[The following was my entry to a short story competition hosted by Leeds Trinity University. I’m delighted to say I received third prize, and some very lovely feedback from the author Martyn Bedford.]
The heavens burn like they’re going down in a blaze of glory- a battle waging above the clouds of an Autumn Munich sky. Lotte stares out, past the curve of the earth, glassy-eyed with her lips parted like she’s whispering secrets that get whisked away by the wind before they reach me. I say her name softly and she tilts her head to face mine. There remains an emptiness behind her eyes that stays just long enough to scare me.
“Lotte,” I say again, hoping my concern keeps out of my mouth.
She says my name back to me, smiling weakly. My worries don’t meet my lips, as she’d want, and instead they fester in the bottom of my throat like honey, spoiling like old fruit.
A gust of wind forces its way through the city streets, leaving a symphony of rattling cans and whistling windows in its wake. Up on the rooftops we get the worst of it. My short, lemon coloured bird’s nest of a hairstyle does little to protect me from the chill. Not for the first time I find myself wishing I’d brought a hat. A lock of dark hair sticks to Lotte’s face and I grace my fingertips to her cheek as I brush it off. Her eyes flicker down as if I’d left fingerprints there and she brushes her hair behind her ears, looking back at me with an expression that feels almost like mischief.
“Out here?” She says playfully.
Relishing in rare light heartedness, I shush her and we giggle. I remember the times we went to the cinema, back before everything escalated and we found ourselves having to resort to rooftops and alleyways. I wish I had a camera- a big one with reels of frames and film. I wish I could record her laughter, capturing the crinkle of her eyes and the pull of her lips and the flash of Hollywood glamour, right here in our little corner of Germany. I’d replay it forever – a looping reminder that there’s still joy to be had- in her, in me, in all of this.
I don’t like the films they show anymore. Lotte isn’t allowed in there anyway.
“Your face is so cold,” I say.
“Almost as if it’s October.”
“You can come back to mine, you know – anytime you want to.”
Her face falls and I curse myself.
“My family like you, always have. They won’t mind, promise.”
“And my family worry about me…” She looks down. “And I them. You know how it is now.”
There it is again – the caveat to all our plans. The head of the waterfall that she tells me about. The new rules and the new words and Anton Weber clad in a pressed uniform and a superiority complex acting as if he spent a day between 35 and 38 sober, telling my mother to keep her daughter away from Lotte. She’s never referred to by her name, of course. They call her all manner of things I know she isn’t. They call her a thing she is as if it’s an insult. As if her being a Jude, spat with whatever level of venom the hurensohn feels like expressing, negates everything else about her.
Lotte is a better person than I could ever hope to be. If she hadn’t spent every day of school having her hair pulled and her clothes torn and her skin scratched until she stopped going she’d have got the grades to go to Heidelberg and she’d be out of here. She’d have left everyone who cursed at her in the dust. In the aftermath of Kristallnacht and the legislation that came after, she told me it was a good thing she had left. Imagine, she’d said, if I had got the grades and found out I was banned from going anyway.
I couldn’t even look her in the eye on the day the news came out. The headlines stained the paper with a terrible permanence that felt like it was written in more than just ink. It’s only a month ago now and it feels like everything’s has gotten worlds worse since.
“It’ll get better,” I tell her. “It’ll be okay, in the end.”
She takes a second to register it. Then her eyes light up with anger and frustration, lips pursing, eyebrows upturning. I startle.
“No, it won’t,” she spits. “You’re so stupid.”
She draws her knees up to her face and hugs herself close, making herself as little as possible and she looks out to the horizon with a fierceness that rivals the spilled reds and oranges of sunset.
“You’re so stupid,” she repeats, quieter this time. “You’re so stupid and hopeful and wrong and I wish you were right but you’re not.”
She lets go of herself and she slumps, barely keeping herself propped up on her forearms.
“I’m sorry,” I say quietly.
“Don’t be,” she says softly as she looks down.
A pregnant pause fills the air between us.
“I should get going. My family worry so much about me now.”
“Really,” she says earnestly, an unwarranted apology flooding her face. “I wish I could stay.”
“No, no, Lotte it’s fine. When I say I understand I don’t mean it like… passive aggressively. I mean it as in… y’know, I understand.”
She laughs, “you do.”
“Like no one else,” she says, taking in my expression. “C’mon, you think I’d be on rooftops in October if I didn’t think you were pretty special?”
I blush at the tone of her voice, letting my eyes flicker away to stare intently at the edge of a tile and hope she’s looking away when I look back. She isn’t, a flirtatious smile drawing her full lips wide and her sooty lashes narrow slightly. For a second, I can’t take my eyes off those lips, drawn in by cupid’s bow and vermillion. Then she moves closer and I close my eyes and she’s kissing me.
She tastes like sugar and she feels like home. Cold but delicate hands cup my face. A finger traces my jaw. It’s been months since we’ve done this. It feels like years ago and yesterday and I’ve thought about it every night and now it’s happening and it’s here and God, it’s better than I remembered.
Eventually, she pulls away, pressing one last, quick peck to the corner of my mouth before joining me in gasping. I feel a smile creep on my face and she grins back at me before looking back to the sky and taking her own turn blushing.
Carefully, I undo my hair ribbon and tie it around the exposed skin of her neck. My hands are frozen with cold, but I manage a wonky, pink bow.
“How do I look?”
“Pretty,” I say. “As always.”
She leans into me and of all the horrible four-letter words flitting about the country she whispers to me the prettiest one. Then with one last squeeze of my shoulder she’s gone, footsteps disappearing behind me until they meet the clatter of the metal stairwell. I think over the words we exchanged, trying to find between them the ones we didn’t.
It’ll be okay, in the end.
She hasn’t been gone for more than a minute, my stomach already aching in her absence, and I realise the only thing I want more than her is to be right.