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A Friend in Need

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The night the visitor arrived, Erik only pretended to sleep. He understood that something was about to happen, and while Ruth slumbered beside him, he stayed awake. Late in the night, his parents let someone into the room the family shared. The conversation that followed in the far corner from the beds was hushed, and sometimes unintelligible. It started out so quiet that he could barely hear it, but then the adults grew more audacious, and spoke a little louder.

‘I don’t see why you would offer such a thing,’ his father said.

‘Your son is special,’ the unknown man said. They were speaking Yiddish, so at least it was not an officer, but his father’s tone made it clear that this was no friend.

‘How do we know that we can trust you?’

‘Jakob, who else can we trust?’ his mother asked. ‘Doctor Erskine is giving us an opportunity...’

‘He could be collaborating.’

‘They are as hostile to me as they are to you, Mister Lehnsherr,’ the stranger answered. ‘But I can help you.’ The conversation fell again, and for a long time Erik could not distinguish the voices from the sound of the draft from between the planks.

‘What about Ruthie? His sister?’ his mother said now, loud enough for him to hear.

‘I’m sorry,’ the stranger said. ‘I can only bring the boy.’ He paused, and said: ‘You wouldn’t want the Nazis to get hold of him, seeing that he can do what he can?’ The silence grew strained.

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ his father said stiffly.

‘Yes, you do. Mister Lehnsherr, please. I am volunteering to save your son’s life.’

‘We have nothing to give you in exchange,’ his mother admitted.

‘I ask for nothing, Mrs Lehnsherr,’ he answered. ‘I simply believe that he must be kept safe.’ They did not speak for a long time, then his father said:

‘Excuse us for a moment.’ There were a few footsteps as they moved away to have a rushed, hushed conversation. Erik could not hear that they said. Finally, the whispers stopped, and he heard his father, sounding more civil now.

‘You’d do this at great personal risk, correct?’

‘Yes. But it is not an issue.’

‘But you think that it is important to keep Erik safe?’

‘Yes.’

‘What would they do to him that they wouldn’t do to us?’ his mother said suddenly. ‘Surely they’re planning to kill us all anyway.’

‘They would not be so kind to your son, I’m afraid,’ the stranger said regretfully. ‘There are rumours of medical experiments... And what they might learn from him...’ His mother sobbed suddenly, and her husband whispered something soothing to her.

‘And there is no chance for you to take Ruth?’

‘None, I’m afraid.’

‘Very well,’ his father said and his boots creaked as he rose. ‘Tell me just one thing, Doctor Erskine. How long do we have?’

‘I honestly don’t know,’ the stranger said. ‘There seems to be no logic in the way they’re moving people. You may be moved to another ghetto. You may be left here for a few more months. Or they might take you to the camps. What happens there, we can only guess.’ His father said something softly, which he could not catch, and then his mother:

‘Now?’

‘Yes.’

The boy tensed, realising that her footsteps were approaching him. He grabbed the blankets hard not to jump when she grabbed his shoulder and shook him lightly.

‘Erik, wake up,’ she said softly, trying to hide how choked her voice was. ‘You need to get out of bed.’ He obeyed, his hand in her. ‘Come on, get dressed. Quickly now.’ She pushed his clothes into his arms and then let go of him, bending down to tuck Ruthie in. When he had dressed, she told him: ‘Kiss your sister, Erik.’ He leaned down and kissed her cheek, her undone red hair keeping him from the skin. His mother took his hand, tugging him away, and lead him towards the door. There, she knelt in front of him and put on his outdoor clothes, without looking away from his face. Her eyes looked so old, he thought suddenly, and the way they brimmed with tears made them look lifelessly dull. ‘You’ll be a good boy, won’t you?’ she said when she tied his scarf and put the cap on his head. He nodded. A sob escaped her, and as if to hide it, she tugged his close and hugged him so hard it hurt.

Mame...’

‘Everything’s fine,’ she whispered in his ear as her tears fell on his collar. ‘Everything will be fine. Just go with Doctor Erskine now, and do as he says, and everything will be fine.’ She drew back, taking his face between her hands, and kissed both his cheeks. He nodded, not knowing what to say. His father approached and picked him up to hug him as well. When he put him down, Erik asked:

‘What about you?’

‘Don’t worry about us,’ his father said, leaning down and patted him on the head. ‘We’ll be fine. Now, go.’ Erik felt someone take his hand, and for the first time he looked up at the stranger. The brim of his hat cast his face in shadow, but he saw a white beard and a pair of metal-rimmed spectacles.

‘Come now,’ the man said and opened the door. When he tugged his arm, Erik followed him down on the stairs. The dim light from the door was hidden by his parents.

‘Thank you,’ his mother mouthed at the man, and then she waved at Erik with a smile. He waved back at them. As he turned the corner, he saw how his mother turned and buried her face in his father’s shoulder. Briefly, he wanted to run back to them, but the grip around his hand tightened and tugged so that he almost fell off the steps.

They did not stop until they had left the house and made it into one of the narrow side-alleys, where the man crouched in front of him and looked him in the eye.

‘I’m Doctor Erskine,’ he told him. ‘How old are you, Erik?’

‘Eleven,’ Erik answered. The doctor was digging in his coat pockets, as if trying to find something which he knew was there. Finally he found it and picked it up. The blade of a knife caught the moonlight, and Erik instinctively took a step back.

‘I’m not going to hurt you - come here,’ Doctor Erskine said, beckoning him back. Erik hesitated, but then went closer again. The man took hold of the edge of the Star of David on his coat and started undoing the stitches holding it in place. ‘Can you speak German?’

‘Of course I can,’ Erik answered. ‘I’m not stupid.’ Doctor Erskine smiled.

‘Good, good,’ he murmured to himself, and then: ‘Of course you’re not. From now on...’ He paused and tugged the fabric, so that the star came loose completely. ‘...when anyone else is around, we will only speak German. Okay?’ He nodded and Doctor Erskine smiled, stood up and stuffed the star into his pocket. ‘Good. Come on.’ He reached out his hand again, and Erik took it, this time without hesitating. ‘There’s a hole in the wall over there. Let’s go.’

***

Being on the run meant little time to talk. The next few weeks, Erik spent hidden under blankets in car boots, or else closely pressed to Doctor Erskine, both trying to be as invisible as possible. The doctor had many friends, Erik realised, many of them probably spies, but he also had many enemies. A week into their escape, a man who had helped them through a sentry point was shot just as the fugitives left the car. By some miracle, they finally made it to a port, where a sailor helped them stow away among the goods in exchange for a big wad of bank notes.

‘We’re almost safe now,’ Erskine explained when they disembarked after a day hidden in the cargo hold. ‘But remember - only German.’ They had breakfast at a café - it was the first time they had sat down properly to eat since they had left the ghetto. They did not talk, but Erik learned that they were in Sweden. They took a train, sitting alone in a second class compartment in silence for many hours. When they stepped off at their station, Doctor Erskine looked around, as if trying to spot someone familiar. After a long wait, he approached a man with a yellow flower in his button-hole and a folded newspaper under his arm. They greeted each other in a language Erik did not understand; it took Erik some time to realise that it was English. Despite everything, he could not help but feel excited by the idea that they were being helped by a spy. A short conversation followed; it was obvious that there was something the men were not agreed on, but finally the man with the flower just sighed and handed over an envelope. Doctor Erskine checked the contents and nodded. Stuffing it in his inner pocket, he thanked the man and then, taking Erik by the hand, left the train station. That evening, they boarded a ship bound for America.

Having finally settled in their cabin, Erik and his protector had their first real opportunity to speak, sitting opposite each other on the bunks. Throughout their flight, Erik had not questioned what they had been doing or asked why or how. He knew from what he had heard of the conversation the night he had left the ghetto that it was what his parents had wanted, but he still did not understand.

‘So, here we are,’ Doctor Erskine said in Yiddish. ‘We’re safe now. Nothing can harm you now, Erik.’ Erik looked at him, this kindly old man. It did not make sense. If the past few years had taught him one thing, it was that no one does anything without having a selfish reason for it.

‘Why me?’ he asked. The doctor looked at him, as if he pretended not to understand. ‘There are so many children who will die. Why me?’

‘Well, I was just about to come to that,’ Doctor Erskine explained and crossed his legs. ‘I have friends who hear things.’

‘You mean the resistance? Or do you mean British spies?’ The old man smiled and tapped the side of his nose.

‘It’s all very secret,’ he explained. ‘Well, they told me about what happened when your family was moved to the ghetto.’ Erik set his jaw, embarrassed at the mention. If Doctor Erskine noticed his reluctance at the subject, he did not heed it, because he leaned forward a little and said: ‘They threatened your mother, didn’t they?’

‘They were going to shoot her,’ he muttered. In the corner of his eye, he noticed how Doctor Erskine smiled.

‘But they never had time, did they?’ he said. ‘Because their guns knotted up. How did that happen?’ When Erik did not answer, the doctor leaned closer and caught his eye. ‘You turned their weapons into scrap metal just by raising your hand, Erik,’ he said, emphasising every word. ‘You do realise how impressive that is, don’t you?’ Erik edged back.

‘It just happened,’ he said and looked away.

‘Have you tried to do it again?’

‘It doesn’t work.’ Doctor Erskine smiled and took out his wallet.

‘Let’s try, shall we?’ He looked around in it and then picked up a coin, which he laid on the table between them. The German eagle spread its wings over the metal, bearing the swastika aloft. Erik stared at the coin and then at the doctor. ‘Lift the coin,’ he told him with a smile. When he hesitated, he said: ‘Come on - you can do it.’

Erik concentrated on the coin until the rest of the cabin became a blur and all that existed was that piece of stamped metal. He could feel it tugging in him, and he raised his hand, trying to draw it up with the movement. The disc barely shook. Lift it, lift it, lift it, he told himself, but nothing happened. His hand fell and he shook his head, panting.

‘I can’t,’ he declared. Doctor Erskine looked at him with compassion and reached over to press his shoulder.

‘Erik, you love your mame very much, don’t you?’ Reluctantly, he nodded. ‘Think about her,’ the doctor told him. ‘Think about how much you love her.’ Letting go of the boy, he leaned back again, but Erik felt him watching him. Still he did as he was told and recalled how his mother had hugged him before he had left. He remembered how she would smile at him, stop him suddenly to rub dirt off his nose, pick him up and swirl him around, even if he was too heavy for her. The coin called him, and now when he lifted his hand, it left the table and, swirling around its own axis, rose in the air. Doctor Erskine laughed.

‘Wonderful!’ he said. Erik’s concentration broke, and the coin fell. The doctor reached out and caught it. ‘Well done,’ he said and handed him the coin. ‘Keep it - a good luck’s charm.’ He turned it between his fingers; the surface seemed to stick to the skin.

‘Thank you,’ he murmured, not meaning the coin.

***

New York came as a shock to Erik. Düsseldorf was not particularly big, and although the ghetto had been closely packed, it had been very small. New York, on the other hand, had broad streets, high buildings and numberless inhabitants. When they had arrived and been let over the border, Erik walked with his head turned up, staring at the skyscrapers and the cars and the passers-by. He heard the chatter of dozens of languages and saw people of all kinds. Nevertheless, his world remained small. Doctor Erskine’s contacts in New York had given him a flat on top of a crammed antiques store, whose stern German-speaking proprietress doubled as Erik’s tutor. As the doctor was away on meetings, which would last hours on end, Erik would sit in one of the armchairs which were for sale for his lessons. Mrs Graue would teach him chemistry and history and mathematics, but most of all she would teach him English. After just a few weeks, she let him run errands for her, and soon enough his English was almost indistinguishable from that of the American children in the street, with none of the Germanic sounds which Doctor Erskine had retained.

In the evenings, Doctor Erskine would tutor him in a subject Mrs Graue certainly did not know of. Slowly, he taught him to control metal in minute detail, as well as to keep his power from erupting when he lost his temper.

‘Remember your mother,’ was the doctor’s constant advice. Erik remembered all too well, and in the nights, he lay sleepless, not from the sound of cars from outside but the searing longing inside.

He had spent over three months in America when a letter with a Portuguese stamp arrived for the doctor. Erik was down in the antiques shop when the postman came, and saw Mrs Graue’s worried face when she received it. When Doctor Erskine came back, she handed it over without a word. He took one look at it and said:

‘Erik, come with me.’ He went upstairs, and Erik, gathering his books in his arms, followed. When he caught up, he would the doctor in the kitchen, busy opening the envelope. He watched as he pulled up another envelope, this one with a German stamp. Putting aside the first envelope, he opened the second and picked up the short letter. He read it quickly, as if it said when he had expected.

‘Erik, put down your books,’ he told him. Erik placed them on the table, the question of what was the matter dying on his lips. ‘I’m afraid your parents and your sister are most likely dead.’ Doctor Erskine looked at the letter and added: ‘And if they aren’t yet, they will be very soon. I’m sorry.’

Erik looked up at him, wishing that he could feel shocked, but as soon as he had seen the look on the doctor’s face he had known. When no tears came, he simply nodded.

‘I’ll get back to reading, I think,’ he said and took up his books. As he went downstairs, he heard Doctor Erskine calling out after him, but he did not stop. It was simpler to feel nothing, he decided. He would keep the anger for when he needed it to control his abilities.

***

The news that Erik’s family had been deported made Doctor Erskine more intent on keeping Erik close. Instead of leaving him with Mrs Graue, he brought him with him to the big official buildings where he had his meetings. The stern, uniformed men eyed the boy suspiciously, but in the end they could find no good reason why he could not sit outside the room and read while they conferred. More than a week after he had started coming along, the man who seemed to be in charge stopped when the meeting participants were filing into the room.

‘What’s your name, kid?’

‘Erik,’ he answered.

‘Is Doctor Erskine your grandpa or what?’

‘No,’ Erik said. ‘He’s my teacher.’

Huh.’ The man seemed to consider something, and then turned around. ‘Agent Carter!’ A woman who was just about to go through the door turned, stopping the queue. ‘Why don’t you take Doctor Erskine’s boy for a milkshake or something?’

‘But...’ Erik did not know that it was possible to look so outraged. It looked like the words had stuck in her throat, making her painted lips work soundlessly. He found it rather funny. Then the woman’s mouth snapped shut, and if it had not been that he could not feel any metal, he would have thought her jaw was on hinges.

‘Come on then,’ she said and marched off, heels clicking. He had to run to catch up.

‘What’s your name?’ he asked, falling into stride beside her. It was the first time he saw a woman in a military uniform - it looked very odd.

‘Miss Carter,’ the woman said curtly. ‘It seems like I’ll be your babysitter for the next hour.’ The way she talked sounded foreign, he thought, but he could not place it. ‘Erik, was it?’

‘Yes.’ She nodded with military precision and, making sure he kept up, went out of the building. As the man who must be her superior officer had told her to do, she ushered him into a milkshake bar and got him a tall glass of white froth. He stabbed it experimentally with the straw and then tasted it. It was very sweet, almost unpleasantly so, but the consistency was nice.

‘Why did he send you away like that?’ Erik asked after tasting the milkshake again.

‘Oh, they’re discussing important things which only men understand,’ she said scathingly. Then she glanced down at him and sighed. ‘It’s not your fault,’ she then admitted, still not sounding particularly happy about it.

‘Are you in the army?’

‘In a manner of speaking,’ Miss Carter answered.

‘Oh,’ he said. ‘You’re a spy.’ She shot him a look, as if she wanted to tell him off but thought better of it.

‘Your English is very good,’ she said instead.

‘Your English is strange.’ Now her mask cracked just a little, and she smiled briefly.

‘That’s because I speak proper English,’ she said. ‘I’m British.’ Erik nodded, and then, feeling that it was only fair to tell her, said:

‘I’m a Jew.’ She looked at him for the first time since she had marched him out into the corridor.

‘No one minds over here,’ she told him, and then added: ‘Well, almost no one. And if anyone does, you have permission to punch them.’ That made him smile - he had never been given permission to punch anyone before. His parents had always wanted to keep him out of trouble, and Doctor Erskine was too kind to say such a thing.

‘What is Doctor Erskine working on?’ he asked.

‘It’s very secret, I’m afraid,’ Miss Carter said. She had taken up staring out of the window again. ‘If you know anything about it, you shouldn’t talk about it.’

‘I don’t know anything,’ Erik told her ‘Just what he’s taught me.’ She glanced at him, but did not ask. Instead she was quiet for a long time, before suddenly asking:

‘Do you have any friends your own age, Erik?’

‘No,’ he answered. ‘Why?’

‘Just wondered if you knew that boy,’ she said and nodded towards the window. ‘Didn’t you like the milkshake?’

‘Would you like it?’ he asked and pushed it over the table.

‘There goes that New Year’s resolution,’ she muttered to herself and tasted the milkshake, a blissful expression spreading over her face. Erik, however, was not paying attention, but looked out of the window. As Miss Carter had said, there was a boy there, standing on the other side of the street, looking straight at him. Erik had never seen him before, and he was sure that he would remember him. He was a year or two his junior, he thought, and very well dressed. Even if he was far away, Erik noticed his freckles. When the boy saw that he had been noticed, he smiled and then looked around, checking for cars before crossing the road at a run. He stopped in front of the big window where they sat and put his hand to the glass. Erik could not hear him through it, but he saw how the boy’s lips formed - ‘Erik’. He stared at him - how did this strange boy know his name? He said it again, and then something else which he did not understand, but the boy looked very intent to be understood.

‘I can’t hear you,’ he said, hoping that the boy would be able to read his lips through the glass, but even as he opened his mouth, the boy nodded and headed for the door, as if he had known what he was about to say. Erik left the booth they were sitting in and, ignoring how Miss Carter looked up and tried to stop him, made it to the door. He opened it and faced the boy, whose face split into a broad smile.

‘I knew I couldn’t be the only one,’ he said.

‘What do you mean?’ Erik asked, and the boy was just about to answer, when a hand shot out, as if from nowhere, and grabbed his coat.

‘Why did you run off?’ said the woman who grabbed the boy and moved her grip to his wrist. The boy’s blue eyes roved from her to Erik, and in them he sensed a plead for help. It struck him that the woman must be the boy’s mother, but she had none of the tenderness he associated to his mame. Instead, he saw how her painted nails were about to dig into the boy’s skin. Suddenly Erik could feel how the metal in the buttons on the sleeve of her coat, as red as that nail-varnish, called him, and, remembering his own mother, he moved his hand. The buttons drew her arm away, breaking the grip.

‘What...?’ the woman shouted, but the boy looked at him with a smile of thanks. ‘Come on, Charles,’ his mother said and pushed him in front of her, making him walk. Erik looked after them, and the boy turned his head and watched him. He could not see his lips moving, and he was far away by now, but he heard his voice in his head, as clear as if he were standing beside him:

We’ll find each other, Erik. There’s so much we must talk about!

They turned a corner, and the boy was gone. Reluctantly, he turned away from the door and went back to the table, where Miss Carter was on her feet. Giving him an odd look, she asked:

‘What was all that about?’ Erik hesitated, thought it through and then concluded:

‘I think I have a friend.’