If historical fiction is your jam, then this is your reminder that it is definitely time to jump on the Orphan Monster Spy duology by Matt Killeen.
After her mother is shot at a checkpoint, fifteen-year-old Sarah finds herself on the run from the Nazis in Third Reich-ruled Germany. While trying to escape, Sarah meets a mysterious man with an ambiguous accent, a suspiciously bare apartment, and a lockbox full of weapons. He’s part of the secret resistance against the Reich, and he needs her help.
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August 28, 1939
FINALLY, THE CAR came to a stop. With difficulty, Sarah opened her eyes, blinked to clear her vision, and looked up from her hiding place in the footwell. Her mother was slumped in the driver’s seat, her head against the top of the steering wheel. She was gazing through the spokes to where Sarah crouched. Her mother’s eyes were almost the same, wide and pretty. Her pupils were so big Sarah could nearly see herself in them. But now they seemed dull. Her mother was no longer in there.
Sarah reached out, but something hot dripped onto her hand, and she snatched it back. Her palm was bright red next to her white fingers.
Lauf, dumme Schlampe!
Sarah could hear the voice in her head, but her mother’s lips weren’t moving. Her nose was blocked and her eyes hurt. The pain was a fog across her thinking. Again she heard it. Lauf! Run! She looked at her mother’s face once more, in time to see her forehead slide off the top of the wheel. The eyes, still staring, now regarded the floor. Lauf. Just run. Sarah thought the voice was her own.
The door handle turned, but the door didn’t open. She tried again. It opened a crack, but she was pushing against the whole weight of the door, as if up a hill. Her hand was slick with blood, so she rubbed it on her coat and tried again. By sticking her shoulder against the door panel, she managed to heave it wide open, spilling the cold light of evening into the car. She scrambled up and out. The Mercedes had come to a rest in the ditch by the roadside, its nose buried in a warehouse fence.
Sarah looked into the car and saw what the bullet had done to the back of her mother’s head. She fought a wave of nausea as the door swung shut, but she felt nothing else. Not yet.
Her heart was beating fast and loud in her ears, the air stinging her nose. Her neck felt hot. Behind her, the soldiers from the checkpoint were just rounding the distant corner that she and her mother had careened around moments ago, just before the shot. There were voices, shouts, running feet on the asphalt. Dogs began to bark. They were closing. Where now? What now?
Sarah flung herself onto the warm hood and crawled across it toward the break the car had made in the warehouse fence. The shards of broken windshield tore at her hands and knees. She slid off into the brambles and then pushed through them on all fours, picking up splinters of wood, thorns, and broken glass.
Don’t look back. Keep going. Ignore the pain in your hands and knees. Lauf.
She let the voice run riot in her head as she broke through the fence. Her voice? Her mother’s? It didn’t matter.
Onto your feet now. That’s it. Lauf, Lauf, run, run.
She sprinted into an alley between two old buildings, kicking up the sludge deposited by overflowing gutters. Looking up she could see the rusting gutters hanging from the roof edges, the leaf litter that blocked the drains. About two meters high. Too high. Too precarious. But this claustrophobic corridor continued into the distance, and she could hear the dogs closing.
Get up there, dumme Schlampe. Don’t call me that.
Well, you’re being one. What kind of a gymnast are you?
A Jewish gymnast. Not permitted to compete.
You’re a dead Jewish gymnast if you don’t move. Are you hardy? Pious? Cheerful? Free?
Sarah found herself laughing at the old saying. What would Jahn, the father of gymnastics, think of a Jew—Deutschlands Unglück, Germany’s misfortune—using his words as inspiration? So she put a skip into her step, ignoring the tightness in her calves, the pain in her neck, the chance of slipping, repeating, “Frisch, fromm, fröhlich, frei, hardy, pious, cheerful, free,” with her eyes on the gutter all the way. She launched herself into the air, caught the troughs neatly on either side, and swung herself up and to the right, the metal creaking and complaining as she went. She hit the corrugated iron roof with a crash, slid for a second, and stopped just shy of the roof’s edge.
Beat that, Trudi Meyer. I’ll have your gold medal now, danke.
She lay unmoving, staring into the vast and darkening silver sky, the sense of triumph slowly ebbing away like the light in the west. It was leaving a cold sensation in her stomach. If she couldn’t calm her breathing, they would hear her. She thought about that last look back into the Mercedes, then pushed the memory away. She put it in a special box and closed the lid. She looked at the emptiness above and listened.
Over her heaving chest she could hear the dogs. The shouting grew closer. Then there were muffled footsteps—a soldier was walking between the buildings. The noise was too indistinct to work out how far away he was, and her breathing was too loud, much too loud. She counted two seconds, took one last long breath, and clamped her mouth shut. She realized she could just make out a star where the sky was darkest. She also discovered she couldn’t breathe through her nose, so all she had to do was keep her lips together.
Footsteps, right below her.
A star. Or a planet. Was it Venus? The feet stopped. Planet.
There was movement, the sound of material scraping against the brickwork. The gutter creaked. Her chest began to throb as the pressure grew. There was loud breathing and the sound of boots against the wall. More pressure, more pain, the urge to spring to her feet and run away. She turned her head very slowly to see thick, dirty fingers gripping the lip of the gutter. Inside her head she started to scream. She wanted to open her mouth and let it out. So, so much.
At that moment there was a snap, a tearing, and a shriek. The gutter, the dirty fingers, and the heavy breathing vanished in a cascading crash. There was swearing. Shouting. Catcalls. Laughter. Footsteps receding. Quiet. Distant barking.
Sarah opened her mouth and let the breath explode out of her lungs. She gulped down the cool air. Her shoulders rose and fell and rose again because she couldn’t stop them. She began, quietly, to sob.
Sarah was good at hide-and-seek. In better days, when she could still play with other children, she was always the last one to be found, long after the others had grown bored and moved on.
She lay there watching the stars emerge and brighten, listening to the sounds of the docks. She could still hear the dogs, soldiers, and shouting, far-off but ever present, like the other children running round the house calling out for her.
So, you’re just going to lie there? the voice hectored her.
I’m waiting for it to get dark.
No, you just don’t know what to do, it crowed.
Sarah turned her head. She could see a crane and the funnel of a ship. In the background, the vast lake, the Bodensee, was vanishing into the coming night. In the other direction, the roof- tops of Friedrichshafen spread out below her, and she couldn’t be seen from its distant church spires. Beyond her feet, a crumbling, old warehouse regarded her with derelict eyes, dark and deserted. Safe. This was as good a hiding place as any for now.
Then what? A Jew with no papers, stuck in a German port with no money.
Sarah ignored herself. Or her mother, whoever it was. There was no future, just the now. Her mother had driven them here, so she must have had a plan to cross the Bodensee by the ferry or private boat to Switzerland and safety, away from the beatings and starvation and abuse. But all that was gone. That was, if she’d had a plan at all. That level of organization had been beyond her mother for years. It was no wonder that it had ended in disaster, in her death . . .
Sarah pushed the thought away, into her box. It was all too raw, like the aching in her nose.
That special box deep within Sarah had started out tiny, like something her mother would keep expensive jewelry in. There had rarely been time to be frightened or cross in the past six years, since the National Socialists had come to power, so Sarah had locked each humiliation and injustice carefully inside. That way she was free of the dread and anger. But now the box was like a traveling trunk, varnish blistered and swollen, the wood turning green and the brass tarnished. The contents oozed under the lid and dripped down the sides. Worse still, she had begun to imagine herself becoming the box, with everything inside, everything she had hidden, free to slosh about inside her, ready to take shape and eat her alive.
Her heart was racing again. She calmed herself by imagining she really was playing hide-and-seek. She was deep in a cupboard under the stairs, covered in a hanging winter coat, the open door inviting the other children to take just a swift and cursory look inside. Invisible, waiting, invulnerable. Exhaustion spotted its chance and wrapped its arms around her. In the twilight, on the mossy metal ridges, Sarah dozed.
She is walking next to her father. He was tall, but now he seems huge. She must be very small. She looks up along her red-coated arm to where his enormous hand cradles hers.
The ground is soft underfoot, and the bright sun, too intense to look at, is bathing everything in a golden glow.
“Can you see, Sarahchen?”
“See what, Papa?”
He laughs and stoops to scoop her up into his arms. She is a long way up but feels safe, strapped into position by limbs like tree trunks.
“Can you see it now?”
Sarah screws up her eyes and peers into the dazzling sky. It hurts and she has to shade them with her hand. A low buzzing is beginning to fill the air.
“What is it?
Another laugh. “Wait and see.”
The noise grows, one drone overlapping with another like a beehive, the sound of a million insects at work.
“Daddy, I’m scared.”
The drones become a throbbing that begins to pound at her chest. She clings to her father’s black jacket out of fear or excitement, unable to decide which. Then she sees it.
Huge, silver, shining in the sunlight, filling the sky, bigger than the biggest thing she’s ever seen. In its shadow, boys are running, pointing, trailing streamers. Sarah cranes her neck back to watch this giant rippled cigar block out the sun and rumble overhead.
She starts to giggle and then laugh. She looks into her father’s eyes and he into hers. He starts to laugh, too. Everyone is laughing . . .
Sarah’s eyes opened. With a jolt she remembered where she was and understood what was happening. The moon had risen, and everything was illuminated with a rime of silver light. The metal roof was shaking, and the nose of the zeppelin was already overhead. She had nowhere to hide. Instead she lay there and let the massive airship roll past, a Jewish girl on a rooftop, a glittering outline just a few meters from prying eyes.
They aren’t looking for you, they’re doing something else, they’ll look right at you and it won’t mean anything, because they aren’t looking for you. You’re just a winter coat in the cupboard.
She was close enough to see the windows in the zeppelin’s fabric and the dim light from within. She could see the roughly stitched repairs, the name hidden underneath the hastily repainted dope, and the shafts of yellow light extending along the curve of the balloon from the control car’s windows. She gripped her vibrating bed. I am a winter coat, she repeated to herself, as the gondola slid past.
Windows covered the whole front end of the observation car, and the electric light was almost blinding. Inside, two figures stood watching. It was impossible to believe that they couldn’t see her, and yet, as they drifted past, they remained static. The droning rose in volume until the power cars roared past on their spindly pylons, their propellers a blur. The body started to thin out, leaving only the vast tailfins to pass. They had been painted black, but the swastikas were still visible in their white circles, a wolf in a poorly made set of woolen robes, fooling no one.
Finally, the airship had passed. Sarah exhaled loudly. It was as if the other children had opened the cupboard door and seen nothing out of the ordinary. She sat up, the muscles in her legs and back complaining. The swarm of bees receded as the zeppelin sailed away and the rooftop settled. As it passed over the deserted warehouse, she spotted a figure on the building’s flat roof, visible in the moonlight. Someone was standing and watching the airship through a pair of binoculars, like he was looking for a rare bird.
She watched him follow the curve of the zeppelin until he was looking at the tail. He was all in black, silhouetted against the bright darkness of the sky, barely visible but absolutely there. So lost in her curiosity was she that she didn’t move from her sitting position, even when he lowered his glasses and stared off past the end of the airship into space. Why was he there? The airfield must have been three kilometers away.
He started and pulled the binoculars back to his face. Deep in her belly something dropped away, and she had to suck her next breath in.
She was not invisible, and he was looking right at her.
The man slowly let the glasses fall, and, after a second, he waved.
Go, just go, she ranted at herself as she exploded into life, rolling over toward the edge of the roof and pushing herself off. It was dark down there out of the moonlight, just two little windows of silver at either end of the alley. To one side, the larger warehouse and the man with the binoculars. To her left, the way she came: the fence, the ditch, the car. So she pushed herself right, driving her stiff legs forward, her fingers trailing against the brickwork on either side to keep her balance. Through the fog of dull ache in her face, she was conscious of a growing stabbing pain deep in her head. She was desperately thirsty. She ran her tongue over her lips. They were broken and chapped. Her tongue made a noise like a cat’s, rough and dry. It had been more than a day since she had drunk anything. Her mother hadn’t wanted to stop on the way from Vienna but had brought nothing to eat or drink. A terrifying 630 kilometers under the eyes of the whole Fatherland, through the birthplace of National Socialism itself. It seemed inconceivable that they’d made it so far.
The waterfront to her left was poorly lit but looked small, not vast and anonymous like she had imagined. She pushed straight on into the maze of buildings in front of her.
Just keep moving.
Always with the why and the where. Concentrate. It’s like an accent, a gymnastic routine, a piano piece. Fix your mind on the task at hand.
I’m tired. I don’t know what to do.
So now you’re going to cry like a little baby?
Indeed not. Did I raise you by myself so you could just give up?
Sarah swallowed down a sob. Had it been her mother’s voice all along? Oh, Mutti, she murmured to herself, oh, Mutti.
I can’t. What I saw in the car . . . all too much . . . No, STOP.
She froze. Over the distant hum and noise, she could hear running water.
She followed the sound to an old and peeling door. It was ajar, revealing a dark interior. Sarah needed to use her shoulder, and as it scraped open she was hit by the smell of ammonia and sewage. She took an uncertain step inside, but the blackness was absolute. Closing her eyes to let her night vision improve and using the slimy wall as a guide, she crept into the room toward the sound of water. She opened her eyes but couldn’t pick out any details. The room couldn’t have been that big, but it felt like a cavern, or the giant mouth of some stinking beast. The dark is your friend, she told herself. Big arms to hide you. Love the darkness. Her fingers brushed up against something that moved. She wanted to snatch her hand back but resisted and reached out again. She touched the thing, and it vanished once more. She waited and it returned to her. It was a thin chain, with a knot at one end, the other disappearing upward. She grasped the knot and pulled down.
There was a click and then a light so blinding that Sarah lost her balance. She was in a squalid bathroom with a broken toilet bowl in the corner behind a rotting wooden partition. A long trough ran the length of the far wall at floor level. Everything was filthy, but next to Sarah a rusting tap spat brown water into a low, long basin.
She grabbed the edge of the sink and thrust her mouth under the tap, opening it up to full. The liquid tasted warm and rusty, but it was wet and it didn’t stop. Sarah gulped and swallowed, gulped and swallowed, ignoring the sense of smothering when it went up her nose. After a minute, she stopped and stretched out her back, letting the water drip down her chin, feeling the life seeping back into her body.
“Oh, look, it’s the little girl from the roof.”
A man’s voice. Sarah froze. Dumme Schlampe! You left the door open. The man was between her and the doorway. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do. That helplessness took the weight from her shoulders. She felt oddly calm and light. So light that she felt herself rise above the sea of panic. She grunted an affirmative noise and bent down to drink again, trying not to imagine the next few hours.
WHAT ARE YOU doing here?” said the man.
“Drinking,” she replied between gulps.
“What were you doing on the roof?” His delivery was flat, almost emotionless.
Don’t be fooled. That just means you can’t read him.
“Looking for someone.” She stood up and wiped her chin. It seemed to be covered in brown dirt. She purposely avoided looking straight at him, buying time to think of something without her eyes giving anything away.
“On the roof?”
“Yes.” She was just delaying the inevitable. It didn’t matter what she said, and this made her feel free. Bold. “What were you doing watching the airship?”
“I’m asking the questions.” The merest hint of tension. Not anger.
“Yes, you are.” She cocked her head to one side and waited. The man was dressed in black, with a woolen hat and a dark knapsack. His face looked dirty. Not what she’d expected. He just stared back at her like he was trying to work something out. Sarah wondered if she really could just brazen this out. “Well, I shouldn’t take up any more of your time, so . . .”
The man pushed the door shut behind him. Sarah took a step back. He leaned against the door and folded his arms.
“And you’re going where, exactly?” Colder. Almost icy.
Sarah wanted to shiver.
“Home, now. I couldn’t find . . . my father. He’s a dockworker.”
“Why were you looking for him?” She was definitely being interrogated now.
“His dinner was ready.”
“At four in the morning?”
“He’s working nights.”
“On the roof?”
“I was looking everywhere.”
“And what happened to your face?”
Sarah reached up and touched her nose. It stung like she’d been slapped. Something flaky peeled off in her fingers, and she looked down to see what it was. It was then she noticed that the front of her light brown dress was stained a dirty red brown. Congealed blood had crumbled off on her fingers.
“I . . . walked into something in the dark,” she tried to say, but the words were lost as she choked, then coughed and finally sniffed, wincing with the pain. The man laughed. It was a joyless thing, full of scorn. Sarah found a wellspring of anger and defiance deep inside. She stared into his eyes, a girl on the verge of a change, covered in dried blood, rust, mold, and rotting leaves. Be the duchess, darling, said her inner voice, her mother’s voice. You’re on stage; they are not. They are yours to command. They are ready to be convinced. So convince.
“Yes, I got lost and walked into a broken piece of guttering. Shall I show you?” He had watery-blue eyes with dusky edges. Don’t blink, she told herself.
“What’s your name, girl?” he asked more softly. The creases around his eyes seemed to smile. There was something odd about his accent. He was Bavarian, she thought, but odd words seemed different . . .
“Sarah, Sarah Gold . . .” Think. “G . . . Elsengrund.” Dumme Schlampe. Sarah slumped against the sink. The man laughed again, this time not so hollow.
“Oh, oh, oh, you were doing so well. You’ll have to do better than that, Sarah Goldberg, Goldstein, Goldschmitt— whatever you are.”
Sarah began to wash her face, hoping it would hide the tears that pricked the corners of her eyes. The man came very close, then sat on the edge of the basin. He spoke quickly. “Wash your dress, wash it clean, it can stay wet if need be . . . and wipe your coat down. You’re from Elsengrund, right? Right?” Sarah nodded. “That’s good, stick with that . . . and use Ursula or something. Sarah—doesn’t get more Jewish than that. You have anywhere to go?”
Sarah shook her head. She had been defeated, but now she was uncertain what was happening.
“And no papers? That’s good. If they were stamped, they’re useless for Switzerland anyway. Ferry is your best bet. Little-girl routine, like you’re meant to be there. Wait for dawn, but not here. That roof is as good as any.” He paused. “One more thing . . .” He caught her face and grabbed hold of her nose. Sarah managed to seize his wrists, but before she could do anything, he pulled. Sarah squealed despite herself. The pain was all-consuming. Then there was a loud crack and it was over. She staggered backward, too scared to touch her face.
“Don’t touch it, it’s straight now . . . definitely less noticeable.” He wiped his hands on his trousers. “You didn’t know it was broken?” Sarah’s hands trembled in front of her. She inhaled through her nose: it was sore but clear. The voice in her head was silent. She looked up from the floor to see the man in the open doorway.
“And trust no one. Good luck, Sarah of Elsengrund.” Then he was gone.
Sarah watched her hands. It took a full minute before they were still.
Dawn was cold and gray. After a clear night, dirty clouds had rolled in from the lake to turn the sunrise into a faded photograph. Sarah stood in the shadows, her damp dress wrapped around her legs like moldy curtains. It rubbed against the cuts on her knees and thighs until it was all she could think about. She let the irritation eat her up as it kept the voice in her head quiet. Right now she didn’t need it.
The blood had washed out to leave an ugly stain on her dress, so she had buttoned up her dark coat to hide it. Around her neck was a piece of dark sacking that could be mistaken for a scarf. It smelled of stale milk, but it was dry. It was the only thing she was wearing that was. She had pulled her hair into some kind of order with her last hair clip and braided the rest at the back of her head, tied off with a piece of wire. She would look fine at a distance, but, as with a scarecrow, a close-up view would fool no one.
Sarah hadn’t let herself sleep. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw blood and chasing dogs. Conscious, she was able to control them, but when she drifted off, they ran her down and leapt at her. She woke barely able to breathe for sobbing. Awake she could keep her mind on the here and now.
The ferry horn sounded. That was her cue. She stepped into the light and, ignoring the gnawing pain in her legs, began to skip down the road toward the harbor. She might be fifteen but she could pass for eleven, or younger if she acted the part. Sarah had always been small for her age, something that years of poverty had made more pronounced, and this was a role she had played before—staying small, unobtrusive, childlike. The town was starting to make its way to work across the cobbles, staring at its own feet or making a swish-rattle bicycle noise as it passed. Tired and disgruntled and uninterested. Sarah kept the rhythm of her movement going, resisting the urge to break into a run. Instead she began to hum a tune she’d heard the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the League of German Girls, singing when they marched past her house. She felt the beat in her head, drawing strength from its bounce and thrilled by taking the song over for herself.
“Uns’re Fahne something something, skip, skip, uns’re Fahne something Zeit! . . .” She struggled to remember the words. The banner something. She was nearly at the entrance. “Und die Fahne führt uns something something . . .” What was the next bit? Yes, yes . . . our banner . . . banner?
“Our banner means more to us than death!” shouted the soldier as he loomed in front of her.
Sarah shrieked as she bumped into his chest and stumbled backward, the smell of sweat and leather thick in her nose. He towered over her, a gray monster with brown straps.
“I mean, what is your youth leader teaching you?” He shook his head, hands on his hips and rifle slung over a shoulder. He was young, maybe twenty, his brow furrowed with theatrical disapproval. Sarah made herself smile, pushing the corners of her mouth up until her cheeks hurt.
“. . . more to us than death . . . than death!” she shouted back and giggled, almost hysterically. “Oh, she’s very good really. Sorry!” she called over her shoulder and waved hurriedly. She watched the soldier smile, shaking his head as he turned away. “Death. . . death . . .” she breathed, trying to slow her pounding heart. She waited for strong hands to grab her shoulders, but nothing happened.
They’re not looking for you, the voice said.
Then why are they even here?
Keep singing. Keep smiling. The voice changed the subject. You play the part all the way into the wings, on into the dressing room. You don’t stop until the final curtain.
The ferry was drifting toward the dock, and beyond it was the blurry horizon. Above it Sarah could see the jagged shapes of the mountains across the lake, mountains that meant . . . freedom? Safety? She had only the vaguest notion of what she would do even if she got on board the ferry to Switzerland.
Keep your mind on the show. Everything else—the party, the fame—those are for afterward, not now. The show is where you earn them.
On the right, a line of passengers was forming. To the left a horse and cart had been parked, waiting for the boat to dock. Everywhere else, there were soldiers and police, checking, looking, talking, guarding, watching.
Sarah slowed her pace. She would have to time this just right. The ferry stopped, lines were thrown to the dock, a few passengers hopped off the ramp. Wait. The line began to shuffle on, the cart and horse trotted forward. Momentary chaos . . .
Crying, my love, is an art. It’s about control. Not keeping it in— any fool can do that. Taking it inside and storing it until you need it, that’s the secret. No leaks, just a tap that goes on . . . and goes off.
Take the horror and use it.
Sarah recoiled. She had kept the image of her mother in the car at arm’s length, until now.
Yes, the voice insisted.
No, it hurts.
That’s the point. Look back into the car.
Sarah pleaded. Mutti, no . . .
LOOK INTO THE CAR, DUMME SCHLAMPE.
Yes, the voice whispered.
So much blood . . .
Tears streamed down Sarah’s face as the emptiness wrapped itself round her stomach. She threw up in her mouth but swallowed it down.
She ran along the waiting passengers, shouting, letting the rage and fear take over.
“Vati! Vati! Daddy! Daaddee! Where are you! Vati!” The people in the line shuffled uncomfortably and looked at one another. Sarah accelerated toward the ramp. “Vati!”
“Whoa, stop, Fräulein. Miss, please.” The sergeant took a step back, thought about raising his gun, and stopped, uncertain. Sarah skidded to a halt and raised her hands to her face.
“Where’s Vati? He said he’d be here!” she wailed, and squeezed her eyes shut. “He must be here . . . Vati!” She looked up at the sergeant’s face, opened her stinging eyes, and snorted snot down her face over her open mouth.
“He’s on board? Is he? . . . Just . . .” The sergeant looked around helplessly and his troopers looked back dumbly. He shouted to a policeman deep in conversation on the other side of the ramp. “Wachtmeister! Some help here!”
“Vati!” howled Sarah. “Is he on board?”
“Yeah, like I’m your slave, Scharführer,” the policeman called back.
The sergeant turned back to Sarah. “Ticket? Who has your papers?”
“Vati . . .” Keep going, keep crying, keep screaming.
“But . . .”
“Excuse me, can we get on board?” Polite voices getting agitated.
“Just go, okay, go find your father . . .” The sergeant raised his arms and made a shooing motion to Sarah, who ran past him and climbed aboard, taking one look back to see the horse and cart block her view. She waited a moment and then ran for the staircase to the top deck, wiping her nose and mouth with her coat sleeve.
Good girl. I’m sorry. You’re not dumb.
Ignoring the voice, she shoved the crash and her mother’s absence back down into the dark, regaining control. She went toward the bow and squeezed herself behind a life buoy, out of sight.
She leaned out and looked back at the harbor with a feeling of extreme triumph. This was better than a gymnastics medal, better than a curtain call, better than getting home without being called names. Finally, after all this time of being endlessly starved, harassed, and attacked, the dirty Jewess Sarah was the Königin, the queen, the boss. The National Socialists, their marches, their window-breaking, and their vicious hate could go take a giant jump. She felt like screaming to the sky with the gulls and taking off after them.
The sense of victory, of raw howling satisfaction, didn’t last long. When that thin seam of passion had been exhausted, Sarah felt oddly hollow, like chocolates raided, eaten, and then the empty box rewrapped.
She looked at buildings, the twin spires of the church off to the west. She was looking at her country. Her country. She had been running scared so long, she’d forgotten what she was actually running from. She belonged here. She was not a stupid J stamped in a passport. She was German. They were making her leave her country, like they made her leave the house in Elsengrund and the apartment in Berlin, and when she and her mother fled to Austria, they made her leave there, too.
The victory was now hollow and filled with bile, ringed by fears and doubt.
She sniffed and spat over the rail. This drew a reproving glance from one of the passengers, but Sarah didn’t care. They couldn’t get her now.
Could they? She looked back at the dock. The soldiers were busy, disorganized, distracted. Two of them had drifted to a corner for a smoke. The sergeant was arguing with the police- man. Nobody was in charge, like they didn’t know what they were looking for.
Didn’t they know what they were looking for? A girl, an escaping Jew, a blonde Jew at that, whose mother had panicked and plowed through a roadblock, because everything she did was a disaster. Why hadn’t they caught her? Unless . . . they weren’t really looking for her in the first place?
She watched the last few stragglers coming on board and a man running along the quay. He had a long black coat and a carpetbag trailing behind him. The sergeant moved to head him off, arm outstretched. The smokers finished their cigarettes and approached the ramp.
The roadblock that her mother had driven into: it was unexpected. Everything else had gone according to plan. Was there a plan? They’d gotten to a border in a car they shouldn’t have had, but after that?
Her mother might have described the plan in detail, but Sarah hadn’t been listening. She was angry at the National Socialists, even the other Jews for whatever they’d done to bring this on them all, but she reserved her deepest, seething, suppressed resentment for her mother, for her drinking, her failures, and her hopelessness. Worse still was the endless line of fantasy and optimistic delusion. Crashing the barriers and getting herself shot, that was typical.
But if the roadblock hadn’t been for them, if they hadn’t been the target, what were these soldiers here for? Maybe there were checkpoints everywhere now . . .
They wouldn’t let the man on board. Sarah leaned out for a clearer look. The policeman was now taking an interest. The man took off his hat and ran his fingers through his blond hair. The ferrymen began to untie the lines, impatiently coiling the wires and watching. The man now had soldiers on three sides. He retreated a step and gestured back into town. He tried to reclaim his papers, but the sergeant pulled them away. Sarah watched the shoulders of one of the on looking soldiers, the coarse material of his uniform stretching as he shifted his gun into his right hand.
Sarah looked out over the lake to the mountains. To safety, maybe. No visa, no friends, no money, no mother—Switzerland didn’t want Jewish refugees, so she’d have to be careful on the other side, but she had no choice . . .
Then she looked back to the harbor. This man, she realized, was the reason for the roadblocks and soldiers. Hunted. She knew what it was to be hunted.
The policeman circled behind the man and waited about ten meters back, blocking his retreat. The ferrymen started to shout at the soldiers. Late. The sergeant turned to them and shouted back, just as the man looked up toward the ferry. Sarah saw his watery-blue eyes and recognized him. He had the look of a cornered animal, so different from the face he had used the night before. A man without friends. Without a choice.
The departure horn sounded above her.
Sarah was at the top of the stairs before the sound finished. She slid down the banisters on either side on her hands and hit the deck running, her palms burning. The ramp was now up, so she took a half step and leapt over it. She saw the sliver of dirty water beneath her, and then it was gone.
“Vati! Vati! Daaa-ddiee!” she screamed as she landed and charged into the group of soldiers. She saw the tiny flicker of recognition in those blue eyes and bounced into his arms. He staggered from the unexpected weight and then hefted her up to his hip with difficulty as she wrapped her legs around him. “Oh, Vati, Vati!” she cried.
“Oh, Ursula. There you are. There, there. Safe now,” he muttered. He looked up at the soldiers. “Look, can I just . . .”
“Vati! Home now!” wailed Sarah.
“Look, can I just take my daughter home now?” He reached out for his papers. “Please? It’s been a horrible morning.”
Sarah stared into the man’s shoulder and told herself not to look up. Expensive soap. No cologne. The ferry horn sounded again.
“Bring the right papers when you’re going anywhere. Wastes everybody’s bloody time. Even when you’re looking for your snotty children, which, by the way, you forgot to mention.”
“Thank you, thank you. Sorry.” The man took the papers and turned.
“And remember your ticket, you cheap git,” one of the soldiers spat. The others laughed.
“Of course, thank you. Excuse me.” He walked away. “And where were you, young lady? I said wait at the train station.”
He walked on in silence until they passed the harbor entrance and were halfway up the hill.
“That was incredibly stupid.” He exhaled.
“A simple thank you will do,” Sarah murmured.