GOING UNDERGROUND by Daniel Kuttner
Ruth traversed the unfamiliar neighborhood, sticking to shadows. She tried not to glance behind her more than once per block. The humid fall breeze made her perspire inside her coat. What it hid meant she dare not open it.
In '41, at age seventeen, it was not Ruth's first time away from her family. It was her first time away knowing she might never see them again.
She fingered the yellow emblem sewed, no, tacked onto her long outer coat. The latest decree said anyone could stop her anywhere to test if the stitches were tight. Roving teen-aged gangs loved to harass her people, pull off their emblems, then call the police. Her patch would never pass such a test.
Ruth gulped, drew her coat tight, then walked on. Around the next corner was the station, the point of no return.
Her feet and calves ached from the eleven kilometer walk from the ghetto. That cursed emblem barred all wearers from using public transportation. Shoes wore out in weeks.
Ruth shook her arms to loosen them, breathed, then strode ahead. She turned the corner, then gasped. The police had erected barricades. Several officers with dogs patrolled the perimeter. Could she bluff her way past? Not with that yellow cloth betraying her. Time to decide: remove the odious thing and risk being shot or return with it to the ghetto and await the next roundup of "undesirables." She shuddered.
Ruth picked at the stitches. Physically it would be easy. She had practiced the quick move at home: grip, rip, toss. Simple. But her hand was paralyzed as her eyes filled with stinging tears and her throat constricted. She was about to betray her people by escaping the fate that awaited them.
She turned sideways as a patrolman glanced her way. If he saw the emblem, he'd stop her, and the attempt would end. She had no papers, no tickets, no right to travel. She'd be caught. Under torture even the strongest told all. She would betray her brave friends.
Grimacing, she ripped the emblem from the coat and pulled out the loose threads. She dried her tears with the cloth, spit on it, then tossed the crumpled yellow ball into a litter bin.
Now she could remove the unseasonable coat. Having removed the required emblems at home, there was no more reason to hide the clothes beneath. She was in total violation, but instead of fear, defiance welled within her.
Ruth stepped forward, head high, eyes straight ahead, past the guard. He turned away and kept to his patrol route. Ruth fumbled through her cloth bag and found My Struggle, the book that would identify her to the Resistance contact. Unable to sit, she strolled about the platform, feigning nonchalance while displaying the book.
Time dragged by. The clock's hands seemed frozen. Ruth flinched as a hand grasped her shoulder from behind.
An older woman's voice spoke. "Wait. Don't turn around just yet. I am your contact. Call me 'Anna.' We are old friends. Greet me accordingly."
Ruth shouted with relief more than joy, "Anna! Oh, it's been so long. You look wonderful. How are your parents?"
"They're feisty as always. Oh, how you've grown!"
They hugged. Ruth felt Anna insert a packet into her left coat pocket. So far, the plan was unfolding smoothly. Once aboard, the train would take her to the destination in a few hours . . . But where? She wouldn't know until she looked at the train tickets in the packet.
The two women linked arms and walked toward the train. Anna guided Ruth along the platform to the compartment car. Someone had paid good money for such a ride. The State had tightened security, blaming an expected enemy invasion. The expensive tickets bought her less scrutiny as enjoyed by higher-class travelers.
Ruth kissed Anna on the cheek. Their mumbled familiarities were feigned, but real tears mingled as their faces pressed together in a final hug. She wondered, What kind of person risks her life—her whole family's lives—to save a stranger?
"God bless you, ma'am," Ruth whispered, then released the embrace. She mustered a smile, waved, then climbed aboard the train. A blast of cool air struck her face.
In the vestibule, Ruth turned aside to allow other passengers by. Facing the corner, she opened the pouch Anna had given her. Inside were some small denomination bills of the new money, two or three tattered napkins, three fig bars and the train tickets, round-trip to avoid suspicion. Two silver coins—illegal but valuable—glinted at her.
Most important was a set of ID and travel papers. The photos were a vague match for Ruth. Since she had lost weight in the ghetto, they would suffice under normal scrutiny. She memorized the name and details of the papers' former owner, Renate Schmidt. She would only assume this identity during the trip. Her destination contact would collect the papers to be reused or discarded.
The tickets revealed her destination: Holland. She would need a heavier coat up north. The compartment was number four. One, two, there, on the right, in the middle of the car. She followed a well dressed couple down the passageway, put her hand on number four's metal handle, twisted it, then entered.
Two men had already claimed the window seats of the two parallel benches inside. A sleepy man with a scruffy mustache faced the back of the train. The other, mid-forties and wearing tweeds, faced forward, reading a financial paper. Both gave her scant notice. She sat next to "Mr. Tweed" as she thought of him. A Cavendish pipe would go with his outfit, but she hoped he wouldn't produce one and light it up. She detested the stench of the foul material that nowadays passed for tobacco.
Fifteen minutes passed, well beyond the train's departure time, yet it did not move. The two men became agitated. She kept her eyes forward.
"This is most irregular," said Mr. Tweed.
"I'm sure there's a valid reason," said Mr. Mustache.
A dour, pudgy woman entered the compartment, hung her coat on one of the hooks, and sat opposite Ruth. She announced, "The train has been delayed. They're looking for someone, perhaps a fugitive or an undesirable."
Outside the room, strident voices became louder and closer. Other compartment doors opened and closed. Muffled speech became clear. A door opened, then slammed. The footsteps approached. Number four's entrance clicked open.
Two men entered. One wore a railroad uniform, the other, taller, wore black military fatigues. He was armed. They stopped and scanned the co-travelers as if expecting them to rise to attention. They received three anxious stares instead. Ruth kept her eyes on the lamp opposite her, afraid they'd be able to read her expression. If so, her flight to freedom would end before it had begun.
"Tickets and papers, please."
"Who are you and what is this about?" Mr. Tweed stood, pointing at the shorter of the two intruders.
The taller man in the black uniform spoke quietly, but put his hand on his sidearm. "I'll thank you to put your arm down and stay seated. Do it. Now. Please." He barked "please" as a deadly command. Mr. Tweed's jaw snapped shut. He did as instructed.
"I am Lieutenant Spitz of Transport Security; this is Mr. Gerald, Conductor of this train. We are investigating a matter which concerns a passenger, perhaps two. Maybe it's one of you, maybe not."
The four passengers glanced at one another. Ruth was certain they could see the blood vessels in her forehead, pumping with fear. She feigned indignant innocence.
The officious duo checked papers, starting with the woman opposite Ruth, then Mr. Mustache, then Mr. Tweed. They stopped in front of Ruth. She displayed her forgeries, mustering the courage to look right at Spitz.
Spitz's eyes met hers, then dropped to inspect her papers.
Gerald struggled to peer around him, stretching to catch glimpses of the items in question. "All in order," he said. Spitz frowned down at him. "That is, they appear . . ."
"Thank you. You may all put your papers away." Spitz led the way back out. His hand on the door handle, he turned back and narrowed his eyes at Ruth. "You. Where did you get that coat? Inappropriate for this weather, no?"
"We gave most of our coats to the war effort. My mother gave me hers for this trip."
Spitz towered above her. "Stand up, please."
"Please" would never sound the same to her again. Trembling, Ruth stood. Spitz's fingers caressed her coat collar, slid down and wider, lingering just over Ruth's breasts. "Someone reported a stolen coat." Spitz grinned. "Perhaps you should take it off for—inspection."
Ruth's face blazed; her fists tightened. If he moves one more inch . . . She shifted her weight, readying her right knee for a swift upward kick. Wait. No. I must endure. Her narrowed eyes met his.
Mr. Tweed cleared his throat. "Dear fellow, haven't we delayed long enough? A stolen coat, indeed. Some of us have actual State business to attend to. Perhaps I should include your name and badge number in my report of this incident."
Spitz dropped his gaze. His grin vanished, his hands dropped to his sides. He cleared his throat. "Yes. I can see this is not the coat in question." He scanned the compartment once more, stopping at Ruth. "The Homeland thanks you all . . ." He looked at Ruth. ". . . for your cooperation."
Spitz exited the compartment with the conductor in tow. The door slowly closed behind them.
Mr. Tweed cleared his throat. "Officious martinet. He was probably a library clerk before the conflict."
"The same people took charge a hundred years ago," Mr. Mustache muttered.
The opinion earned a stern look from Mr. Tweed. Mustache looked down to his magazine. Tweed returned to his reading.
The woman wiped the sweat from her brow and pulled a water bottle from inside her coat. She gulped from it, smacking her lips and exhaling. Her blast of air coincided with the release of the train's air brakes. "This always hits the spot." She took another swig and turned to Ruth. "Want some?"
Her knees still liquid, Ruth shook her head and plopped back onto her seat. Her heart finally slowed to normal—almost.
The locomotive's piercing whistle blasted twice. The train cars bumped and jostled, then accelerated. Smoke mixed with glowing cinders puffed past the windows. Rail joints clattered beneath them as the car swayed. The station slipped away into the past with Anna, Spitz, Gerald, and her family.
Ahead lay only the train ride to the safety of the Resistance. After she was settled, maybe she would have time to sneak back and convince her family to join her in hiding. She would not be that far away in Holland, Michigan.
With one hand, Ruth returned her papers to the packet, with the other, she dabbed at her tears.
Mr. Mustache had spoken the truth. The current regime was indeed repeating the evils of the past, only this time, her people were the ones being persecuted.
Ruth sat forward and reached toward the lady. "Ma'am, if you please, I would like a sip, after all. 2041 has been a very hard year."