The wind sounded eerily like the dying screams of people Annelise used to know - a fitting ambience, considering where she was going. The world was letting her breath out in great gusts after holding it in the whole summer, making leaves in muted shades of red and gold sweep around her like spirits, whispering all the secrets of the universe in a language she couldn’t understand. She shivered even though she wasn’t cold.
Walking down this path, she felt memories seeping through the cracks in the walls she’s tried to build. She’d thought it had been long enough, but it hadn’t - that much was clear. It all came back no matter how hard she tried to stop it, so she just closed her eyes and let the pain in.
She woke to her mother’s insisting whisper. Sitting up in bed, she wiped the wisps of sleep from her eyes. Her mother grasped her arm firmly and forced her out of bed.
“Ouch! What’s wrong?”
“We’re leaving. Now.” Her mother’s voice was tense.
“Leaving? Where are we going? What-”
“I said now, Annelise.”
She got out of bed, knowing better than to argue with her mother when she talked like that. Her bare feet pressed against the freezing wooden floor - her family couldn’t afford heating in the wintertime. Goosebumps rose on her skin. She squinted, trying to make her eyes adjust to the darkness as her mother led her out of the bedroom, into the hallway, and out the front door. Annelise asked to go back and get her coat but her mother said no, no time for that. It was even colder out here than in the house, and a light frost dusted the thin, bare branches that sliced open the ominous full moon above. Her father was already outside, thick arms folded over his massive chest, his dark eyebrows furrowed.
In the faint, glowing moonlight, Annelise could see a crowd of people in the street, most either praying or trying to calm their crying children. Her family joined them, watching as a tall man separated himself from the crowd and raised his arms. “Attention!” he shouted. Everybody looked up. “Is everyone here?”
“I counted,” said another man. “We have everyone.”
“Good,” said the tall man. Then, to the whole crowd: “I have been informed by an inside source that the Nazis plan to bomb this area tonight.” He paused, waiting for panicked gasps and whispers, but by now everyone had already assumed that was what was happening. He continued. “Do not be alarmed, I know of a safe place nearby. Everyone must stay silent and follow me. If you are not quiet, you will be left behind. There will be no exceptions. Now, this way!” He gestured north, down the winding path that passed through the village. Everyone followed him.
Annelise walked with the crowd, her head bowed, and was soon swallowed up by the mass of people. Her mother had let go of her arm a long time ago. She searched now but couldn’t find her, nor her father. She was surrounded by people from her village - some familiar, some strangers, all of them wearing see-through masks of calm. Jostling her as they hurried on silent feet. A hand pressed against her back and she turned to see who it was but everyone was the same, and when she tried to speak they all hushed her and warned her that they would leave her behind if she didn’t shut up. She still couldn’t find her parents and gave up trying.
After a while they came to a stop in an unremarkable part of the path, bookended by clumps of trees. Annelise looked around and saw her friend, Emmanuel. She smiled, happy that he was here, and tapped him on the shoulder. He turned and smiled back when he saw her.
“Emmanuel,” she hissed, leaning towards him and trying to be as quiet as possible. “What’s happening?”
“The Nazis, Annelise,” he whispered back. He wiggled his fingers and raised his eyebrows. “They’ll eat your brains if you’re not careful.”
She hit him on the arm. “Don’t joke. And yes, of course it’s the Nazis, but where are we?”
“I’m not sure. The man said we were going to a safe place.”
Annelise rolled her eyes. “There are no safe places anymore.”
Emmanuel shrugged. “We should probably be quiet. Don’t want to be left behind, or the Nazis will eat our brains.” Annelise rolled her eyes again.
The tall man from before raised his arms again. It seemed to be a habit of his. He motioned for everyone to follow him off the path, and they did, looking down so as to not trip on the gnarled roots crisscrossing the soil. Soon they stopped again, this time so abruptly that Annelise’s nose slammed into Emmanuel’s back. There was a rustling sound as the man knelt down and started brushing branches and pine needles away from the ground, and a loud screech as he opened a hidden hatch that had been concealed by the forest debris. A crooked ladder was barely visible in the moonlight, leading down into darkness.
The man stepped back and let everyone climbed down the ladder, one by one. Annelies’s hands were steady as she descended. She looked up when she got to the bottom, the opening like a tiny window above them. The tall man was the last one to go inside, and he closed the hatch behind him, plunging wherever they were into pure darkness. Someone lit a match, and in turn used that to light a lamp. People started to whisper. One voice rang out above the others - her father’s voice. “Are we safe here?” he asked skeptically.
“We are safe,” said the tall man. Her father’s shoulders relaxed, but Annelise’s didn’t. She knew that lies were more comforting than truths.
People milled about, some whispering, some praying, some lying down and sleeping. Annelise scanned everyone’s faces but didn’t see Emmanuel’s, so she went over to her father instead and held his hand tight. He hugged her and whispered, “It’s all right,” even though it probably wasn’t.
It was almost three in the morning when they heard the bombs.
Annelise jumped, coming back to the present. She shook her head and continued down the path. She had to go. She had to go. Don’t think don’t think don’t think, she told herself. Just keep going.
She found the right spot with no trouble. She remembered everything from that night, even though she didn’t want to. Bracing herself, she walked into the woods.
The hatch was still there, lying open. Her skin crawled just looking at it. It’s all right, she told herself. Just like her father had all those years ago.
Hoping it wasn’t a lie this time, she stepped onto the ladder.
Several people screamed when they heard the explosions. Annelise’s father held her tight, smoothing her hair like he could make her forget what was happening. “It’s all right,” he murmured over and over, “It’s all right.”
Boom. It shook the whole bunker. Boom. The world was collapsing and there was nothing to do except sit there and wait for it to happen. Boom. Annelise stood in her father’s arms, trying not to think of all the lives that had undoubtedly just been taken.
Nobody spoke until dawn, when the explosions had long stopped and a faint line of light outlined the hatch above them. Someone tentatively whispered, “Should we go back up?”.
“No,” someone else said. “Best we wait until we’re sure.”
“I’m thirsty,” whined a young boy. Now that the terror was gone, hunger and thirst replaced it.
“We have provisions,” said the tall man that had brought them there. “But they are quite small. We should save them for when we truly need them.”
No sooner had he stopped speaking when they heard footsteps and voices above. Everyone froze. Annelise strained her ears, just able to make out two people speaking.
“You really think some are hiding out here?” said a man’s deep voice.
“I heard there was a sort of bunker nearby. We should check to make sure.” Annelise’s throat went dry. The bunker was quieter than a funeral. The footsteps and voices didn’t fade - they seemed to be walking right above them. Finally the noises stopped. Just when Annelise thought maybe they were in the clear, the hatch opened and silver early-morning sunlight spilled inside.
The world was still for a moment.
A man knelt in the opening. His uniform was Nazi red-white-black. He stared down at the terrified figures down below for the longest time, taking in the kippahs adorning many of the men’s heads. Finally a woman screamed.
Then all hell broke loose.
A gunshot sliced through the air. Pow! It hit a man near Annelise, blood spraying from his forehead. She gasped, still not fully taking in the situation, stumbling backwards. She had to get away, away, she was too young to die. Pow! Pow! But there was nowhere to go. They were blind baby rabbits in a hole, easy targets for the foxes above. And where were her parents? Pow! Too many bullets. Too much blood. She needed to get away, away, away.
The two men jumped down into the hole and kept shooting. Pow! Pow! Pow! Everyone scrambled away from them, but the bunker was too small, their guns too large. The men stood at the base of the ladder, blocking their only way out. Pow!
Annelise closed her eyes, pressing herself against the wall. She was invisible. They couldn’t see her. They weren’t even there, they weren’t even real. The gunshots weren’t real. The screams weren’t real. She wasn’t even real. She had never even been born. Pow!
She gasped when she felt something hit her in the stomach, burying itself deep. It wasn’t painful so she hoped for the best, but then looked down and saw the blood and knew it was over. She tried to take deep breaths but they came short and shallow. Her back slid down the wall as she collapsed, her legs bending at odd angles underneath her. Her fading eyes gazed up at the little, hopeful square of light above. The last thing she would ever see.
Or so she thought.
The bunker was bigger than she’d remembered. She supposed it had seemed smaller in the dark, with so many people packed into it. The walls were grimy concrete, still stained faintly with blood. She gagged and closed her eyes. It’s all right it’s all right it’s all right. It’s over now. It was over a long time ago. Don’t panic.
Her eyes opened and she stared around the room again. It was empty except for the memories. They had carried the bodies away after everyone was shot. Like the trophy heads hunters brought back so they had something to brag about.
She’d watched them do it, bewildered that she was still alive. Then she’d looked down at herself and realized she wasn’t. She was pure shadow, pure light, pure air. She was invisible to everyone else. She’d seen them carried her own body away, but turned away quickly because it was too strange to watch. She’d wondered if there were other ghosts she couldn’t see and had decided not to think about it.
Now, as she watched the watery autumn sunlight trickle through the square in the ceiling, she didn’t feel peaceful. She’d thought coming back here would help her find peace with what had happened, but all it did was make her feel sick. But somehow, sick felt good.
Maybe peace was overrated anyway.