Contains medium spoilers for Sophia’s War: Death Knell (#6). Links to find out more about my WWII series can be found below!
This is the first short story for the character Amélie Luther. Because of the current events in France, I felt compelled to write about her and her friends and family. I’ve always admired the French spirit and the bravery and sacrifices of ordinary French citizens during WWII. Their courage and contributions to winning the war should not be forgotten. Hope you enjoy!
1940 May – June
“The Germans are coming.”
Mama was yanking open drawers, shoving shirts, knitted socks and satin underthings into suitcases. Moments ago, she’d been cooking in the kitchen, an apron over her pencil skirt. The sleeves of her blouse fluttered with each frantic movement, strands of her silky raven hair loosening from her formerly elegant bun.
Amélie watched from the doorway. They’d heard the advancing popping of gunfire, the whistles and thuds of shells bursting from miles away. She’d seen the tension around Papa’s eyes as he smoked his pipe in the evenings, the trembling of Mama’s hands as she knitted.
“But…the radio said our troops are repelling them.”
She said this more out of hopefulness than conviction. Mama only looked at her, unlocking yet another suitcase. “Where is Henri?”
Remy was purring, rubbing his sleek, smoky fur against Amélie’s calves. Amélie picked him up. “Down the street. He’s playing marbles with the twins.”
“Go get him. Then put on your best shoes and traveling clothes. We’re leaving today.”
“Where are we going? What about Papa?”
“He will follow. We’ll meet him in Tours.” Mama became stern. “Now go. Fetch your brother.”
Shaking, Amélie released Remy, leaving Mama to pack. Out on the sidewalk, her apprehension worsened. The unusual sight of cars loaded down with luggage and other valuables sped past. People were dragging children by the hand, gripping suitcases in the other.
It was really happening; Paris was being overrun.
Heart pounding, she broke into a jog, the urgency of leaving the city fueling her steps. It wasn’t until she reached the corner that someone jumped out from the doorway of the butcher’s shop in front of her.
Amélie gasped, going rigid as she tried not to scream. With dark, amber eyes, Rafael Chevalier stood before her with outstretched arms. “I knew it was only a matter of time before you came running.”
Catching her breath, Amélie soured, shoving him in the chest. “Idiot.”
“Where are you going in such a hurry?” Rafael asked, stalking after her.
“To get Henri. We’re leaving the city.” She glanced back at him. “You should be, too.”
“And go where, ma chérie? It’s too late now. For all of us. There is no escape. I will become a jester, and you, some German’s plaything.”
She halted in her tracks, glaring at him. “Never.”
Rafael whistled. “Say it like that and I’ll make you mine. Feisty.”
“And you, Rafael, never taking anything seriously. You are nineteen years old; you should be out there fighting.”
Rafael chuckled. “Still going on about that, are you? Our army is no match for the Germans. It grieves me that you would have me die in vain.”
“I would not have you die, I would have you fight!” she hissed, facing him. “If I was a man, it’s what I would have done. This is our country; this is our home. I wouldn’t have run from them.”
“Like you’re doing now?”
This rendered her speechless. Innocent Henri was in sight, playing with the Leverett twins in the park. Gunfire stitched from somewhere outside the city, echoing through the walls of the buildings. She just wanted to be safe; she wanted Henri safe, but Rafael was right. It was too late for that.
“I’m just a woman, Rafael,” Amélie said.
Rafael was no longer smiling. He backed away. “And I am just one man.”
She watched him turn the corner before remembering her brother. Henri told the Leverett twins he’d see them tomorrow, and Amélie didn’t correct him, accompanying him back home.
It surprised her to find Papa had returned. She’d heard his and Mama’s elevated voices from the hallway. They were arguing in French—the language they had in common—and Mama was crying as Amélie and Henri walked in.
“Twenty-one years, Konrad! Twenty-one years, we have been married!”
“I know this. I have been here.”
“Don’t be clever with me. Not now. Why would you do this?” Mama asked, tears streaming her face. Amélie laid a protective arm over Henri’s shoulders as Mama grabbed a porcelain pitcher, throwing it to the ground. It shattered at her feet. “Why would you do this to me?”
“What’s going on?” Amélie asked.
Papa, with his ash blond hair and perpetually wooden countenance, was unflustered as always, standing across from Mama. Mama had her hand on her chest, gasping for air.
“Ask your father!” Mama shouted, pointing at Papa. “Ask him!”
Where Henri had the dark hair and olive skin of their mother’s Italian heritage, Amélie favored Papa’s blonde-haired, blue-eyed German ancestry. Both Amélie and Henri, however, had inherited their father’s calm demeanor, neither of them ever as excitable as Mama.
Papa looked at Amélie. “I am not leaving to Tours. I am staying here, in Paris.”
Amélie swallowed. The porcelain crunched beneath Mama’s knees as she fell, sobbing.
“Then…” Amélie cleared her throat. “I’m staying here with you.”
Her parents were horrified.
“Are you insane?” Mama shrieked, pulling at her hair. “You can’t stay here! The Germans are right outside the city, mon coeur! Konrad, do something!”
Besides the wrinkles around his eyes, Papa remained even-tempered. “It is not a good idea. You are a beautiful, young girl, Amélie. You have reading the letters your uncle Erik is sending. The Nazis are brutish.”
Her sight became blurry, and her voice trembled, but she wouldn’t budge. “Everyone is running. Everyone is hiding. Whether countryside or coast, the Germans will take it, too. This is my home. I will not run.”
Papa didn’t argue, revealing his opinion only in the downturn of his lips. Mama was a mess, rocking where she sat. “Konrad—”
“She is nineteen,” Papa interrupted Mama. “She’s an adult. And besides, she is right.” He lowered onto the settee. “They will swarm France. In the end, nowhere is safe.”
Papa stared at the ground. Mama was sniveling. Already, Amélie was imagining what horrible things the Germans might do when they found her.
Henri looked between the three of them. “I want to stay and fight the Germans, too.”
“No,” Papa, Amélie and Mama said in unison, though Mama shouted it.
“If I am to go, it will be to save at least one of you!” Mama wept, pushing herself up from the floor. She grabbed Henri by the shoulders, pushing him through the living room. “Come now, Henri. We must get dressed.”
Henri scoffed, digging his heels into the floor. “Papa—”
“Do as your mother says,” Papa said.
They could hear Henri’s protests through the walls, Mama’s overwrought voice overpowering his. Amélie went to the kitchen, coming back with a broom. She swept up the broken pitcher as Papa watched.
“Why are you staying, Papa?” Amélie asked.
He worked for the local newspaper. There wasn’t going to be anyone here to read it.
“I am already being through one war,” Papa answered. “Perhaps I am too wearied to pretend we can avoiding another. The Germans will come. We cannot stopping it. Their blood may flow in my veins, but I am French in spirit. Someone should being here to keep the heart of France beating.”
Sitting beside him, Amélie took his hand. “Then mine will beat alongside yours.”
He concealed her hand with the two of his. She pretended not to see the way he blinked tears from his eyes.
Mama had arranged for the Babineaux family to drive them as far as Orléans. Papa and Amélie went down to help Mama and Henri tie their things to the roof of the car.
Madame Babineaux huffed. “I wish you would have told me your husband and daughter weren’t coming, Lucrezia. We could have packed more things in the car.”
Papa shut the door, leaning in the window. “They are just things, Madame.”
He kissed Mama’s lips and Henri’s head. Then Amélie stood beside him as they watched the Babineauxs’ car pull away. Weeping, Mama had her head out the window; the back of the car was too full to see out of. Handkerchief flapping in the wind, she waved goodbye as the engine faded away.
The streets were still and silent. Artillery fire tapped in the distance, punctuated by the occasional explosion of bombs.
“And now, my girl,” Papa said, turning back to the apartment. “We wait.”
Days passed. Every night, she practiced German with Papa. She was as loyal to her native tongue as she was to her country, but having an understanding of their inevitable conquerers’ language would be an advantage.
Papa went to work, though he was the only one there. Still, they weren’t the only ones who had stayed behind. Salina, the hairdresser, still opened up her salon everyday, though no one came. Guillaume Legrand, the concierge at the hotel a few blocks down, walked up the street every morning and back down in the evenings.
Amélie set to work in an attempt to preserve her virtue. She pried up a plank under her bed, hiding her dresses, her mother’s make-up, and everything else that indicated a woman lived in the apartment. She let out the seams of Henri’s pants, drawing in the seams of a pair of Papa’s, until they fit her own narrow waist. She even bound her breasts. Having found an old newsboy cap on the street, she put it on, tucking her hair underneath it. Maybe the Germans were killing every able-bodied man they crossed as they entered France, but she would die like a man before she’d let them take her as a woman.
“What do you think?” she’d asked Papa, rotating on the spot.
Papa grinned. “Your Mama would have a spell. Nothing at all how a respectable young woman should be looking.”
Food had become scarce. The butcher’s shop and the bakery were closed. The grocer’s shelves had been emptied the same day Mama and Henri had left. For a week, Amélie and Papa stayed fed on a jar of jam and boxes of crackers that Papa rationed between them, along with what was left of the coffee. Once, though, Amélie had come home to find Papa setting a loaf of stale bread and a block of cheese on the table.
“Where did you get this?” she asked.
“Madame Rousseau. Downstairs.”
Amélie narrowed her eyes. “Madame Rousseau isn’t here.”
“That is right,” Papa said, a mischievous gleam in his eye. “So she will not be needing it.”
Day after day, Parisians trickled back into the city. Cars had broken down. Their money or belongings had been stolen. They’d been turned away at the full to bursting train stations. It was a relief when even the butcher returned, though there was no meat to be found.
And then, one morning, Amélie awoke to the marching of boots.
She pulled on her usual costume, tucking her hair haphazardly under the newsboy cap. Rushing out into the hall, she found Papa in the living room, peering out the window. Though it disturbed her that he would allow himself to be so visible, neither of them spoke as she sidled up to him.
Motorcycles roared. Horses whinnied. Tanks rumbled. All of this, with the rhythmic thumping of boots, filled their motionless town. Cannons rolled in on giant wooden platforms, soldiers in greenish-gray uniforms roosted on top, taking in the beautiful city they had seized. This was Paris; this couldn’t be happening.
Amélie was sniffling, whimpering, holding back tears. Papa put his arm around her.
“Come,” Papa said.
He stepped out onto the sidewalk first, and Amélie followed. There were people watching from the sidewalks; men, women and children alike. One elderly woman did little to disguise her perceptible hate.
“Boche,” she murmured, spitting on the ground.
One man was snuffling, wiping at his cheeks with a handkerchief. One little girl had paused in a game of hopscotch to watch the parade of soldiers before continuing to play. Down the street, a red flag with a swastika unfurled over the balcony of the municipal building.
Something furry brushed by Amélie’s legs and she gasped as the cat darted out into the street. “Remy!”
On impulse, Amélie ran after him, even as her father called out for her. It startled one of the horses as she burst onto the street, the soldier on its back trying to regain control. Amélie clung to Remy, expecting the soldier to pull out his gun in a show of force, but he spurred the horse, trotting around her. Too stupefied to move, her father gripped her arm, pulling her out of the way of a gray armored tank at the last second.
Papa was cursing in undertones, praying in the same breath, though he held her to his chest. Remy struggled between them and Amélie let him go, leaving him to his own fate.
Their daily routines didn’t change with the German occupiers. If anything, life resumed. Though Amélie continued to resist the vulnerability of dresses and skirts, she no longer refrained from looking like a woman in public. Women shopped, fearing little more than enduring gazes from the young Germans in their uniforms. The Germans even brought money, giving the shops business again.
Papa wasn’t the only one working for the newspaper anymore; he was even made head editor, since the former had abandoned his post in the mass exodus from Paris. The baker and the grocer came back. To Papa’s dismay, Mama and Henri came back, too.
“The rails were destroyed,” Mama recounted solemnly. “The Germans told us to return to where we’d come from.”
“At least we will be together,” Papa said, hugging them all.
From the outside, if Amélie looked past the German uniforms, it appeared Paris was the same as it had been before. But there were changes seeping in beneath the surface, transforming the very fabric of the life Amélie had always known. A nightly curfew was enforced. The lights had to be out by a certain time, the windows blocked with heavy blackout curtains. Germans got priority over Parisians.
And every Jew in the city had to document themselves. Those who failed to do so were arrested.
Whether with a woman they passed on the street, or while conducting business with a shopkeeper, the Germans were polite and amiable. It was easy to forget that they were unwelcome occupiers, in those moments. Running an errand for Papa at the photography shop, Amélie had waited in line, witnessing the attractive female clerk be taken in by one of the young soldiers, who was leaning on the counter. “You be good to me, I be good to you. We help each other, see?”
That seemed to be their mentality in general. They behaved like gentleman, as long as their wills and wants weren’t challenged.
The baker had been caught selling bread at twice the price to Germans. In the middle of the day, a surly captain barged in, flanked by soldiers. Customers fled as they proceeded to destroy his bread, dumping bag after bag of flour on the floor. To teach the baker a lesson, the captain had forced him onto the ground, commanding him to lick it up.
Rumors spoke of coercion; of noble French girls resisting German advances, only to be blackmailed by threats against their families. One girl claimed she had been raped—which the senior officers took seriously—but after an investigation, it was determined the girl sought revenge after discovering she wasn’t the soldier’s only lover. No one knew what was true and what wasn’t anymore. Either way, it was undesirable to be caught in the sights of an amorous Boche.
Amélie had done well avoiding this, until one day when coming out of the market.
The first time she’d seen him, he’d been leaning against the wall outside, smoking. She could tell from the brazen way he watched her that he was familiar with her. It chilled her, and she wondered how long he’d been aware of her without her noticing. Pretending she hadn’t seen him, she walked away.
“Bonjour,” he’d said, catching up to her. He’d attempted to charm her with a broad smile. He spoke in slow French. “Uh…my name is Reinhart. What is yours?”
Her grip clenched on the wicker basket she held. “Amélie.”
“A beautiful name for a beautiful girl. May I help you to carry that?”
His smile twitched as she yanked the basket away from him. “No. Thank you.”
He’d pestered her all the way to the doorstep of the apartment building she shared with her family. He might have followed her upstairs if it weren’t for Papa having been there waiting for her.
“We saw you coming up the street with him,” Papa murmured next to Mama once they were in the seclusion of the apartment.
Amélie set the basket on the table. “He wouldn’t leave me alone.”
Her parents stared at her as she took out the food; it was the first time she thought Papa had looked afraid.
“Papa, don’t worry,” she said. “I can handle it.”
But she wasn’t sure she could. Suddenly, Reinhart was everywhere she went, waiting outside for her while she shopped, loitering outside her apartment building, sitting at her table whenever she stopped at a restaurant. It was a demanding balancing act, making her indifference to him apparent without offending him outright. She knew it wouldn’t be long, however, before he grew frustrated, either forcing her, threatening her, or having her arrested on false charges.
Papa had been at work, Henri at school, and Mama was tidying the apartment. Amélie watched from the window as Reinhart paced the sidewalk all morning, counting down the minutes to noon; he’d told her yesterday he had training exercises. She watched him check his watch before trudging down the street in defeat. The moment he was out of sight, she tucked her hair under her cap and bolted outside.
Though she didn’t run—lest it elicit unwanted attention—she walked at a brisk pace to the hotel on the corner. Guillaume was working at the counter. “Mam’selle—”
“Where is he?”
Guillaume blinked, pointing toward the ceiling. “His usual. But Mam’selle!” he cried as she started up the stairs. “He has company!”
Amélie ignored him, finding the room at the end of the hall. She barged in without even knocking.
The woman in the bed screamed, yanking the sheet up to cover her body. Rafael lay beside her, stirring from the commotion, though upon seeing Amélie he closed his eyes, settling into his pillow.
Amélie looked at the girl. “Get out.”
“Who are you?”
Amélie glowered on her. “Your worst nightmare if you do not get out right now!”
The woman fumbled, looking at Rafael as she buttoned her dress under the sheet. “Tell me she is not your wife.”
Amélie stepped out of the way as the woman rushed out. Amélie slammed the door behind her, locking it.
Rafael still didn’t open his eyes. “Jump in, ma chérie. The water’s fine.”
She sat in the wooden chair across the room, her face in her hands. “I’m in trouble, Rafael.”
He became alert at the sound of her distress, sitting up. “What’s wrong?”
She sighed, slumping in the chair. “A soldier. He follows me everywhere. He waits for me, even outside my apartment.”
“Has he tried anything?”
“No,” she answered, detecting a sinister tone in his voice. “Not yet, anyway.”
They sat in silence. Amélie shook her head. “I thought everything was the same, but it’s not. They allow us the appearance of independence and normalcy to keep us controlled. They’re planting their roots here in our soil and we’re just letting them. Why did we let them in, Rafael? Why is no one doing anything?”
She wiped at her cheek. “Papa said a lieutenant has been posted to supervise the newspaper, reading over his shoulder every time he reviews the daily stories. Papa began working there to inform the people. Now it’s all propaganda; lies, exaggerations.”
Rafael was pulling on his pants. “Not all of it.”
Amélie stared at him. “What do you mean?”
Rafael didn’t reply, further disheveling his untidy black hair as he put on his shirt. “What’s his name? The German who’s been following you.”
“Reinhart Pfennig. He’s a corporal.”
Straightening his jacket, Rafael withdrew a cigarette from his pocket, lighting it. Amélie closed her eyes, bowing her head. “I don’t know what to do. I’m afraid…I’m afraid he’s not going to give me a choice soon.”
Rafael tossed his lighter on the nightstand. “Not while I’m here, he’s not.”
Cigarette dangling from his lips, he yanked the cap off her head. “I can’t believe no one’s told you yet how ridiculous you look in that hat.”
Settling it on his own head, he slammed the door shut behind him.
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