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Shelter: Chapter 27


I NEVER SAW THE DRIVER. There was a glass partition separating the front from the back. Five minutes after they picked me up, we were bouncing through the woods. I looked out. Up ahead I saw Bat Lady’s garage. Just as I had witnessed that day with Ema, the bald guy got out and opened the garage door. We pulled in. The bald guy opened the door for me and said, “Follow me.”
The interior of the garage looked, well, like the interior of a garage. Nothing special. The bald guy bent down and pulled open a trapdoor in the floor. He started climbing down a ladder. I trailed him. We moved through a tunnel in the direction, I assumed, of Bat Lady’s house.
This, I thought, explained the light in the basement I had seen when I was in her house.
When we passed a door, I asked, “What’s in there?”
He shook his head and kept going. When we reached another door, he stopped and said, “This is as far as I go.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that you see her alone.”
Her.
He started back down toward the garage, leaving me alone. My head was starting to throb again. The pain meds must have been wearing off. I opened the door and found myself back inside Bat Lady’s living room.
Nothing much had changed. Brown was still the room’s dominant hue. The windows were still blocked by a combination of soot and planks. The grandfather clock still didn’t work. The old picture of the hippies—the first place I had seen the strange butterfly design. The turntable was working now. HorsePower was playing a sad song called “Time Stands Still.” And there, in the middle of the room, dressed in the same white gown I had seen her in just a few short days ago, was the Bat Lady.
She smiled at me. “You did well, Mickey.”
I wasn’t in the mood for more cat and mouse games. “Gee, thanks. Really. I mean, I have no idea what I did or what’s going on here, but thanks.”
“Sit with me.”
“No, I’m good here.”
“You’re angry. I understand.”
“You said my father was alive.”
Bat Lady sat on a couch that looked as though it had been ready for the scrap heap during the Eisenhower administration. Her hair was still ridiculously long, cascading down her back and almost touching the seat cushion. She picked up a large book, an old photo album, and held it on her lap.
“Well?” I said.
“Sit, Mickey.”
“Is my father still alive?”
“It’s not a simple question.”
“Sure it is. He’s either dead or he’s alive. Which is it?”
“He is alive,” she said, with a smile that seemed somewhere south of sane, “in you.”
I never wanted to smack an old woman before, but boy, I did now. “In me?”
“Yes.”
“Oh, please. What is this, The Lion King? That’s what you meant when you said he was alive?”
“I meant exactly what I said.”
“You told me that my father was alive. Now you’re giving me some New Age mumbo jumbo about him living in me.”
I turned away, blinked back the tears. I felt crushed. I felt stupid. Some crazy old lady rants stuff I know not to be true—and yet I choose to hold on to her words like a drowning man to a life preserver. Man, was I an idiot or what?
“So he’s dead,” I said.
“People die, Mickey.”
“Good answer,” I said with as much sarcasm as I could muster.
“Nothing about what we do is simple,” she said. “You want a yes or no. But there is no yes or no. No black or white. It is all gray.”
“There is life or death,” I said.
She smiled. “What makes you sure of that?”
I had no idea how to respond.
“We save who we can,” she said. “We can’t save everyone. Evil exists. You can’t have an up without a down, a right without a left—or a good without an evil. Do you understand?”
“Not really, no.”
“Your father came to this house when he was about your age. It changed him. He understood his calling.”
“To work for you?”
“To work with us,” she said, correcting me.
“And become, what, part of the Abeona Shelter?”
She did not reply.
“So you were the ones who rescued Ashley.”
“No,” she said. “You did that.”
I sighed. “Can you stop talking in circles?”
“There is a balance. There are choices. We rescue a few, not all, because that is what we can do. Evil remains. Always. You can combat it, but you can never fully defeat it. You settle for small victories. If you overreach, you lose everything. But every life matters. There is an old saying: ‘He who saves one life saves the world.’ So we pick and choose.”
“You pick and choose who gets rescued and who doesn’t?”
“Yes,” Bat Lady said. “Take Candy, for example.”
That surprised me. “You know about Candy?”
She didn’t bother replying. “If we had chosen to help her, the odds are that Candy would have ended up no better off. She has no skills, not much intelligence, and would never be able to be mainstreamed into school or society. She would probably have ended up back with Buddy Ray or someone similar.”
“You can’t know that,” I said.
“Of course you can’t know. But you play the odds. You save who you can and you mourn those you can’t. When you follow this calling, your heart gets ripped apart every day. You make the world better in increments, not grand designs. You make choices. Do you understand?”
“Choices,” I said.
“Yes.”
“Like my father made a choice to leave the Abeona Shelter. Like my father didn’t want this life for me.”
“Exactly, he made a choice.” Bat Lady looked up at me and tilted her head. “How did that work out for him?”
I said nothing.
“With choices come consequences,” she said.
I didn’t know what to say to that. I looked out the back, through the kitchen, toward the garden. “You have a tombstone in your backyard.”
She said nothing.
“The initials E.S.,” I said. “Is Elizabeth Sobek buried there?”
“Lizzy,” Bat Lady said.
“What?”
“Her name was Lizzy. She preferred Lizzy.”
“Is she buried in your yard?”
“Sit down, Mickey.”
“I’m fine standing right here. Is Lizzy Sobek, the girl who rescued all those kids in the Holocaust, buried in your yard, yes or no?”
Now there was steel in her voice. “Sit down, Mickey.”
Bat Lady looked up at me, and I did as she asked. Dust came off the couch. She put her left arm out and pulled up her sleeve. The tattoo was faded but you could still read it:

A30432
For a moment, I couldn’t speak. Then I managed to say, “You?”
She nodded. “I’m Lizzy Sobek.”
I sat there in silence as she opened the photograph album. “You want to know how this all began. I will tell you. And then maybe you will understand about your father.”
She pointed to the first picture in the photo album. It was an old black-and-white shot of four people. “This was my family. My father’s name was Samuel. My mother’s name was Esther. That’s my older brother, Emmanuel, with the bow tie. Such a handsome boy. So smart, so kind. He was eleven when this picture was taken. I was eight. I look happy, don’t you think?”
She did. She had been a beautiful child.
“You know what happened next,” she said.
“World War Two.”
“Yes. For a while we survived in the Lodz ghetto. That was in Poland. My father was a wonderful man. Everyone loved him. They were drawn to him. Your father, Mickey, was a lot like him. But that’s not important right now. For a long time we managed to escape and stay hidden. I won’t go into the details, the horrors that even now, even all these years later, I, who witnessed it, cannot believe. Suffice to say that eventually someone sold us out. My family was captured by the Nazis. We were put on a train for Auschwitz.”
Auschwitz. Just the word made me shiver. I actually reached out for her hand, but Bat Lady stiffened.
“Please let me get through this,” she said. “Even after all these years, it is hard.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
She nodded, looked off again. “When my family arrived at Auschwitz, they separated us. I found out later that my mother and my brother, Emmanuel, were taken immediately to the gas chambers. They were dead within hours. My father was brought to a work camp. I was spared. I still don’t know why.”
She turned the page of her photo album. There were more pictures of her family, of Esther and Emmanuel living lives that were snuffed out for reasons that still no one could fathom. She didn’t look at the pictures. She just stared straight ahead.
“Again I won’t go into the details of what it was like in the concentration camp,” she said. “I will skip ahead six weeks to the day my father and some other workers overpowered the guards. A group of eighteen men broke free. The news spread around camp like wildfire. I was thrilled, of course, but now I felt more alone than ever. I was so scared. That night, I sat up and cried even though I thought that I had no more tears left. I felt ashamed. And there, as I lay alone crying, my father came and found me. He came to my bunk and whispered, ‘I would never leave you behind, my little dove.’ ”
Bat Lady smiled at the memory.
“We escaped together. My father and me. We joined the other men in the woods. I can’t tell you how that felt, Mickey. How it felt to be free. It was like being held underwater for a long time and finally being able to draw that first breath when you hit the surface. Being with my father, trying to figure a way to join the resistance, it was the last great moment I remember. And then . . .”
The smile faded away now. I waited, not wanting her to stop, not wanting to hear the rest of her story. It was almost as if someone had turned the lights down. A chill filled the room.
“Then he found us.”
She turned and looked at me.
“Who?” I said.
“The Butcher of Lodz,” she said in a harsh whisper. “He was Waffen-SS.”
I held my breath.
“He found us in the woods. Surrounded us. He made us dig a pit and fill it with lime. Then he lined us all up next to it. Our backs were to his men. The Butcher looked at my father, then at me. He laughed. My father begged for my life to be spared. The Butcher looked at me a long time. I will never forget the expression on his face. Finally he shook his head. I remember my father turned back around and took my hand. He said to me, ‘Don’t be frightened, my little dove.’ Then the Butcher and his men shot us, firing right straight down the line, but at the last second, my father pushed me into the pit and moved just a little to his right, to block me from the bullets. His dead body landed on top of me. I stayed there all night, in the cold, with my father on top of me. I don’t know how much time passed. Night turned to day. Eventually I crawled out and escaped into the woods.”
She stopped. I waited, feeling my body shake from her tale. When she didn’t speak again, I said, “So you found safety. That’s when you started rescuing children.”
She suddenly looked exhausted. “One day, I will explain more.”
Silence.
“I don’t get it,” I said.
She turned and faced me.
“You said this story would tell me about my father. I don’t see how it did.”
“I’m trying to make you understand.”
“Understand what?”
“My father. He made a choice. His life for mine. I had to make good on that. I had to make his choice into the right one.”
I felt the tears well in my eyes. “But your father was murdered. Mine died in an accident.”
She lowered her eyes, and for a moment, I thought that maybe I could see the little girl under all those years. “When the war ended—when the world believed that I was dead—I searched for the Butcher of Lodz. I wanted to bring him to justice for what he did. I contacted groups that search for ex-Nazis.”
I didn’t know where she was going with this, but I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. “Did you find him?”
She looked off again, not responding to my question. “You see, sometimes I still see his face. I see him on the streets, or out my window. He haunts my sleep, even now, even all these years later. I still hear his laugh before he killed my father. Still. But mostly . . .” She stopped.
“Mostly what?” I said.
She turned and met my eye. “Mostly I remember the way he looked at me when my father asked him to spare me. Like he knew.”
“Knew what?”
“That my life, the life of a girl named Lizzy Sobek, was over now. That I would survive but never be the same. So I kept searching for him. Through the years and even decades. I finally found his real name and an old photograph of him. All the Nazi hunters told me to relax, not to worry, that the Butcher was dead, that he had been killed in action in the winter of 1945.”
And then it happened. She turned the page and pointed at the photograph of the Butcher in his Waffen-SS uniform. I saw right away that he hadn’t died, that the Nazi hunters had been wrong. You see, I had seen this man before.
He had sandy hair and green eyes, and last time I saw him, he was taking my father away in an ambulance.

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