Alive and Warm
The last few days were treacherously warm.
Of course, at the time, I hadn't known they were the last days in the ghetto, up until the final seventy-two hours. But I was certain none of the others knew the significance of November 15th like I did, and even then, I felt as if I'd cheated.
On what was to become the final day, I woke before dawn to the shrill echoes of a whistle from the streets below. It was so cold, and I felt the contrast from days past to the marrow of my bones. My dreams had been pitiless, and the memories wafting from this deep disremembered part of me became all the more impractical upon my waking in a room as dusty and hard as this. Everything smelt of brick, dust, and ice, and winter's cold grip had begun its worst on this small corner of the world overnight.
The wailing of Hena's baby began from the opposite side of the room, and from my spot compressed between those whose language was foreign to my own, I could overhear something from outside the window, a rushed set of movements followed by the bark of commands and a demand for order. Baby Sarah's screams were piercing, almost as bad as the whistles, and as these movements refused to subside, so did the inevitability of forsaken dreaming. The eleven other occupants of the room also began to rise, mumbling incoherent curses and irritated moans, all too tragically unfamiliar as to what that whistle actually meant. I had opened my eyes when a noisy knock came from the door.
"Roundup, outside!" I didn't recognise the man's voice by any sort of distinction, but, then again, these soldiers had all managed to blend together in my mind into a faceless nonentity. "Everyone is to report to the entrance for final inspection and registration before the first cars depart. Leave all belongings behind with surnames written on them, they will be shipped behind you to make space, so do not bother carrying them with you."
What struck me most after the officer had moved on to the next room was how rehearsed he had sounded. He had said these exact words already to countless others, and likely countless more would hear his message after us.
Bedsprings squeaked and tired sleepers groaned. In the damp dark of our room, Sarah continued to cry, her sharp voice echoing off the walls. Despite the creaking floors and chilling air, it took Hena less than a moment for her to rise from her spot next to her husband, Abraham, and pull her fussing daughter into her arms. As I myself sat up, I noticed the newlyweds huddling together around their baby girl, the loving sight of solidarity between family, before Abraham got up and began dressing. From the little I'd spoken to him, I understood that he'd been a musician before the roundup. I followed suit and got up, an ache descending from the veins in my lungs to the roots of my feet, and the truth became undeniable.
Workers; he'd told me not to believe the lie, that we Jews of Grodno were to be spared and used as slaves. We'd be the workers of war for the men who, once our usefulness faded, would kill us in droves. Lies to keep us discreet, compliant and calm. It both sickened and frightened me that these creatures in the luxurious uniforms had become so mighty that the people surrounding me, people who were willingly walking into their own graves, believed that they could continue breathing for at least a few minutes more, and all that was asked in return was submission. It was a trade most were willing to take, if not all, and everything fell into place. Salvation through work, was the phrase, and I heard it every day for the past year, as if it meant something. Salvation through work.
Even should I have remained ignorant of what was really happening, I'd have been far too prideful to obey such a loathsome command. The unfortunate consequence of being a son of Shelia Broflovski was that I'd gotten her temper, and this reluctance to go along with something I couldn't stand behind or believe in. It has proved a difficult if not defining quirk in the past, and something natural I couldn't shake. I was certain that, had our plan not called for self-restraint, had he not told me to lay low and keep my mouth shut – and had he not helped me – I'd have been dead long before this November 15th.
From her spot mere centimeters away, Hena distracted me from my current train of thought, and it felt soothing, almost reassuring. "Shh, little Sarah, shush," the young mother cooed, lovely dark hair ragged and stringing in her eyelashes. "Don't be frightened."
I felt groggy and hungry with a vague but nagging pain in my side from the lumps in my straw-stuffed mattress, and I watched the scene of this nineteen-year-old girl comforting her daughter back into sleep, silently wondering if this was how my mother calmed me back when I was a child.
I shook my head, raking my fingers through the oily hairs that clung to my scalp. Too many memories of familiarity made me feel all the more horrible than I already did.
I had been the only Broflovski sent to Grodno. My little brother, Isaac, had apparently managed to keep himself well-hidden from the regime, finding shelter beneath some helpful soul's floorboards in Southern Germany. It made me cringed that I hadn't known if my mother and father had been taken in, and hadn't seen their faces in, if I had it right, a year and four months. Grandfather Malachi and Grandmother Chloe, the aunts and uncles and the few cousins I had; I'd yet to see any of them in this hellhole, and they lived so close by, before the war anyway...
Dressing with eleven others in a room built for two, I internally begged and pleaded with God that I had been the only of my family to get caught. Still, I couldn't help doubting, wondering if I'd finally been abandoned by both blood and God altogether. Maybe then I wouldn't be judged for my future trail of sins.
For not telling anyone.
A soft grip curved along my shoulder, and I turned my head; the red curls I'd inherited from my mother, once vibrant but now lying stiff against my cheekbones, followed the swift movement as well as they could. Hena appeared all the wearier up close, but there shone a brilliant kindness in her eyes and a smile graced her pale lips. "Don't worry, dear, we'll all be fine," she hummed, as if she were making up for the lack of softness in our captors. "God is watching over us and guarding us, no matter what happens."
This gentle humanity threw me off so greatly that I swore I felt the earth shake beneath me. It frightened me just a bit to know that this woman was only two years my senior, but she had treated me like a fragile child. Hena reminded me of my own mother, minus the temper, and I found the more she smiled at me, the worse I felt. In that moment, I thought about telling her, telling all of them, that this was a day to fear, a day where one had to look beyond God for salvation. The sensation nagged so vigorously in my lowest gut, and I forced myself to part my lips and-
Thought of what he'd told me.
"Shut up and listen to me, for once. You've never listened to me, but you need to now. Don't tell anyone about November 15th, you'll only cause worse trouble for both yourself and all the others. Only you are to know about it, alright?"
-I hesitated, I needed to say something. Just something, anything.
"Thank you, Hena," was what I eventually managed, voice strained and almost lifeless. Hena seemed pleased with my answer, nevertheless, and placed another warming hand on my back before returning to her own family. I had never felt so alone in my life than I did at that moment.
The room had started to smell like mold. The entire complex did, really, with the snow soaking into the cheap wood. We'd all be breathing in nothing but recycled air if the walls weren't so thin to begin with. Even the nights during the summer were bitter and cold, but with winter, things only worsened. And no one complained, since we were all aware that it could be worse.
I sat again on my cot as I watched the others prepare to leave wherever they would be sent. Everything but my shoes and a winter hat were now secured on my person, so I figured I'd spare myself a moment to relax and wait for everyone to be on their way.
Suitcases were pulled from under beds and mattresses, and all the others began storing away their possessions, the ones they hadn't traded for food or gloves or jackets. I wondered if I should also pack up my things, but only for a second before I realised that I had been brought to this place with only what I had on me at the time of my capture. Chalk was passed between families and surnames were scribbled quickly on the tops of their brown leather luggage. None paid any heed to me in all this bustling process, not even Hena, whose sole focus lay on her daughter and her husband as she also rushed to pack their things together. Because of my position as being alone and German-speaking in a primarily Polish-native ghetto, I rarely ever talked to anyone here.
The aging Kozlow couple, who didn't speak a word of German, were the first to leave, and Abraham and Hena soon followed after with little Sarah now snuggly sleeping in her mother's arms. On their heels followed two other woman named Minka and Monika, whom I had assumed were siblings, adorned in their best mink-skin furs (their jewelry securely sewn into their underclothes a week or so back), then Adir Sokol, his wife, Meital and their two young children, Dvorah and Melech. It was far too soon that I had been left by myself.
And I remembered exactly what he'd wanted me to do. Our plan was finally to set into motion.
I'd been in these ghettos three months before I had begun to truly hate myself. Only once in my life other than this point did I twist into a suspension of perpetual self-loathing, and that had been my final night in Berlin. I had not done something wrong, per say, but it had been a bad parting, and now it was not just the imprisonment that kept me from the city I had once known as my home. From the ghetto, my conflict with myself arose not from this instilled belief that these people held against me, that I was predisposed to being wicked and deceitful. No, it was because I had lacked the foresight to keep myself hidden, and my own doing had been what got me caught and sent to this crowded hell in the first place.
My parents had moved us from Berlin just weeks before I'd turned fifteen, Isaac barely even ten. We stayed for what felt like an eternity in Northern Germany, Schwedt, with a man my father had known in his college years studying law. This man who shook my hand once and did not again look at me, a man whose name I couldn't even remember now, had been my father's friend. And while he'd agreed to shelter us in the basement of his home, he'd looked at us as if we were not people, a family in need of shelter, but a responsibility that had been forced on him.
We weren't sure who it had been, but someone alerted the police after seven months. When father's friend descended the stairs with waving arms, rattling out that we needed to move somewhere, anywhere other than his home, the idea of blame seemed a stupid thing to care about. With such little notice, we did not go together, as if the notion of our staying together, the four of us, would be a dead giveaway, so father made it so that we would be off in threes; Isaac went to the widowed something or other of one of mother's friends in Füssen, and my parents claimed they knew of a place in Brussels where they would be welcomed, although, as father told this to Isaac and I, his expression was such that he was lying through the skin of his teeth. Mother was wincing tears away, securing her hold around Isaac when I was told that they'd made arrangements for me not to stay with my brother or my parents, like I had predicted, but to travel to Pita. There, a small family father had worked with on one of his cases had agreed to shelter me, but only me. I recall hating my father for his weak reasoning, for his inability to keep the family together, like it should be, and I wished with all my being that he would just come out and say that my brother and I could not be together because I looked the part of a Jew while he did not. Isaac, merely adopted into Jewish blood, wouldn't have to hide, but me… I was conspicuous, and I'd end up getting us both caught.
Father had enough sense not to admit this, however, and I loathed him all the more.
Seeing as how swiftly we needed to get moving, I got in few words of goodbye to my family. Mother practically knocked the air from my lungs with the squeeze she inflicted upon my middle, and in our last seconds together, she dropped something into my hands, demanding I keep it safe. I swept Isaac into a short but sentimental embrace, and, with little time left, I nodded at father and gave him the smallest of smiles before we were all off in separate directions.
Being that we all mutually agreed that it was partially their failure in our getting reported to the authorities, the wife of father's friend offered to drive either Isaac or me off, and since my destination was closer, I was stationed on the floor of the backseat of their car, a blanket laid on me and shopping bags atop that. It proved unsuccessful, and after two hours of lying in continuous stillness, she was stopped and my cover was ripped from me. I was honestly amazed when the officers, two men with little pins adorned with the symbol of the Reich, did not shoot me on sight. They laughed cruelly at me, at a one point one of them forced my head down with a flat palm that he'd placed on my head, down far enough that I was close to toppling over, but otherwise they detained me into the back of their car. They never spoke a word to me on their way to Grodno, and at my arrival, I was all but immediately recorded and shoved into the grounds of ghetto one, left to fend for myself.
Everything happened so quickly that it blurred from my memory, and much of it had disappeared completely from my mind. Now, only broad details still remained in their absence. The fate of the woman who had been driving was still unknown to me, though it had occurred to me that her husband, a wealthy and influential lawyer, likely got her away clean. I do remember the embarrassment, however, that stood relevant beyond my clear feelings of dread. How idiotic I was, to have been caught so easily. We hadn't even hit the border and I had been captured. I chalked this disgust up to my pride, the pride I'd obviously inherited from my mother, and even as I was sent to work in the factory with the other men, making hinges, bullet casings and assembly line guns used in the German effort, it hurt my ego greatly to have known that I was so simply caught.
It had been around this period of this internal struggle that it happened. Whether it had been salvation sent by God Himself or just a ghastly joke at my expense, I still am not sure.
Sitting there on my cot, November 15th finally upon me, I pulled on my footwear; brown leather business shoes from my father that clashed with my torn slacks and shirt grayed from months without wash. Without a second's hesitation, I moved to the window, cheap white paint now chipping away from the pane, and unfastened the latch. The cold hit instantly, burning me and nipping at the skin of my face once I'd pulled the glass above my head. Whistles and shouts were erupting from the ground up, and somehow, the orders roared from down below took a more vicious tone from this safety point above ground. But they weren't important, not at that moment; I looked down to see if he'd be there.
I didn't even have to wait. On the ground, whitened by a mid-winter snow, stood the thick stature of a Hitler Youth with large military boots and brunet hair. He outweighed and towered above the others youths present at the ghetto, which there weren't very many to compare, but he was definitely recognizable the first second we laid eyes on one another, regardless of the inciting chaos surrounding us. Even in the thickened darkness of early morning, we could see each other clearly.
In the state I was in, tired and anxious, I couldn't find it in me to grace him with a greeting.
For the majority of my life, I had been… something, with Eric Theodore Cartman. "Friend" was certainly not the right word to use, and "acquaintance" suggested that we didn't know each other very well. On the contrary, by age nine, I knew more about Eric Cartman than I did about myself, and, despite being somewhat depressing, it was a truth I had become accustomed to.
We'd met at home, back in Berlin. While it had been normal for my family to live in a primarily Jewish neighbourhood, Eric Cartman, who lived opposite our yard and garden, was there because his family couldn't afford a better home in a Lutheran or Catholic district. He'd been the first person I'd ended up meeting in our new home, and gave a rather unfortunate impression of the city in general. Isaac and I had been in the garden, exploring and playing, when a voice came from the opposite yard, and Eric popped his head around the hedges of the gate. He was a short, plump little boy with chocolate smeared on his face, three front teeth missing, and a sneer fit snuggly around his fat cheeks. He called out, "New Jews in the neighbourhood!", and mentioned "going home to Israel" and "we don't want you here."
My temperament was worse when I was younger. I yelled for him to be quiet, to go home and I insulted him over his weight. He'd thrown a tiny tin car at my head, and in return, I'd climbed our railing and chased him around his yard, threatening to shove the car down his throat.
In spite of our less than friendly first meeting, Eric quickly became my closest companion, but that meant little in way of his less than charming personality. He'd tormented me from day one, mentally, physically, every way imaginable; he'd mocked my hair, my nose, my voice, my eyes, the way I walked, and often taunted me and demanded I fight him. He'd been especially fond of ridiculing my Jewish ancestry after a while, and he'd go days at a time without using my name, opting instead for my new nickname, "Jew".
There were other friends that I'd met and become close to. Stanley Marsh attended Eric's primary school; he had hair as black as deep ink, eyes a dulled blue and he had the most ridiculously hairy eyebrows. We met through Eric, who introduced me as "Jew", and Stanley as "Scum", and the bond between us was all but immediate. His father was a professor of some kind, a major alcoholic with what Stanley had referred to as "behavioural issues", and his mother was a receptionist at some downtown clinic or some such. Stanley was quiet but self-driven, something of an egomaniac if I was being completely honest, and stopped playing games like frogs or jacks about grade four when he began talking less. He'd pinch the bridge of his nose if something exasperated him, which happened too many times to count. Whenever lost in thought, he'd stuff his hands deep into the pockets of his trousers and would remain silent and unmoving until something, a little thought of inconsequence to anyone else, satisfied him. If there's one thing to remember about Stanley, especially in these years in which I hadn't seen or heard anything from him, it's that he had this weird affinity for animals; cows, dogs, goats, turkeys, anything but the snakes we'd find slithering about in our gardens he was fond of and cared more deeply for than he ever would another person. I thought of the strained relationship he had with his father, the girlfriend I never met, the mother and sister he never talked about. Really, it was no wonder he favoured animals over people.
Kenneth McCormick, a boy of mostly Scottish decent, was more the type I saw Eric Cartman taking up as a long-term friend. Content with grime and a life of poverty and hedonism, Kenneth representing everything my father hated in other people; he came from a background of drunks and thieves, and this, as he thought, made him both tough and proud. He was quiet, too, not in a thoughtful way like Stanley, but in a way that suggested that he was both meek and incredibly bored, but also observant. He had obsessions over things like death, resurrection and sex, which my parents despised more than anything, and I was forced to play with Kenneth in secret. Best thing about him was his endearing kindness, and his willingness to step in and help no matter what the problem or the person; usually, anyway. I'd like to think of him as becoming a police officer should he ever find the motivation. He'd be good at that.
From 1930 until 1935, it was always the four of us, although since I lived in my own little district, it was easier to seek out Eric's company more than Stanley or Kenneth, who were out of the way. My parents, brother and classmates thought it odd that I sought the companionship of almost entirely non-Jews, but in this I felt a sense of pride, like I'd accomplished something none of the other Jewish children had without even trying.
I was eight when Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor, and, despite being so young, everything started changing for me; my non-Jewish friends weren't allowed to come over anymore, and I was no longer permitted to be out by myself after school, especially if I was outside our Jewish district. I remember being confused by these new restrictions, so dreadfully confused over the importance of such a label as "Jew". Up until that point, I'd been myself and that alone, not a small piece of a whole that every non-Jew now said was the start of the downfall of our – their – society. My father would often talk when he was in his room with my mother, thinking themselves alone while Isaac and I huddled outside the door. They discussed certain threats and accusations made against him and his firm, certain stories from family and friends across Germany and Poland, who'd spoken of bloodshed and beatings and public executions. All from a label, and I still hadn't understood.
Why they hated us so much.
I listened to the kids at school, who also had wretched things to say. Many whispered about family plans to flee to Israel or the Netherlands or Switzerland; others, like Ezer Wiesel, a close friend of mine, had families constructing safe houses, hidden from any unwelcomed eye, or had begun forming plans with non-Jewish friends for the security of a safe hideaway until "this all blew over" and normalcy could commence.
In all this confusion, in this time of inflicted fear and new regulation, Eric Cartman had become my last constant.
And here in Grodno, he'd become my only irregularity.
Standing ridged in the snow, Eric stared up at me. Beyond him, I could make out the rest of the ghetto's gray buildings and beyond that, the gate. The dim early morning glow, however denied my anything further than that. My hands clutched at the window pane and I paused for a minute, as if I were making sure that it was really him. Of course it was. In the light of a nearby lamp, I could make out the smoke of his breath, the cold in his mouth and the hurry in the wrinkles of his eyebrows. Maybe he was analyzing my appearance the same way I was his, but the way I felt at that moment, I really didn't want to think on that.
The gaze between us lingered for as long as it could before I initiated the plan. Gracelessly, I groped about my slack pocket, grasped what I was searching for, opened the window and tossed a crumpled scrap of paper down towards Eric. He snatched the paper before it fell into the snow, read its contents, and took his leave, flashing me a meaningful glance before going about his business.
I didn't watch him go, but instead returned to my cot, the makeshift bed I'd made mine in the last two months, the slate I had traded a box of unused matches for. Beneath the springs, I pulled a clay mug of water staled by time and likely coated with a collection of dust, and sat, again reaching into my pocket to find the next step: Mother's wedding ring, the gift she'd carefully handed me moments before I'd seen her last. She'd begged me to keep it close and hoped to hold it once again after we would reunite. Looking at it, I thought of it as nothing short of beautiful, a single diamond curved along an outline of fine tiny Mediterranean pearls. I'd loved this ring for so long that it hurt, worse than the abandonment and maybe even worse than the loneliness.
"I can't lose this," I whispered aloud, mostly to myself but maybe to God, too. I opened my jaws and placed the ring on my tongue, and with the last of my reservations now gone, I took one large gulp of water. Hiding the cup was a fantastic idea; the ring went down my throat so much easier with it than it would have without any kind of assistance. Now, no one could take the final piece of my mother away from me.
I crowned the hat Eric had given me onto my scalp, and with that, I bolted out the door. Along the way, I almost tripped on the stairs and shoved past a good deal of people, but I suddenly felt very motivated, and ignored the curses and angry shouts hurled at me by those I'd inconvenienced. I'd written a very simple response the night before and had at last delivered my final answer.
If we can both get on the train to Malines today, then yes.
Then came the worst part.
The Polish city of Grodno had three ghettos by the time I arrived after my arrest, split into sections shortly after someone realised that 15,000 people in-between Wilenska Street and Zamkowa Street was far too tight a fit. Ghetto two of this divided land had been built behind a set of railway tracks, next to an old army barracks and a corner from the market square. I'd been in ghetto one for a week when, along with thousands of others, I had been forcibly transferred from one to two with little time to prepare. We were herded, like sheep. I recalled the screams of panic, the separation of families and the scrambles to keep a hold on old family possessions that were surely all gone by now.
And there we remained for a year.
They came for the businessmen shortly before the last day, and transported them back to Ghetto one, leaving woman and children and unusable men back in two. The population, as far as Eric had told me, went down to 4,000. There was crying those days, too, but it was much more dignified than it had been during the first move. I'd envied them, for having the energy to cry, for having a loved one still with them worth crying over.
Two was reserved for the less useful occupants, and naturally, that was the one where I'd been moved to. Men and women and children alike all worked tirelessly at the factory a few miles off, but at least no one starved to death. The food market going throughout the two ghettos kept all of us going, gave men jobs and domain over our German rule. There was sickness and pestilence, of course; rats ruled most of the lower rooms at ground level, the water was soiled and hazardous to drink in large amounts and people were becoming infected with so many different diseases but, still, no one starved.
The housing I'd been assigned to just so happened to be near the back of the ghetto, an estimated ten minute walk to the rear gate. The buildings and structure was far smaller than I had been used to, which I assumed rang true for most of the others that were holed up in this place with me. These were the ones that didn't deport or escape when it was possible, the unlucky ones. It took me a good, long while before I realised how snuggly I too fit into that category. It was apparent to even me that the housing had been built in a rush, as everything creaked and bent awkwardly, angles and corners never seeming to meet. Surprisingly, none of the structures ever fell. An electric lamp once caught on fire in our building, but there was little damage done.
We weren't allowed near the gate, those of us with symbols on our jacket arms, later patches on the left side of the coat, front and back. I'd seen a man, not much older than my father, get shot execution-style by an officer for standing at the fence with the intention of smoking the pipe he'd had smuggled in. Wasn't the first time, either. People died daily here, by sickness and by public execution, but it was rare to witness, these deaths, as I later found. Men fourteen to sixty and women fourteen to forty-five were busy in the factory most of the day, with children left to their own, but rarely was there ever a shot that rang through the air and froze the blood of all who heard it; seldom did everyone have thoughts of who had died now, if we knew them, if we'd end our night in mourning. It was assumed that our ghetto was one of the lucky one, as we'd heard word from the Judenrat, Jewish men who'd taken control of the ghetto to make its living bearable, that others had it much worse. Their work was obviously not as valued, but ours was. People were shot here, yes, but not for nothing.
This changed thirteen days ago, November 2nd, when they killed twelve people after the ghetto was sealed off. Weise and Strebelow, Eric had called them,held up workers at the front. I'd been on my way up with the others from my housing when the first shots fired, and everyone scrambled away like frightened animals, fleeing for their lives from these men with guns, and I turned from the crowd and retreated back with literally thousands of others as a compressed sea of bodies around me. Screams everywhere, it was stupefying and confusing, but I ran in the mud and snow and saw all around me a panic that reminded me of livestock before the slaughter.
No one knew why twelve died at the gate, forty others shot and wounded, who would likely later succumb to these wounds, but we'd heard rumors. A German woman named Elsie who lived two floors down informed me that Jews from the other ghettos merely miles from us had a similar experience, sealed off without warning, mass murder with seemingly no meaning. These were awful stories telling of public executions and hangings, of children and mothers and fathers alike lying dead in the streets coated with crimson blood. I didn't want to believe her.
But then it came true. A man was caught smuggling in bread for his wife and was hung in Batory Square. I stood far off to the side, but watched this condemned man with the greatest respect I've ever held for another human being. His chin was high and his face had been stiff with bravery, and he called out for the entire square to hear "Behatzlacha!" as a soldier kicked the stool from beneath him. I looked the other way as he fell, and his corpse was carried away. Others with similar "crimes" were shot on sight, those carrying bread or smoking or simply standing; it became routine for the Germans, commonplace and dull. No one was certain how many had died this past week or so, and to count the numbers would have been nothing short of ill-omened and heartbreaking.
The worst were the group murders, which happened in numbers I never thought possible. They'd stand men and women side-by-side, Jews wrapped up tight in dark winter clothing, and soldiers would take aim and never think of these as human beings as rounds were fired one-by-one into skulls. I never saw one of these personally, but they were happening. The worst was that no one was sure how they picked their targets and where the bodies were taken after the execution.
Everyone tried to make sense of it, this sudden change of hostility worse than before, and these acts of murder that, while horribly explainable, were unprovoked. For the past year, food and tobacco and other goods were easily smuggled from outside to in, and never before had the Germans cared, so long as you were merely passing the time and not interfering. Personally, I'd given up on these men who shared my country, since I no longer saw them as human, and therefore incapable of reasoning. Every execution, every broken neck, I grew worse in my hatred, of myself for more reasons than before, and of everything else. My family, the soldiers, the guns and gunshots, the death and the strong feeling of hopelessness; everything piled around me so greatly that I began sinking in it, suffocating. I was a wretched person, truly.
My meeting Eric in Grodno, however, was perhaps both the best and worst possible thing to have ever happened to me.
I was taken from my job in the factory by a soldier sometime in February. He told me that my working pace was incompetent, and I got defensive. Words passed between me and this particular soldier, and a punch was thrown; I felt my nose bleed before anything, and before I could even pray for myself, assured that this would be what finally got me killed, he was there.
If I were being honest with myself, my immediate reaction to getting found by Eric Cartman, blood rupturing from my nose and mixing with the tears streaming down my cheeks, had at first been panic, outright fear. Maybe I'd recognised him, maybe I hadn't, but everything moved so fast. Being pulled by my collar into a darkened alleyway after the soldier who had hit me fell unconscious to the ground, when I felt more than just vulnerable. It brought out the alarming realization that this is how I would die, never by some nameless underling for the Reich, but by a familiar face. I viewed the scene in my head, this monster with a gun and a face stolen from my memories giving me no explanation, no burdensome worrying or speaking. One hit of metal to my skull and I'd be done. I would die there.
But I didn't.
Arms wrapped themselves tightly around my middle, not my throat the way I'd expected, and after crushing our bodies together, this person released me and punched me hard on the cheek. I stumbled backward from the unforeseen impact and took in a breath of a familiar scent that I hadn't even thought about in years, and a voice sternly told me, "You fucking idiot."
And it was him, little Eric Cartman all grown up and towering above me, face pinked and stern.
Seeing this old friend of mine in the uniform that I'd come to associate with oppression wasn't necessarily frightening anymore. No, it was more nauseating than anything, really. Instead, I made a conscious effort to focus entirely on how Eric had changed, which he'd done in abundance, our three year separation made only all the more evident. The first impression I noticed was his height, staggering and far surpassing my now humbled 167 cm. At least 180 cm, although a great deal of that may have been in his military boots. His freckles were all but gone and, while it seemed he hadn't lost any weight, his stature appeared to absorb some of the fat from his belly and rearranged it, making him less of a plump boy and more a sheer mass of enormity. His face was the same, however, brown eyes like coffee, thin lips, dark eyelashes and rounded ears; that was comforting.
"Eric?" I had eventually managed once the shock passed, my hand still clasped over where he's struck me.
The expression painted across his face was a queer combination of relief and anger, and maybe something else that I couldn't make out, but when I used his name, he exclaimed,
"Are you trying to kill me?"
Standing there, I became increasingly aware that, no, I was not dreaming, nor was I dead. Eric Cartman was here, in this greatest of hells with me, for how long I was unsure, and he'd pulled me from death. Was I trying to kill him? The question boggled my mind, and I was trapped in a state where answering, or doing anything really, was out of the question. I stared stupidly at him for minutes on end, until he sighed.
"Go back to work." And he left me standing there, shaking in my shoes and face throbbing from two different blows. With little else to do, I obeyed him and returned to the factory, wiping the blood onto the sleeve of my jacket.
He stood aloofly by my side for those long months leading up to November, but I'd only see him around once every couple weeks, our conflicting roles as prisoner and jail warden trainee keeping us busy and separated for the most part. He'd return home, and I'd lay awake at night wondering if he'd see Stanley or Kenneth or if everything had remained the same after I'd left. If he could, he'd bring me food from the outside, cheeses or breads, but we would never talk about anything. I was always too afraid to ask him the obvious questions, which I fully recognised as idiotic, but it was true. Maybe it was the height, or this new sternness that never seemed to leave his face, but I never made small talk, never mentioned Berlin or Stanley and Kenneth or the night I left.
Then came the 12th of November.
He'd come for me after we'd returned from a day of work, demanding I follow him, which I did. By this point, the Eric Cartman I'd known had become nothing more than a collection of memories; this person, who wore the uniform and never smiled, never once acted as I had remembered him, was not Eric Cartman, but an imposter who'd stolen his skin and worn it was his own.
On the street, our presence would no doubt cause a great deal of trouble, so Eric whirled around the closest corner, leaving me to hopelessly follow behind him. Once we were in confidence, concealed by the dark cover of night, I spoke first. I felt I was entitled.
"What's going on?" I asked him, not caring about whatever he'd so boldly come to tell me. Fear had dominated all of me. "We've never had hangings before now, random shootings. Shit, Eric, what's happening here?"
Eric's lips were pressed so securely together as he stared me down, but I made damn certain that he wouldn't win this battle. The curse of being stubborn. From his side of this, anyway. He turned to inspect the two ends of the alley, checking for confidence that we were in fact alone before he turned again to me. "In three days, deports are going to start for this ghetto," he whispered with an urgency in his tone. "They're going to tell everyone that they're being shipped to a work camp, but they're not."
Fear, panic, terror, anything and everything came to mind at that moment. I knew nothing compared to Eric when it came to what was going on, but it all clicked in my mind, why they were killing us with an abandon they'd previously restricted. We weren't workers. The Germans were doing all of this to us for a reason.
No, his people in the uniform were doing this, I thought then, the one he was currently wearing. I felt an small pang of betrayal as I took a step backward and into the wall, away from him. I acted as if he were the one in charge, the one killing my people in droves, and I was stupid to have been so easily played a fool now the truth had been revealed.
Eric took no move to follow me. From the little I saw of his face in this shadowed light, his expression did not change. "Then what's going to happen?" I asked, quiet and distrustful, "to everyone here?"
A quiet took hold around us as we searched each other with our eyes, I looking for answer and him looking for something I'd never understand. Eventually, he sighed. "Listen to me, just-" He moved his hands up, like he was surrendering, which he was; I relaxed slightly. "Listen to me. On the fifteenth, you'll all be rounded up front and boarded into train cars, but I need you to go to the back gate. Past the final right corner, there's a blind spot that I need you to get through fast, get past the gate and make a run for the woods."
Instructions, he was giving me instructions, and on top of that, instructions on escape. He tells me that a deportation will start, and he's offering me a way out. Unease consumed my guts, and I slouched against the wall as he kept talking, but I was no longer listening. It was against my nature to not only tuck-tail, abandoning my fortitude, but to completely ignore the pain and tragedy of others, especially those who had done nothing wrong to warrant such a fate in the first place. With my father's ethics and my mother's pride, I was practically bred for martyrdom.
When I stopped listening, he paused, muttered something garbled and grabbed my shoulder with a firm hand, snapping me back from my thoughts.
"I feel sick," I gasped out, honestly; something hot and ranging was forcing its way around the most intimate corners of my organs, but it was not fear and it was not self-loathing; it was selfishness. I was human, fallible and frail, and I wanted to live more than anyone else. No matter how hard I fought it, that selfish thought remained, an escape, and it stained my body black. We Jews didn't believe in original sin, but we definitely believed in acquired sin.
As if he hadn't heard me, Eric continued, but he did sound a bit more rushed. "I'll get you a new jacket, you can't walk around with that star on your chest. There's a forger, I paid for fake papers for us, birth certificates and identification, passports. If we walk fast enough, we can make it to the nearest train station by late afternoon."
I took in his words before shaking my head, but I didn't drive his hand away.
"Where would we go?"
Hitler reigned over almost all of central Europe as far as I knew. Fake papers would only take us so far.
Eric squeezed his grip a bit. He was getting impatient. "I'll arrange for someone to drive us to Bialystok, and we can take the train. It'll get us to Belgium. Malines. We can cross the Chanel to England. Here, look at me." With his free hand he secured my other shoulder and I felt myself getting pinned against the brick as he demanded eye contact, which I eventually gave him. He was so determined, intense, more than I'd ever seen him in all our years together. He didn't make any damn sense. "Repeat what I'm saying to yourself, memorise it, because I will only say this once. In three days, walk to the back gate without getting caught, run for the blind spot, and get out into the woods. Go east, and wait until I can meet up with you. Here," he pried my right hand away from me and opened my fingers, pulling a folded piece of parchment from his pocket and placing it in my palm, "are some directions. Follow them until you're as far from Grodno as you can get."
I took in everything and stared down at the paper he'd given me, but it was all too fast. I hated fast. Eventually, I shook my head again. "No," I argued, voice getting louder and louder, and I forced myself to look him in the eye. "This is wrong. You want me to abandon all these people so we can run off, safe and sound?"
He frowned. "Shut up!" he shushed. "There's no-" A noise in the distance disrupted him, soldiers and dogs wandering loosely about on the streets; his scowl deepened and his gaze wandered. "You're drawing attention to us and you'll be late getting back, you need to make curfew." His eyes stopped back at me, and I locked mine with his again, feeling stronger than I should have. "Think about this, because it's an offer, not an order. Feel free to say no if you want."
There was a sudden noise to our left, and Eric froze. Two soldiers with a dog between them sauntered down the street, chatting lightly and not paying attention. I also iced up, but made a small breath of surprise when Eric closed the distance between us. Without a second's thought, he'd wrapped his arms around my neck and forced himself against me, hiding me in the chest of his jacket. "Shit, don't move." I didn't; in this position, I remained completely still, rigid between an alley wall and his upper body and stomach, and breathed in his scent over and over as he kept me out of sight. In its own strange way, it was incredibly intimate, but the scare of discovery far eclipsed anything else that was going through my head, especially how hard I was breathing, how I felt him hold his breath in and how different it seemed, this nearness.
I was blind beyond Eric's military jacket, but apparently it had worked; the Germans made on their way past us, our two forms never meeting their attention. Once he was sure they'd gone, Eric released me, backing away at such a speed you'd think I'd bitten him. I would have laughed had my heart not been so viciously pounding inside my own chest. It was warm and hard to breathe, and I figured it was from the close call and my sudden cut-off from oxygen.
Eric caught himself before I did, and continued on with the intent on ending this little meeting of ours. "You're in no position to be reckless, Kyle. I'm honestly surprised you haven't been killed yet." It's funny, how much I actually agreed with him, but I'd rather they catch us and cut out my tongue right then and there before ever admitting that to him. "I'm offering you a way out, either accept it or not."
I let these words swim in my head as I bit at my lower lip and considered the options I had in front of me. Any average man would leap at this chance; it was planned, and I knew how clever Eric was. On the other hand, I was not the average man, at least in regards to the second party of this great escape. The numerous memories I had of Eric Cartman always seemed to consist of the worst of my childhood, humiliation, torment, fights; it left a sour taste in my mouth. And even then, who was I to simply wander away unscathed from whatever torments these innocent people around me would later suffer? Some kid, one among thousands, and I weighed my options, considering the quality of life, which I'd never done until I came to this awful place.
I decided to bite the bullet and try something risky. "Can anyone else-"
"No." He knew as much about me as I did him, if not more. He'd read right through me, and for some reason, this upset me. He was glowering so hard, and I thought about if it'd stick like that, remain that way forever, but I didn't find it funny. I gave him a frown of my own and took a step in his direction, finding courage from somewhere that I'd thought dead and long gone. He was getting angry, the dangerous sort, but I'd stop caring at this point; I was tired and hopeless and wanted him to suffer just as I had here, where you were a captive and stripped of your rights and suddenly you were sub-human, less than an animal. Maybe if he knew, the pain and loss, then he'd be better off. Then he'd understand.
"Eric," I growled thought a clenched jaw, "I'm not going to leave thousands of people to-"
There wasn't any time to breathe as his hands collided flat with the wall behind me and I stumbled back into my spot, voice and anger suddenly lost to me. When I looked up, he forced our gazes together. I saw this intensity in his eyes, a blaze of anger and passion that I'd only previously wondered of him. He was done allowing me room to talk, and with our time running out, he'd decided to make his final statements with or without my permission.
"Shut up and listen to me," he snarled. "For once. You've never listened to me, but you need to now. Don't tell anyone about November 15th, you'll only cause worse trouble for both yourself and all the others. Only you are to know about it, alright?" He didn't wait for my answer. "On the morning of the 15th, I'll be outside your window. Write your response here." One last reach into his jacket produced another folded paper, but this time when handing it to me, it was much more compelling and full of force. His gaze was digging deep into my skin, and I knew he was waiting for me to connect our gazes together again, but I felt humiliated. My only response was to clench of my jaw and fixate my eyes onto my shoes. Eventually, he sighed, and moved to free me from his captive hold. "I hope you make the right decision," he mused, calmer now, breathing deep and rhythmic. "Until then, keep your head down, keep your mouth shut, and don't get yourself killed."
He's been walking off so quickly all these times that he's come back into my life, never allowing me any time to react. But as he calmly stepped away from me in that alleyway, again and again, leaving me alone in the dark, I turned in one swift movement to face him. My mouth opened wide enough to shout, but no sound formed, and it was then that I realised he had won against me. I'd lost to Eric Cartman, a prospect that brought about the worst of emotions; humiliation, despair, fear, loathing. And the worst was that the longer the distance between us, the more unsafe everything else felt. It was all maddening, him and his stupid smell and his smug smile and this bizarre friendship we'd kept chasing straight into Hell, and it hurt to see him walk from me.
Quietly, I swallowed my tongue and my pride, whispering, "Eric, can I ask you something?"
He stopped, but when I'd opened my mouth, he put words between us instead. "I'm glad you're still alive."
I had to time to form as response and he was gone, and again I was left to myself.
Now that I was there, in that present that I'd dreaded since that conversation, I knew that, yes, I'd made the right decision. There wasn't any point in distrusting him now.
Stepping outside, I noted that the sky had been ripped of its colour. Everything was gray as the first shots rang through the air and people started scrambling, and I suddenly felt as if the world had vanished into the night without bothering to tell me of its departure. A feasible world, anyway; the one where I'd once lived. Everything outside this place existed to me like a far-away dream, a luxury I'd never again get the pleasure of touching or experiencing. And I believed it too, for a split second, as a woman from far off let go a tremendous scream of terror, that every piece of evidence for a solid reality that rested beyond the wire fences and gunfire wasn't real, but a long-lost illusion of grandeur.
The direction was simple enough; living a straight year in this place, the direction was no mystery, and I began my way in a direction where every step taken could prove hazardous. In the haze of the morning, however, I'd stopped caring. A few shots blasted from some far off corners and people, too numerous to count, scuttled around me, keeping families together and warily minding the soldiers standing amid the bustling crowds.
Knowing hesitation would be the plan's downfall, I turned heel and scurried down a thin alleyway and further in the right direction, and I'd stopped to search for my next path when a small group of boys in uniform came around the corner and spotted me.
"Hey!" one of them called with a daunting tone, forcing me to remain in my place as they rushed over. They'd have shot me if I made a break for it.
They'd surrounded me and backed me into a wall, and from this closer view, I inspected them as much as I could without really looking at them. There were four boys, Hitler Youths, and I'd seen at least two previously, but never once had one spoken to me or vice versa. Two were blonds, one stocky and toothy with a youthful face and shoes two-sizes too big and the other was tiny and nervous who preoccupied himself with looking at his feet. Another sported dark hair with a nose that looked as if it'd been bent with a hammer, and the last had hair that reminded me of Eric's, soft and cream-brown, but his face was dark, ugly to look at for too long.
If a soldier approached you, I learned, you were supposed to bow your head and remove the hat from your head, which I did. It was nauseating, but I did it.
The boy with the crooked nose spoke first. "Hey, Jew, identify yourself."
Internally, I refused his command, but I had no choice outwardly. With little hesitation, I reached into my jacket pocket and pulled from it my identification card, the word JUDEN stamped repulsively at the top, and awaited an answer. The brunet made small gestures toward me, as if he were either tempted to grab at my arms to hold me steady or reach into his own pocket and retrieve the gun I was certain lay there while the stocky blond and dark-haired boy checked over my card. They tossed it back at me when they were done.
"Are you deaf, or just stupid?" the blond asked. "You follow your line and stay single-file to go up to the front for your transport."
These boys, my age or somewhere close by their appearances, looked to me as they saw me; a piece of meat. All held in their possession guns, and I tried to suppress a deep fear as I scrambled for a lie that could save me. Their faces drew about a hideous falsehood; they weren't children at all, but willing executioners.
Instinctively, I curled up into myself and avoided his eye contact, instead moving to inspect the ground beneath my feet. I noticed a splash of red against the snow, which I refused to take as an omen. "I was waiting for my mother. I'd wanted to walk with her."
The brunet moved, and I heard a click that turned my insides to stone. "What you want does not matter anymore, does it?" He certainly was not looking for my answer to that question. The other two snickered, the little blond awkwardly following after his more domineering friends.
I couldn't find it in myself to understand these creatures, so deadened to emotions and empathy that they shouldn't be considered human at all. Cold, calculated, needlessly cruel; I would have called them sub-human had they already not thought of me in such a way.
And then I heard it, again, the voice that had so greatly changed over these years.
"Bayer! Hummel, Reuter, Stotch! Why are you failing to patrol your section of the ghetto?"
All four stopped and looked up, but more out of rank than respect. I also bravely peered upward, watching as Eric came toward us with the stature of a war god, head held high and boots heavy against the earth beneath him. He did not look at me, probably to keep the charade up, but still, it felt disconcerting in its own way.
Crooked-nose took a quick look at me before turning again. "We were simply identifying this Jew and delivering proper punishment for his refusal to adhere to the regulations of the ghetto, Cartman." His justification was childish for being the one holding the gun, and Eric rightfully responded with a scoff.
"Yes, and while one Jew is punished, how many could have simply taken you for a fool and slipped past your notice? Huh?" No one answered, but only the small blond seemed to actually feel a speck of shame. "General Strebelow should hear about this straight away."
"No, no, that's quite alright, Cartman," the thickset blond interjected, and I caught him letting his gaze go swiftly between Eric and I. "We'll return to patrol immediately."
With that, the four took off ambling toward their original rounds. The little blond, Stotch, called back to us, "Are you coming, Eric?"
"Just a moment." His eyes fell to me, and my body froze. "I'll handle this Jew."
A slight pang of guilt overtook me for getting myself caught. "Eric-" But he moved incredibly close to me, eyes narrowed with some somber emotion. He shifted, made sure the four were no longer looking in our direction, and he spoke frantically into my ear as he backed us behind the corner.
"They're already suspicious of us," he hissed. "I need you to go, now." He reached into his coat's pocket and retrieved a small silver pistol, sliding his finger into the trigger and aiming it past my shoulder. "Cover your ears, and when I shoot, fall."
He gave me no time to think. I cupped my palms over my ears, wincing as a single shot rang past my head and I did as I was told and became one of the executed.
I forced my legs to give out under my weight, my body colliding with the road below me, and it took my entire being to gather the strength not to cry out as the air was knocked from me. Eric was gone so quickly, and I kept still as I hear him over the distant gunshots and orders, shouting to his comrades. "Leave the body, we'll go back in cleanup!"
For a short time I remained there, lying in someone else's blood and freshly-fallen snow. My thoughts clogged with the craze of my senses, adrenalin pumping through my body at such a high rate. But time did not allow me a second to catch myself, and on shaking legs, I gathered up my courage and stood, making my way past the Jews headed for the front gate. They were murmuring to one another, and when I wasn't paying attention, I nearly tripped over an abandoned satchel and had to catch myself on a frozen rail. I stopped to stable my feet and legs, but no one bothered to stop me, to correct me or notice me. For the first time in my life, I was grateful for that. Maybe they had figured that someone would eventually shoot me for going the wrong way.
The more I managed to find my way to the back of the ghetto, the more scarce soldiers became, and when there was a man with a gun and a face covered by a military cap, I hid behind those making their own way to the front for inspection, walking opposite the crowd, and, miraculously, it worked. Beneath the hat, my hair, normally bright and distracting, went completely unnoticed, and I manipulated my height by bending my spine, making it so that I appeared as nothing but a shadow to the soldiers.
This was only necessary in the main streets, however. Whoever had designed this place lacked architectural talent, and alleyways uninhabited by both Germans and Jews alike were hardly scarce. It was like a maze, one I had clear directions through.
Finally, I reached the farthest end of the ghetto, the west gate. I breathed a silent sigh of relief, but kept to the confined space between alleys, searching for both my way out and anything that might stop me. Eventually I found Eric's intended escape route, a small, closed off corner barricaded off by empty barrels and a few wooden crates. Peering around a corner hidden from view, I checked to see if I was clear, but when I spotted an officer standing close to the gate, I jolted back into my hiding spot.
My options went down to two.
From my place hidden behind the wall, I heard two distinct voices, casually conversing with one another. With this new barrier, I was at a loss of what to do. If I were to make a run for it, there's no doubt they would see me, and these men had loaded guns and the entire German army behind them. All I had was a napkin with poorly-written directions, an Eric Cartman escape plan and some hopelessly misplaced optimism. There's no doubt that I'd die if I made an attempt, and I'd die if I continued standing there like a cornered mouse with nowhere to go.
I was forming both a new plan and a condition of surrender when another voice came into earshot.
"General Böhmer!" It wasn't Eric, someone older. "There's a disturbance up front, General Strebelow wants you there."
One loud, booming laugh. "Strebelow can't handle some little disturbances up front?" He sounded sarcastic. "It's quiet here. I suppose I could offer a helping hand."
I stood perfectly still for a good solid minute before daring a quick glance beyond the wood paneling, and I was alone again. I'd have had a minor celebration of good fortune had a little voice inside my head not been screaming, Run! Go now!
Abandoned the last of my inhibitions, I dashed from my hiding spot and ducked behind the wooden shelter that kept me mostly the eyes of anyone who could easily round the nearest corner and spot me. I reached the gate with shaking hands and madly searched around for the outlet, quickly discovering the child-sized slit in the electric wires that Eric had told me of. Keep going, was the only thought that remained. KEEP GOING. It was Eric's voice, too, which was worse. I almost fell to my knees and elbows at the speed I was forcing on myself, and I had to ignore the stings of electricity discharging off the cut wires. Aside from a few snags on my slacks and jacket and socks, I'd managed to successfully crawl thought the gate.
KEEP GOING everything shrieked.
My knees and legs were now wet with snow, and there was absolutely no going back now. Again, I sprinted in the direction of the safe haven of the oak forest beyond, allowing the fence behind me to lightly shutter with the bearing of my weight and presence. I didn't break until I'd hit a manageable distance, close to twenty meters or so. Choosing a side that was hidden from Grodno's sight, I stretched myself upon the chest of an oak's bark and breathed. I took breaths with a great heaviness between painfully chapped lips, waiting in hiding before fearfully peering back. Nothing, no one; the gate ceased its movement and I had successfully managed an escape beyond the eyes of Germany's finest soldiers. If I hadn't felt so near to dying at that moment, I would have taken pride in my fortitude and Eric's master planning.
But time was not on our side. There were moments I could take out of my escape to breathe, but everything depended on my continued movement, for both of our benefits. I caught my breath against that tree and stretched to stand firm in my father's shoes, looking toward the distance, and I kept moving. In the first minutes, I kept at a fairly decent pace, a bit of a run but no longer a sprint, thinking that that kind of rush and noise would definitely attract unwanted attention, especially since I was still so close to Grodno. Once I could no longer see the gate, I pulled Eric's directions from my pocket, unwrinkled them and frowned.
Go west. I didn't have a compass on hand, but I was fairly certain I was currently pointed west. I heard dogs barking in the distance as I took more alert strides forward. Instead of focusing on the worst of what was really happening around me, I focused on reading along the directions scribbled in red ink, desperately trying to follow them.
Follow dirt path until you hit a clearing about 1/7 of a mile across.
The bag is hidden in the roots of the biggest tree.
I'd read over these directions the previous two nights, and scowled at them now the same as I'd scowled at them then. Eric understood basic mapping the same way he understood basic human decency, which was hardly at all. The woods beyond the ghetto were large and an adjacent right to the Polish that Grodno had taken over, and until I retrieved a new coat and found Eric, it would be best to avoid the more crowded areas surrounding me. Keep to the woods, find the clothes, find Eric, and leave this wretched place behind us were my goals.
Eric had told me that the clearing was where he'd hidden a sack filled with clothes I could use to disguise myself. With the garish Star of David sewn so expertly into my old winter coat, this was by far his best idea of the entire escape. I shoved the napkin back into my pocket and easily found the dirt path, just a few meters to my right. I walked, and it was almost impossible to think of anything in particular as so many thoughts swarmed my head. Eric, Grodno, my family, Hena, the indication of snow in the clouds and the dead limbs of the trees that canopied above me; it was all so overwhelming and underwhelming simultaneously. Past, present, future, physical and intangible were far too much when encompassed all at one.
Following the path for close to ten minutes, I noticed from the corner of my eye a space between the trees that appeared a miniature circle of blankness among the foliage surrounding it.
That must be it, I figured, and I made my way past tree roots and clots of snow, stumbling my way into the clearing. Biggest tree, the directions told me. It wasn't a very obvious instruction, being that the oaks littered about all looked basically the same to my untrained eyes. I paced round the clearing twice, but eventually I found it. Slightly buried beneath the snow and between two thick roots of what I supposed was the biggest tree, I saw a burlap bag. I had to dig to get it from the tree, and immediately pulled the jacket he'd stuffed inside it out for inspection. It was black and made of thick wool, and I shrugged into it. I was wrapping an ugly and worn knitted scarf around my neck when a voice made me jump to my feet in terror, my breath sharp in the back of my throat.
"There you are." Eric stepped from behind one tree trunk, and my limbs immediately fell, relaxed and loose. My breathing fell to normal pace as I stood on erratic legs.
"Thank God it's you," I sighed, earnestly meaning it. I placed my hand over my chest, as if that were enough to get my heart rate back to normal. "I was sure I'd been followed."
"No, you're fine," he informed me, checking his pocket watch and searching the woods, just in case one of us had been followed and had slipped his notice. He put the watch back, and in its place pulled out the same type of silver pistol I'd seen Crooked-nose using earlier, and again I stood on edge, fixating on the damn thing anxiously. Eric checked the bullet holder, whatever it was called, cursed and slammed it against the bark of a nearby tree. This seemed to make matters worse, however, and when he caught glances with me, he asked, "What is it?" before realizing what I was staring at. "Oh," he said, more subdued, his gaze also falling to the lethal piece of metal. "Just in case of emergencies. Damn thing's jammed, anyway, and they're near impossible to fix."
I still remained uneasy as he put the gun back into the safety of his jacket pocket. "Don't worry, I'm not going to shoot you again." He should have snickered at that, but he didn't. "Now, follow me." And with that, he gestured with his hand and turned his back to me, making off in a direction I presumed was again west. With a new jacket and identity, I did feel safer, and I suppose I'd come to trust Eric. So I walked on after him, keeping about a meter's distance between us.
We walked a few minutes in silence before he began talking. "I've got a car waiting for us six miles off. From there, we'll get to the next town passed Grodno by foot hopefully by nightfall. We just have to keep walking."
Politely, I listen to him, but I hadn't planned to take this walk to freedom in silence. The preplanned questions I had mapped out the nights before were going to come sooner or later, so I decided to start as soon as I could. "Eric, can I ask-?"
He cut me off. "No." It seemed too stern to be coming from him. For old time's sake, I figured a slight bit of defiance was in order.
"Don't you still hate me?"
I'd been thinking on this for some time, since he'd told me the plan, or maybe since he'd first made himself known, but never thought to voice it until now. It seemed a reasonable question, with the adamant disgust he'd conveyed to me as children almost on a daily basis, so the rescue seemed almost illogical when it involved the two of us. Eric wasn't sentimental, and I wasn't phlegmatic. He stopped dead, and looked me over from around his shoulder, maybe to check and see if I was serious, which I most certainly was. When he saw that, he let out a howl of a forced laugh. "You're lack of faith astounds me." He kept going, and I followed, puzzled. The more I saw of him in this new body, the height increase, the weight distribution, the hair, the cheeks, the large boots and daunting uniform, the more I felt in the company of a compassionate stranger rather than a nostalgic old friend. Whatever had happened in these empty years between us made him another person in my eyes, and I didn't want to think on whether or not he'd felt the same upon finding me, tear-stained, terrified and facing death in the gutters of a Polish ghetto.
But there were things that remained of the old Eric Cartman that had integrated into this new one. The one who I'd met in Grodno, the second Eric, I'd decided, was very much like a mutated mix of his old and new self.
Even half-dead, I was far too proud to admit out loud that Eric was something of a regular genius.
I'd never had to say so aloud, but Eric's lack of popularity was fairly common knowledge around the neighbourhood. His family's poverty was certainly a causing factor, but his mother's profession and absent father, along with his increasingly horrendous temper, was the antithesis of what one was looking for in a regular playmate. I stuck by him after some time, not because he was pleasant to be around or magically obtained a friendlier disposition when I was with him, but because he was a source of familiarity to me. A routine came from our confusing companionship that I, for reasons I could never fathom, tended to favour over many of the well-mannered children I had come to view as friends at my own school. None of the other Jewish kids in my neighbourhood filled me with as much anger or loathing as Eric did; none challenged me the way Eric did on a regular basis, nor did they operate upon such raw and unadulterated approaches like he did. Years later, it didn't matter if he actually did hate me or if it was all some act he'd put on for the sake of keeping face. I'd come to see Eric for what he really was: an equal, someone who provided balance.
From the little he'd told me, I knew that he despised his school, and received poor marks in most his courses. The friends he'd managed to cling to were few, mostly Kenneth and sometimes Stanley if his chaotic home life had triggered another bout of depression, but rarely were enemies mentioned. I didn't push for information, somewhat because it didn't interest me and somewhat because I knew he'd never tell me of his own personal failures. It reminded me of the ancient Egyptians, and how they refused to confess to their defeats, too. Eric wasn't a physically powerful boy, being as short and stout as he had been, and his faults, both accidental and purposeful, made him an easy target for the upperclassmen who held a distaste for him. Again, I was refused the details.
But that was merely one side of Eric, the one I unfortunately saw the most of. However, beneath the layers of gluttony and greed lay an entirely different person, and, being as strangely close to him as I was, I caught glimpses of it once in a short while. Where most kids, Jewish or not, maintained a relaxed outlook towards their present lives, worried not about the future or the pending threat of adulthood, Eric was obsessed and preoccupied with accepting challenges and accomplishing them, usually with the dramatics of an overly enthusiastic actor. He was a born leader, cursed with abhorrence for other people, who mutually return the sentiment. However, unbeknownst almost everyone who knew him, he was a talent both linguistically and musically. He was Mozart minus the fleeting carelessness, or Goethe without the organic classicalism. Still, he adored that wretched cat of his.
It was vague and tricky to remember, but there was one particular evening in which I climbed over the fence and found him tuning an old piano. He'd told me with a sly grin that he had stolen it from a blind woman's home by himself, although his mother later informed me that a nearby Cathedral had given it to him in lieu of destroying it for firewood. In his shabby and rundown house, I sat and watched as he tinkered with the thing until I grew bored and returned to my own family for supper. A day later as I walked from school, I passed Eric's home and heard a melody, dominating the air around the house like a force of gravity, and I peered through a window to find Eric Cartman preforming an original piece on a kitchen stool at his outdated piano. His fingers moved with ease, and, while I was unable to see his face, I could sense the blindness of his closed eyelids in the notes. The score rang so complex, to a child's ears anyway, and since I had never known Eric to be so gifted, my amazement kept me in place. I didn't make myself known that day, didn't knock on the door or call out Eric's name, but sat perched outside his window, feeling rather odd in the spot, and listened in on his entire practice session. It felt as if I had witnessed the birth of a child, a child born of concept and beauty, and I went home as the sun set without saying a single word to its creator.
Eric never knew I'd been listening, and I was certain I'd go to the grave without ever telling him.
Walking through these woods was far more awful than I'd ever imagined. The pains in my stomach and ankles were causing me to slow down in pace, and, despite my best efforts to hide my ailments, Eric noticed. "You need to walk faster," he told me, slowing in step but not stopping. He was just as desperate to get from this place as I was, maybe even more so. God knows what these Germans would do to him if they found him abandoning his platoon in the seemingly casual company of a recent fugitive. They were likely already suspicious of where his loyalties lay.
The silence escalated between us, which had become, for me anyway, disquieting. If the sun had been out, I could track the time and know our progress, but with the gloom of winter and ash enveloping the sky, it was impossible. Only our shoes made noise in this dense hush, and I felt myself slowly going mad.
Finally, I decided to speak, feeling Eric should be obligated to answer. "If we make it to Belgium, and this horrible war finally ends, can I come back? To find my family?"
Eric snorted, but I was being serious. I knew he'd been raised without the care of a loving and involved family, and he'd always outwardly despised mine, but surely he understood my worry. The thought of them perishing in this pointless war was far too much to bear, and I suddenly felt ill, but it could have easily come from this newly revived exorcise coupled with the food, or lack thereof, I'd eaten in the last week. Bile rose from my throat to my mouth, and I failed to hear Eric's words over my body compelling me to choke. "What good will that-" was all I'd caught before I wretched forward again, sinking to my knees and wrapping my arms around the source of this latest agony. I finished with ringing in my ears, and felt as if I'd lost a liver in the process, the sour bitterness of my vomit coating all my senses and temporarily binding them down. My skin hurt, my eyes watered and everything smelt and tasted like acid. During this charming show of my stomach surrendering its content, Eric had noticed and hurried back to me, crouching down and checking my forehead for fever. "Hey, hey, Kyle, come on." He reached into his jacket and pulled out a flask, one made of tin and reserved for liquor, but when he'd unscrewed the cap and thrust it into my face, I could smell nothing. "Here," he mumbled, awkwardly, but not rushed like I'd expected. "Drink this." I complied, and the water stored within this flask had become to me this nectar of incredible healing. It felt so good on my raw throat that I nearly cried in relief, oh, how wonderful it felt.
I used most of the supply to drown out the taste, the rest to gargle and clean my lips and chin, and, before I knew it, my shameless abandon had devoured the entire supply. During this grueling process, Eric had stood, pacing about nearby and glancing from the in-betweens of trees and back to me, bothered by the sweet time I was squandering. Once I'd finished my gluttonous drinking, my eyes wandered around my stomach's dejected bile, searching for the ring, hoping, praying that I hadn't lost it, and thankfully, it wasn't there. A final rise came from my throat, and I released a small amount of the water back from my insides and onto the slightly snowy ground, but it was finally done. My body quelled by the healing touch of Eric's water, I rose from my knees, legs trembling beneath my weight. I wiped my mouth off with the sleeve and made my way back to Eric's side, sheepishly handing him back the tin with an attempted apology, but he interrupted me. "Well, there's the last of our water gone." Guilt struck me, not that it hadn't there to begin with, and now he'd made it absolutely clear that it really was me who was entirely to blame. I tried again to ask for forgiveness when he grabbed roughly for the flask, but the process repeated as he turned back to the east and called back to me, "You're making us late, keep walking."
Clouds had begun to roll and toss in the atmosphere above us, dismal, threatening almost. We were quiet for the longest during that pause, and the weight of this deafening silence was grading. I thought back to Hena, and her promise of security, her pretty face and her kind words. The fate I'd been spared by an old and hateful friend was still hers to suffer, and, just as in my earlier years, I found myself perplexed by our label and the inevitable outcome we'd been kept blinded to. What would those awful men do to her, to Sarah, to all of them? "The others," I asked, "where will they be going? Where do those cars stop?"
Eric drew up a hesitation and lightly bit at his lip, but eventually answered. Maybe he was thankful he'd been freed of his responsibility to the previous questions. "Birkenau. It's not too far away from here, just south a bit."
This name was not unfamiliar. I recalled another me, young and full of vitality, hearing the town's name in German papers and before that from my Grandfather. He had been a product of the city and its people, and retained the fondest of memories of a place he'd called a great city; the city of festivals, of laughter and moon-chasing. I had blood directly related to Birkenau, and while I had never seen it or once been to a festival, this news struck me worse than when I had learned that the Germans had annexed it a few years back.
What had become of a place I'd seen through Grandfather's words?
"And what is there awaiting them in Birkenau?" I asked. I wasn't sure I really wanted to know, not enough to demand answers from him, but my curiosity won out over my better judgment, something I seem to overlook under times of stress.
I had barely finished my words when Eric halted in his tracks, turning on the heels of his boots in a swift circle to face me, and it shocked me so greatly I almost tripped over the roots of a nearby tree. I moved my gaze upward to see him, to see if he'd spotted or heard something, a soldier nearby, or the sight of a witness to our crime, and was taken aback to find him glaring down at me with this palpable rage. For the first time in so long, his expression contained actual anger. It looked unreal, like he was constructed of wax and the clay that lay inside the earth.
"Stop," he growled, taking a few reckless steps in my direction. "Here I am helping you, and all I get in return is questions? That's incredibly rude, Kyle." He paused, attention grabbed by something distant and too near for me to see. Sizing me up, Eric leaned forward, our noses almost touching, and he grasped one of my curls gently between his fingers. Words were lost to me as he delicately pulled at my hair, and with such closeness, I could smell the reek of his breath and hear the soft throbbing of his breath, and the blood beneath my skin flooded to my cheeks and nose. Eric continued to stand there, nearly against me, scrutinizing my expression and, as quickly as he'd lashed at me, a grin broke out upon his face, stupid and toothy. He let out one measly laugh at my expense, one that emitted deep from the back of his throat. "Heh, your face is bright red."
My mind and body still refused to cooperate with my mental demands; I needed to move, but the shock had petrified me. What was he doing?! The smile brought about by the laugh faded, and Eric freed my captive curl and turned his back to me once again, heavy boots thudding like the steps of God against the dirt beneath them.
When I didn't immediately move to walk, he gave a quick glace back behind him and spoke. "We need to keep going. It'll be dark by the time we're out of these woods with how leisurely you're going."
I watched him and discovered that this was the first in a long time that I'd actually wanted to hit him, with as much strength as my dying arms could muster. Something he'd done had angered me, and it had become instinctual that I would ball up my fists and aim at his head or nose should he wrong me in any way. If we had been back home, he'd hit back, and we'd brawl like the stupid children we were until we both went home bloodied and bruised, but returned to seeking one another out the next day. But this was different. Eric had made my blood boil, yes, but nothing happened. I might strike him on the face here in this moment, but therein lay the problem; he wouldn't return the blow now, and, thinking of what we were doing, travelling in the barest of winter so entirely close to death, there was absolutely no rhyme or reason behind my anger anymore. Everything had fallen into such disarray that it was a cheap and dull rage, and I thought of Eric, always three steps ahead of me. Whatever his intention, no matter how muddled and incomprehensible it may have seemed to me, he was here risking his future and life by rescuing me from this place. I swallowed and blindly followed on Eric's heels further into the belly of these Polish woods, bitter, hurt and aching. And even then, nothing happened because nothing made sense anymore. Not the war, not the winter, not the world, and certainly not Eric or me.
While grueling, I made the best of efforts to keep up with Eric, who was denying me the handicap I shouldn't have expected. Once I'd caught up, I attempted conversation one last time, hoping uselessly for results. "Hey, Eric, listen… I'm sorry. But I want you to tell me." I'm not sure why I paused between thoughts; if I were expecting him to answer, I was sorely mistaken. "When we get on that train and take it all the way to Malines and we go somewhere where they can never find us, then I want you to tell me what is in Birkenau." I watched as his shoulders hunched just so slightly, like a cat, but he didn't stop trudging forward. "I've heard of it before, Birkenau," I continued, eyes glued to the back of his German Forces jacket. "I remember my Grandfather saying something about it when I was younger, about how it's the city of festivals. I don't need an answer now, but someday, when, with any luck, all of this is over, I hope you will trust me enough to tell me."
Eric snickered from his place ahead of me, but it sounded impassive, empty, nothing like it had been or should be. He sounded as if he knew as well as I did that he was living out such a terrible joke. "And to think, I gave up everything for you," he said aloud, more to himself than me, and he released a lengthy sigh, his breath making touchable patters in the air like fog. "What a waste."
Three swift strides forward and I stood at his flank, ignoring the screams of my body. "I want an answer for that one, as well." I failed to sound formidable, the intent, instead coming off as nosy. "I was under the impression that you hated me, and you still act like you do, same as when we were kids. So," I stopped as a cold wind swept around us, and demanded a halt with the quiet, honest query, "Why help me?"
This was a question I'd intended to remain dormant, at least until we were safe, but a nagging from deep inside my mind brought it forth so damn easily. The impact dizzied me and brought about this uneasy tension between us, more than it had been already, but I was far too obstinate to end it now. "Why save me? And don't lie to me and tell me it was out of sentiment, I know you far better than that."
Again Eric turned, skin pinked by either embarrassment or the bitter cold, I couldn't tell, an unreadable emotion painting every shift of him. I watched his face twist with every passing thought until finally his emotions settled on some kind of irritation; his brow furrowed and his mouth set into a deep frown. With an aggression he rarely allowed anymore behind this aloof disguise, he came at me, backing me into the closest tree; the bark clawed horribly at my jacket and hair, and his hands moved to pin my arms against my sides as he came closer and closer. There was no need to fear him, but the violence in this stance flung me down back into the misery of our reality. His gaze was alit with some concentrated passion that was so close to melting me.
"Please tell me you're joking," he insulted, rather frankly at that. "How thick can you possibly be?" Before I could think, before I could argue, Eric moved his face forward, demonstrating a show of absolute boldness as he forced his mouth onto mine.
Everything in the world froze for us.
Three weeks before my family went into hiding, back in 1940, I got jumped on my way home from school by three boys from another neighbourhood. I was fourteen, the three likely much older, and while I remember very little of the actual conversation that partook, I remembered the word "kike", of course, and the fact that one of them had been holding a fireplace poker. I'd been grabbed and pulled into a narrow alleyway, book bag ripped from my hands and content spilled out and stomped on. When I gave an angry shout, one of them punched me, hard, and the back of my skull collided with the brick wall they'd forced me against.
I'd fallen unconscious. Once I'd awoken, the sun had already reached the west, and the ache from my head still flared, but cooled by something I couldn't see. And then I heard it, a familiar voice, saying something in such a desperate tone. Eric kneeled over me, hair fussed and brows furrowed with a smudges of a rust-coloured brown on his face and hands, and his eyes and lips were all bruised and swollen. He'd demanded I open my eyes as I felt him grab at my wrist and take my pulse, return to shaking me lightly by the shoulders, and when sure I had escaped without much major injury, he'd dragged me to my feet with the most insecure courtesy he'd never bothered to fake around me. In my state of lethargy, I didn't even register Eric as a part of this new reality; it felt like the air had lifted me from my feet and carried me on its back, careful not to let me falter or lag behind.
An unfamiliar doctor woke me later in a room I didn't recognise; I'd been taken to the last remaining Jewish hospital in Berlin. When my family was allowed in, Mother fretted over me as if I had regressed in age and was again a baby, Isaac kept smiling at nothing in particular whenever we caught glances, and father… well, he'd tried to hide a realised worry that the incident had brought on. But none of this came to matter to me, it couldn't matter to me, because I had remembered Eric Cartman. It was a shaky memory better left forgotten, but I'd seen him, heard him calling me away from the shadows that had enveloped me.
I had tried to make sense of it then, why Eric had saved me beyond this vague sense of friendship we for some reason had. He'd acted so hostile towards me and often reminded me of his reasons for loathing me, even wished me dead on several occasions, but he'd, for lack of a better word, saved me. There were many solutions I'd cooked up, many ludicrous and outrageous that seemed impossible to me then. Eric had avoided me for a week afterward, ignoring my normally welcomed insults and locked himself away in his own private room of his dirty little house, rejecting my existence moreso than just my company. It'd appeared that he'd come to finally, truly resent me, and I left him be.
My attack had frightened father so greatly that not but a week later, he was planning on taking us far away. We were to fly beneath the new Regime's notice and resort to hiding like a pack of wild beasts awaiting the return of spring, lounging about in caves or holes beneath the earth. I found the whole ordeal distasteful, but my father knew that action must be taken. He'd made arrangements with a colleague near the North of Germany, and we each were allowed one single trunk to pack essentials. My parents scrambled to collect priceless pictures of family, both deceased and still living; jewelry and metals from their ancestors, things of worth both tangibly and sentimentally. Isaac collected together things to pass the time and entertain him; books stolen from the school library, journals, drawing pens given to him from a previous birthday, playing cards, a knit bag full of marbles and his record player. It felt wrong, packing a very few selected items over others, knowing I'd never see the dejected belongings again, and the indecision had me resorting to pack light; a box of matches stolen from a local store, the books Stanley had given me over the years, my best clothes, a collection of poetry books by Goethe, and my favorite records.
The night before the departure from our beautiful Berlin home, I went to see Eric one last time, realizing I probably owed him more than his headache-inducing friendship was worth. The garden had always seemed so different at night than it did during the day. As I slunk across the yard and hopped the gate for the last time, it was as if I'd accidently stumbled into the wrong lawn. I expected Eric to be there just as he had every time before, waiting with an insult and a false frown at my knocking at his window, like always. But, when I knocked on his window, he didn't answer. I tried again, three knocks, like always, but still, nothing. This upset me; I was well aware that he was holed up in his room, incasing himself in his own worthless self-pity, so I searched the grass and dirt for something to throw. I failed to find a pebble, and in my anger, I threw a rock at his window. A fraction of the frame smashed under the might of the rock, and it startling him from his bed. Eric noticed the broken glass immediately after the rush of air, and then he saw me. I had come to thank him for helping me, now to apologise as well for breaking the glass on his window, but he before I could say anything, he told me to go. In the light from his room, I watched the anger pass through his face, the loathing, the utter seething hatred, and he told me he never wanted to see me again. I listened as he told me to leave, that he hoped my family would get arrested, that we'd be hanged, killed one-by-one. Tears flooded to my eyes when he said he wished I'd die a dirty death for a dirty kike, and I forced my legs to work. Nothing seemed real as I sprinted from his yard and scrambled over the gate. I hid out behind a hedge, quietly sobbing and gasping and desperate for air. I sat there for what seemed like hours, lost and confused, as if I'd been mistaken; Eric hadn't saved me after all. No, he'd been initiating the commanding the boys who'd jumped me, he'd planned my attack.
That was the last I'd seen Eric in three years. For those seven months in hiding, I relived that moment over and over in my mind. His expression, his stance, his hateful words; it hadn't looked like the Eric I'd known my entire life. He'd called me Jew more than my actual name in the years we'd been whatever we were to each other, but I didn't think him capable of actually hating me.
But now everything made sense, and it had only taken me three long years to figure it out, and even then, I'd need the most obvious hint that was possible.
Eric pulled away as suddenly as the kiss had begun, and, upon opening my eyes, I saw him look away from me with the worst sort of desperation on his face. I blinked, but found I could not reach for him. Only a simple question graced my thoughts, now, so I asked.
I'd meant to sound more genial than I had; my words came out flat and dense and I noticed him stiffen, as if he were internally debating the best truth for me to hear. Really, any answer would do at this point.
Finally, he sighed. "A long, long time. Long enough to drive me insane." A hesitation, perhaps to see my reaction, no, he didn't look up; to experience my reaction, to suffer by it, but we mutually did nothing. "I'm not exaggerating," he quickly added, vainly justifying himself.
"I know you're not." I was attempting to sound reassuring, but Eric still seemed unsure. He'd averted his gaze, desperately searching for something to watch other than me, and his jaw was clenched into a mortified grimace, but, as if conflicted, his body remained so close to mine. Despite the exhaustion that everything presented, the fear, the trauma, the threat of discovery looming overhead, he reminded me of the stubborn brat I'd known what felt like centuries ago. The memories forged from within me a brilliant warmth. In a moment of impulse and sincerity, I rolled my weight to the balls of my feet, brought myself back up and tentatively placed my lips back onto his.
The war and all its barbaric hells were so instantly forgotten with this new form of escape. I'd seen my parents kiss before, relatives, newlyweds and sweethearts, but never had I done so myself, and never like this; body wedged so clumsily against a dying tree, hair greasy and matted, mouth and lips laced with my own vomit, skin dripping in perspiration; I felt the weight of these months of imprisonment and knew myself disgusting, but I had forgotten how to care. Eric seemed surprised by the unexpected contact I'd secured between us, but slowly, surely, he fell into step and welcomed me, removing his grip on my arms and pressing himself along my ribs. He gripped at the backside of my coat, pulling me against him. In his movement, he'd made for himself an outlet for all his fears, his loneliness and his careless unrestraint. I suddenly realised that Eric Cartman loved me, so much that it hurt, so much that he'd been preparing to, if his plan faltered, die for me. I thought again of my mother's ring as I allowed him to swallow me whole and shelter me within him.
Our embrace was clunky and unprofessional; I bit him more than once and the breath from his nose tickled at my lip, but it was anything but unpleasant. Men were being sentenced to death for this. I'd seen them, triangles in place of stars, and now I understood why. Yes, I could taste the depravity, the sin. I didn't love him, not the way he loved me, but this indulgence was too limited to pass by.
While in reality, the kiss has been nothing but a few moments, it felt even less so in this new world I'd been so engulfed in. Eric parted first, and gazed down at me as if he'd been praying for the day I'd gleefully renounce my sanity for him. Now that it had finally become a certainty, he wasn't ready to part with it just yet. This struck me as amusing, and again I balanced my weight to affectionately rub the tips of our noses together while I giggled, intoxicated by newly formed nerves and adrenalin. "I've never done that before," I told him, and he gripped tighter at my back as if this were the greatest of news he'd ever heard, grinning like a madman into my hair.
Eric released his hold on me, but moved to grip hard at my left hand, pulling me from the crook of the tree. We dropped the contact, and despite the flicker of disappointment that welled in my palms, we kept it that way, but it was now that Eric felt inclined to travel at my side and at my pace, slowing should I need it. Eventually, he said, "I followed you."
I tried to analyze this three-word confession, but became puzzled the more I thought on it. "What does that mean?"
Another laugh parted his lips, one of greater spirits and enjoyment then I'd ever seen on him. "I joined the Youth for the anonymity, so I could file through records, to find you, to see if you'd been caught." This was news to me. I'd been under the assumption that our meeting had been an accident, but, thinking back, I should have known better. Along with his many other talents that far outnumbered mine at this point, Eric was a master architect of scheming. He garnished my reaction before carrying on. "After you left so suddenly, I didn't have much of a choice. I had figured that, if I kept patient and played my aptitudes right, I would be in the higher up's good graces in no time."
Accumulating all this new knowledge, I pictured Eric in a newly fitted uniform charming the generals and officers of the Nazi Party and Gestapo so he could selfishly use their files. It was strangely flattering. Hena had told me of God's intention to guard us, but Eric had made a valiant effort enough in human skin.
"I kept track of you, you and your family," he told me as he hopped across an iced-over stream. I attempted the same, almost slipping as he caught me on the shoulders. "When I saw you'd been transported to Grodno, I begged for a transfer, hoping I'd catch you before the deportation." I looked up as he aided me over the gap, into his face; his smile was small, and his eyes were vivid despite the darkening day. "At my stupidest, I'd thought I would be too late."
My lips perked despite my willing them not to, as this was the closest to admiring me that he'd ever admit to willingly. I reminded myself of how selfish I was being, and my thoughts returned to my parents and Isaac. "And, my family-"
"I never saw their names," he informed me, and I hoped that interrupting me would not become a force of habit, "so, wherever they are, it's not here."
I sighed, relieved, and I felt myself smooth down. "Eric, thank y-"
My words broke as he bent down, leaning into me again, but in place of another peck to my lips like I'd expected, he laughed and smacked my back with a loud thump. "Thank me only when I get us on that train, alright Jew?" It was near impossible not to snicker.
Given his openness, I made a silent truce with him that I would not pester him with questions and inquiries until we'd at least made it to the forger. Now finally comfortable with one another, I allowed nicknames of older times, Jew, or Ginger. While he'd laughed aloud upon my referring to him as Fat Ass, he impishly smacked my arm when I'd mentioned Theodore, his much despised mid-name. We talked about Stanley and Kenneth, and Eric informed me that they were back in Berlin, as safe as they can be in times of war, and that they would mention me even after my leaving. I offered up story after story of our childhood together, while he would dismiss his actions and claim me too stupid to remember it correctly. And to think, all this sincerity with but a few touches between our lips; I'd have been spared a good few fights if only we'd realised this method sooner.
It had been at least an hour in as he turned to me with pleasant news. "We're almost out of the woods, soon, I've got a car waiting just about a mile off. If we stick to the roads outside of town, we'll make it to the forgers by nightfall." He began instructing me to walk looking down and keeping a respectable distance from him, tucking my curls into the hat and hiding my nose in that ridiculous scarf, but just as we'd discovered the perfect route once outside of the forest, a noise caught Eric's attention. He froze, every sense in tune with our surroundings.
And then we heard it.
A sudden cracking in the distance alerted us to a nearby unwanted presence from behind, and both of us went rigid and cold.
A man's voice, in German, made a call from his end of the gap, attempting to grab our attention. Both Eric and I were well aware that the locals did not speak German.
"Shit!" he hissed under his breath. He moved to grab roughly at my hand, wrapping his fingers around the small of my palm and clamping me tightly in his grip. "Shitshitshit, we need to run, now!" We began to sprint, hast overpowering out need for stealth, but whomever had discovered us began to pursue. Beyond the sounds of our heavy breaths and the clomping of our shoes in the snow, I heard him instruct of me, "Don't let go for anything, you stupid Jew!"
I tried so hard to believe him, and kept thinking over and over, 'We will escape this, somehow.'
The man behind us continued to call after us. "Who are you?! Wait!"
My ankles, already bent to begin with, twisted and turned in agony beneath my skin, but I had no choice but to ignore them as the hopes of our freedom literally rested yonder a single set of hills just beyond our reach. My heart raced and my stomach clenched, but I refused to stop now. "I swear to you now, I won't let them take you," Eric vowed between violent breaths. It could have meant anything; take me away from him, take me to Birkenau, take me back to execute me, kill me, anything, and any and all possibilities were circulating through both our minds as we ran for our lives, but I had promised to trust him, so I kept my grip in his.
I knew Eric knew that I was the force slowing us down. I tripped over rocks and my own numbing bones, and with our hands together, he suffered along with me as I held him back. He ineffectively pulled me along with him, but the journey's end beyond the trees faded as the man progressed closer to us. "Cartman!" he yelled. "Cartman, is that you? Hey!"
Panic overwhelmed us as we ceased our stupidly vain attempts to outrun this person, and I looked to Eric, begging him with my eyes for a solution. Please! Please do something, dammit, or we'll die!
"Stoppen, Cartman!" He was practically on our heels now, and, with a meaningful narrowing of his eyes, Eric grabbed hold of my neck and slammed me into a nearby tree, but made certain that it was gentle enough that I would not be cut by the bark.
"I have a plan," he informed me with a whispered breath. "Fight against me."
He didn't need to explain further. I brought my arms up, grabbing at his clasp on my throat and worthlessly wrestling against his pretend chokehold, digging my shoes into the thin snow to create the impression of struggle. We stood in our acting positions until the uninvited visitors joined us in this clearing, and I avoided seeking Eric's face, knowing I would wholly fear the expression he'd shaped to trick our pursuer.
When I opened my eyes, unaware of my closing them in the first place, I saw two young men, familiar only in my most recent memory. One was the quivering Stotch, the only one of the group who'd used Eric's first name, and the other the stocky boy who'd lead the group, whose name I couldn't for the life of me remember. Now I understood, why he'd taken this excuse over my being a lost civilian he'd so graciously helped; these boys had seen my face before.
We were improvising.
"Please, don't kill me!" I yelped, making certain that my voice cracked and panic overpowered my tone. Hopefully, it was enough to distort the sound enough.
"Eric, what-?" Stotch began, out of breath and bewildered.
"I found him!" Eric interjected. He hid his gaze scouring the rest of the clearing from the other two Hitler Youths, making positive that they were alone. "I saw this Jew make a break through a blind spot, so I went after him. Looks like he's alone. Bayer, Stotch, I'm glad you're here."
Bayer's blond eyebrows curled, perhaps confused as to which blind spot I'd managed to squeeze through in such a tall prison wall, while Stotch let out the brightest and most innocent smile I'd ever seen on anyone whose age exceeded twelve. "Eric, you caught a runaway? Congratulations!"
"We'd seen you venture up into the woods in such a rush," Bayer told him. At this point, I'd ceased my fighting Eric's hold, and instead played the role of the forsaken Jew caught again by German might. I slumped against the tree and allowed myself a moment to catch my breath. "Stotch and I thought you might be in danger, so we came along after you. Why didn't you call for help?"
Eric was a brilliant liar, and thus he wasted no time in fabricating this story. "He was fast, so I figured that I shouldn't waste time tracking him and getting rid of him." A few words, and it was so potent that even I began believing it, chilled by the very suggestion of dying at Eric's hand. He'd already shot me at once that day, after all.
"Why didn't you shoot him?" Stotch asked. His eyes were so widened when his gaze fell to me that the possibility that he'd never actually seen a Jew up close stood valid. "Don't you have your gun?"
If he hadn't been so carefully securing me, I imagine Eric would have shrugged. "The thought didn't cross my mind in all the rush."
Stotch believed it wholeheartedly, and began to offer Eric his own pistol, feeling he deserved the final kill, but Bayer's eyes were darkened with doubt. With a single motion of the hand, he kept Stotch in his place.
"Didn't you kill this kike last I saw you, Cartman?" he asked so simply.
It was as if the world had split again, dissolving away, and we four were the last left alive by the abrupt impact. My eyes grew wide and I felt my chest expand, like a frightened deer, and my breathing ceased altogether, but Eric wasted no time. His grip on my neck released instantly, and he, hands and mind now free of his playacting restrictions, stole the jammed pistol from his inner pocket and aimed it toward Bayer, then Stotch. The uncomplicated departure we'd sought was impossible now, and the only solutions drew to either a standoff or a death sentence. From Eric's side, I edged closer to him, placing a wary hand upon his shoulder and keeping my gaze forward, helplessly. If I'd myself had a gun I would have felt a bit more valuable or self-assured despite not knowing how to fire one, much less aim. In the position I was in, I'd been reduced to little more than deadweight while Eric had been forced to save both our skins. I would have thought that as an incredibly troublesome burden, but, beyond the intensity of his stance and the rigidness of his shoulders, Eric held his own with all the composure of a cornered predator, too prideful yet to scurry into submission.
From his side of the last of the world, Bayer noticed my hand, then the arm Eric had placed in front of me when Bayer took a daring step toward us. He kept still for a moment when, to my amazement, he broke out into a fit of under-breathed giggles.
"What game are you playing, Cartman?" he asked, but it wasn't a genuine question. "No," he concluded once he fully registered the intimacy, the distance we'd abandoned and the comforting touches. "I suppose the answer to my question is obvious. Did this kike," I flinched at the contempt in the word, "cast his magick and ensnare you in his trap? Is this why you're attempting to run off with him, why you're shielding him behind you?"
Eric ignored Stotch's alarmed exclamation; he instead stared Bayer down, processing a comeback to defend his standing. He smiled with all his teeth, smug and self-aware, and moved the gun's aim upward. "And what if he did?" He took another step backward toward me, his own form of comfort.
Bayer smiled, but he did not appear sinister, not even superior; he looked to me as if he were genuinely happy. With the tiny and quivering Stotch as his backup, Bayer reached into his coat pocket and leisurely pulled out a silver pistol. "Well, we'd kill him, naturally, and turn you in for treason." His tone matched his expression to almost a fault; the prospect of a double-execution with a criminal and a deserter thrilled this boy. "You'll hang by your arms, Cartman, for these crimes that you have committed, and the Jew will never see past today. It was stupid of him to have trusted your judgment in the first place." His steady hands began to grip at the gun, finger snuggly fit against the trigger, and with all the coolness of a true evil, and with no effort at all, he aimed the barrel at my skull. "Your gun's jammed, Cartman, I can see the bullet logjam. Good luck defending yourself with that." His gaze shifted between us, and he eventually stopped on me. He was so close I could see every spark of intent flicker behind his eyes, and my heart leapt into the core of my throat, the terror turning my insides to ice. Without hesitation, Eric took his gun and tossed it opposite me, cursing it; I heard it crash into the winter earth and abandoned yet another hope of earn our freedom. "To think that General Strebelow had such a soft spot in his heart for you, Cartman," Bayer grinned. "Just wait until he finds you now, coated in the blood of the kike you tried oh so hard to save."
His finger moved, and I flinched and awaited my long-overdue execution, but a heavy weight at my flank shifted to shield me from the inevitable bullet. Eric had not only moved to take my place before the might of the pistol, but had also forced my form so far backward that I now stood back to back with the oak tree. Behind Eric's back, I could only hear as Bayer's smile fell. "Step aside, Cartman," he grumbled, and it was so faint that I hear only the threat in place of words. "He belongs to the Reich, to the Further. Not to you. Is he truly worth the cost of your own life?"
I held my breath, but nothing happened; no one dared move nor speak, but Eric outright refused this offer, to save himself, by standing his ground. Against his bones, the determination vibrated throughout his entire being, and an incredibly selfish part of myself, the part that knew and wanted Eric to love me, felt the paramount rush of a tremendous joy at that moment, and if I'd had that instant to catch my breath and steady my footing, I would have done more than bury my face in his heavy military coat to express my thanks. Eric was so warm.
But I wasn't thinking; in holding me behind him and saving face afore this executioner, Eric had just warranted his immediate death sentence before mine.
"Fine, then." Bayer sighed and took one, two, three full strides forward towards us. Eric glowered down at his former ally, but otherwise made no move to protect himself.
From behind him, I was panicking. My knuckles clenched so roughly into his back that they turned white and I desperately held tears back, because it had dawned on me, like the sudden impact of light or noise; it was here, in this place, that both of us would meet our end. There was no hope of reaching the train station with those inaccurate travel papers calling us entirely different names. There was no more Malines or Bruges or maybe London or Lyon, where the war wouldn't touch us and we could be free. And even if those things had never even existed at all, it was at that crushing second that the realization crumbled the last of my certainties, because up until then, Eric had convinced me that they were real.
But we were going to die, right here, like animals, and I would never see mother or father or Isaac again. The last thing I would ever have in my entire existence upon this cruel and pitiless planet was Eric Cartman. It was the cruelest of jokes that God could play.
"No," I whispered, too low and pathetic for Bayer to hear.
In return, Eric's arm bent and grasped mine, pushing me so that I would be able to slink successfully around the trunk of the tree and make a mad dash for it. He was offering me an out, to take the role of diversion so I could perhaps successfully make it past the final hills that stood in our path. I batted his arm away and clung harder to his back. This was my answer.
Bayer himself had done another switch, and now seemed rather pleased with the whole situation, humming a tiny melody as he cocked the gun and places it again against Eric's unmoving skull. "I guess I'll personally have to deal with you, then. Good riddance. This new world holds no place for traitors."
If only things had gone slower, if only Eric hadn't moved and senselessly adopted my place on the opposite end of the gun, then maybe things would have gone differently. Eric had told me very plainly to run, to take the escape while he endured both our punishments and served as a distraction, but I was far too pigheaded and far too stupid to ever do such a thing. He had been right, I've never listened to him, and I'll be damned if I'm to start now.
I jumped before I could even think about what I was doing, swerving around Eric's torso and making a mad grab for the gun. At that time, the lunacy of my impulsiveness meant nothing to me in the threat of losing the last person who made me feel alive and human, and for that split second, it struck me as fair trade. As if culminating from the months of starvation and ill-treatment, now inflicted by Bayer alone in my mind, I burst into a solitary movement of pure, unadulterated panic. I had to stop him, Eric couldn't die.
I wouldn't let him die.
"Don't!" I screamed, but I was too late. Bayer turned to me in surprise, and I managed to grab his wrist.
Everything felt so slow. My brain didn't even register the gunshots until I felt something sharp and burning cut deep into me, and suddenly, everything became very, very warm. I had managed to grab hold of Bayer's wrist, but even then, I'd done nothing but steer his aim onto myself, and he'd easily slipped from my hold and took aim. Stammering backwards against the massive oak, I descended to the snowy ground below and oh, did I feel it then, bullets wedged amongst my insides, and that's why it was so warm. I suddenly saw all this blood everywhere. It was mine.
My hand wandered to the core of the warmth, and I pulled it back up so I could see the copious red soaked onto my skin, and my first thought was, 'I hope I won't lose mother's ring.'
"Kyle!" I heard Eric shout, and before long, he was kneeling over me, pressuring my wounds and stroking my face, calling me and begging me through shaking gestures to stay with him. It was then that the pain hit, hard, but when I opened my mouth, I couldn't scream. Oh, God, please, it hurt! Tears were instantly in my eyes, down my cheeks, and the heat of everything reminded me of summers in Berlin.
"Kyle, shit, look at me!" Eric continued to cry, desperate. He roughly grabbed at my chin and forced our eyes together, and it was then that I could really feel him there, beside me, and my middle began to throb in excruciating waves. Agony pulsated through my entirety, from my muscles to the core of my bones. Even his touch scorched me. "I need you to look at me! Kyle!"
As the pain began to fully register, I noticed Bayer from behind Eric's shoulder. "You even named him?" he all but laughed, and I saw Eric's jaws clench shut, his eyes narrowing to violent slits. I stretched up and grasped hold of his sleeve, attempting to clench the pain away, pleading for him to defy the laws of reality and compel this overwhelming pain to end. "It's a shame that I'll have to put your sweet little pet down, Cartman." The gun clicked. "And such a touchingly loyal one, at that."
Eric was gone before I had the chance to comprehend what had happened. "I'll kill you!" I heard after I'd narrowed my eyes in a wince and placed my hands again over the swells of pain and gore bursting from my stomach. "How dare you fucking hurt him!"
Though eyes roughened by the flames of my own blood, I witnessed Eric leap upon our attacker, forcing him off his feet and to the ground. Bayer let out a cry of surprise, and another shot fired in the scurrying mess. Eric kept his ground even as a bullet passed through his shoulder, red now trailing down his arm. Moments passed when Eric had managed to obtain Bayer's gun, grasped at the tunnel and, in many rapid motions, brought the handle down onto the other boy's face. Again and again, and screams overwhelmed the air around us. Like myself, Eric hadn't desired any bloodshed whatsoever over our leaving, but now that it was inevitable, and now that he'd been angered beyond any redemption or conciliation, he'd become determined to carry out this new burden with the greatest precision he could.
Eric shifted to the right, and I saw from where I rested that Bayer's facial structure had collapsed, nose and eyes ruptured and gushing blood, but he still breathed. The agony besieged his limbs so that even as Eric stood on shaking legs and freed his hold, he remained on the snowy earth, whimpering pitiably and searching for salvation. He turned his gaze to Sotch, whom we'd all forgotten. The blond remained untouched and shriveling yards away, face stained with tears.
"Stotch!" Bayer yelped, voice cracking under the hurting. "Shoot him, he's gone mad! Our orders were-"
Eric aimed the pistol and with one blast, Bayer stopped shrieking. I didn't look, and when I managed to pry my eyes open again, Eric's familiar face coated in fresh blood was coaxing me away from death's door. He unbuttoned my coat and ripped at a piece of his own, pressing against the wounds in the stomach. In that moment, I became afflicted with a horrific sense of guilt, and I wanted to kiss him again.
"Eric- I'm… sorry…" I was mumbling, thoughts erratic and incoherent, and the air in my lungs felt as heavy as lead. It was beginning to snow, I could see it now. Tiny puffs of white spiraling down from the heavens.
Another push of pressure to my stomach, and I suddenly needed far more air in my system than was there. Eric was rushing, and peeking through a pained wince, I noticed the absolute look of urgency in his eyes as he continually pressed the scrap of his coat against me. "It's okay, alright?" He sounded so heartbreakingly lost; there was barely any strength in his words. "Just hold on, I'll get you out of here." He snaked his arms beneath my knees and neck and easily lifted me from the ground. I felt sick and heavy, but, for better or for worse, I had become engulfed in this sense of sanctuary as Eric wrapped himself around me, and everything felt right again.
Eric wasted no time; as soon as he'd secured me in his arms, he began trudging forward through the snow. He had completely disregarded Stotch, who remained nearby in a petrified pile of dread, wide-eyed and devastated. The blond had taken the entire scene without so much as a word, but he wasn't worth the hesitation and time.
Stotch, however, felt the need to speak. "E-E-Eric?"
Nothing stopped; Eric kept walking, and he didn't look back at his once-comrade as he spoke plainly and stoically. "Go back to camp, Leopold. I want you to forget everything you've seen here."
Silence. We made it a few steps before the world once again became deafening. One, two, three, four, five, shots rang, three of which struck Eric, two travelling all the way though him from back to front, and I saw his face fall just as Bayer's had. One final shot, another at Eric's back, and I felt it hit my leg on the way out, but there was no pain.
Riddled with bullet holes, Eric collapsed to his knees, but kept a harsh hold on my shoulder and legs so I wouldn't fall, and I clung to him as he sat and allowed his own pain to fester and rot inside his organs.
Stotch gave out a long, insulting sob. Grief-stricken and conflicted, he'd done just as Bayer had commanded of him, and shot the traitor. "Forgive me, Eric!" he cried, and the gun was thrown into the snow with a dulled clatter. "I'm- I'm- Oh, sweet Mary, forgive me, Eric!"
And with that, he was gone.
Eric moved to lay me down first and foremost, stretching me out comfortably in the snow before collapsing at my side, stomach down and face buried in the icy sheet that bit into the bare skin of our necks; undignified, yes, but we were beyond the eyes of the world now, and had become the last two people on what was now our own Earth. Snow continued its way down, catching on Eric's skin, his coat, and his hair.
I was the first to speak. "It hurts."
"I know," was his pained reply. Both were so mindless, merely observations, but I supposed, in our state, we should both be thankful that we were still breathing. I cranked my neck to look toward Eric, and discovered he'd been watching me the whole time. "I wouldn't have left you," he promised to me, for some unendurable reason giving me more proof behind his sacrifices. "Not to him, not to anyone."
"I wouldn't have left you, either." Even with this failing body, I suddenly had an urge to laugh, but I knew I couldn't. My vision grew hazier with each passing second. "Eric, I think I'm dying. It's getting harder to see you."
"I'm sorry," was his only reply.
Eric coughed and winced at some inner pain. "Don't be stupid. Helping you was the best damn thing I've ever done." This was his real voice, and I felt privileged that at he'd allowed me to hear it one last time. "But," he continued, "if you see your God up there, and he tells you that, that if you hadn't said yes to me, if you'd gone to the camp in Birkenau, that you would still be here, and that you would have seen your family again, then I…" He paused. "This isn't what I wanted."
Weighing Eric against everything else, my family, my body, my freedom, everything, seemed far too cruel. Giving up the lot to lie beside him, very slowly draining my life away, was a once in a lifetime circumstance. Had our plan gone as it should have, had I said no, had we never even met, I would never have experienced it. And now that I was there with him, I had been far too overcome with something grand to have regretted this doom we'd naively set ourselves up for.
I didn't want to die, and I was so terribly scared. But, without him, I would be nothing. "Even if it is true, I would have still said yes."
Eric laughed, and I could barely hear him. "Liar." He knew I wasn't lying.
Everything went quiet for a moment, and even though he was plain in my sights, I was so afraid that he'd left me here by myself again. But then I heard, "Everything will be fine," his voice strained even worse, "if you're the last person I see." I'd sob if I could, hit him, even, he was hurting me so much by his kind words. "Then it was all worth it. I'll be-" he rasped, panting for the air speaking was robbing from him. "-happy, if you're the last thing I see."
I owed him more than I could ever repay, so I allowed him his final wish.
He didn't speak after that, but he kept staring at me, as if, together, lying in a bed of snow and freshly-spilt blood, had become the greatest of fates, for him at least. Long enough to drive me insane, is what he'd said; how long he'd loved me. Perhaps he was mad to have fallen so hopelessly for the enemy, but it was likely that I also shared within me that same insanity to have so greatly trusted and cared for the nemesis of my own people. We'd both craved the fantasy of freedom, a place of escape where we could live liberated, of his duties and my blood, and I'd pictured it, too; a home in London or New York or Bruges or Amsterdam, where we'd be welcomed with warming hands and gestures by equally warm people; where he would play me the piano and compose for me another piece; where I could fall for him with as great a passion as he'd claimed to have for me; a wondrous home, where he could hold me and I would kiss his mouth and fingertips, and where not even God himself would dream of damning us.
Such a place was a lie, a mere idealistic dream, and, lying there in my own leaking remains, it felt so far away.
Despite not looking toward anything but him, I didn't notice until the touching of our skin that Eric had moved his injured arm to lay a tender hand on my cheek. In return, I struggled to move myself as close to him as I could manage, curving myself along his torso and lining my eyesight with his own. We were so close, our matted hairs tangled. I grabbed hold of his remaining hand as gently as I could, but failed to lock our fingers together. And it was at this distance that I could at last sense it; his crippling dread, his final struggles of panic as the last of his senses faded away. He was as frightened as I was, maybe more.
What an oddity he was; a romantic trapped within a war, who so fears the consequence of death but stands against it so readily. I would never have imagined this of Eric Cartman; the boy who tormented me, who claimed to despise me and want me dead and buried, but who salvaged and protected me up until the very end. In spite of the still violent tremors from the agony erupting from my middle, I rolled and buried myself deeper within the thin blanket of snow, our intertwined hands locking fingers and sticking together with the drying blood. He smiled, a faint yet content smile, and we kept smiling at one another as our insides coated the white ground beneath us.
Eric bled out first, his fingers still resting on my cheek, and again I felt so alone. I watched him, unblinking and teary-eyed, and kept our ice-cold hands firmly gripped together. It still hurt; I could feel myself slowly leaving. The sensation was like being pulled up by something forceful and constant that was far too impatient to wait for me and my silly desire to keep living. Death was cheap. If God really was above me, watching me die, then I'd surely, in many ways, have been cheated. I wondered how damned I would be if my last thoughts were of doubting God and His might. Laughable, considering my other sins. It was as if He were punishing me for my abandoning His people, for managing freedom, if only for a brief time, while they continued to suffer.
While I had lived without a thought to an afterlife of any kind, and while I still did not know what awaited everyone in Birkenau, I knew that whatever happened, Hena would manage to find God; Abraham and baby Sarah, the Rosenfelds, my entire family eventually; every parent and child and grandparent filtering through this endless torture of existing until, eventually, they would be greeted at death's hand by a loving God. But not Eric and most definitely not me. We were to die alone, side-by-side, and I had become content with this certainty.
Dying felt like many things sharing incredibly intimate moments, rolled into a culmination of gradual nothingness. With the last of my strength, I placed a kiss upon Eric's empty dead lips, and the mid-fallen snow of November, I thought of his song and tried to remember the notes.
What felt like centuries passed and I remained there, both body and conscious, and yet the tune of that long forgotten piece still alluded me. Stotch would lead men to our bodies, I knew, squawking to these soldiers his side of the story. The Germans would in turn observe our corpses' closeness, and Eric's hand left against my frozen skin. They'd share the mutual feeling of disgust, and Eric and Bayer would be carried far away from me.
My body would be left in this inappropriate cemetery before they'd returned in both seconds and years. I would be placed with the others from the ghettos whom had lost very similar blood to my own. The same blood, if you were to ask these men.
In this state between life and whatever awaited me, I no longer possessed a voice, but my thoughts remained. Every transition regarding sight felt numb and muffled, as if my entire being had been packed away deep within my skull. Left with nothing but these thoughts, I saw everything. What felt like a blink, and I was there, Eric Theodore Cartman's funeral at a small Cathedral in southern Berlin, insignificant and under-attended. His mother remained at the coffin's far end and in full view, hands blocking her sobbing face from the world who cared so little about her son. Stanley and Kenneth would be seated in the pew, suits and all, but they wouldn't find it in themselves to cry. Again I blinked, and I saw Hena in Birkenau, baby Sarah and Abraham nowhere in sight. Immediately sentenced to death, oh, sweet, tiny Hena.
With enough will, Isaac came into view, healthy, happy, and full of vigor as he hugged at mother's blouse. He'd grow taller, she'd grow older. I thought of how they'd moved to America after the war, oceans away from a bloody past that was now a fleeting nightmare, and, everything would be so perfectly warm for them. My family would avoid the camps, live to see past the despair of war. Isaac would go to school in America and learn English and Engineering and build for himself a successful future. Father would manage to reopen his law firm overseas, and my mother… well, she wouldn't get her ring back. My face was numbed by the cold and blood loss, but I knew warm tears were spilling down my cheeks.
I thought of my family receiving a phone call from a man with accurate records that a Kyle Broflovski had indeed perished in the Polish Ghetto of Grodno on November 15th, 1942 by gunshot wounds. Yes, my name. He'd use my name. The man would apologise for their loss, never once mentioning the name Eric Cartman. Father would hold mother as she cried, and Isaac too would hold her from her back.
I saw what I wanted to see. The loneliness consumed me; oh, how I wished that I could join them, to kiss my mother's face and ruffle my brother's hair, but I was too distant. I wasn't even a human being anymore, not without any blood.
There'd be a funeral even without a body, and the Rabbi would speak a prayer for my soul. I knew these words; I'd heard them at my grandmother's burial. "Yit'gadal v'yit'kadash sh'mei raba b'al'ma di v'ra khir'utei," he would say. "V'yam'likh mal'khutei b'chayeikhon uv'yomeikhon, uv'chayei d'khol beit yis'ra'eil, ba'agala uviz'man kariv v'im'ru: Amein. "V'yam'likh mal'khutei b'chayeikhon uv'yomeikhon, uv'chayei d'khol beit yis'ra'eil, ba'agala uviz'man kariv v'im'ru: Amein. Y'hei sh'mei raba m'varakh l'alam ul'al'mei al'maya. Yit'barakh v'yish'tabach v'yit'pa'ar v'yit'romam v'yit'nasei, v'yit'hadar v'yit'aleh v'yit'halal sh'mei d'kud'sha. B'rikh hu, l'eila min kol bir'khata v'shirata, toosh'b'chatah v'nechematah, da'ameeran b'al'mah, v'eemru: Amein." Amen. "Y'hei sh'lama raba min sh'maya v'chayim aleinu v'al kol yis'ra'eil v'im'ru: Amein. Oseh shalom bim'romav hu ya'aseh shalom aleinu v'al kol. Yis'ra'eil v'im'ru:" He would pause, and my mother would let out a loud sob, before his last and final, "Amein."
My family would fill bits of the synagogue, muttering along with their own Amens. Mother would cry, father and Isaac wouldn't.
Finally, my fate flashed before me like cruel transparencies of an existence that I'd been robbed so coldly of. A single train ride, carried by what felt like wind, and I'd have made my first steps into Belgium, Eric dizzy and proud at my side. He would celebrate by touching my hair, to know that we were both still alive. Three more years, we could have made it; a simple living in Manchester as vagabonds bereft only by experience. He'd unsuccessfully attempt to teach me English, and I'd use the little I knew to acquire a place working in a war factory, while he'd do something brilliant, sell compositions, construct balustrades, or rise himself in the corporate world, and we'd sit ourselves by a little wooden radio as he'd translate for me the unconditional surrender of Germany.
He'd wish to move to across the Atlantic to America, and I'd fuss and argue but find myself predictably following behind him anyway. We'd together purchase a flat on the far side of Boston, and Eric would complain about everything except the orchids I would plant in our little window box facing a green park. Everything would be warm. Together, we would form a solitary limb. He would take steps in touching me, kisses and loving pulls and mischievous teases and I'd find myself falling for him in a repetitive process, finding new reasons to love and hate him daily. And the bombs would subside and nothing would ever harm us again.
But this wasn't real. This wasn't truth. It was nothing but an illusion that my fading concious decided to create. Despite my eyes almost completely blind, I was staring at a corpse, dying at his side.
But in this next world, he'd find me. I knew he'd find me, same as he found me in Grodno. He'd be perfect. He'd reach for me, face cleaned of enemy blood and torso rid of bullet holes, a smile gracing his lips. Waiting for me, and I swear I would see angels in every angle of him. Everything would be white and clean, and warmth would fill me top to bottom. It would be right, the two of us together, and there would be no longer a need to question, to restrict myself to the silly desires of the living.
We'd be reborn, him and I, bodies newly formed and untouched.
Eric would move to place a single kiss betwixt my brow, all-encompassing yet soft, muttering something along the lines of "Dumb Jew" and "Don't wander off".
But I didn't know. I could pretend in the delirium of dying. There could be nothing but black for all I knew. But, looking at the face of an old and loving friend laying at my side, I knew I did not regret any of this. My sight had faded completely; he was the last thing I ever saw, and I felt so happy.
The pain became almost nonexistent as these thoughts filled my head. There was no feeling anywhere, not anymore, and whatever awaited me beyond this place, I was ready. I hoped Eric was, too. With that, I gifted to my unconventional savior the last of my conscious, a simple explanation, a reward for his now lost bravery.
"Thank you," I whispered, but there was no longer any sound to my voice.
I wished Eric a farewell. In the depths of nothing, I heard his song became vivid and clear as I closed my eyes and thought of the warmth of summer.