It was too late for there to be voices downstairs, but she heard them anyway. Like any other imaginative young child her age, she stayed tucked into her bed until she could confirm that she was not listening to ghosts. It was her father, and she could tell by his coughing during interval pauses in the conversation. Her mother had once told her that it was the smoking.
Curious – and able to use a thirst for a glass of water as an acceptable excuse for being up at this hour – the girl crept out from under her scratchy sheets and tip-toed down the manor’s staircase. Each step seemed louder than the last and seemed to reverberate through every wall. Once, the conversation came to an abrupt halt and the girl froze, the toe of her slipper hovering delicately above the final step. Another man, a strange voice, continued.
Behind the doorframe came only two recognizable voices: one from the girl’s father and the other from her older brother. The other two voices seemed somewhat familiar, possibly neighbors, but they could not conjure an image in the girl’s mind. The girl opened her mouth to ask for a glass of –
– “…water! That’s where they threw him! I saw it on a poster and I knew… I knew something was wrong!”
“Quiet, Luther!” snapped the girl’s father. There was a brief silence. “Who was thrown into the river?”
“Ernst, have you not seen any of the papers this morning?”
The girl recalled her father burning a few issues to warm her when the cold had become quite unbearable.
“Do not expect me to. I will not read their nonsense. I guarantee that the news was only to frighten—”
“No. It is real,” said the girl’s brother. The girl peeked her head to see him drinking a glass of wine. His eyes were puffy and red. His knuckles were scabbed and swollen and his cheekbone was bruising. “I saw the body at the bay. However, I can’t go back there. They told me.”
The girl wanted to throw herself into her brother’s arms. She was no longer curious, but scared. She hadn’t seen him this day until now, and he seemed like he had been badly beaten. She wanted to run in and make the other two men leave. She hadn’t realized that her lips had gone dry.
“They will not hesitate to kill any seditious man. They have drowned more men, I am sure of it. And maybe they’ve shot others. His wife…”
“Klappe! To hell with the wife! It’s only the men they will punish,” her father shouted at his son, pounding his fist on the dining table. He sighed and looked up above him with weary eyes. The girl’s bedroom was directly above.
“No, Ernst!” This stranger had a very heavy accent. He was most definitely a native, living in this country far longer than the girl and her family. The girl sat down quietly and listened more closely.
“What do you mean to tell me, Hermann?” There was an unwonted fury in her father’s throat. Perhaps it was still the smoke. “Will they come after my daughter? After I’ve done what they told and I’ve worn this damn star… they are still going to kill us?”
A silence permeated into the room, making the girl twitch. Her teeth began to chatter. The girl dropped her head and picked the golden star off her chest.
“Ernst, Hermann… we cannot predict what will happen,” said the second stranger in an eerily calm tone. “There are millions of us and they could not possibly grow enough to match that number.” The man rose and coughed. “Put your cigar down, Ernst, bitte. That smoke will cloud your damn mind.”
The two mysterious men exited out of the back kitchen door and a gust of freezing winter wafted into the hallway.
“You will not tell her. You cannot.”
The girl stood in the schoolyard with her hands buried in her pockets and her star buried under her scarf. A boy, freckled and mischievous, saw the glint of the gold from a corner that peeked out and ran to rip it off the girl’s coat.
“Give it back!” the girl began to cry.
“Why would you want this back?”
“My Papa says I have to wear it.” The girl jumped on the boy and punched him in the nose. The nearest instructor ripped the girl off the boy and pulled her by her hair to the corner of the yard. Two soldiers who had been pacing back and forth before the school’s gates heard the commotion and ran over to the girl.
“Was ist los? What did she do?”
“Some ‘K***’s’ daughter beat that boy,” squealed the teacher.
The girl saw the red bands.
The gates closed behind the girl, her brother, and her mother. Her father was gone. Around the three of them were red bands and blue and white stripes. The stars were gone. The world had gone gray and the last bit of humanity the girl had seen had sifted as ash into the dust beneath her feet. Her life was gone. Everything was gone.
by Christian Gann, 16, Seoul American High School, Seoul, South Korea