Jenean McBrearty is a graduate of San Diego State University, a former community college instructor who taught Political Science and Sociology, and is finishing a certificate in Veteran Studies. Her fiction has been published in a slew of print and on-line journals including Cigale Literary Magazine, 100 Doors to Madness Anthology, Mad Swirl and The Moon, and her poetry has been accepted by Van Gogh’s Ear and Page & Spine. Her photographs have appeared in Foliate Oak Literary Journal and Off the Coast Magazine among others.  Her novel, The 9th Circle was published by Barbarian Books.

 

Storybook History

Every room was a camera lens. Even the bathroom. Toilets were enclosed in curtained off areas, and before people squat, they hit a timer installed above the commode, and made sure they concluded their business forthrightly. Men especially. Women, it was believed, needed twice the allotted time owing to peculiarities of their bodies. Still, they were expected to pay heed to the demands of the clock and pay homage to state-sanctioned regularity: each clock had a slot for a quarter, like a parking meter. But unlike a parking meter, the clock chimed when the coin went clunk! and issued a reward in the form a digital receipt. Honoring time reaped a monthly dividend of points added to one’s P2IA—personal Integrity Inventory Account—and it was this P&L statement that, at the end of one’s life cycle, determined one’s fitness for heaven.
Quarters were dispensed by the National Health Exchanges that, by law, were strategically located so that no citizen was more than two blocks away from a healthcare provider. Getting one’s allotment for the week by visiting the exchange where one was registered guaranteed that everyone’s health was religiously monitored by a trained professional. It also guaranteed that people did not move around, willy-nilly. If you didn’t want someone else to get your credits, you used your own bathroom or entered your P2IIA into the strange potty-box clock before depositing your quarter.
“Ingenious, wouldn’t you say?” Senator Silvers said the day he introduced the newest health-care provision of the Affordable Care Act of 2009. “Coupling a universal daily biological function with money and spiritual worthiness strengthens the organic relationship of the citizen to the state. Sociology tells us it’s the basis of capitalism, why not make it work for social justice?”
A resounding hurrah drowned out the “harumph” from the back of the Senate Chamber. One lone official from the State of South Carolina, Senator Davis, voted no on a roll-call vote designed to ferret out future opposition. He would have been officially sanctioned if he hadn’t been 86 years old and dying of COPD suffocation. By 88, he’d begun to reflect on his mortality and question his own worthiness for heaven, and chose, appropriately, the P2IIA PIN of 6667&.
****
“I was told that when he was on his death-bed, Senator Davis tried to stuff his last quarter into the alarm clock on his nightstand in desperation, and uttered the words ‘thy will be done but not to me’ before he sank back into his pillows and expired.” Saucy Davis was staring into the deepest brown eyes she’d ever seen and felt love tug at her abdomen. “Did I tell you my not-so-great great uncle five times removed was Jefferson Davis?”
Paul inhaled another hit of medical marijuana and wished he’d sat next to the redhead. “I don’t remember. Who’s Jefferson Davis?”
“President of the Confederacy. You know, the Civil War guy.”
He’d sat next to Saucy because the redhead had ordered fish and he knew it wasn’t safe to eat the fish at the San Diego State University Commons. His work-study position his freshman year was Food Delivery, meaning he worked the line and dished out questionable, albeit, free, nourishment. He’d also heard rumors that Saucy had the answer code for the Race, Gender, Class and Peace Studies final, the only class that required a final and a passing grade to graduate. Most people put off the requirement until their senior year, but Saucy was a senior this year and wouldn’t be around if he found himself unable to concentrate. He’d chosen chicken and Saucy to be on the safe side.  “Which Civil War?”
“We’ve only had one. 1860.”
He didn’t remember that either. “What about the one in the 1960s?”
Saucy accidentally nudged him with her toe when she crossed her legs under the table. “No, that was the social/sexual revolution.”
“I’m impressed. People told me you were the go-to gal for information. They were right.”
“You mean correct. Or accurate. Right is a political persuasion.”
Paul saw her bat her slow-motion eyelashes. He might have to screw her to get that answer key, but that wouldn’t be too bad. She was attractive. He didn’t want to do it in public—well at least not in the cafeteria. Maybe in the quad or the unisex bathroom. “You ready for the final?” He knew the answer. People who ate tofu turkey and didn’t smoke dope were always ready. That’s why the professors trusted them with keys to their file cabinets.
“You need some tutoring?”
“I could use something about now.” He rubbed her leg with his shoe and managed a watery-eyes smile. Some women believed a smile meant ‘I like you’. He waited for her to return the smile with one of her own, but Saucy reached into her tote bag and brought out her #10 kindle. She must not have noticed him staring at the contraband he’d caught sight of: a book. Not a soul’s ledger or a traveler’s journal—nostalgic trinkets parents bought their prepubescent daughters and gay sons—but a book with a spine and a hard cover. A book that, if discovered, could get Saucy kicked out of school. A book that could be leveraged for an answer key. He looked at her empty desert bowl. She liked chocolate tofu ice cream. “The guy serving the ice cream is Rudy. Tell him Paul sent you, and he’ll give you a second helping of this.” He tapped the bowl with his spoon and it went ping, ping. “We’re pals, me and him.” It was true when it came to women.
She finally smiled. “Really?”
“No quarter needed.” She left for the line and he maneuvered the tote nearer to him and dropped his napkin. He bent down to pick it up and confirmed his suspicion. It was a book with a “Property of SDSU” label. It meant she was one of the few students who had been to the catacombs. He’d screw her alright, and claim bragging rights to his fraternity brothers about a conquest of true forbidden fruit. The words Golden Fleece popped into his head.
****
“Kitty comes from good stock, but she’s not built for motherhood.” That’s what Max said at Horst’s bachelor drunk. Two pints of Veltins and he became an honest man.
“She’s not a horse,” Horst reminded him.
“She’s high strung. Willful. Dangerous traits in a woman,” Klaus said, and Max gave him a neck hug.
“Listen to Klaus, my friend. Look who he’s shacked up with. A hot theater arts student who’s had two abortions already.”  Max waved to the waiter and held up three fingers.
“So, Valerie’s talented and careless,” Horst said.
“No, she’s just  incredibly fertile,” Klaus said, “and I’m incredibly lucky.”
“Here’s to fertile crescents,” Max toasted and frowned as the two women walked toward them. “Send them home,” he whispered. “They’re harpies.”
“And you’re a pouf, but we don’t hold it against you,” Klaus said.
“That’s because you know I’ll blow you when she has her monthly visitor.” Max planted a sloppy kiss on Klaus’ cheek. Valerie rolled her eyes and Klaus pulled her next to him.
Kitty gave Horst a peck on the cheek and stole a sip of his beer. “You all look so guilty. Naughty boys. You too, Max. Where’s your boyfriend? The one who rides the motorcycle?”
Max’s lips tensed to a pout. “Peter’s working. He’s turned into such a German. He’s no fun anymore.”
Kitty was rubbing her hand up Horst’s thigh. Let his comrades tease him about her. He liked the way she let him know she thought he was sexy. He pressed his thighs together so she would feel the strength of his muscles, trapping her hand as it traveled to his crotch.
“You should thank God he’s not pimping you out to the Hitlerjugend like your last one,” Valerie said. Her eyes were heavy with mascara and blue-glitter eye-shadow. She’d been practicing a revue number for her theater class while Kitty did an accounting assignment.
“Go easy on him, girls. Max knows he’ll have to settle down like the rest of us. Peter’s a good bet. A Jewish mench who saves his money,” Horst said.
“Hitler’s turned us all into  bourgeoisie and I hate that. So, I’m going home.” Valerie grabbed her purse and hooked Klaus’ arm.
The waiter had threaded through the crowd with a pitcher balanced on a tray above his head. Kitty was tugging at Horst’s hand.
“But the beer…” Max said.
“Bye all.” Horst said and let himself be dragged away from the table.
“Ring me tomorrow, Love,” Valerie said as the happy couple headed to  the door, but they didn’t look back. “Okay, we’ll finish the beer.”
****
The phone rang at seven o’clock.  Kitty elbowed Horst, but he mumbled, “They’ll call back”, and rolled over. She reached over him and grabbed the receiver.
“What? Slow down, Valerie.” She crawled over Horst and slid to the floor, groping for paper and pen. “Yes, I have it. I’ll call.”
“What is it?” Kitty was rifling through her drawer for clean underwear.
“The Gestapo came by Klaus’ this morning. Thank God Valerie was in bed with him or they would have arrested him too.”
Horst was awake now, fishing for clean clothes too. “Arrest him for what? He’s a university student who drinks and studies sometimes.”
Kitty snapped their towels from a hook on the back of the closet door. “For being a homosexual. They’ve taken Max. Valerie can’t reach Peter, so…”
“That’s ridiculous.”
“That’s the Nuremberg Laws. Peter’s a Jew. The Nazis are rounding up homosexuals and people suspected of having Jewish and communist sympathies.”
“Well, that qualifies Peter and Max.” Horst followed her to the shower. They were each allowed one a day; doubling up meant they could go to bed clean. They lathered and rinsed quickly and ran shivering down the hall, foregoing a morning screw. A half hour later they were sitting with Klaus and Valerie at Le Chat waiting on coffee and croissants.
Valerie was still shaking. “Mostly they wanted to know if Max had ever attended political meetings. Of course he has. He writes for the university newspaper. And Peter? Max is right. He supports Hitler 100%.”
“His father fought for the Kaiser in the Ardennes,” Klaus added.
Kitty held her finger to her lips to silence them. “Let’s not talk here.”
Horst laughed gently. “Can the drama, ladies. We’ll all go down to Gestapo headquarters and explain they’ve made a mistake and take Peter and Max to lunch.” Kitty shot him a warning glare, and he shrugged his shoulders. “Or not.”
“Kitty’s right,” Valerie said. “The Gestapo aren’t the police. Tell them they’ve made a mistake and they’ll shoot you or send you to a camp. I’ve heard about those places.”
“From whom?” Horst said.
“From the families of the Jewish art students, that’s who. They say those camps are terrible.”
“What do you think, Klaus?” Horst said. A black-coated man seated himself at a the table next to theirs. Klaus shifted his gaze to him and then back to Horst.
“Things change when you think they’re going to take you. It was all I could do not to shit my pajamas.”
Outnumbered, Horst paid the tab. For the first time in his life, he felt afraid to walk the streets of Berlin, but dismissed his fear as hysteria contamination when they were safely inside a university study room.
****
“This is the basement of old Love Library.” Saucy led him through the new underground Drake Library to a door marked Staff and Faculty Only. “You can’t smoke in here. The fire sensors are 20th century sensitive.” She separated one key from the five on a ring, and unlocked the door. “Not all the books were destroyed in the purge.”
Paul gasped seeing the ceiling to floor book cases that filled the room, their shelves stuffed tight with volumes of all sizes and colors. “I thought all books were digitized and burned to save the trees.”
“That’s what everybody thinks, but some of these texts are worth a fortune and President Drake knows it. She put a large edition of Art of the Renaissance on a wooden table and opened the cover. “Go ahead, look through it.”
“It’s safe to touch it?”
“Of course. How else are you going to turn the pages?” She disappeared, the brown-covered book in hand. He paid her no mind, becoming engrossed in the full-color plates. It was almost like having the canvasses in front of him.
“You might want to read this,” Saucy said, and put a paperback volume in front of him. He set aside the art book and opened the cover of Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. “It’s not scholarly, but it’s close enough to scare the hell out of you.”
“It’s a horror story?”
“One of the best.”
Had an hour passed, or five? Paul wasn’t sure, but Saucy was back at the table with a red book she’d traded for the brown one in her tote. “Did this stuff really happen?”
“That’s why it’s called history.”
“But how did it happen? Why did it happen? I’ve never heard about death camps or Hitler’s bodyguards. I didn’t know the war was so big and took so long.” He closed the cover. “I know why. It’s all so sad. This whole room is nothing but one long sad story. He saw astonishment in her eyes. “What?”
“Nothing. I guess you missed the part about the book burning. Let’s go.”
He took Shirer’s book to the shelf and chose one at random and slid it into Saucy’s tote. She hadn’t directly challenged him, but his buzz was gone and so was his desire for a quick screw. He ought to read one book in his life just to prove he was as smart as she was, though obviously he wasn’t.
****
Kitty and Horst got married two weeks after Kitty’s pregnancy was confirmed. “Herr Hitler will be pleased to know you’re doing your part to prepare for his war,” Doctor Meier had told her. “Hope for a healthy boy.” When she said I do, she was acknowledging more than her willingness to be a good wife. A loyal citizen, she’d promised to serve her Fuhrer as all good Aryan wives had done for the past five years. Max and Peter, she convinced herself, were doing the same thing in their own way. Max at Buchenwald and Peter…no one was really sure where he or his parents had been sent.
Klaus believed they’d been murdered. His determined distrust of Nazi propaganda made him unpopular and dangerous. So much so that Valerie threatened to leave him. “Wait until after the wedding,” Kitty pleaded, but Valerie said she wasn’t going to risk arrest for anybody’s big day. “Horst, talk to him,” Kitty said in desperation. “He’s traumatized is all.”
“You women make a mountain out of every dirt clod,” he’d said. “Things are better in Germany than they’ve been in years. Six months ago I was an unemployed engineering graduate student and today I’m working in munitions design and making enough money for marriage and a family. Thank-you Herr Hitler. Maybe Klaus did have a thing for Max, the way he mopes over him.”
Valerie winced. “I’ll talk to him,’ Kitty said and went round his flat. Klaus was listening to the radio and drinking beer in a shuttered room.  “If you really believe the Nazi’s are wolves in black uniforms, why piss them off? Keep your mouth shut. That’s all Valerie’s asking for. A little caution until this Czech problem gets solved.”
Klaus went to the closet and brought back a shoebox filled with photos of the six of them on holiday in Bavaria. “You recognize these people? I don’t. They were friends.” He was sweating and needed a shave. “This Valerie, who is she? She was here the morning they came pounding on the door. They asked me questions about Max—had I ever seen his privates? What kind of question is that? Obscene. Okay, he’s a pouf, but harmless and doesn’t deserve to be jammed into a truck like an animal and carted off to a relocation center.”
“Is that what’s bothering you? The men we saw being loaded on the truck?”
“Did you see their clothes. There’s a mark on everything. Yellow star for Jew. Pink triangle for Homosexual. I’m a Lutheran. What’ll I wind up with a blue octagon? Maybe your baby will wear a red circle.”
“That’s a frightful thing to say. No mother wants to hear that.” Kitty wrapped her arms around her swelling belly. “You’re a cruel man, Klaus.”
“I’m sure Peter’s mother felt the same way when they dragged her boy off to a death camp. God, why didn’t we go to the Gestapo and tell them Max wasn’t queer? We might have convinced them. Since when do loyal citizens have to be afraid of the police? ”
But his words had stung. “Why didn’t you go? Because Valerie said no? Because Horst had to study for an exam and I was going to meet my mother at the florist?” She shoved the beer bottles off the table with a sweep of her arm, and they collided like ten-pins before crashing to the floor. Only one broke.
Klaus covered his face and sobbed into his hands. “Because I’m a coward. A dirty coward. I hate myself and I hate all of you. If we’d gone together we wouldn’t have been afraid.  If they’d arrested me, would any of you would have vouched for me?”
Kitty struggled to her feet. “Then stay here with your guilt and your fear. I guarantee you, they’ll come and arrest you if you don’t shut up about death camps and stop defending deviants.” She left him alone and told Valerie she was right to leave him. She told Horst to find another best man because Klaus wasn’t even a good man.
****
Paul dropped a quarter into the clock, dropped his pants, and hit the timer. No one over the age of ten and under sixty thought much about the spiritual side of the practice of time worship any more than they gave credence to the health warnings stickers on the side of everything from apples to zucchini. If the government wanted to limit unproductive time, it was alright by most people because so few people had a job. People mostly hung-out in government-run cafeterias—espresso bars being expensive and unsanitary.
He was already on Chapter 5 of his contraband. Saucy told him to use a bookmarker, a fallen leaf or a piece of cloth, to keep his place rather than fold down the corner of the page. “Don’t let me catch you dog-earring one of these treasures! or you’ll never see another,” she’d said before she turned out the lights and checked to see if anyone was near the Staff and Faculty door. “And don’t go shootin’ off your mouth like some big gun or you’ll get us both in trouble.” He’d never heard a woman hiss like that. She didn’t say, “Okay?” at the end of her sentences.
He’d chosen a coffee cup with a clown riding a bicycle printed on the side, tore around the picture and slipped the disk between the pages. The next morning, he’d hidden the book  between his mattress and box-spring after removing the bookmark to show to Saucy. It was evidence he’d taken her ‘books are treasures’ lecture seriously and that was important. He didn’t know why. He suspected he wanted her approval. That thought scared the hell out of him and he didn’t know why about that either.
Someone knocked on the door and he heard Rudy yell, “Come on, Paul. Quit beatin’ your meat. There’s a guy downstairs who wants to talk to you.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m comin’. Can’t a guy have a hangover in peace?” He hauled up his drawers and stuck the book in the bed before heading downstairs.
“I’m from the Student Support Office.” The business card the man in the ‘I’m a Vegan’ tee-shirt handed him a card that identified him as Clifford “Biff” Belmont. “Thought you might need some help with the final.” He sat down on the navy blue sofa that had occupied the Theta Chi Alpha House for a hundred years. On the very cushion Rudy had thrown up on during First-year Rush.
“You TCA?”
“No. Phi Sigma, but I won’t let your inferior status interfere with my services.” It didn’t sound like a joke. He looked like a used car salesman, except he wore sandals. He unzipped a leather case and flipped through a file. “Got a call from Student Health that you missed your appointment yesterday.”
“That was quick.”
“They look after their medical marijuana patients. They know a graded test can overwhelm an already stressed person. So what happened?”
Paul scratched his unshaven chin. “Uhh. I thought the lady said they’d deliver my meds. Guess I heard wrong.”
Biff gave him a disbelieving smirk, then nodded a knowing nod. “It’s always the quiet ones, ain’t it? I saw you with Saucy Davis yesterday.” Words could sound like a wagging finger from the right mouth.
“Yeah, she’s a real pistol once you get passed the egg head and into the yolk.” Biff wanted some kind of reassurance that sex was the only reason a guy would schmooze a woman who didn’t smoke, drink, or demonstrate.
“I won’t even ask if she gives head.”
“Good because I’m not one to shoot my mouth off like a big gun.”
“What?”
“You know,” Paul said, “ a smile’s as good as a simile. I learned that in English Lit.”
“Sure. Okay. There’s a study group that meets on Sundays around noon. You down with that?” He was already penciling in Paul’s name on an activities flyer. “You can hang this in a convenient place to remind you. On your door, so you’ll see it when you leave.”
“I’ll do that.” Biff wanted praise. “Great idea.” Maybe he’d leave now. But Biff balked. “Anything else?”
“This is a bit delicate. Your budding friendship with Saucy Davis? Better nip it there future-wise. She’s the last TA old Tipton’s gonn’a have. He retires this year. And with the budget cuts, she’s the last retro-Christian that’ll be admitted to Sate. Education funding has strings attached, if you get my drift.”
Now he wanted confirmation, but Paul blinked purposefully ignorant eyes. “No. I don’t get your drift.”
“No more history department or funding for students who aren’t intellectually capable. Them’s the new guidelines. How smart can people be if they still believe in bullshit, right?”
“Oh, now I catch your drift.”
Biff handed him a white sack with U.S. Health & Human Services printed on it. “I brought your prescription. Make sure you show up next Friday, though. Okay?”
“No problem. Thanks.” He took the sack and shook Biff’s hand. Rudy passed him on the way to the door.
“You in trouble?” he said as they watched Biff mount his Schwinn and ride off.
Paul tossed him the sack. “No.”  The free weed didn’t seem cool anymore. Being able to con doctors into believing he had an overwhelming anxiety disorder didn’t seem like a triumph anymore. He bounded back to his room and texted Saucy: Meet. Arbor. Noon.”
****
Paul saw her walking across the patio toward the tables that were shaded by pepper trees donated by alumni memorializing the victory of 2018—the year the Aztecs became the Arborists, and the school logo changed from a warrior to Johnny Appleseed—and decided she was beautiful in an old-timey way.
“I take it this isn’t a date. What’s wrong?” She carried a cotton sack from Good Earth Foods and sat it on the table. Inside was a container of strawberries and melon balls and one of dipping yogurt. She handed him a fork. He handed her a bottle of iced tea. She’d worn a dress, probably for him, and a necklace made of tiny cloisonné roses that laid against her chest.
He tried not to stare but her skin was soft looking. “I went to the attic last night to read. It’s the only quiet place in the house. You know what I found? Old yearbooks. Pictures of Theta Chis wearing red hoodies with the emblem of feather-headdressed guy with a big nose. Pictures of the guys painting the house and mowing the lawn. Pictures of guys wearing togas performing Julius Caesar at the Open Air Theater.”
“My grandfather told me his dad took him there to see a guitar player named Santana. In the late 80’s it was called The OAT. Little known historical fact.”
He harpooned a strawberry and dragged it through the yogurt before popping it into his mouth. “You know what else the Theta Chis used to do? Sell hotdogs to raise money for their sports equipment. Now we submit a request to Student Activities and get a check in the mail. Hot dogs and fun versus cafeterias and checks.” He pointed to her like the sportscaster on the TV show Instant Replay. “You make the call.”
Saucy scrounged up a wad of napkins. “I got a letter from Tipton today. He’s retiring but there’s no Emeritus for him.”
“I heard.” Paul started in on the melon. With any luck, she’d read his mind and he wouldn’t have to tell her about Biff. But she sighed and reached into her sack, pulled out two apricots and handed one to him. He rubbed the furry-feeling peel on his cheek and wanted to nuzzle her cleavage. She had to want him as much as he wanted her. “How about we go to the library?”
****
Through a morphine haze Kitty heard someone calling her—a familiar voice originating from a white blur bending over her. “Kitty. Kitty listen and remember. He’s alive.” He kissed her cheek and the hand stroked her hair. Then he was gone and she drifted off into a dream filled with whispers.
“She’ll sleep, and it’s the best thing for her,” Doctor Meier said.
“I can’t leave her.” But Horst was already following Meier out the door  to a comfortable room, more a parlor than a hospital office, and collapsed into a chair by the fireplace. “Lord, what do I tell her?”
“The nurses will take good care of her. As for the Lord. I’ve been practicing medicine for thirty years and he’s never responded, my friend. You have to decide what to do.” Meier stroked the coals and laid a log on the glowing embers. Satisfied a fire was underway, he went to a tea cart where a decanter of dark brandy rested on a tray. He poured them each a glass and handed one to his distraught guest. “You love her and want to do what’s best for her. The question is, what’s best in the long run? A baby is physically manageable, but his body is going to keep growing even if his mind isn’t. Who changes his diapers when he’s fifteen? Twenty? Maybe you’ll be lucky and the National Health will pay for a caretaker when you’re exhausted from taking turns feeding him for forty years. And what happens when he outlives you?”
Horst took a healthy swig of the warm liquid courage. “You’re sure there’s brain damage?”
“There’s no doubt. Portions of the umbilical cord were necrotized. The fetus has suffered oxygen deprivation. It’s been over ten hours and all he’s done is breathe and eat. Kitty shouldn’t have continued the pregnancy.”
“But you examined her.”
Meier sighed. “I told her it was risky. She isn’t built to carry a grapefruit let alone a full-term fetus. I assumed she told you I offered her—an alternative.’
“Damn it!” Horst slammed his fist on the arm of the chair. “Damn her too!” He went to the cart and filled his glass. “It’s my fault for telling her how happy I was—how perfect our life was. Why did she believe me?”
“So, you would have agreed to spare her then, but not now?”
“I…I don’t know. Maybe.” He’d barely slept in three days. A few hours in the chapel when he was supposed to be praying. Another hour when he went home for a quick shower and a shave.
“I’ve known Kitty since she was ten. She’s lovable but hard to deal with. Strong as steel. She’ll get over this.” Meier opened his desk drawer and removed a packet of forms. “I think you know I have to report the birth to the physician’s committee. They’ll make a quality of life determination, but they’ll support my conclusions. As for Kitty. She should never get pregnant again. There’s a humane, painless way to resolve this without an unpleasant delay of the inevitable.”
By signing the consent form, Horst knew he was agreeing to two mortal sins: involuntary sterilization and euthanasia. But they were the right thing to do. Meier could leave out the details. She’d delivered a stillborn and complications made a hysterectomy essential. End of story. In a few days, this would all be behind them.
****
Hysterectomies, however, weren’t out-patient surgeries.  “She’ll need help during recovery,” Dr. Meier told him before they went into her room. Kitty was sitting up, vomiting into a pan resting on her lap. “It’s the aftereffects of the anesthesia. She’ll be woozy for the next few days. And the dressing will have to be kept clean. It’s normal for the incision to ooze a little, but if it starts to bleed or the ooze turns yellow…”
Horst was shaking so hard, Meier steadied him as he sank into a chair at her bedside. She was pale, her eyes swollen red patches pasted on her forehead. “Is she going to die?” he blurted.
“I’ll be alright,” she said weakly. “Maybe Valerie can come by during the day.”
Valerie moved into the room that was to be a nursery. She cleaned and cooked for the grieving couple, cooed soothing words of comfort when she helped Kitty in and out of the bathtub, and offered expert advice when Kitty’s ignorant body made sure she had enough milk for two babies. She wrapped a towel tightly around Kitty’s swollen breasts and told her not to pump out the fluid. “It’ll only stimulate production. And you should walk about as soon as you’re able.”  Horst praised her to the neighbors, offered her money, and escaped into work. Six weeks later, she returned to her job with the Ministry of Propaganda and life returned to normal.
Until the night he came home and found Kitty sitting, cross-legged, on the floor with the box of baby clothes he’d stored in the cellar—and forgotten about after he gave away the cradle and the dressing table. Who’d brought it up stairs for her? He hung his coat in the closet and walked past her to the kitchen pretending not to notice. He couldn’t bear to see the tiny blue sweaters and yellow saques or the satin-trimmed blankets with the appliquéd bunnies .
“Come sit beside me,” she said when he sat his beer bottle on the dining table. Her voice was sweet but her eyes gleamed like steel. She was sewing. His gaze traveled to the white lacy baptismal gown and cap draped on the sofa cushion—pristine except for the large red circle sewn over its tiny pearl-adorned doves—and then to a vase of white roses, a dozen at least, on the table behind the sofa.
“Who was here? Valerie?”
She snipped the thread with a pair of small scissors and held up a little blue shirt. It too had a red circle. “Klaus. He came to say good-bye. He’s leaving his job at the hospital.”
Horst wiped sweat beads from his forehead. “So he traded journalism for medicine?” He went to the flowers and found the card. Condolences and Love was all it said.
“He worked as an orderly long enough to buy tickets to America. And he found Max—who managed to convince the guards he was a good Nazi and there’d been a terrible mistake. It turns out he was a better actor than Valerie.”
Dr. Meier said Kitty might have problems. Fluctuating hormones take time to stabilize. But her voice sounded programmed, like she was reading from a script from a Riefenstahl film. And her face. Only her lips moved. Her eyes were ember-like, glowing with cold fire.
“When I get to heaven, I’m going to tell the angels I can’t be happy unless I have my son with me. Go to Limbo and bring him to me, I’ll tell them.” She gave him a vacant, child-like smile. “Do you think they’ll do that for me? Because he can’t go to heaven. Klaus says they don’t baptize the infants. They throw them into bags and burn the bags when they’re full.” She handed him an opened letter. “You’ve been called up.”
He approached her warily. Klaus and Max were always digging around for stories. Investigative journalism they called it. It was pulp fiction, stories of alleged Nazi atrocities against the mentally incompetent and the old published designed to scare the hell out of people—like the Nazi propaganda films of alleged Czech atrocities everyone knew were fake, designed to scare the hell into people. Valerie told him. Dr. Meier told him. But maybe Kitty believed Klaus’ stories. He skimmed the letter, searching for the words Deferment Application or Critical Industry. He’d make the case he could serve Hitler better in the munitions factories than on the battlefield. If the Wehrmacht didn’t believe him, it would certainly believe Dr. Meier. Married men with children were temporarily excused.  He looked down at Kitty, whose stone face was now animated with delight.
“Why, you’re a s pale as a ghost. Come, sit beside me and I’ll comfort you, frightened child.” He touched her outstretched hand and it was icy. The room was cold. She tugged at his hand. “Klaus brought me a present. Would you like to see it?”
He shook off her hand. “No. Where are they—Klaus and Max—where are they? Tell me!”
From under her knitted shawl, she withdrew a red vial about an inch long attached to a silver chain. She held it before her eyes and it dangled in the light. “My son’s blood. Poor, helpless baby who never felt his mother’s touch.”
Horst grabbed the vial and threw it in the fire. Gasping a sob, he sank into a chair. The vial popped, and there was a instant sputter as the blood evaporated, then only the soft crackle of the wood. “Where are they?” he demanded again. “Bastards, I’ll kill them both.”  He wiped his eyes with his sleeve. “I ought to kill you. If you’d listened to Meier, you could’ve spared us.”
But Kitty was said nothing. She gathered the christening layette and went to the bedroom where a half-packed Samsonite lay on the bed. She added the folded layette to her sweaters and underwear and a gray wool business suit, and put everything in the suitcase. “Horst, come here and help me,” she said. He came to the door. “I can’t fasten the lock.”
“Kitty, where are you going?” He came closer and opened his arms to her in supplication.  She reached under the pillow for the pistol Klaus had given her. She fired three times through the feathers and Horst fell to the floor. She knelt beside him, and tried to push his body under the bed, cursing her body’s weakness. She sat back, braced herself self with her arms and used her feet. He wouldn’t be missed until Monday. She’d be in the Tyrol by then. She closed the suitcase, wiggled into her coat, and grabbed her purse. Klaus was waiting for her at the train station.
****
Saucy heard the knock-signal and opened the door. Two weeks, Prof. Tipton had told her, and the remaining book holdings would be euthanized at the burn dump. Take what you want. We put up a hell’uva good fight. A paper fight, she’d confided to Paul. Even in the dimness he could see her eyes were red.
“That why you’re sneakin’ books out?”
“And sneakin’ food and water in so I can stay overnight,” she said, “I’m reviewing the collection. Leaving the out-of-date references like the almanacs and the Britannica’s. Taking the best of the duplicates.”
“Where you takin’ them?”
“I rented a storage unit. Tipton may think it’s a lost cause, but I’m not giving up just because I can’t save them all.”
“What about this book?” he said, handing her the worn green volume.  “Is there another copy of this? The last three chapters are missing.” She laid in on the table and opened it carefully. The spine had separated, the cover held on by one glued page front and back.
“The Confession by Tonio Slavold. Let me check.” She booted up her laptop and scanned through the listing she’d made. “Where did you find this?”
“On the history shelf beside Shirer’s book.”
“I don’t have it listed. It must be good, if you want to finish it.” She was smiling now.
“I hit every story-teller site—Kindle, E-Story, SDSU fiction holdings. Would you ask Tipton about it?”
She almost said, ask him yourself, but he couldn’t do it. It was dangerous enough for him to be seen with her. “Tell me the story so far,” she said and brought out sandwiches and fruit from a Styrofoam cooler. Between bites he told her about the six friends the war divided. How each one came to realize the unthinkable was real. How difficult it was to know what was happening, what was the right thing to do, and how love didn’t conquer all. “Tell me how you want it to end.”
“I want Kitty and Klaus to escape.”
“And live happily ever after? “ She gathered up the used napkins and put them in the trash. He produced two cans of flavored mineral water and gave one to her.
“Why not?”
“By 1938, it was too late. It was fight or die. More like fight and die anyway.” She loaded her backpack with books she took from a shelf labeled SAVE.
“You think I’m stupid, don’t you?”
“I think you want life to be easy and hard at the same time. You’d sell hot-dogs to raise money but if you failed, you’d want the government to write a check for the difference. Courage only counts when there’s no guarantee of the outcome.” She checked the clock. “You gott’a go. They’ll be locking the doors.”
“The sleeping bag looks big enough for two.”
“The Frat house’ll report you missing to Student Services. You’ll freak out and tell them about the ghosts.”
“Ghosts?”
“That’s what Tipton calls his books. Whoever Slavold was, he’s dead now. The war’s been over a hundred years.” She wrapped a rubber band around The Confession. “I’ll show this to Tipton.”
“Give me the key to the storage unit—it’s a U-Store It isn’t it?”
“Yes, but…”
“But I’ll take this load over and you fill up my backpack.” He loaded more books into hers. “It’ll go quicker if I do the heavy lifting.” She gave him the key to Row C-21. He kissed her cheek. “You’ll be safe here?”
“They don’t care about me. I’m a nobody. But you…they’ll throw you out of school and into jail.” Paul was already turning the door knob. He blew her a kiss and slipped out.
****
“Thought I’d stop by and check in on you.” Biff was back, his toothy smile reminding Paul of the skull mask Rudy wore to the Halloween beer bash.
“I thought I’d give studying a try. Maybe I can pass that test without help.”
“We all need help, you know. No shame in admitting that. Go-it-aloners suffer from all kinds of ailments. Loneliness, ulcers, bad health habits.”
Paul thought of Kitty and Klaus and mutual reliance. “That’s true.”
“Is that the reason you spent the whole SoCal day in the library when you could have  been volley-balling at the beach?” Biff was talking past him, looking at the backpack he’d just emptied in the attic. If Biff had followed him, he knew it had once bulged with something that made it impossible for him to sprint back to Theta Chi House.
“I’m no go-it-aloner. I brought back goodies from the gedunks in the library study hall.”
“Oh, so that’s where you disappeared to.”
“Yep. Fresh fruit. Granola bars.” Anything he could think of stored in the frat house kitchen in case Biff wanted to verify.
“We’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Sure. But right now, I need to use a quarter…”
He’d staved off further intrusion with an appeal to hygiene. Peeking around the attic window curtains, he surveyed the yard, and caught sight of Biff on his bike speeding to another spy gig. You had to give it to ‘ol Biff, he was buff. He squatted by a box of old clothes where the contraband was hidden, and perused the titles Saucy thought worth saving: Darkness at Noon, The Gulag Archipelago, Collected Works of Kafka, Atlas Shrugged, My Name is Ivan, The Execution of Private Slovak….
****
Klaus showed their tickets to the man behind the counter, who stamped them with a dater and scrawled his initials underneath. “Platform nine,” he said, and directed their attention to the signs posted over the doors leading outside. “Plenty of time, don’t hurry.”
They moved to the newspaper kiosk and bought a copy of Goebbels’ Der Angriff before exiting. On the platform, a man in a gray uniform led them downstairs to the tracks, and through a door under the platform. “Be quiet,” he said. “Someone will fetch you.” Another two flight of stairs took them to the basement where five other people waited, huddled against the cold. A woman handed Kitty a piece of chocolate-covered marzipan she took from a heart-shaped box. Kitty nodded a thank-you.
She lost track of time, but not the number of train whistles she heard coming and going into the station. Fifty. Finally, it was quiet, except for the soft thuds of boots on the stairs. She look up and saw a man dressed in black and carrying a rifle. “I’m Tonio Slavold,” he said. “You can get on a train that will take you south, or you can follow me and fight. Either way there’s no turning back. “Without a word, Klaus stood up and walked to him. “Leave your luggage,” Slavold said.
Kitty left her suitcase and stood next to Klaus. She heard a boy whisper, “Good-bye Mama. Papa,” before joining them. He waved to his brother and sister..
****
At four AM Saucy finished The Confession, put her sleeping bag on the table, turned out the light, and snuggled in. “Don’t sleep on the floor,” Tipton had warned. “Mice.” It was foolish to think Paul was helping because he loved her. Still, to know that her eyes saw what his had read seemed fateful, like a kind of marriage to all the other eyes that read Slavold’s words. How many hands had turned the pages over a century, perhaps set the book on a table beside their bed, or carried it to the park? How many ghost-readers had become lovers or fighters too? She scolded herself. It was a war story, not a love story. Then again, neither of them knew how it ended. Happily ever after wasn’t real, but happy for a while was here and now.
****
The sirens and the smell of ashy air awakened Paul. He’d fallen asleep in the attic, book in hand, wrapped in a cotton bedspread folded in half, and had to unwind from a plaid prison  before crawling to the window. “What’s going on?” he yelled to Rudy who was sitting on the top slat of the fence that separated the Theta Chi yard from Delta Nu’s.
“The old library’s burning. Can you see it from up there?”
He could now. The windows were red with dancing flames as, one by one, rooms sealed for decades lost the last of their oxygen. With shaking fingers, he texted Saucy: Out? Alive? Tell me! But got no response. “Where’d it start?” he yelled to Rudy—it was a question his racing pulse and watery eyes already knew the answer to. He wanted to run to the scene. To demand to know if anyone had been pulled from the building. To search for Saucy. To tell her he’d taken the books to storage. He wanted to be a Klaus and not a Horst but he was afraid. So damnably afraid. He gathered the books, took them to the trash can, and started a fire of his own.

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