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.
She hadn’t slept all night. Not a wink.
The transport was supposed to be here by now. They had called for it twelve hours ago; she had been told that it would be here by morning. But the sun was peeking over the horizon, and the transport was nowhere to be found.
The platform creaked and groaned, and listed even further to the side. It wouldn’t stand much longer. Not to mention that the whole area was about to be levelled – if they weren’t evacuated in the next two hours, they’d be obliterated under the rubble.
“Are they coming?” she asked.
“No, Laney,” Cal said, exasperated. “Do you hear them? They’re not here. When they’re here, you’ll hear them.” He looked sharply at her. “Have you been trying to get out of your cuffs, Laney?”
“No,” she said. “Why would I do that?”
“Because the liberators made you think you’re a person,” Cal explained. “They made you think I’m wrong. But I’m not. You’re not a person. How could you be? And they don’t have the right to steal from me.”
“I don’t want them to steal me, Cal,” Laney said. “I’m happy with you.” She had been with him for two years now, and she had worked hard to please him. She didn’t always succeed, but he was learning to trust her intentions. He hardly ever had to educate her anymore. And sometimes he even took the cuffs off. But not now, with all the upheaval. The city had been liberated – which meant that everything would be razed, so that something new could be built from the ashes. The liberators had been fighting for this city for four years, and infiltrators had been disseminating propaganda for a long time – we’ll save you, you don’t have to be slaves, the outside world is different. She didn’t know if she believed the propaganda, but it sounded nice.
It really sounded nice.
But the trade-off was war, one that had already demolished the outskirts of the city. Everyone knew that the liberators wasted no time asking questions; if you weren’t available for transport by the time the bombs dropped, then you became part of the ashes.
The propaganda explained that the liberators fought a great evil, and that great evil needed to be swept away, whatever it took.
Laney didn’t know if Cal was evil, but the infiltrators had made the outside world seem so nice. She hadn’t even known there was an outside world before the infiltrators came. Cal said it was all lies … but that didn’t make much sense. There must really be an outside world for the infiltrators to come from. It seemed more like Cal was trying to trick her, the way the propaganda said.
The transport suddenly appeared on the horizon. It roared toward the platform, and all the survivors who had gathered there began cheering. Cal stood and hauled Laney to her feet.
“Come on,” he said roughly, and quickly removed her handcuffs. Her hands hardly knew what to do without the metal chains hooking them together. “We’ll wait til the others are all on the transport,” he told her. “So that no one can argue with us. And we’ll play along, so they don’t get suspicious.”
Laney wasn’t stupid. Cal was exactly the sort of person the liberators didn’t like, and he would only be allowed on the transport if Laney pretended that Cal was a “freedom agent”. After they were brought to the refugee camp, Cal was going to connect with some others who had already done what he was trying to do, and then they were going to escape to a new city where they could live the way they wanted. And they were going to make a stronger city, one that wouldn’t fall to the liberators.
Cal had often talked about how weak the city’s defenses were.
The transport landed, and the other survivors quickly climbed onto it from the swaying platform. Cal pulled Laney up the metal stairs from the little alcove where they had been hiding all night. He peeked through the heavy door that led to the landing pad. “One more minute,” he said. “Then we’ll go.”
“Okay,” Laney said. She looked over her shoulder at the metal stairs. They were quite steep, and went down about twenty feet to the lower level. The lower level had been compromised some time ago, and was now underwater. “Cal?” she said, turning back to him.
“What?” he barked.
She grabbed Cal’s belt – she was very strong, after all, because Cal never did any work if he could help it, and he was too poor to buy more than one wife. Sometimes, when he passed out from drinking, she had been obliged to carry Cal to his bed. Pulling him backwards down the stairs would be easy compared to that.
“I’m sorry,” she said. She yanked him off balance, and shoved him down the metal stairs. Looking more surprised than scared, he fell into the murky water below, and she watched for a few seconds before flinging open the door to the landing pad and running toward the transport. “Wait!” she shouted.
One of the liberators leaned out and reached for her. “We almost left you!” he yelled over the roar of the engines. “Are there any others?”
“No,” Laney said. “I’m the last one.”