By John Philipp
Elizabeth stared out the back window into the garden. She wanted to go outside and bathe in the warm sun. She wanted to listen to the birds celebrate the change of weather. She wanted to feel like a normal girl, but she was reluctant to break Uncle Bernard’s rules.
A week of rainstorms had fed her depression. The sun reappeared two days ago. She opened the back door a crack. A warm breeze waved past her face and freshened the hallway. Back in the kitchen, she spoke to the teddy bear sitting in a little doll’s chair—Monsieur Flaubert, her faithful companion and confidante.
“The neighbors have left Paris and their house is empty, so why hide inside?” Rationalization after rationalization quicksilvered through her mind. Soon, after reminding the bear to keep this matter a secret, her sweater was on and the door open.
She sniffed the air again and wondered if summer had a scent all its own. The outdoor aromas delighted her, energized her, motivated her to bend the rules. Perhaps she could find a clue to her father’s disappearance in the alley. Like Arsène Lupin, her favorite book detective. She unlocked the gate, swatted through a spider web, and stepped out of the safety of her uncle’s yard.
Broken cobblestones populated the passage along with garbage bins and scattered paper wrappers, the kind the fish store used to wrap seafood. One such wrapper blew down the alley, bouncing off walls and emitting crinkles of protest. Feral cats licked the wrappers they could catch.
At one end of the alley, Avenue Descard, a vehicle grumbled by every few moments, noisy Deux Chevaux and a number of Wehrmacht gray Mercedes. The military vehicles reminded her why she was supposed to stay inside. An uncomfortable feeling knotted in the pit of her stomach. She headed back to the gate.
“Achtung!” came a loud voice behind her. Even louder words, in German, followed. She froze. More German words. She turned to face a soldier moving toward her from the other alley entrance. His thick, highly shined leather boots clopped on the cobblestones. Nazis!
“Papers,” said the soldier in heavily accented French, a young man with several days of blond growth on his face and a pistol in his hand.
I have no papers!
She nodded out of habit and realized her mistake. The soldier motioned her to back up against the wall beside the gate. Her hands felt the splintery texture of the rough-hewn boards. The soldier raised his rifle. She didn’t understand. She approached him and laid her hand on the gun’s muzzle. Polite but firm. The way her father interacted with the Germans.
The soldier grimaced. He pushed her against the wall and lifted his weapon again. Her mouth dried up, heart hammering in her ears. Once more, she walked to him and placed her hand on the gun barrel. She fought to keep her hand from shaking. Her knees became weaker by the second. She spoke in French. “I don’t understand.”
Elizabeth heard a squeal of brakes, and a black Mercedes with a swastika appeared at the alley entrance. A loud voice came from an officer by the car’s open backdoor, moving his arm in quick come-hither motions.
“Schnell Fast! Mach Schnell!” The soldier turned and ran to the car.
The garden gate slammed behind her. Her right hand jammed the bolt shut, shoulder blades flattened on the wooden fence, palms pressed against the damp wood. Wet underpants stuck to her body. Across the garden, the back door beckoned.
She took one step forward. A loud explosion rocked the air. She fell back against the gate. Other explosions followed. She imagined all Nazi Germany was after her, angry she’d slipped their grasp. The next blast rattled the gate. Or perhaps, it was her shaking.
Then, nothing. She waited thirty seconds. The only sounds were police sirens diddle-daddling away from her. An acrid smell debased the fresh spring evening as the breeze freshened. With the sudden shift in wind intensity, fallen leaves and petals churned in confusion. Droplets bounced off her nose.
She bent her knees and leaned forward, still maintaining contact with the wood, her hands reluctant to leave its solidness. With the determination of an Olympic jumper on her final attempt, she bolted across the garden, short hair bobbing, arms pumping, breath held in. Halfway, the rain attacked, drenching her. She opened the back door and rushed inside. Her lungs remembered to breathe again. Her chest heaved in and out, in and out, as sobs climbed atop one another. Water dripped off her wet hair and puddled on the hall floor.
Shaking, she remained in place. Silent, safe. She could hear the rain now, heavy at times, smattering against the back door window panes. When her breath returned to normal, she went into the kitchen. She lifted her teddy bear from his chair and hugged him. “Don’t be scared. I’m here,” she said.
She pulled the bear’s chair to the kitchen table and brought over a plate of cheese from the icebox and a baguette, along with a knife and some raspberry preserve rescued from the cupboard. Before she began to eat, she retrieved Papa’s Luger pistol from its sanctuary behind the potbelly stove, checked the safety was on as she had been taught, and placed the weapon on her side of the table.
She whispered, “Monsieur Flaubert, do I have a story for you!”