Main The Last Year of the War

The Last Year of the War

From the acclaimed author of Secrets of a Charmed Life and As Bright as Heaven comes a novel about a German American teenager whose life changes forever when her immigrant family is sent to an internment camp during World War II.

Elise Sontag is a typical Iowa fourteen-year-old in 1943—aware of the war but distanced from its reach. Then her father, a legal U.S. resident for nearly two decades, is suddenly arrested on suspicion of being a Nazi sympathizer. The family is sent to an internment camp in Texas, where, behind the armed guards and barbed wire, Elise feels stripped of everything beloved and familiar, including her own identity.

The only thing that makes the camp bearable is meeting fellow internee Mariko Inoue, a Japanese-American teen from Los Angeles, whose friendship empowers Elise to believe the life she knew before the war will again be hers. Together in the desert wilderness, Elise and Mariko hold tight the dream of being...
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OTHER NOVELS BY SUSAN MEISSNER





As Bright as Heaven





A Bridge Across the Ocean





Stars over Sunset Boulevard





Secrets of a Charmed Life





A Fall of Marigolds





The Girl in the Glass





A Sound Among the Trees





Lady in Waiting





White Picket Fences





The Shape of Mercy





BERKLEY

An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019



Copyright © 2019 by Susan Meissner

Readers guide copyright © 2019 by Penguin Random House LLC

Penguin Random House supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin Random House to continue to publish books for every reader.

BERKLEY and the BERKLEY & B colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Meissner, Susan, 1961– author.

Title: The last year of the war / Susan Meissner.

Description: First edition. | New York: Berkley, 2019.

Identifiers: LCCN 2018025966 | ISBN 9780451492159 (hardcover) | ISBN 9780451492173 (ebook) Subjects: LCSH: World War, 1939–1945—United States—Fiction. | Crystal City Internment Camp (Crystal City, Tex.)—Fiction. | German Americans—Evacuation and relocation, 1941–1948—Fiction. | GSAFD: Historical fiction.

Classification: LCC PS3613.E435 L37 2019 | DDC 813/.6—dc23

LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2018025966

First Edition: March 2019

Jacket photos: girls running in field by Rekha/Arcangel; airplane by Mark Owen/Arcangel Jacket design by Colleen Reinhart

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Version_1





For all those who long for a place to call home





Contents

Other Novels by Susan Meissner

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Epigraph

Part One

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Part Two

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Part Three

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Part Four

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Acknowledgments

Readers Guide

About the Author





We belong far less to where we’ve come from than where we want to go.

—FRANZ WERFEL





PART ONE





1



Los Angeles, 2010

I’ve a thief to thank for finding the one person I need to see before I die.

If Agnes hadn’t slipped her way into my mind to steal from it willy-nilly, I wouldn’t have started to forget things, and Teddy wouldn’t have given me the iPad for my birthday so that I could have my calendar and addresses and photos all in one place, and without the iPad, I wouldn’t have known there is a way to look for someone missing from your life for six decades.

It’s been a very long while, more years than I care to count, since I’ve spoken Mariko’s name aloud to anyone. And yet, from the moment I found out Agnes is not only here to stay but here to take, my childhood friend has been steadily on my mind, having emerged from that quiet corner where the longest-held memories reside. It’s these oldest and dearest of my recollections that presently seem to be the hardest for Agnes to filch, but I know the day is coming when she’ll find every moment I’ve ever had. The thief will uncover those ancient memories—the good ones and the bad—and she will take them, as gently as dusk swallows daylight. Right now, however, my memories of Mariko are still mine.

I’ve been told by my doctor that this Alzheimer’s I’ve got will eventually kill me.

It is so strange to be diagnosed with a fatal disease and not feel sick. What I feel is that I’ve been saddled with a sticky-fingered houseguest who is slowly and sweetly taking everything of mine for her own. I can’t get rid of her, the doctor assured me, and I can’t outwit her. I’ve named my diagnosis after a girl at my junior high school in Davenport—Agnes Finster—who was forever taking things that didn’t belong to her. My own Agnes will be the death of me; I know this. But not today.

Today I am sitting at LAX at a Delta gate waiting to board a plane. I have written Mariko’s name—first, last, and married surname—and her daughter’s name in felt-tip on the inside of my left wrist, and Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco on the inside of the right one, just in case I forget why I’m at the airport with a carry-on bag at my feet. Agnes is adept at seizing little moments of my day, and when she does, she takes control of my mouth and then says the most ridiculous things, some of which I can remember when I’m me again and some that I can’t. Yesterday she asked the mailman where the children were. For heaven’s sake. Pamela and Teddy are not children anymore. They are both married. Retired. They have gray hair.

I feel badly that Pamela and Teddy don’t know about this trip I am taking, but I couldn’t tell them. They wouldn’t have allowed me to go. Not alone. Maybe not at all. They don’t know about Mariko, and they don’t know about Agnes, either, but I believe they suspect something is up with me. I have seen it in the way they look at me and more so in the way they look at each other. They are wondering whether it’s time to move me out of my home of sixty-three years, perhaps into one of their homes. Or maybe to a facility of some kind. A nice one, they would say. But still. A facility. They are thinking the iPad that Teddy gave me will reveal whether my recent trouble with remembering routine minutiae and even calling to mind how many grandchildren I have is more than just the simple forgetfulness of an eighty-one-year-old woman. I’m not the only one using the iPad. I think they are using it, too, to gauge my faculties by watching how I use it or by seeing if I remember that I have it at all.

Pamela convinced me to surrender the keys to my car five months ago, after I had trouble finding my way home from the supermarket. Or maybe it was five weeks ago. I can’t recall at the moment. I don’t have the keys; I know that. And my garage is empty. I had to take a cab for that doctor’s appointment where I learned the truth, though Pamela would have taken me. I had a feeling I knew what the doctor would tell me, and I wanted to hear it alone. I wrote my address on the bottom of my shoe to make sure I could tell the cab driver on the return trip where to take me. Agnes delights in dancing away with my address, like a devious child, and then giving it back to me hours later.

“You need to tell your family,” the doctor had said. “You need to tell them right away, Mrs. Dove.”

It’s not that I want to keep my diagnosis from Pamela and Teddy. I love them so very much and they are awfully good to me. It’s just that I know how hard this will be for them. For all of us. Agnes will swallow me whole, inch by inch. Every day a little more. She will become stronger and I will become weaker. It’s already happening. I will forget forever the important things. The things that matter.

God help me, I will forget my old friend Mariko completely. She will fade into a fog of nothingness, and strangely enough, that pains me more than knowing I will forget the names of my grandchildren, and Pamela’s and Teddy’s names, too. More than knowing I’ll forget I was married to the most wonderful man in the world. To know I will lose Mariko is the worst ache of all because she and I had only those eighteen months at the internment camp. That’s all the time we shared before my family was sent to Germany and then hers to Japan. I’ve had a whole lifetime with my beloved husband, children, and grandchildren. And only such a short while with Mariko.

As I sit here on the edge of my life, I know I’m a different person for having known her, even though our time together was brief. I can still hear the echoes of her voice inside me despite what separated us, and what kept us apart for good. I still feel her.

It was this feathery and renewed sensation of Mariko’s presence, and knowing that soon it would be taken from me, that had me stunned after I’d returned home from the doctor’s office. My cleaning lady, Toni, her car keys in hand, ready to go home, had come into the living room, where I was sitting. The house where I have been gifted a million happy moments is beautiful, and spacious. Toni is the fourth housekeeper I’ve had and the youngest. Teddy thinks I hired her despite her pink highlights and the starry stud in her nostril because she came highly recommended. I hired her because of them. Her youthful look makes me feel not quite so old.

So there I was, letting remembrances of Mariko that had been long neglected play themselves out. On my lap was a notebook, weathered by age. It had once been Mariko’s. It had been mine for far longer. I must have looked as astonished as I felt. Toni asked me if I was all right.

“Oh. Yes,” I lied.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Toni said. “You sure you’re okay?”

I smiled because that is what Mariko’s presence felt like at that moment—a wisp. There, but not there. “I was just thinking about someone I used to know. A long time ago,” I replied.

“Oh, sweetie. Did you just get bad news? Is that why you’re sitting here like this?”

I shook my head. This, again, was somewhat of a lie. Toni was surely wondering if I’d just received word that this old friend of mine had died. I hadn’t. But I had just gotten bad news. “No,” I answered. “I actually don’t know what became of this person. We were childhood friends. That was a long time ago.”

“Ah. And so you were suddenly wondering where he or she is?”

It was that, but it was more than that. Much more. But I nodded.

“Well, have you googled the name?” Toni asked.

“Have I what?”

“You know. Looked him or her up on Google. It’s hard to be completely invisible these days, Miss Elsie.”

“What do you mean? What is a . . . google?”

“You just type the name into Google and see what results you get. Google is that search engine on the Internet. Remember? Where’s your iPad?”

“In the kitchen.”

“Come on. I’ll show you.”

I followed Toni into the kitchen, where there was no iPad, but we went next into the breakfast room, and there it was on the table where I’d eaten a bowl of raisin bran hours earlier. I handed Toni the iPad. I’d written my pass code on a yellow Post-it note that I’d stuck to it. She tapped and swiped and soon there was a screen with the word Google there in happy, colored type.

“What’s the name?” Toni asked.

I suddenly didn’t want to give her Mariko’s name. It seemed too sacred to spill to someone who did not know her or what she had meant to me in another time, another place. And I still had no idea what Toni was attempting to show me, so I thought for a moment and decided on the name of a boy I knew in junior high whom other boys had liked to tease. I had felt sorry for him then, but I hadn’t had one thought about him since.

“Artie Gibbs.”

“Artie? An old boyfriend?” Toni smiled coyly.

“Heavens, no. He was definitely not that.”

Toni laughed. “Okay, so his real name is probably Arthur, right?”

I nodded.

“I just type his name like this, but I put it in quotation marks so that Google doesn’t look at all Arthurs, just Arthur Gibbs, and . . . voilà!”

She handed the iPad back to me. A white screen that looked like a piece of paper stared back at me, with words all over it.

“All of those sentences in blue are links to articles or Web pages or directories that mention an Arthur Gibbs,” she said. “A link is like a . . . a place to go check without having to leave your house. Do you know how old he is?”

“He’d be eighty-one. Like me.”

“Well, then you can eliminate any hit that refers to an Arthur Gibbs younger than that. Like this guy.”

Toni tapped something and then showed me an arrest report for an Arthur K. Gibbs from Boise, Idaho. He had turned forty-two last summer. “That’s not your Artie. See?”

“Any hit?”

“All of these are hits. But they are less likely to be anything you want the further out you go. Here’s how you go back to the list of hits.”

I watched as she tapped an arrow to go back to the screen with all the blue-lettered titles.

“How many of those . . . hits are there?” I asked, peering at the screen and seeing a number that couldn’t possibly be right. More than twenty thousand.

“Don’t pay any attention to that. Just look at the results up front. The ones at the way back are never the ones you want.” She pointed to the bottom of the screen. “This is just the first page of hits. Down here is the link for the second page and third page and so on. You just tap. It’s like turning pages in a book. Like the other day when I was showing you how to tap through the articles on the Home and Garden Web site. Just like that. Okay?”

“All right.” I reached for a yellow-lined notepad on the table and scribbled Google. Type name. Quotation marks. Hits. Pages in a book.

“Now, locating this gentleman might take a while, so don’t lose heart if it doesn’t happen today,” Toni said. “You might need to try again tomorrow or the next day or the next if you get tired of looking. I’ve got to run but you’ll let me know if you find him, won’t you?”

For a second Agnes was all ready to say, Find who? But I jumped ahead of her, nearly tripping over my own mouth. “Certainly. Thank you, Toni.”

She smiled at me. “You’re one cool grandma, Miss Elsie. You’ve got an iPad and you know how to use it! Next thing you know you’ll be on Facebook, posting pictures of your grandkids.”

I didn’t tell her I already had the Facebook. Teddy had put it on my iPad so that I could see pictures of the family. I didn’t tell her because I very much wanted Toni to go on home so that I could use the Google to look for Mariko before Agnes found a way to make me forget how to do it, or that I even wanted to.

“Thank you, dear,” I told her. “You have a nice rest of the day, now.”

The second she was out the door I was typing Mariko Inoue Hayashi into that slim little space, with quotation marks.

The screen lit up with new blue-lettered titles. The first one took me to a feature article written five years earlier that had appeared in a San Francisco newspaper. The story was about a nisei woman, American-born of Japanese parents, who had finally returned home to the United States after six decades in Tokyo. Born in Los Angeles in 1929, this Mariko Inoue Hayashi had been repatriated with her family to a defeated Japan in September of 1945, after having been interned in Crystal City, Texas, along with thousands of other Japanese, German, and Italian families. At long last she’d come back to America following the death of her husband to live with a daughter in San Francisco.

My breath stilled in my lungs.

The article included a photograph of Mrs. Hayashi standing on a grassy bank with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. Her hair, a wiry gray, was short and stylish, and her face was wrinkled in all the same places mine was. Her beautiful Asian features nevertheless suggested she had seen much in her seventy-six years. A Japanese woman in her mid-fifties stood next to her. Mrs. Hayashi’s daughter, Rina Hammond.

Below this picture, in an inset, was a black-and-white photo of Mariko Inoue Hayashi and her parents and older brother and sister at the Crystal City Internment Camp, in the late fall of 1944, as they stood in front of their quarters on Meridian Road. There was a blond-haired teen, out of focus and only half-pictured, in the background, leaning on a fence. The blond girl’s head was cocked as though she’d been impatient for the photographer to finish.

I had reached with a shaking hand to touch the blurred image of that teenage girl whose physical features were perfectly Teutonic in every way—fair-haired, with large, light-filled eyes. Angular jaw. Full lips. Pronounced dimples.

I can still remember standing there on the sideline as that picture of Mariko and her family was taken. That same photographer had taken my family’s photo days earlier. Mariko and I hadn’t known the photo was needed for initiating plans to have us all repatriated: Mariko and her family to Japan, me and mine to Germany. Papa and Mommi didn’t break the news to Max and me until later.

My hand traveled to Mariko’s black-and-white face. On the last day we were together, we’d promised that we’d meet up with each other in the States—when the war was over and when we had all picked up our lives again from where we had been plucked out of them. We’d pledged to each other that we’d find a way, and we had renewed that vow after the war ended and we were yet still thousands of miles apart.

As I sat there on the sofa with my fingertips on the smooth surface of the iPad, that old promise between Mariko and me seemed to thrust itself out of my heart to rattle the brittle bones of my rib cage. I shuddered as if I’d been shaken awake from a long dream.

Mariko was in San Francisco. She was alive; I was sure of it. I had not found her now only to discover she had died since this article was written. She was still alive. My soul refused to believe anything different.

I moved my hand away from the screen and read the article again. Mariko’s daughter, Rina, was the guest relations manager of the Ritz-Carlton, a five-star hotel in downtown San Francisco. If I could speak face-to-face with Rina, I knew I could at last speak face-to-face with Mariko again; it was as simple as that. Surely it would be as simple as that. There was something I wanted to thank her for before Agnes overtook me for good. I should have thanked Mariko long ago.

Waves of regret that I hadn’t looked for her before now were already washing over me, but I couldn’t pay them mind. I couldn’t. Nor could I ponder this new thought that she hadn’t looked for me, either, all these years. I had no time for those kinds of musings.

I called a travel agent. Not my travel agent, a travel agent. I knew when Pamela and Teddy saw the note that I planned to leave for them—that I needed to take a quick trip and would be back soon—they would contact Ginnie at the travel agency that the Dove family has used for the past seventy years, even before I was a Dove. Pamela would ask her what arrangements she had made for me, and Ginnie would say she hadn’t made any.

I asked this new agent, whose name and agency I can’t recall at this precise moment, to arrange for me a first-class seat on the first available flight to San Francisco and a room at the downtown Ritz-Carlton for a week, but only after making sure that a certain Mrs. Rina Hammond was still the guest relations manager. I had my arrangements in less than an hour. It’s easy to do such things when you’re the widow of a wealthy man. Not pleasurable, mind you, but easy.

Now, two days later, I am waiting to board the plane.

Anyone else would surely be astounded that I had found Mariko so quickly. The first hit, as Toni would say, if Toni knew. Astounding.

But I hadn’t been that surprised. I’m still not. I had found my old friend so easily because there is only one Mariko Inoue Hayashi in all the world.

Only the one.





2



There were five things my father wished he had done differently in the years before we were repatriated to Germany. When he told me what these five things were, he and I were sitting at a dinner table—where there had been no dinner—in a tiny apartment in Stuttgart, Germany, on a cold day during the last year of the war. Mommi, Max, and my grandmother had gone to bed. The flat was quiet, and mercifully so were the skies outside. My father’s childhood home was a bombed-out ruin by then. There was no food, the Allies were marching ever east and north toward Berlin, and all Papa’s old friends and acquaintances in his obliterated hometown of nearby Pforzheim were wondering why in the world he had come back.

I hadn’t prior to that moment asked if he had any regrets. Papa and I were just quietly working a jigsaw puzzle that he’d salvaged from the rubble of his mother’s house. A chipped kerosene lamp was burning so low between us that we could hardly make out the pieces. My stomach rumbled, and to my papa, who had always been able to provide for us, I think the sound of my hunger seemed as though it was a question. Is this what you wanted for us, Papa?

That’s when he told me about those five things, although I think he was listing them for himself and not so much for me. First, he told me he wished he’d left his father’s war medals with my grandmother when he returned to Davenport from Opa’s funeral. He almost did leave them with her. Not because he knew Germany would soon be the enemy of the United States. Nobody knew that was going to happen. Not then. It was because my Oma had looked so sad when she’d handed the velvet-lined box to him.

“Your father wanted you to have these,” she’d said, still in her mourning clothes.

Oma had looked like she couldn’t bear to part with the medals, Papa remembered, and so he hadn’t extended his hands to take them. Oma had pushed the black box toward him.

“Take them,” she’d said, her eyes filling with fresh tears. “He wanted them to be yours.”

Papa told me he would’ve said, “But I want you to have them, Mutti,” if he could do it over. The medals meant more to Oma than to him and they always had. They were the emblems of my grandfather’s bravery and loyalty and the proof that he had promised he would come home from the Great War and that he had.

I had seen those medals when Papa brought them home from Germany the same summer Hitler invaded Poland. The ribbons were colorfully striped like long strands of taffy and the medals themselves felt cool and serious in my hand. I saw them only that one time. Papa put the box on his closet shelf, still covered in the chamois cloth that Oma wrapped it in for the voyage to America, and that’s where they had stayed.

Secondly, Papa wished he hadn’t left a copy of Mein Kampf buried in the back of his nightstand, years after he’d read it. He hadn’t even liked the book. It had been recommended to him by a man he used to drink beer and smoke cigars with at the German American club in downtown Davenport. That man had moved away and forgotten to ask for his book back. My father had always meant to look up the fellow and mail the book to him, but it had been a long while and he had forgotten about it. The FBI hadn’t believed the book belonged to someone else when they searched our house and found it.

“What was that book?” I asked as I studied a puzzle piece. I hadn’t yet been made aware that before I was even born Adolf Hitler had written a book. People had stopped discussing it years before and had been discussing the man instead. And that was all people talked about when Hitler’s name came up in conversations that I had overheard: the man and his terrible plan.

“It’s a book I never should have had in our house,” Papa answered. And my empty stomach rumbled again, and he closed his eyes as though his insides had growled in protest, and not mine.

Then Papa told me he wished he’d never told the neighbor’s son that he knew the ingredients needed to make a bomb. All chemists like him did. You learned it in university your first year. That’s how you became a safe chemist who didn’t make terrible mistakes.

When Stevie Winters, who was hands down the most mischievous boy I’ve ever known, and whose father was a policeman, had asked Papa, “Do you know which chemicals explode in a bomb?” my father had said he did, but now he wished he’d lied and said, “No. I don’t.” Stevie Winters would have gone home to terrorize his little sister or cut the fringe off his mother’s sofa pillows or break a window playing ball in the house. He wouldn’t have gone home and told his father that that German man, Mr. Sontag, said he knew how to make a bomb.

Papa told me the fourth thing he wished he hadn’t done was tell a certain coworker that he didn’t think he could raise a gun against a fellow German, so he hoped with all his heart that he’d never be asked to. It was true that Papa didn’t think he could put on an American Army uniform and fight against Germany. But he wished he hadn’t said it to someone.

“You don’t have to say everything you’re thinking, Elise,” he said.

The coworker hadn’t asked Papa if he could kill a fellow German. The two of them had just been talking about the war in Europe and whether America was going to get involved, and Papa had volunteered that information. The coworker had remembered him saying it. Before Papa was arrested, the FBI had talked to this coworker. They had talked to Stevie Winters and his father. They had talked to everyone we knew.

Lastly, Papa told me he wished he had applied for American citizenship sooner. He and Mommi waited until after Hitler marched into France, and by then petitions for citizenship from a pair of German immigrants who’d been in the United States for nearly two decades were fodder for suspicion, not loyalty.

“Why did you wait so long?” the FBI agents had asked him. “You could have become a citizen years ago. Why did you wait?”

Papa hadn’t wanted to say, Because it didn’t seem that important until now. That would’ve sounded like he didn’t love America much, and the truth was, he did. But he loved Germany, too, and he didn’t want to choose between them. He told me it had been like being a child of divorced parents who had to choose the one he loved most when asked which one he wanted to live with. So Papa had said he didn’t know why he’d waited.

These were the five things Papa had done when we all lived in America that, until the day he died, he wished he’d done differently. These were the five things about my papa the FBI didn’t like. The five things that formed the accusations against him. The five reasons he was interned first at a detention camp in North Dakota and then at Crystal City with hundreds of other German, Japanese, and a handful of Italian nationals and their wives and American-born children. The five reasons we were traded in January of 1945 for American civilians and wounded prisoners of war stuck behind enemy lines in Germany. The five reasons he and I had been sitting in that rented flat no bigger than our quarters had been at Crystal City, doing a jigsaw puzzle in the semidarkness.

I would remember that conversation always. If Papa had left the war medals with Oma, given the man back his book, told wicked Stevie Winters to run along home, said nothing to his coworker about the war in Europe, and applied for U.S. citizenship when he and Mommi first came to the States, my life would have been completely different. It scares me to think how different it would be. Would I even be me? Wouldn’t I be some other person entirely?

I wouldn’t have married who I married, wouldn’t have raised the children I have raised.

And I wouldn’t be seated on an airplane bound for San Francisco at this moment because I would never have known Mariko Inoue. My family and I wouldn’t have been sent to Crystal City. Mariko and I never would have met.

All that I am hinges on those five little things my father had always wished he’d done differently.

I can feel Agnes tugging at these thoughts of mine as the jet climbs the sky. She wants them. Like a child who wants handfuls of candy before supper, she wants them. Agnes wants them because they are so old and threaded so deeply within me. She wants that memory of fifteen-year-old me sitting at a borrowed table, in a broken world, working a puzzle with my father in the last year of the war.

She wants to have my ponderings over who I would be if Papa had done those five things a different way. She wants it all. I turn my gaze to the porthole window and I whisper two words to Agnes that are drowned out by the white noise in the plane’s cabin. Not yet.

I reach inside my carry-on for the fabric-bound notebook that had been Mariko’s, brushing my hand against the iPad, my purse, a package of Fig Newtons, and the latest issue of House Beautiful. The yellowed pages of the ancient notebook contain the half-finished, untitled book Mariko had been writing at Crystal City. It’s the tale of a warrior princess named Calista who lives in a fantasy land called Akari, which Mariko told me is the Japanese word for “light.” In the story, courageous Calista had set out to free her three sisters from an evil sorcerer who had kidnapped them and taken them to his enchanted castle.

Mariko, who had loved writing and imagining worlds that don’t really exist, had started to write this story when her family still lived in Los Angeles, just before Pearl Harbor was bombed, before her world—and mine—was turned upside down. After we became friends at the camp, we’d spent many hours thinking up new scenes to move the story forward. Toward the end of our stay Mariko had gotten stuck and didn’t know how to get unstuck. Calista had already made it past several harrowing obstacles on her journey to save her sisters but was now imprisoned herself in the sorcerer’s highest tower. She’d learned that her sisters, jealous of her beauty, brains, and bravery, had faked their abduction and then paid the sorcerer to capture Calista when she came to save them.

I was no whiz at storytelling, but Mariko allowed me to dream and ponder with her the best way for Calista to defeat the sorcerer, escape the tower, and take her revenge on her cruel sisters. Though I lacked Mariko’s creativity and imagination, she never made me feel stupid for suggesting scenarios that couldn’t possibly work and had no literary merit. Before Mariko could find a way to get Calista out of the tower, though, my family and I were sent to Germany, and then Mariko and hers to Japan. A year would go by before I heard from her again.

We had exchanged only two letters from our separate lands of exile when she wrote her final note and included the notebook, in which no new words had been written. A marriage with the son of a still-wealthy Japanese businessman, Yasuo Hayashi, had been arranged for Mariko—she had just turned seventeen—and she told me she couldn’t write to me anymore. Neither would she be joining me back in the States when we both turned eighteen, as we’d planned. She told me to take the book and please, please get Calista out of the locked tower and finish the story, because she would not be able to.

I had cried to think I would never see or hear from Mariko again, and I knew she had wept writing that last letter to me; I saw the blotches in the ink, the crinkles in the folds, the unmistakable mark salt-laden tears leave on linen paper. I wrote Mariko several letters after that anyway, telling her that no matter where she and I lived, we could continue to write to each other, and that maybe someday her new husband would allow her to come visit me. Or he would allow me to come visit her. But those letters to Mariko came back to me undeliverable. I never heard from her again.

The binding on the notebook is threadbare, despite my having carefully stored it over the decades. It has been sitting at the bottom of a cedar chest in the blue guest room, wrapped in plastic, safe from mildew and silverfish and the breath of time. I never wrote so much as a word inside it, even though Mariko had sent it to me thinking I would finish the story. But I couldn’t. It was not my book to finish. And yet even now I wonder how Calista got out of the tower. How did she defeat her enemy? How did she get justice for what her sisters had done to her? How did she live the rest of her life?

Perhaps this is the real reason why I sense this overwhelming need to see Mariko before I die, before I disappear: so that I can give this book back to her and find out at last how the story ends.

We have reached cruising altitude, and the attendants will be serving us refreshments now. I slip the notebook back inside my bag and zip it shut.

Where are we going? I hear Agnes saying in the back of my mind.

Back to the beginning, I tell her.





3



Davenport, Iowa, 1943

The day my father was arrested was the same day Lucy Hobart skipped her second-period class to run away with a fellow she’d met at the soda fountain in the basement of Petersen’s department store the day before. Lucy was fourteen and a grade ahead of me at Sudlow Intermediate, but I knew because she’d confided in a couple of friends in first-period geometry just before she’d snuck away. Those two friends had confided in a couple more in second-period composition, who had confided in a couple more in third-period biology, so that by noon, my circle of thirteen-year-old friends also knew Lucy Hobart had taken off with a nineteen-year-old man. His name was Butch, he had a beat-up Oldsmobile, and he’d been in town to visit a friend but was headed back over the river to Illinois and then Canada so that he could ditch the draft. And now Lucy was with him. In his car. On their way to Chicago and then Toronto.

Some of the girls laughed and tittered at our lunch table about what would happen that night when Lucy and Butch arrived at his place and it was time for bed. Those who laughed did so nervously, their cheeks slightly aflame. Others shook their heads in collective disapproval because surely Lucy would be caught and brought back, shamed and with her reputation ruined. Others, such as my best friend, Collette, were worried for Lucy’s safety, not to mention her immortal soul. And then there were the ones like me who wanted to say, Shouldn’t we tell someone? but didn’t, because we knew that whoever did would lose the trust of the girlhood at school. People who snitched on a classmate wound up friendless.

“It’s not your problem,” I’d told myself at lunch, and during gym class and history, and then as I left the school to head home. “Not your problem,” I’d said when I started to walk past Lucy Hobart’s house and then stopped in front of it.

It was February and a frosty wind was swirling about me as I looked at the windows of the Hobart house, shuttered against the cold. All seemed quiet and serene inside. Lucy’s parents probably hadn’t known yet that their oldest daughter had run off that morning with a man she’d known for less than twenty-four hours. In another hour or so, when she didn’t show up after school, they would begin to wonder where she was. Mrs. Hobart would call Lucy’s friends and ask if Lucy had come home with them. Her closest pals had been directed to respond that Lucy said there had been a family emergency, and so she’d had to leave school early. This was so that Lucy’s disappearance wouldn’t be reported as an abduction. The police would treat her as a runaway, not the victim of a kidnapping, and therefore she’d be not so much their problem as her parents’.

As I stood there, I imagined walking up those glistening porch steps and telling Mrs. Hobart where Lucy was. I could hear Collette whispering to me that Lucy would hate me for it. But I could also hear another voice whispering that Lucy was making a terrible mistake and that her parents, whom I knew to be nice people, didn’t deserve to have their hearts broken like this. The second little voice was my own. I walked up the steps before I could change my mind and rang the bell. No one answered. Mr. Hobart was likely still at work at the front desk of the Hotel Blackhawk. Mrs. Hobart was apparently out. My best opportunity to tell someone had been when I was still at school, and I had missed it.

I was still pondering what I could have done or still could do when, fifteen minutes later, I rounded the corner to my street and my house. Ours was a white and gray two-story with window boxes all ready for their geraniums as soon as winter was over. Papa kept our yards, front and back, in perfectly trimmed condition, which he said was simply what those of German descent did. We took care of what was ours. We took care of it so that we could enjoy it and so could everyone else.

I didn’t notice the shiny black cars—two of them—parked in front of our house.

I came in through the side door like I usually did, to drop off my schoolbag in the little laundry room off the kitchen and to hang up my coat. I knew that when my mother asked about my day, I wouldn’t be able to keep this from her. Nor did I want to. My mother was a tender soul, my father used to say, whose gentleness and honesty made you want to be gentle and honest. I had never lied to her. She was going to ask me how my day was, and I was going to spill it all to her. I would tell her that I tried to tell Mr. and Mrs. Hobart what Lucy had done, and she would ask why I didn’t tell someone at school hours ago. She would make a phone call and then I’d instantly become the girl no one could trust to keep a secret, and I’d likely get in trouble for not speaking up sooner. Telling my mother was the right thing to do, I knew, but my heart was pounding with the knowledge that my life was about to change.

I entered the kitchen, and my first thought when I saw my parents seated at the kitchen table—and a man in a suit standing over them with his arms crossed over his chest—was that they already knew. They knew about Lucy Hobart running away and that I’d been privy to this information since noon and had said nothing.

My father looked up at the man towering over them. “This is our daughter, Elise.” Papa’s voice sounded strange, as though he was nervous but trying to sound calm. Or scared but trying to sound brave. His German accent, usually so subtle as to be barely noticed, seemed more pronounced. My parents were fair-haired, too, like my little brother and me, though more honey brown than blond, and their eyes were gray-blue like mine. They were of average build and stature. Papa wore wire spectacles. They looked like ordinary Americans, and on most days sounded like them. But not today.

“Have a seat,” the man said to me, nodding to one of the empty chairs at the table.

“What’s happening?” I said, though I knew. I knew what was happening was that Lucy Hobart had run away and I’d had every opportunity to tell a teacher at school and I’d said nothing.

“Sit,” said the man, not unkindly, but not nicely, either.

“Do as you’re told, Elise,” Papa said.

My hands were shaking as I pulled out a chair. Mommi’s eyes were glassy as she looked at me, a fake little smile on her lips. She was probably already thinking of how to tell the policeman—for surely that’s who this man was—that I was not yet fourteen. Only a child.

It wasn’t until I sat down that I heard scraping and toppling and shoving in other rooms of the house. Sounds of furniture being thrust about. Of drawers being opened and shut. Of heavy shoes on the upper-story floorboards above my head. I glanced toward the ceiling.

“Who is upstairs?” I said. Surely they weren’t looking for Lucy Hobart in my bedroom. She was a grade above me. We weren’t even good friends. Acquaintances at most.

The man in the suit said nothing.

“Everything is going to be fine,” Papa said, in that same voice he had used to tell the policeman my name.

At that moment I realized with sudden clarity that Papa was home from work at three o’clock in the afternoon. Perhaps this wasn’t about Lucy Hobart after all.

Maybe this man wasn’t a cop.

Maybe we were being robbed. Fear gripped me like a vise.

“Who is upstairs?” I said again, and I felt two tears start to tumble down my cheeks. We were being robbed. Whoever was upstairs was going through our bureau drawers and closets and chests looking for jewelry and other valuables. They wouldn’t find much. We weren’t wealthy. Papa was just a chemist at Boyer AgriChemical. Mommi took in sewing. The other robbers would come downstairs in a minute or two, asking where our loot was, and Papa would say we didn’t have any. They would be mad and would shoot all three of us, right there at the kitchen table.

Max would come home from school in a few minutes and find us dead in our chairs, blood all over the place.

“It’s all right,” Papa said, as though he could read my terrible thoughts. “We’ll be fine.” He reached for Mommi’s hand next to him.

I didn’t see how Papa could know this. Robbers didn’t leave alive the people they’d hoped to rob, in broad daylight no less. Unless this man and whoever was upstairs weren’t robbers.

“Is this about Lucy Hobart?” I whispered.

“This is a misunderstanding,” Papa said, without so much as a pause. Lucy Hobart’s name hadn’t meant anything to him, or to the man standing above him, for that matter. “This will all be cleared up shortly, I’m sure.”

Papa looked at Mommi and squeezed her hand.

A second later the footfalls from above our heads moved to the staircase. And then four men also in dark suits were in our kitchen, their arms laden with our photo albums and family pictures still in their frames and books and papers and letters. One man stepped forward. He held Opa’s black velvet case of military medals. He snapped it open.

“Are these yours?” the man said to Papa.

“They were my father’s,” Papa replied, looking from the medals to the man. “He’s deceased. He left them to me.”

The man closed the box, passed it to another man, and then held up a book. I couldn’t see the title.

“Is this your book?”

I saw fear rise in Papa’s eyes. “No! No, it belongs to a friend—I mean, just someone I knew a long time ago. He loaned it to me. I meant to give it back. It’s not mine!”

“Do you deny that in August of 1939 you spent two weeks in Germany?”

Papa’s eyes widened. “To bury my father. To attend his funeral!”

The man seemed not to have even heard my father’s answer. “Do you recall a conversation with your neighbors’ boy, Steven Winters, in which you told him you were constructing an explosive device?” the man continued.

“What?” Papa’s eyes nearly popped out of their sockets.

“Otto?” Mommi whispered, in a tiny, fairylike voice.

“Do you recall it, Mr. Sontag?”

“That is not what I told him!”

The man handed the book he’d been holding to another man and pulled handcuffs out of his pocket. He told my father to stand up. When Papa didn’t do it fast enough, another man took Papa by the shoulders and brought him to his feet.

“Otto Sontag, under Executive Order 9066, you are hereby under arrest as an enemy alien suspected of subversive crimes against the United States of America . . .”

He said other things, but I would never be able to remember what they were. I seem to vaguely recall that he was telling my father where they would be taking him and that he would have a chance to address the evidence against him. The man might have told him at this point that Papa’s assets would be frozen, his passport seized, and his mail censored, for all these things happened in short order, too. But there was such a loud humming in my ears that had started when my father was hauled to his feet and those cuffs chinked around his wrists. Plus, Mommi had started to wail Papa’s name, and Papa was saying, over and over to her, “It’s all right, Freda. I’ve done nothing wrong.” It was hard to make out everything the man was saying over Mommi’s cries.

The men started to lead my father toward the front door to take him away. Mommi jumped out of her chair to grab hold of Papa, and one of the men pulled her away from him and sat her back down.

Papa called out to me. “Go to your mother, Elise. Go to her!”

I’d been sitting dazed in my own chair, but I rose like someone hypnotized and went to my mother, the humming in my ears like a raging storm. My heart was pounding in my chest.

I watched as the men took Papa through the living room and out into the milky winter sunshine. Mommi sprang from her chair to chase after them and I ran after her. One of the men stood at the doorway so that she could not step outside. We watched from around his torso as Papa was placed in the backseat of one of those black cars, and all our photo albums and family portraits and the other things they had taken were put inside the trunk. Mrs. Brimley, who lived across the street, and who’d come out to get her mail, was standing openmouthed at her mailbox, watching the spectacle.

When Papa was in the car and the door was shut, the man who had been blocking our way turned from us and made his way to one of the vehicles. Mommi started to run for the cars, and through the backseat window I saw Papa pleading with me to stop her. I dashed after Mommi and grabbed her and she let me hold her back. As the two black cars eased away from the curb, their tires crunching on dead leaves and shards of ice, Mommi crumpled to our frozen lawn. I knelt next to her. I didn’t know what else to do. The grass, ice covered and brown, prickled my kneecaps through my wool skirt.

Mrs. Brimley waited a couple of moments and then crossed the street. She was a widow who’d lived in Davenport her whole life. Her late husband had owned a barbershop, and he’d died a few years back of a massive heart attack barely a year into his retirement. Mrs. Brimley was known in our neighborhood for making the best molasses cookies anywhere. Her children and grandchildren lived in Tennessee and Missouri, and I’d asked her once why she stayed in Davenport when her family was so far away. And she’d said, “Well, it’s hard to leave home, Elise. You’ll see one day.”

“Is everything all right, Freda?” Mrs. Brimley said when she reached us, her mail still in her hand. Everything was not all right, of course. Mrs. Brimley knew that. But I suppose it wouldn’t have sounded neighborly to ask the obvious, which was “Did Otto just get taken away in handcuffs?”

Mommi rose to her feet, tears still streaming down her face. I stood, too. “I have to call someone. I . . . There must be someone I can call.” She wasn’t looking at Mrs. Brimley. She was looking in the direction the cars had gone. “They’ve made a horrible mistake.”

“What has happened? Who were those people?” Mrs. Brimley asked.

“They said they were from the FBI,” Mommi said, her voice breaking. She brought a hand up to her mouth and it shook as if electrified.

“What did they want with Otto?”

I’m not sure Mommi knew at that point exactly why Papa had been arrested. My parents had heard that, since the United States had entered the war, German Americans who were known sympathizers of the Third Reich had been arrested and some interned. And they knew that, since Pearl Harbor, thousands of Japanese Americans had been rounded up and interned, too, many of them simply because they were issei, Japanese-born immigrants to the United States. Most had done nothing wrong; they had simply been born inside a nation with whom we were now at war. But Papa wasn’t a sympathizer of the Axis powers. He had been a legal resident of the United States for eighteen years. He believed Adolf Hitler to be a dangerous man. He didn’t have close family fighting in the Wehrmacht. He didn’t have hatred in his heart for the Jews. He didn’t have hatred in his heart for anyone.

So Mommi didn’t answer Mrs. Brimley outright. She said instead, “They took our photo albums. Our letters from home. My wedding portrait.”

And Opa’s medals, I wanted to say, but didn’t.

“Why? Why did they take them? Why was Otto arrested?” Mrs. Brimley was growing impatient. When your German neighbor gets arrested, you deserve to know why. I could see she was thinking this.

“I have to call someone,” Mommi said again, and this time she dashed back into the house.

Mrs. Brimley turned to me, still hungry for an answer. “Why did the FBI arrest your father?”

Her words sounded so sympathetic then, and so obvious a thing to ask. But it was the question that would haunt us all for decades to come.

“I don’t know,” I said, because only bad people got arrested. Papa wasn’t a bad person.

I left Mrs. Brimley and went back inside the house, all thoughts of Lucy Hobart gone. When Max and I went to bed that night, Mommi was still on the phone. She’d been on the phone for hours, talking to different people, sometimes in English, sometimes in German. She was no doubt asked by everyone she talked to why Papa had been arrested. There were thousands of German Americans in Davenport. Dozens upon dozens of them were working just across the river at the Rock Island Arsenal, where weapons of warfare were being manufactured at all hours. So what was it that Papa had done? Why did the FBI arrest him? I kept hearing her say, “I don’t know! Nothing they said made any sense!”

The long answer, we would soon learn, was that the FBI officials were afraid that my unnaturalized father was loyal to Germany, favored the Nazi regime, was engaged in subversive activity to aid the enemy, and was uniquely skilled and conveniently placed within an occupation where he could do much damage to the citizens of the United States.

The short answer was, as most short answers are, more to the point.

They were afraid.





4



I’ve heard it said of immigrants like my parents that they crossed the wide ocean to pursue the American Dream, that fabled happy existence characterized by prosperity for those who work hard and lead lives of integrity. It has always seemed to me, though, that you need to keep your eyes wide open to achieve that kind of life, don’t you? A dream is only a dream while you sleep, when your eyes are closed to outside forces. The way I see it, you can’t work hard and be a good person with your eyes closed. That means the American Dream is not a dream at all. It’s a wish. You can make a wish with your eyes closed, but you open them after you blow out the candles. With your eyes wide open, you labor to lead an honest life while you wait to see if your wish will come true.

As I watched the black car that held my father disappear around the block, the strongest sensation I had was not that this couldn’t be happening, but that it was. It was like being awakened from a stupor, not falling into a nightmare. I couldn’t have explained it to anyone then. Not even to myself. It was only in the years that followed that I realized this was the moment my eyes were opened to what the world is really like. Months later, in the internment camp, Mariko would tell me she believed there were two kinds of mirrors. There was the kind you looked into to see what you looked like, and then there was the kind you looked into and saw what other people thought you looked like.

The moment my father left with those men, that second mirror was thrust in my face. And there it stayed. Up until that moment, I thought my identity had its beginning with my parents, because isn’t that how all children come to be? You exist because your parents met each other, fell in love, got married, had a child who was you. And then you trailed along after them, becoming the person you would be because of where they took you, and where life took them.

My parents emigrated to America in the spring of 1925 as young newlyweds eager to put down roots in the land of seemingly unending horizons. Seven years had passed since the end of the Great War, and people had started to trust one another again, to allow for one another to stretch and build and hope again. That’s how my papa would describe it. He had been fourteen when his father came home from the First World War. My Opa, a gifted surgeon, had spent the years of the conflict in a field hospital, saving the lives of countless wounded soldiers, often while himself in harm’s way. The fighting didn’t come to Pforzheim, where my papa lived as an only child with Oma, so his most vivid memories of the Great War were of waiting for his father to come home from it. Food had become scarce because of the Allied blockades, but my Oma had a big vegetable garden and a root cellar and chickens, and even though the military pay that Opa sent home every month was not the same as what he earned at the hospital in Pforzheim, it was enough to keep them from starving. My father remembered chopping down what seemed an endless number of trees in the woods behind their house when coal was no longer available, all while wearing clothes that were a size too small and his father’s too-big boots because nothing of his own fit anymore and nothing new could be bought. Papa told me the Great War was a perplexing situation that he didn’t fully understand except that the monotony of its many deprivations felt like a flattening of his soul. He recalled being happy and relieved when the war was over even though Germany hadn’t been the victor.

My grandparents’ house, three stories of half-timbered beauty, had been in the Sontag family for a hundred years. The Sontag men, up until Opa, had all been watch-and jewelry makers, as were so many others in Pforzheim. The city was and still is famous for its watches and jewelry. Even so, Opa had hoped Papa might want to become a surgeon, too. But my father didn’t want to be a doctor, not even when Opa came home from the war a decorated surgeon. Papa wanted to make new discoveries in the fields of science and industry. He wanted to be part of something innovative and pioneering, like developing a new fuel source or a better system for purifying water or a way to replicate human blood cells. He had always been interested in the amazing things that can happen in a research laboratory.

Papa met my mother in 1924 at the Technische Hochschule Stuttgart, now known as the University of Stuttgart, thirty miles from Pforzheim, where he was studying for a degree in chemistry. She worked in the library, shelving among the stacks, and because he went there daily to study, he saw her often. Papa told me and Max more than once that Mommi was as sweet and lovely as an angel, despite having known incredible sadness, and he couldn’t help but fall in love with her. When they met, Mommi’s parents were both deceased; her mother died of tuberculosis when Mommi was only three and her father, who was sixteen years older than her mother, had died of a massive stroke when she was fifteen.

Mommi never talked much about her childhood to me. I got the impression that her father, not knowing how to raise a child on his own, busied himself with managing a Gasthaus after being made a widower and spent little time at home. Mommi was raised by nannies and to some extent her friends’ mothers. Then, when my grandfather died, an aunt and uncle who lived in Stuttgart took Mommi in. They’d had no children and were as unskilled in parental duties as my grandfather had been. Mommi moved out on her own as soon as she could. She was nineteen when she met Papa. He was twenty. They were married the same day he graduated from the university, a year after they met. My mother told me once that Papa’s parents were the first people she had ever known—she could not remember her own mother—to treat her like a daughter, someone they loved and cared for because of who she was and not for anything she did or didn’t do.

A Sontag cousin had emigrated to America the year Papa began his studies at the university, and as time went on, the word at family gatherings was that Cousin Emil had secured a good job in New York, had married an American woman, and was very happy. Papa wrote to Cousin Emil and asked him what it had been like to leave all that was familiar and strike out for America. Papa was itching to emigrate to the States, too, but he knew it was no small step. To emigrate was to leave for good the land of your beginnings and start anew somewhere else. And while this truth unsettled Papa somewhat, it also fueled his motivation to go. The promise of a new start was alluring. It was hard for a young couple like my parents to make their own way in Germany in 1925. The country was economically devastated from the First World War, and reparation payments to France and Great Britain—which it could not afford—coupled with stiff international tariffs, had made the terrible situation worse.

Cousin Emil told Papa that saying good-bye to the homeland had been easy because in America there were only possibilities—not limitations. America was a beacon, while Germany was a flickering fire that no one in government knew how to properly kindle back into a healthy flame. There were some who thought they knew what to do to make Germany prosperous again, but their ideas were radical and unconventional, as Papa told me many years later. Besides that, there didn’t seem to be many opportunities for a young man with a degree in chemistry. A pair of Sontag uncles back in Pforzheim, who were watchmakers, had been willing to train my father in the intricacies of their craft, but Papa had no interest in making timepieces. He wrote to Emil and asked if he would be willing to sponsor him and Mommi, and Emil agreed, although somewhat reluctantly. Emil’s wife, Gladys, hadn’t been overly keen on having houseguests for an indeterminate time, even if they were her husband’s family. Emil, who’d been in America for four years by this time, spoke fluent English, and after my parents arrived, he and Gladys would have heated conversations about the situation; at least that’s what my parents thought they argued about. Papa didn’t know what his cousin and his wife were saying to each other, but he imagined Gladys was repeatedly asking, “How much longer are they going to be staying with us?” and Emil kept answering, “How should I know?” My parents couldn’t wait to find jobs and move out on their own.

Three months after arriving in New York, Papa got a job as a hospital janitor after convincing the person doing the hiring—in broken English—that he was an expert in chemicals and could be trusted to manage a cart full of cleaning supplies. Mommi was hired as a seamstress at a factory that made baseball uniforms. She didn’t have to worry too much about the language barrier because all her employer cared about was whether she could follow a pattern. She had learned to make her own clothes at the home of the elderly aunt and uncle she’d moved in with when she became an orphan, so following a sewing pattern was easy for her. My parents moved out of Emil and Gladys’s apartment and found their own little place on the other side of the Bronx. They worked long shifts during the day and at night they attended language school. Life was busy, but my parents were happy. They were in love, they were together, and they were earning money that was actually worth something, which had not been true for the German marks they had been earning before.

They missed the beauty of the German landscape, the smell of fresh Brötchen at the corner Bäckerei, the sounds of church bells around the corner on early Sunday mornings, and Oma and Opa, but every day Papa and Mommi found new reasons to love their new country. It’s funny how just having an unobstructed view of the possible future can make you think you’re capable of achieving anything.

My parents decided to speak only English to each other after just six months in America. They also subscribed to the New York Times, which they read every evening from front to back, and spent any leftover grocery money on theater tickets or books penned by American novelists. They listened to American radio stations and ate weekly at the corner diner, ordering the cheapest item on the menu, just to sit and listen to all the conversations around them. In three years’ time, they were both fully conversant in English.

They wanted to be Americans, Papa told me twenty years later, on the deck of the ship that was deporting us back to Germany. He wanted to do and be everything American, even though inside his skin, he knew he was still German. You don’t shed who you are inside just because you change what you’re wearing on the outside, he’d said. He was a German man living an American life. He had thought he could just go on doing that, especially when he got the chemist’s job at Boyer AgriChemical just outside Davenport, Iowa, a city where so many other German immigrants had settled. There were German clubs and restaurants and even a German newspaper in Davenport. It was easy to be a German American in Iowa. Papa had a good job and was able to rent a nice house.

The year I was born was also the year the American stock market crashed, but my parents had no debt other than a monthly rental payment, which they were able to continue to make, even though every employee who was kept on at Boyer had to take a reduction in salary. My brother, Max, was born five years into the Great Depression, in 1934. Both Max and I were raised to speak English only.

Mariko’s parents had been very different from mine in this respect. Mariko had been born the same year as me in Los Angeles; she was as much an American citizen as I was. But her parents made her speak Japanese at home. When I would go over to her quarters, I couldn’t understand a word anyone said, not even her words. When she was at my house, she sounded just like me.

Papa wanted my brother and me to think of ourselves as Americans only. Max and I loved my mother’s Jägerschnitzel and sauerbraten, and the Bavarian cuckoo clock that hung above the china cabinet in our dining room, and the sounds of the oompah band during Davenport’s yearly Oktoberfest, but I never felt like a German girl, even though my parents spoke slightly accented English and envelopes bearing colorful German stamps showed up regularly in our mailbox. I was named after Papa’s mother, Elsa Sontag, but I didn’t feel like a German granddaughter, not even when we were repatriated in 1945 and I saw my Oma for the first time when we showed up on her doorstep.

As dire as the financial situation had been in the States during the Depression, my parents never imagined they would return to Germany other than for a visit to Pforzheim, which they had hoped to make after the U.S. economy turned around. A voyage for all four of us was going to be expensive, and saving money during the Depression was nearly impossible. Papa had faithfully written to his parents every turn of the seasons, and Oma and Opa in turn wrote to him. Papa saw from his father’s letters that things had been changing in Germany in the 1930s. The National Socialist German Workers’ Party had been in existence for only five years when Papa and Mommi left Germany, but by my first birthday, the Nazi Party—as it was abbreviated for ease of conversation—had become the largest party in the German parliament, and a former Austrian and vocal anti-Semite named Adolf Hitler was its champion. Then, in 1933, all political parties other than the Nazi Party were banned in Germany. Opa hadn’t been overly concerned by this development, and his letters to Papa had been full of praise for Chancellor Hitler’s ideas and programs. Papa wrote back to my grandfather with his reasons for concern, namely that he felt a single-party regime could give rise to a dictatorship. But of course on the day the FBI searched our house it was not my father’s cautionary letters to Opa that they found, but Opa’s laudatory letters to him, which Papa had kept purely for sentimental reasons.

Papa and Mommi had saved half of the money needed for the four of us to make the long-awaited trip to Germany when Opa died suddenly in August of 1939. I remember when the telegram came for Papa. We’d never gotten a telegram before. I was ten years old and I had never seen my papa cry until that day. He explained he was sad that his father died without ever having met Max and me. I remember a friend from Papa’s work turning into our driveway the next day in a shining blue car to take Papa to the train station. Papa had to get to New York Harbor first, and then board a ship bound for Hamburg, and then take another train to southern Germany.

Papa was gone for four weeks, with half of that time devoted to travel. He came home from the funeral with Opa’s military medals in a velvet case and spicy-sweet lebkuchen wrapped in shiny foil wrappers. I remember my mother asking him, in English, if it had been hard to come back. He had said Germany would always have a special place in his heart, but his home was here now, in Iowa, with her and with Max and me.

Two days after Papa got back, Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, the first of many countries his armies would roll into in his quest to bring about a new kind of world.

Being only ten, I didn’t appreciate what the invasion of Poland meant. France and Britain declared war on Germany just days after that. I remember my father announcing this to my mother while I was eating a slice of the gingery German lebkuchen, still moist from having just been unwrapped.

My parents began to speak quietly to each other about the affairs going on in their homeland after that. Papa would go to a German American club in nearby Bettendorf to play cards and he would come home whispering secrets to Mommi about what was happening that I was not meant to hear. I didn’t care. None of the talk of politics and war interested me. I do remember my father saying to Mommi at one point, “We should get our declarations in.” He meant declarations of intent to become American citizens.

Before anything came of my parents’ declarations, however, something else happened. Just half a year after Germany occupied Poland—and by this time Denmark and Norway had been invaded, too—Congress passed the Alien Registration Act. I was unaffected, being an American citizen by birth, and only eleven, so its passage went unnoticed by me. My parents, however, as legal residents but not citizens, were compelled to go to the post office to register and be fingerprinted. They were asked questions about their family and educational history in Germany, organizations they belonged to, and occupations they had been and were currently engaged in. They were given alien registration numbers. A file was begun on my father on the day he was fingerprinted, a file that he had not been concerned about because he believed he had nothing to hide. He’d been in America for fifteen years. He was not a Nazi Party member. He had declared his intent to become naturalized. He loved his new country.

As the war in Europe intensified, my parents—like many German Americans—watched quietly from the sidelines, willing the conflict to end before it got any worse or hoping at least that the United States would remain neutral. Any hope of that evaporated, of course, when four days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Germany declared war against the United States.

None of us knew that after Pearl Harbor, my father was being routinely watched for signs of subversive activity. For me, the war was happening far away from where we were and had nothing to do with us. My family and I practiced the air raid drills, we put up blackout curtains, and we conserved where we could and were careful with our war ration books and red stamps and blue stamps. We lived like all the other Americans in our neighborhood did.

But my parents were not like all the other Americans.

Still, Papa wasn’t concerned for himself. Why should he have been worried? He was working hard and living a life of integrity, which was all that the American Dream required of you.

My father’s trip to Germany just before Hitler invaded Poland was to bury his father, but the reason he went was not as important as that he went. One day, unknown to Papa, FBI agents came to his place of employment and asked his supervisor and coworkers what they knew about Otto Sontag’s visit to Germany a year and a half earlier, and where they believed Otto Sontag’s loyalties lay. Then, some months later, Stevie Winters told his father what Mr. Sontag had said about making a bomb. Mr. Winters promptly reported this to the FBI.

Next thing you know, Papa, Mommi, and I were sitting in our kitchen while FBI agents tore apart our house looking for corroborating evidence that Alien #451068, also known as Otto Sontag, was a threat to national security. They found the book Hitler wrote, the war medals, Opa’s many letters, and all the photographs of my father having lived a German life prior to coming to America.

Papa had told me ages ago, years before the war, that terrible things can happen when you mix two substances that don’t belong together. He was worried I might one day naïvely mix laundry bleach with ammonia and he wanted to make sure I understood some things cannot be stirred together into the same pot because they will react in ways that can hurt someone.

It is that way with fear and ignorance, I think. Those FBI agents were ignorant of my father’s true loyalties because they didn’t truly know him. They saw what little they saw and feared he was a danger. A threat. An enemy.

I would learn this is what happened to Mariko’s parents, too, and to many of the other families at Crystal City. Mariko’s father and mother, who’d been in the States even longer than my parents, had countless family and friends back in Japan, many of whom were serving in the Imperial Japanese Navy. But Mr. Inoue wasn’t a dangerous man. He was just a grocer from Little Tokyo.

Lucy Hobart was found and returned to her anxious parents on a snowy evening five days after she ran away. The next time I saw my father it was a blistering-hot afternoon in mid-July, and we were more than a thousand miles from the only place I had ever called home.





5



At my junior high school back in Davenport there was a boy in my class named Artie Gibbs who, sadly, had nothing going for him. He was pudgy and bucktoothed, his eyeglasses were as thick as pop-bottle bottoms, he lisped, he talked to himself, and he frequently came to school with unwashed hair and clothes that smelled of the farrowing barns his father owned. He struggled with just about every subject and routinely sat alone at lunch. He was often the brunt of jokes and the target of bullies. The ultimate insult to a girl in my school was to have it said that she was Artie Gibbs’s girlfriend.

Artie didn’t seem to care that everyone but the bullies steered clear of him. I used to watch him out of the corner of my eye, wondering what it was like to be him, wondering if he was only pretending not to notice that everyone treated him like a pariah. I remember wondering one day in particular, when Artie had been tripped in the hallway to gales of laughter, if pretending that it didn’t matter what people thought of you was easier than living with the ache that it did.

A week after Papa’s arrest, the gossip that had circulated around school was that my father was, among other things, a Nazi, a Jew hater, a Kraut lover, a bomb maker, and a traitor. No one actually said these things to my face, but the words swirled about me wherever I went. It was like knives thrust into my soul that people could so quickly believe the worst about Papa. The stares, the whispers, the wide-eyed glares—these were the worst. If a classmate had actually confronted me and asked if it was true that my father was a Nazi and a spy, I could’ve answered that he most certainly was neither. But they accused with their eyes and comments to one another.

My closest friends, Collette especially, came to my defense at first. But with each passing day that my father did not return home, cleared of any wrongdoing, the less my friends felt safe standing up for me. One by one, they began to distance themselves, first by averting their eyes when I passed them in the hall, then by avoiding me in the schoolyard, then by spreading out their lunches so that there was no room for me at our usual table.

Collette, who had been my best friend since fourth grade, had a brother in the army and a cousin flying for the RAF in England, both risking life and limb to save the world from the evils of the Third Reich. When the second week of Papa’s being gone stretched into the third, she pulled me to a quiet corner of the school library, where our history class had been sent to research ancient civilizations.

“We can’t . . . You and I can’t be friends right now, Elise,” she said. Her eyes were rimmed with tears, and suddenly so were mine. “Not like we were. My parents won’t allow it. They . . .” She broke off, unable to finish.

“But my father is innocent,” I whispered back. “You know he is!”

Collette just blinked at me. Two tears trailed down her face. “But . . . ,” she finally said. “But things were found at your house.”

“Just a book and a few letters and some pictures of his family,” I said. “They don’t mean anything. They’re going to release Papa. They have to. He’s done nothing wrong.”

Collette swiped at her tears and looked away from me. “My parents won’t let me be friends with you right now. I have to go.”

She brushed past me and I heard her swallow a sob at the back of her throat.

I came home from school that afternoon still dazed by the sting of Collette’s words to me in the library. I wanted Mommi to put her arms around me and tell me to hold tight for just a few more days. Just a few more. Because then Papa would be home and we could put this terrible time in our lives behind us and go back to being who we had been before those two black cars pulled up alongside our house.

When I stepped inside the kitchen from the laundry room, I was surprised to see the breakfast dishes still sitting unwashed in the sink. A frying pan with shriveled remnants of fried egg clinging to its side still sat on a cold burner on the stove. Bits of a broken water glass glistened on the floor. The house was eerily quiet.

My first thought was the FBI had come for Mommi this time. They’d come for her before she’d had a chance to wash up the breakfast things, and had pulled her out of the house, just like they’d taken Papa, with handcuffs around her wrists. Max and I were alone. Our parents had been taken from us and now we were alone. Not only did we not have anyone; no one would want us, either.

Max hadn’t had the reaction from his classmates at the elementary school that I was having; his friends were more curious than appalled. But he had gotten the same accusing looks at the market and post office that Mommi and I had received. Even at the little Lutheran church where my parents were members, the predominantly German congregation avoided us for fear of guilt by association, and yet Max hadn’t seemed troubled that he, Mommi, and I could attend church and barely have a word of greeting spoken to us. But now he would know how terrible our situation was, when someone from the child welfare office came for him and me, as surely one would. I could already imagine that person coming up the front walk: a dour-faced older woman with pulled-back hair, a pinched face, a clipboard in her hand, and clunky black shoes on her pudgy feet that clicked when she walked. She would ask Max and me with a frown if we had any family who could take us in.

No, I would say.

No one? No one at all? she would reply, staring at me with condemning eyes.

All our family is in Germany, Max would probably say, and I’d wince, and the child welfare worker would shake her head in disgust and mark something on her clipboard.

I can’t promise I can keep you together, she was going to say. No one is going to want either one of you.

“Mommi?” I cried out, my voice dispelling this horrible vision. I moved through the kitchen and into the living room. A load of laundry half-folded lay on the sofa.

“Mommi?” I said, quieter this time, now afraid to shout her name and announce to the world that both my parents had been taken from me.

I took the staircase slowly, wanting to see for myself that the house was empty and dreading it at the same time. “Mommi?” I whispered as I climbed.

I peeked into my parents’ bedroom, my heart flip-flopping in my chest.

There was Mommi on her bed, sleeping in the middle of the day, a balled-up handkerchief in one hand. A sheaf of papers lay flattened under the elbow of her other arm.

Relief coursed through me but only for a moment. Somehow I knew those papers explained the unwashed dishes, the broken water glass, the sleeping form of my mother at three o’clock in the afternoon.

I walked toward her, willing her to awaken and tell me what those papers said. But she lay unmoving, except for the rise and fall of her chest. I leaned over and gently pulled the papers out from under her arm.

They were rumpled and tearstained and I could see right away they were official government papers. They included the warrant for my father’s arrest, the accusations against him, the results of a hearing he’d had in Des Moines—he’d been deemed a credible threat to the safety of the United States—and a declaration that he’d been remanded to Fort Lincoln, an internment camp outside of Bismarck, North Dakota, where he would be kept for the duration of the war. He could appeal. He could have visitors. But his bank accounts would continue to be frozen so that they could not be used to fund any kind of enemy activity on his behalf while he was incarcerated. Appeals could be directed to the attorney general of the United States, Francis Biddle.

I sank to the floor by the bed with the papers in my hand, my back resting against the mattress. I could feel the nubby chenille flowers on the bedspread through my shirt, like little fingertips tapping me on the back as I slid down to a hooked rug composed of all the prettiest shades of blue.

I didn’t know how far away Bismarck was, but I knew it had to be hundreds of miles. Hundreds. Mommi didn’t drive. We would not have the money for train tickets if Papa’s bank accounts were frozen. There would be no way of visiting Papa. He might as well have been sent to the North Pole. Even though it would be six months before I saw my father again, he never felt so lost to me as in that moment. Tears slipped unchecked down my face.

I was still sitting there many minutes later when I heard Max come into the house, slamming the side door as little boys tend to do when they come inside. Mommi stirred for a second and then relaxed.

I rose, folded the sheaf of papers, and set them neatly on her bedside table, rather than back under her arm. I wanted her to know I had seen them, that she didn’t have to find the words to tell me what they said. Then I scrubbed at my cheeks to whisk away the evidence that I’d been crying and headed downstairs.

Max had pulled off his stocking cap, and his curly blond hair was all askew, making him look as if he’d been caught up in a whirlpool. He was at the kitchen table, pulling papers, and then an apple core, and then a book out of his school satchel. His eyes brightened when he saw me enter the kitchen.

“Look!” he said, extending the book toward me so that I could see its cover. “It’s about cowboys! My teacher said I could have it. She got two by mistake.”

“How nice of her,” I said numbly, briefly looking at the cover and then bending down to carefully pick up the pieces of the glass.

“It has pictures and everything,” Max said, looking at the cover adoringly and not even curious about the broken glass. “I’m going to be a cowboy when I grow up.” He looked at me as though there was no question at all that he’d be a rancher astride a horse someday. “Where’s Mommi?”

I tossed the shards into the trash and then turned on the hot-water tap at the kitchen sink. “She’s resting.”

“I want to show her my book.”

“Later,” I said, squirting dish soap in the stream of water. “Let her rest.”

“Is she sick?”

I swished the soapy bubbles and slid the breakfast dishes into the water. They disappeared into the suds. “She’s just tired.”

Max pulled out a kitchen chair and sat down. “Can I have cookies?”

I wiped my wet hands on my skirt and opened the cabinet where Mommi kept the cereal and oatmeal and crackers and Nabisco gingersnaps. There was hardly anything in it. A box of Cream of Wheat. A package of rice. A tin of saltines.

I just stood there and stared, realizing what I should have grasped from the get-go. Papa wasn’t bringing home a paycheck. He’d been gone for two weeks already. His bank accounts had been frozen. Mommi hadn’t had many sewing jobs lately, and now she might not be able to attract any. The earth seemed to shift a little beneath my feet as all these truths fell over me. Mommi would run out of money. Maybe she already had.

“Look, Elise,” Max was saying. “This cowboy has a palomino. I want a palomino someday. I’m going to name him Peter Pan.”

As I turned to look at my brother, I closed the cabinet door. “How about toast and peanut butter?”

At that same moment, I saw Mommi at the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. She was looking at me, watching me close the cabinet door. She had the sheaf of papers in her hand. Max saw her, too.

“Mommi, look!” He held up his book. “Teacher said I could keep it.”

Mommi turned to look at Max and the gift, at the evidence that apparently good still happened in this world. Without a word, she sat down by my brother at the table to look at his book with him. The sheaf of papers she placed upside down next to her. I reached for the bread bin and pulled out the loaf Mommi had made yesterday and plugged in the toaster. Soon the kitchen was filled with the aroma of the toasting bread, nutty and sweet. I washed up the breakfast dishes as Max ate the toast and looked at the cowboy book with Mommi silent beside him.

When he was finished, Mommi stood up, picked up the papers, and thanked me for taking care of the dishes. She didn’t tell Max that day that Papa had been sent to a federal camp in North Dakota and that she didn’t know when he’d be coming home. She waited until the next day, when the novelty of having been given the book had worn off a bit, so that the news of Papa’s incarceration wouldn’t spoil it for him.

I never told my mother what Collette had said to me in the library, but then, I didn’t have to tell her. Collette stopped coming over to the house and I stopped going over to hers. Papa had always said Mommi had a tender soul, but I think what he’d really been trying to say all along was that Mommi was fragile. He had wanted me to be careful as I grew into a young woman, not to say things that would hurt her. I decided that day I would keep as much about school to myself as I could since Mommi already had so much to contend with.

That first month, Mommi found a way to keep food in the house, though not much of it. The heat was kept on, but only for a few hours a day—in the mornings when we got ready for school, and just before we went to bed. Mrs. Brimley started leaving a basket of food and staples on our doorstep on Sunday mornings. It was my job to take the empty basket back to her and to express our thanks. Mommi was so shamed at having to accept it, she could not face our neighbor. Mrs. Brimley would then invite me in and ask about Papa. Where was he? How long would he have to be there? How was my mother faring? How was she paying the bills? There was so much I didn’t know that I couldn’t answer most of her questions. I got the impression she felt it was her Christian duty to help us, but she was wondering how much longer she would have to keep doing it.

Papa’s transfer to the North Dakota internment camp meant to everyone in our little corner of Davenport that he was what the FBI said he was, the enemy. As the novelty of my family’s predicament wore off, I could tell that some of the kids in my school felt sorry for me, Collette especially, and they would glance at me with sad eyes. Even Agnes Finster, who I’d long suspected had taken my favorite hair ribbons out of my gym locker, gave me a sorrowful look as she silently handed them back to me. Other kids, mainly the same boys who tormented Artie, would walk past me in the hallways and murmur, “Dirty German.” The first time that happened, I was late for English because I’d spent ten minutes in the girls’ restroom savagely rubbing away my tears while telling myself I wasn’t a dirty anything. On another morning, a boy named Burt, who had always been relatively polite to me before Papa’s arrest, and who had a father serving in the military, told me as third period was ending and we were leaving the classroom that, when flying especially low, the German Luftwaffe liked to train their machine guns on playgrounds full of British children.

“Did you know that?” he said calmly but coolly. He held my gaze, as if daring me to say he was wrong.

“I’m an American,” I said, for lack of anything better to say and with my breath catching in my throat.

“And your father? What is he?”

Burt walked away and I yelled at his retreating back that my father was the kindest man I knew, that he’d never hurt anyone, and that he loved this country. Burt said nothing in return. He didn’t speak to me again that day or that week or the rest of the school year. As the weeks rolled on, Collette would find little moments now and then to tell me she missed me and was praying every day for the war to end so that my father could come home. But I was someone not to be seen with. I was the pariah now. Even Artie kept his distance from me. I was not the only girl in my school born of German immigrant parents; there were many others. But I was the only one whose father had been arrested and declared an enemy alien of the United States.

I was whatever anyone said I was, and I didn’t know how to be anyone else.





6



The daffodils that my mother had planted under the living room window years ago had just started to bloom on the day Max and I were informed we couldn’t live in our house anymore. Papa had been gone for three months. With a gaze on us like that of a sleepwalker, Mommi told us we’d be moving into a much smaller cottage on the eastern edge of Davenport, past the cemetery and nearly out to the highway. My brother and I had just arrived home from school and were sitting on the sofa. Outside, the world was slowly tossing off its winter cloak. The last of the snow had melted except for patches in the shaded places. I had seen six robins on my way home from school. It was the middle of April and they had taken their time coming back to us.

“Why?” Max had asked. “Why are we moving? This is our house.”

“It’s not,” Mommi replied in a toneless voice I didn’t recognize. “Someone else owns it. We’ve just been paying them to live here.”

I knew we were losing the house because of money. Rent was owed on the house and we couldn’t pay it. Mommi had applied for state assistance three weeks after Papa was taken. A little while after that, checks from the government started showing up in our mailbox, along with letters from Papa and correspondence from the many people Papa told Mommi to write on his behalf. Mommi’s eyes would glisten with tears when one of those checks was in the mail. She both hated them and needed them. By the time she started getting them she’d already sold Papa’s car and the good china and the silver tea service Oma and Opa had given my parents as a wedding gift. She had even sent a letter to Cousin Emil back in New York asking for help, but he’d written back that he couldn’t get involved and risk his own standing as a recently naturalized citizen. He had told Mommi not to write to him again.

Knowing all of this, and especially how much she hated those checks, I nevertheless reminded her that she was getting them when she told us about the house.

Mommi turned her empty gaze to me. “They’re not enough, Elise. I can’t pay the landlord and the heating bill and the electric company and then feed and clothe us on what they send. It’s not enough. And who knows if they will keep sending them.”

She blinked long and slow, like she wanted to disappear into dreamland and never wake up.

“But . . . but this is our home,” I said, and then immediately wished I hadn’t. It was like a blade to my mother’s chest, hearing that. She flinched.

“It’s just a house,” she said, turning her face from me. “Papa said we’ll get another one. A better one. With a wraparound porch.”

Mommi had always wanted a big porch with baskets of impatiens hanging from its eaves and wooden rockers and a swing. Papa had said someday he’d make sure she had one.

“Papa knows about this?” I said.

That comment, too, seemed to inflict a wound.

“We’ll get another house,” she said again, in a monotone that was clearly an echo of what he surely had written her to say to Max and me.

My brother and I didn’t see the letters Papa wrote to her solely, only the ones he sent to all three of us, which were frequent but brief. He usually wrote to us about what he and the other internees did for entertainment and recreation, and what they ate, and how much he missed us. Fort Lincoln was like a little city where everyone found something they could do within the fences and did it. Papa taught English language lessons to fellow internees in the mornings and worked in the camp kitchen in the afternoon. All the days were the same, though, so Papa’s letters were all pretty much the same. He was well. He was not being mistreated. We were not to worry about him. We would be together again soon and we’d go for picnics again on Credit Island down by the river and have swim races at the Natatorium.

I knew the letters he wrote to Mommi had to be different, so when I had happened upon one a few weeks earlier, addressed just to her, my hand reached for it. She had forgotten it on the coffee table when she left the house to take Max to a dentist appointment. And even though I knew I shouldn’t have, I read it. It was short, in English, and it had clearly been read and stamped by camp officials, like all his other letters had been. Half of the note was one long plea for Mommi not to despair, to stay strong, to not give in to hopelessness. The other half was a request that she keep looking for avenues to bolster his appeal. He’d requested that she try writing to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, as he’d heard she was sympathetic to the plight of innocent and interned Germans and Japanese immigrants. Nothing good had transpired from any letter to Mrs. Roosevelt that I could see.

Three days later a couple of Papa’s friends from the lab at Boyer AgriChemical helped us move our furniture out of the gray and white house. These two men, George and Stan, were Papa’s closest friends at work, and their wives had always been friendly to Mommi. But my father’s arrest had changed their opinion of him. I could see this in their eyes. Papa had no doubt reached out to them and begged them to help us move, and they had done so, but even I could see they helped us not so much because Papa asked them to but because they pitied Mommi and what Papa’s actions had done to her.

Mommi had sold enough things, like the empty china cabinet, that there were fewer boxes and pieces of furniture than there might have been if the war had never come and we’d just decided to move to a different house on our own. One with a wraparound porch, perhaps.

The cottage was on the outskirts of town, and it wasn’t really a cottage. I’d pictured a storybook house with ivy shoots trailing up its stone walls and teacup roses in its window boxes, but the place was just a minuscule house with two small bedrooms and a kitchen and living room that had no wall between them. One tiny bathroom. The front yard was a tangled mess of dead weeds, last year’s tulip stems and a lopsided peony bush that no one had trimmed in years. The backyard was an open stretch of crabgrass that looked out onto a row of distant poultry barns. You could hardly call it a backyard except that there was a weathered clothesline arising out of a patch of dirt, suggesting there was a house with people in it a few feet away. The cottage’s inside walls needed paint and the kitchen stove looked like someone had butchered and barbecued a whole pig on top of it. The curtains on the windows were thin and gray. I was pretty sure there had been a time when they were white.

After George and Stan brought in the last bed and put it together, they hightailed it out of there, probably to go home and tell their wives what that dirty German Otto Sontag had done to his family, how awful the pigsty was we were living in now. I wanted to shout after them that they were terrible friends to think what the FBI said of Papa was true. I wanted to throw rocks at Stan’s truck and scream at them both that my father would’ve stood by either one of them if they’d been falsely accused of something.

Mommi told me I could sleep with her in her room or share the second little bedroom with Max. She was sorry she couldn’t give me my own room. She was very sorry. Very, very sorry. I wondered if maybe she wanted me to sleep with her so that she wouldn’t have to be alone every night. But when I asked her which room she wanted me to choose, she just stared at me for a moment and shook her head. She couldn’t answer me. She didn’t want to have to make any more decisions. About anything.

“I’ll sleep with Max,” I said, too afraid to be in the dark with her and her dark thoughts.

Max and I had room only for our beds in the second room. We put our bureaus in the front room where Mommi might have set up the china cabinet if we still had it. Anything we didn’t need or use or play with anymore we had sold or given away, but even so, the little house filled up quickly. Max held on to his cowboy book pretty much from the time Mommi told us we were moving until he and I crawled into our beds that night, and even then, he put it under his pillow. He surely felt the same tug on everything that was ours that Mommi and I did, even upon our very identities. Whatever it was that was taking everything from us would not get the cowboy book. Not that.

I awoke to a strange sound that first night in the cottage—a scraping and moaning noise that was all that I’d imagined a ghost would sound like. For several seconds I just lay there in my bed listening, afraid to move, afraid to breathe. We had moved into a haunted shack, I thought. That’s why no one else had been living in this dump. The previous occupants had been run off by the ghost and everyone but us knew that they’d charged out of here screaming at the top of their lungs.

The terrible sound stopped for a moment and then started again, and the second time, it sounded less like a ghost and more like an animal caught and struggling in a metal trap. I looked over to Max, but he was fast asleep, his mouth slightly open, his blond curls tousled about his face.

I got out of bed, padded over to the door, and opened it as quietly as I could. The strange sound was coming from the front room just beyond the tiny hallway. Mommi’s bedroom door was open, too, her bed empty. I peeked around the corner and stopped. Mommi was leaning over that horrible stove with a spatula in her hand, hacking away at the burned remnants of surely every meal that had ever been cooked on it. The flecks were flying everywhere. And she was both crying and grunting with the force she had to exert to separate the splattered whatever from the stove’s top. The cries and the grunting were like one sound that there is no word for. From my bed it had sounded like a ghost’s wail or a hurt animal’s keening, but just a few yards away it sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before.

I needed Papa in that moment. I needed to ask him what I should do. Should I go to Mommi and tell her not to worry, that everything would be all right? But what if she’d hate forever that I had seen her this way? Maybe she wanted my arms around her. Or maybe she wanted instead to have just a few private minutes of brutal honesty about how she was feeling. If I went to her, she would stop what she was doing, and the rest of what she was letting out right now she’d have to suck back in. She’s a tender soul, Papa had told me.

“What should I do, Papa?” I whispered so quietly I barely heard the words myself. What would be best?

In that moment I began to see that there are times when there is no best choice. There is only this choice and that choice, and both are terrible. Mariko and I used to lie on our backs on the basketball court after the sun had gone down and look at the unfenced stars in the Texas sky—Mariko loved looking at the sky, night or day—and ponder how we were going to get Calista out of that sorcerer’s tower. It seemed like there was no best way to get her out, so I suggested Mariko write a new character to rescue her. Mariko told me Calista wasn’t a girl waiting for a prince to rescue her. She was a warrior. She had to find the way herself. The best way. “There has to be a way,” Mariko had said. We just hadn’t been given enough time to figure out what it was.

In the end I went back to my bed and let my mother have it out with that beast of a stove. In the morning, it looked a little better and she looked a little worse. That night I slipped into bed with her after she turned out her light and told her I thought maybe I would take turns. One night with Max, one night with her, and so on.

In the moonlight that swung low over our pillows, I saw a hint of a smile tug at Mommi’s lips. “You look like your Papa, you know,” she said.

I had heard that before, but always from other people. Not from her.

“I miss him.” Those sad words fell off my tongue as easy and quick as raindrops from the sky. I wondered if hearing me say those words that way would make her jump out of bed and start up again at the stove. But she just touched my face with her hand and said she missed him, too.

“It’s not fair,” I said. And I didn’t have to explain what I meant. She knew.

“No, it’s not,” she said.

And we didn’t say anything else to each other. We both fell asleep, and as far as I knew, we both slept until morning.

Max and I lived far enough away now to need to ride the bus to school, which became a new kind of humiliation for me. Most of the kids on the bus figured out pretty quickly who Max and I were. My brother probably could have sat with one of the other boys his age, as they seemed more forgiving, but he chose to sit with me. He had asked me a few weeks earlier why we didn’t have friends over to the house anymore and why no one was asking us to come over to their houses, and I’d explained as best I could that people are afraid of what they don’t understand.

“It’s because Papa got arrested and sent away, isn’t it? Everybody thinks he’s a bad man,” he’d said.

I had only been able to nod. Because he was right. That was the reason, plain and simple.

“Everybody’s wrong,” he’d said, and then commenced to draw a picture of a palomino horse. The question between us had been answered as far as he was concerned.

I think he knew I’d be sitting alone on the bus if he sat with someone else. That first day he and I sat up front, in the seat with a tear in it so no one else wanted to sit there. Over the next few days it became our seat. There are no averted or accusing eyes to put up with when you take the first seat on a bus because you don’t ever have to walk down that long aisle, past people who think they know you.

My fourteenth birthday arrived a week after we moved to the cottage. Collette was the only friend who remembered, or who was brave enough to wish me a happy birthday. She gave me a present, too—a necklace with my initial on a dangling pendant. Mommi made an apple strudel as my birthday cake and she somehow managed to scrape up enough extra money to buy me new pajamas and furry cat-shaped slippers. Papa sent me a deck of playing cards, each card having been signed with a birthday message from the other men in the camp.

The day was better than I thought it would be, but I was so lonely for friendship, anyone’s friendship. I decided I would shove that isolation out of my mind by taming the cottage yards so that they’d be beautiful when Papa came home. Somehow, I would get ivy to trail up those decrepit walls and teacup roses to bloom under the windows.

I went into town and begged Mrs. Brimley to let me wash her windows so that I could earn money to buy flower seeds. She ended up giving me cuttings from her own yard, as well as paying me to wash her windows.

Hope began to rise within me as spring leaned into summer and the two yards began to look like someone cared for them. The end of school was nearing, which meant I wouldn’t have to be alone in a sea of people. At the cottage, we were far enough from the main city streets to avoid prolonged contact with people who didn’t really want to be seen with us. There was a swimming hol