Trains only go one way

by Genya Johnson

Poland 1942

    'Train journey, did he really say "train journey"?'

   Luka was so excited. He felt giddy and wanted to run, to shout and to tell everyone about what was going to happen. Just hearing those words brought magic to his ears. He'd never been on a train before and now all his dreams were going to come true.

   Already he was thinking about the things he would pack in his suitcase. Not that he had much left now. Not since things changed, but he had a good feeling about today. Nothing that felt this right could go wrong.

   He put his ear back to the floorboards and listened. Maybe there was more.

   The men were telling his mama to hurry. Two bags and enough food for the journey was all she could take. The men downstairs must have lots of money, thought Luka. Mama would never have been able to afford train tickets. Not now.

   Luka tiptoed to another part of the floor. He knew there was a gap so you could see into the room downstairs. He saw his mama. She wasn't smiling, though. In fact she looked nervous. Maybe she didn't want the men to see how happy she really was. Then he saw the soldiers all smart in their uniforms and their big, black shiny boots.

   The voices stopped. The soldiers were looking up at the ceiling. Luka got up quickly and hurried back into the hiding place. Mama would be furious if she knew he had come out. He pulled the covering back and put the catch on just like his papa had shown him. As he sat down, heavy footsteps rushed up the stairs and came into the room. He could hear them tapping the walls and the floor. They opened something then slammed it shut again. They were getting closer to his hiding place. He could hear their heavy boots getting nearer and nearer. Luka held his breath as metal hit the concrete walls around him.

   The banging stopped and the footsteps hurried back down the stairs. He let his breath out slowly then breathed in and out, trying to calm himself down. He didn't know why he was scared but his papa had made him promise never to make a single sound when he was in the hiding place.

   When everything was quiet again, Luka started his counting. He always counted to a hundred. Usually his mama would be back before he got to the last number. Then he would wait for the three tiny knocks so he could pull the latch off. That was the best part. Her smiling face and words telling him how brave he was. Seventy-seven, seventy-eight, not many more numbers left to count now…a hundred.

   There was silence. Maybe she had started packing and forgotten about him.

   He thought back to the voices he had heard. They had definitely mentioned the train, a better life and a camp. He didn't really want a new life, but the camp bit sounded interesting. He just hoped it would be like the Summer Camp he'd gone to a few years ago. That had been brilliant. Mama hadn't wanted him to go but papa said it would do him good. Papa had been right. He had loved every minute of it. When he got back, he told papa all about it.

   He had been so excited to get to school and tell his teacher about the holiday. Then he remembered that horrible day. It was the same day the new teacher came. He had just started telling his teacher about the camp when two men came in with an older woman. His teacher was told to take her things and leave. Just like that.

   Luka hated the new teacher. She told the children that every time someone came into the classroom, they had to stand up and say "Heil Hitler".

   He never liked the new teacher and she never liked him either. He remembered the day when she had asked everyone in the class to explain what they wanted to be when they grew up. Luka's hand shot straight into the air.

   "Yes, Luka, and what would you like to be when you grow up?" asked the teacher.

   "A writer, I want to be a writer", said Luka.

   That's when everyone started laughing. He didn't know why they were laughing. He hadn't said anything funny. Everyone was pointing at him and pulling silly faces at him.

   The teacher stared at him with disgust. "Put your hand down. I was talking about proper jobs."

   Just thinking about it made him shiver.

   It was getting cold. The dampness had started creeping through the stone floor, making his bottom numb. He decided to count again but the rumbling in his stomach had started to annoy him. He hated it when it did that. It reminded him of thunder. Mama said it was because they had to eat different things now. He didn't know why they ate different food but he did know there wasn't much of it. Some days he felt as if he had hardly eaten anything.

   The time dragged on and on. The more he waited, the more scared he got. Mama had never been this long before. He was feeling sickly inside and the knots in his stomach were getting bigger and bigger.

   Carefully he took the catch off. He stopped and listened. Nothing. He quietly pushed against the slab. The room was in darkness. Trying to miss the squeaky floorboards, he made his way to the door and with sweaty hands he turned the handle and pushed it slowly open. "Mama."


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