A gut-wrenching flash of memory flooded Louis’ head; powerful enough that it forced him to reach for the wall of the nearest building, or risk collapsing onto the sidewalk.
The throng of pedestrians ambling by gave him a wide berth, most picking up their pace. Some carried looks of worry on their faces, as if he were a free freak show right there on the street. A few showed pity, while others still wore expressions of wonder.
The flash of memory turned to visions of haunting eyes. Eyes he hadn’t looked upon since childhood. A childhood he had tried unsuccessfully to forget.
Even now the cascading ash filled his memory, along with the echoing cries, and whispers of the gas chambers; all as fresh as the breakfast from just a few hours earlier.
He straightened himself, looking back over his shoulder for the cause of the attack. There, standing not twenty feet away, waiting patiently and oblivious to Louis’ presence, was the man he could never, ever forget.
He slowly turned and took several tentative steps, testing the strength of his legs. Once assured he could, he retraced his steps, heading toward his nightmare rather than fleeing.
Questions assailed him, too rapid for his mind to give even the hint of answers. More memories interspersed with the questions. Sights and sounds he hadn’t cared to remember continued to invade his consciousness.
Family, friends and loved ones long dead began to haunt his thoughts. He easily called to mind the long, cruel years he and his family had endured so long ago. Some directly from the hands of the man he was moving towards.
How would he deal with it now? Would these images set him back? Or would he have the strength to push on? He wasn’t sure.
As he neared the man from his past, the light changed, allowing the haunting form a short respite from the words Louis now felt an urge to vomit out.
Though at least ten to fifteen years his senior, the man seemed spry and easily kept a rapid, even pace. Louis was content to follow a few yards behind.
How many years had Louis been hoping that such a moment would occur? Although he’d never dreamt it would ever happen. His hand slid inside his outer coat pocket, fingers grasping the cool, metal object resting inside; squeezing it tightly for comfort.
He trailed the man several blocks until he entered a corner deli. Louis easily slid into the interior of the building, eyes quickly adjusting to the dim lighting, despite his age. He watched the man from a distance as he ordered, received his food, and took a seat in a corner booth.
Louis waited patiently, wondering how to approach, when the man’s gaze fell on his face, eyes ever so slightly widening for a split second before passing on.
Was that a knowing look in the man’s eyes? Recognition of who he was? Had he remembered Louis?
Before he could run out in fear, Louis settled himself and made his way to the man’s table. As he stopped before the memory from his past, he looked steadily into the man’s upturned face, locking onto his eyes.
Surely, he saw recognition in his tormentor’s eyes.
“Can I help you?” a feeble, shaky voice asked.
Louis remained silent, still grasping the object which gave him comfort and strength.
The man looked impatiently toward his quiet guest, slowly chewing a bite from his sandwich.
“Well,” he said after swallowing the mouthful of food.
Louis found his voice, stronger than he’d expected it to be, under the circumstance.
“Are you Deidrick? Deidrick Bonhoffer?”
The grizzled hands holding onto the sandwich shook almost imperceptibly as he replied to the query.
“You must have me mistaken for someone else, friend.”
Louis shook his head, grey hair falling across his forehead. He was positive, now that he’d heard the voice, that this man was who he thought him to be.
“No,” he challenged. “I don’t think I have. I could never forget those eyes, or that voice.”
Both men remained silent for a short time. The noise from the deli crowd filled the gap.
“My name,” Louis went on, “is Louis Roth. You might remember me better as Leibke Rothman, number 270145.”
As he finished speaking he slid up the sleeve of his jacket, revealing a series of numbers tattooed on his inner left forearm.
The man dropped the remains of his forgotten sandwich onto the paper plate sitting on the table before him. As he read and reread the numbers inscribed on the arm held out in front of his now visibly shaken face, Louis returned his right hand into his jacket pocket, grasping the object of his strength once again.
The man turned his gaze upward to catch Louis’ expression. What did he see? Was it anger? Fear? Loathing? Louis surely felt all those emotions, and more. But, above all, he felt peace.
As Deidrick sat in stunned silenced, tears slowly running down his cheeks, Louis pulled out a chair opposite him and sat down. He let out a deep breath, unsure now what to say. He had rehearsed his well thought out lines many times, but being face to face with this visage was so much different than speaking into a mirror.
Finally, Louis found the words and spoke.
“I have wanted so many times through the years to speak to you, wondering time and again if it would ever happen. Now that it’s here, I’m unsure how to proceed.”
Deidrick opened his mouth but was cut off when Louis held up his left hand.
“Please,” Louis interjected, “before my courage runs out.” He exhaled slowly. “The pain and suffering I endured, though a lifetime ago, can never be undone. The lost family and friends cannot be regained. Memories cannot be forgotten.”
He slowly pulled his right hand from concealment, grasping a dull metal object; fingers clenched tightly.
Deidrick’s gaze travelled from Louis’ eyes down to his outstretched hand, face showing visible concern now.
“I want to do so much more for all I endured at yours and other’s hands, but God has shown me the true path to freedom.”
Opening his hand, the metal object dropped out, dangling from a chain wrapped securely around withered fingers. As the cross swung pendulum-like, Louis asserted, “I forgive you.”