Windsor Avenue was bathed in darkness, the receding light casting a ghostly shadow across every house. The slam of a car door shattered the thunderous silence, causing the observing birds in the large oak trees to twitter in fright.
A woman approached a house on the end of the block, the house being something out of one of her gardening magazines, trim but beautiful nonetheless. She carried herself in a manner that would make the passerby curious of her back-story. Her shoulders supported the weight of the world, yet her posture was uncommonly straight, as if someone had attached her spine to a pole. It was as if she had grown accustomed to the weight always pressing down on her. She made her way up the pathway, carrying several bags bursting at the seams with groceries. Fumbling for her keys, she pushed the quaint, red door open with a tired sigh.
“Mom? I’m here with the groceries.”
The house did not reply. Not seeing any movement in the living room, she strode into the adjacent kitchen, flipped on the light and cautiously set the bags on a table in the middle of the room.
A peculiar sound resonated from the darkened hallway leading to the bedrooms in the back of the four story. The woman started to mechanically unpack the groceries, roughly opening cabinets and drawers to try to fit the assortment of food into the kitchen. The shuffling sound coming from the hallway stopped abruptly.
“Herta, is that you?” a voice creaked.
“No mom, it’s me, Liesel,” responded the woman, still haphazardly stacking the food in the cupboards.
A woman emerged from the darkness, blinking her unfocused, blue eyes, her back curled, creating the illusion that she was folding into herself. Wrinkles furrowed her brow.
“Oh Herta, thank you! I’ve been so busy today, and dinner... What would I do without you?”
The old woman sat down, her joints creaking and her body becoming part of the chair.
The young woman turned around from where she rested her elbows on the fake marble counter, her face in her hands. She then sat down at the table, across from her mother, an empty grocery bag in between them. She took her mother's fragile hands into her own, feeling the thin layer of skin and muscle clinging to the bone.
“Mama, it's me, Liesel, your daughter,” reassured Liesel.
“What game are you playing with me Herta, it’s you, Herta Huber, my housekeeper.” A flash of confusion bounded across the mother’s face. With tears threatening to spill down her cheeks, Liesel gave in.
“Yes ma’am, I’m here with the groceries.” Liesel stood up, wiping her eyes on her sleeve with one quick motion.
“You know, Herta, something strange is going on with Frederich. He isn’t acting like himself. All this secrecy,” she scoffed, “Is it really necessary? I’m his wife after all.”
Liesel's ears perked up, “Frederich, my father,” she thought.
Liesel had never known her father, her mother never talked about him or what had happened that would make him leave. As a kid, she had always had questions but they were buried after she had asked one day and her mother had gone into a fury that she still remembered.
“Could it be because of his work?” questioned Leisel.
“I suppose–the secrets started after he got his promotion. Now that he is closer to Hitler, there have been more SS men around the house.”
Liesel stopped trying to put away the groceries. Her hand froze on the cupboard handle. She suspected that her mother had something to do with the Nazis, considering how much she wanted to cut ties with anything and everything German. Liesel had never considered the possibility that her mother was just trying to scrub the blood off of her hands, but maybe it was her father who started spilling blood in the first place.
Her mother interrupted her thoughts, “Speaking of Friedrich, he is at an important event tonight, it will just be dinner for one.”
“Yes Ma’am, I will get on that,” responded Leisel, eager to be alone with her thoughts.
“I will be resting in my bedroom until then.” Her mother heaved herself up onto her feet and scuffled away, back from where she had come, down the deep dark hallway and back into the past.
Liesel took the carrots out of the fridge, started chopping the celery in swift motions and dragged a large red pot from under the sink, making both the cheap wood of the cabinets and her back creak. With a clang, she set the large pot onto the stove, her muscles quaking with strain.
As the stew cooked, she poured herself a glass of rich red wine, which she had found shoved behind some cleaning solution in the back of the cabinet above the stove. Liesel stirred the stew, laughing to herself, “How did I become so entangled in my mother’s delusions? Herta Huber? Who am I?” Chortling, she sipped the wine, lulling her thoughts about her father until they were just a distant memory of a bad dream.
“Mom! Dinner’s ready!” shouted Liesel to the dark hallway. Again, the shuffling of feet reminded Liesel that she wasn't alone in the house.
“Ah, thank you, this looks delicious,” she praised.
Liesel did not speak, not knowing who her mother thought she was and not wanting to upset her again.
“Herta, sit down, take a load off. You must be tired looking after all those children of yours.” Liesel nodded, and took the seat across from her mother, studying her carefully.
“Is there anything I can do for you... and Friedrich?” pushed Liesel. Her mother gulped down the soup that she had hastily shoved into her mouth, eager to reply.
“There have been whispers about the Fuhrer, the death camps in the east, with chimneys emitting smoke so black it blots out the sky. I assume you have heard of these such rumors.”
Liesel nodded, afraid of what she was going to hear. Her mother leaned into the table, putting her head closer to Liesel’s and looking around, as if someone was watching her. Sour breath assaulted Liesel’s face, and she tried not to cringe as she looked into her mother’s eyes.
“When you clean his study, look for a black, bound ledger. When you find it, bring it to me, immediately. Tell no one.”
“Yes ma’am, discreet is my middle name.” Liesel's mother looked at her quizzically, but dismissed the joke with a wave.
“Thank you for the dinner, Herta. It was delicious, and I trust that you will keep this to yourself.” Liesel nodded yet again.
She put away the dishes and started to run the dishwasher.
“What had become of Herta Huber and her children?” Leisel sighed, overwhelmed by how many questions she had and how few answers her mother’s dementia riddled brain would give out.
Grabbing her book from her purse, she headed into the dark living room, flicked on a lamp and plopped onto the couch, sinking into it. With a sigh, she started to read, the tightness in her shoulders slowly unwinding. Leisel soon dozed off to a fitful sleep, full of dreams of masked monsters, dark billowing smoke and chicken stew.
“Can you believe it?” cried a voice, perforating the nightmare gripping Liesel's mind with terror. She bolted upright, giving a shrill scream, when she realized that the voice had come from a shrouded figure sitting next to her. Her heart stopped until she realized with embarrassment that it was her mother, swaddled in her favorite pink robe, sitting beside her.
“Mama! You gave me a scare!” she rested her hand on her chest, willing her heart to slow down.
“Ilse, calm down, it's just me,” reassured her mother.
“Ilse?” stammered Liesel, caught off guard by this new addition to the ghosts of her mother’s past.
“Are you feeling alright?” Her mother put a hand on her forehead, feeling for an imaginary fever, “you're not acting like yourself.”
“I’m fine,” she piped, swatting her mother’s hand away from her forehead.
“Maybe this is when I find out the truth about my father,” thought Liesel, a knot tangling itself in her stomach. “What were you saying before?” she asked cautiously, pressing her mother into talking.
“Remember how I told you about how I asked the housekeeper to snoop in Friedreich's office for anything that might give me some reassurance that his activity with the Fuhrer was nothing to be worried about?” she asked.
Liesel nodded, her full attention focused on her mother.
“Well…” her mother's voice broke, tears starting to accumulate in her cloudy eyes. “She found something, something, terrible,” she gulped, unable to continue.
“What did she find?” inquired Leisel.
“Not a ledger, like I said she would, but a journal. A journal full of terrible things.” Liesel's mother shuddered and then continued, choosing her words carefully. “It described Hitler’s plan for Germany, and the slaughter of millions.” Liesel’s breath was caught in her throat, and her heart hammered painfully.
“Ilse, you mustn't utter a word about this to anyone, I’m making arrangements to flee the country before things turn bad.”
“But what of Friedrich? And your family?” demanded Liesel. Her mother shook her head, “I refuse to let my baby, my Leisel, grow up in this world that I so fear. The only option is to leave.” Liesel had found her answer and it all made sense to her now.
“I love you,” cried Leisel, embracing her mother tightly, breathing in the scent of comfort, the scent of home that even after forty years hadn’t faded. And then, Liesel's mother went limp.
“Mom, Mom! Wake up! Mama, don’t leave, not now.” Crying into her mother’s hair, Liesel wished desperately, to any god who was listening, to not let this be the time. She put two fingers to her mom’s neck, a faint pulsing coursed through her fingertips. She then laid her mother’s limp figure down on the couch and straightened the pillows. Leisel ran into the kitchen, practically tearing the landline off the wall; she dialed 9-1-1 as fast as her fingers could function. She quickly gave the calm voice on the phone an address and urged them to hurry. Suddenly she heard a voice, faint, but urgent.
“Liesel, Liesel, where are you?” whimpered her mother. Liesel ran into the living room, hurrying over to her mother, whose eyes were miraculously open. She knelt by the weathered, green couch and her mother began to talk.
“Schatz, honey, I can feel this clarity fading. There are many things I must tell you about, but I am afraid we don’t have enough time for all of them.”
“Mama, I know about my father,” revealed Liesel. Her mother simply nodded.
“But there are things you don’t know,” she sighed. “Your father was a complicated man, and he had his faults, but he loved you dearly and was so excited for you to be born. I fled from his ideals, not from him. Before the war he was a gentleman, kind, and sensitive. The Fuhrer hardened him into a soldier. He required a heartless man to do his bidding and that is what your father became.” Her mother grimaced, “but never doubt that he loved you, ever,” she paused to catch her breath. “And never doubt that I love you either, because you, you are everything to me, my little Maus.”
Darkness descended upon Windsor Avenue, the birds tittered in the trees and a daughter sat next to her mother, in the trim house on the end of the block, waiting.
Olivia (14), a Portland-native, is writing her first novel.