"The Book Thief" - Change the Ending

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: November 19, 2016

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Submitted: November 19, 2016

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Victoria Sles

The Book Thief - “Change the Ending” - Summer Reading 2016

The residents of Molching slept that whole night. Some shifted and floundered in their beds, running from harrowing delusions. Others basked in the glory of a sweet and gratifying fantasy. The rest were content with an inconspicuous, hidden film in their slumber. It truly was a placid and tranquil way to die as the remaining planes circled around in the dark cerulean-gray of the sky, preparing to unload their explosives. Soon enough, that same sky would be stained with a streaking gray and a fiery red. The sirens would be blasted, but it would be too late for its purpose to mean anything. Death arrived from a distant city, anticipating its next act of service.

However, at 33 Himmel Street, two of these civilians, including a restless young girl and an aged father, were not sleeping. The pair sat at a trio of paint cans in the dimly lit basement of their domicile, one of the three cans compensating for the position of a table. Liesel and her papa, Hans Hubermann, sat at the remaining two paint cans, overlooking a small book on the table. The book was black and was brimming with words, except for a few dozen empty pages at the end. Because Liesel’s story was finished, she excitedly demonstrated the book to her papa.

“Every night, I would try to finish ten pages of my life. I started from when I stole my first book at my brother’s grave, The Grave Digger’s Handbook. Remember each night you would teach me how to read? The basement became our classroom, Papa.” Liesel bubbled.

“Yes, of course, child. I had to sleep by your bedside in case you had awoken from a nightmare and soiled yourself. Then we would resume our midnight class.” Papa replied, concealing a grin. It was a side of Liesel unbeknown to Hans; a lively, cheerful side. He could no longer contain his grin.

Liesel returned his smile. “I also wrote about when you slapped me on the steps and we said ‘Heil Hitler!’, Rudy, you playing the accordion, Mama, Max and his words, and my stolen books.” she continued heartily.

“Lower your voice, Liesel, or you’ll awake Mama. I’m sure you wouldn’t want a Watschen at this hour.” whispered Papa.

The two conversed about the book many hours into the night. Liesel’s eyes lit up each time she turned the book around to show Hans a page, a moment, or a new word. He grew less weary with each discussion, listening to his daughter’s quiet chatter. Although, Liesel had to slightly raise her voice several times to awaken her drowsy father.

Outside, only a few blocks away, Munich Street roared for help. Numerous fires had been placed due to miniscule incendiary bombs, adding further damage to the primary bombs. Propaganda posters, broken glass, shop items, and building debris littered the street. German soldiers shouted incomprehensible phrases, dragged unresponsive bodies from underneath buildings, extinguished fires, soothed any living victims, and cleaned the streets, picking up once valuable belongings and tossing them into a truck. The sky was dyed a bright orange, and gentle sparks floated from it. Souls were extracted from bodies as they perished, slumped and piled across the shoulder of death. It would only be a matter of minutes before this calamity would reach Himmel Street, the place named after heaven.

“I just don’t understand. What happened to my mother? What did the Führer do to her?” Liesel interrogated, back in the basement. The black book was sprawled open on its spine. It was quite late now, and Hans was longing for a cup of coffee. They had just finished reading about the lost letter Liesel had sent to her mother years ago. She had never really gotten a formal answer as to what happened to her biological mother, and felt the pressing need to get her answers now.

Hans sighed deeply and took a puff of his charred cigarette. “It is in the past now, child. Your mother was a Kommunist, I’m sure you’re aware of this.” he justified.

Liesel collected her thoughts before speaking. “Do you think she is still alive, Papa?” she asked quietly, an inquisitive and saddening expression expanding across her face.

He took one last puff of his cigarette and set it down on the circular ashtray, clearing his throat. “The possibilities are unknown, Liesel. After being taken away to the camp, she is no longer a normal civilian in the eyes of society. She is not to be heard of for a long time.”

Liesel adjusted herself on the firm can of paint and placed her elbows along her knees, cupping her face in her hands. She had never known the camps weren’t exclusive to Jews. All these years she had known that something happened to her mother and that she could be dead, so it was only a mere confirmation of her theories. But hearing it come from the mouth of another still frightened her, and the reality of her dead mother added to the list of who she had lost. Liesel began to think of Werner; when she saw him on the steps of the mayor’s house, encouraging her to be kinder. She thought of Max; how he would paint over the pages of Mein Kampf to create The Standover Man. Now she thought of her long-lost mother; the way she coddled her brother on the train, believing he was asleep. Liesel’s thoughts were recklessly disrupted when a beam from the basement ceiling carelessly collapsed inches behind her. Sirens blared from outside.

“Liesel!” Hans catapulted from his seat and rushed to carry Liesel into his arms. Dust was falling from the cracks in the walls and ceiling, which threatened to collapse against them. Liesel said nothing as Hans swept her off, watching the walls of the basement slowly crumble around them. She could still see the faded black letters on the walls, the undisturbed corner of drop sheets where Max slept, and her small book. Crucified Christ, her book. Without thinking, she leapt from her father’s arms and raced to the trio of paint cans. She could hear Hans cursing behind her, shouting words she could not hear. Liesel clumsily grabbed her book and sprinted to her father up the breaking stairs. Another beam fell from the ceiling and Liesel screamed.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph; Rosa is still up there.” Hans mumbled as they dashed up the stairs. The door to the basement was left ajar, and Liesel was mortified to think of the disaster that lie before her. Why were the sirens late? Is Mama okay? Please let this be another nightmare, she contemplated, clutching the book to her chest as she ran after her father. Finally, they reached the top of the stairs.

Hans composed himself shortly before peeking through the sliver in the door. Liesel watched his expression fluctuate from a tiresome, anxious face to a petrified, frigid stare.

He spent no time grasping Liesel’s hand and dashing through the doorframe into their kitchen without saying a word. The first thing Liesel noticed was the difficulty to maneuver. All she could see below her was the rubble of her destroyed home. She felt the piercing atmosphere of outdoors. When she looked to her right, Liesel could only see the chaos outside. The walls of their abode no longer protected them. When she looked up, she could only view the fiery sky. It was hard to see due to the smoke and dark spots surrounding Liesel’s vision. “What about Mama?” she hollered in between tears.

“Mama is already gone. We cannot risk anything now. We must leave everything. I can’t let anything happen to you.” Hans gasped, his grip on Liesel’s hand tightening with each sentence. His voice was on the verge of unsteadiness.

Liesel desperately wanted to stop her uncontrollable tears. She tried to wipe at them, but one hand was adhered to her father’s and the other was still clutching the book to her chest.

The pair waded through mountains of rubble that was once their home. She imagined the soldiers straining to pull Mama’s body from underneath the hefty fragments of the house, her face covered in soot and her mouth agape from a snore. She could remember everything about her; her short stature, her sharp tongue, the stinging pain from the wooden spoon of her almost daily Watschen, her unquestionable kindness to the Jew in the basement, and the way she caressed Hans’ accordion while he cleansed cities after bombings. Liesel wanted to imagine that Mama was just taking a very long rest and that she would awaken in a few years, like in a fairy tale book. She envisioned Rudy, his limbs fanned out and mutilated from his small and bony frame. Oh, how desperately she wanted to kiss him. He was probably dreaming of throwing his fist in Franz Deutscher’s ribs or stealing enough apples to last his family through the next winter, Liesel thought. She almost smiled through her sobs. It was quite bewildering for her emotions to collide with her so quickly; she barely had time to register her surroundings at all. Through her clouded vision, she could see her father reach for his accordion case, which was casually sprawled open. He hastily grabbed its handle and continued on without a word.

Hans and Liesel reached the edge of their home. Miraculously, part of the gate was still intact. The widespread smoke not only blurred Liesel’s perception even more, but stung her eyes spitefully. The malodorous stench of exhaust sprinted up her nose, making Liesel dizzy. This sensation left her wondering why she didn’t feel it when they trekked through the debris of their demolished home. Liesel ultimately noticed the deafening sirens. She could feel her anger swell up in her chest. These cursed sirens have no purpose. Why are they on now? It is too late for this loud, stupid nonsense, she thought furiously.

They stumbled into the road, where soldiers and other emergency services beat down fires. Liesel felt a nauseating queasiness to her stomach, and lurched forward to empty her stomach contents. Liesel and Hans remained standing on the side of the road, watching the catastrophe unfold before them. The orange and gray flickers of fire reflected in their watery eyes.

“What are we going to do next?” Liesel choked out.

“What happens now depends on God, child.” Hans said gloomily.

Liesel remained silent. She absorbed her newfound surroundings. The smoke tingled her nostrils as she breathed. The luminous, blinding glare of the fires made her squint. The scent of death gave her a sense of closure. Soon Liesel heard the footsteps of a soldier approaching them.

“Excuse me, are you okay? We have to recruit any survivors. Please come with me.” the soldier squeaked timidly. He seemed adolescent and traumatized; perhaps it was his first time on the job.

“Come, Liesel. There is no point staying here now. We will come back, I promise you.” sighed Hans.

“No, Papa! How can you do this? How can you leave everything so quickly like it was never important? What about Mama or Rudy? What about everyone else who is dead? Do you not see what is in front of you? The world is on fire, Papa!” Liesel broke down. She sunk to her knees and sobbed. She cried for her missing mother and her dead brother. She cried for Max, probably lying in a ditch where the Nazis had dumped his deceased body. She cried for Rudy, wishing she gave him a kiss. She cried for Mama, whose love never faded. She even cried for Frau Holtzapfel, who was probably waiting for her death. Liesel cried, cried, and cried.

Hans stood by helplessly, knowing better than to interrupt her now. The soldier had already left, probably in an uncomfortable position watching the saddened girl weep. In a way, Liesel was right. He couldn't keep running away from his problems. He had lost the love of his life. His friends were surely dead. His son was missing in action. Most of his town had been demolished, and he needed to bring it back to life. What am I thinking? You have to open your eyes and really see, Hans thought to himself. Just as he was about to start crying himself, Liesel stood up. She brushed off the ashy gravel from her hands and knees, then proceeded to wipe the loose tears along her cheek.

“I'm going to find their bodies now.” Liesel murmured. She wanted to see her loved ones before they were lugged onto the truck with the rest of the bodies and taken to a random disposal site. She shoved the black book in the arms of Hans, and ran across the road. She didn't wait for an answer, and started down the path back to 33 Himmel Street. Liesel didn’t hear any footsteps behind her or Hans’ voice, but instead an almost muted sobbing. She didn’t go back to comfort him, however, and continued to march into the street.

The walk was short yet stressful. Buildings that had been intact were now falling apart, fabricating a carpet of rubble in every direction as its parts tumbled. Liesel had to dodge its collapsing debris every few seconds. As she walked, she thought about her recent exchanges with her father. She wished she wasn’t so rough and vile to him. In her mind, she truly knew that Hans was hurting as much as she was. I will apologize later. I was angry and emotional, but I wasn’t the only one, Liesel speculated.  It was almost dawn; the sun’s rays peeked out behind the green, gray, and brown horizon. Heavy trucks barreled along the jagged road, and many of their contents spilled out each time the truck hit a bump: books, glass, pictures, toys, jewels, and clothes. Most of the fires had diminished, leaving a smoggy sky. Soldiers were raking in the few survivors, none of whom Liesel recognized.

Finally, she reached her fallen home. Some of the rubbish had been cleaned up, leaving an empty patch of dirt. Liesel scanned the terrain, searching only for the body of Rosa. She tried not to bawl as she walked through the ravaged mess. She was glancing at a particularly pretty yellow flower when she saw a familiar arm sprawled out from underneath an armoire.

“Mama!” Liesel called out. She dashed over to the body, thinking it could be alive. The armoire wasn’t very hefty because most of it had been severed, so it was easy for her to lift it and toss it away. The exposure unveiled Rosa’s inert body. She was covered in gray dust, black residue, and blood. Her limbs were bent in awkward positions. Liesel said nothing as she knelt beside her and wept for what seemed like hours when it was only seconds.

Before she was about to leave, she noticed a dainty silver necklace along her mother’s neck. Some of it had been rusted, leaving a casual mahogany finish. Attached to it was a tiny, flat, disk-like charm. Liesel gently unhooked the clips and placed it around her own neck. For what seemed like the hundredth time that night, she wiped her tears off her sweating face. She cupped her mother’s peaceful face in her hands before finding the strength to stand up and walk away.

Next is Rudy, she reflected. After a brief sprint, she arrived where Rudy’s home was supposed to be. The cleanup wasn’t finished yet, since Rudy’s house was slightly bigger than her own. In fact, part of the house was still unscathed, although it stood alarmingly perilous and ready to topple over at any second. It wasn’t difficult to find his body, which was apparent and visible as day. Idiot soldiers; they couldn’t find a body if it was dangling in front of them, she thought. Liesel walked over to his dead body, her footsteps silent in the raucous night. His lips were slightly parted, revealing his sharp teeth. Silent teardrops fell onto his lemon-colored hair.

“Why did you have to die, Saukerl? I thought we would be together.” Liesel mourned aloud. Without thinking, she leaned in and planted a simple kiss on his lips. Then, she lie down next to him on the rocky dirt, pretending they were stargazing at the dreary sky. She was planted there for a few minutes, hating the world but at the same time accepting her newfound circumstances.

In the distance, Liesel heard a low rumble. She thought it was just her imagination, so the thought was pushed aside. But a few seconds after, another growling reverberation occurred, followed by a deafening crack. She looked up to see the rest of Rudy’s house falling towards her from above, a dark figure tumbling from the sky. From the corner of her eye, she could see Hans sprinting towards her, his mouth open from a scream. He was still clutching her book in his hand. She thought she could hear him scream her name, but it was probably her imagination as well. The dark figure was closer than ever now, ready to consume her through its gaping jaws. There’s no avoiding this now, was Liesel’s last thought as she traveled into a restless slumber.

 

***  
 

It was September 1945, three years after that fateful night. The reign of Adolf Hitler was over. The devastated streets of Molching had been fully brought back to life. Ilsa Hermann and the mayor had invited Hans to live with them briefly at their mansion on Grande Strasse, which had remained untouched the night of the bombing. Alex Steiner had returned from war to the death of his family. His shop, however, suffered only from a few pieces of broken glass. Hans and Alex managed the tailoring shop. When he saved enough money, Hans purchased his own home, a modest five-room building. He mourns the death of his wife and daughter everyday. He reads Liesel’s book every night and keeps it with him safely at all times. He also plays his accordion every night. Max Vandenburg had endured years of hard labor at the camp, but was grateful when he learned Hitler was dead. After a short trip to his hometown, he arrived in Molching.

The bell on the tailoring shop’s door tinkled. Hans emerged from the storage room to attend to the customer. He dropped the supplies in his hands when he recognized the man, Max Vandenburg. The two embraced.

“Max, I had no idea you were still alive. How have you been?” Hans inquired.

“It was not an easy time, Hans.” Max sighed, running his fingers through his hair.

“Please, sit down. Tell me everything.” declared Hans, pulling out a chair from underneath the table that was kept near the front desk.

The two men conversed for hours. Two steaming mugs of coffee had been brought out to accompany them. Alex attended to all the customers, muttering words under his breath about Hans being lazy. Hans and Max exchanged distressing and saddening news. When Max learned that both Rosa and Liesel had perished in the bombing, he couldn’t contain his tears. He had grown affection towards them as he hid in their basement. Being a Jew, he could’ve gotten them all taken away. Hans stepped out of the room, and he emerged back holding a small black book.

“I’m sure she would’ve loved for you to read this. Just make sure it is returned by tomorrow.” stated Hans.

Max read Liesel’s book under the shade of a tree near the bridge. The words of the book struck him. He missed Liesel dearly. She had grown into an intelligent girl, with a compelling way of words. After he finished reading the book, Max climbed to a steep hill overlooking the town and collected his thoughts. Molching was sprawled underneath him. The Amper River snaked its way through the town, carving and slicing its path. The concept of words were powerful and booming, but they could be delicate, fragile, and even graceful in a way. The sun began to sink as Max reflected the last words in Liesel’s book: I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.

 


© Copyright 2017 V. Sles. All rights reserved.

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