It was hard to stop talking after they had wiped away their tears.
"I missed you."
You saved me. How his throat tightened. "You've grown."
A pause. "They're dead."
"I know." So many people were dead; millions and millions and millions, so many that Max wondered how there was enough space in the ground, in the air, in heaven for the all those souls. And hell. God, hell must be cramped right now. Even though Rabbi Scwartzstein had said that they didn't believe in hell. But Rabbi Schwartzstein was dead, now, and forever gagging on Zyklon B pellets.
"Papa. Mama. Rudy. They're all—"
He could feel the itch of those uniforms again.
"And The Word Shaker, and The Standover Man, I lost them—and Frau Hermann's book, I lost that, too—"
On their knees in Alex Steiner's tailor shop, she buried her face in his neck. One of his hands pressed between her shoulder blades, and the other coiled around her. He could smell her hair—the scent of sharp-cut suits and the hollow, papery stench of loneliness, and, underneath all that, right in the bone of her skull, was the rubble, the smoke, the fire, the ash; the corpses.
"I've lost everyone," she whispered, against his skin.
"Not me," he promised.
She looked up at him. He touched her neck, feeling the soft, European porcelin of it: the whiteness, the blondness of her hair: the German-ness of her.
And yet, her dark, dark eyes; like his, like Hitler's. Brown, endless oceans.
She ran her hand along his collarbone. A few short months had done nothing to cover up his insides properly; he imagined that he could see his organs through what little flesh he possessed. He was still a mess of mostly bone; the musical xylophone of his ribcage, his sharp, steely hipbones, and his feet too big for his ankles.
"Not me," she repeated. "Not again."
Max would, of course, stay for dinner.
He would, of course, stay forever.
They ate in Alex Steiner's kitchen. Once inside, he realised how infinitely glad he was that she had not taken him to the mayor's house; he did not think the mayor would appreciate his Jewish presence, and Max himself didn't feel he could stomach it.
Now that the shock and the crying and the realised longing had dissipated, there remained only the loveliness of it. Of her. Of them.
Wanted to know everything.
"What did you do after you left?" she asked, leaning forward on her elbows, her empty plate pushed aside.
Herr Steiner, interested though he was, was somewhat uncomfortable in listening. Max could see it in the shift of his shoulders, the downcast look of his eyes: it was the look of German guilt. Max had encountered it many times; though, let's be honest here, not nearly as many times as he would have liked. Not nearly as many times as he had encountered German hate.
"I went to Stuttgart. Or I tried to."
"What would you do there?"
He shrugged. "Hide." It wasn't like he would have been able to do anything else.
No. "Maybe." Walter had done enough for him already. That option was the first that Max had ruled out.
"But they found you."
His jaw tightened. He found he could not look the book thief in her dangerous eyes. "Yes."
She did not ask what they did to him then, though he knew she wanted to. But he was determined that she would never know, properly, of his time in Dachau, or of his time on the way there. (Well over a hundred miles, and two full days of not walking but dragging his coldstarvingtired body that felt more like extra baggage than anything useful.
He was lucky, by comparison.)
"What will you do now?"
Liesel was a whisper.
"What have you done since?" she corrected herself. It was hard to remember that the war had not ended yesterday, that he had been harbouring the taste of freedom under his tongue for months now.
"Trying to find work, mostly. I've been staying in Garching."
She nodded. "Garching," she repeated, the foreignness and scratchiness of it echoing around them. I've been staying in Garching.
In whose basement?
"What about you?"
Her dry lips peeled themselves apart in a smile. "Nothing, much." She placed her palms on the table in front of them, leaning forward, the edge of the wood pressing into her stomach. "Your hair," she murmered, the words swelling and bursting on her breath, "is like feathers again."
He was a bird, and she was his wings.
Herr Steiner offered for Max to stay at his house that night, but Max refused. Adamantly. But not enough.
That meant, obviously, that Liesel was staying, too.
He did not say it, but Liesel suspected that it smoothed the edges of the bomb shaped holes inside him. They could not—nothing could ever—fill them, but that night, he would maybe breathe a little easier.
She didn't sleep for two reasons.
One: she would, most certainly, nightmare. But she was used to that. She had so many people about whom to dream.
Two: this was the real reason. The one, indisputable fact that lived in her blood, in her lungs.
Max was here.
Max was here.
Max was here.
She had no time for sleep.
She glowed in his eyes as she stood in the doorway.
"Hallo," she whispered.
He grinned. "Guten Tag, Liesel Meminger."
She crawled beside him. It was a small bed, made for one, and she could feel the heat of him as they cheated it. She breathed him in.
"I'm sorry," she mumbled. He shook his head.
For what we did to you.
Because you had to leave.
You shouldn't have gone to Dachau.
Nobody should have gone to Dachau.
He touched her cheek. "You saved me, word shaker."
She roared at his touch, but silently so.
"You are still saving me."
And it didn't matter which one of them said that.
Max. Max. Max.
What could she do but kiss him?
They were not—
And his hair.
Rudy, Rudy, oh, Rudy.
But she knew that Rudy did not mind. And not because he was somebody who could forgive easily, because he wasn't. Not because he wanted her to move on, because, with all the things he had been, he had been selfish.
Rudy did not mind because Rudy was dead. And so were Papa, and his beautiful accordion, and Mama and her wooden spoons, and Tommy Muller's twitch and her brother and his cough and everybody she had ever cared about.
The night Max had left, he had felt the wind on his face for the first time in nearly two years.
The moonlight fell differently on his twenty-six-year-old face than on his twenty-four-year-old one. Each step was shaky on the cobblestones. He did not have to bend low for danger of hitting his head on the sloping basement ceiling. And though he was a Jewish fugitive, breathing surely numbered breaths and clutching his false papers so tightly they wrote themselves into the lines of his palms,
And the next day, when morning dawned, he saw the sun burst from the horizon. He'd never, never, seen anything so deliciously warm and bright, his pale skin and his dormant soul burning in its wake.
That was what kissing her felt like.
He wouldn't let her come to Garching. Not yet. He didn't want her to see the full scope of how patchworked his life was.
He came up on weekends, and they stayed at Herr Steiner's. It was all both of them lived for. Most of his money was spent on those train rides, but who cared? Not him, certainly.
They never slept as long as they could pry their eyes open. Hours were precious, but they were slow. Both of them felt like they would have the Gestapo knocking down the door if they moved too falsely, too quickly. War makes some reckless, but it made them cautious.
"You're falling asleep," she would chastise, prodding him as his eyelids slipped shut.
"No, I'm not," he would mumble, sitting up.
"Am I too boring for you?"
His kiss clipped her jaw. "Never."
All three occupants pretended that Herr Steiner didn't know, but it was impossible not to, what with the walls so thin and their happiness so loud.
He was jealous.
But only a little.
Mostly, he smiled.
And one night, he wasn't there at all. He had a meeting.
(Or so he said. With whom would a poor schneidermeister need an overnight meeting?)
And so, Max and Liesel were left alone.
His fingers were gentle. Her kisses were hungry. However much he touched her, it was not enough.
He knitted himself into her; they matched themselves hips to hips, mouth to mouth, and the hollows of their stomachs whispering against each other.
A soft moan was dragged from somewhere inside her chest and it burst on his tongue, hot and electric.
Afterwards, he looked over at her, his head propped up on his palm. "Keine worte, wort schuttler?"
Translation: "No words, word shaker?"
She was curled up next to him. One eye snapped open. "Saukerl." But she didn't have the energy to pretend to mean it.
Their laughs smoked the air.
He found a job, months later.
She didn't own many things.
Neither did he.
And so the apartment was minimally furnished.
There was a dull, roaring ache in him that he was not enough for her: too old. Too poor. Too Jewish.
There was a biting worry in her that she was not what he needed.
She could never understand his particular brand of nightmare.
But at night, she would wake screaming, and he would wake quietly, and one would go make coffee or tea, or water if it had been a poorer week, and under the blanket of darkness, none of those things would matter anymore. Her hot breath warmed the back of his neck, and the completeness of her grew like vines around him. His hips would tremble and shudder between her thighs, and he would worry her name into the crook of her neck.
There was a knock on the door.
Liesel opened it. "Ja?"
"I am looking for Max Vandenburg."
It was a thin man, with round spectacles that slipped down his nose. Ferverishly, he pushed them back up.
She frowned, her hand tightening on the doorknob. "Who is calling?"
He prodded at his lips with his tongue. "I'm sorry, I just—" he stopped, peering over Liesel's shoulder. She turned.
Max's hand found the curve of her waist. "What? What is it?"
"You are Vandenburg?" the man asked. The air around him quivered. His fingers twitched, his eyes moaned.
"You—I'm sorry to disturb you, I—" He licked his lips again. "Your mother. She… she was my father's cousin."
The clock behind them ticked.
Nobody said it.
The man wiped his hands on his trousers and carefully launched his handshake at them. "Yaakov. Spiegelman."
Gingerly, Max took Yaakov's long fingers in his own.
Liesel said, "Come in."
His mother was dead.
Isaac and Sarah.
It wasn't like he'd been expecting anything less.
The final Vandenburg.
The lone Meminger.
For the first time, Max was the one to scream in his sleep that night.
"Ich will nicht hier sein."
Liesel's hands stilled.
He could hear the fright in her voice. He had said, I do not want to be here. He shook his head. "No, I… I didn't mean it like that. I meant… not here."
Her eyes bore into his. "Garching?"
His head felt both too heavy and too light. He curled himself into the coffee mug in front of him, preferring to simply soak up its warmth than drink it. They had neither sugar nor milk, and neither liked bitterness.
Her lips parted.
She breathed in eleven million corpses in her one deep breath. Deutschland, deutschland, uber alles.
"Me neither," she admitted.
"Yaakov's going to Australia."
"He… he says it's warm. And there's beaches. And…" he halted, Evidently, he could not think of another selling point. "It's far away." There we go.
Uber alles in der Welt.
She thought of that mustard-yellow star.
She remembered Max, starving Max, alone in her basement, while they bowed their heads in the safety of an air-raid shelter.
Starving, starving Max.
Ashen, smoky Jews.
Her communist father.
Dead dead dead dead.
Even Hitler was dead, with his perfect-square moustache.
And she realised that the only thing left in Germany was the rotting smell of after. That they were, quite possibly, the only two people still alive in that damned country.
He looked surprised, but endlessly joyful.
She nodded. "Australia."
It settled, wiry on her tastebuds.
It tasted good.