Sometimes, when I'm feeling a lot of mental or physical pain, I let a comforting numbness take over me. It feels like you're being blanketed by soft, feathery clouds, except it's not cold like it would be if you really were covered by clouds. But it really does feel like it, because when it happens, I always imagine flying through the sky with birds at my side. The cool wind on my face relieves any pain that I might have felt before, and I can focus on the good things in life—the vast land below me, the lively birds that urge me to fly on, and the clouds that envelop me so warmly, so lovingly. My mother said it was childish and completely immature. She'd become annoyed and angry when my eyes would turn glossy and distant with the numbness. I never thought that there was anything wrong with a colorful imagination and a yearning to escape the pain. Clouds were, after all, much more soothing than reality.
But sometimes, the numbness comes even when I don't want it to. Sometimes I try to yank free, but the clouds are relentless, and they smother me with their comfort and love. The birds chirp happily, completely careless of my shouting and begging. I try to tell them that I need to get back down to earth, that something very important is happening, that I need to find out what the outcome of the situation was. But they're selfish, the clouds and the birds. They shake their heads and giggle delightedly at my useless attempts. And it's then that I just give up and lie in the clouds until they finally decide to release me.
I was feeling that numbness now. I could only register a few things—one of them being that my legs were moving. Sprinting, to be more exact. I could also feel a constant and powerful tug on my wrist. I tried to clear my head, to shoo the clouds away so that I could understand what was happening. I looked at the wrist that was being tugged. There was a hand there, knuckles white from strain, seemingly pulling me to wherever it wanted to go to. I wondered for a moment what my business with this hand was, and then it occurred to me that it might belong to a body. I let my eyes wander up the arm that was linked to the hand, and then to a shoulder, then to a neck, and then to a head full of dark hair. I let my eyes drift back down the woman's neck to her back. A little shocked, I realized that the crimson marks on her dress were made by blood. It seemed like she was drenched in it, and I wondered what had happened to make this woman bleed so badly.
I turned my head to the left, and realized that there was another person running with us. A man dressed in a Nazi uniform. What did a Nazi want with us? He had chestnut hair, and when he turned his head to me, his expression terrified, I saw that he also had olive green eyes. He didn't seem like what I remembered Nazi soldiers to be. He was too young, too pure, too kind to be one of them.
And suddenly, we weren't running anymore. There was a large gate in front of us, and the woman and the soldier were frantically shaking it, maybe trying to force it open. They didn't seem to be succeeding, and really, what were they compared to a tall metal gate? Maybe they gave up now, because they stopped shaking the gate. The woman turned to me, and I realized that she had countless tears flowing down her face. She was saying something hurriedly, obviously frightened out of her mind, but I couldn't quite understand what it was that she wanted. I did catch one word, though, and it rang through my mind—Keys.
"Keys?" I asked, sort of rhetorically. The woman's expression turned confused, maybe because of the word, or maybe because of the way I was acting. She licked her full lips and looked at me uncertainly, tears still flowing on their own now down her cheeks. I thought for a moment, then said, "I have keys."
The soldier's eyes widened, and the woman grasped my hand and asked desperately, "Where?" Her voice sounded very distant, which seemed odd since she was only centimeters away from me. I looked down at the pocket of my dress, and without another word, the woman reached in and grabbed the keys. She handed them to the soldier, who quickly chose one and slipped it in the keyhole. The gate clicked open, and he and the woman pushed it open before the woman clutched my hand again and urged me to start running with her.
As we continued to sprint, the clouds finally began to release their confining grip on me. I slowly realized that the soldier was Rolf, and the woman—she wasn't just any woman, she was my Santana, and she was alive. I remembered the square, and Herr Eberhardt, and the gunshot. I noticed again the blood on her back, and panicked as I realized that she might have been the one shot. Another jolt of panic passed through me right after I realized this, when I realized something else—we were running away, away from the camp and away from our baby. "Santana—" I gasped. She turned to me but didn't stop pulling on my hand. "Santana—Hans. We have to get him—" I stopped in my place, forcing her to stop, too. Rolf turned to us, his eyes frantic and questioning. "We have to go back. We have to get him, Santana—"
"Brittany, we can't, it won't be long before they realize that we escaped," she panted, placing a hand on her hip and slightly leaning down.
"But—" I looked at her incredulously. "Santana, he's our son—"
"Brittany, if we go back now, they'll find us and kill all three of us," she said, and seemed just as frightened and panicked as I felt. "We'll find him again, we'll go back and get him, I promise. But we have to make sure that we're safe first."
I didn't want to make sure that we were anything first, I wanted my son, but when Santana began to tug on my hand again, her expression almost begging, I complied. I couldn't believe that we were willingly leaving our baby behind, but I could understand Santana's reasoning. I could understand it, but my motherly instincts couldn't. And what if we couldn't get him back? What if we never got the chance to rescue him, and he'd grow up to know that his mother deserted him? He'd grow up to hate me, and to hate people like Santana, and he'd be so different from the boy that Santana and I wanted to raise together. But I knew that neither of us would relent until we got him back. Even if it got us killed in the process.
We ran for about thirty more minutes until we couldn't anymore and we had to stop to rest. We were still in the empty fields that surrounded Auschwitz, so when we saw a farm, we hurried behind the barn and dropped to the ground, panting. It took me a few minutes to catch my breath, but when I finally did, I turned to Santana and said, "Were you shot?"
She raised her gaze to me, a look of pain passing through her eyes, and shook her head. "Then whose blood is that?" I asked quietly.
Tears began to fill her eyes again. She was silent for a few moments, maybe trying to gather enough strength to answer. Finally, she said, "Simka's."
"Simka…?" I bit my lip, trying to remember. "The one with the green eyes?"
Santana closed her eyes and nodded. "She jumped in front of the gun to save my life," her voice cracked and tears began to stream down her cheeks again. She buried her face in her arms.
"How did we escape?" I asked, a little ashamed that I was too dazed to remember what had happened.
When she didn't raise her head back up, Rolf, who was sitting next to her, leaning on the barn wall, answered quietly, "After she was shot, there was a lot of chaos. The prisoners began to run around, and the soldiers tried to get everything in order, so no one noticed when we slipped out. It was almost like the prisoners were trying to buy us time."
I hugged my knees and leaned my head on them. "Well, I'm just glad it wasn't Santana who was shot."
She raised her head, her eyes incredulous, almost glaring at me. She was quiet a few moments before uttering, "You don't get it, do you?"
"What?" I asked, surprised and a little defensive.
She shook her head and looked away. "You wouldn't understand," she muttered.
"Maybe if you'd explain it to me, I'd understand," I said, somewhat annoyed.
She fixed her eyes on me again. "Hundreds, maybe thousands, of people will die now because I didn't."
"Prisoners?" I asked confusedly. "But wouldn't they be killed anyway, even if you did die?"
She glared at me again, and it felt like my heart dropped to my stomach. "That's very easy for you to say, isn't it?"
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"It means," she began, her eyes colder than I had ever seen them, "that you don't know what it feels like. You don't know what it's like to pray every day for the Nazis to be defeated, for someone to come rescue you. You don't know what it's like to see your friend, someone you trusted and loved, lying dead in front of you, and knowing that it's all your fault. That she and countless other people might still be alive if it weren't for you. You don't know what it's like to know that you're going to die either from starvation or from a bullet to the head. You were always loved and praised for being who you are. You were never hated the way we were. You were treated like a princess. You were never in any danger."
I stared at her incredulously. "Is it my fault, then, that I was born an Aryan and you were born Romani?"
She continued to scowl at me, her eyes almost hateful. I wondered if they really were hateful, because she was my Santana, and she had never acted like this with me before. I felt fragile and vulnerable. I might've already lost my baby, and now I was losing Santana. I couldn't understand why she was so angry with me, but I also couldn't blame her for thinking that it was my fault—I thought so, too. I hated myself for what had happened, and while I could suffer self-loathing, I didn't think that I'd be able to take it from Santana, nor that I would have to. But the way she was looking at me now… All I could do was hope that she was just so emotional from Simka's death that she wasn't thinking right.
Rolf shifted uneasily in his spot, clearly uncomfortable because of our argument. "Um…" he began uncertainly. "I think we need to get to Kraków as soon as possible. I know someone there who might be able to help us."
Santana ripped her gaze off of me and turned to him. "How will we get there?"
"Um…" He bit his lip in thought. "I think we might have to walk."
"Well, then, what are we waiting for?" she asked bitterly, stood on her feet, and began to walk around the barn. Rolf shot me a hesitant glance, then stood on his feet as well and offered me his hand. I took it and he helped me up to my feet, and we followed Santana around the barn.
Suddenly, we heard a sound behind us. We snapped around to see a tall, thin man, maybe the owner of the farm. But we didn't pay so much attention to his face—we were much more worried about the shotgun that he was pointing at us. He eyed us suspiciously, especially Rolf and his Nazi uniform, and muttered something in Polish before saying, with a very heavy accent, "What do you want with me, Nazis?"
Rolf raised his hands defensively and said, "We're unarmed, sir, and we mean no harm. Please, we'd just like to leave."
The man considered his words as his eyes passed from Rolf to Santana to me. "Odd trio…" he commented quietly. "Running away, are we?"
I felt my heartbeat quicken. This man could gain a lot by turning us in, dead or alive. All it would take was a few bullets and a telephone call, and he'd be swimming in money. I could hear that Rolf was thinking the same thing in his voice when he said, "Please, sir," he motioned at me, "she's a mother."
The farmer let his eyes fall on me for a moment. "Where are you running away to?"
Rolf and I exchanged uncertain glances. Santana, who was standing about a meter behind us, remained silent. I shifted my gaze back to the farmer. His eyes were softer now, and he had lowered his shotgun. "Are you working against the Nazis?"
"Yes," Rolf said confidently. "It's them we're running from."
The man stood motionless for a few more moments, his expression thoughtful. Then it looked like he came to a decision, and he said, "I will drive you wherever you need to go."
All three of us let out sighs of disbelief. "Thank you so much, sir," Rolf closed his eyes in relief. "We need a ride to Kraków."
The Polish man nodded and led us around the barn to an old, red pickup truck. He looked back at us. "You'll have to sit in the back. There's not enough space for all of you in the front."
Rolf climbed in the back and then helped Santana and I get in as well. He looked around him, and then at the farmer again. "I don't suppose you've got a sort of blanket, or anything that we could cover ourselves with so that we're not seen?"
The man nodded quickly, and disappeared into the barn. I glanced at Santana. She settled herself in the corner closest to the front and looked absolutely miserable. I wanted to sit by her and comfort her, but something told me that she wouldn't appreciate that right now. I sat at the opposite end of the truck, thinking that I'd rather she blame it all on me than blame it all on herself, as much as it hurt that she was angry with me. It really was my fault, after all. I was the one who fell in love first. I was the one who wanted a relationship, and wanted her all for myself. And not for a second did I regret it.
The man hurried back with a few wool blankets and threw them into Rolf's arms. "Thank you, sir," Rolf turned to us and handed a blanket to each of us. "We need to lie down and cover ourselves as much as possible," he said as he sat down and demonstrated. "Like this," he covered his whole body and almost his entire head with the blanket.
I sat beside Rolf and did the same. After a few moments, Santana made her way to Rolf's other side and threw the blanket over herself, completely covering her face. I sighed dejectedly.
The ride was bumpy and uncomfortable. The truck was barely wide enough for all three of us to lie down in, and we were pushed against each other every time it made even a slight turn. I kept my eyes open and to the sky the entire ride, trying to imagine myself flying up there among the clouds. Anything to make that horrible pain of Santana's anger and losing Hans disappear.
Finally, after about two hours, the truck came to a stop. We heard the door slam closed, and the farmer came around and said, "We've arrived."
We handed the man his blankets and stood before him one last time. "We can't thank you enough," Rolf said, shaking his hand. "You've probably just saved our lives."
"You make sure to tell those Nazis to get the hell out of my country, alright?"
Rolf smiled reassuringly. "We will, sir. Thank you."
I hurried to the farmer as he adjusted himself in the driver's seat. "Thank you," I said softly. He let a small smile appear on his face before shutting the door and driving off, leaving us in the alley that he had parked in. I turned around to see Rolf gazing past me down the alley and Santana looking at the ground, hugging herself. I felt my heart clench again.
Rolf followed my gaze, and his eyes landed on Santana. He quickly slipped off his jacket and offered it to her. She raised her gaze to him questioningly. "You have all of that blood on your back, people will be suspicious," he explained.
She took it from him and slipped her arms into it. My heart warmed immediately to see how small she looked in his jacket. Her hands were lost in the sleeves and the jacket reached down her thighs. I had that strong urge to embrace her and comfort her again, but when she caught me looking at her, she turned her head the opposite direction and hugged herself again. I dropped my gaze to the ground, a feeling of utter defeat washing over me.
Rolf led us out of the alleyway and to a secluded street. He looked around him, attempting to understand where we were. We walked for about five minutes before he let out a little "Ah!" and motioned us confidently to follow him down a busier street.
As we walked from block to block, careful not to draw too much attention to ourselves, I kept shooting glances back at Santana. She may have been angry with me, but the last thing that I wanted now was for her to disappear, to be snatched or to lose us among the crowd. She seemed to be somewhat numb, as if she wasn't really here, and I wondered if her numbness was the same as mine. I wondered if she was in a better place right now, where her friend didn't die to save her life, and where her lover didn't disappoint her. Maybe somewhere where she didn't have me as a lover at all.
I thought about what she had told me. How I didn't know what it felt like to be the cause of someone's death, and someone who was dear to you. But she was wrong. I remembered again how I had found Ora and Chaim lying dead behind Herr Eberhardt's automobile, and the guilt that had been lurking in my stomach ever since that moment, and will probably stay there for the rest of my life. I hated that Santana was blaming herself for Simka's death when it was really my entire fault. But I came to a silent agreement that if I had to live this past year over again, I would live it exactly the same way I had lived it the first time. When it came down to it, I would choose again to rescue Santana from the gas chambers, even if it meant that her friend would die in the end. Even if it meant that Ora and Chaim would be killed, because Santana was my other half, my soul mate, and I would never be able to live without her. As much as it hurt me to admit it, that was the truth.
I thought about Hans again. There was such a small possibility of rescuing him from that horrid man. We would never be able to return to Auschwitz again. Anyone would recognize our faces there, and we would be caught in seconds. But I didn't know if I'd be able to bear not being with him, not raising him to be my own child. I couldn't stand the thought of my own flesh and blood, my baby, growing up to be like his father. There was nothing to do but pray to whoever was up there for some sort of answer.
The sun had already slipped past the horizon by the time we stopped in front of an old apartment structure and Rolf finally said, "We're here."
We stood there, just looking up at the tall, looming building for a few moments before Rolf stepped forward and pulled open the front door, urging us to go through. We walked up three flights of stairs, and then down a hall until we reached a door with the number nine on it. Rolf held out his fist hesitantly, and then knocked lightly three times.
We stood completely silent for a few minutes, trying to hear if there were any noises inside the apartment. Just when I began to lose hope, the door swung open to reveal a man who looked to be in his mid-twenties wearing a dirty white tank top and boxer briefs. "Rolf?" he asked incredulously, a hint of a Polish accent evident in his pronunciation of the name.
"Bolek," Rolf allowed a small smile to spread across his lips.
The man stood motionless for a few seconds, and then began to laugh uproariously. "Rolf! It's been a while!" He shifted his gaze to Santana, and then to me. "And I see you brought girls…"
Rolf snapped his head to us. "No, Bolek," he said hurriedly. "They aren't for you."
The man's face fell, his eyes still staring hungrily at us. Rolf cleared his throat. "We're in trouble and we need your help."
Bolek finally tore his gaze away and looked back at Rolf. "What kind of trouble?"
Rolf glanced at us uneasily. "The Nazis want us dead kind of trouble."
Bolek shifted his gaze back to us and bit his lip. After a few moments of silence, he stood back and beckoned us in. I let out a little sigh of relief and followed Rolf inside the apartment.
Bolek had three bedrooms in his apartment, one of which was his. He offered the second bedroom to Rolf, and then asked if Santana and I would be okay with sleeping in the same bed. I looked at her, and was about to say, "Absolutely," when she mumbled something about sleeping on the couch. I had to truly hold back my tears at that point.
Bolek gave us some old clothes to change into and said his goodnights, but not before finding any and every excuse to touch us. I wanted to shout at him and push him away, but I knew that he was our only hope, so I kept my lips sealed.
I settled in bed, lying with my back to the door and hugging the pillows. I imagined them to be the clouds that I loved flying through, and closed my eyes and tried to hear the birds chirping. I wanted the numbness to return, to stop this constant pain of Hans being kilometers away and Santana sleeping alone on the couch, but it wouldn't come. It left me to cry alone in bed, miserable and utterly lost.
It seemed like hours had passed, but I couldn't fall asleep. I felt extremely antsy, and every little sound pounded in my ears. So when I heard the floor creak outside of my door, I rolled around frantically so that I was facing the closed door. I had a strong feeling that it was Bolek, and it felt almost like déjà vu.
The door slowly swung open, and I sighed in relief when I saw Santana's small figure. She stood in the doorway for a few moments, but I couldn't see her face because of the darkness. Then she walked carefully to the bed, and without saying a word, settled under the blankets and slung her arm across my chest. I embraced her into me with both of my arms, and when she nuzzled her face in my neck, I felt how damp it was.
She took in a shaky breath. "I'm sorry…" she whispered, and let out a small sob. "I didn't mean it, I just—" she paused, her crying growing a bit louder. "I'm sorry…" She whimpered quietly.
"It's okay, San," I stroked my fingers through her hair and kissed her forehead. "It's okay."
She continued to cry for a few more minutes, and I mumbled words of comfort to her. I thought again about the clouds, and the birds, and the vast land, and it occurred to me that I didn't need them to ease the pain. Santana didn't need her numbness to lessen the aching. All we needed, when looking for comfort, was each other.