‘Kleine Menschen’ by Eric Jackson

Eric Jackson is a writer and musician from New York City. His literary work focuses on Science Fiction and Fantasy. It is his contention that these genres have an integral and necessary place in the world that can create a better future and help cultures and people coexist peacefully. When he’s not writing about dragons and spaceships, he’s composing experimental ambient music. Visit him at www.ericjacksonarts.com

Kleine Menschen

by Eric Jackson

Hannover, Germany, 1942

Marie knew every last word of the story, though it was never the same twice. Each time Gretel shoved the Old Witch into the oven, her heart almost stopped. She turned each page with her fingers carefully; no folds or tears would do. The book was Father’s last gift before he went off to war.

Suddenly it was snatched from her hands. Reaching for her crutches, she struggled to her feet. Gerhardt was racing down the lawn before her, towards the barn, her book in his hands.

‘Gerhardt!’ she called after her brother as she made the foolish attempt to catch up to him. ‘Stop it!’ she shouted, ‘Give it back!’ Even without crutches, Gerhardt was always faster. His stupid freckled face looked back with a wide toothy grin. He snorted as he laughed, like a pig.

‘You can’t catch me!’ he taunted and flew into the empty barn, slamming the door shut behind him.

These damn crutches, she was too slow. She smacked her crutch against the barn door. ‘Gerhardt! Why do you always play like this?’

He did nothing more than giggle from behind the door. He wasn’t going to get away easily this time. She hobbled her way around to the other side, where the broken panel was, this time she’d give him two black eyes.

Better yet, she thought, I’ll scare him! Jump out and scream behind his back. But Marie knew that with the crutches and her ankle, she’d be doing no jumping. At least she could scream.

Marie nudged the wooden panel out of the way with her good foot and squeezed inside. Out of the sunlight, she’d forgotten how dark the barn was. She cautiously waved one crutch in front of her before taking each step, ‘Now I’m blind too,’ Marie said under her breath.

An odd sound trailed through the darkness and the smell of old things. It sounded almost like a chirping, but Marie couldn’t remember the last time they’d kept animals here.

‘Gerhardt?’ Marie said. The chirping vanished quickly, ‘I know it’s you.’ she called out.

Before she could take another step, a growing roar filled the air. The wooden walls of the barn shook, and the sound grew even louder.

Marie clapped her hands over her ears, the sound was unbearable. Her crutches fell to the ground. The roar was unmistakable: another American plane. She cried out, but even she couldn’t hear herself under its patriotic thunder. Frightened, she shut her eyes and tried to calm herself. She bent down, grabbed her crutches, and tottered back the way she came.

Mother was outside the house, standing on the porch, waving her arms frantically. Gerhardt was running just ahead of her, but he turned around to help her up the stairs. Together, everyone flew into the house and Mother shut all the windows—as if such a thing would protect them from bombs. If only it were that easy, Marie thought, she’d still have a school to go to.

Pictures, some of Father and his friends, fell from the walls along with candles on the mantle. But it was with great relief that the sound of the plane faded away and no bombs had fallen. Though Marie wondered how much longer she’d have God to thank for that.

§

Mother scolded Gerhardt at dinner for what he did earlier: taking Marie’s book. But somehow, Marie didn’t care anymore. She could only think of the roar of the plane. She could only wonder about what other sounds of machines and war could be out there. Sounds that Father must have known well by now.

As Mother cleared the table, Gerhardt lowered his head and said, ‘I’m sorry.’

‘Again, you’re sorry,’ Marie said, ‘like last time?’

Gerhardt said nothing.

‘You were going to scare me’ Marie continued, ‘I heard you sneaking.’ She recalled the sounds from the barn; it had to be him.

Gerhardt’s eyes widened and he shook his head, ‘Noooo,’ he said, loud enough so Mother would hear him from the kitchen. He was supposed to be the older one. ‘I was behind the door the whole time,’ he insisted. ‘Were you even in the barn?’

‘I squeezed through the stupid panel.’

Gerhardt nodded and said, ‘Oh.’

Yet he insisted, ‘But I wasn’t going to scare you, nope-nope.’ He licked the last bit of butter from his knife. He was telling the truth, Marie realized. He was too stupid to lie.

§

There were no éclairs after dinner that night. There hadn’t been for weeks. Mother stayed out on the porch, the lit end of her cigarette glowing in the night; a weighted exhale of smoke, a woman waiting, hoping. Gerhardt played with his trucks in the living room, and Marie disappeared to her room.

With the door closed, and the lamp out, she gazed up at the stars from her window. The endless field of stars.

‘Wonder what it’s like all the way up there?’ she said to her stuffed bear, Thomas. ‘Wish I could go to them, the stars.’ Though the idea was as silly as the stuffed bear actually understanding her words, she still wished it were possible. ‘Of course I’d take you with me,’ she said to Thomas and kissed him on the forehead.

Light broke the horizon, out on the road. Marie squinted to see: it was a dim set of lights. Headlights. A car? She opened the window and stuck her head out, hoping Mother wouldn’t see from below; she’d never hear the end of it. But she was careful. She wouldn’t fall again.

The only time anyone was on these roads was early in the morning, when Gunther would deliver the milk. She leaned out of the window further, stretching her neck higher, as if she could see from the height of the stars.

More lights!

Not cars, but trucks. An entire line of them! She could count at least seven, maybe more. Marie watched as they drove on, silently, in the distance. Even after they were gone, she continued to watch the roads for a bit longer, in case they came back.

The road stayed in shadows.

Her eyes turned back to the stars, until she and Thomas both fell asleep.

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