She was about as ornery as a donkey, Papa would always say. Fat load of good that did to her, Mama would always snap back. Especially with the war, no one would look at this girl. Maybe after this tragedy of a war, this girl would be suitable for some real use. Then, Mama would turn back into the kitchen, sighing and wringing her hands at the dreary rations and the constant bombing firing above. Ever since Werner had been packed off to war, Mama had done a lot more sighing. But Elena knew that no matter how much she sighed and wished for her darling son instead of the idiot daughter she had, Werner wouldn’t be back anytime soon. The idiotic German soldiers would never cease their attack.
As Elena walked on the forlorn street toward the bakery for their daily ration of bread, she couldn’t help but notice that the soldiers were back again. They always hung around the corner between Krieg Street and Frieden block. She sighed. She was sighing often now, like Mama. Elena shook her head, determined not to become like her anguish-filled mother. Mama had the unfortunate habit of “mourning before.” “Oh, before the war, there was sugar; before the war, there was food; before the war, there was Werner….” But it was no use all the before the war, for the war-plagued their lives no matter which way they turned, and changed life so much, it hurt to think about earlier times.
When she stepped before the bakery, she saw that the soldiers were drunkenly ambling up the street. Soon, they would be right in front of the bakery, no doubt to torment yet another civilian. Elena turned and fled into the bakery not wanting another episode like last time.
Last time, she remembered, had been quite similar. Werner, her brother, had had his head buried in yet another book, was walking down the gray street to the bakery. The soldiers, having one too many whiskeys, were trying to find someone to jostle.
“Look, you awful good for nothing bookworm. Why aren't you fighting? We are dying, yet you are thriving! ” Werner, absorbed in his book, did not look up. “I am talking to you, schwein! You obey your commander, idiot!” Werner had then looked up, only to see a black fist swing. Werner returned bloodied and bruised, but worse, he had hardened emotionally. He had shut himself in their room, packing furiously, refusing to come out even when his darling sister called. The next morning, his bed was empty and Papa’s gun was gone. A simple note on the bed read that he was off to war. Not for the Germans, which was expected, but for the French.
Werner was gone. Her Werner. The Werner who had brought her the red coat that she had cherished so much. She had worn that thing everywhere, the circus, the park, all with his tall, lanky figure by her side. It held thousands of memories, alone and forgotten, cast aside by the enormity of the war. The same Werner who saved his pennies so that they could go to the movies, instead of spending his pennies for himself. The Werner who chose to play hopscotch with her rather than fight with the other boys. Mama had used to say that they were quite the dolls, all dressed up in red and blue, tromping around the war-free town. But that was before he was gone.
She now had to endure thousands of sighs from Mama, who blamed her tears on the chopping of onions; Papa read the newspaper as if nothing had happened, as if his son had not abandoned him and left the empty bed that lay next to her. Every day was the same, the gaping hole in her heart that could only fill if he came home. But it was no use. He wouldn’t be back, because even though Papa said she was the ornery one, Werner was the king of stubbornness. He had always demanded to be king in their little game of servant and ruler, and one time, when Elena had had enough of being the servant, she had demanded to be king. Werner had created the biggest tantrum known to man, so terrible that even Papa had looked up from his paper. Elena had attempted again and yet again to plead with him to give her a little taste of being king but to no avail.
As Elena reminisced, she grabbed the loaf of bread, too stale, but did they have a choice? She pushed the bakery’s door open, walking into the dull building. She glanced out into the street, just when another group of drunken soldiers stumbled their way down the little street. They were singing and dancing, only if you could call their mass of frantically waving arms and screeching sounds singing or dancing. Oh, how she was sick of them, all of them! Walking as if they owned the world, catcalling the girls, stealing the precious butter, oh how she wanted to take off her booten and slap it against their faces! Elena swallowed the hate that burned inside her throat, something that was hotter and more fire filled than the dregs of soup Mama had burned up. With a sense of walking to her death, she realized that she would have to walk past these fools. She tightened her grip on the loaf and started trudging in their direction, her soft boots so worn out that she could feel the inky cobblestones that made up the road.
As she neared them, she couldn’t help but think that one of them, the shortest one, looked a little bit like Werner. The same scrawny chest that spent too many hours reading, the same chocolate brown hair. She shook her head, trying to get rid of the image of her brother’s face. These blasted soldiers were nothing like Werner. Soon, they were right ahead of her. “My, oh my, what lovely creature has God given us now?” The burliest of the men slurred. She ducked her head, trying to ignore them. “Grab her. We’ll take her as a servant and trade her for more food.” The men surrounded her in a tight circle, a pack of wolves narrowing in on the little lamb. She looked over her shoulders, seeing if there anyone, even just one person, who would help her. She tensed up, ready to run if she had to. She knew she wouldn’t make it even if she tried.
She looked up. It was the Werner-boy. What did he want, to taunt her especially, to be the starting act in the show of horrors that was sure to come in her way? “Why are we doing this? She is no use, she’s not pretty enough for anyone to want to buy her.” He gave a look of disgust at the girl dressed in rags. She felt pain, betrayal, a thousand things. This was not Werner, he would never insult her, didn’t he say that she was the most beautiful sister anyone could have?
“Come with me.” The Werner-boy whispered to her. She sniffed his breath for signs of alcohol. Sober. Then was he crazy? Telling her to come with him? There was no way this was Werner, Werner was the smartest boy she knew. “Are you out of your mind?” She wanted to shout but knew that shouting would alert the drunken men of their conversation. They were laughing now, hugging each other for support. “No, I am going to walk you home.” She narrowed her eyes at him. What was he trying to do? “What do you want?” She asked bluntly, afraid to hear his answer. “Why are you walking me home? Why are you here?” She took a deep breath. “What’s your name? And why should I trust you?”
Werner-boy looked at her amusingly. “Let us first walk.” They started shuffling pass the German soldiers who were singing about a poodle. “I am wanting to walk you home to make sure that you aren’t going to be kidnapped. I am here, well, I can't really tell you that.” He smiled. “But you should trust me nonetheless because so far, I haven’t even attempted to kill you. And haven’t you noticed, I have protected you and got you out of the clutches of the soldiers?” He took a bow, smirking. “From where I come from, it’s polite to thank someone for saving one’s life you know.” Elena’s eyes filled with tears, remembering that Werner had had the same endearing scoffs and caustic comments. As they stepped in front of Elena’s house, the Werner-boy also smiled, revealing the same crooked teeth that Werner had. That smile, the one that had reassured her for thousands of time. “Also, because I live here. And yes, my name is Werner, Elena.” They glanced up at the window, seeing Mama and Papa. Mama flung open the door, tears cascading down her cheeks, an unspeakable joy in her face. “You came back, baby.” She stroked Werner’s hair, smiling. Papa threw down his paper, eyes cloudy with tears. “Good job, son.”
If only. At the very same window, Elena set the knife down. She must stop doing this to herself. These fantasies were no good, causing her to only want him more.This one had been the most alive and true one. Every single day, she tricked her mind into thinking of their reunion, if only it would happen. It was a fun game really, thinking of the different scenarios that might happen. They were all so real, she felt like she could reach out and touch his face, listen to his voice one more time. Oh, if only she could have memorized his smells, his habits, all of them! What she would give to see him again. Maybe after the war. Maybe after the war, Mama always said, maybe after the war, people would be happy again, people would know how to love and people would know and have some godforsaken compassion and understand that the only person she really wanted was her Werner. She rolled the bits of onion she had cut, not bothering to wipe her tears. It seemed so long ago since that little girl in the red coat and the growing boy had played in the street. If only they had had more years.