“The Grove” • Written and Narrated by Rob Dircks

“The Grove” • Written and Narrated by Rob Dircks

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Welcome to Listen To The Signal, short science fiction stories in audio, written and narrated by Rob Dircks. 

Hello, Rob here. As you know, some of these stories are better served if I talk about them after you’ve listened or read them, not before – and this is one of them. What I can tell you is that it’s been kicking around in my head for a couple of years, begging to get finished and out there. It’s the story of Ava, a dreamer. But not the kind of dreamer you might think. 

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“The Grove”

Written and narrated by Rob Dircks

“A boy holds up a small flower. There is only this moment. I reach out and take it from him, and he smiles.

“Then I wake up. 

“There is no boy, no flower. Only the smell of grass left in my nose, and the last of a breeze running across my hair.”

Dr. Farber jots in his notebook. “Is it in the grove? Like the last times?”  

“Yes. Again. Always in the grove. It’s the same dream for months. No, over a year now.”

“Why do you think it’s happening, Ava?” 

“I don’t know. But I’m there with many people. Waiting.” 

“Waiting for what?” 

“I don’t know. It’s peaceful. It’s a beautiful day. But…” 

“But what?” 

“But something is about to happen. Something bad.”

“How do you know?” 

“The look on the mothers’ faces.” 

“Ah. That’s the first time you’ve mentioned the mothers. What are they doing?” 

“They are holding their children. Like swans might wrap their wings around their babies. Protecting them.” 

“And yet you said it was peaceful. A beautiful day.” 

“Bad things can happen on beautiful days.” 

The session ended. Ava scheduled her next visit and headed back to her apartment. Put on her running shoes and took off along Chelsea Piers, taking deep breaths, sprinting, trying to outrun the dream. She almost laughed to herself – who was she kidding, she’d run thousands of miles, had a closet full of burned out sneakers as proof, but still the dreams chased her. 

The first was a long time ago. Back in Denver. When she was sixteen she would dream every night of a car crash. Every night, just a little more detail. The car became red, then it became a 2019 Corvette, then it had a Colorado license plate she could read, GHK583. And the streets grew signs, the corner of Church and Atlantic Avenue, and the outline of the other car, all happening too fast, and then the people inside. Dead. And the mother’s face. Untouched, no blood, simple and beautiful. The hint of a smile. Also holding her child like a swan, until the very end. She sat next to the woman, each night, without will of her own, being pulled, leaning closer, uncomfortable, until she could hear the whisper of the woman’s last breath. The whisper saying, “I forgive you.” 

She dreaded sleep each night after that. Being told you’re forgiven by a dying woman in a dream wreaks havoc on the mind of a neurotic teenager. What had she done wrong? What needed forgiveness? What was she guilty of? She was not perfect, she knew well. She had secret things she would never share with anyone, her sister, her best friend, certainly not her mother. But she hadn’t killed anyone in a car crash. Hadn’t hurt anyone at all, not on purpose at least. Why was she being punished? 

When it became unbearable, the dream endlessly repeating, she called her friend Tess. 

“Hey. Isn’t your cousin a cop?”

“Yeah. He’s an asshole.” 

“Can he check a license plate? From another state?” 

“No. I have no idea. Hey, are you in trouble?” 

“No. Duh. You know I get intense dreams, it’s one of those.” 

“Ugh. Oh, did I tell you my mom won’t let you sleep over any more? You crazy talk in your sleep. It freaks her out. She gets freaked way too easily.” 

“Whatever. I need this, Tess. I’m missing school and work, and I’m generally just losing it. You think you could ask him?” 

“About this license plate thing? No.” 

“Come on. Please.” 

“Ugh. If I do this, he’s going to lord it over me for like a year. You need to give him something.” 

“Ewww.” 

“No, I mean like fifty bucks. I think he’d do it for fifty bucks.” 

Tess’ cousin had a buddy of a buddy check the plate, he had to call in a couple of favors, so seventy-five dollars later she had an answer: On July fifteenth of last year, a red 2019 Corvette with that plate had run a red light and plowed into a Toyota Corolla, killing the two people inside. The driver wasn’t drunk, but she was underage with no license or insurance and they found pot in the car. She said it was her boyfriend’s car and pot, but it didn’t matter and she was tried as an adult, convicted of vehicular manslaughter, and sentenced to fourteen years. 

Ava wasn’t surprised by the story.  She had begun to suspect she had some strange defect in her brain, something that picked up pieces of the past, some random event, and projected herself into that event during sleep. She actually would’ve been surprised if the plate search hadn’t turned up anything.  No, she wasn’t surprised by the story, but she was surprised the dream continued. She thought she’d seen what she needed to see. 

No, need was the wrong word. Why would she need do see any of this? 

Need, need, need. Now that she said the word, it wouldn’t stop nagging at her.

Two months passed.

Three months. 

Still the dream.

One day she looked down at her own brand-new drivers license. Picked up the keys, called in sick again to work after school, told her mother she was sleeping over Tess’ for the weekend, and headed northeast on Route 76 to the Colorado Correctional Facility in Sterling.  

Sitting at the small table, staring out through the barred windows, she noticed it was a beautiful day. In a way even more beautiful in the contrast provided by this dreary visitors’ room, and all the grime, and the bars on the windows, and the smell of bleach and cigarettes.

The girl shuffled in and sat down. “Who are you?” 

“Ava.” 

“I mean why are you here? I agreed to see you just to get out of the cell. They didn’t tell me anything. Why are you here?” 

“I… I don’t know.” 

“Great. Another kook. Are you here to tell me I’m going to hell? Whatever. If it is, let’s just end it now.” She rose to turn, and Ava saw how hard it was for her, how heavy, just getting up from a chair, the weight of two years, the weight of twelve more coming. 

“No. Wait. It’s the woman. The woman you…” 

The girl stopped and turned, glaring. “Who do you think you are?” 

“Please, sit. I have something I’m supposed to say, for almost two years now.” 

Still glaring, but curious, the girl leaned over the table. “Say it.” 

Ava tapped her fingers nervously. “The woman, the mother, she said-“

“She said? She’s not alive, Ava whoever-you-are. She can’t say anything.” Her voice caught in her throat. “I killed her. And her son. What are you doing here?” 

“Listen to me. I don’t know how I know this, but I do. The mother, I know her, in a way, and I know the last thing she said…” 

The girl leaned in even closer, their eyes an inch apart. The guard stepped toward them. In the moment before he grabbed her, those eyes flashed with rage, and with sadness, and regret, and a pleading, a desperate pleading for the words that she thought would never come, never come from anyone, ever, for the rest of her godforsaken life. Tears welled up, and she balled up her fists, and she spat at Ava, and Ava whispered, “I forgive you.” 

The guard pulled the girl back, breaking the spell, and Ava saw something different in her eyes as she was led away. Something had broken, just slightly, like a crack in a dam. 

Ava never saw the girl again. But she slept dreamless sleep again. For years.

Until the man with the guitar. Ava listened to him play, from behind the stage, night after night. It wasn’t a nightmare at all, it was pleasant actually, he was a very talented singer and songwriter. He played to thousands of fans in a large theater, the lights nearly blinding her and obscuring their faces. There was no message in this dream, other than the sweet, philosophical musings of his lyrics:

When you’re ready

When you’re ready

It’ll come your way

When it comes your way

Are you ready? 

One night during the dream, out of curiosity more than a desire to make the dream go away, she walked up to the man, right in the middle of his song, and he stopped and turned, and the dream crowd hushed, and Ava saw a tear running down his cheek. 

“Your song is wonderful. Are those tears of bliss?” 

“No…” He thought for a moment, as if to decide whether he was ready to tell. “…there is a blackness in my heart.” 

“You sing of love. The words are beautiful.” 

“Beautiful words can hide ugly things.” 

Night after night, dream after dream, his eyes searched hers, wanting to share the secret, needing to answer the question, until finally he tore through the hesitation and asked her, “Am I a good enough father? Have I ruined it all?” 

And he reached into his pocket, and handed her a hundred dollar bill. And that’s how the dream always ended.

She knew, this time, that there would be no rest until the question was answered. And so she went about her detective duties, finding the man’s history. He was a somewhat well-known singer in the early 1970s, not famous enough for her to know who he was, but enough to fuel his tours and albums, and parties and alcohol and drugs, and women, and finally, a love child. 

Ava was living in Pasadena out of college, close enough to the singer’s home town to drive the couple of hours and track down the child. She found a man, Peter, now older than the singer himself was in the dream. The son. He was the manager at a Honda dealership in Santa Monica. She tracked his hours, and one rare wet Sunday she hopped over the puddles in the parking lot, ducked inside, and found the little glass-walled office with his nameplate.

Peter looked up from his papers. “Ah! Um, hello! I’ll have someone, Charlie, help you. He’s right there, the gentleman with the blue tie…” 

“No. I need to speak with you.” 

“Oh.” 

They stayed like that, her standing, dripping, him sitting, a little bewildered, for a long moment. They each said “Sorry” at the same time, then laughed, then he rushed around and pulled out one of the chairs, and they sat across from each other. 

“Okay, then. You’re wet. Can I get you something? A dry robe maybe? It’s free if you buy a new Accord.” 

She laughed. “No, thanks. Hi, Peter. I’m Ava. I have something strange to share. I’ve only ever done this once before, so forgive me, and try to keep an open mind.”

Peter’s face fell, and his voice hushed. “Don’t tell me. Any time I hear the words strange and open mind it has something to do with my father. Is it his fourth wedding? Fifth? Is he dead? Has he become dictator of some small Caribbean country? Nothing will surprise me.”

Ava stifled a giggle. “No, God no. He’s still alive. I think I’m supposed to bring you to him.” 

“Great. Let’s go.” 

“Wait. Really? Right now?” 

“No. Not in a million years. Look, I don’t know if he put you up to this, but-” 

“I have dreams. In the dreams, every time, at the end, your father hands me a hundred dollar bill. What does that mean?” 

Silence. Only the sound of the nearby coffee maker dripping onto the empty hot plate below. Peter stared at her for a long second. Tapped his fingers on the desk. Squinted at Ava. Then he leaned back to an old file cabinet and yanked a stuck drawer open. Pulled out something and placed it between them. “He used to send me these once in a while when I was a kid and he was on the road. Silly poems written on the edges of hundred dollar bills.” He picked it up and read the little scribbles, turning it around as he read. “Peter, Peter, pizza eater, let’s grab a slice and a cold two-liter, I’ll pick you up in my red two-seater.” 

Ava chuckled. “Hey. That’s pretty good.” 

“Want to see more?” He leaned back again, filled both hands, and dropped the pile on the desk. 

“Oh my God. There must be thousands of dollars here! You haven’t spent it? In all this time?” 

Peter shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s like my savings account. For a rainy day. Does that make any sense?”

She looked outside, at the downpour, then back to him. “It’s a rainy day today. Don’t get much rain in Santa Monica.”

“Point taken.” He looked outside, up at the gray, and sighed. “He was a shit dad, you know.” 

“I do know. In the dream he keeps saying he has a blackness in his heart.” 

Peter stood up. “Yeah. That’s something he’d say. Dammit. Let’s go. Now where the hell is my umbrella?”

Four and a half hours later, just off the strip in Vegas, the singer sat drinking another double at Dino’s Lounge. He mumbled to the bartender something about trying and failing, trying and failing, being trapped between the lure of the stage life, and the responsibility of the rest. Unable to give either their due. He was famous once, sort of anyway, but this was his life now, doubles at Dino’s until the show went on at seven. 

Peter and Ava walked in, both taken back by the loud eighties rock and faint mix of aromas that would make any normal person walk right back out. When Peter saw his father, the fire of anger and resentment flared again for a moment, the memories – or lack of memories – stoking the embers. But then Peter thought, as he had thought many times over the years, that the warmth of those embers also could mean some kind of promise, they weren’t cold yet, not totally. There was something there, something, maybe all it needed was some friction, something rubbing together to get it going again. 

Ava pushed him a little. “Go.” 

“Wait. You’re not coming with?” 

“No. I’ve only met him in my dreams.” 

She meant to leave, but couldn’t help herself, so she watched from the stool next to the front door as Peter shuffled past a couple of rickety tables and a broken pinball machine, and tapped his father on the shoulder. The singer swung around, as if expecting a punch in the face. “What do you want?” And in the next instant he recognized Peter, and froze. 

The frozen moment lasted a long time, like in her dreams, stretching out endlessly. The two men looked at each other, blank but full of words and thoughts and questions. And finally, the singer stammered. 

“Was… Was I…?”

“You were terrible. Really terrible. But you were… good enough.” 

And Peter pulled out an ancient, crumpled hundred dollar bill and put it down on the bar. The singer picked it up and read the edge. “Peter, Peter, let me buy you a beer, if ever you reach your twenty-first year…” and they laughed together, and the bartender came over and poured them both a beer. They clinked glasses. 

Ava walked out and hailed a cab to the bus station. She never saw them again. 

There were more dreams. She wished it weren’t so, but finally accepted her role as intermediary, whether chosen by some supernatural force, or randomly selected by fate and some quirk of physics.  At least it wasn’t meaningless – each time a dream resolved, or showed the promise of resolution, she imagined some checkmark being checked, somewhere, and someone, or something, nodding approval. The pain had purpose.

Then came the dream in the grove. This time her intuition, her sleuthing, the visions, all failed her. After a year of seeing the boy with the flower and the mothers and nothing else, she was afraid she might go mad. So she sought out Dr. Farber. She didn’t tell him the truth, her life of dreams, only that she was stuck in this place and couldn’t escape. He didn’t help unravel the mystery, but kept her, at the lowest moments, from herself unraveling, and it was a comfort to finally share at least a small share of the weight of the years. 

Wait. 

The years. 

The wait of the years.

There was something there, a clue. 

What year was it in the dream? 

It dawned on Ava, just now, after all this time, that each dream had been a little further back in time than the last. The events of the first were just a few years ago. Then the singer was in the seventies and eighties. The pharmacist’s trial was in 1963. The accident at the brewery was in 1952. And all the others filled in the holes at the right times. 

She was falling deeper and deeper into the past.

That night, as if the dream knew she was ready, a new detail emerged: a train. The mothers and their husbands and their children had arrived at the grove by train. She climbed the stairs into one of the cars, looking for anything. But the cars were empty. No luggage, no porters, no tables…

… no seats. 

What kind of train doesn’t offer seats to its passengers? 

She returned down the stairs, to the platform, to shouting and confusion. Soldiers with guns were yelling, separating the men to the left and the women and children to the right. Hundreds of husbands clutched wives, only to be separated moments later, as they moved like a herd of animals slowly toward long, low buildings. Fear gripped Ava, the fear of the crowd, the barely-contained panic contagious, inescapable. Suddenly, the woman in front of her pushed her teenage son away, toward the line of men. The boy tried to reach back, bewildered and desperate and scared, but his mother pushed again, harder, until the son was caught up in the left line and disappeared from her sight. 

Before they could reach the nearest of the low buildings, more shouting directed the line of women and children to the grove, a field lined with trees to the right of the train platform. 

There a strange peace descended, the panic subsided, and the dream became calm. The sky was blue and cloudless, the temperature perfect for a picnic in the grass, and though the crowd of people here waited with nerves on edge, foreboding, they sat, and took apples and bread from their pockets, and ate and shared and chatted nervously. 

Ava stumbled around, aimless, until she saw the flower. And the little boy, he was there, sitting in a woman’s lap. She sat across from them and recognized her as the same woman who had pushed her son away moments before. The little boy smiled, holding out the small wildflower he had just picked with his tiny fingers. 

Ava took it from him and smiled back. She looked up at the woman. “How old is your son?” She was startled briefly by the sounds of the words coming from her mouth, it was another language, yet she could speak and understand. 

“He is not my son.” The woman looked intently at Ava. “His name is Karl. My nephew. His mother is missing. My son Alfred, my Alli-Kincsem, is…” and she turned her head toward the direction they’d left, pointing with her chin, though the large group of men were already gone. 

Ava couldn’t help herself, she felt the dream demanding she ask. “Why did you push him away…?”  

And the woman shook her head and a tear fell down her cheek. “…he was so afraid…I don’t know… I had to act… didn’t I…?…what have I done…? …my poor Alli-Kincsem…” and she searched Ava’s face for the answer. 

Receiving none, the woman repeated her plea. “What have I done?”

Ava awoke, her face wet, her chest heaving. She stood, nearly fainting, and lumbered to the bathroom, and looked in the mirror. Her eyes were pleading, don’t do this, don’t do this, but beneath the pleading, she knew what would need to be done, and that until then there would be no rest.

It took months, night after night of sadness and dread, but slowly details emerged. The train. From Hungary. The platform. The son, Alfred. And then, finally, the name: Kovacs.

The son’s name was Alfred Kovacs.  

Then the place and time: Auschwitz, 1944. 

These were two important facts, but they were nearly nothing. Though Ava now lived in an age of instant searches and vast databases, records from World War Two concentration camps were largely destroyed, and in the case of people led straight to the gas chambers without registration, records never even existed. And even if records existed, survival rates could be two percent. And even if a fifteen-year-old survived, he would be ninety-four today, so likely passed a long time ago.

But she saw the mother’s face, again and again, pleading, and began. 

Three thousand two hundred seven Kovacs registered at Auschwitz. One Alfred.

Birth year 1897. Too old.

Maybe Frederick? Two Fredericks. Wrong age. Both dead within a month. 

Maybe Albert? One Albert. Wrong age. Dead in three months.

Two hundred and twelve Kovacs without an “s.” No Alfreds. 

Three Fredericks. All too old. All dead.

No Alberts. 

Fifteen Kovacs with an “k” instead of a “c.” No Alfreds or Fredericks or Alberts. 

It was a losing battle. Alfred was most certainly dead, perhaps not even registered.

But the dream continued. 

So Ava boarded a train, shuddering at the thought, from New York City to Washington D.C., to the National Holocaust Museum, to search the databases not available online. She checked her reservation email, again and again, trying to feel hope but instead feeling the dread of another dead end. After a while, as the train rocked back and forth, and the wheels rattled to their own rhythm, Ava, exhausted, closed her eyes. 

The boy and the flower. The smile. The mother holding back tears, mumbling “…Alli-Kincsem…” over and over to herself, trying to remain strong, though for what reason she didn’t know, for they all were beginning to realize it was the end. 

Ava pleaded. “I can’t find him. Alfred Kovacs. I am trying.” 

And the woman, startled, remembered something. She reached into her worn coat pocket and pulled out a wrinkled, folded paper. She handed it to Ava, pointing to the name. 

Keller. 

The family had forged false documents to evade capture. It hadn’t worked in the end, but the mother had drilled Alfred to remember only his false name.

The name wouldn’t be Alfred Kovacs. 

It would be Alfred Keller.

Ava awoke with a start, nudged by the conductor. The train had arrived in Union Station. She rushed, in a race, as if this new information would disappear if she didn’t grab it from the ether right now, and pushed her way through to the taxi line, waving her arms wildly. 

At the museum entrance, Ava ran up the stairs two at a time, panting, fumbling for her phone, retrieving her reservation. “Here! Here!” She thrust the phone at the concierge. 

The woman behind the desk smiled and patted her hand, scanning her code. “Calm down, Miss… Russo. We aren’t going anywhere. Now you’ll – slowly – go to Records, floor three, and ask for Martin. He’ll help you.”

Once in Records, a vast library-like room filled with wood and windows and the smell of old paper and furniture polish, Martin greeted her and set her up at a laptop in a small cubicle. Hands shaking, Ava typed. Her exhaustion was making her frustrated. This trip was probably in vain. She would never be free from this nightmare. Look how it already consumed her. Searching for a dead man. A ghost. Maybe she had finally gone mad. This time it might be all in her imagination. It wasn’t real. 

But… 

She clicked Submit.

And there he was.

Alfred Keller. 

Registered May 1944, Auschwitz. 

Born March 28, 1929. 

He existed.

And directly beneath…

Date of Liberation: April 15, 1945

He lived!

The small flower of hope that had wilted inside her bloomed again, and she stood up. “Martin! Look!” And the assistant peered over her shoulder, nodding. “Yes. That is good news. Did you know him?” 

“No. It’s… something else. So… can you tell me where the rest is? Where he went after the war? I don’t see it here.” 

Martin leaned over, tapping and clicking through several screens. “I’m sorry. Many records are like this. The days and months after the war were chaotic. Many records… and people… were lost.” He watched Ava’s hope wilt again. “But I can put you in touch with a genealogist, a friend of the Museum, who specializes in just this kind of search. Alfred is out there somewhere.” And he wrote a name and number on an index card and handed it to her. 

“Of course. Yes, thank you.” She rose, wearily, and headed for the station and the train back to New York. 

Alfred had lived. Thank God. 

But rest and the peace she longed for eluded her. She couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t over. The detective work had just begun. Damn. 

Too many hours and miles later, as the sun set, she trudged up the steps into her building’s lobby, grabbing the UPS delivery note from her mailbox and handing it to the man behind the desk. “Package for 16F.” 

He went into the back closet and returned with a box. She wasn’t expecting anything, so she looked at the label. “No. Sorry, they mixed it up again. I’m in 16F. This is for 6F…”

And then she noticed the name for the first time. 

Oh my God. 

Alfred Keller. 

Apartment 6F. 

Of course. This was the dream she was meant to have all along.

The old man in 6F. The one with the package mixups.

Alfred Keller lived in her apartment building!

She’d never spoken to him, but seen him being led along with his walker for years. It was definitely him. It had to be. 

Her heart leapt, and she bounded up the stairs, not waiting for the elevator, not listening to her tired body pleading for rest, not listening to her brain tell her that it was too late, and that the old man was asleep himself, like she should be. No, she marched on, right to the door, and knocked. 

And knocked again. 

The door creaked open an inch, held there by the latch chain. A woman. Annoyed.

“Can I help you? It’s late.” A glimmer of recognition. “Oh, I know you. From the lobby. You go running. The packages. But it’s late. Is there an emergency?” 

“No, no, nothing like that. Hello, nice to meet, or, ah, see you again. But I need to speak with Mister Keller.” 

The woman shook her head. “No, no. Sorry miss-” 

“Ava. Ava Russo.” 

“Sorry, Miss Russo – Ava – you’ll have to come back tomorrow. He’s asleep. It’s late and he’s old.” 

“It’s just–” 

And a faint voice came from another room behind the woman. “Lena? Lena, who’s there?” 

Lena rolled her eyes at Ava, scowling. “Now you’ve done it. Do you have any idea what he’s going to be like tomorrow morning? My grandfather is not a pleasant man if he doesn’t get his rest. You need to leave.” She went to shut the door, and Ava, against every possible better judgement, stuck her foot in the jamb. 

She whispered to Lena, “Alfred Keller. Real name Alfred Kovacs. Born March 1929. Prisoner of Auschwitz from May 1944 through April 1945. He had a younger cousin Karl. His mother…” 

Lena pointed through the crack, shocked. “Who do you think you are?” 

Ava just apologized with her eyes. “I need to speak with him. Please.” 

From somewhere a bit closer, the old man croaked, “Lena, what is it? Who’s there?” 

Lena squinted at Ava. “Move your foot.” 

“I’m sorry. I’m just, I’ve been having dreams… I’ve done some research… it’s hard to explain, it sounds crazy, I know it does, I’m so sorry…” 

The old man’s voice was right behind Lena now, he was peering through the opening, above her head. “What is going on here, Lena? Who is this? Oh, the runner. Do you have a package for us?”

Lena growled, “No, Tata. She was just leaving.” 

But before Lena could amputate Ava’s toes with the door, Ava spoke directly to the old man, “Alfred. In my dreams she calls you Alli-Kincsem. What does that mean?”

Silence. 

Then, slowly, Alfred unlatched the chain and opened the door. 

“My mother called me that when I was a boy. It means ‘my little treasure Alli’ in Hungarian. You saw this in a dream?” 

Ava nodded. 

Alfred opened his arms. “Come. We need to talk.” 

As Ava crept past the doorway, Lena whispered loudly, glaring. “You be careful with my Tata.” 

Ava followed Alfred, Lena behind them, into Alfred’s bedroom. Beside the bed, a small table and two arm chairs. “Sit, sit. Let’s have some tea. Lena, could you?” 

Hesitant, Lena left them to put the water on. 

Alfred turned to Ava, as they sank into the ancient chairs. He reached his hand across the little table. “Now. There are only three or four people in the world that know about Alli-Kincsem. You said it came to you in a dream. Tell me, what did you see?” 

And so Ava took his hand, and closed her eyes, and began to tell Alfred about the grove, and the train, and the boy with the flower. When she opened her eyes and looked over, he was crying. 

“Oh, no! Mister Keller, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean…” 

“No, no. You mustn’t. I am glad you’re here. This is important. But it is a lot to take. Maybe we take a little break, until the tea is ready, yes?” And she nodded. He wiped his eyes with his ancient fingers, and exhaled deeply, and within seconds, he was asleep. 

She looked at him now, at length, the wrinkles of ninety-four years, and the wisp of silver hair, and the old bifocals askew. It looked like the face of a man who’d loved and laughed much over the decades, or perhaps she was just wishing that to be the case. She squeezed his hand, and sat back, and the warmth, and the comfort of the dim room, and the embrace of the chair, and the tick-tock of the mantle clock, and the soft clanking of the radiator in the corner, and the smell of the candles, it was all too much, so she closed her eyes, and fell asleep.

The grove. 

They were in the grove. Alfred and Ava. Together.

How? 

Alfred looked around, still holding Ava’s hand, puzzled, but soon recognizing the place. 

He became afraid. “What is happening? I shouldn’t be here.” 

Ava put her arm around him. “I don’t know, Alfred. Try not to be afraid.” And then she saw the flower, and the boy. “Wait! Look, Alfred!” 

Alfred followed her to the boy, and they sat. He laughed in delight. “Karl! Little cousin! My, my, it’s good to see you!” And he took the flower from Karl, and patted his head, and looked up and saw… her. 

“Anyuci? Mother?” 

The woman’s eyes widened in recognition. “Alfred? My Alli-Kincsem?” And she put little Karl down and rose, approaching Alfred, and he too rose, like a young man, and they embraced. 

“Yes, Mother.” 

She wept into his neck. “Alli-Kincsem, I am so sorry…I pushed you away…” 

He caressed her hair. “No, no,  Anyuci… you did not send me to my death…” he pulled back and peered into her eyes, “You saved my life.” 

He looked around, and saw those who would not be saved, but saw also something different. “Anyuci, I have lived a long and fruitful life. You saved not only myself, but the lives of my seven children. And the lives of my eighteen grandchildren. And the lives of my twenty-three great grandchildren. And the tree will continue to grow branches forever. Life does not end. All because of you.”

And he clutched her tighter, their embrace becoming so tight that a light shone from them, and the light became so bright Ava could hardly see the soldiers leading the group toward the edge of the grove, where the showers awaited. Alfred kissed his mother in this moment, and whispered, “Be at peace, now. You will all live forever.” 

They awoke then, together, Ava and Alfred, to Lena placing her hands on theirs. “Tata. Ava. You both fell asleep.” 

Alfred lifted his free hand to Lena. “My Lena, help me to bed. It’s time for me to rest.”

Ava rose, still clutching his other hand. “I can help.” 

And so the two women lifted Alfred up, and gently moved him to his mattress, and tucked him in. And before he closed his eyes, Alfred looked up at Ava, and touched her cheek, and they smiled, knowing they had visited the grove for the last time.

——————————

This story was inspired by a photo I saw a couple of years ago. It shows a field full of people, and in the center there’s a small boy offering a flower. The photo was taken by nazi soldiers in May or June of 1944, showing the selection process as Hungarian Jews came into Auschwitz concentration camp by the trainload. At this particular time, there were so many people being deported there, that they sent overflows to a nearby grove to await their fate in the gas chambers. Here’s the photo: 

It’s part of the Auschwitz Album, some of the only photos still existing of those horrific events. Here’s a link: 

https://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/album_auschwitz/index.asp

I was also inspired by another story I came across maybe a year ago, about Claude Bloch. Claude was a Frenchman who, at 15, was deported to Auschwitz. Awaiting selection, his mother pushed him over to the men’s line, saving his life. He never saw her again. Here’s his photo: 

And here’s the link to his story: 

https://en.convoi77.org/deporte_bio/bloch-claude/

Finally, I’d like to give a shoutout to my brother Bud and my son Sam, who helped me edit this story. They’re both terrific writers and editors in their own right. Thanks, guys. 

And thank you again for tuning in to Listen To The Signal. I’m Rob Dircks, author of the Where the Hell is Tesla? science fiction series, The Wrong Unit, and the Number One Audible bestselling You’re Going to Mars!

You can buy Volume 1 of the collected Listen To The Signal stories on Audible and Amazon, find my other books there too, and get in touch with me at ListenToTheSignal.com or RobDircks.com.

2 Responses

  1. Dennis Hubbard
    | Reply

    Fantastic story, you made my day worthwhile….

  2. Greg Dandeneau
    | Reply

    Rob, the story is gripping, intense, mystifying, and heartwarming. Absolutely wonderful. Now I have to dig into more of your work – guess that’s always the plan! Can’t wait to hear ‘Where the Hell is Tesla’.

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