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On any particular day, thousands upon thousands of people pass through New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, through the whispering gallery, beneath the ceiling of stars, and past the information booth and its beckoning four-faced clock, to whatever destination is calling them. It is a place where people come to say hello and good-bye. And each person has a story to tell.
Now, ten bestselling authors inspired by this iconic landmark have created their own stories, set on the same day, just after the end of World War II, in a time of hope, uncertainty, change, and renewal….
FEATURING STORIES FROM:
Melanie Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author of The Aviator’s Wife
Jenna Blum, New York Times bestselling author of Those Who Save Us
Amanda Hodgkinson, New York Times bestselling author of 22 Britannia Road
Pam Jenoff, bestselling author of The Ambassador’s Daughter
Sarah Jio, New York Times bestselling author of Blackberry Winter
Sarah McCoy, bestselling author of The Baker’s Daughter
Kristina McMorris, New York Times bestselling author of Bridge of Scarlet Leaves
Alyson Richman, bestselling author of The Lost Wife
Erika Robuck, critically acclaimed author of Hemingway’s Girl
Karen White, New York Times bestselling author of After the Rain
With an Introduction by Kristin Hannah, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Home Front
The Branch of Hazel, a Novella by Sarah McCoy
September 21, 1945
A baby cried. It echoed down the marble portico and up, up, to the vast ceiling of painted constellations. The titanic blue canopy, less like the airy skies over the Ardennes and more like the ocean. Weighted and one fault line from crushing her.
Cata’s breasts went wet with the sound of the child. She was glad she’d worn her winter coat despite the tepid weather of this New York. She’d given birth to a son the December before. A lifetime ago, a world away. He’d been taken in, adopted, by good people in Munich. A barren couple, the schoolteacher of her youngest brother. She was told they loved him. Of course, she thought, who wouldn’t love a boy like that? He was cherub-cheeked with large feet and hands that made the Lebensborn doctors nod with appreciation. He was perfect. Just like his mother, the nurses had said.
Cata was ashamed now of the pride she’d derived from that compliment. She’d called him Yann and wondered if his new parents had given him a different name or kept the old. He would never know hers. The paternity papers had been burned.
The baby wailed again. This time, it ricocheted like a shot, making Cata’s arms tremble, elbow to fingertip. She shoved her hands into her wool pockets. In the left were two passports. In the right, a garnet hatpin, fletched like an arrow but sharp as a syringe. She stabbed it, judiciously, into her hip. Just deep enough to quell the trembling but not enough to cause a stain. Neat and tidy, an efficient wound. She was skittish. An unbecoming trait. There were tricks to mask one’s true nature. The Program mothers had taught her. The prick burned a comforting pain and her body hardened like a clay pot in a kiln.
A train pulled into station, drowning out the sound of the baby. Its engine hissed; wheels screeched against the metal rails, then sighed to a stop. Its billow of steam made the station even balmier than the Indian summer day.
Cata’s head spun at the heat and the hatpin still inserted. She removed it and made her way to the line of ticket windows.
In her mind, she practiced again while waiting her turn. Boston, Massachusetts. It did not roll off the tongue easily—not her tongue, at least. Too practiced in the Germanic way. While she understood English and French perfectly, her elocution was infantile at best. She should’ve studied more as a schoolgirl. Too late. The American accent was an altogether foreign lilt, the words soft as moldering vegetables in her mouth. The consonants fell out without comprehension. So she’d guarded her voice on the sea voyage. Listening carefully to the Americans: the elite eating goose pâté and cured sausages in the vaulted dining room; the steerage passengers smoking cigarettes, backs to wind, passing time; the waiters and porters who brought her tea and interpreted her silence as wealth; the children playing ball games on deck, and most especially the governesses, huddling together like wild daisies, eyes open and unblinking on their charges.
From them, she learned the most useful vernacular: going bonkers was not the same as bunkers, in German or English. Horsing around was behaving foolishly. Swell was a positive quality. Giggle water was alcohol and put to the same use here as it was in the Lebensborn Program: three glugs in bedtime milk for restless children; no more or they might not wake up on schedule. All the American governesses wanted nine-to-fiver employment and a Doris Day haircut when they arrived in port. Horsefeathers was used at various occasions, so Cata still wasn’t sure its exact meaning. And then there were the hushed discussions of the war: A-bomb, Japs, home front, rations, and most notably what they would call her if she dared speak a word, Nazi, Jerry, German.
She penned all of these useful and offensive words in her journal and practiced them in a whisper alone in her ship’s bunk each night. She had the basics down: yes, no, thank you, pardon, please. Those six had ushered her through Ellis Island security alongside her Luxembourg papers and an extra coat of lipstick.
The Program had not accepted her on her righteousness and intelligence, but on her smile and ability to fit in. She might’ve been naïve once but not anymore. Those who survived had the faces of doves and the cunning of serpents. She’d learned well and seen the proof in her roommates at Steinhöring. Hazel, the dove. Brigette the serpent. At their memory, she winced and her eyes welled.
Dear Hazel. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Her hands trembled again so she took up the hatpin to prick and prick and prick.
The ticket line moved forward, but she was busy allowing the slow sting to spread. A man, thin as a sapling, stumbled into her back and the needle plunged deeper than before. She gasped.
“Entschuldigung Sie,” the man stuttered, quickly and no louder than a lamb’s bleat.
It would’ve gone unnoticed. The apology unknown to those around them and so, mistook for an incoherent mumble. The utterance of a walking ghost. Nothing more. Only it wasn’t nothing to Cata. It was the language and land for which she’d given children, sworn oaths, sacrificed and killed.
He nodded apologies. He wore a busboy uniform with shirtsleeves cuffed to his elbows, an inky thread of numbers exposed. There was no mistaking. The tattoo seemed to rise off his skin like a line of black ants marching towards her. She stared hard at it, unable to peel her eyes away. A Jew from Germany—here?
Seeing her gaze, he crossed his arms, covering the markings, and took a deferential step back.
Cata pulled the hatpin from her flesh and felt the blood ooze hot through her stockings. Flames of guilt blistering her back. She wanted to turn and speak to him—in their language. To say all the things she’d been thinking ever since she’d learned the details of the Jewish camps. She’d been ignorant of those truths. Perhaps unconsciously, perhaps not. In a way, she felt as culpable as the Nazi officers she’d bed and borne a daughter and son.
Nein, she would bite her tongue and leave this man to make his way in peace—to have a new beginning without any reminders of war and suffering. Leave the past behind. Take the fastest train into the future. Wasn’t that what they were all doing here at the station?
“Whereto, miss?” asked the man behind the barred ticket window.
It was her cue. She’d practice the proper response for weeks on the ship. Mass-ah-choo-sitz, she visualized it spelled out in phonetic syllables on her journal page. She didn’t stumble if she said it slowly, but the slower she spoke, the more foreign she sounded. She wiped a sweat bead from her brow before it streaked her rouge.
“Massachu-setts.” She hurried through the beginning and broke it in two, flipping her bob between. It seemed to work. The man’s gaze remained fixed to his receipts.
“Amherst, Springfield, Salem, Boston?”
To her relief, she was able to reply in perfect impersonation, “Baw-stin.”
He looked up then and gave a crooked smile when he saw her. “Aw, yeah? I got a brudda up d-air. He’s a caw-pentah. You goin’ to see family or friends?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
Mildred, called Milly, was a cousin, twice removed. She’d married a wealthy mercantile and moved to Boston a decade before.
You cannot come home to Luxembourg, Cata’s mother had penned when the war ended. It’s too dangerous. Your brothers are young and still in school. Your father could lose his business.
Cata had been banished, in essence. So she’d written the one family member removed from all connections to the Kutter family name.
Milly had consented to give her lodging and keep her heritage a secret if she financed her own way to Massachusetts and agreed to work as the family’s governess. She had her hands full with three girls: ages eight, six and two. She was expecting her fourth child that winter. A boy, she hoped. Lebensborn Program mothers earned special privileges and honorary cards for their male offspring. Milly wanted to please her husband. Cata understood.
While she wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea of playing the hired nursemaid to her distant cousin, she was in no position to debate the one charity offered. She had to leave Germany immediately. So she emptied her savings and sold off everything of value: jewelry from SS officers, nightgowns made of French lace, silk stockings, feather hats, fur wraps, her favorite pair of T-strap shoes dusted in gold sparkle, ivory-handled hair brushes, perfumes and soaps, even her lavender talc power, half used. All for pennies on the dollar. Better to get solid coin for her journey, she decided, than hold on to the items merely to have them confiscated if arrested. She brought only what she wore and a small handbag containing toiletries, a change of underthings, pajamas, a card stack of photographs and a handful of personal effects. Everything else she sold, right down to her length of her hair. The bob was more American, she told herself as her traditional blond braids were lopped off.
In total, she was able to amass enough to pay for the Steinhöring Home’s senile gardener to drive her to the coast in his covered produce truck, single-room passage on an America-bound steamship, one night’s boarding at a women’s hotel in New York City and this train ticket from Grand Central Station to the Boston depot. She was on the final leg and could not afford a careless mistake now.
The ticket booth man cocked his head as if waiting for her to go on. Instead, she silently counted out crisp American bills, tousled her blond hair and angled her chin down with a grin. He winked, took the payment and stamped her receipt.
“If you come back this way—stop in and say hello.” He tapped on the counter. “This’s my booth. I’ll be here.” He slid her ticket under the bar but kept his fingers there so hers were forced to touch his.
Amis or Jerries, she thought, all the same. Men were men.
“Thank you,” she said and strolled off knowing full well that his eyes were on the sway of her hips with every step.
She nodded gingerly as she passed the Jewish man, but he kept his stare to the burnished floor.
A violin began to play somewhere, a slow, sad melody that didn’t bounce off the walls like the child’s cry but pooled in the station’s enclaves like dew in a tombstone’s etching.
Cata made a beeline for the Main Concourse where the song was lost in the scramble of people zigzagging this way and that, looking up to the train schedule and down to their luggage; porters and conductors tapping watches; children holding their parent’s hands; soldiers in uniforms everywhere. Fleshly specters, pointing cloaked fingers, Nazi. She could hear the collective whisper in the rhythmic panting of the train engine, Nazi, Nazi, Nazi. She checked her ticket and the rail board then found her track.
Get on, get on, she told herself. Inside she’d be safe. Inside she’d be on her way.
On the platform between her and her train was a lonesome, young girl, standing straight as a quill amid the flurry. She surveyed the crowd then paused on Cata. Her eyes were bluer and clearer than any child born to the Lebensborn Program—bluer than Cata’s daughter’s eyes. Cata could not look away. The girl cocked her head under her stare but did not smile; her jaw set hard with thought. Cata’s stomach dipped. A mass of chills crawled down her back and she had the unnerving feeling that the girl saw her. Saw everything—Steinhöring, the officers, the babies and Hazel.
She quickly moved on, down the platform, though her ticket was for first class. She’d walk back up the entire length of carriages to avoid those piercing eyes and did just that.
Finding her roomette, she pulled the door’s shade, put her bag away, took a seat and exhaled. Finally. The voices, music, whistles and cries of the station muted to a dull discord. Her hip tweaked from the stab. She shrugged off her wool coat and rubbed the spot.
Excerpted from Grand Central. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.