Gretel missed Bruno. He was a Stupid Little Brother and half the time she wished he would have just disappeared anyway, but she never really meant it. Now that he really was gone, the house seemed so big, empty, and lonely without him.
Normally, she would have been thrilled to be back at the house in Berlin, but this wasn’t exactly what she had in mind. Father was still back at Auschwitz, so it was only Gretel and Mother, and they rarely even talked anymore. They spent a lot of time in their own rooms, only seeing each other at mealtimes. Gretel missed the old days when they would have dinner as a family - all four of them - and Bruno would drive her bananas. Which she never thought she’d miss.
Gretel wasn’t even enjoying being back around her friends anymore; she was so sad about Bruno that she rarely felt like spending any time with them. Perhaps it would have been better to stay at Auschwitz after all. At least then they would have had Father around if not Bruno.
At first, Gretel held on to the hope that Bruno would come back someday. That was another one of the reasons why she would have preferred to stay at Auschwitz. That was where Bruno had disappeared from, so it only made sense that if he was ever going to come back, it would be to Auschwitz. Mother, however, seemed to think that he might have returned to the house in Berlin, which was their primary reason for coming here. But Bruno never showed up, neither here, nor at their house in Auschwitz.
It was already reaching a full year since Bruno had disappeared. Gretel would never admit it, but surely if he was going to come back at all, he would have already. She hated that she was beginning to think that he was gone forever, almost like she was giving up on him. But holding out hope was just getting to be too hard; it hurt when she kept waiting for him to return someday only to be disappointed.
On the other hand, Gretel didn’t think Mother would ever stop waiting for Bruno to come back. The only time she ever went outside was to look for him. Of course, Mother always insisted that she was going for a walk or getting some fresh air, but Gretel knew better. It was in the way that Mother stopped and looked up and down the street; the way she craned her head to look whenever a group of people walked past, like Bruno might magically appear among them.
Gretel didn’t even know how Father was, and perhaps that was one of the worst parts. They hardly ever heard from him, and when they did, it was just for an update about Bruno - which really weren‘t updates at all. Things hadn’t changed in a year, so Gretel thought it was a bit silly for Father to keep calling just to tell them that Bruno was still missing. Why not wait and inform them if things changed?
Father never said anything about how he was doing either. The few times Gretel got to talk to him, he always muttered something about being “fine” and then said that he needed to hang up to attend to something. Gretel knew these were lies. She was a teenager, but she wasn’t stupid. It was quite clear in Father’s voice that he wasn’t doing well, and Gretel thought it was quite stupid that they all had started to lie to each other.
Even Gretel was guilty of the same things. She supposed she couldn’t blame Father when she too lied when Mother asked how she was. Mother seemed too stressed out about Bruno to be worrying about how Gretel was, so Gretel thought she was doing her a favor. It would just make Mother feel worse if she knew that her daughter felt like a mess on top of everything.
Gretel was worried about Mother and Father’s relationship, too. They only ever talked about Bruno, about the fact that he was still missing. They never said anything else to each other, and Mother never mentioned Father once she hung up the phone. Gretel never even heard about how Father’s job was going anymore, whether he was getting anymore promotions or not. But Gretel supposed that that didn’t matter as much to them with Bruno being gone.
Gretel had actually begun to hate the telephone. Every time it rang, her heart jumped into her throat and her stomach tied itself into knots. She’d still and listen while Mother answered it, waiting for the latest “update” on Bruno. Gretel kept wondering if someday, someone would call them and tell them that Bruno was gone forever.
And one day, they did.
The sky outside was an ugly dark color that afternoon - the same color as the exterior of the house in Auschwitz, in fact. Gretel was lying on her bed, wondering when it would just open up and let go of the rain. She kept expecting it to, but as the hours wore on, the rain still didn’t come. She wished it would, because she hated that color. She hated looking at it and wanted the rain to come and wash it away.
She was also remembering all the times Bruno would come in and bother her with silly questions. She tried not to, because it always made her sad and sometimes it made her cry, but she couldn’t help it. Everywhere she looked around the house, there were memories of Bruno - in her room, at the dinner table, in pretty much every nook and cranny around the house. Gretel wondered if there was a spot there where Bruno hadn’t been. He liked to consider himself an explorer, after all.
But Gretel doubted if he really had any idea what being an explorer really entailed. She didn’t want to think bad things about him now that he was gone, but she couldn’t turn off those thoughts either. Gretel thought that some of the soldiers were probably great explorers. They had to be so brave and face new things every day. Those were the things that real explorers did, not wandering around their houses looking for places they hadn’t been in before.
Her thoughts even wandered to Lieutenant Kotler from time to time. She hadn’t heard anything about him since Father had told her he’d been moved to the front, but she missed him and hoped that he was okay. He was also a true explorer, Gretel thought, and was so brave to be doing a job such as his.
But then that awful sound came. The one she’d grown to dread, the one that always made her knees go weak and her heart speed up. She was beginning to wish she hadn’t eaten so much lunch, because the ringing of the phone made it do wild flip-flops, and for a precarious moment, she wondered if she’d be sick.
Mother’s high-heeled shoes could be heard crossing the wooden floorboards downstairs. The phone rang one last time before it stopped, and Gretel heard Mother speaking in hushed tones.
Gretel wasn’t sure why, but she knew without a doubt that this time, this phone call would be different. It was that feeling of dread that was growing exponentially with every second that passed. Swallowing hard, she got up off her bed, crossed her room, and went to the railing that overlooked the entire house. She leaned forward, grabbing the banister in clammy hands and bending low over it. She couldn’t see the phone from her vantage point, so she held her breath as she listened.
All she could hear for a long time were Mother’s hushed whispers. It was much too faint for Gretel to make out anything at first, but then when she finally did understand something, Gretel was beginning to wish she hadn’t.
Mother’s tone wasn’t angry, but anguished. Something Gretel had never heard from her mother before that she could remember, at least not that particular sound. It hurt to hear, and it made Gretel’s heart felt like it had suddenly seized in her chest. Gretel immediately knew that something wasn’t right. That something had gone horribly wrong to make Mother scream like that. Could it possibly be about Bruno? Deep down, she knew that it was.
Mother started sobbing, alternately saying Father’s name and asking if he was sure. Sure of what, Gretel didn’t know, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to either. In fact, she was terrified of knowing what it was they were talking about.
Before long, Mother’s crying had grown so hysterical that nothing she was saying was intelligible. Gretel couldn’t even tell if she had hung up the phone or not, but she was beginning to suspect that Mother had probably dropped it given the state she was in.
Gretel stood frozen to her spot. She knew she should probably go downstairs. Mother obviously needed her, and if this was about what Gretel suspected, she was only putting off the inevitable by staying up there. But Gretel’s fear had grown to consume her, and she felt like she couldn’t move at all, like her legs wouldn‘t work even if she‘d wanted them to.
After a while, Maria the Maid came running in through the front door, which banged open against the wall. Maria dropped the parcels she was carrying, spilling out their contents all over the floor. Gretel watched a bright red apple roll across the wooden floorboards, coming to rest against the very first riser of the stairs.
“Frau Edmund!” Maria cried out, hurrying over to Mother. She disappeared out of sight, but Gretel could hear her asking Mother what was wrong, earning even more sobs in response. A moment later, Maria had apparently picked up the phone from where Mother had dropped it, because she addressed Father and asked what had happened.
Things were quiet for a very long time except for Mother’s continued crying. Once again, Gretel felt like she should go downstairs. She felt horrible for standing there, listening to everything that was being said, and she hadn’t even bothered to go and help. She felt like the worst kind of snoop, but that only served to make it even harder to move. If she did go downstairs now, she felt like she’d be admonished for not coming sooner. After all, Mother was crying loud enough for probably the entire street to hear.
“Yes, Herr Commandant,” Maria said after what felt like forever. After she had replaced the phone in its cradle, Maria whispered some things to Mother, then Maria rushed over to the stairs. The toe of her shoe brushed the apple that had settled up against the side of the step, pushing it gently to the side.
“Miss Gretel!” Maria yelled up the stairs. “Miss Gre-” Maria had turned her head, her eyes following the banister, and then her eyes locked with Gretel’s. “Miss Gretel, please come down here.” Her tone suggested she knew that Gretel had been listening this entire time.
Gretel pushed herself away from the railing, and for a moment, she wasn’t sure if she would remain on her feet. Her legs felt like they had gone to jelly. She grabbed onto the banister again, gripping it tightly as she slowly made her way towards the stairs. A very sick sense of dread settled into her stomach as she descended, and the food that she’d had for lunch felt like it had turned into a concrete brick.
When she made it to the ground floor, Gretel saw that Mother had fallen to her knees next to the table that the phone was on. She was clinging to the edge of it with one hand, partially burying her face in her arm, and still sobbing hysterically. Maria had knelt down next to her, running a hand up and down Mother’s back in comfort.
Gretel stopped on the very last riser, afraid to move any further. Her cheeks turned bright red, because she still suspected she might be yelled at for staying upstairs so long when her mother was in obvious distress. Gretel looked down at the floor, her eyes going to the lone red apple lying there.
“That was your father on the phone,” Maria said. “They…” She stopped, her eyes going compulsively to Mother as if afraid of repeating certain things. “Well, he…he said that your brother…he’s gone.”
Gretel thought this was a rather stupid thing to say. Of course he was gone! He’d been gone for nearly an entire year! Gretel was pretty sure she knew what Maria really meant - it was the only thing that would have upset Mother so much - but it still seemed like a silly way of putting it.
Maria seemed to sense this, because she clarified, “He…he’s dead.” This incited some louder cries from Mother, and Maria pulled her a little bit closer.
Gretel only nodded. It was the only thing she could do. She was afraid to move otherwise, afraid that it would upset her and make her start crying like Mother. The tears felt like they had somehow collected behind her eyes, but they didn’t come for some reason. One false move, and they all might come pouring out. After all, wasn’t crying now a bit silly? Bruno had been gone for a year, and Gretel had been almost positive at times that he’d never come back. This was only enforcing something that she’d felt was already true.
About a million questions were whirling around in Gretel’s head, but she couldn’t quite find her voice to ask any of them. Besides, she wasn’t even sure she wanted to know what had happened, nor would she even get honest answers if she tried. All sorts of ideas popped up in her mind, all of them making her feel horrible for ever saying anything mean to Bruno in his life.
“He…” Maria began, but then she stopped when Mother picked her head up to look at her. It was the only thing Mother had done in the last five minutes other than cry. Maria patted her on the shoulder and said, “There was…an accident. They’re…not even really sure what happened. But he’s dead.” Maria’s eyes darted to Mother and then quickly back to Gretel again.
‘Accident’ made Gretel think about car crashes and things. Had Bruno maybe run out into the street somewhere and gotten run over? Had he been doing something he wasn’t supposed to for such a thing to happen? Or had there been a different kind of accident, something related to the war? Just like Grandmother.
Gretel supposed that it was good to know. She had already decided that all this waiting and hoping was becoming much too painful. It was horrible that Bruno was dead, but at least they knew that he wasn’t coming back now. Nothing more to be disappointed over when he didn’t turn up.
Actually, when Gretel really thought about it, she wasn’t entirely sure which was worse. Oh, the waiting had quickly become too much to bear, but there would have probably always been a tiny piece of Gretel that would never stop hoping that she‘d see her brother again. Now that was over. Bruno was truly gone forever. And he was never coming back.
It was that thought that finally pushed Gretel over the edge. The thought that Bruno would never bother her, or ask her a stupid question again. If Bruno could have somehow walked through the front door at that very moment, Gretel would have let him ask her a million stupid questions if he’d wanted.
The very first sob escaped her and try as she might, she couldn’t hold it in anymore. Some floodgate inside her had been opened, because the tears started to come next. She simply walked over to Mother and Maria, dropped to her knees beside them, and let herself cry as well.
Outside, it had finally begun to rain.
Bruno had had the best view in the whole house. His bedroom window looked out over the entire city of Berlin, and he’d sometimes spend hours in front of it on his tiptoes, looking out. After returning to the house, Gretel spent a lot of time doing exactly that, especially after they found out the Bruno was gone for good. It made her feel closer to Bruno, to spend so much time in his room, doing something that he loved so much. It also made her feel a little bit better than when she used to spend every single day in her own room, staring at the walls and ceiling.
It had been about a month since they’d found out that Bruno was dead. Gretel still missed him so unbelievably much, but she had to admit that she was feeling a lot better than she had in over a year. As much as she wished that things were different, she supposed that it was a bit easier than the constant waiting, hoping, and disappointment that she had felt for so long.
However, she wasn’t entirely sure about Mother. She was still spending so much in her room, crying often, and hardly ever saying anything at all to Gretel. Gretel was feeling so lonely that she’d even begun talking to Maria on occasions. It was a bit awkward, talking to the maid, but that was another thing Gretel knew that Bruno had done quite a bit.
The sky was still grey. It had been grey so often lately, and Gretel had really grown to hate it. Actually, she’d always hated when the sky looked that way, but that was another story altogether. Off to the west, a tiny little sunbeam was visible, trying desperately to break through the heavy cloud cover. Gretel prayed for the sun to come out, to dispel all of the gloom, and to add a little bit of cheerfulness to the sky. They certainly needed it around here.
Gretel kept looking up and down the street, waiting for that familiar black car to appear around the corner. Father was coming home today. At least until the Führer transferred him elsewhere. Or that was what Gretel had gathered from listening in on phone calls and conversations that she wasn’t supposed to hear. She knew it was rude and she would be reprimanded for eavesdropping if she was caught, but she thought it was necessary. Sometimes she felt like she had absolutely no idea what was going on anymore, because no one talked to her since Bruno had disappeared.
She and Mother, on the other hand, would be remaining behind in Berlin regardless. That much Gretel knew for sure. Things were still awkward between Mother and Father at best, and Mother still didn’t think that wherever Father was going was an appropriate place for children. Especially since Bruno had disappeared at Auschwitz, Gretel didn’t think she’d ever be allowed to go to live with Father outside of Berlin ever again. Of, course, Gretel would never wander off like Bruno had, but she was pretty positive that Mother would never take that chance again.
Just then, Gretel spotted a flash of chrome caught up in the single sunbeam straining through the clouds. She tensed and straightened up, trying to see further down the street. She hadn’t seen Father or his car in over a year, but as soon as it came into her field of vision, she knew it immediately. Containing a squeal, Gretel shoved away from the window and almost toppled over in the process. Catching herself on Bruno’s bedpost, she thundered through the room and down the staircase.
Mother wasn’t even there to welcome him. Other than Gretel herself, the entrance hall stood completely empty. Gretel was sure that at least Maria would come to see him once she heard him enter, but she doubted that Mother could be bothered at all.
Gretel stood on the last step, clinging to the railing nervously. She wasn’t even sure what she was expecting, except for the fact that things would probably be strange with Father. Not only had they not seen each other, but their only communication over the last year had consisted of nothing but ten second exchanges of words over the phone. Gretel almost wondered if she’d even recognize her father anymore. The car was one thing, but people were something else entirely. They could change drastically in the course of a year.
And he had. About the only things that were still familiar about Father were his hair and eyes, and even they looked much duller than she remembered. He had lost a lot of weight and he looked so tired, like he had been awake for a week straight. Which he might have, because Mother didn’t sleep much at night either. There was no throng of soldiers flanking him like there usually was, and he wasn’t even wearing one of his carefully pressed uniforms. He was just wearing a plain white shirt and black trousers, which was something he usually wore in the evenings, not during the day!
Gretel didn’t think Father had even noticed her when he came in. He barely even looked in her direction, instead going about setting down the bag he had been carrying on the floor. It wasn’t even one of his nice suitcases like he usually had, but an old-looking canvas bag.
Gretel felt tingles of nervousness running through her. She had been so excited just a minute before, but now it almost didn’t even feel like her father was in the same room with her at all. In fact, something felt very wrong, and Gretel had no idea what.
A moment later, Maria came bustling out of the kitchen, and Father finally looked up. He still didn’t seem to notice Gretel, but he forced a smile at the maid.
“Herr Commandant,” Maria greeted him.
What semblance of a smile was present on Father’s face immediately faded. “I’m not a commandant…anymore.”
Maria shook her head and hurriedly said, “Herr Edmund, of course. Excuse me.” She sounded as nervous as Gretel felt as she busied herself with picking up Father’s bag. “May I get you some tea?” she asked when she straightened up, hoisting the bag onto her shoulder.
“No. Thanks. Is…” He looked up and that was when his eyes met Gretel’s. He paused for a while before turning back to Maria. “That’s all. Thanks.”
Maria bowed her, turned, and brushed up the stairs past Gretel, leaving her alone with her Father for the first time in over a year.
“Father.” Gretel’s voice came out in a squeak, betraying her nervousness.
That half-smile was present on his face again. Gretel didn’t like that expression, and she thought it was rather stupid to smile when you didn’t feel like it. His sadness was glaringly obvious, and it simply made his face hard to look at, seeing those two distinct emotions twisted together in an unnatural expression. It was a reminder of everything that had gone wrong, and the fact that no one around her was happy anymore.
“Gretel.” He approached her and for a moment, Gretel thought he was going to hug her - something they hadn’t done in what seemed like forever. Instead, he just kept his arms at his sides, his eyes locked with hers. “How are you?”
Gretel thought that was dumb question. She felt like telling him that things were pretty horrible, but thanks for asking. But this was Father. She was not allowed to be rude to him, so she simply nodded - an outright lie.
“Where’s your mother?”
Things definitely weren’t good. When her parents referred to each other in such a manner, they were not getting along at all. “I don’t know,” Gretel replied. “Upstairs in her room, I suppose.” That was where Mother always was.
Father simply dropped a heavy hand on top of her head as he passed, ascending the stairs. Gretel was left frowning deeply at the front door, wondering if that had even been her father at all. She knew it was, of course, but it was like someone had stolen his mind and replaced it with someone else’s entirely. They hadn’t seen each other in over a year, and that was all she got - a pat on the head? Wasn’t she even worthy of a hug from her father?
A door slammed somewhere upstairs, making Gretel jump. When Maria hurried back down the steps a moment later, Gretel was doubly sure that things were not good, but she asked anyway.
“Are they talking?”
Maria paused on way to the kitchen, her eyes darting up towards the first floor. “I don’t think ‘talking’ is exactly the right word.”
Gretel leaned heavily against the banister, propping up her head in one of her hands, and heaving a sigh.
“Tea?” Maria asked.
Gretel shook her head, and Maria returned to the kitchen, leaving Gretel alone once more. This was definitely not what she had been expecting when she had woken up this morning. She knew that things would be awkward, but she didn’t think that that meant downright impossible.
As if on cue, her parents’ raised voices drifted down to her. Gretel couldn’t quite make anything out, but they were definitely yelling. For some reason that she couldn’t explain, Gretel turned and started climbing the stairs once again. She didn’t want to hear what they were saying, but she couldn’t quite help herself. A part of her was distinctly curious about what they were saying, especially since she wasn’t told anything anymore.
A little over a year ago, Gretel remembered that Bruno would become extra clingy whenever their parents fought. He would come to her room more than usual, and he would even climb into her bed on some nights, pulling a pillow tightly over his head. For a brief moment, Gretel desperately wished for one of those nights back. Not that she wanted her parents to argue, but she just wanted Bruno to be safe in her bed like he had been once. When she hadn’t been left to deal with all of this on her own.
When Gretel got to the first landing, she froze to her spot, her hands gripping the banister tightly. The very same banister that Bruno and his friends used to like to slide down from the top floor. She had almost forgotten he’d done that until just now. She wasn’t even sure what had made her remember. Perhaps just having father back in the house after so long was stirring up some long buried emotions inside of her.
She still couldn’t make out her parents’ voices. They were a floor above her yet, so she kept on climbing the stairs, going even more slowly by the second. As she grew closer to their bedroom, she became even more positive that she didn’t want to hear anything, but she didn’t think she’d be able to stop herself if she tried. Something was making her go, perhaps that insane sense of curiosity that often got the better of her.
When she reached the next landing, their voices were loud and clear, drifting out to her around their closed bedroom door. Or Mother‘s bedroom door. Father hadn‘t slept there in over a year, and Gretel didn‘t think he would be doing so now.
“What would you have me do, Elsa?” Father shouted. “It’s a lifetime of service or…!” His voice became a bit garbled, and Gretel didn’t hear the rest of the sentence. “Not just for me, but for all of you! You know that! If it was just me, no matter, but I did it for you and for Gretel!”
Gretel thought she could hear Mother sobbing loudly. Then Mother said something which was completely indistinguishable from her sobs, but Gretel just caught her brother’s name in there along with something about what kind of a man her father was.
There was a long pause, and when Father spoke again, his words were strained and muttered, like he was clenching his teeth against them. “For the last time, I did it so I wouldn’t have to lose another family member to this war. If those aren’t good enough reasons for you - if our daughter isn‘t a good enough reason for you - then there’s little more I can say.”
Gretel didn’t think she was a good enough reason for either of them. Not anymore. Ever since Bruno had disappeared, she almost felt like she was just taking up space. Just another mouth to feed, but not anyone important. Not as important as Bruno had been. She wondered if things would be this horrible if she had been the one to disappear, and Bruno had been the one left behind. Would they even care that Bruno was there? Because she often felt like they didn’t care what happened to her. Maybe they’d be so happy to have Bruno that they wouldn’t even miss her.
“Oh, you’ve said enough,” Mother said in a clipped tone. “Believe me.”
“Well, it’s over, so I’ll be gone soon enough,” Father said next, his tone much softer than before. He almost sounded defeated somehow “You and Gretel will be left alone, and don’t think I’m going to apologize for that.”
Gretel heard footsteps on the other side of the door, and she realized that Father was coming. Struggling to contain a yelp, she launched herself back downstairs to the floor below. She didn’t stop until she was safely in her room, breathing hard and hoping that Father hadn’t heard anything. When he passed her room a few minutes later, however, he didn’t even so much as glance at her. Even if he did know that she had been listening, he obviously didn’t care. No one did.
Over the next few weeks, the atmosphere in the house grew to be almost unbearable. Things were so tense between her parents, and things felt even more awkward between Gretel and her father. They never said two words to each other anymore, and they only saw each other at meal times. Mother had even begun to skip meals, eating them later on in the day when she wouldn’t have to sit at the table with Father.
Father never had meetings with his soldiers anymore. Gretel never saw a single one of them at the house since Father had returned. Along with everything else, this only convinced her that something was horribly wrong. She had almost asked Father about it on numerous occasions, but she always stopped herself.
Gretel didn’t even know how much longer Father would be around, but she knew her time with him was running out. She had heard him tell Mother more than once that he would be gone soon, but when or where he was going, Gretel had no idea. She wished she could talk to him about it, but gone were the days when she could ask Father anything that was on her mind, when she could talk to him freely without censoring herself.
One afternoon, Gretel was sitting on her brother’s bed like she had developed a habit of doing. She hadn’t been looking out his window so much, but she now felt drawn to his bed. Ever since she remembered about him crawling into bed with her sometimes, she felt compelled to sit there. It made her feel even closer to him than the window had done.
That was the afternoon that Father truly seemed to take notice of her for the first time since he had returned. Unbeknownst to Gretel, it was also the very last honest and open conversation that they would have.
Father had been leaning against the doorway to Bruno’s room, and it was a while before Gretel even noticed him. He was smiling, but it wasn’t one of those heartbreaking half-smiles that had been present on his face so much as of late. It was much closer to a true smile, the ones that Gretel remembered from before they had ever even gone to Auschwitz.
“You come in here a lot,” Father said, crossing his arms over his chest.
“I like it in here.” Gretel had a difficult time meeting his eyes. She had ever since he’d come home, so she kept her eyes pinned on her feet, swinging them back and forth for something to do. And even though there were only a few feet in between them, it felt like they were on opposite sides on the country instead. “It reminds me of Bruno.” She hadn’t exactly been meaning to say that - everyone seemed to tense when her brother’s name was mentioned - but it had escaped her before she could stop it.
“Of course it does.” Gretel wasn’t even sure what Father had meant by that, but before she had time to think about it further, he had crossed the room. He sat down next to her on the bed, but not too close. Also gone were the days where they even touched each other.
“Gretel,” he said after a while, “I’ll be leaving again soon.” He let out a little breath. “As I’m sure you’ve heard me telling your mother.”
Perhaps he had known when she listened at doors and eavesdropped on phone conversations after all. Gretel’s cheeks grew warm. “Well…where are you going?”
Father shook his head. “That’s not important. What is important is that the war is over, and things will be better for you and your mother now.”
Gretel blinked up at Father. “What?” Had she been so absorbed in what had been going on at home that she hadn’t realized what was going on the country anymore? Gretel supposed she had been rather distracted lately, and she hadn’t been reading the newspapers or listening to the radio like she used to. Ever since Lieutenant Kotler had been moved to the front, seeing papers and keeping up on current events rather depressed her. When Father didn’t respond, she asked, “Well, what about you?” She couldn’t imagine where he would be going now that the war was over.
“I told you,” he said quietly, “that’s not important.” He looked around the room wistfully, appearing to be caught up in some ancient memories of Bruno for a very long time. When he spoke again, Gretel had forgotten what they were talking about. “But you are.”
“I am what?”
“Important,” Father clarified. “Very important.”
Gretel was completely caught off guard. She hadn’t heard anything even resembling a compliment from either of her parents in so long. She sat staring at him for a long time, unsure of how to react.
“I wanted you to know that,” Father continued. “I know we haven’t talked recently. And that you haven’t talked to your mother lately, either. I think perhaps we forget that you’re here, too. Don’t tell your mother that I said that.”
Gretel contained the urge to giggle. “I won’t.” It felt nice to be sharing secrets with her father again.
Father scooted a bit closer to her, looking down at her with an expression she hadn’t seen in so long from him. He looked proud. “You never stopped being important to me, and I know you never stopped being important to your mother. We were just caught up in…things.” Father’s eyes drifted to a corner of the room where one of Bruno’s old footballs sat, deep red against the stark white walls.
“War has a way of doing that, I think,” Gretel whispered.
Gretel realized that bright sunlight was streaming through the window unhindered for the first time in what felt like ages. She stared at it for a long time, transfixed, reveling in the warmth it brought into the room. It made things feel so much more cozier than they had felt in forever. It even made her feel closer to Father for some reason.
Then Father reached out a hand, running his thumb along one of her blond pigtails like he used to do all the time when she was little. “No matter what happens, I want you to remember that I love you, Gretel. Can you do that?”
Gretel couldn’t form the words right away, but she nodded and smiled, perhaps the first true smile she’d made in ages. She leaned into Father, his arm tightly encircling her shoulders. For a fleeting moment, she almost felt like she was a little girl again, where her father’s embrace was the safest place in the world. “I love you, too, Father,” she whispered into his shirt.
With all that was wrong in the world, at least one thing was right again. At least for a little while.