointed to the window in front of me on the left side. Relief filled my soul. Despite my delight from the building’s magnitude, I felt secure close to the ground. As we moved towards the large doors that were the front entrance, I hesitated then spun around.
Across the street, part of Anton’s body peeked around a street lamp. I smiled, thrilled with the idea he knew where I lived. Anton would not be gone forever as I’d previously thought. Maybe, in just a short time, we could be on our own together.
As I neared the door, I suddenly felt guilty about turning away from Anton. I glanced forward then behind. I couldn’t move.
“Let’s go in, Ella . . .” Frau Kühn smiled down at me, “ . . . as a family.”
Conflict seized my heart. I had to walk into my new home with my new family and leave Anton alone outside. I never wanted to feel that way again.