The broken windows of the building to the right watched our progress with the hollow stare of someone defeated and beyond caring. Georg and Karl eased around the corner in a crouch. I peered past the brick wall and spotted two Schutzpolizisten in the intersection half a block ahead. I dropped low and followed my friends along the path winding through heaps of destruction—crumbled walls that spilled chunks of stone and brick and dust into the alley.
Most days it was fun to play along. Karl had started the game two years ago, after the Soviet Army occupied Leipzig. We tried not to be noticed by Schupos, because they worked for the Soviets, but we’d also spy on them, pretending we were behind enemy lines, collecting intelligence for the American army in the hope they’d return. Failure meant a small punishment, usually a dare. But I wasn’t in the mood for games today.
I straightened. The police were still there, backs to us, watching the street. I frowned at the blue uniforms and their tense, guard-dog postures. Something was up. My chest constricted, making it hard to breathe.
Karl grabbed my wrist and yanked me to my knees. “Keep your head down, Wilm,” he whispered, pointing beyond the rubble. “Patrol in the intersection.”
“I spotted them a block ago, Dummkopf.”
Behind a broken wall five meters away, Georg sheltered under a claw-footed bathtub suspended midair by a skeletal hand of green pipes that protruded from crumbling plaster. He signaled that another patrol was approaching, then scuttled to us like a two-legged crab. “What’s going on? There aren’t usually this many Schupos out. We’ve seen six since we left school. Is all of Leipzig is like this, or just our district?”
Beside the exposed bathtub was half a bedroom clogged with rubble. A picture hung crooked above a crushed bed. “Maybe they’re looking for us.”
Georg swatted my head. “You think that’s funny, Tauber?”
“Sure. We’re no threat to these guys.” I sneered. “You don’t even know what end of a pistol to hold.”
I knew. Uncle Bruno had taught me to strip down and reassemble the Luger he kept hidden in his barn. One night, right after the Soviets arrived, my older sister, Anneliese, and I were at his farm when a terrific thunderstorm rolled in. He took us to the forest beyond his west field and, under the cover of the thunder, we fired the Luger until we ran out of ammunition. Uncle Bruno said I had a good eye, but Anneliese was a natural.
Georg glared at me, a look that said he wanted to hit me again. I tilted my chin and gave him a target. A slap was one thing, but he wouldn’t punch me. He’d never been a fighter.
“Sssst.” Karl got our attention. “Look.” A murmuring Schupo swept his arm and pointed in one direction, then another. The others nodded and one pointed in the opposite direction.
“A search?” Georg peered between two slabs of broken wall, my taunting forgotten.
“Maybe,” Karl replied. “At the Stag’s Horn there’ve been rumors about a weapons stash.”
I snorted. “Those drunks your mom serves in her pub eat rumors for breakfast and drink them for supper. I suppose they’re planning a revolt. Kill the police, kick out the Soviets with a few Mausers and hand grenades.”
“I didn’t say that.” Karl raked his fingers through his sandy hair, a sure sign he was frustrated. It didn’t matter what he did to his hair; it was always neat. He and Georg were opposites: fair and dark, tidy and messy. I was in the middle. Karl continued, “I only said there’s a rumor. The Schupos listen to rumors too. And they hate the idea of anyone except them being armed. Half the time I think someone puts these ideas out there to see the police running around in a panic.”
“You’re crazy if you think kicking in doors and scaring families is a sign of panic.” Had they already searched our block? No one was—wait. Anneliese might be back from work. I needed to get home.
I peered over the top of a rubble pile that smelled faintly of charcoal. The Schupos’ clean navy uniforms contrasted with the drab, mostly ruined street. Even the sky was dreary, though the morning’s rain clouds had been replaced by a gray sheet. Backs still to us, the four Schupos watched a figure hobble toward them on crutches.
My body clenched at the sight: the familiar arc of crutches, the way the man swung forward, head down, looking for cobblestones that might trip him because he hadn’t adjusted to having half a leg. My father paused at the corner, cap pulled so low that most of his face was in shadow. He didn’t look at the police as he started across the street. As he did with the Soviets, Father tried to pretend the Schupos didn’t exist.
They didn’t let him. One stepped in his way, forced him to stop, and asked him something in a low voice. Father kept his head down, but I could see his chest rising and falling rapidly. No doubt the Schupo could hear him huffing the way he did when he was getting angry.
“Leave me alone.” His voice was gruff. Too loud. “I know nothing.”
He moved to skirt the two patrols. The officer who’d spoken to him grabbed his arm and spun him back. A crutch clattered across the cobblestones. Father started to fall but a shove from another officer kept him on his foot. His other crutch dropped to the ground.
The four men surrounded Father and pushed him back and forth between them, never letting him fall. “Dirty Nazi!” one yelled. My hands curled into fists. Anyone the authorities didn’t like got called a Nazi or a reactionary, but no one in our family had been a Nazi. Ever. I’d gotten into two fights last fall when older students had called me that. The first Schupo shouted, “You’re hiding something. Tell us!” He backhanded Father.
I shot up and started over the broken wall, but Karl and Georg dragged me back. We rolled and struggled as I fought to escape, our grunts and scrapes echoing the other attack. We landed with me on the bottom, face down in a murky puddle, my ear and neck in water that lapped at my mouth when I tried to jerk free.
Karl’s breath was hot on my other ear. “Don’t move.”
The sounds in the street had changed to thumps and the expelled breaths of someone being hit. I pictured two Schupos holding my father’s arms, keeping him upright while the other two pounded him. I tried to heave Karl and Georg off. Rough stone scraped my cheekbone as they pushed me back down. One of them I could’ve beaten, but not both.
A thud came from the other side of the rubble. I stared at the crumbled stone, still charred in places. They had dropped him. He was lying in the street, maybe staring at the same pile of debris, smelling the same musk. Leave him now, I thought. Leave him.
I held my breath, strained to hear what was happening. No footsteps. No talking. The hush was suffocating, and I lifted my head to speak. Then—the sound of something hard hitting something soft. Boots against flesh. I flinched with every thump, felt every strike in my legs, my back, my gut. I tasted mud and knew Father tasted blood. He groaned at each blow, swore. Finally he cried, “Shoot me, you cowards! What kind of animals beat a one-legged man? Shoot me and be done with it!”
Silence. My breathing came in short bursts. After a minute the police muttered among themselves. They marched away, footfalls heading in two directions. Georg rolled off my legs. I pushed Karl away and stood. My cheek stung when I wiped it. Both friends scowled at me. Georg’s hair stood up in clumps. “He didn’t mean that, did he?” he whispered. “He couldn’t have wanted them to shoot him.”
They had no idea, and I wasn’t in a mood to tell them.
I scrambled over the rubble pile and retrieved the crutches. It took a few minutes to get Father up, and even with the crutches he swayed precariously. When I set his cap on his head, he looked up, surprise blanketing his features as he realized who was helping him.
“Where did you come from, Wilhelm?” Father dabbed at a cut on his lip, then at another on his brow. His hands were bleeding too, as if he’d tried to ward off blows. “Could’ve used your help sooner.”
“I tried,” I muttered, and sent Georg and Karl an angry look. They kept their distance, uncertainty etched on their foreheads. My book satchel dangled from Georg’s grasp.
Father shifted and his knee buckled; I caught him and helped him to the remnants of a low wall. “Stay here. I’ll find a way to get you home.”
His frown dared me to offer a solution. We had no car, not even a bicycle. They’d been buried under debris years ago when our first apartment was bombed.
I snapped my fingers. “Frau Nikel’s wheelbarrow.”
Father’s lip curled. “Perfect. It will make my humiliation complete. You can wheel me to the pharmacy. That’s where I was headed, to see if Herr Busch has any pain medication. Damned lost leg is on fire. Couldn’t get anything done so they sent me home early.”
His voice faded as he spoke and I realized his new injuries were paining him more than a nonexistent leg. I raced off, cursing under my breath, and returned in ten minutes.
Karl carried Father’s crutches on his shoulder like a pair of rifles, Georg packed our satchels, and I pushed the wheelbarrow. As we headed to the pharmacy, curtains on either side of the oddly deserted street fluttered to mark our passing. The neighborhood was taking note. Word would travel fast. Heinz Tauber had been beaten by police. What had he done to deserve it? What could they do to avoid the same fate?
As the wheelbarrow bounced along, Father spoke through gritted teeth about the beating. He seemed proud of how he’d held up. “I’ll be sore for days,” he informed us. Anger darkened his gray eyes. “Next time those swine try to beat me I’ll grab one of their pistols and turn it on them.”
I tried to imagine that but could only see him falling as he grabbed a weapon. And the other policemen shooting him before he hit the ground.