"Vous cherchez quelque chose de special?" he muttered without interest. Indifferent to my reply, he stuck a little label onto a book's spine. I indicated that I'd take a look around. The gesture he made in response was more dismissive than inviting. I stepped over to the shelves next to the window. My finger glided over the backs of the books as I looked out through the dull glass.
She was still sitting on the stone. A uniquely beautiful face. Outsized eyes, a seductively round forehead under reddish brown curls. Her face had a cunning, feline look and softly curving lips; her chin was too short and ran sharply back to her throat.
A butterfly lighted on the windowsill. The girl jerked her head up as though someone had bumped into her. Slowly, she laid the book aside, stood up, and walked over to the window, where the butterfly remained with trembling wings. As she approached, I withdrew between the bookshelves, step by step. She reached the low window on tiptoe, her eyes fixed on the butterfly. When she was only a few meters away, she stared in my directionand didn't notice me.
With several books in my hands, I was suddenly conscious of the shop owner's scrutiny. He closed up the pot of glue and stepped forward. "Vous avez trouve?" he asked.
I turned around, and so I didn't see if the butterfly flew away. The man was a head shorter than me; his balding scalp gleamed through his parted hair.
I took a step toward the exit. "Il y en a trop. Je ne sais pas comment choisir."
With that, I laid the books down, reached the open door, and crossed threshold and step in one stride. My boot struck the pavement hard.
She was gone. My eyes searched behind some bushes and then shifted to the gate at the end of the little street. Her book lay on the stone. I gazed at the slim volume without touching it. Le Zéro; the title meant nothing to me. Suddenly, as I looked up at all the shuttered windows, I felt that someone was watching me from behind them. Slowly, but covering a lot of ground with each step, I made for the black entrance gate and passed through to the street outside, avoiding two sullenlooking French cops on patrol. I turned into the treelined avenue.
"Where have you been?" the SS corporal asked. I hadn't slept well, I was
nervous, and I'd been waiting for two hours. I'd tried to find a comfortable
position on the bench in the hall. An unbroken stream of officers came and went,
and I kept having to snap to attention. My military pay book and papers had been
checked on the ground floor. Only after a telephone call had the guards let me
through. On the way up, I'd admired the green-veined marble stairs. Diplomats
and their ladies had strolled up and down these steps in days gone by. You could
almost forget where you were.
"Where were you?" the SS corporal repeated.
"Out here. Where else?" I replied without standing up. We were equal in rank, this fellow and I. The first day in a new posting determines how you're going to be treated there.
"You'd better lose that tone of voice." He directed me to follow him. "Do you know shorthand?" he asked over his shoulder.
A simple yes would have sufficed. I said, "If I didn't, I probably wouldn't be here."
"Is that so?" The SS corporal turned around and grinned unpleasantly. "We've got a lot of people in this place who don't know a thing about stenography."
I clamped my jaws together and walked on in silence. I was twentytwo, and I hadn't yet been to the front. But I'd become a soldier at an age when it couldn't be avoided forever. I was one of two brothers. My father didn't have the money to send us both to university, but Otto had been allowed to study medicine. I'd begun a law course, just to show that I could get by without the family's help; however, the war had relieved me of making any further decisions.
Excerpted from April in Paris by Michael Wallner Copyright © 2007 by Michael Wallner. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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