Chapter 39: DESPAIR
As I watched the sunlight enter my bedroom window, I saw Mama’s petite form curled up in the chair beside my bed. She must’ve given up on staying in her own room through the night. My hands went instinctively to my face. I could feel the bumps and the cuts. The spiky, raised stitches that stuck out at the top of my nose sorely reminded me of yesterday’s nightmare. I tried to move, but my body ached severely, and I couldn’t even get out of bed. My attempts woke Mama.
“Ella,” she cried and reached for me. She lay my head gently back against the pillow. “Don’t move, love, stay in bed.”
“Please!” I pleaded. Tears spilled limitless down my cheeks. “I need to know if Stefan is OK.”
It took me awhile to tell Mama the abbreviated version of events. At least what I could recall. A severe headache clouded my memory on top of all the other aches and pains I felt. Mama struggled to hide her shock, but I could see her lip trembling as she listened.
“Please, Mama,” I cried, “Please . . . I need you to talk to the Frankes.” I knew something must have gone wrong because Stefan would be with me if he could.
Mama didn’t want to leave me, but I wouldn’t let it go—I needed to know. Therefore, she made me tea from licorice root and watched me drink it as she dabbed my skin with mineral oil before she left.
She returned two hours later with not much to share. “Herr Franke is gone.” “Gone?” I whispered.
“Possibly to find answers of his own,” she conceded, “. . . but it was Frau Franke who quite forcefully objected to my inquiries. When she found out who I was, she demanded I leave at once.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I had told Mama very little of how she treated me. I felt guilty for not being more forthcoming . . . she might not have been surprised.
“However, as I walked from the residence, I was overcome by a gentle soul.” Mama smiled and placed her hands-on mine. “A woman by the name of Lena followed me out. She was quite distressed and concerned for your welfare.”
“She’s my closest friend, Mama”
“Well, that is good news then, because I invited her over tonight.” I matched her smile faintly, then my mouth curved into a frown. “. . . but we still don’t know where Stefan is, Mama. I must know. Help me decide what to do, please?”
“Rest yourself, love, we will figure something out.”
Discouraged, I knew that reaching Captain Scharf might be the only answer. He was the only one who could possibly prove Stefan’s innocence. Again, I tried to get out of bed, but fell to the floor. Even if I wanted to, I could not physically move yet. I would have to wait, and I’ve never been good at waiting.
Later, when Lena entered my room, she gasped at the sight of me. Unable to hold back her tears, she sat at the edge of my bed, afraid to touch me—worried that I would continue to break. I convinced her I needed her hug more than I needed distance. Her closeness was calming. Horror covered her face as I relayed the events to her.
“Oh, Ella.” She held my hand. “All of this happened because you spilled a drink on him?”
I shook my head and told her about our first encounter at the Fasching dinner the year before. She remembered my abrupt departure, but I never told her why.
“He’s in hell, Ella. He will burn for his sins.”
I wanted to believe it, but my only concern now was Stefan. “Do you know anything, Lena?”
She nodded her head up and down slowly. “Herr Franke was gone all day. I deliberately waited beyond my shift for his return” —I held my breath as she continued— “I placed myself within earshot of his conversation with Frau Franke.” She hesitated, “It’s not good, Ella.”
“Please, Lena, please tell me the truth.” “Stefan was arrested.” “For what?” I cried.
I was instantly dizzy. I grabbed my head, my fingers curled in my hair as I pulled on the strands. It was my shrieks that caused Lena to run to Mama for help. They found me on the floor when they returned.
“No, please no.” I cried hysterically.
“What happened?” Mama questioned as she dropped to my side and pulled me to her lap. She hardly had the strength to lift me, but somehow embraced my entire body.
“I—” Lena whimpered, “—I told her about Stefan.” She too was on the floor but there was space between us.
“Hush, love.” Mama held tight. “We will find him.”
Despite my broken body, I suffered beyond physical at this point.
Lena sobbed quietly. She knew all too well what I felt, Stefan was not missing like her Christoph, but his fate was unknown. With the accusation of killing an officer—a high ranking one—the outcome was most likely headed in a fatal direction.
“Find Captain Scharf,” I pleaded with them both. “Find him, he will fix this.”
“We will do our best, Ella. You need to rest, or you won’t recover.”
I stopped fighting. Mama was right. I needed my strength to save Stefan, like he did me.
“I’ll visit you tomorrow. Take care of yourself, Ella” Lena kissed me on the cheek and left.
Three days passed before I could bring myself to look in a mirror again. The deep purple and blue had started to fade to an ugly yellow. I could finally see my own skin color reappear along my neck, shoulders, and parts of my cheeks. The swelling had gone down with around-the clock ice pads and mineral oil, and the herbal teas Mama prepared, helped the pain in my sides diminish.
I tried to sleep, but it remained sporadic. It seemed every time I closed my eyes and fought to see Stefan’s face, somehow Anker would appear. The squint of his eyes, the grit of his teeth, and the dreadful looking scar tormented me nonstop.
Lena visited every night but had nothing new to report—except that I was “released of my duties”. I figured this would happen, and if for some miracle it didn’t, I would have never returned anyway. There’s no possible way I could have walked through those halls and rooms and functioned knowing Stefan was gone because of me.
If I hadn’t dropped the tray . . . or if I hadn’t worked the Fasching dinner the year before . . . or if I hadn’t fought scarface off, maybe once he was done with me he might’ve passed out and I could have escaped. Maybe Anker would have left me to die somewhere, thrown me in prison or a work camp, and Stefan would not be arrested for murder. Or . . I continued to develop a hundred what-ifs, but it all came down to one thing. It was my fault.
One week passed, the third of July came and went. My heart ached as I thought about Anton and Josef watching for me from the poorly constructed platforms that had popped up on the western side of the wall, all to get a glimpse of the “detained”.
I knew it was a desperate endeavor, one that meant the world to many people, but I couldn’t bring myself to even try to leave the flat. I knew if Anton saw my condition, it would enrage him. The distance would not have allowed me to properly explain, and he would naturally feel helpless and troubled. I could not do that to him or my sweet brother, Josef, thus, when the 6 o’clock hour passed, I suffered silently.
Within days, I was finally able to move from my room to the kitchen and living room. I was recovering, but it was quite slow. My thoughts focused entirely on Stefan and where he was or what was to become of him.
Lena continued to visit me nightly and brought different treats to lift my spirits, but it was useless. She knew the only thing to make me feel better right now was seeing Stefan. However, tonight she brought a friend.
It didn’t register right away, when she opened my door, that it was Katharina who stood in front of me. My heart fluttered with delight, something that had eluded me for too long. I cried out loud.
She smiled and moved to my side. “Oh, Ella. I’m so sorry!” She hugged me gently. “Lena told me the truth.”
I considered her curious choice of words.
“There is quite a different version of the event circulating at my house!” She frowned. I shook my head. Of course, there would be. Katharina squeezed my hand. “Stefan loves you, Ella.” Tears filled my eyes quickly at the mention of his name.
“He wrote to me at school.” She laughed. “I bet you didn’t know that, did you?”
I shook my head. I didn’t think he told anyone about us.
“He was conflicted,” she continued. “He had an obligation to the mortuary, and after his mistake in Czechoslovakia, it was a legal obligation, but he was trying to figure out a way you both could disappear together.”
“Really?” I wanted to smile, I had no idea he felt that strongly.
Instantly, remorse consumed me for doubting him. “Where would we go?” I cried. “I am an anchor to him.”
“He said he wanted to somehow get you to Cochem, even if it took all the money he had. I don’t know why he chose there,” Katharina sighed. “I remember how beautiful it was as a child, but he didn’t tell me why this particular village was important to you two.”
I smiled and pointed to Stefan’s painting, which hung on my bedroom wall. “That’s why.” My heart swelled. The thought of Stefan planning a future for us was astounding. It was a future that took us far away from Berlin . . . even when I had trouble seeing it myself.
Katharina and Lena stayed for a few more minutes. Katharina promised to keep me fully informed on Stefan. No one in the family had been allowed to see him yet, including their father. He used every possible connection he had to negotiate Stefan’s release and refused to stop until it happened.
That was the best news I’d heard all week. There had to be some good to come from all the sly negotiations and corrupt associations at the Franke house. It was all I could hope for.