She hung the clean gauze over the arm of the chair and glanced at her brother on the bed. His eyes were closed.
Settling into the old wooden chair, she put the paper on the end table next to the lamp, cupped the damaged lace in her hand like she always did and sighed. She then wrote down the words that tormented her soul.
The howl of the wind outside stopped her. Most noises made her jumpy. She set the lace on the table to continue pouring her heart out on paper.
As she penned the last word of her poem her brother leaped off the bed. “The secret bell,” he whispered, face ashen. “Hide!”
The words in her head must have masked the bell’s quiet ring. Springing from her seat, she dropped the pen.
Thankfully it landed on the rug instead of clattering over the hardwood floor.
They had rehearsed this a dozen times since arriving in Haarlem, but this time it felt different. Paralyzed, all she could think of were the secret police.
With less than a minute to get into their hiding place, her brother pushed her. “You have to get in first.” His hands shook as he crumpled the poem she left on the table. He shoved it inside the hole near the lamp cord then hid the lace in the vase’s lid. “My shoes,” he whispered.
The roles had reversed. Usually she concealed the items while he fretted in slow motion for his blanket and shoes.
She slid open the trap door in the false bedframe and quickly crawled in. He crouched next to the bed and handed her the warm blanket he had been lying on. She grabbed it and scooted over the rough planks. The box’s narrow space was like a coffin–suffocating and dark.
Her brother settled next to her and slid the door shut. She did her best to position the warm blanket under his head. He winced. His head dressing needed changing.
She gasped. Was the gauze still on the arm of the chair?
Lifting his hand slightly, the linen brushed against her bare arm. She sighed knowing they had left no trace behind. Footsteps echoed on the stairs and she held her breath again.
Her brother whispered, “It will be okay. Just hold still.”
Where had his confidence come from? And where had hers gone? He was older, but ever since the accident she had taken the lead role. Until now.
Slowly turning her head, she saw the familiar outline of the childhood doll she kept safely in the corner. It needed to be thrown away. It was old and partially burned, but she couldn’t part with it. Especially now, under these circumstances. It held memories of those she loved, like her baby sister, and her parents whom she might not ever see again.
A floorboard squeaked.
She couldn’t see the heavy studded boots that clomped over the wooden floor but she knew her brother could see a shadow through the slats. Her hands shook so she held them close to her chest and squeezed her eyes shut. Holding her breath didn’t stop the tears from seeping out of the corners of her eyes.
Would the made bed fool the officer?
The bed creaked. He must have been feeling for body heat.
Glad that the blanket was hidden with them, she still wondered if it was enough to conceal their presence.
Her brother tensed when the officer cleared his throat. How close was he? His cigarette smoke wafted through the cracked boards.
Her heart ached––she couldn’t handle these threats anymore. If we get caught, she thought, I will end my life. Why live with such fear?
The warmth of her brother’s arm eased her bleak thoughts. She couldn’t give up so easily. She had to make sure he made it to Heerlen first. He needed his sister, and she had promised her father she would take care of him. He deserved medical attention after standing up to the Nazis in the February strike.
She would do whatever was in her power to ensure there would not be another death in the family. One was bad enough.
Pain throbbed through my toe after smashing it into the bedframe. I hobbled over to the lamp to turn it on, but tripped over the rug. The lamp tumbled to the floor.
I threw my arms out to try to catch it, but I was too late.
Way to go Annaliese.
I turned on the light and knelt down to collect the shattered pieces of the vase that were scattered next to the Dutch lamp that had fallen at the same time.
The university had arranged for me to stay at this bed and breakfast and I was destroying it, all for a simple glass of water. I half expected Cornelia, the cute eighty-something-year-old owner, to come asking in her broken English if I was all right. But thankfully she didn’t.
Glancing back at the mess on the floor, I noticed a strange doily was tucked inside the lip of the vase lid. I pulled it out gently. Ribbon, on a doily?
The left corner was burned and the thin ribbon was sewed on one side. I held the bumpy fabric in my hands. How odd. Why would anyone stuff this in the lid of a vase?
I glanced back at the door one more time. When everything remained quiet except for the humming of the wind outside I set the lamp back on the table and picked up the broken pieces. Breaking this vase left me feeling like a criminal. Thinking of the FBI Identification Record I had to fill out to enter the country I turned off the light and hobbled to the bed with the doily and lid in my hand. My thirst would have to wait. Cornelia had said earlier that she was a light sleeper and I didn’t dare make anymore sounds.
She was quite the talker and her words rang in my ears. “Though I’m not the original owner of the home, many of the items date back to the early 1930s.”
While dwelling on my bad luck, I tucked myself back under the covers of the tall bed. More than likely I wouldn’t find a vase like the one I had broken, and my funds would quickly dry up if I didn’t get my international fellowship paperwork completed. I’d already paid my first tuition installment, living allowance, and research fees which had cost more than I expected. I thumbed over the doily for a moment then stuffed it back into the lid and placed it next to the alarm clock.
Because of her age Cornelia had stopped renting out the place, but made an exception in my case since she was a friend of Professor De Vries. He headed the exchange program at Wageningen University, where I would be involved in the Plant Research International program better known as PRI. I appreciated how Professor De Vries had stepped in and helped straighten out some issues I had with my student visa. The consulate kept giving me conflicting information and the professor was my last resort. I hoped my vase accident didn’t make him second guess my abilities. I wasn’t clumsy––normally. The professor had to know by my efforts that I wanted to be in the Netherlands more than anything in the world.
Professor De Vries insisted I stay in Haarlem when I arrived, after hearing I was of Dutch descent. “It’s more personable,” he said.
Knowing I was in the Netherlands made me happy and I didn’t want anything to stand in my way of being here.
I closed my eyes. My expectations of seeing people clop around in their wooden clogs while donning their colorful aprons and caps stemmed from my preschool days. I could see the picture my mother kept on the mantel of me in a Dutch costume. My preschool teacher thought I would represent Holland well. “Her pale skin, blond hair, and blue eyes will work perfectly.”
At the preschool graduation, my parents were both in tears watching me clank around the stage singing, “It’s a Small World After All.”
Since my father was named after his grandfather who originated from Holland, my mom kept saying, “Can you believe they picked her to be the Dutch girl? What a coincidence.”
Now that I rested under a Dutch roof, I wondered if things really happened for a reason. But I dismissed the thought the second I dwelled on the crushed vase I would have to try to replace. I glanced at the alarm clock next to my bed. Three more hours until daylight.