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LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR
Berlin, Germany, Present Day
My first day in Berlin was what my saba would have called a balloon day. A crystalline-blue sky without a single cloud, everything so bright that I wondered if I had time to run back up to the hotel for sunglasses. Instinctively, I touched my purse at my side. Passport, wallet, phone. Everything necessary for survival. At home, it was probably still snowing. Here, the air was vivid and crisp, like biting into an apple.
I chose to be in Berlin, even though Saba hadn't wanted me to come. The crowd parted around me on the sidewalk, oblivious to the tiny war inside me.
Maybe today wasn't a balloon day. Maybe it was just a day with a blue sky, like any other. In a city where I didn't belong, thinking of my grandfather who hadn't belonged here either. I was taking German because of Saba. Because he was German, the same way he was Jewish, and I didn't know how to tell him that, to me, both of those identities were equal. I tried once, but that was when he could walk away from me. Now he just turned his head and his eyes went vacant. Mom said that was why he used the Hebrew word for grandfather, not the German or Yiddish words.
My mind was getting away from me again. I just needed to let go.
"Ellie Baum!" Mrs. Anderson, my teacher, stopped at the front of our group of sophomore and junior German students. She lowered her sunglasses to the end of her nose so she ended up squinting until her eyes almost disappeared. "You're dawdling. Keep up! Everyone together!"
Keep up, let go. Same things. I grimaced. If I could have wished a balloon into existence, I would have, just to send Mrs. Anderson back to the United States. The rest of us could explore Berlin on our own. Basically everyone we'd met so far spoke English anyway, and the hotel wouldn't know the difference. Mrs. Anderson shook out the map and held it in front of her, like a bullhorn shouting her tourist status.
I rolled my eyes and caught up with my best friend, Amanda. "This is ridiculous."
Amanda handed me our itinerary. "If she has us walk much more, we're going to see the whole city on the first day and we'll have nothing left to do."
Some spring break. I thought it'd be perfect: a chance to use my German, get out of snowy Pittsburgh, and bolster my college applications. It wasn't too early to start worrying about those. What if this wasn't worth it? What if during this entire trip I just felt worse and worse about leaving Saba behind and breaking his heart by coming here?
"You feel okay?" Amanda asked, frowning at me. "You look pale."
I shoved the itinerary back into her hands as we meandered from our hotel toward the U-Bahn subway station. "I'm fine. Going to be a long week."
"We'll figure out how to make it fun," Amanda promised, which wasn't quite what I meant. Amanda's idea of fun and mine tended to differ. She probably wanted to sweet-talk her way into some hot dance club tonight. Me? I was always the sidekick.
At home, I knew who I was. Here, I felt a little less like me, and a little more like the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor. I didn't usually think of myself that way, but I couldn't shake the feeling.
In the suburbs of Pittsburgh, people just drove everywhere, so I didn't know what to expect from a subway, but the U-Bahn wasn't that bad. It didn't smell like pee, at least. Under Mrs. Anderson's dour gaze, we packed ourselves into one car and slipped beneath the wall that once divided the city. And while some of my classmates were loud and obnoxious, no one really paid attention to us. The tunnel lights flashed by us, and my chest tightened. Deep breath, Ellie. I distracted myself by scrolling through my phone with Amanda, looking at the photos we'd taken so far.
"Girls, put those away," called Mrs. Anderson.
What was she going to do? Put us on a plane back home because we had our phones out? We both ignored her.
Amanda showed me pictures she had taken of street art she'd seen, including one of windows within windows all the way back until I could see a faint hint of green, like pasture land. "Even graffiti is better in Europe," she said.
I kept flipping through pictures, down to the ones that Saba and I took of his new dog a week ago. We talked about his dog, not about me going to Germany.
When I first signed up for the trip, I tried to tell him that Germany was different now than when he was here. He never returned to Berlin, not after escaping during the war. He didn't want to listen to me. Or maybe he couldn't.
A country never changes, Eleanor. It's not a person. They killed six million Jews. The people you see? They sat. They let it happen.
I swallowed hard and put away my phone, looking up to smile at Amanda and the other girls. I was here. I needed to put guilt away and just figure out how to enjoy my time here.
"Potsdamer Platz!" Mrs. Anderson called out. "Redstone High School, this is our stop!"
There she went again, sharing her neon tourist sign with the rest of us. Apparently, blending in was for other people. The locals on the metro gave us knowing looks as we and a hundred other people with cameras slung around their necks and maps in their hands pushed our way out the door, chattering in all different languages. The subway station dazzled with glossy white tile as we stomped up the stairs.
I seriously regretted not having sunglasses. Glittering, modern buildings formed a protective shield around the plaza. People moved in huge crowds at varying speeds. A woman in a business suit pushed her way through a crowd of hyperblond tourists taking photos in front of the Potsdamer Platz station sign. A ticker sign displayed the international news on one of the buildings.
A memorial to the Berlin Wall stood in the middle of the crush. Mrs. Anderson guided us toward it with waving arms, like we wouldn't be able to find it. Six slabs of the wall rose in front of us, covered in layers of vibrant graffiti, with commentary on plaques between them. It no longer looked like a wall this way, but rather a line of bright, colorful people linking arms. Red rover, red rover, send a wrecking ball and freedom right over.
Most people milled around the pieces of the wall, taking pictures of it, taking pictures of themselves with it. I just stood there. I didn't know what to do, but I didn't want to take a picture with the wall. I didn't know why we took pictures of ourselves with symbols of tyranny and oppression. Maybe it was a way of remembering. Maybe it was the only way we knew how to say we recognized the importance of everything that had happened to bring down the wall.
I touched the wall with my forefinger, middle finger, and ring finger, the same three fingers I pressed to the space between my eyes when I said the Shema, the holiest of Jewish prayers. I tried to think of something profound to say, but couldn't. Instead, I whispered, "I'm glad you're in pieces now."
I glanced around nervously, worried I'd been overheard whispering to stone, but no one paid any attention. Next to me, a middle-aged man with rippled scars like burns on the backs of his brown hands studied the wall with a pensive look on his face. He looked old enough to remember the wall when it divided the city. Maybe he had been one of those people who sat on the wall the night it came down, cheering and helping East Berliners climb over. Maybe he had been an East Berliner.
Maybe your imagination's running wild, I chided myself.
Then the man and I watched together as someone leaned past him, pressing chewing gum into the wall with his thumb. It stuck there, a little blue piece of gum and a thumbprint. Enough of a print to identify him.
The gum chewer disappeared into the crowd as quickly as he'd come. All of a sudden, the world felt incredibly small. Like everyone else around us had disappeared and left just the man with the scarred hands and me trying to understand why chewed-up gum and a fingerprint seemed so profound. We are strange, sometimes, in the ways we choose to bear witness.
The man sighed, frowning, and then tipped his face toward the blue, blue sky. He said in a British accent, his voice low, "This is how I want to remember the wall. Like this."
I blinked, surprised that he wasn't German, and looked around to see if he was talking to anyone else. But it was still just the two of us standing at this panel. When I turned, the man was gone, his words lingering in the air.
"Some history must be remembered. The other history, like where we killed millions of Jews, not so much," mocked Amanda, appearing at my shoulder. She reached around for my map, and I relinquished it.
My mind was still stuck on the man and how I wished I'd thought of something to say in response. But what would I have said? I couldn't even think of anything to say to Amanda. Not really. I had seen pictures of Berlin's Holocaust memorial, and it was in no way small, but her words felt too much like trying to compare two different tragedies in Germany's history. The twentieth century hadn't played nice with Europe. Or maybe it had been the other way around. My chest knotted. Did defending Germany now mean apologizing for events of the past? Were memorials apologies?
I tuned back in to catch Amanda saying, "There's a cool club near here. They say that it's been there since 1946."
"Yeah, because a club totally sounds like me." I yanked the map back and rolled my eyes at her. Amanda stuck her tongue out at me. Predictable. She'd be sneaking out tonight, and I'd be covering for her. Always, always the sidekick.
Mrs. Anderson unfolded her tour-guide booklet and read aloud to us amid a sea of tourists about how this had been one of the busiest intersections in all of Europe between the World Wars. It was destroyed in World War II and then bulldozed for the death strip that existed on the east side of the wall. I tried to imagine this shiny, busy, tourist-filled place as nothing but a dirt strip with barbed wire so the guards could shoot those trying to make a run for it — and failed. People had died here on the dirt beneath this plaza, trying to reach freedom.
Places can be victims of history too.
Behind me, I could hear Mrs. Anderson exclaim, "When in Berlin, ich bin ein Berliner!"
And some smart-ass classmate of mine said, "You're a jelly doughnut?"
I had to press my lips together to keep the grin off my face as my classmates burst into laughter and Mrs. Anderson huffed at us. She acted like she didn't know we'd be like this and she hadn't been teaching most of us for at least two years. We were burned out after a red-eye flight across the ocean. I needed a nap. Or caffeine. A vanilla latte, maybe. I began to scan the streets for a Starbucks.
An elbow collided with my ribs, and I turned to glare at Amanda. She giggled and tilted her head to the left, a wide, sparkling grin on her face. "Check him out."
Sitting on a park bench was a guy, maybe a few years older than us, with an earring and tattoos. His feet tapped out a rhythm as he strummed a guitar. It was a little cold for stringed instruments outside so he kept trying and failing to tune it. Still, he was cute in a shaggy hipster kind of way. Definitely more Amanda's type than mine. He caught us staring and winked. He sang out a line from a horribly overplayed song from like two years ago, and Amanda practically melted.
"Come on, let's listen to him real quick," she begged me, pulling at my arm. I glanced doubtfully at the group. Not that I wanted to be around Mrs. Anderson anymore, but I really didn't want to get in trouble for falling behind again. Then Amanda, who knew all my weaknesses, said, "You can practice your German and tell your mom you weren't shy the whole trip. Two birds, one hot, gorgeous, guitar-strumming stone."
"I've been social," I protested, gesturing over my shoulder at the group.
Amanda snorted. "Get out of your head and live a little, Baum. You're in Europe."
I had no suitable comeback so I let her drag me over to the guy on the bench. He laughed throatily and lit a cigarette as we approached. I wrinkled my nose and tried to step upwind of him. He couldn't have been more of a stereotype if he tried. Maybe he was trying. It clearly worked. Amanda was blushing before we even said anything. The guy winked at me, and I turned away before I could ask him something awkward like whether his face tattoos hurt. I stared at his shoes as he said, "American girls!"
Amanda giggled, brushing her hair over her shoulder. I snorted. He gave her a patient smile and tossed me a wink. Definitely Amanda's type. It took me a few minutes of helping her with the vocabulary, but she finally managed to ask in very rudimentary German if he lived in Berlin. How she ever got to German II would be beyond me if I hadn't helped her through every group project and homework assignment.
As he went through the motions of speaking like a five-year-old to her, my gaze slid over his shoulder and I watched a red balloon drifting over the grass, the string dragging on the ground. Some kid must have accidentally let it go. It made for a great picture, though, that solitary balloon floating without rising higher, surrounded by all the oblivious people and this beautiful day.
Just like Saba's balloon from his stories. A balloon, on a balloon day.
The balloon drifted closer, and higher. The knot of my heart untangled in my chest. I took a deep breath, relaxing enough to smile for the first time that day. Saba would love this. He'd know it was an apology to him, not on behalf of Germany like a memorial.
I grabbed Amanda's arm and interrupted her conversation with the guy, much to his evident relief. I pulled my phone out of my purse and waved it at her. "Hey, take a picture of me with that balloon."
"What?" She took the phone and my purse, frowning at me. I could practically hear her saying, Baum, you've lost it. Keep it together in front of the hot guy.
"For my grandfather," I called over my shoulder as I stepped toward the balloon. "Just take the photo, Amanda. I'll email it to my mom tonight."
The balloon was small and round and red, and so perfect. I reached out and grabbed its string. I felt a sharp jerk right between my ribs on my left side, and the world spun black.
East Berlin, German Democratic Republic, March 1988
This night was not my night. First, a Passenger went missing. Then, everywhere I went looking for him, there were Volkspolizei. Vopos, crawling all over the city like cockroaches. It was as if — and scheiße, I didn't want to believe this — we'd been ratted out by someone. I shoved my hands into my cloak pockets, turning over the key to the workshop and safe houses in my fingers. The metal of the key never got cold, and it kept the fingertips of my left hand warmer than my gloves. In my right, I carried a knife to slash the balloon.
Wasn't right for a balloon to linger.
I'd no way to tell if my Passenger this week, a young guy named Garrick, had made it successfully to the other side of the wall. Usually, we could see a light in the church over there turn on when the Passenger landed. Tonight, no light. He might have landed anywhere along the wall. We just had to pray not inside the Todesstreifen on this side. The death zone was no place for a guy with a red balloon. I turned every corner with a steady chant in my head: Come on, Garrick. Be there.
Sometimes things went wrong with balloons. I had seen it before — a Passenger who let go too early and broke the magic free, making the balloon and the Passenger both visible. Usually that ended well if it happened on the other side of the wall. On this side of the wall, it would be the end if the police found him before I did. The police weren't completely incompetent. They knew we were getting people out somehow, and I was willing to bet a red balloon that they knew it wasn't natural.
I crossed the Karl-Marx-Allee, sticking to the shadows. There was no strict curfew in place, but I was in no mood to be stopped by the police. Even though my German was nearly perfect, they'd know I was not a native. And my ability to hold on to my temper and my secrets was admittedly tenuous. I was just here by circumstance. And circumstance kept me here. Until that changed, I played the best game I could and did the best job I could.
Tonight, it felt like a cursed job.
A few streets over, a car horn blew and tires squealed. The footing was pretty slick, especially where the road crossed the trolley tracks. The slush was accumulating at a steady rate now. Late snow for us.
Excerpted from "The Girl with the Red Balloon"
Copyright © 2017 Katherine Locke.
Excerpted by permission of Albert Whitman & Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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