This is the first short story in a series of short stories inspired by my WWII series, Sophia’s War. You can find links for more information at the bottom of the page, as well as details on my upcoming free book promotion and sales, starting June 16 – 20, 2015!
*This contains mild spoilers for Sophia’s War: The End of Innocence (#1).
The sky was turning a dark shade of mulberry, the first stars making their appearance through a cloudy haze. He could hear the chantey of crickets, the grating of their spindly legs bringing in the night. Looking both ways, he crossed the street, elbow tucked into his side. With each limping step, he wheezed, his eyes on the bronze eagle that ornamented the colossal concrete building of the Gymnasium. The taste of metal filled his mouth and he spat, crimson-stained saliva hitting the sidewalk and splattering on his shin. His head was pounding, and he winced from the rusty creak of the iron gate as he entered the school grounds.
The hallways were dark, quiet as the burial chamber of King Tutankhamen. Shoes shuffling against tile, he tried to straighten before grunting, doubling-over from the pain.
A faint light emanated from one of the classrooms just ahead and he hastened toward it. Through his good eye, he could see his arithmetic teacher writing at his desk. He knocked lightly on the door frame.
Herr Luther looked up in curiosity before sobering. He dropped his pen, springing from his desk chair.
“Herr Burkhardt,” he said in surprise.
Adrian still couldn’t stand upright, even for appearance’s sake; it felt as if he’d done an excessive number of calisthenics with his abdominals. Hunched over, arm still pressed against his stomach as if that would make the discomfort stop, Adrian looked around the empty room.
“Is this a bad time, Herr Luther?”
“No. No,” Luther said, coming around to the front of the desk. “What happened to you?”
With a noisy breath, Adrian sunk into one of the desk chairs.
“It doesn’t matter,” he croaked, waiting for his aches to dull. “I can’t go home like this. I’ve lost my books. My shirt is ripped, my clothes are dirty; my Oma will be furious, not to mention…”
Opa would bruise whatever part of him hadn’t been already.
He whipped the ragged black tie from around his neck, throwing it to the floor. “I didn’t know where else to go.”
Adrian couldn’t look him in the eye. Luther came closer, accompanied by his cane. They all joked that Herr Luther must have had a wooden leg, the way it never bent at the knee and thumped as he walked. Only once had Luther referenced it in class, implying it was from a wound he’d sustained during the Great War. Adrian didn’t find it humorous anymore.
“Wait here,” Luther murmured.
Adrian hadn’t moved from his chair, didn’t even look up when Luther returned. Setting a cup of water on the desk, he handed Adrian an aspirin. Adrian swallowed it in a gulp.
“Put this over your eye,” Luther said.
It was a fabric ice pack with a herringbone pattern. Adrian reached for it, wincing as he did so.
Luther’s brow flinched. “Raise your shirt.”
The tails of his collared shirt were already hanging out beneath his vest. Grimacing, Adrian grabbed the hem, pulling it up.
Plum and wine-colored blotches emblazoned his stomach. He lowered the ice pack, surveying it in mutual contempt and awe. Luther was leaning over to get a better look, though he peered at Adrian over his glasses.
“Have you coughed up blood?”
Adrian put the ice pack over his eye. “No.”
Adrian shook his head. Luther’s lips thinned.
“You’ll be fine. Though it wouldn’t hurt to rest for a couple days.” Luther sighed. “What was it this time?”
Adrian dropped his gaze, embarrassed that Luther knew it had happened before. The luminescent glow of a street light stood out in the black on the other side of the window. His grandparents were probably in a rage. He should have been home long before now.
“You wouldn’t understand,” Adrian muttered.
“Then why did you come to me?”
His eyes fell on the bonbon on Luther’s lapel⎯a Hakenkreuz, the symbol of the Nazi Party. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You came here⎯at dinner time, when you should be home eating with your grandparents⎯and you have nothing to say?”
Adrian kept his eyes down, avoiding Luther’s scrutiny.
“This is Herr Pfenning’s doing. Isn’t it?” Luther asked, his voice low. “He and his friends cornered you again⎯because you don’t wear the uniform.”
“It’s not just that,” Adrian mumbled. The ice had begun to make his eye ache and he rested it on his knee. “Today, during biology, Herr Eisenberg called Oskar Stein to the front of the class.” Adrian bit the inside of his lip. “Oskar is Jewish⎯”
“I am familiar with Herr Stein,” Luther said.
Adrian swallowed. “Herr Eisenberg talked about his dark eyes, the hook of his nose, the curls in his black hair; he showed us all the ways Oskar is different from the rest of us⎯how he’s inferior to us. After classes, I was on my way home. Conrad and the others had Oskar in the alley, punching him, cutting his hair. One of them took his biology book and hit him with it. Conrad saw me walking by and told me to join. I asked him, ‘Why? What has he done?’ And he said, ‘He is a Jew!’” Adrian hesitated. “So I walked over and set my books down while Oskar was getting to his feet. Conrad said, ‘Do it, Heinrich. Show us you are a man.’”
Luther folded his arms across his chest. “So what did you do?”
Adrian closed his eyes, exhaling. “I told him I wasn’t going to do that. I picked up Oskar’s things and I gave them to him and told him to go.”
A strange look made a fleeting appearance on Luther’s face, as he knew it would.
Adrian scoffed. “What is wrong with me? Why am I like this? The others, they look at Oskar and they see a Jew. I look at him and I see a schoolmate I’ve known since primary school; I see a boy who once shared his lunch with me when my Opa sent me to school for a week without food. I see Conrad and the others in their uniforms and I know I’m supposed to want to be a part of it, but I don’t; I don’t want to be like them.” He hated the way his eyes stung. “My Opa says I’m just like my father⎯a coward; a coward who will shoot himself in the foot to keep from defending the Fatherland. Tell me what I’m doing wrong, Herr Luther. Tell me what I need to do to change. I don’t want it to be like this anymore.”
He bowed his head, wiping his cheek on his shoulder. Opa only struck him harder if he cried.
It was a moment before Luther spoke.
“It’s true. You aren’t like Herr Pfenning. That is not necessarily a bad thing.”
“Look at me,” Adrian shouted, pointing at his swollen eye. “It is a bad thing. I’m tired of always saying the wrong thing. I’m tired of doing the wrong thing. I’m tired of being a disappointment. I’m tired of the way he looks at me.”
“Why does it matter how Conrad looks at you?”
Adrian fidgeted. His black eye was beginning to hurt again and he pressed the ice pack to it. “I wasn’t talking about Conrad.”
He saw it in the way Opa ignored him when he told his grandparents goodbye in the mornings. He saw it in the scowl at the dinner table every evening when he looked up from his school books. He saw it in the way Opa would erupt, taking off his belt when Adrian spilled a drink; when he caught Adrian reading a book for leisure; when he came home with bruises and cuts from losing yet another fight with yet another boy. He’d seen it the one time he’d come home with a reward for having the highest marks in his class:
“I thought you would be proud of me.”
Opa’s light blue eyes blackened. “I will never be proud of you. You killed my daughter. Even your own father didn’t want you. And we’re the ones who got stuck with you.”
Luther bowed his head before looking at him. “We are not what we are born into, Heinrich⎯not if we don’t want to be. We have a choice. That is a God-given right that no one⎯not your grandfather, not Conrad, no one⎯can take away from you. You can choose who you want to be. You’re an exceptional young man in a world that values ignorance and subservience. That is why you don’t fit in; that’s why you feel you don’t belong.”
Adrian stared at him before shaking his head. “Why would any of that make a difference?”
“Right there,” Luther rasped with enthusiasm. “That is why it makes a difference! While everyone else bows with blind obedience, you ask ‘why.’ You have an extraordinary opportunity, Heinrich, to not only help yourself, but to help Germany⎯to help the world.”
The feverishness on his usually stony-faced arithmetic teacher’s face put him ill-at-ease. Adrian set the ice pack on the desktop.
“I should be going,” he said, pushing himself up.
Luther’s hands were out in front of him, as if to stop him. “Wait. Wait, please. Heinrich, what if I told you this didn’t have to be the only path for you? What if I told you there was a way you could blend in, but still be who you want to be? What if there was a way to end your grandfather’s control over you?”
His eye had swollen completely shut now. “And how would I do that?”
The smile on Luther’s lips caused the hair on the back of his neck to stand.
“You fight back.”
Adrian opened his mouth to express his dissent, confused when no words came out. Eyes drawn to the Hakenkreuz fastened to Luther’s jacket lapel again, he sensed a disconnect; unless he was mistaken about what Luther was insinuating, there was a treacherous hint of subversion in his tone. Luther grabbed Adrian’s shoulders.
“I can help you,” Luther whispered. “If you agree, we can help each other. But you have to trust me. You must listen and obey, no matter what. Do you trust me, Heinrich?”
Adrian frowned. “Please don’t call me that. I don’t want to be called that. It was my father’s name.”
Luther released him. “What do you want to be called?”
“Adrian,” he said. “It’s my middle name. But it’s mine.”
Luther took hold of his cane. “Very well. Do you trust me, Adrian?”
Though he felt as if he were trading one life of servitude for another, he gave Luther a hopeful, desperate nod. Luther pat his arm, walking back to his desk.
“It’s time you joined the Hitler Youth,” Luther said, opening one of his desk drawers. “It won’t be long before enrolling is compulsory. It is better to stay one step ahead than wait until you don’t have a choice.”
Adrian felt the color drain from his face. “What?”
Luther peered at him over his glasses as he walked back with a book. “Tomorrow. First thing in the morning, you will join. If you can’t find a place among them, you will make one, but it is imperative you appear as inconspicuous, as unremarkable as possible.”
Adrian shook his head. “But, Herr⎯”
“Trust me,” Luther said, handing him the book. “I will take care of the rest.”
The muscles in his stomach ached as he held the heavy leather-bound book with both hands.
“A Bible?” Adrian asked, skeptical.
“Read it,” Luther said, “every night after your school work. If you think you won’t have time⎯and you won’t have much once you’re in that uniform⎯your school work comes second. You must always read your Bible.”
“My Opa hates when I read.”
“Your grandfather isn’t going to know,” Luther said, though it sounded like an order. “In fact, this will be the last time your grandfather will have any authority over you. Tonight, when you go home, you will tell him you’re taking remedial arithmetic with me in the evenings. Your first lesson will be here tomorrow, after your activities with the youth are done.”
“Remedial…? But I have top marks in the class.”
Adrian stared at him.
“Your first assignment under my direction, Herr Burkhardt, is to earn back your respect. The next time I see Conrad Pfenning, he had better have bruises that rival yours.”
Adrian stood motionless. With a befuddled look through his functioning eye at his formerly phlegmatic teacher, he glanced at the Bible, starting for the door.
Adrian clenched his jaw, looking back from the doorway. Luther was watching him.
“Go home knowing that you face your grandfather’s wrath tonight; tomorrow, he will face yours. Tomorrow, Heinrich Burkhardt will become nothing but a nom de guerre. Tomorrow,” Luther said, “you will show us all who Adrian Burkhardt is.”
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