Maggie de Vries
Hunger Journeys - by Maggie de Vries

Hunger Journeys

Sofie dropped her suitcase, grasped Lena’s right arm in both hers and huddled halfway behind her.

“I’m going to be sick,” she murmured.

This should not be happening, Lena thought, and for a moment she wanted nothing more than to slap the other girl, to slap her as hard as she could. It occurred to her that this was not the first time she had longed to slap her friend. This time, though, she had more reason. Instead, she ignored Sofie altogether, kept her head low and looked around as best she could.

The room was large, and it buzzed with activity. Many men and several women sat at half a dozen oversized wooden desks speaking on telephones, barking instructions, again all in German, and typing loudly. No one paid any attention to the two girls.

Sofie tugged at Lena’s arm. Lena raised her head slightly and took a deep breath. “Please,” she said in German, “my friend needs a toilet.” The loud voices and the typing carried on just as before.

The door at the far end of the room opened and three men entered, one of them the smiling soldier who had kissed Sofie moments before. Phones clattered onto receivers. Typing ceased. People froze.

“Well, well, well, what have we here?” said the largest of the men. His uniform showed his high rank, but even without it, he would have commanded attention. The other two men stood on either side and a little behind him, smirking. Lena’s own stomach clutched at itself. Was she going to be sick too?

“We are going to Rheine, sir,” Lena said, willing her voice to cross the expanse of the room.

“Ahh! They are going to Rheine,” the man said, looking to each side as he spoke, informing the room. Everyone laughed obligingly. He turned back to Lena and Sofie. “First, that is a lie. You are not trying to take a train to Germany. Second, your papers are false. Do you think you can trump up false papers and just walk onto one of our trains?”

“I … no, sir,” Lena said.

“Where are you really going?”

Lena looked at the ground. “Almelo,” she whispered.

“Lena,” Sofie said urgently in Dutch, “I’m going to be sick.”

“Almelo,” the man echoed. “Well, you don’t have much to say for yourself, do you?” He thought for a moment. “But then you are young. You have much to learn.”

Lena looked up and met his eyes. She didn’t know why she looked at him, but she did. He looked back; his eyes locked with hers. There was something very scary in his face. Lena knew it. She could see it clear as day. This was a man who had done terrible things and would not hesitate to do more terrible things.

“You are a pretty little thing, aren’t you?” he said. “And you got all dressed up to come see us today. Such a lovely little hat!”

Lena’s hand flew to her head, and the man laughed. He knew exactly what he had done. She had loved that hat, and now it was ruined. He might as well have trampled it into the mud.

Bring them into my office,” he said. And he turned and disappeared through the door.

The other two men stepped forward and grabbed an arm each. They shoved Lena and Sofie ahead of them. Lena looked around frantically as she stumbled forward, her arm twisted behind her. Was there no one here who would help them? But no one was looking anymore. Everyone had returned to work. Or, no, there was one man, way in the back, staring at her. She couldn’t read his look. She had never seen one like it before. But it didn’t scare her like the look the officer had given her.

“Ah,” the big man said, looking up from a desk that would have dwarfed the desks in the next room. “Now we have a little privacy.” Lena and Sofie stood side by side a metre or so in front of the desk. The two other officers stood behind them, one on either side of the door. Slowly, the man rose, walked around the desk and leaned against it, close to them. “I am willing to help you,” he said, smiling. Lena looked up at him. She had never seen anyone look less helpful. “A train leaves the station early tomorrow. It will take you to Almelo.” His voice was oily. Nasty. Lena blinked. It was as if he was licking her with his voice. How could that be? she wondered, and she took a tiny step back.

Something about what he had said seemed wrong. Everyone knew that the trains now traveled only in the dark. Surely a train would not depart first thing in the morning. It didn’t make sense. She felt her brow knit, and she longed to step back, out of reach of this evil man.

“You don’t trust me, do you?” he said. “Here I am trying to help you and you act as if I am hurting you.” He closed his fingers around her wrist and tugged her close again. “Well, you are right that I am not offering you something for nothing. These gentlemen and I have rooms down the street. And you have many hours to pass before your train leaves. You will come with us, you two, you will come with us to our rooms to while away the time until morning. There,” he said, releasing her, “is that too much to ask: a little company in exchange for a train trip all the way across the country?”

Lena’s stomach heaved. He wanted them to sleep with him and the other men. On her arms and her back, Lena’s skin tightened. Her thoughts tore around in her head, but she could find no escape, just deeper and deeper fear.

“Please,” Sofie said, loudly now, no longer whispering in Lena’s ear, “I’m sick.” And she bent over and retched.

“Sir,” Lena said, “is there a toilet. My friend is sick.”

“A silly trick,” he said. “There is a toilet back at our rooms. You can wait.”

And Sofie vomited, her hands on her knees, her hair swinging into her face. They had had nothing to eat since their departure, so she was throwing up thin clear liquid, but it splashed off the stone floor and onto the cuffs of the officer’s pants.

“You little bitch!” the man shouted and raised his arm. Lena wrapped her arms around Sofie and pulled her backward, out of his reach.

“She’s really sick,” she said. “She was throwing up before too. Please, can’t you let us go?”

He lowered his arm, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped at his pants. “Get someone in here to clean that up,” he said sharply, and instantly the room was a buzz with activity. The man who had taken the girls off the train opened the door and shouted into the other room. A woman appeared with soapy water and knelt before the big man sponging away at his shoes and the cuffs of his pants. Someone else came in with a bucket and began cleaning the whole floor. The phone rang, and the officer took the call, barking into the phone and listening for a long moment. He put his hand over the mouthpiece. “All right, everyone out,” he shouted.

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