Contains mild spoilers for Sophia’s War: The End of Innocence (#1). Get information on my books in the series with the links below!
A solid wall careened toward him, his stomach lurching at the sensation as he fell. He gave a jolt, catching himself before he hit the tile. Sitting up at his desk, he yawned, rubbing at his eyes as someone laughed.
“Pleasant dreams, Burkhardt?” Rolf asked, picking up his biology book. “Class is over. Are you coming?”
Rolf had been a schoolmate for years, but only at summer camp with the Hitler Youth a few months ago had Adrian become friends with him.
“I’ll be there in a minute,” Adrian muttered.
The classroom was emptying out. He sat there, blinking the water from his eyes before he stood. The last one in the room, he grabbed his book, going out into the hall. Rolf’s cotton white hair was easy to spot.
“Was there an assignment?” Adrian asked, leaning against the locker as Rolf put his book away.
“Just some memorization. And an essay on Darwin’s five theories and their applications to present-day society.” Rolf looked at him. “Do you want me to take your book?”
But Adrian didn’t hear him. Katherina was coming down the hall talking to a friend, her long, fair hair in two braids that draped past the lace collar on her sky blue dress. She wore a green sweater, brown socks pulled up to her knees as she hugged a book to her chest. To his mortification, she noticed him watching her, and he turned away just as she smiled. Rolf became solemn, his icy blue eyes roving between them.
“I took her for ice cream last weekend,” Rolf said. “I should go talk to her.”
“Of course,” Adrian said. “I’ll see you later.”
Adrian strolled down the hall, storing his book in his own locker when Herr Luther came around the corner. Adrian stared at him as he passed, though Luther⎯⎯either preoccupied or with intention⎯⎯never looked at him, walking by Adrian as if he hadn’t been standing there at all.
Rolf was still talking to Katherina. Adrian observed them from his peripheral vision as he headed out of the Gymnasium, squinting from the sun. With a heavy sigh and an unenthusiastic stride, he started for home. There was a meeting today and he needed to be in his uniform; otherwise and he would have stalled by walking along the Main for a while.
Oma was making dinner when he walked in. She was a scrawny older woman, her wiry blonde hair with platinum strands parted down the center of her head, pinned at the nape of her neck. She had been beautiful once⎯⎯just like his mother in the few photos around the house⎯⎯though now there were perpetual, wrinkled bags under her lackluster eyes. She never smiled.
“Guten Tag, Oma.”
She barely glanced at him, stirring at the stove. “Dinner will be ready soon. Go wash up.”
“I would, but I’m not staying,” he informed her, walking out of the kitchen.
The faint odor of cigarettes as he entered the hallway caused him to crinkle his nose. He was glad the wall blocked Opa from view in the sitting room. Perhaps he could sneak out before Opa even realized he was there.
He shut the door to his bedroom, taking off his clothes. His black short pants were shorter than when he’d first gotten them, his brown shirt constrictive around his chest and arms. He’d wanted to ask Oma to take him and get a new one⎯⎯or, at least have this one tailored⎯⎯but that meant Oma asking Opa for money to do it. He wasn’t in the best frame of mind to face Opa with equanimity, and therefore, decided to suffer his tight clothes silently for the time being.
He was adjusting the red band with the Hakenkreuz on his long-sleeved arm when his bedroom door banged open. Opa stood in the doorway in his vest, shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows. His gray and white hair was like a horseshoe around the back of his head.
“What’s this about you not staying for dinner?”
Adrian ignored him, tying his shoes. “There’s a meeting with the Hitler Youth⎯⎯like there is every week.”
“Don’t get smart with me, boy. Your Oma caters to your ungrateful skin and you’re not going to walk out on her like this. I don’t care what it’s for, you’re not going back out.”
Adrian breathed out. The last thing he felt like doing was wrangling with him.“I am going, and I will be back tonight when it’s over.”
Opa’s sky blue eyes widened, his scowl becoming more defined. Before Adrian knew it, Opa’s belt was off. Adrian raised his arms as a shield, Opa’s belt coming down on him, strapping his forearms and shoulders.
“I’ll show you! Disrespecting me in my own house!”
Each strike was like a shock, contributing to the electric ball of rage growing inside him. He braced himself, waiting for the next blow, his hand wrapping around the strap and yanking the belt out of Opa’s grasp. Opa’s lips parted as Adrian advanced on him. Despite being a head shorter, he knew he finally had the upper hand as Opa took a step back.
Adrian spoke in a frightening whisper, finger in Opa’s face. “That is the last time you will ever raise your belt to me. And I swear to God, you ever do it again, I’ll tell Karl Althaus that you are trying to keep me away from the Youth. He will tell the appropriate officials, and they will not be pleased.”
Skin burning and tingling where Opa’s belt had come down on him, Adrian brandished the belt at his side, storming down the hallway.
“You think you can threaten me? In my own house?” Opa bellowed, pursuing him. “The only reason I keep you is because of your Oma! I am biding my time until the second you turn 18 and when you do, I won’t feel anything as I throw you out onto the street⎯⎯!”
“I wouldn’t give you the satisfaction. The second I turn 18, I’ll already be gone.”
“And when I get the notice that you’ve bled out on some battlefield, I will grieve only for the ground that you defiled with it!”
Adrian trembled in fury, ignoring Oma as she pleaded with him in the kitchen. The belt made a loud crack on the table as Adrian whipped it, knocking a bowl of sauerkraut onto the floor. He slammed the door on his way out.
He was trembling as he trotted down the stairwell, breathing hard through his nostrils, fighting the urge to yell, fighting the urge to pulverize the wall with his fist. Once outside, he turned right instead of left, leaning against the side of the building in the alleyway. It felt like a pent-up ball of energy was surging inside him with nowhere to go. His fists were still clenched along with his teeth, and he rammed his elbow against the brick wall at his back. Opa was already a member of the Party, and had been for years. He found a grain of bitter delight in the thought that he was using Opa’s own allegiance against him, while it was Adrian who wasn’t sure where he stood.
Joining the Hitler Youth had been a better idea than he’d expected. He had done exactly as Luther said, joining the morning after meeting Luther in his office. It did something to him; though he knew it was out of a disingenuous motivation, he signed up, the pride of the Hitler Youth belonging to him as he walked out of the building. He had an uncontaminated lineage, though he felt resentful, knowing half of the proof lay with the father who had abandoned him and his mother. The purity of his coward’s blood was the only thing Adrian could say his father had ever given him.
He had arrived at school later that day, at his locker when Conrad shoved the door closed, flanked by two others.
“Well, if it isn’t Heinrich the Jew-lover,” he smirked. He held up the tattered remains of Adrian’s biology book, the binding missing, pages ripped. “Looking for this?”
He shoved it into Adrian’s chest.
“Guess you’ll be needing a new one,” Conrad said.
“No, this one’s perfect.”
He swung the book full force against Conrad’s jaw, knocking the smile off his face as he tumbled to the floor. Adrian threw the book down.
“And don’t call me ‘Heinrich,’” he warned through his teeth.
Two teachers had had to pull them off of each other after that. Opa had roared and belted him that afternoon after finding out about the fight, as well as for being sent home early, making him go to bed without lunch or dinner.
But the next day, everyone was talking about the fight that Conrad had the bruises to prove had happened, and none of the boys who had beaten Adrian up before would look him in the eye. Luther had even flashed him an approving grin that day as he walked out of class. Neither of them mentioned the execution of his first assignment that evening at their first covert lesson under the guise of a remedial arithmetic session.
Adrian’s extracurricular activities were leaving him exhausted. It was just as Luther had said it would be; after the rigorous sports with the Hitler Youth and Luther challenging him intellectually with the same fervor every night, he struggled to keep up with studying for school, falling asleep in class each day. Some nights, he didn’t study at all, reading a few chapters from his Bible instead and only because he’d promised Luther he would.
There were voices carrying up the street. He opened his eyes, seeing Katherina coming up the sidewalk with her friend. Katherina waved to her, walking into the apartment building across from Adrian’s. His anger seemed to liquefy from the same magic that was holding him spellbound. The moment she was out of sight, the charm broke and he pushed away from the wall, heading down the street.
Taking a couple of connecting trams to Hofhausstraße⎯⎯and getting a bratwurst along the way⎯⎯he walked to the house that accommodated the Hitler Youth. Rolf was already there, and Adrian pulled out a chair at the table to sit next to him. Conrad’s eyes no longer locked on Adrian with the intensity of a German Shepherd seeking the submission of a smaller dog; instead, Conrad regarded him with disinterest, talking and laughing with the boys at the other end of the table.
“You’re awake,” Rolf said, regaining Adrian’s attention.
Rolf leaned in. “You know, this isn’t for everyone⎯⎯there’s a certain standard that must be attained; survival of the fittest and all.”
“I’m fine,” Adrian said, offended. As if it wasn’t enough to hear from Opa how unworthy, how much of a weakling he was. Though Rolf was his friend, he couldn’t tell him the truth; no one was allowed to know.
Karl Althaus⎯⎯their group leader⎯⎯arrived, preventing the conversation with Rolf from going any further. They said a prayer to Hitler and sang before Karl handed out pamphlets on the importance of the preservation of Aryan bloodlines for them to read and discuss.
Adrian preferred the weekly meetings with reading material and discussions. On the weekends, they did calisthenics, practiced marching and military inspired games and exercises. Usually, Karl and the other leaders would divide them up, putting red or blue bands on their arms to designate which team they belonged to. They would capture each other, ripping off the bands until only one color remained. The game was often aggressive, the boys goaded by Karl and the other leaders. Sometimes, the adrenaline and hard feelings ran so high that there would be brawls. Adrian hated finding himself in the midst of them, but Luther had said that it was critical that he blend in. It was difficult to reconcile with his innate disinclination to cause harm while he was throwing punches with the rest of them.
Before his agreement with Luther, he’d thought he knew who he was, had a general comprehension of what he believed in. But there were aspects to the Hitler Youth he found that he was grateful for; the camaraderie, the admiration he got in his uniform, the confidence he was gaining in his own physical strength. The more time he spent with the boys in his group, the more he thought Luther’s ominous prediction of an imminent war unlike any other was a paranoid conjecture. Sure, the Nazis had a negative outlook on the Jews, but other than that, he found he could exist⎯⎯no, thrive⎯⎯among them even if his own personal opinions didn’t always align with what they taught. It wasn’t detrimental enough that he felt he was compromising the core values he was still certain of.
It was dark outside when they finally left the meeting. He stood, waiting with Rolf as the other boys dispersed on the sidewalk. A black BMW pulled up, the Adler family car. Only Rolf and one other boy’s family had the luxury of a car.
“Want a ride home?” Rolf asked.
It was tempting. It would save him the fare on taking the tram, which meant he could save the money and spend it where he needed it elsewhere without invoking Opa’s wrath.
But Luther had said not to share their private lessons with anyone unless it was the answer to a pointed question. “No. Danke.”
Rolf shrugged, opening the door. “Suit yourself.”
He watched the gleam of the headlights dim as the car drove away before walking in the opposite direction, toward one of the tram lines that headed towards the school.
The school was dark and deserted as always when he arrived. Luther was grading papers at his desk, just as he had been that first night.
He looked up, seeing Adrian in the doorway. “You’re late.”
Adrian closed the door, sitting at one of the desks with a sigh. “The meeting went over. I didn’t have a choice.”
“Let’s not waste any more time,” Luther said, closing a book on his desk. He got up, and Adrian moved to the front of the classroom. “Let’s continue where we left off last night. Tell me about your day, leaving out one detail that you don’t want me to know about.”
Adrian thought back. Falling asleep in class? Opa becoming irate, striking him for missing dinner? The failing grade he received today for not reading the literature assignment?
And then he became still, a subconscious smile on his lips: Katherina.
He applied what Luther had been teaching him; keep as close to the truth as possible, and don’t give too many specifics.
“I fell asleep in my biology class. I met my friend Rolf outside the classroom to ask if there was an assignment.”
Then, he saw her coming down the hall. She was so pretty, and it felt like being punched in the gut to hear how Rolf said they had gone out for ice cream the weekend before.
“Then I went home to change into my uniform. When I got home, Opa was angry and hit me with his belt. I took it from him and told him if he did it again, he would regret it.”
There she was again, coming up the street, waving to her friend as she went into the apartment building.
“Then I took the tram to Hofhausstraße to meet with the Hitler Youth, and after that, I came straight here.”
Luther sat on the edge of his desk, hands draped over the top of his cane. “Why did you fall asleep in biology?”
Adrian shrugged. “I fall asleep in all my classes.”
“That’s not what I asked. You never volunteer information.”
He backtracked. “I was tired.”
“Was there anything else discussed between yourself and Herr Adler?”
“You gave a slight nod of your head, contradicting your answer. It’s a subtle, physical response that you’re being deceptive. And a simple ‘no’ would have sufficed.”
Dammit. He knew that.
“Did you go straight home after school?”
Luther seemed to think for a moment, his eyes never leaving Adrian. “Why did your grandfather strike you?”
“Because I was missing dinner.”
“Is that the only reason?”
“That, and I spoke back to him.”
“Is that the truth?”
“Uninterrupted eye contact is good and the promptness of your replies indicate openness. Your fidgeting, however, makes me think you’re either uncomfortable discussing your grandfather or that you’re being untruthful about something. Keep that in mind.”
“Did you go straight to Hofhausstraße after leaving your house?”
He blinked. “Yes.”
“Hesitating to reply, even in the fraction of a second, is symptomatic of deception. What are you lying about?”
He realized he was fidgeting again and had even lowered his gaze in response. He corrected himself. “I was very angry when I left. I waited in the alley for a few minutes to calm down.”
Luther’s eyes narrowed. He wasn’t sure if he’d done something to give away the detail he was still trying to conceal or if Luther was thinking. The rest of the simulated interrogation went easier, since that was the last time he’d seen Katherina today. Luther seemed satisfied.
“And now,” Luther said, “tell me about your day again, but in English.”
Adrian stared at him, shaking his head. “Herr, I don’t…I don’t know enough English to do that.”
Luther lifted his chin. “Try.”
The same exercise followed, delayed simply by Luther supplying words he didn’t know or correcting words he butchered. Then, they repeated it in French. It wasn’t until the Russian interrogation where he began mingling English and French words in that Luther hung his head in exasperation. Adrian felt a mixture of regret and annoyance at Luther’s evident disappointment.
“I’m…I’m sorry, Herr. I’m just tired.”
“That’s enough for tonight, Herr Burkhardt,” Luther said, gathering papers behind his desk. “Tomorrow, I expect you to be better prepared. Here.”
He hobbled around the desk, the two books in his hand threatening to topple Adrian’s already tottering pile of responsibilities.
“One is a book of poems by the English poet, Robert Frost. The other is a novel by the Russian writer, Alexander Pushkin. Read them. Remember the words you don’t understand and we will discuss them.” He handed them to Adrian. “I think it goes without saying that these must be hidden well.”
Adrian nodded. He would put them with his Bible and the collection of works by Heinrich Heine in the hollow underneath the wooden frame of his mattress. He’d had to hide the latter after Opa berated him last year for reading such an “un-German” book.
He felt Luther’s eyes on him. “Your uniform is too small. Why haven’t you gotten a new one?”
Abashed, he read the lettering on the books he was holding. “My Opa…”
Luther seemed to understand. “Go to Frau Hutmacher after school tomorrow. Tell her to put it on my account.”
For some reason, this seemed to embarrass him even further. Books in tow, Adrian started for the door. “Danke. Good night, Herr Luther.”
“Before you go, Adrian, there’s one more matter I wish to mention. I hope you understand the significance, the…risk,” he said, lowering his voice, “of what we are doing. There can be no distractions, nothing that might undermine our objective. We must put our personal desires aside for a greater purpose. We must be careful not to allow lines to blur.”
He didn’t like the way Luther was eyeing him over his glasses, the way he always did when watching Adrian for a reaction. He’d hidden her well; he had never even spoken to Katherina but in passing. There was nothing between them but a couple of casual glances.
And her smile; her shy but sugary white smile.
“Of course, Herr,” Adrian said. He walked out, uncertain about what Luther thought he knew.
It was after midnight when he made it back to his street. He dreaded it, expecting neither Oma nor Opa had gone to bed. After what had happened between him and Opa earlier, it would be as if he’d never left, his departure having been a mere interlude to their fight. He groaned to himself; he still had to read his Bible tonight, too.
The scent of smoke irritated his senses, and for a moment, he feared Opa was outside the building waiting for him. He stopped, taking in his surroundings. It wasn’t Opa; someone was smoking in the alleyway across the street.
Even half-veiled in shadows, he could see Katherina had changed, no longer in her school clothes but in the white button-up, black skirt and tie of the BDM. She was sniffling. He gulped, tucking the books into the back of his short pants as he crossed the street.
She noticed him, wiping at her face as he stood at the entrance to the alley.
“Are…are you okay?” he asked.
“Yes,” she answered with a smile, though it vanished as she took a drag.
The faint street light illuminated her face, bringing her red dappled cheek to his attention. He left the light, stepping closer to her.
“What happened to your cheek?”
She seemed self-conscious, her eyes flickering at him as she gave an insincere chuckle. “It’s nothing. Really. My father, he…sometimes he drinks a little too much⎯⎯communicates with his hands.”
He leaned on the wall across from her, crossing his arms. “I’m sorry.”
“My father’s a good man,” she said. “It’s just when he drinks.”
He watched her smoke. He wished he could excuse Opa’s behavior in the same way.
“I’m sorry,” she said, holding out her cigarette. “I should have offered.”
No cigarette would ever touch his lips. He found them repulsive, only because Opa always reeked of them.
The hand holding the cigarette fell to her side, the two of them gazing at each other in the quiet. “What are you doing out so late? It’s not safe. There could be Communists out.”
He grinned at her sarcastic tone. “I could say the same to you.”
Her rejoining smile pleased him. He could hear his heart beating in his ears, finding it difficult to swallow as she stamped out her cigarette, leaning against the wall next to him.
“How puzzling. We’ve lived across the street from each other our entire lives and this is the first time we’ve actually had a conversation.”
Adrian snorted. “I know.”
Sometimes, he would see her through the window, sitting in front of her mirror brushing her hair. Waking up, bracing himself for battle every morning and every evening⎯⎯sometimes even in between⎯⎯made him forget that there was anything else in life; made him feel as if this endeavor to survive Opa’s house was all there would ever be. But watching the careful way Katherina undid each flaxen braid, the gentle way she smoothed her hair with each stroke of her brush, settled his embattled soul. Just looking at her made him feel peaceful, gave him hope that maybe there was more to life than he realized.
She closed in the space between them now, whispering in his ear. “Do you think I’m pretty, Heinrich?”
He turned his head. It was difficult to breathe, feeling her lips hovering over his cheek. He closed his eyes as she kissed him, though he froze.
She chuckled. “Have you never kissed a girl before?”
“I’ve kissed a girl,” he answered quickly. “It’s just…I think Rolf likes you.”
“Rolf’s just a friend. Besides,” she said, “I like you. Do you like me, Heinrich?”
She was so close he could see the black rim around the edges of her sky blue eyes. It was he who kissed her this time. Her arms draped around his neck, he couldn’t help himself, untying the ribbons in her hair. Running his fingers through her golden tresses, she only kissed him harder.
A window snapped open somewhere overhead, startling them both.
“Katherina!” someone rasped. “Get up here! I’ve covered for you long enough.”
“Coming,” she whispered back. She smiled at Adrian. “That’s my brother. I should go.”
He only nodded, incapable of speech.
“My father’s giving a lecture at the university tomorrow evening. He doesn’t usually get back until very late,” she told him. “My mother will be there to watch him, as will my brother. I’ll be staying home⎯⎯I won’t be feeling well. It would be polite of you to come by and check on me.”
With a coy smile, she kissed him, starting up the iron fire escape. He stood by himself with a moony grin in the darkness, even after he’d heard the window close. He was afraid of waking up tomorrow and finding he’d dreamed it all.
Becoming alert to the present, he turned for home. She liked him; she liked him! Just as he kept secrets for Luther, he would keep this secret from Luther; he didn’t have to know. Luther’s misapprehension about the Nazis shouldn’t be reason for him not to be happy.
Especially when, for the first time in his life, he was.
Meet some of the characters in Sophia’s War here!