Pam Jenoff is the internationally bestselling author of The Kommandant’s Girl and several other novels. Pam was a former diplomat with the State Department, political appointee at the Pentagon, and attorney. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and three children where, in addition to writing, she teaches law school.
Excerpt from The Winter Guest
Text Copyright © 2014 by Pam Jenoff
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.
A sudden rustling noise from the bushes made her jump. Recalling the German she’d encountered earlier, her heart pounded. But the noise had not come from the road. She scanned the side of the path. There had been stories of hungry wolves in these parts, but it was more likely a dog or raccoon. Something she might kill for food, if it was not too wounded or rabid. She heard the noise come again, this time more of a wheeze.
She reached for her knife. A voice not entirely her own told her to run. But instead she drew closer to the bushes, curious. Beneath a scraggly pine tree there was a lump, too long to be an animal, huddled in a pile of leaves. As she neared, the air grew thick with the metallic smell of blood and waste. She pushed aside the branches then stopped with surprise. A man lay on his side, almost hidden by the leaves. He didn’t move, but his torso rose and fell with labored breaths.
Helena stared at him. Before today, she had not encountered anyone on her treks through the forest. “Who are you?” she demanded, hoping to sound braver than she felt. He did not respond. Fear rose up in her. No good could come of an encounter with a stranger and she was far from any help. “Who are you?” she repeated. A low, guttural moan escaped his throat. Helena studied the man, whose dark hair was pasted tight to his head by a mixture of blood and sweat. She relaxed slightly; he was in no shape to do her harm.
“Show me where you are hurt,” she said, more gently now. His arm, which had been covering his mid-section, flopped in the direction of his right leg, which was twisted at a strange angle. She winced, feeling his pain as though it was her own.
Helena averted her eyes from the injury. The stranger wore a uniform of some sort, dirt-caked and torn. She recalled the explosion from the previous night that she had taken to be a bomb. The Nazi jeep she’d encountered earlier had not been looking for her. The full danger of the situation crashed down upon her and she turned to flee.
“Please,” he croaked just above a whisper and somewhere in her mind she registered the word as English. Her mind whirled: what was an American doing here?
Freezing, was her first thought as she turned back to him in spite of herself. He lay on the ground and his skin was a shade of blue-gray that she had never seen before. He needed shelter if he was to live. Without thinking, she reached for his arm and pulled as though to lift him, her fingers not quite wrapping around its thick girth. The man was heavier than she expected and did not move, but shrieked with pain, his cry echoing against the bareness of the trees.
“Spokoj!” she hissed, and he looked up, his brown eyes meeting hers, long lashes fluttering with fear. But she could tell from his expression that he did not speak Polish or was too disoriented to understand, so she raised her finger to her lips and shook her head to silence him.
The church, she remembered then. There was an old wooden chapel, about fifty meters farther along the path into the woods. But if she could not move him, how could she possibly get him there? “Come.” She knelt and put her arm around his shoulder, close to the stranger in a way that made her shiver. Then she tried to stand, more gently this time. But she stumbled under his weight. He fell forward and as she went to lift him again, he waved her off, dragging himself along the ground in a half-crawl.
As he inched forward, she glanced over her shoulder nervously, willing him to move faster. Her skin prickled. A sharp barking cut through the stillness. “Hide,” she whispered frantically, pushing him into the thick bushes. There came a dull thud from the other side, followed by a cry. She crawled through the brush toward him. He had rolled down a steep ravine and into the stream that ran alongside the path. There was another bark, followed by footsteps. She peered out from the bushes, jumping back as a man with a shotgun appeared, an underfed German shepherd on a leash by his side. He did not wear a uniform like the German soldier she had encountered earlier on the road, but the clothes of an ordinary farmer (albeit one she did not recognize from the village.) Perhaps he was just hunting or trapping.
A second man appeared from the opposite direction. “Anything?” His Polish was thick and peasant-like.
“A small chapel. But I found nothing there,” the other man replied. Helena’s anger rose. These men were searching for the soldier, doing the Germans’ bidding. Panic quickly overshadowed her fury as the dog sniffed along the edge of the path, drawing closer. Surely the animal would smell the soldier’s wounds.
Her heart raced as the dog stopped, its ugly snout just inches from her own face. “Chocz!” ordered the man holding the leash, tugging at it and bidding the dog to follow. They continued deeper into the forest.
A rasping noise came from behind her. Helena turned back toward the soldier, who lay on his back in the stream, seemingly oblivious to the icy water that trickled around him. Hurriedly she moved to him, pressing her hand to his mouth to muffle the sound. She looked over her shoulder, hoping the men had not heard. She wanted to admonish the man to be quiet once more, but he was too far gone for that. His face was ghostly white and he seemed to be struggling for each breath.
Hurriedly, she reached down with both arms and, using her legs to brace, pulled him from the water onto the incline of the bank. “You have to help me get you to shelter,” she said. But his eyes were half-closed and she had no idea if he understood.
She checked the now-empty path once more. The men knew about the chapel. Did she still dare to take the solider there? They had already checked it, but they could still come back. But she could not take him to her house – even if he could make the journey, the road out of the forest to their cottage was open and exposed. And leaving him out here meant certain death. There was no other choice – the chapel was his only hope.
She wrapped the soldier’s arm around her shoulder, cold water dripping from his hair and seeping into her collar. Bracing herself anew, she maneuvered him back onto the path. The force of his weight brought her to her knees once more. “Help me,” she pleaded, her voice a whisper. She held her breath as he dragged himself slowly the last few meters down the path, certain the men would return to discover them.
At last they reached the chapel. It was no bigger than Helena’s cottage, but taller with an elongated knave. A wood-shingled roof overhung the building like a cap drawn close around the brow. The top of the steeple was completely gone, the mounted cross threatening to topple at any second. She had discovered the abandoned chapel as a child and played around it many times despite her mother’s admonishment lest the roof cave in and crush them. She had often wondered who would have cared enough to build a chapel, not big enough for more than a handful of worshippers, here in the woods, instead of just going to the church in town. And why had they stopped coming?
Helena opened the door and peered inside. The air was thick with the scent of moldy wood and damp earth. She had not been here in years and the structure had deteriorated further with time. The floor had rotted to a few remaining planks over dirt and much of the roof had peeled away, revealing the gray sky above.
Helena turned back to help the man through the doorway, propping him against the nearest wall. Her hand brushed against something hard at his waist and she pulled back his shirt to reveal a pistol that had somehow survived his ordeal. She did not know why she was surprised – he was a soldier, after all. For a moment, she considered taking it, then decided to leave him his one defense. She ran her hands over his torso, feeling for other injuries, not sure what she would do if she found any. Then she pulled her hands back, wondering if he minded the intimacy of her stranger’s touch. But he lay with his eyes closed, still laboring to breathe.
She shivered, not entirely sure it was from the cold. There was something exciting and dangerous about him that made her take a step backward, that made her want to run and yet unable to look away at the same time. She peered in her satchel, pulling out the small loaf of bread she had tried to feed to her mother and placing it on the ground beside him. He needed a fire, but there was no wood and nothing else to burn.
“I’ll get help,” she offered. But even before he shook his head she knew that it was impossible. There was no one to be trusted and telling anyone would only put them both in danger. She looked around desperately. There was nothing more she could do for him here and if she waited longer it would be dark, and she would be unable to make the rest of the trip home.
She started to stand and he clung to the hem of her skirt in a way that might have been improper if he’d had the strength to mean it. Don’t go, the helpless look in his eyes seemed to say. She took his hand from her dress and placed it back on his chest, struck by the warmth of his fingers, and the strong muscle beneath the torn uniform. “I’ll be back,” she promised. And then she turned on her heel and ran.