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It's that feeling.
It’s that feeling that keeps you up at night, cringing every time you think about crashing a bicycle, or imagining falling from a very high ledge. Or that feeling you get when you trip and fall, right after you realize there’s nothing you can do to recover yourself. That blind panic, that childish fear, that moment, if only so brief, during which every assurance you have about danger, every little psychological self-defense mechanism, is replaced by pure animalistic terror.
That feeling is what filled Alphonse as he sat in a sled, on the precipice of going down a slope, at the age of six.
The mountains around him were bathed in rosy, golden sunlight, or at least that’s how he remembers it. It is that same light that fills any childhood memory, as if all one’s younger years occurred during the most beautiful sunrise. The smell of the trees was cool and crisp, and this accented the already oppressive mountain cold. These are the two things he remembers most, save for that fear.
Alphonse’s parents stood behind him, bundled up and trying to convince him to, please, go ahead. He has long forgotten their exact words, but that could be because he was not listening in the first place. No, Alphonse was lost in a mental maelstrom of doubt, apprehension, and self-pity, and there would be no moving him from his safe spot, looking down on the slope ahead of him, until he was absolutely assured of his willingness to go.
But despite wanting to convince himself to go, his thoughts consistently returned to an unavoidable feeling of doom. He was certain that if he began to slide, he would accelerate out of control, and probably die. This sled ride, concluded, could very well be the end of him.
His parents’ enthusiasm about sledding confused and upset him.
However, his own hesitation did not dissuade his father from coming up behind him, and, in a kind of weird benevolent gesture, pushing him forward just enough to get him going.
Alphonse gripped both sides of the sled for dear life and clenched his teeth.
The next few seconds were a blur.
He tensed and clenched every part of his body as hard as he could, ready for a crash. Every vein in his body was filled with adrenaline, and his mind was racing. The cold wind whipped past his freezing ears, and the whole world was dark and terrifying. But for those moments, when he was sure that his life could hang in the balance, he held on to his existence desperately and savored every single moment of it. Alphonse would never admit it, but those few seconds were the closest thing to total bliss he would ever experience.
And then, just like that, the ordeal was over, and he was being lifted out of the sled and into the air by his still living father, his mother beaming by his side, as they are all bathed in that glorious, perfect sunrise light of memory.
Everything was perfect, pristine, without any of the ugliness or fear or evil of the world to ruin it. He was in the air, smiling, waving his arms, knowing for the first time in his life what it truly meant to feel alive.
This memory repeats itself like a broken record in Alphonse’s exhausted and deranged mind as he sits in a cattle car, waiting patiently and helplessly for his death. Exhaustion has worn his senses down to almost nothing, and he tries desperately to draw some feeling from that long-gone, distant moment.
Desperately, like he would with a nearly-empty bowl of soup, he scrapes whatever he can find from the mental image of his mother’s proud, forever loving smile. He tries to feel, but he has not slept for days, and any capacity for emotion has been replaced by a permanent grief. No matter how hard he tries to hold a thought or a feeling, none of it will hold; he’s collecting those last drops of soup with a fork.
He is sixteen.
There’s nothing left inside him. No hope, no past, no future. Only the sound of the train on the tracks and the silence of the condemned around him. His head slumps to the side as he stares into space, reliving the past for fear of the present. The present and the past are blurring together in one miasma of confusion and despair, and none of it seems real. Alphonse abandons thinking about that day in the mountains for a moment and attempts to finally give in to his exhaustion and finally sleep.
The rocking of the train slowly rocks him to sleep, like his parents’ car would, back in Germany… But then, he hears a rustle, and his eyes open a little and then widen suddenly.
His parents are standing there, beaming with pride, at him. He looks away and back, and they’re gone. Gone. Gone.
In an instant, the realization enters his mind that they are dead, that he will never see them alive again, and this thought sticks for once, miraculously. Then another thought sticks to this, and another, and another, in such quick succession that eventually his mind is buzzing with notions and feelings completely absent just moments before, and he feels like he is about to throw up.
He realizes that he is on a train on his way to a death camp, and that he will surely die, that the only chance for survival is to leave now, and that that opportunity is slowly passing.
Alphonse soon finds himself panicked, all of his emotions suddenly unearthed, his soul magically recovered from a pile of ashes. All of his fear, yes, that blind, animal fear, rushes to the surface and overcomes him in an instant. Every muscle in his body burns with the need to be used, and his mind races suddenly.
He must get off the train.
In a flash, he crawls over a few sleeping people, toward a grate near the bottom of a wall, and without a second thought, begins kicking one of its bars as hard as he can. The wood around its base cracks, and a few people around him are startled awake. They too spring into action, tugging desperately at Alphonse’s clothes, knowing that one person’s escape from the train would mean the death of all of them.
Alphonse swings his arms madly and elbows anybody he can come in contact with, yelling, fighting, lost in mad passion and the desperate, instinctual need to live. Blood trickles down his brow, and somebody’s rib gives way beneath a blow from his elbow, but still, he keeps kicking, kicking, kicking at the steel bar. With every strike, it gives way a little more. He can feel the bar between him and life weakening, and it emboldens him.
Suddenly, a man bites into his shoulder in desperation, and Alphonse screams and involuntarily shoots his leg forward and into the steel bar, finally breaking it loose.
By now, the whole cattle car is in an uproar, either fighting Alphonse or fighting for their own escape.
He crawls forward, through throngs of struggling, emaciated bodies, toward the little space in the grate and the world rushing by it. Every inch is a battle, but finally, he feels the wind from outside start to tussle his hair, and he pokes his head outside. With one last burst of strength, he propels himself off of the train, and, onto the ground. Instantly after recovering himself, he dashes desperately away.
The train squeals to a halt, and SS officers begin to rush over to the opening in the cattle car, pushing a few people back inside and shooting those who attempt to run. Those caught outside can be heard screaming, before, POP!, they fall silent. But for some reason, the officers overlook Alphonse, and he continues running as hard and fast as he can, suddenly impervious to any kind of harm. Invincible. Safe.
It’s that feeling. That feeling that you get when you’re running for your life from sure death, knowing that, at any moment, a bullet could catch you, and in an instant, kill you, while your muscles burn madly and blood drips from your shoulder. Or that feeling that you get when you’re speeding down a hillside in a sled, squeezing your eyes closed as hard as possible to keep from seeing the landscape speed by. That feeling that, in spite of the terror, fills you with the most incredible sensation of being alive.
That feeling that fills Alphonse as he speeds through a field, into a forest, and far away, as a warm, new light shines from a golden, rising sun.