The Little German Boy

“Everything will be just fine,” Greta murmured. She rocked back and forth with the small, frightened child in her lap, and hoped that he didn’t feel her racing heart and her fear. He clung to her neck and sobbed, voicelessly. He didn’t even pull on his nose or sniffle. He just let his tears and nose run and his shoulders shake, all in eerie silence. Greta was horrified that any child his age – she guessed he was four or five, although he was small and terribly thin – could control himself this way. The boy that she’d had when she was younger had been rambunctious, always running around, putting his hands into everything, shouting at the top of his voice until he tired himself out and plopped down in the comfiest spot in the house for a nap, just like an enthusiastic kitten might do.
“Shh, shh,” Greta began and stopped herself immediately. No, no, she shouldn’t, she mustn’t shush him. The poor thing hadn’t spoken a word, hadn’t made a sound since entering her house. She knew why, or she thought she knew why, but she didn’t want to think about it, and succeeded in pushing the complicated, conflicting notions out of her mind. She hoped that her son wouldn’t get home tonight. He hadn’t said he would, but sometimes he popped by after a night of drinking with the men, and when that happened, she never knew what kind of mood he’d be in. He was often weepy and melancholy as a drunk, and he would want to discuss her memories of him as a boy. But sometimes he would get himself into a rage and would talk at Greta, pacing around and around the small kitchen like a caged tiger at a circus. When he was like that, she tried to make herself small. He frightened her then and reminded her of her husband, may God rest his fiery soul and protect him from ending up in Hell.
The sobs abated and Greta pulled back from the child, trying to look into his face. He allowed her to do so, becoming limp like a rag doll in her arms and looking down at his little hands instead of up into her eyes. He’d only met her gaze once, when she’d found him in the outhouse, shivering, and then there’d been such fear – such absolute terror! – in his hungry eyes that Greta was almost thankful that she hadn’t needed to face it again.
A shout from outside made them both jump. Greta listened, and recognized the sounds of a parade starting to go through the village streets. The soldiers paraded often – theirs was a small town, and they didn’t have much work to do in it in between ventures to other towns in the area to recruit or into the countryside to scour it for runaways. As the boots began to pound the street, the boy in Greta’s arms started to shiver violently and then tried to leap off of her.
She struggled to hold him close, but he was like a wild animal, scratching at her hands and kicking his feet, trying to get away. When he bit her finger, she let out a moan of pain and let go and he scampered off through the house. Greta was off the couch in a second, after him. He ran from one small room to another, trying to open doors and windows, but they were all locked – Greta had locked them quickly and silently when she’d brought him in. She’d pulled the shades down too. When he couldn’t find a way out, he crawled right into the chimney and attempted climbing up it, frantically, falling down over and over again, try as he might to catch a handhold.
Greta knelt in front of the hearth and held out her arms to him, ignoring the pain in her finger. “Come, I’ll protect you,” she whispered. “They won’t get you. They won’t come here. You’re safe. You’re my little boy – I have peroxide, we can dye your hair, everything will be alright. My little blue-eyed boy.”
He stared at her, his sea-blue eyes stretched wide. He touched his hair, so filthy that Greta didn’t know whether it was brown or black. He met her eyes again, and she wondered whether someone like her had betrayed him once already, because there was such wariness in his face, such uncertainty.
“Everything is going to be alright, I promise. I’ll protect you,” she said again. Slowly, ever so slowly, he crawled out the fireplace and allowed her to whisk him away to the kitchen, where she made him a hot cup of tea as that parade went by outside.

Gertrude’s Conscience

“Gertrude?” the clerk at the DMV smirked involuntarily when he read the name. He stifled his sneer as best he could, but she’d already seen and noticed it, as she always did.

“Yes, um, so can I please renew my license?” she asked quickly. She wanted to get the whole thing over with. The clerk asked her to wait a moment and went to a back room to do whatever it is they did at the DMV that took so damn long.

Gertrude sat, unmoving, on the uncomfortable plastic chair and fumed quietly. She cursed her parents for the umpteenth time for giving her such an old-fashioned name. She’d learned to like it in her teens because she felt it gave her an air of fragile antiquity and maybe some sort of old-fashioned elegance. But now, in her mid-twenties, she was learning to hate it again. Her boyfriend always told her he loved it, but they’d been together for so long that she never took his compliments seriously anymore.

She looked up at the large clock and sighed. She’d been waiting in line for what felt like forever, and now the sneering clerk with his comb-over and his ugly, crooked teeth was chatting, quite audibly, with one of his coworkers while he waited for something to come out of the printer. Gertrude stared at him sullenly, but looked away quickly when she realized that he might look back and see her watching him.

Instead, she put her head down and examined her nails. They were too long again, and she was much too lazy to paint them. It just didn’t seem important anymore, this having nice nails business. She just wanted them short enough so as not to be in her way and damn appearances. But even as she thought that, Gertrude scoffed inwardly at herself. She still cared about her looks, much more than she ought to. She felt the nape of her neck tingle right now, in fact, and was sure that one of the fussy, mean old ladies who were in line was watching her and frowning at the tattoo that was clearly visible on that area.

Gertrude felt that everyone disapproved of her, no matter where she went. Whether she was buying books that were technically considered teen-novels or walking into a designer-clothing store, she felt as if people stared and watched her, thinking that she was strange and odd and altogether not quite right.

Being not quite right didn’t bother her when she was alone. In fact, within her circle of family and friends she enjoyed being the odd one out. She liked having unique tastes and being considered a bit of a strange bird. In fact, she took offense when she was told that she was too normal. She felt that being normal was boring, wrong even. Especially as she wanted to be a teacher. Teachers needed to be odd, special, or plain nuts in order to have an effect on their pupils. Gertrude was convinced of this because the only teachers she’d ever had who had any impact on her were the weird ones that people laughed at but listened to.

It was only when she was out and about on her own that Gertrude felt uncomfortable. She kept her head down as often as possible so as to hide the large birth-mark that covered half her cheek with a purple tinge. In those moments of honesty to herself, she knew that she was hiding herself more than the birth-mark and that it only gave her an excuse to do so.

“Excuse me, Miss?” the clerk was back and had apparently decided that he couldn’t say her name without laughing. His formal address to her was almost more insulting than her name said with a snicker.

“Yes?” she answered, raising her eyes and looking at him politely. Like most clerks, he didn’t meet her eyes. She always tried to meet everyone’s eyes when she spoke to them, almost defiantly, as if to prove something.

“I’m sorry but you didn’t fill out the proper forms online, so we can’t renew your license yet,” the clerk said without sympathy. He was already looking behind her, his hand hovering over the button that would make the screen flash and the next number called.

“I did fill them out,” Gertrude said quickly, before he could dismiss her. “Can you check again, please? If you don’t have them then I’ll fill them out right now,” she offered eagerly.

The clerk emitted a little noise of distaste and impatience and without a word got up and went back to the computers that for some inexplicable reason weren’t set on the clerks’ desks.

Gertrude hated him for a few moments before reminding herself not to be a mean, selfish and judgmental idiot. She looked down again and tried her best to imagine the clerk as a good person who had a family and friends and belonged to another life that didn’t consist of the DMV. It was hard to imagine, but she nevertheless tried, in order to stop feeling bad about herself for hating someone so fiercely that it hurt.