LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR
Berlin, Germany, Present Day
My first day in Berlin was what my saba would have called a balloon day. A crystalline-blue sky without a single cloud, everything so bright that I wondered if I had time to run back up to the hotel for sunglasses. Instinctively, I touched my purse at my side. Passport, wallet, phone. Everything necessary for survival. At home, it was probably still snowing. Here, the air was vivid and crisp, like biting into an apple.
I chose to be in Berlin, even though Saba hadn’t wanted me to come. The crowd parted around me on the sidewalk, oblivious to the tiny war inside me.
Maybe today wasn’t a balloon day. Maybe it was just a day with a blue sky, like any other. In a city where I didn’t belong, thinking of my grandfather who hadn’t belonged here either. I was taking German because of Saba. Because he was German, the same way he was Jewish, and I didn’t know how to tell him that, to me, both of those identities were equal. I tried once, but that was when he could walk away from me. Now he just turned his head and his eyes went vacant. Mom said that was why he used the Hebrew word for grandfather, not the German or Yiddish words.
My mind was getting away from me again. I just needed to let go.
“Ellie Baum!” Mrs. Anderson, my teacher, stopped at the front of our group of sophomore and junior German students. She lowered her sunglasses to the end of her nose so she ended up squinting until her eyes almost disappeared. “You’re dawdling. Keep up! Everyone together!”
Keep up, let go. Same things. I grimaced. If I could have wished a balloon into existence, I would have, just to send Mrs. Anderson back to the United States. The rest of us could explore Berlin on our own. Basically everyone we’d met so far spoke English anyway, and the hotel wouldn’t know the difference. Mrs. Anderson shook out the map and held it in front of her, like a bullhorn shouting her tourist status.
I rolled my eyes and caught up with my best friend, Amanda. “This is ridiculous.”
Amanda handed me our itinerary. “If she has us walk much more, we’re going to see the whole city on the first day and we’ll have nothing left to do.”
Some spring break. I thought it’d be perfect: a chance to use my German, get out of snowy Pittsburgh, and bolster my college applications. It wasn’t too early to start worrying about those. What if this wasn’t worth it? What if during this entire trip I just felt worse and worse about leaving Saba behind and breaking his heart by coming here?
“You feel okay?” Amanda asked, frowning at me. “You look pale.”
I shoved the itinerary back into her hands as we meandered from our hotel toward the U-Bahn subway station. “I’m fine. Going to be a long week.”
“We’ll figure out how to make it fun,” Amanda promised, which wasn’t quite what I meant. Amanda’s idea of fun and mine tended to differ. She probably wanted to sweet-talk her way into some hot dance club tonight. Me? I was always the sidekick.
At home, I knew who I was. Here, I felt a little less like me, and a little more like the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor. I didn’t usually think of myself that way, but I couldn’t shake the feeling.
In the suburbs of Pittsburgh, people just drove everywhere, so I didn’t know what to expect from a subway, but the U-Bahn wasn’t that bad. It didn’t smell like pee, at least. Under Mrs. Anderson’s dour gaze, we packed ourselves into one car and slipped beneath the wall that once divided the city. And while some of my classmates were loud and obnoxious, no one really paid attention to us. The tunnel lights flashed by us, and my chest tightened. Deep breath, Ellie. I distracted myself by scrolling through my phone with Amanda, looking at the photos we’d taken so far.
“Girls, put those away,” called Mrs. Anderson.
What was she going to do? Put us on a plane back home because we had our phones out? We both ignored her.
Amanda showed me pictures she had taken of street art she’d seen, including one of windows within windows all the way back until I could see a faint hint of green, like pasture land. “Even graffiti is better in Europe,” she said.
I kept flipping through pictures, down to the ones that Saba and I took of his new dog a week ago. We talked about his dog, not about me going to Germany.
When I first signed up for the trip, I tried to tell him that Germany was different now than when he was here. He never returned to Berlin, not after escaping during the war. He didn’t want to listen to me. Or maybe he couldn’t.
A country never changes, Eleanor. It’s not a person. They killed six million Jews. The people you see? They sat. They let it happen.
I swallowed hard and put away my phone, looking up to smile at Amanda and the other girls. I was here. I needed to put guilt away and just figure out how to enjoy my time here.
“Potsdamer Platz!” Mrs. Anderson called out. “Redstone High School, this is our stop!”
There she went again, sharing her neon tourist sign with the rest of us. Apparently, blending in was for other people. The locals on the metro gave us knowing looks as we and a hundred other people with cameras slung around their necks and maps in their hands pushed our way out the door, chattering in all different languages. The subway station dazzled with glossy white tile as we stomped up the stairs.
I seriously regretted not having sunglasses. Glittering, modern buildings formed a protective shield around the plaza. People moved in huge crowds at varying speeds. A woman in a business suit pushed her way through a crowd of hyperblond tourists taking photos in front of the Potsdamer Platz station sign. A ticker sign displayed the international news on one of the buildings.
A memorial to the Berlin Wall stood in the middle of the crush. Mrs. Anderson guided us toward it with waving arms, like we wouldn’t be able to find it. Six slabs of the wall rose in front of us, covered in layers of vibrant graffiti, with commentary on plaques between them. It no longer looked like a wall this way, but rather a line of bright, colorful people linking arms. Red rover, red rover, send a wrecking ball and freedom right over.
Most people milled around the pieces of the wall, taking pictures of it, taking pictures of themselves with it. I just stood there. I didn’t know what to do, but I didn’t want to take a picture with the wall. I didn’t know why we took pictures of ourselves with symbols of tyranny and oppression. Maybe it was a way of remembering. Maybe it was the only way we knew how to say we recognized the importance of everything that had happened to bring down the wall.
I touched the wall with my forefinger, middle finger, and ring finger, the same three fingers I pressed to the space between my eyes when I said the Shema, the holiest of Jewish prayers. I tried to think of something profound to say, but couldn’t. Instead, I whispered, “I’m glad you’re in pieces now.”
I glanced around nervously, worried I’d been overheard whispering to stone, but no one paid any attention. Next to me, a middle-aged man with rippled scars like burns on the backs of his brown hands studied the wall with a pensive look on his face. He looked old enough to remember the wall when it divided the city. Maybe he had been one of those people who sat on the wall the night it came down, cheering and helping East Berliners climb over. Maybe he had been an East Berliner.
Maybe your imagination’s running wild, I chided myself.
Then the man and I watched together as someone leaned past him, pressing chewing gum into the wall with his thumb. It stuck there, a little blue piece of gum and a thumbprint. Enough of a print to identify him.
The gum chewer disappeared into the crowd as quickly as he’d come. All of a sudden, the world felt incredibly small. Like everyone else around us had disappeared and left just the man with the scarred hands and me trying to understand why chewed-up gum and a fingerprint seemed so profound. We are strange, sometimes, in the ways we choose to bear witness.
The man sighed, frowning, and then tipped his face toward the blue, blue sky. He said in a British accent, his voice low, “This is how I want to remember the wall. Like this.”
I blinked, surprised that he wasn’t German, and looked around to see if he was talking to anyone else. But it was still just the two of us standing at this panel. When I turned, the man was gone, his words lingering in the air.
“Some history must be remembered. The other history, like where we killed millions of Jews, not so much,” mocked Amanda, appearing at my shoulder. She reached around for my map, and I relinquished it.
My mind was still stuck on the man and how I wished I’d thought of something to say in response. But what would I have said? I couldn’t even think of anything to say to Amanda. Not really. I had seen pictures of Berlin’s Holocaust memorial, and it was in no way small, but her words felt too much like trying to compare two different tragedies in Germany’s history. The twentieth century hadn’t played nice with Europe. Or maybe it had been the other way around. My chest knotted. Did defending Germany now mean apologizing for events of the past? Were memorials apologies?
I tuned back in to catch Amanda saying, “There’s a cool club near here. They say that it’s been there since 1946.”
“Yeah, because a club totally sounds like me.” I yanked the map back and rolled my eyes at her. Amanda stuck her tongue out at me. Predictable. She’d be sneaking out tonight, and I’d be covering for her. Always, always the sidekick.
Mrs. Anderson unfolded her tour-guide booklet and read aloud to us amid a sea of tourists about how this had been one of the busiest intersections in all of Europe between the World Wars. It was destroyed in World War II and then bulldozed for the death strip that existed on the east side of the wall. I tried to imagine this shiny, busy, tourist-filled place as nothing but a dirt strip with barbed wire so the guards could shoot those trying to make a run for it—and failed. People had died here on the dirt beneath this plaza, trying to reach freedom.
Places can be victims of history too.
Behind me, I could hear Mrs. Anderson exclaim, “When in Berlin, ich bin ein Berliner!”
And some smart-ass classmate of mine said, “You’re a jelly doughnut?”
I had to press my lips together to keep the grin off my face as my classmates burst into laughter and Mrs. Anderson huffed at us. She acted like she didn’t know we’d be like this and she hadn’t been teaching most of us for at least two years. We were burned out after a red-eye flight across the ocean. I needed a nap. Or caffeine. A vanilla latte, maybe. I began to scan the streets for a Starbucks.
An elbow collided with my ribs, and I turned to glare at Amanda. She giggled and tilted her head to the left, a wide, sparkling grin on her face. “Check him out.”
Sitting on a park bench was a guy, maybe a few years older than us, with an earring and tattoos. His feet tapped out a rhythm as he strummed a guitar. It was a little cold for stringed instruments outside so he kept trying and failing to tune it. Still, he was cute in a shaggy hipster kind of way. Definitely more Amanda’s type than mine. He caught us staring and winked. He sang out a line from a horribly overplayed song from like two years ago, and Amanda practically melted.
“Come on, let’s listen to him real quick,” she begged me, pulling at my arm. I glanced doubtfully at the group. Not that I wanted to be around Mrs. Anderson anymore, but I really didn’t want to get in trouble for falling behind again. Then Amanda, who knew all my weaknesses, said, “You can practice your German and tell your mom you weren’t shy the whole trip. Two birds, one hot, gorgeous, guitar-strumming stone.”
“I’ve been social,” I protested, gesturing over my shoulder at the group.
Amanda snorted. “Get out of your head and live a little, Baum. You’re in Europe.”
I had no suitable comeback so I let her drag me over to the guy on the bench. He laughed throatily and lit a cigarette as we approached. I wrinkled my nose and tried to step upwind of him. He couldn’t have been more of a stereotype if he tried. Maybe he was trying. It clearly worked. Amanda was blushing before we even said anything. The guy winked at me, and I turned away before I could ask him something awkward like whether his face tattoos hurt. I stared at his shoes as he said, “American girls!”
Amanda giggled, brushing her hair over her shoulder. I snorted. He gave her a patient smile and tossed me a wink. Definitely Amanda’s type. It took me a few minutes of helping her with the vocabulary, but she finally managed to ask in very rudimentary German if he lived in Berlin. How she ever got to German II would be beyond me if I hadn’t helped her through every group project and homework assignment.
As he went through the motions of speaking like a five-year-old to her, my gaze slid over his shoulder and I watched a red balloon drifting over the grass, the string dragging on the ground. Some kid must have accidentally let it go. It made for a great picture, though, that solitary balloon floating without rising higher, surrounded by all the oblivious people and this beautiful day.
Just like Saba’s balloon from his stories. A balloon, on a balloon day.
The balloon drifted closer, and higher. The knot of my heart untangled in my chest. I took a deep breath, relaxing enough to smile for the first time that day. Saba would love this. He’d know it was an apology to him, not on behalf of Germany like a memorial.
I grabbed Amanda’s arm and interrupted her conversation with the guy, much to his evident relief. I pulled my phone out of my purse and waved it at her. “Hey, take a picture of me with that balloon.”
“What?” She took the phone and my purse, frowning at me. I could practically hear her saying, Baum, you’ve lost it. Keep it together in front of the hot guy.
“For my grandfather,” I called over my shoulder as I stepped toward the balloon. “Just take the photo, Amanda. I’ll email it to my mom tonight.”
The balloon was small and round and red, and so perfect. I reached out and grabbed its string. I felt a sharp jerk right between my ribs on my left side, and the world spun black.
East Berlin, German Democratic Republic, March 1988
This night was not my night. First, a Passenger went missing. Then, everywhere I went looking for him, there were Volkspolizei. Vopos, crawling all over the city like cockroaches. It was as if—and scheiße, I didn’t want to believe this—we’d been ratted out by someone. I shoved my hands into my cloak pockets, turning over the key to the workshop and safe houses in my fingers. The metal of the key never got cold, and it kept the fingertips of my left hand warmer than my gloves. In my right, I carried a knife to slash the balloon.
Wasn’t right for a balloon to linger.
I’d no way to tell if my Passenger this week, a young guy named Garrick, had made it successfully to the other side of the wall. Usually, we could see a light in the church over there turn on when the Passenger landed. Tonight, no light. He might have landed anywhere along the wall. We just had to pray not inside the Todesstreifen on this side. The death zone was no place for a guy with a red balloon. I turned every corner with a steady chant in my head: Come on, Garrick. Be there.
Sometimes things went wrong with balloons. I had seen it before—a Passenger who let go too early and broke the magic free, making the balloon and the Passenger both visible. Usually that ended well if it happened on the other side of the wall. On this side of the wall, it would be the end if the police found him before I did. The police weren’t completely incompetent. They knew we were getting people out somehow, and I was willing to bet a red balloon that they knew it wasn’t natural.
I crossed the Karl-Marx-Allee, sticking to the shadows. There was no strict curfew in place, but I was in no mood to be stopped by the police. Even though my German was nearly perfect, they’d know I was not a native. And my ability to hold on to my temper and my secrets was admittedly tenuous. I was just here by circumstance. And circumstance kept me here. Until that changed, I played the best game I could and did the best job I could.
Tonight, it felt like a cursed job.
A few streets over, a car horn blew and tires squealed. The footing was pretty slick, especially where the road crossed the trolley tracks. The slush was accumulating at a steady rate now. Late snow for us.
I searched street after street in my sector, hoping with every block that Mitzi Weber, my partner, was having better luck north of me. Balloons had specific trajectories, and this one’s shouldn’t have altered too much. I figured if Garrick had fallen from it, he could have run off to hide anywhere. He was a more-than-wanted man by the East German government. Anyone with that target on their back kept their head down. They had one foot in the grave.
Didn’t we all.
I was about to give up and go home, find Ashasher and Aurora, and tell them something went terribly wrong when I saw movement down an alley to my left. I paused midstride and backed up to stare into the shadows. My hands gripped the key and the knife as tightly as possible. The wind picked up the snow and blew it in a big, wild way down the alley, and then I saw it. A red balloon. The red balloon. It burst out from the shadows, held by its tether, and my heart stopped. Everything around me was in motion, but my heart just…stopped.
The person holding the balloon turned and began to run away from me, very clearly not Garrick. Someone who was not a Passenger was holding a balloon, and it hadn’t disappeared. Scheiße. I lurched into a run after the person and the balloon.
“Halt!” I shouted, glancing behind me. Now would be a terrible time to attract the attention of the police.
But I couldn’t let the person get away. Not now. Not with the balloon. They didn’t slow down. Didn’t even turn around to acknowledge me. Warnings clanged through my chest, outracing the adrenaline in my veins. Danger. Let it go. Safer. I nearly stopped pursuing them. Then a car backfired behind me, followed by rhythmic footsteps and a single shout. Vopos.
Nothing to lose now. Cursing under my breath, I ran as fast as I could on the slippery cement. I grabbed the person’s elbow. “Will you hold up? I just need to ask you about this blasted balloon!”
She—oh fuck, a girl, it was definitely not supposed to be a girl—twisted against my grip, threw her head back, and let out a scream that couldn’t have not been heard by the exact people we needed to avoid. I shoved her back against the wall, covering her mouth. I glanced back up the alley to see if anyone saw us. Turning my head was a nearly fatal mistake. Her knee jerked up, slamming me between the legs. Stars slashed across my vision. My fingers closed instinctively on her cheeks as I gasped.
She bit me, and I yanked my hand from her, cursing.
The Vopos had definitely heard her scream. Voices stormed down alleys all around us, the wet stone making their distance from us hard to calculate. She hadn’t let go of the damn balloon. In the streetlights, I could see the double A stamps for Ashasher and Aurora, the two balloon makers. She had Garrick’s balloon, this girl who was trying to decide what direction to run—like it mattered.
Didn’t she know? In East Germany, wherever you ran, they followed you. I caught her arm and shook it a bit, trying to get her attention. I spoke slowly, because I wasn’t sure if she was firing on all cylinders. “Who are you? Why do you have Garrick’s balloon?”
What came out of her mouth was far worse than I could have imagined. It wasn’t her words—“I don’t know Garrick. It’s my balloon. Let me go!”—but her terrible German and her American accent. She was American. Perhaps she’d forgotten to go back to the checkpoint. I could get her there, trade safety for the balloon. That’d untangle this particular snarl in this messy night.
“What checkpoint did you come through? Where are your papers?” I asked her, trying to keep my voice low and steady. “Where did you find this balloon?”
“I don’t understand,” she said, trying to yank away from me. “I don’t have any papers. My passport’s in my purse. I don’t even have my phone on me. I have to find Amanda.”
She could be playing me—and doing a good job because I couldn’t believe this confused girl with a terrible accent could be a spy or have gotten so lost she didn’t know what “papers” meant. Or something had gone unbelievably, terribly wrong. Worse than even a stolen balloon and a missing Passenger. I ran my eyes over her, her thin canvas-cloth shoes, her skirt and short-sleeved shirt. The way she shivered. She wasn’t dressed for this weather.
Footsteps behind us, shouts echoing off walls, and her second scream restarted my heart. In times of panic, focus either completely dissolves, or sharpens to the point of pain. My brain chose pain. There were worse choices.
“No time,” I said. To her or to myself, I couldn’t tell. I grabbed her hand, pushing off the slippery ground into a run. I dropped the German because all the saints in the Catholic Church couldn’t save her if she didn’t listen to me now. “Run. Do not let go of that balloon.”
I’d dragged a screaming toddler through a market a time or two. Running with this girl away from the police who wanted to beat, torture, and imprison us was similar. Exasperated, I stopped and dropped her hand suddenly. She landed with a splat in the wet snow. The streetlights reflected off the tears streaking her cheeks.
I crouched in front of the girl and pulled that damn red balloon down between us so she couldn’t see anything but the balloon. The reason we were out here after curfew, running around in the snow. The balloon bounced between us, the magic still clinging to it, sticky and sparkling and making my nose itch.
“You can stay here,” I said in German, as slowly as I could, trying to remember how Mitzi soothed anxious Passengers, “and get caught with this. And they will torture you. They are Volkspolizei, and you do not want to know what it is like in their prisons.”
Confusion flickered across her face, and she asked in German, “Was?”
I didn’t have time to explain. I blew out softly, and the balloon bounced against her face. She wiped tears off her cheeks with the backs of her stiff, red hands. I said, “You don’t have any reason to trust me.”
Her eyes bounced up to me, like I had hit on something she had thought was a big, terrible secret. Of course she didn’t trust me. I didn’t trust her. Trust was a commodity, and neither of us had traded a damn thing for it.
“You stay and take your chances with the police, girl with the terrible German accent,” I said, moving the balloon to watch the panic crisscross her face. “Or you come with me and stay safe.”
I stood and offered my hand again. Take it. Take it, lost American girl. If she said no, I’d have to take the balloon from her by force and hightail it out of there. I couldn’t risk my life, and our work, for some lost tourist.
She wiped her face all over her sleeve and took my hand with the one not clutching the balloon string. I pulled her up off the ground, and nearly into my arms. I jumped back, startled by her proximity, and then by the sound of banging doors, shouts, and someone crying. Lights went on in the second-story windows of the houses farther down the street. We were about to lose the small advantage we had. I pressed the balloon into her chest, wrapping the string around her wrist, and she folded her arms around it, closing her eyes for a split second. Her hand squeezed the string, not letting it go. Not letting the balloon float back up to window level, where other people or the police could see it.
“Komm,” I told her. And that she understood.
This time, she did not struggle. I checked a street sign as we passed. I was a little turned around, even in a city I was paid to know like the back of my hand. I was dizzied by the wall, police, and a strange American girl clutching a balloon. My life was always a juggling act. Tonight felt like the dark kept lobbing balls straight at me with no warning.
We didn’t slow down, no matter what we heard. The Vopos were looking for us. They had been tipped off, either about me or a failed balloon, or maybe they’d found Garrick. This thought made my heart constrict. I’d get him out of prison if I had to. He was my Passenger, and for whatever reason, it seemed like half the Volkspolizei were after us tonight.
I just needed to find Mitzi. She would know what to do.
We’d keep the girl safe and then figure out how to get her back to West Germany. Clean, simple, back to business. We could probably just shove her at the border patrol at the wall. Even if there wasn’t a record of her coming in at that gate, if she acted like she had head trauma or something—or if we gave her legitimate head trauma—they might not worry too much. She was just a kid, after all.
I reached the rendezvous point and dropped the girl’s hand. The small park between two apartment complexes had been risky—anyone could be watching—but we’d found a corner that was largely shielded from the view of the residents. A short garden wall led to an alley running along the back side of one apartment complex, giving us another exit if needed.
I moved around her to peer into the shadows, looking for Mitzi. The girl with the balloon stood stock-still, her eyes running down the alley like she was considering leaving, but her feet didn’t move. I could run her down if I needed to, but for some reason, I didn’t think she’d leave.
Finally, a flash by the corner of the apartment building, a flip of blue hair, and I relaxed. “About time you showed up.”
Mitzi came out of the shadows, waiting until she was past the trees and the light of the windows before she pulled off her hat so her hair showed bright and blue, a beacon in the night. She tended to stand out in a place made of gray, black, white, and red. She was the antithesis of the East German regime. It’d taken a lot of cajoling to get her to wear the hat, but she’d been picked up twice already by the police. The next time she might not get so lucky.
“You brought a friend,” she said, swaying her hips a little like she did when she thought she could tease me, or maybe irritate the girl. Mitzi and I weren’t like that. She was probably the only person in the whole world I actually trusted, and one of only two people I gave a shit about. I wasn’t exactly her type, so as much as we played with each other like a cat and a mouse, we were friends, and friends alone.
“Thought you might want the company,” I replied dryly.
She ran her fingers across my chest, her eyes sharp and sparkling. “Hello, handsome.”
“Not in the mood,” I said, cutting the game short. I tipped my head toward the girl. “Worse than we thought. That’s his balloon.”
Mitzi turned to the girl who was shaking—from cold or from nerves, I couldn’t tell, and now that Mitzi was here to take charge, I couldn’t really care. I was tired, and I wanted to check the radio waves to find out if Garrick had been picked up by the police.
“Streets crawling with the Volkspolizei,” Mitzi muttered, taking in the girl. “Think they’re looking for her?”
That had not occurred to me, and I instantly felt ashamed for not thinking of it myself. I scowled sideways at the girl, who was looking at us, eyes wide. She looked like a damn deer in headlights. It’d be hard to believe, but Mitzi was right. She could be a criminal. She could have done something to Garrick and taken his balloon. She could be…I swore sharply, stuffed my hands in my pockets, and stomped a few steps away from Mitzi and the girl while I tried to gather my thoughts.
Everything was supposed to be so simple. They’d protect my sister, and I’d do this job for them. For two years…That was the deal. Two years of only minor incidents with my Passengers. Other Runners had all sorts of screwups, but I didn’t. I was good at this. And just like that, it unraveled into a pile of useless threads. All because some American girl had to grab the damn balloon. Wherever she’d found it.
I didn’t have the time or the energy to handle this, but I didn’t have the option not to handle it. That was one of their rules. Once they gave us the balloon, it was our responsibility. We ran the balloons; we dealt with the Passengers; we dealt with any balloon and Passenger problems. They only had to make the magic and identify the Passengers. We were the ones getting the Passengers over the wall.
Or, some days, not.
Complications were not supposed to exist on this side of the wall. Nope. This was not happening—except that it absolutely was.
Mitzi was asking the girl the same questions I had, but of course Mitzi was succeeding where I’d failed. “Why do you have Garrick’s balloon?”
The girl frowned, her eyes going over Mitzi’s teal hair to meet my eyes. “I don’t know who Garrick is. I saw the balloon, and I grabbed it. And then I was here.”
The words punched the breath right out of my body.
And then I was here, she said. Like she couldn’t remember coming to East Berlin. How come she hadn’t mentioned that yet? How come she hadn’t asked us to take her to the American checkpoints?
The balloon only made Passengers invisible when it carried them. It didn’t render them unconscious. She should have remembered coming over here.
Mitzi was so still that I was sure she had stopped breathing. I gripped the key in my pocket so hard it dug into my palm and burned me. The pain cleared my mind, kept me from shaking. “Where are you from?”
The girl didn’t seem to care that I’d switched into English, though Mitzi’s head snapped around and she growled, low and deep in her throat, an implicit threat in how she stepped toward me. There was nothing to be done about it though. I knew I couldn’t—shouldn’t—use English, not on the streets, but I also couldn’t risk the girl not understanding me.
The girl peered around the alley and said, “Pittsburgh. If I could borrow one of your phones, I can probably figure out how to get home. Or to the hotel, I mean.”
Phones. Like we were going to take her to our safe house. I said to her, the tension so high that it walked the distance between us on a tightrope, “But why are you here? This is not a joke.”
Childish fear burned from her eyes, replaced by sparks and anger. She let the balloon go from her chest and yanked the string, making the balloon bounce in the air. I glanced around quickly, hoping no one’s curtains were pulled back to see the commotion on the street. “Why would I joke about this? We’re here on a school trip to Berlin. I was walking in a park when—”
Better, I thought, though my heart tripped when she said Berlin. I guess for people who didn’t live in East Berlin, there was no need to clarify. Why would she willingly go to East Berlin? No one came here willingly.
Mitzi jumped in, her English rough and her accent thick. Her eyes stayed on the balloon, red and simple, the long, white string, the faint double A imprinted on the side. “What park?”
The girl’s eyes jumped back and forth between us quickly. “I don’t know. I can’t remember. It was near a subway station. There were a ton of huge glass buildings.” She scanned our surroundings and added sourly, “Not here. Clearly.”
“Not helpful,” Mitzi said to her. Or to me. Both of us, maybe. I glared at her.
“I’ve only been in Berlin for, like, four hours,” the girl said, emphasizing her sentence so strangely that my brain spun to keep up, even though we were using English, my second language.
“East or West?” Mitzi asked the question we’d been dancing around for far too long now.
The girl’s face contorted, puzzled. “Uh, I don’t know? I mean, I guess it used to be the East. Yeah, it must have been the East. There were old pieces of the wall there.”
I almost fell to the ground.
Instead, I dropped into a squat, pressing my forehead against my knees and closing my eyes. Snowflakes landed on my cheeks and the back of my neck, but I was too busy trying to breathe to care about the cold. Thoughts of her words used to be the East, the lost look on her face in the alley, and her clothes made for sunnier and warmer days ran around my mind, lighting me up and electrocuting me, battering my mind with their implications, complications, hopes, and dashed futures. Futures. I’d heard about this particular magic, this possibility, when my sister had first dabbled in magic, but it was forbidden.
Mitzi’s hand closed around one of mine. “Focus. We have to keep her safe—”
“Did you hear her?”
“I heard her,” Mitzi said softly. “Kai—”
“Someone tampered with a balloon, Mitzi.” I pressed my palm into the snow. “I got it straight from Aurora. I didn’t leave it, not once. Did you hear what she just said? That’s the only way it could happen, right?”
“I want to go home.” The girl’s voice was strong and clear, like she could coax us into returning her to where she belonged. She hadn’t pieced it together yet. Sure, she might realize that this wasn’t a dream and she was damn cold and wet. But she hadn’t figured out the biggest problem.
Her chin lifted while Mitzi and I studied her, and I had to give her a little credit for that. She was gutsy, even if she didn’t know it. To survive time travel, I guess you’d have to be.
“We’re not even sure how you got here, kid,” Mitzi said in German. I shuddered and covered my face with my hands again. It was bad enough that she was American. It was worse if what she was saying was true.
“Balloons are only supposed to go over walls. This is different, isn’t it? Something went wrong.” The girl looked at me, and then she glanced around us, then toward the street from which Mitzi had come, toward the hope of streetlights and the wall and wherever she came from.
My training said this was the part where I put the knife into her gut. Kill her. Let the secret of the balloons go with her to the grave. But the training was for people who cared about the cause. I didn’t. I was here for Sabina, and she was safely tucked in bed. Hopefully. And for all my faults, it was curiosity that I was sure would kill me like a cat. I wanted to know where the girl came from, how she got here.
“What do you know about balloons?” Mitzi’s English sucked, but she knew how to rise to an occasion.
“Nothing,” the girl said too quickly, wrapping her arm around herself. We said nothing, and finally her mouth thinned into a pressed line. She exhaled hard through her nose, a puff of white air in front of her face. “I’ve heard a story, okay?”
“What story?” This time, I found my voice.
Her eyes dropped to her feet, a strange expression flitting across her face. It took me a breath to recognize it as surprise and regret. “My saba—I mean, my grandfather—he told me about the balloons. I mean, it could be a story.”
But her hand gripped the balloon string. It wasn’t a story. She knew that now, if she hadn’t before.
Mitzi’s eyes shifted to me, and she repeated. “A story about the balloons.”
And sure enough, the girl said carefully in German, “He said there were balloons, magic ones. They saved people.”
“Oh my god,” Mitzi said, unable to hold on to the revelations from a girl standing in front of us shivering and clutching a balloon. “Kai—”
“Mitzi,” I said, trying to press a warning into my voice. I didn’t want her to speak the truth, for our sake, and for this girl’s sake.
“Kai,” Mitzi repeated, never taking her eyes off the girl. “This is above us. This is for the Council. We’re just Runners.”
“I know.” I shoved my hands in my pockets. “But don’t you want to know?”
She shifted, uncomfortable. “It’s not right.”
She wasn’t wrong. The magic that involved time travel was so illegal that it was blacklisted. The balloon makers could be stripped of their magic for it. And to be stripped of magic wasn’t a pleasant experience. But before they found out who did this and sent this girl back to where she belonged, I had to know.
“The wall,” I said. Mitzi hissed. She liked rules much more than I did. I just needed to be careful. If the girl thought this through, she’d realize that it wasn’t the year she thought it was. “What year did it come down?”
“I knew you weren’t German,” the girl whispered. “Your accent. It’s weird.”
“Oh my god, we are in so much trouble. This is so bad,” Mitzi murmured. She shook her head as if to clear it and shot me a sharp-edged look. “Enough questions. Where are you taking her?”
“I’m not letting you take me anywhere but home.” The girl’s voice pitched wildly, nearly screaming the words. She backed up from us. She yanked the balloon. It made a small sound of stress, wobbling above us, then straightening again.
“Oh, shut up,” Mitzi and I said at the same time. Then all three of us fell silent, listening to the cars approaching on the road. Headlights splashed against the walls.
“Go,” Mitzi told me, her eyes moving back and forth between the girl and me. She squeezed my arm with a thin hand. “I’ll lead them elsewhere. Take her to the safe house.”
I gripped her coat as she started to step away from me. “See you in an hour.”
She stepped back and rose on her tiptoes to press a kiss to my cheek. “One hour, and we’ll make a plan.”
As she gave us a wave and a smile, dancing off through the shadows to draw away the attention of the police, I shouted after her, “I’m not getting your ass out of jail again!”
She yelled back over her shoulder, “I got myself out, you asshole! Don’t forget that!”
I grinned, relieved, because there was something a little frightening about letting your best friend dance off to keep the police from getting you. I offered my hand to the girl, who took it, but didn’t move at first. She twisted, looking over her shoulder.
“They’re going to catch her.”
“She’s fine,” I said, which was a nonanswer that the girl didn’t seem to catch. “Come on. The farther away we are, the better chance we give Mitz.”
I didn’t drop her hand as we walked through the city into a nicer neighborhood with housefronts in pale pastels with shutters and window boxes full of snow. We were both so cold that we had stopped shivering, never a good sign. I dropped her hand to get the key out of my pocket, and then her head dropped to her chest, her eyes closed, and she shook so violently that the balloon was waving in the air. I shoved the key in the lock. “Don’t die before we can get you home.”
“Can you get me home?” she asked me. And finally, she sounded as tired as I felt.
I opened the door and gestured her inside. “We’re going to try.”
The safe house was one of three we had in our sector of the city for Passengers. This was the one Garrick had been in, so it hadn’t been cleaned up yet. Dirty dishes sat on the table, the smell of stew lingering in the air. Garrick’s balloon had been tricky, I remembered now. Aurora had struggled with the magic, and Garrick had been in the house for ten days, instead of the typical seven. I shut the door behind us and locked it again with the key. Mitzi had her own. It’d be impossible for anyone without the heavy key to open these safe houses. Otherwise, we couldn’t guarantee the Passengers’ safety.
The balloon bumped against the ceiling, and the string hummed in the girl’s hand, like the balloon was speaking to us, like it was confused. Balloons were meant to go over walls, just as the girl had said. I had never seen a balloon inside a house. I had never heard a balloon hum. I’d moved through the sparsely furnished house to the kitchen before I realized the girl remained in the hallway, looking stunned.
“I’m not sure you’re dreaming.” I didn’t want to talk to her about it until Mitzi was back and she and I could figure out what the hell we were going to do with this girl from—wherever. “Come upstairs. You can stay here. We’ll get you home in the morning.”
I was glad to have my back to her when I said that. I was a terrible liar. Not that she was all together right now, her eyes all vacant and confused as they slipped around the house, but I didn’t need to be questioned on that.
She jerked the balloon. “And what about this?”
I hesitated. I didn’t want to see what happened when she let the balloon go, but then again, I did. If the balloon was truly dysfunctional, if its magic had been tampered with or written incorrectly, it shouldn’t do anything if she let it go. It could take the next person’s bare hand and yank them somewhere else, perhaps, but a normal balloon disappeared when the person for whom it was written let go. No bare hand, no skin on the string, then the balloon was gone. Theoretically. Balloons shouldn’t do what this one did.
I leaned on the railing. “Let it go.”
She stared up at it. “Can I get home without it?”
An astute question. And that was a bit of a shame. It’d be easier to lie to someone who wasn’t so quick to catch on. I said, “We can make you another one.”
She let go of the balloon. It floated to the ceiling, collided with the plaster, and rolled sideways. We both held our breath, but the balloon remained.
I glanced at her and found her studying me with careful blue eyes. Now that she was in the house and the light, I could see she was quite pretty. Her long, curly brown hair crept out of her hood on either side of her face and tangled at the ends where it looped into her scarf. She was underdressed for the weather, but that I understood. We didn’t usually get blizzards in March, that was for sure.
“In the morning,” I found myself saying, “I promise you. We’ll have a plan to get you home.”
She sagged, defeated, and nodded. She followed me upstairs and went silently into the room I showed her. I shut the door behind her and slumped back down the stairs. So much for sleep.