There's a knock on the door.
That's something you usually don't want to hear past midnight around here. I try to convince my sister, Gretchen—well, my step-sister—to leave it alone, to pretend she didn't hear it, but my pleadings fall on deaf ears.
"You know it won't stop them. If they want to enter, they'll enter. I don't want to have to fix a broken-down door on your account."
I gulp, but drop the issue. I know she's right. Plus, there's no way she'd fix the door. That task would fall on me, anyways. Everything always does. It's the only reason they haven't ratted me out yet.
Gretchen shoos me into the space under the floorboards that serves as my shelter whenever unwanted company rolls around—though sometimes I think they invent make-believe intruders, just so they can get me out of the way, occasionally for hours at a time—and hurries her way back to the entrance, each click of her heels sending a small army of dust particles raining down on me.
"Just a second!" Gretchen calls out cordially, her voice high and fake. I snigger sardonically. There's nothing real about her or my other step-sister, Lorelei, from their perfectly powdered faces to their dirndl dresses and modernly-styled hair. They, along with my step-mother, have worked tirelessly for years to rejoin the upper crust of German society, wiping every last smudge from their otherwise pristine family history. Marrying my father, and by relation taking me in, was a mistake in their eyes, a stain on a perfectly white shirt. Even an ocean of the purest of blood can be tainted by a single drop of filth, they often say.
So, why do they keep me? Now that my father has been taken only the devil knows where? Well, someone has to do the dishes. No family of status is complete without ‘hired’ help. But harboring a Jew is as good as a capital crime, nowadays.
Hence the floorboards.
The door opens and I hear two sets of boots make their way into our home. I recognize the boots. Heavy, heel irons, the crinkling sound of well-kept leather. It’s definitely not the neighbors asking for sugar. Not that I’d expect any of the neighbors to venture anywhere near our house.
“Good evening, Herr Fiehler. Please, come in,” Gretchen says, her voice dripping with piety. “To what do we owe the pleasure of your presence?”
“I was in the neighborhood, Fräulein Shäfer,” he answers, his voice low and even. “I thought I’d drop by and check on your mother. I hardly saw her at the ball last night.”
Karl Fiehler. Reichsleiter Fiehler, to be proper. Second to the Fuhrer alone. A prince to the King of Hell, as it were. In my eyes, simply one of the many heads of the proverbial Hydra that took my father from me. Yesterday night, he was host to a party in Vienna held by the Nazis to honor the fall of France, and when I heard that he would be here, in Austria, I just couldn’t stay home and let the opportunity pass me by.
The opportunity to kill him, that is.
It didn’t end up working out, as you can see.
That night, I unleashed the best of my irresistible charms, one of the few traits I inherited from my mother, and managed to capture his attention for much of the night. Fortune had been smiling on me; I had my forged Aryan papers, the contraband invites to the event, the vial of poison. But when the time came to deliver my venomous blow, Herr Fiehler was abruptly called off by one of his advisors to attend to some urgent business, and the fatal cup of wine was delivered to the sewers instead.
“Oh, I wasn’t aware that you took notice of any of us that night,” I hear Lorelei say as she makes her way gracefully down the stairs. “You seemed occupied with other company.”
“Yes, well. Your mother has always attracted my attention with her…unique tastes.”
I feel like gagging, a product of the dust swirling around my coffin-like confined space and the repulsive sound of Fiehler’s voice. But the tense silence that has fallen on the room is deafening, and any noise I make now would give me away. Finally, after several drawn out moments where I’m almost tempted to lift up the floorboard and peak out to make sure I’m not being pranked again, I hear Gretchen clear her throat and speak.
“Well, mother is away tonight with family, but is there anything we can help you with? Perhaps tea? Please, join us in the living room for a moment.”
“No, that’s alright. We won’t be long.”
I hear them take a few more steps deeper into the house. The door closes behind them, followed by the rustle of a jacket.
“You know, the woman I entertained for much of that night was very interesting, to say the least,” Herr Fiehler continues. “Quite flattering, though she spoke critically of my accomplishments, expressed her views of German politics and the like. An extraordinarily educated woman.”
I smile. I admit, I had my fun with Fiehler before making my attempt on his life. My father was a prominent figure around Vienna before everything, a well known businessman with status and position with the local government. He took pride in ensuring my education was on par with the other boys my age, even exceeding in most cases, and every day at breakfast he would discuss current events with me before heading off to work. That was before my step family. That was before he was taken away.
“She seems lovely,” Lorelei comments, disdain and jealousy saturating her tone.
“Seems. Yes. Quite the foxy minx, as it turns out. See, I had to step out for a moment at one point, and when I returned, she was gone. Disappeared without so much as saying goodbye, but not before leaving this behind.”
My heart freezes. What did I leave behind? Not the vial, surely. I disposed of that in the river on my way home. The wine? I watched them dump it out.
Then, I realize what he must have taken from his pocket, what he’s showing my step-sisters right now, and I feel my stomach drop down to my toes. I touch the necklace resting on my chest as I lie staring up at the dirty planks of wood, already certain of what I’ll find. My father gave me a necklace with a locket attached to it when my mother died. It has a miniature photograph of her inside, one of my most valued possessions and something I keep well out of reach of my step-sisters and well maintained. Though, nowadays, the hinge has come loose, and I’ve been waiting for the cover to accidentally fall off for months now. Sure enough, when I run my finger along the locket, I feel the smooth surface of the tiny photo rather than the cold touch of its metallic cover.
Normally, this wouldn’t bother me. But as it happens, there’s a bright and bold Star of David on the cover. On the cover that Herr Fiehler is currently holding. Herr Fiehler, Prince of Hell. Enemy to the Jews.
I can tell the blood has drained from my step-sisters’ faces, just as it has drained out of mine. All I can hope for is that they don’t make their anxiety too obvious. My life is on the line as much as theirs are.
“Fräuleins, I have to ask. What is a nice German family like yours doing in this part of town? A Jewish Ghetto? You must be quite the minority here.”
“We’ve lived here since before the Great War. Our father built this house himself. We just can’t bring ourselves to leave it.”
“Ah yes, your father. Stefan Shäfer. The war hero.”
There’s another pause, and I’d almost be annoyed with how much time he’s wasting with drama at two in the morning, if I weren’t so utterly terrified.
“You know, he made quite a legacy for the Shäfer family name. Paid the ultimate price. Gave himself for his country, and for his family. It would be a shame if his sacrifice were to go to waste.”
“We try to honor his name,” Gretchen says with a wavering voice. I can tell her jaw is trembling the way it does every time she’s angry or scared.
“Indeed. Then I’m sure you’d be more than happy to help me find the rest of this, wouldn’t you? I would very much like to locate the owner, and I’m sure there’s only one perfect fit for it. I can’t imagine a better place to begin our quest than with the only guests from that night who have your…legacy.”
He knows. He knows about my father, about his heritage, his faith, about the marriage of convenience, about me. Will they give me up now? Or are they so oblivious to Fiehler’s blatant innuendo, his clear attempts at disguising accusation, that they don’t know they’ve been cornered?
“Of course we would. How can we help?” Lorelei asks in a voice little louder than a whisper. I exhale silently, waiting to see how her response will be received. It can’t be enough. Not to convince anyone of their innocence.
“Search the house,” Fiehler finally commands, presumably to the owner of the other set of boots I heard coming in the house.
“No, please!” Gretchen pleads, and I hear her take several urgent steps forward. “It’s late. I’m sure you have other places to be.”
Silence again. I’ve stopped breathing, as I’m sure Gretchen has too. This was obviously the wrong move, most likely a fatal one. If Fiehler had any doubts before coming here tonight, I’m sure they’re gone now. Then, I hear a soft chuckle, a deep, condescending laugh that’s almost a growl, an omen of things to come. His next words hardly come as a surprise.
And that’s when I realize I’ve been a terrible fool. And soon, I’ll be nothing more than ash.