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An Open Door

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- July 1944 -

Charles can’t sleep.

Charles can read minds. He knows this is true — knows that he is not mad — with absolute certainty, just as he also knows that he must never tell, not even in confession.

Insomnia is the price for his newfound ability — ever since that day they shot the Résistance soldier at the edge of the forest and Charles suddenly heard his scream both inside and outside his skull, the voices have kept him awake. He’s getting better at blocking them during the day by focusing on other tasks, but at night, when the lights are out, there is no escape from the thoughts and dreams crowding in from the boys around him. It has been better since the beginning of the holidays — almost all of the other boys have gone home, making the room a lot quieter — but tonight, Jacques has a dream about the farmer’s daughter that makes Charles blush and squirm in his bed.

He casts his own thoughts outwards. The monks’ minds tend to be quieter than those of his classmates, and maybe tuning in to one of them will let him catch some sorely-needed rest. Only — the mind he finds is utterly unknown to him, and far, far from calm. The sudden burst of fear, hunger, sickness and white-hot anger coiled underneath is almost nauseating. Everything about this mind is suspicious and hostile, but strangely, Charles’ immediate reaction is fascination rather than fear. His mother always maintains that he does not know what’s good for him.

(Well, she used to maintain that when she used to remember she had a son, back in 1939. They had been living in Paris then — she, Charles, and Jean-Claude. Charles had rather liked Jean-Claude at the time, although his feelings have cooled considerably since, once he realized that his mother’s lover had been the main reason he had been packed off to a nice, Catholic boarding school located conveniently far from the city. A year later, when the Germans were moving closer to the school and Father Pierre had tried to reach her, she’d been gone. Charles remembers he had cried at the time. He hadn’t cried a year later when he’d got her letter.

She had assured him that he would be safe and well cared for in the country, that this nasty war would be over before he knew it, that she had left funds for him with Father Pierre, and that she would dearly love to take him with her and her new friend Mr. Kurt Marko to America, but that it would be very difficult and dangerous to get him out of the country at the time. Charles had been almost ten, and he hadn’t understood all of her letter, but he had understood that he had been left, that his mother had never once in his life hugged him the way Father Pierre did after he had finished the letter, and that he had never trusted any of her promises as much as the headmaster’s when he’d told Charles that he had a home and a family at the Little Convent.)

And so Charles finds himself walking along the dark, silent corridors of the school in the middle of the night, following the irrisistible pull of an alien mind and the faint sounds of movement and shuffling coming from the kitchens. He has enough sense to grab a solid cane on the way, at least.

A soft glow emanates from the half-opened kitchen door. Charles concentrates very hard on being invisible (it seems to work around the teachers and older boys), and softly edges it open to peek inside.

There’s a boy shuffling through the storage cupboards. He’s about a head taller than Charles, and easily twenty pounds lighter. He’s clad in rags, and even by the light of a single candle, Charles can tell that he’s filthy. With one hand, he is throwing food into a satchel, while the other is occupied with stuffing bread into his mouth.

There’s nothing for it. Taking a deep breath, Charles casts his mind outward, tries to project calm—friendly—safe, and steps inside. The boy whirls around, there’s a shrill creak, and Charles manages to throw himself to the floor before the metal doorknob of the nearest cabinet crashes into the door above him. Then the boy is on top of him, trying to strangle him. He’s furious and frightened, but also emaciated and weak; Charles has little trouble grabbing his wrists and holding him down.

“Arrête!” he hisses, and tries to project calm—calm—calm over the violent beating of both of their hearts, “je veux pas te faire mal.”

The boy stills, but Charles senses that this is a reaction to the tone of his voice, the gentle grip he maintains on his wrists, and the feelings he is projecting, rather than the words themselves.

You’re not French.

The boy’s eyes widen. He shakes his head.

How did he do that?

I’m in your head. I can read minds.

Never having shared his secret with anyone before, Charles has no baseline to compare the boy’s reaction against, but it is not what he would have expected: the boy’s mistrust and fear do not lessen, but neither do they spike; instead, there’s a sharp sense of awe, curiosity, and calculation.

Can you hear me? The thought is both tentative and extremely loud, the mental equivalent of a shout in his direction.

Yes! Yes, I can! I’ve never done this with anyone before!

Charles can’t help himself — he forgets to be careful, he drops the boy’s wrists and dives deeper into his mind, trying to get more information.

Listen, Erik — your name is Erik, right? — (the boy nods, shocked) you don’t have to be scared. You’re hungry, and on the run. Take whatever you need, the monks are always giving to the poor, and I’m sure we can spare a satchel of food, you don’t have to steal.

His thoughts are racing along with his heart.

In fact, you never have to steal again. You’ll stay here. We’ll hide you, I know Father Pierre will help, and the Nazis hardly ever come inside the school. You have to stay! I always believed I couldn’t be the only one in the world. The only person who was — different. And here you are! What you did with the doorknob — you’re incredible, do you know that?

 

#

In the end, it takes Charles another hour to convince Erik to trust him enough to accept to stay the night, hidden away in the old barn, and two days to convince him to talk to Father Pierre. There are moments when Charles has a guilty suspicion that the mind he felt that night should never have trusted him on his own, but he is usually very good at silencing that line of thought. He can read minds, yes, and maybe alter perceptions, and project things, but not control them. He tried for a whole week to make Cook add porridge to the breakfast menu without success. He didn’t even try to convince Erik with his powers. They just have a connection. It might simply be their unusual talents, but Charles thinks it is more than that. Erik’s mind pulls at his: a constant, unwavering attraction that has been there from the first time he felt it, in the dark of the sleeping room. After only a week, he has never felt as close to another human being. He knows Erik. He might not know much about why and from whom exactly Erik is hiding, where he comes from or what happened to him (he has seen snippets — dark and dank rooms filled with hollow-eyed crowds, a gleaming steel table with straps attached, the skulls of two soldiers crushed by their steel helmets, a man with oily brown hair and round glasses (that one is somehow the scariest of all) — but he has not dared to look deeper, never mind that he does not quite know how to access someone’s memories when they are not actively thinking about them and without being found out), but he knows Erik. And he knows that Erik belongs with him, that he is his.

Charles is never plagued by doubts about Father Pierre’s behavior and motives, or those of any of the other monks and teachers. He has long known the monks’ thoughts about the Germans, their genuine devotion to charity, and their faith. They accept the ragged boy that Charles drags out of the barn not without, but with very little and very well-meaning questions. What is his name? (Max. He does not volunteer a surname, and is not asked for one.) Is he hungry? Does he want a bath and a fresh set of clothes? (Yes.) Can he understand them (Yes, with a little silent help from Charles.) Does he have any family, anyone they can contact? (No.) Are the Germans looking for him? (Yes.) Does he know if they know where he is? Would the local authorities recognize him? (That one is difficult. Finally, Erik is able to explain that he escaped while being transported from one place to another, and has been on the run for about three weeks. He does not think anyone has seen him.)

At the end of the interview, Father Pierre leans over his desk and sighs. He casts a long look at Erik’s left breast, where his shirt is torn, and says, very gently, “Tu n’es pas catholique, non?”

Erik hesitates. He sees Father Pierre’s look, and then he nods. “Non, je suis pas.”

Charles has strange feeling that he doesn’t understand the whole exchange, but he does understand that Erik’s nod is answering a different question than the the one Father Pierre asked out loud.

It is a good thing that the holidays have only just begun. Father Pierre is confident that they can use the remaining weeks until September to grow Erik’s shorn hair out, put some fat on his ribs, improve his French, give him a new identity, and enrol him as a student at the school. The story is that Max Michel is the son of a French woman and a Flemish husband, that he grew up in Flanders and that, after his father’s death, his mother returned to her family in France and sent her son to school. Erik doesn’t speak a word of Flemish, but neither do any of the other students, and his accent might as well be Flemish as German. Father Pierre thinks that a German background would be much too suspicious.

While de Gaulle’s voice drones from the radio, Father Pierre muses that with the way the war is going, it is likely that France will be freed before the summer is over.

It turns out that he is right.

 

#

 

- 1945 -

 

Three months after the German capitulation, Charles receives a letter from his mother. Her offer to come to Westchester, New York, a place that he has almost no memories of, to live with her and her new husband (Charles had not even known that she had married this Mr. Marko), offers very little temptation. Father Pierre’s promise has come true: the Convent is his home, the monks and his fellow students and Erik — most of all Erik — are his family.

He declines.

Erik has stayed Max Michel, although he has been upgraded from half to full orphan. Nobody questions his story much, just as nobody ever seems to notice the numbers tattooed on his forearm. The source of the ease with which Erik is accepted and the general disinterest in his appearance from the other students is another thing that Charles can never confess, not even to Father Pierre, so he very pragmatically refuses to feel guilty about it. He and Erik are inseparable. Nobody questions their friendship, though many wonder at it. The two boys seem to have little in common. Erik does not have friends apart from Charles; he keeps to himself and most of the other students are afraid of his size, strength, and mood swings. Charles is friendly with everybody and would probably be friends with everybody, too, if Erik didn’t monopolize his time. As it is, they spend most of their free time alone, closeted away in a corner of the library or out in the woods.

Charles knows everything about Erik by now. He knows that his last name is Lehnsherr, that he has a remarkable talent for languages and drawing, that he grew up in Düsseldorf, that he can shape metal like butter and lift the Convent’s massive cast-iron baptistry, that he is Jewish, that he does not believe in God, that his mother was shot in front of him, that he has more trouble sleeping at night than even Charles, that Klaus Schmidt had made him practice his control of fine metals on his father’s gold teeth, that Erik managed to escape after three months of torture when Schmidt decided to bring him from Auschwitz to a more sophisticated laboratory near the French border, that he keeps a portrait of and a coin for Schmidt.

He knows that he wishes that Erik would find peace and forgiveness — and at the same time cannot imagine him any different — that he loves Erik more than anybody, that Erik feels the same about him, and that he will not stay with Charles despite all that. Erik is grateful to the monks, but he does not believe what they preach, and he does not mean to follow their teachings. There is a darkness in Erik’s soul that Charles doubts he will ever understand, no matter how much he studies it.

#

Erik leaves when he is fifteen. During their goodbye, he kisses Charles. It is not a brotherly kiss; and it makes Charles realize three things: firstly, there is after all something that he had not known about Erik; secondly, there is something he had not known about himself; and thirdly, there is a reason Jacques’ dreams about this girl or that have always made him squirm uncomfortably instead of excitedly, and that reason is not that he was born to be celibate.

#