This story is by Jennifer Chance and was a runner-up in our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Jennifer Chance is a high school student in Indonesia who spends her days crafting worlds of her own. She enjoys dark, twisted stories rooted in social commentaries and flawed characters — and her biggest dream is to start a fictional writing career that explores humanitarian issues.
A jittery stillness shrouded the streets of Berlin. From where he stood, the dull glow from searchlights formed ghosts on the Wall, their bodies twisted and skeletal. Werner threw his cigarette to the ground, relishing the hiss which followed as it melted the snow. Its flame, small and flickering, died in an instant. He was itching to look down at his watch — to count how much longer he had to wait — but stopped himself. Seeing the time would make it real.
Instead, he concentrated on the surrounding buildings, which were hunched downwards as if exhausted. No light could be found — the tenants had nailed their windows shut with wood because the Vopo didn’t want anyone jumping to the West. He missed being able to see into their homes, though; he liked to spend his shifts watching figures walk to and fro, seeing their lives unfold, imagining their stories. Now, there was only the darkness.
He remembered one of the first jumpers — the youngest — from a few months ago. When they examined the body afterwards, his face was ruined from colliding with the Wall, and they couldn’t tell what he’d looked like. Werner, however, liked to think he was handsome before. With blue eyes and a high nose, perhaps. And maybe his cheeks always had a rosy blush, and the girls in his school liked him because of it.
Werner often wondered what had gone through the boy’s mind as his feet left the windowpane and propelled him into the sky, free and without chains. Did he think of falling, of death? Or did he, in his last moments, see into the other side, where perhaps people stared back and smiled, waving? Werner was making his rounds at the checkpoint when it all happened, and he had seen the boy fly, black hair sweeping around him, the sun hitting his body and making him shine. Werner could never forget the sound of shattering bones.
A hand landed on his shoulder and he jerked. Alek was behind him, his moustache quivering as his teeth gnawed into a cigarette.
“Rather uneventful night, ja? We’re taking our break near the bar, if you’d like to come,” Alek offered. Werner shook his head, and his friend waved before walking away. That meant it was almost time.
His worries continued to grow. There, under the Wall, was a small gaping hole he had dug all day. They could make it through in a matter of minutes if they acted fast. He curled and uncurled his fists, walking back and forth to dispel some of the excitement.
Finally, footsteps sounded from ahead of him, and he saw two figures approaching. One was an old man with a curved spine, his hand pressing down on a cane; he walked by leaning on the girl, who had on a thick coat that made her look like a shifting ball of cloth. Her braided hair formed a crown around her head, and her big, almond eyes swept through the place, watching for danger. She was beautiful but also fragile; he knew, beneath the layers of clothing she had on, her body was so thin it was nothing more than an assembly of bones, and her cheekbones protruded like jagged ends of cliffs. It was Henri, who used to clean his house every week, and his daughter, Rosemarie. When they saw him, they nodded. He walked to where the building cast a shadow so the sentries could not see him.
“You’re late,” he whispered, hugging them both.
“Papa got sicker, so we had to move slowly,” Rosemarie answered. Werner could hear the slight tremor in her voice, and knew she was afraid. The joyful young girl who used to sit on Werner’s lap as he read stories was gone. He pretended not to notice, and pointed at the section of the Wall.
“That’s where it is. You only have about a minute, Rosemarie. The guards are taking a break, but you should still be quick, versteht?”
She nodded and turned back to her father to murmur something in his ear. Hand in hand, the two stepped into the light while he remained. Werner’s chest started to drum. He half-expected some guard to come running out, firing his luger, killing them all — but there was nothing. They continued to walk — taking slow, halting steps — towards the Wall, their bodies shuffling and stumbling but moving ever the closer.
They stopped in front of the white expanse of concrete and crouched over, their hands locating the crevice. There was a hushed argument for some time — about who would go first, Werner knew — and Henri seemed to have lost because he started crawling, his body squirming on the ground as he tried to fit through the hole.
Werner heard the old man pant and cough, a rattle-like sound that grew louder and louder. His mind went back to Rosemarie’s pleas a few days ago, as she wiped the blood from her father’s lips. He will die, Werner. I will have no one. At that moment she looked like paper, wrinkled and torn at the edges, ready to collapse from every passing wind. His heart ached. Perhaps, a doctor on the other side could help, but …
Shouts exploded around him, stripping the image from his mind. It was quick, sudden, as if a bubble had burst and he was hearing sounds that had always been there. It left him dazed for a moment, but then he saw guards running towards the escapees, gleaming black metal in their hands, and everything came rushing back.
A searchlight blazed. Hot, blinding, it landed on the two. More barks from the guards erupted into the night, the voices drowning them all in panic. Rosemarie spun towards him, a look of sheer terror on her face, but he didn’t know what to do. They were losing time. She forced her father’s body into the crack, but he couldn’t fit.
Inside, Werner was screaming for her to leave him behind. She could pass through in a matter of seconds and be safe, but he knew she would never do that. There was a still between the moments — between the firing of guns and the brief period of nothing — and it was during that time that Werner knew he could pull them back. He could, and they would survive. His body started moving and he was almost out of the shadows when he remembered the guards were closing in — that they might see him.
He felt his feet shift, and the darkness shrouded him again as he pedaled away from the light. Henri was no longer clawing at the ground, although his daughter was. She moved with the rapidity of a rabid animal about to be caught. He, on the other hand, was sitting down, staring at Werner. He had seen him move back to safety, and hurt wrote itself over the old man’s eyes.
“Get her!” he yelled. He pulled his daughter from the ground then, and raised her above his head in Werner’s direction, ignoring her frantic shrieks. The old man’s voice broke as he said, “Take her back.”
But Werner did nothing. Fear had overwhelmed him; it was real now. And he couldn’t move, couldn’t act. He found himself not wanting to. Henri watched him, and whispered something he couldn’t hear. He was certain it was please.
At that moment Rosemarie looked at him, too — her eyes were pleading, tears running down their sides. His whole body yearned to move forward and take her away, to bring her back. It was his fault. He had promised to help them.
But he stood still.
When at last the guns rang, he found a sick sort of relief because he didn’t have to keep choosing himself over them, and he felt even sicker as he watched their bodies contort and fall — Henri over the girl, his arms around her in a protective gesture. Their last scream still hung in the air — still echoed in his ears. From the blacks of their jackets a crimson flower began to bloom, spreading across their torsos, mixing with the snow and forming a pinkish puddle.
He ran then — not towards them but away. Away from the Wall, from the falling buildings, from the reality of his betrayal. Away, he hoped, from himself. The girl’s almond eyes burned into his skull and he stopped somewhere to throw up, but then he was running again. The world clouded around him.
His mind went back to the jumper. This was the same rush he must have felt as he took the leap — as he surged high enough to feel the clouds on his palms, to think, for a moment, of safety — before his body plummeted. But Werner realised that could not be, because unlike the boy, his feet never left the ground.