Old Ventures 2, Ch. 21

Twenty-One, Paris, 4/14/45, 7:42 PM local time

Jack had checked the address twice since arriving. He was in the right place, but nothing about being here felt right.

He sighed. Standing in the hall wasn’t going to change a damned thing. He knocked heavily on the door, each subsequent impact heavier, and louder, the last artillery fire beside his head. From inside he heard a woman’s sing-song voice as she slid the bolt open. Flossy opened her door wide, grinning happily.

Her smile faded when she saw him. “Oh,” she said softly, and glanced up and down the hall. She stumbled, her legs going out from under her. Jack managed to catch her under the arms, and steadied her against the wall.

“You okay?” he asked.

“No,” she said, “not since I heard the news about Goethe. All those people… I’ve dreaded seeing you again, though,” she shook her head, “I knew I would.”

“I’m so sorry,” Jack said.

“Of course,” she said. “But come in. You travelled a long way to bring me news. You shouldn’t have to give it in the hall.” She turned around, and led him inside. “Sit, please,” she gestured to a recliner. “I have tea that should be ready any-” her kettle began to whistle from the kitchen, “I’ll be right out with it.”

Jack sat down in a recliner with a musty smell, and a doily balanced on the headrest. He could feel a pair of spectacles in his shirt pocket, and shuffled uneasily. “I should have asked, but I hope you take tea and honey,” Flossy said, emerging from the kitchen with two cups, each balanced precariously upon a saucer. She held one out to Jack, her hand trembling enough as she stretched to spill onto the saucer.

“I never turn down anything sugary,” Jack said. “Never know when you’ll need the energy.”

“Do you like the pattern?” she asked, staring at her own cup. “Heinrich bought the set on our honeymoon. We went to Prague. He has family in Prague.” She frowned. “He did. They were taken, canaries in the coal mine. We thought, we thought maybe they bought us a chance to escape. We fled, but…”

“No one would take you,” Jack said, and the words burned. “It’s a lovely pattern,” he took a sip, “and the tea is exactly what I needed.”

“I think what I need,” she swallowed, “is to know what happened.”

“They didn’t make it,” Jack said.

“That I knew, the moment you arrived alone at my door. But I want- no, I need to know what happened. Because even the things I’ve heard about Goethe- I see worse in my nightmares. I can’t stop imagining the horrors they saw, or convince myself it isn’t still happening to them. I need to bury them in my own head, for that to stop.”

Jack reached into his shirt pocket and removed the spectacles. They were wrapped in a piece of paper, tied carefully with a red ribbon. “I think these belonged to-”

“Heinrich,” she said, and crossed the room to take the glasses from him. She unfolded the glasses, and set them on the mantle, beside a small picture of her husband wearing them.

“I met a very nice woman who knew your husband, named Caroline. They lived in the same room together, with a hundred others. The Nazis at Goethe were paranoid, always believing people were out to harm them. They would take people form their bunks at all hours. Usually they’d come back a day or more later, quieter, more cowed. Except Heinrich. He always came back just as defiant, just as biting.  

“The last time she saw him was different. They hit him with a club, knocking his glasses off his nose. It wasn’t the first time- because of his age and the way he spoke, people looked to him as a leader, so every time there was trouble, or the Germans became concerned there might be, they dragged Heinrich off to another room. He usually struggled-”

“My Heinrich would,” she said, his name coming out in a sob.

“and often they knocked his spectacles off, and she would keep them safe, until he needed them again. But he never came back. Still, she kept them, hoping, until she couldn’t stand to any longer; she kept them after that for you. She said she felt like she knew you, from his stories. She,” he held out the paper and ribbon to her, “she wanted to write to you.”

Flossy took the paper, refolded it, and wrapped it again in the ribbon. She caught a smell from it, and narrowed her eyes. “The ribbon was hers?” `

“Yeah, sorry, she was wearing it when she was taken, and clung to it. She thought it was her lucky charm, because she kept living, when so many others didn’t. She once fought another woman who tried to take it- though she laughs about that now. She wanted you to have that, too.”

“She sounds like a lovely woman. I’m glad Heinrich had… someone.”

“I don’t think she-”

“It wouldn’t matter,” Flossy said. “If she had, I wouldn’t hate either of them. The world was ending. They deserved whatever peace they could cling to.”

“It’s,” Jack bit his lip, “it’s okay, too, for it to hurt.”

“It does hurt,” she said, looking into him. “It hurts that my husband is gone, and I wasn’t there- couldn’t be there for him. It hurts that even that was taken away from me. But,” she frowned, as she considered her words, “I can’t help but hope they loved each other. It would be a less sad ending, or perhaps, perhaps I would just have someone left with me to grieve. Perhaps I do,” she said, putting her hand over the letter. “I will read what she wrote, and see for myself.” She took the hand away. “Later. What else did you find?”

Jack had to half stand to get the ring, with the Star of David with the inlaid sapphire, out of his pants pocket. It was charred on one side. He handed it to her. “I couldn’t find anyone who remembered her. She wasn’t housed with Heinrich, that I can tell you. From what I was able to gather, she and her husband were kept on the other end of Goethe. They didn’t let prisoners keep anything of value. She smuggled the ring in, and hid it any time she was likely to be seen by a guard.”

He pursed his lips, guilt gnawing at him. “After we landed at Normandy, the Nazis panicked, and stepped up the murders at the camps. They were working their way from the far side to Heinrich’s side. But Ruth and her husband, I think they were killed together. A very nice Brit by the name of Fleming helped me, track all of this down in a hurry. He works with the Resistance, but the reason I mention him now, his father worked with firefighters, cleaning bodies out of burnt-out buildings. The scorch marks, on the ring, he thinks that’s where the ring was exposed; where it wasn’t, the heat was blocked by their bodies.”

Flossy gasped.

“I’m sorry,” Jack said, closing his eyes against the depressive weight of it.

“No,” she said weakly, “I need to know. It’s how we remember those we’ve lost. It’s how we strengthen our resolve. Now please, tell me what happened to the children.”

“The children,” Jack said, his voice weary. “I think I found their remains. They burnt a lot of the records, once they realized we were coming. But what we were able to piece together, from survivors and the things they didn’t have time to burn, they kept the young children alive. A man named Heshell convinced the Germans to use them around the camp, little work for little hands. Except, once they realized we were coming, they-” the words caught in his throat.

“Please,” she said, “finish.”

“The ovens were going nonstop, operating past capacity. They discussed building gallows, but the wood they wanted to use disappeared in the night. They knew they couldn’t hold the camp, not in the face of the Allied advance. Which meant they had a lot of extra bullets. They set the children to work digging a hole. They worked them past the point of exhaustion; some died digging. When the Germans felt they could delay no longer, they lined the children up at the edge of the pit and shot them in waves. I stayed a day, to help with the digging at the hole, digging up all those children. We found two girls and a boy with long hair, still clutching each other, shot several times each.” a tear slid down Jack’s cheek.

“They,” he downed a gulp of tea so he could keep going, “they would have died quickly. Barely suffered,” he said.

She stood up, and walked slowly across the room. She pulled him to her chest, and gently patted his back. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled, “you shouldn’t be the one comforting me.”

“No,” she said patiently, “it’s good. It’s been too long and,” she swallowed, “it may be for the last time. It’s good to feel needed, necessary. And we’re helping each other,” she said, and squeezed him harder.

“I’m so, so damn sorry.”

She huffed, a noise too heavy to be a laugh but too light to be a sigh. “You’re a good boy. You did more to help one old woman than a country… than a whole world.”

“It wasn’t enough,” Jack said. “It couldn’t be,” she said, “because you couldn’t bring them back. No one man alone could heal a world so sick, or save us from ourselves. But together,” she pulled him so tight she lifted him off his chair, “perhaps we can weather the storm.”

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