Laney sat down at the little table by the window and looked out over the sunny courtyard. She felt safe for a change; she felt … happy.
The old man who always sat on the bench in the courtyard finally arrived, and took up his customary seat at the north end of the wooden bench. He carried a bag of bread crumbs that he would spend the morning feeding to the pigeons. He always fed them, all morning, and read the newspaper, and talked with some of the others who always came to the courtyard. Sometimes he had a thermos of coffee, but today he had a paper cup with a little tag hanging out of it – tea.
Today I’ll go talk to him, Laney decided. She got up from the table and called out to the nice girl who always brought her coffee and biscuits. “Janetta, would it be okay if you brought it out there?”
The nice girl smiled at her the way she always did. “Sure, Laney,” she said. “Are you finally going to talk to Mr. Steinman?” Her eyes twinkled, and Laney blushed.
“I am,” she announced, her voice wavering between bravery and nervousness. She had been wanting to talk to Mr. Steinman for a long time, because he seemed so friendly and smiley and yet just a little sad. He seemed like he had a story to tell.
He seemed like the sort of man who might understand that she had a story to tell.
She made her way tentatively to the bench, and leaned down toward the old man. “Mr. Steinman?” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.
He looked up at her with kind eyes and a gentle, inquisitive smile. “Yes?” he said.
Laney glanced at the empty end of the bench. “Could – could I sit here with you?”
“Of course!” he said, smiling broadly. He gestured to the seat right beside him. “Please; please!”
Laney sat down, smiling too. “I – I hope it’s not too forward,” she said shyly. “But Janetta said you were someone who might be able to help me.”
Mr. Steinman looked at her in surprise. “Why, of course!” he said. “But what is it I can do for you?”
“I …” She paused, and looked down for a moment at her hands folded in her lap. “I came in on one of the transports from Ritika. And … and I’m trying to settle in.” She looked around at the bright courtyard, with its fountain and flowers and statuary. “It’s very beautiful here,” she said. “But sometimes I worry.”
At the mention of the Ritika transports, Mr. Steinman’s pleasant expression had suffused with absolute compassion. “I see,” he said softly. He reached out one wrinkled hand and patted Laney’s. “You should call me Victor,” he said. “What is it,” he asked her, “that you worry about?”
“A lot of things,” Laney said. His hand on hers was very comforting, even though she had never spoken to him before today. “I worry that Cal is still alive and will find me. I worry that I shouldn’t have escaped from Ritika, even though it’s so much more beautiful here, and so quiet and good. I – I worry that I don’t deserve all this kindness.” She stopped, tears in her eyes that she hoped he didn’t see. Why on earth was she telling him this? What on earth was he supposed to do about any of it? Why did Janetta think he could help me with any of this?
But Mr. Steinman – Victor – didn’t seem bothered by her words, or by the notion that he was supposed to offer her something helpful. He seemed instead to know exactly what she was talking about, and to feel entirely sympathetic toward her. He patted her hands again, and then reached into the bag of bread crumbs and tossed a handful at the collection of pigeons in front of the bench.
“When I was a little boy,” he said, tossing a second handful. “My father and brother disappeared – I learned much later that they were arrested by the Nazis, and killed. My mother and I decided to leave our village, but the Nazis intercepted us, and my mother forced me to run away without her.” He gazed at Laney, who was staring back at him with wide eyes – she had heard of the Nazis, even in Ritika. “I never saw her again,” he went on. “I did as she said, and ran to the west, and I didn’t stop until I got to a city where the Allies were in charge.” He tossed a third handful of crumbs. “It was a long time – looking back, I think it must have been nearly a month. I ate what I could find in the woods, and got sick on that more than a few times; I was always so cold, even when the sun was shining. By the time I found the Allies, I didn’t know who to trust or what to do. I missed my mother, and I didn’t know she had been killed until twelve years later. I just kept hoping and hoping, and relying on the kindness of strangers, and wishing I could go back in time and bring my mother with me out of our village.” He sighed. “It was years before I really landed anywhere, and years more before I had made peace with the fact that I was the last member of our little family.”
Laney was weeping now, unabashedly. “I’ve been so selfish!” she cried. “I – I had no idea!”
Victor laughed, an incongruous sound in the wake of such an emotional story. “It was many long years ago,” he told her. “I lived my life, and made a new family. I have children now, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.” He put his hand on hers again. “My Sonya’s heart gave out seven months ago, and so I’ve been a little sad, but I know I’ll see her again, and my mother and father, and my brother.” He put his arm around Laney’s shoulders. “And I know – because it is what I would have wanted if our places were reversed – that they want me to be happy. My mother sent me into the woods that day so that I could grow up and be happy; it was all she had left.” He leaned close to Laney, and gazed into her eyes. “I have to be happy, for my mother,” he explained. “And you have to be happy, for all the people who wanted that for you.”
Laney blinked tears away. “I left Cal to die,” she said, so quietly that Victor could hardly hear her. “But he wasn’t going to let me go. He was going to pretend to let me go, but then he was going to make me go back to another place like Ritika. I had to leave him. I had to escape.”
Victor understood all too well the feelings she had not put into words. “Yes, you did,” he said. “You did.” He hugged her closer. “And now you have a good life.” He handed her the bag of crumbs. “Cal didn’t have to choose what he chose.”
“Neither did I,” Laney protested. “I could have gone with him, and escaped from him later, somehow.” She sobbed. “But I think – I think – Cal wasn’t a very good person. He wanted to keep everything the way it was, and … I didn’t like the way it was. I don’t think it was very good at all, and people died all the time.” She shook her head forlornly. “But maybe that wasn’t for me to decide.”
“It was yours as much as anyone’s,” Victor told her. “You chose what you chose because you thought it was good. And that’s …” He chuckled, and hugged her tighter. “That’s all we get sometimes. That’s the best we can do.”
She wanted to argue the point – to convince him that she should be sad – but deep down she wanted to believe him. She wanted to be happy, and to have the life that she had found outside of Ritika.
Deep down she knew that Cal would have killed a lot of people if he had been given the chance.
“I am a person?” she asked Victor, terrified of his answer, but needing it all the same.
Victor raised his eyebrows. “Of course you are, my dear,” he assured her. “Of course you are.”
Laney took the bag of breadcrumbs and pulled out a handful. “I want to be okay,” she said, and tossed the crumbs to the eager birds. Even though she didn’t really know Mr. Steinman – Victor – very well, and even though she felt that she had brought up unhappy memories for him, she felt closer to him than to anyone else she had met since she left Ritika. She laid her head down on his shoulder and threw another clump of crumbs.
“I know,” Victor said, patting her shoulder. “You will be.”
They sat for a long time on the bench, feeding the birds, drinking tea and the coffee Janetta eventually brought out to her, and soaking up the sunshine.
The sunshine felt good.
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.