Chapter 7: DEATH ON THE SPREE
As I dressed for work the next morning, my thoughts shifted from the butterfly sketch to finding a new place to live. What I hadn’t realized the night before, and started to understand now, was if I was ever to hear from Anton and Josef again, this is where it would happen. This was the only address they had for me. The reality of losing complete contact with them suddenly sank in. I cried the entire ride to work. At the Frankes’, I inquired of Lena.
“Do you know of any rooms to rent?”
“Are you OK?” Lena’s eyes narrowed. I turned away.
“I’m fine, I just didn’t sleep well.” It was partly true. My timeline was shrinking, and I feared my options.
“I don’t, Ella. I’m sorry.” She seemed genuine in her response, nevertheless, she quickly ushered me into the dining room. Today she would show me how to polish the silver. Afterwards, her training took us to the sitting room and how to dust the chandelier. Again, the teenage girl came gliding by like a breath of fresh air . . . like a butterfly.
“Guten Morgen, Lena and . . . strange new girl,” she greeted me with a giggle. “I’ll have to call you all sorts of names unless you give me the real one.” She stood still long enough to await my answer.
“I’m nobody you need to worry about,” I responded without missing a beat on my duties.
“Well, nobody,” she cried out loud, “have a wonderful day!”
Once she was gone, I couldn’t help but smile faintly. She was intriguing and seemed honest in her efforts to be kind. Yet, I was warned, and Frau Franke is not one to cross. I could not afford to do anything she deemed out of place.
At lunch, I ate some diced tomato and pea pods I pulled from the small potted plants in my kitchen window. I could not afford to lose any more weight; my rib bones had already started to protrude. There was no food at home, no Herr Krzinsky, and of course, I could touch nothing here. I contemplated a plan as the other servants laughed and chatted about their personal lives, all with a decent meal spread before them. I kept entirely to myself until I was dragged in.
“Fräulein Kühn,” the house driver called from across the kitchen. All eyes turned my direction. “Why do you sit far away?” The words seemed innocent, the tone did not.
“I—” I actually didn’t have an answer. I simply liked being alone.
“Come.” He motioned to the table. “Come and tell us about yourself.” He patted the stool next to him. I felt the blood drain from my face. There was nothing I wanted to tell. How can I avoid his request and not make enemies?
“I’m not feeling well today.” I pretended to cough. I was sure my red, swollen eyes would add proof to the charade.
Lena grinned and shook her head. I glanced away from her. I was sure she recalled our conversation earlier when I told her I was OK. I cleaned up my few leftovers and went back to work fifteen minutes early.
When Lena caught up with me in the dining room, she nudged me gently. “You are clever, Ella.” I gasped, surprised at her boldness. “Oh, please,” she continued, “I know you aren’t sick, although I don’t blame you either. Max is nosy, gossips, and somehow has a way of getting cozy with all the new girls, so keep your lips and your legs closed when you are around him unless you want everyone to know your business!” A commotion in the nearby kitchen disrupted our conversation.
Lena peeked through the adjoining door.
“Stefan and his friends are here.” She shook her head, annoyed. “Who is Stefan?” I questioned, eager to take the focus off me.
“The spoiled rotten heir to the throne,” she confirmed. “The entitled seventeen-year-old eldest son to Herr and Frau Franke.”
“Oh,” I responded without further inquiry. I recalled my only small glimpse of him the day Papa was buried; only it was from quite a distance and a nearly-forgotten memory. I could feel her staring at me.
“You haven’t seen him, have you?” Lena inquired, surprised at my indifference.
“Not close, why?”
She grinned. “Because despite his horrible snobbery and lack of charm, . . . he is something remarkable to look at!” Her answer was meant to get some sort of rise out of me. I continued to work. I was not tempted in the least bit. The only seventeen-year-old on my mind was Anton.
“Who is the girl I see? The Schmetterling?” I changed the subject.
“Schmetterling?” Lena pulled away from watching the boy in the other room and peered at me inquisitively. “Why do you call her a butterfly?”
“Just the way she moves, I suppose.”
“Her name is Katharina. She’s fourteen and very sweet.” Lena started working again.
“Somehow, she doesn’t quite fit this family,” I suggested.
Lena chuckled. “Yes, I believe you’re right.”
I thought about the Frankes as I cleaned: Katharina and her brief appearances; possibly the only one I could be fond of. Stefan; I’d only seen from a distance, not close enough for me to even have an opinion on his supposed appealing looks. Herr Franke; leads a dual life. And the one I’m most frightened of above all; Frau Franke. When it came to her, I had no desire to do anything more than my duty and stay as far away as I possibly could. I shuddered, not wanting to dwell on it any longer.
“Why don’t you come to the café with me and my boyfriend, Christoph, after work today?” Lena’s question took me by surprise. I’d never been invited out with friends on a social call. I was sure to be an awkward guest.
“Um,” I choked. I was flattered by the invite but scrambled for a way out. I’d almost forgotten I didn’t need to lie to defend my aversion. I quickly responded, “I have to find a new place to live.” “How soon?” she asked, sincerely interested.
“Soon.” I didn’t want her to feel sorry for me.
“I live near Bernauer.” It was all I had to say. Everyone knew what was happening there, we simply didn’t talk about it.
“I’ll check with Christoph tonight. He has many friends, lots of connections. I’m sure we will find something!”
I walked home along the Spree. Despite the secrets it kept, the river seemed calm in the darkness, peaceful and innocent. Lights from buildings on the other side reflected across the water. The faint sound of music carried through the air, and if I stood real still, I was sure I could hear laughter. Amusement was a luxury that rarely surfaced anymore in the east.
I wondered if Anton and Josef were laughing. Maybe eating a nice meal, visiting with new-found friends, or possibly walking along the other side of the river as well, wondering about me . . .
My serenity was disrupted with a sudden commotion near the river’s edge. A small group of people had gathered at the bank. They pointed to something moving against the ripples. I squinted as they spoke . . . “Ein Mensch!” came the cry. I stepped closer and finally saw what they were pointing to—a person was desperately trying to swim across the river. I’d heard of this as a means to freedom, but it was a perilous choice!
I wanted to look away, but my eyes fixated solely on the determined effort. I recently read of two other swim attempts that ended badly. It was a very dangerous way to escape. A man next to me directed my attention to the nearest guard tower, their lights immediately flashed across the blackness then concentrated heavily on the stirring form. The loud speaker’s repeated commands to stop and return to East Berlin seemed to be ignored as the movement appeared to speed up. My hand flew to my mouth in horror. I watched the swimmer shift and turn in a failed effort to lose their sight.
Can he possibly not see the reflection against the water or hear the shouts from high above? Or does he believe he still has a chance? I was afraid to watch, but curiosity drew my eyes to the tower. Guns had already been directed to their target. I could not pull away. Everything in my head told me to turn away, but I didn’t. It was if my own heart stopped the moment shots rang out.
The body no longer moved. It remained completely still and then began to roll and sink. A woman screamed. Her friend fainted. I turned from the other shocked spectators and leaned against the nearest tree to keep my own legs from collapsing. Why did I look? Why didn’t he stop? My stomach heaved and convulsed. Thankfully, it was empty. I dropped to my knees weakly. Why does life seem invaluable here? Why do I feel like we are living in an hour glass with the last remaining sand slipping away?
My body shook uncontrollably making it difficult to walk, focus, or think straight by the time I reached my flat. I had to get out of here. Not only this neighborhood, but East Berlin. I must find a way. This government killed for sport, mocking the desire for freedom and paving the path with innocent blood. It was too much to behold. I had to start searching for a way out. I had to escape or die trying.