EIGHT - Ester
It has been two hours since papa and Klara left for the party. I feel like someone’s caught me by the throat and is squeezing. I cannot get enough air into my body. I want to get up and pace around. Maybe that will help. But I cannot. I need to look calm and relaxed. Otherwise, mama will start asking questions I absolutely do not want to answer. Actually, I am surprised that we have been able to do so much under her radar. She is like a hound when it comes to what Klara and I are up to. When we were little, we couldn’t even sneak a quick cookie from under her nose. Not that she was ever strict with us having cookies; all she asked was that we tell her when having one.
So, here I am, sitting with mama, trying my hardest to look bored and interested in the book I am trying to read. I am neither. I suddenly understand what it is that has its hands around my throat, choking the life out of me. It is guilt. Klara tried to tell me, tried to get me to understand. She really is not good at pretending. At all. And she hates crowds. And she cannot make small talk. And I have sent her off on a mission that requires, no expects, her to do all of those things.
How did I ever think it would work out?
Why did I have to fall today?
Why did I have to choose the mission over my little sister?
I think I am going to throw my dinner up.
Although I am the older sister, I realise that it has always been Klara who has come to my rescue. She has always been the good girl, the polite one, the one who never, ever got into trouble. The opposite of me. I remember one time. She was just seven and Otto and I were ten. Tomas was eight. Mama had taken us all to Frau Altschul’s café, Café Louvre on Národní Třída (National Avenue). She made the best Hot Chocolate in the whole world! And she always put extra marshmallows in our hot chocolates. She was a very good friend of mama’s.
We were all playing ball outside the café when the ball hit the window of the café and the glass shattered. We were all so scared. We had earned raps on the knuckles for sure when Otto came up with the idea of getting Klara to tell Frau Altschul that it was she who hit the ball. She was sure to get away with a much smaller punishment than any of us. We agreed that if Frau Altschul decided to rap Klara on the knuckles, we’d all step in and own up. And in went little Klara, apologising to Frau Altschul for the broken window. Just as we had thought, Frau Altschul simply scolded her and decided to not add marshmallows to her hot chocolate as a punishment. Of course, we shared ours with Klara, under the table.
And again today, we had sent Klara to face the music in our place. Only this time, she would not get away with a small punishment. This time, she may not get away at all. And it would all be my fault. I feel so sick, I want to cry. Maybe throwing my book at the fireplace might work. I am seriously thinking of testing this theory when there is a knock on the door. I run to open it as if my salvation is on the other side. In reality, I am hoping it is papa and Klara, saying they never got to the party because the car broke down. But it is Otto and he looks as devastated as I feel. Perhaps even more so. He rushes inside the house and closes the door behind him, mumbling something that sounds like ′Thank God I am not too late’.
“Otto, what are you doing here at this time?”
“We don’t have much time, Ester. Pack your things. Ask Tante Helga to pack also,” Otto orders.
“What are you going on about Otto? We are not going anywhere. Are you alright?” I ask. He has either hit his head somewhere that rattled his brain, or he is out of his mind worrying about Klara. He is looking back at the door as if he expects the door to be kicked in at any moment, while trying to push me toward my room, presumably to pack. Mama hears the commotion he is making and comes out of her room.
“Otto. What is the matter Sohn?" mama asks.
Otto looks at mama, and something seems to crash into him. He looks back at me and for the first time since I can remember, I cannot fathom the look on his face. He looks haunted. I am worried too, yes. Actually, I am much. much more than worried, but I have no words to describe it. And yet, I am not feeling anything like what Otto looks like.
"Scheisse,” Otto slumps down on the couch and cradles his head in his hands.
He looks utterly dejected. I have a sinking feeling that this has to do with tonight’s mission, but I do not want to ask in front of mama. Mama looks at me, a hundred questions swirling in her eyes. I want to knock on Otto’s head and box him for losing it like this and then bringing it here. I have been trying to put on a normal face for mama’s sake, and here Otto is coming undone.
“Otto,” I say sharply and his head snaps up.
“Forgive me, Tante Helga,” Otto mumbles.
That’s it. I have had enough. I have never known Otto to be so....weak.
And then he dumps the whole shitstorm on me. “Ester. They know. Of our plan. We don’t have time. We need to run, NOW.”
I cannot comprehend what he is trying to say. Oh! I understand the words, alright. I also understand what they mean. But I do not understand. What does he mean? How do they know? I can only think of one reason why he’d know that they know of our plan. But that is too preposterous. Even thinking about it makes my mouth go sour. But then what else could it be? Otto must have someone on the inside tonight. That’s it! That has to be it. There was someone else from the Resistance inside the castle tonight.
But then that means that Klara and papa are walking into a trap! Then what is Otto doing here? He should be at the castle trying to get Klara and papa out, not here at home rambling on about packing.
“Who told you, Otto?” I ask.
He looks up at me, confusion clouding his eyes for a moment. Then his eyes clear, he stands up and is once again the strong, take-charge Otto that I have always known.
“Not now, Ester,” he tells me, then turns to mama and adds gently, ”Tante Helga. There has been a problem at the party. Something has gone wrong and Ester may be in danger. We need to leave right now. Can you please pack a light bag with a few essentials quickly? You too, Ester.”
“What about Joseph and Klara?” mama asks.
“We will try and get them to safety as soon as we can,” Otto assures her.
Mama seems to be convinced because she is heading to her room. Obviously, to pack her case.
I want to put my foot down and demand a proper explanation. I cannot, will not, leave without knowing what is happening with Klara and papa. But the urgency in Otto’s tone gives me pause. Will I put mama in danger by wasting time right now? Otto seems convinced that we have very little time.
I decide to do as he asks for now. If he thinks mama may be in danger, I need to work with him to get her to safety. So, I run into my room to pack a light case of essentials. But not before giving Otto and sharp look. He knows me well enough to know that there will be a discussion on this.
And it is going to be sooner rather than later.