Mama had a hold of little Victor’s hand – so tight that sometimes it felt too tight. He wriggled his fingers, and she relaxed her grip. “Sorry, Victor,” she murmured. “I just don’t want to lose you.”
Victor didn’t want to lose her either. First Papa had gone to work and never come back. Then Jacob had done the same, and Mama had spent many hours crying at the kitchen table when she thought Victor was asleep. Victor didn’t want Mama to go away the way Papa and Jacob had. He clutched almost desperately at her hand as they made their way in the cold toward the train station.
Mama had said they needed to leave and go west. Victor didn’t want to go – all of his friends were here – but everything had been so strange in town the last months that even Victor was eager to go somewhere that felt normal. Somewhere that felt safe.
Most of his friends seemed to have left already.
He and Mama approached the train station by walking through the trees. Mama said she didn’t want to take the road. So she and Victor trudged through brambles and rotting leaves until they reached the edge of the clearing where the train station sat.
A train was there, waiting on the tracks.
A lot of people were getting onto the train, people who looked scared. Victor stared at them with wide eyes. If they didn’t want to go on the train, why were they getting on? No one seemed to want to get on, but they were climbing up anyway, and disappearing into the bowels of the cars.
Suddenly Mama gasped and ducked back, dragging Victor behind a large stump and pulling him to the ground. “Victor,” she whispered, her face close to his face. “You have to run, my little boy. Run toward the setting sun.” She glanced over her shoulder toward the station. Victor could hear men shouting and the sound of running feet on the cold gravel of the clearing.
“Don’t let anyone see you,” Mama said urgently. “Until you cross the river.”
“Mama?” Victor said, frowning uncertainly. “Aren’t we going on the train?”
“You can’t, Victor,” Mama said. “You have to run.” She hugged him quickly, and he smelled her perfume and the lingering aromas of the things she had cooked for breakfast. Then she pulled away, and squeezed his fingers, and let go of his hand. “Get across the river, Victor,” she said. “Run, and don’t stop for anything, or anyone. Not until you get across the river.”
“Mama,” Victor said, panic welling up in his chest. “Aren’t you coming with me?”
She gazed down at him with so much love and pain that he felt tears in his own eyes. “I can’t,” she said. “They already saw me. But they didn’t see you.” She managed a smile. “You go, now, Victor. I love you. Be brave. Be good.” She nodded her head toward the west, toward the river. “Go.”
Victor didn’t want to go. He shook his head, and thought to argue, but the shouts were closer now. The men were in the trees, and coming closer, and for some reason that he couldn’t really understand, Victor didn’t want to meet these men. “Mama,” he whimpered, and tears slid down his cheeks. He backed away, and hid himself behind a berry bush whose dry, brown leaves had not yet fallen away.
He watched as the Mama stood and faced the men. The men took her by the arms and escorted her toward the station. She never looked back at Victor, and even in that moment, he knew it was so the men wouldn’t guess he was there. He blinked, memorizing the look of the back of her head, of her scarf and coat, of her boots and the hem of her dress.
“Mama,” he mouthed silently. He waited until the men had taken Mama to the train. She looked scared now too, like all the others. In a moment, she had vanished into the train-car. After a few more minutes the train started up and pulled out of the station. It wound its way east, its black smoke rising up into the grey sky.
Victor waited until the train had passed out of sight around a hill, waited until he could no longer see the smoke in the sky. He didn’t really know what to do, but he knew he needed to do what Mama had said – he had to cross the river.
Papa had said once that the river was fifteen miles away. That sounded like a really long way, especially if he wasn’t supposed to let anyone see him; he would have to go through the trees all the way to the river, and the thought of that frightened Victor quite a bit.
“Mama,” he said again. He had no choice, he realized. Mama was gone, and she had told him to cross the river, and to run, and to hide. He had nothing else to do, nowhere else to go. He buttoned his coat and pulled his hat down over his ears. His mitten was still warm where he had been holding Mama’s hand.
He started walking as fast as he could to the west. He rested when he needed to, but mostly he kept moving, until the sun hung low in the western sky before him.