Chapter 8: A YEARNING
Despite the difficulty of getting the ugly images of the shooting out of my mind, the next morning was like any other at work. Nobody even seemed to know or care that another guiltless life had been violently taken in search of liberty.
On the back-patio steps at lunch, the sun was shining and the air was clean. It was a refreshing alternative to the stuffy, self-absorbed conversation inside. I glanced across the yard towards the cemetery. The tall grass swayed across the headstones. I thought of the rock I’d placed next to Papa. It had been too long since I visited him.
A small piece of the biscuit Frau Ingobert had given me for retrieving Dotzi from the third floor this morning fell to the ground. I watched as a group of ants scurried from different directions, lining up swiftly and methodically, fixated on the rare prize. I suddenly felt like an ant, focused on one purpose, driven at any cost. Like the ants, some get stepped on and squashed, . . . yet the goal must remain, and despite the risks, I must press forward hoping the next foot that comes down is not on top of me.
“There you are.” Lena opened the back door and sat next to me.
“What are you doing out here?”
I smiled and pulled my eyes away from the ants.
“I wanted some air.”
“Well, I have some good news.”
I held my breath. Her good news could be the dirty linen pile was not as high today or that the silver was untouched from dinner last night.
“Christoph has a classmate whose mother might rent out a bedroom.” She patted my knee sweetly. This definitely was the best news
I’d hoped for. “He will know in a few days.”
I hid my frown. A few days? I only have one day left at Bernauer.
“Where is the flat located?” I tried to sound grateful. I really was.
It really didn’t matter where, I was desperate. I hoped for sooner, but it was something. I had no other choice than to wait. Living on the street was an unappealing alternative. Although I’d spent a great deal of time around that lifestyle due to Anton, I wasn’t strong enough to live it without him. Memories of Anton crept into my every thought as I worked through the day; he had been such a staple in my life for so long. I never pictured life without him. Even the day I left the orphanage.
The morning started out like any other morning. Anton would leave me before Nurse Gitta came to wake us up. None of the other children knew Anton slept with me; he would arrive after they fell asleep and leave before they awoke. The way he held me at night was nothing more than a brother taking care of his sister. Only we knew if anyone saw it, they would assume the worst. He was the reason my nightmares had nearly ceased to exist.
I stepped onto the cold floor with my bare feet and shuffled to the window. My finger traced along the crack Anton had paid for in blood the year before, but it was the scene beyond that I searched for. I knew I was leaving today. This would be my last day ever in this room, this building, this life.
As excited as I was—especially at the idea of having a real family—the thought of leaving Anton behind tore me to pieces. I turned around—most of the kids were now up and awake—and scanned Anton’s bed. It was empty. A sting rippled my soul. I realized I would somehow have to get used to that feeling.
I changed to the rarely-used dress I received a year ago as my body started to change. It wasn’t really new but new to me. It was the dress I would wear when I leave with my new parents. I searched the kitchen, playroom, and hallways but no Anton. The only other place I could search was the secret room, the place we no longer went to. I waited until no one was around and slipped under the stairs to check it anyway.
“Anton?” I whispered, “Anton, are you in here?” I left the door open to allow some light to penetrate the darkness.
There was no answer as I walked towards the back. With the hall light shining through, I could see the panel to our secret room had been moved slightly. A small piece of paper was folded and stuck in the crease. I placed the paper in my pocket and shot out the door quickly, darting straight for my bed.
Again, Anton was nowhere to be found. I unfolded the paper and read the elementary letters, words that spelled out a simple goodbye. Tears clouded my eyes as I struggled to read his humble thoughts of affection, “Ella, Ich liebe dich, bis bald, Anton.” I now knew he was gone, really gone. My greatest fear had been realized. Anton would not survive here without me. He left on his own.
I went to his bed and sat down. The blanket neatly covered the mattress. His few possessions gone, it was as if no one was ever here. My heart ached, but not in a permanent way, just empty. Somehow Anton would find me. I knew he could never be apart from me. I also knew he was stronger now and older and more resilient to live like many other teenagers do on the street. No, I had not seen the last of Anton.
Looking back, had I known the happiness I would have with the
Kühns, I would have wished for them sooner. I don’t regret my time with Anton at all, but to have nothing—no warmth or love—then suddenly know what you had missed all of your life, it was like that first day I saw Anton’s eyes . . . white, white, white then suddenly dark green, and your whole world changes.
Like back then, I had to believe I would see Anton again.
“Ella? . . . Ella?” Lena repeated my name, although I didn’t realize it at the time. “Ella, I’ve been calling you. You left your apron on the back steps.” Even though I faced her, my thoughts were far away. “Ella, you forgot your apron.” I nodded. As Lena handed it to me, her face showed slight concern.
“Are you OK?” She asked as we moved down the hallway together. “Yes.” I shook my head. “Yes, I’m fine.” I rubbed my eyes.
“Did you hear there was a shooting in the Spree last night?” Lena declared with little sentiment. I stared silently as the image of the man being shot replayed in my head. Lena continued, “My friend Alex was walking his dog near the river when it happened. He said the man was murdered—plain shot to death.”
I remained quiet. It was the first time I ever saw anything like it. It still hadn’t fully registered in my head.
“Alex said it took them almost thirty minutes to pull the man’s body from the water. They had trouble locating it in the dark even with those bright spotlights. He had already started to sink, so they had to send a diver in.” She spoke matter-of-factly. It seemed as though all emotion had been removed.
The troubling recollection brought tears to my eyes. I excused myself and rushed down the hall to the bathroom. I needed cold water or air—anything to help me forget what I’d seen. The man was somebody’s son, brother, father, husband, or friend, . . . and his loved ones probably didn’t even know he died trying to reach them. The reality of that insight suddenly made Anton and Josef’s uncertainty much more difficult to bear.