Sara stopped in the middle of the dirt-paved road and drank in her surroundings. There were vibrant, lively colors everywhere she looked. In the distance, she could hear the light, bell-like laughter of children, and the air around her smelled fresh and free. It was all so different, and fear gripped her heart tightly. She was terrified that she would wake to the dull barracks, with their harsh, rotting smells of burned flesh and urine, or their hushed cries and severe German shouts. More than anything she didn't want this to be just another fantasy so, every couple of miles, she had to stop and reacquaint herself with freedom.
Eventually, Sara arrived at a small town. By this time, she was walking by the dying light of the sun, and a light wind rustled her clothes. Warm lights poured from the houses onto the beaten road. Her legs were weak, but Sara hesitated to knock at any door. Too well she remembered how the 'regular' people stared at her in contempt. She could still hear the jeers as the nearby officer prodded her like an animal to speed up. So she resigned herself to the chill of the night.
She wandered until her strength was completely extinguished. Nestled between two similarly short houses was an alley, and Sara lowered herself into a corner, wrapping her arms around her body in a futile attempt at warmth. She closed her eyes against the night, and quietly sank into an uncomfortable sleep, where memories rose unbidden as dreams.
The sky was dark, in the dream, but Sara knew it was still day. Ominous, black clouds blocked out the sun, and weighed heavy in her mind, for more clouds were marching out of the large chimney to her right. Shouts were echoing off the stone walls, and Sara, being one of the few girls in the barrack strong enough to walk, was peeking out of the door. All sorts of people were running about - prisoner and officer alike. Some of the officers were just running with no purpose, except to escape. Others were running to satiate the vicious hunger. They killed as if trying to fill a quota. It was chaos, and a stark contrast to the perversely ordered camp where Sara had spent the last 4 months.
Someone rushed past the door so fast a breeze whipped around Sara's ears. She jumped back into the room, her heart racing. When the door remained safely closed long enough for her heart-rate to stabilize, she retreated back to her bunk. For hours, the other girls and she sat in silence, listening to the bedlam out side. The usual checkpoints - roll call, "dinner" - passed without recognition. The hours had blended together so seamlessly that no one could be sure of when the noise outside had died. Sara was only aware of the quiet after another girl pointed it out.
Cautiously, Sara crept towards the door, unsure of what she hoped to find. As she nudged the door open, she was treated to a much different site than before. There were strangers everywhere, men with strange accents who wore dark green uniforms. They were a different sort of soldier; that was clear from the moment she had peeked out of the barracks. Some of the new men a little ways away had been staring angrily down at an officer, who was on his knees in the dirt, crying. Sara gasped, for she had never seen one of them looking so pitiful. He almost looked human.
All around, Sara watched as one stranger roughly pushed a Nazi forward, while another gave a blanket to a group of skeletal women. Many were looking into the barracks and checking the bodies that littered the ground to find out who was alive. Just beyond the gates loomed a monstrous tank, and perched on top of it was a flag, flapping in the wind. The design was familiar to her. Dimly, she remembered it from one of her old schoolbooks, but couldn't recall anything else. She had stepped fully out of the barrack for a closer look when one of the strangers turned to her. Silently, he walked over to her, his eyes alight with a softness that Sara had almost forgotten lived in humans. In an unconscious move, borne of months of torture, she stepped back, her hand reaching behind her for the door. He stopped, and held his hands up in front of him.
"Don't worry," he said in broken German, "you're safe now." He grinned at her, and clearly expected one in return, but Sara knew better. She had seen man's true nature, and knew there was no place for hope in this world. Hope caused pain. Nevertheless, even if she had wanted to smile back, she didn't think her muscles capable of forming one anymore.
The man reached behind her and opened the door. He leaned in and his eyes went wide. Sara turned and saw the bulbous, sunken eyes that seemed to scream and the emaciated bodies that had once been actual people. As she listened to the whimpers and pleas, she wondered what the stranger saw when he looked in. He awkwardly reached into the pack on his back, and then pressed some bread into her hands. His eyes were dark now, heavy with knowledge, and Sara simply nodded at him. Still, as she passed out morsels to the others in her barracks, she couldn't help but wonder if maybe the tide had turned.
And then nothing happened. It was true that the Nazis were gone, and these new strangers were more compassionate, but nothing else had changed. They were still hungry and sick, and people continued to die every day. When the cold wind blew through the bunks, Sara still had no protection except the ratty, striped gown they forced her into on her first day. The days passed slowly, but it seemed even worse than before. The strangers had come in promising hope and freedom yet still, the prisoners remained prisoners.
In fact, as time went by, Sara began to loathe the soldiers. A few days into this "liberation" (she had heard a soldier call it that, and wondered if he understood its meaning), the soldiers tried to give the cold prisoners warmer clothes. Sara and her fellow captives were presented with heavy, woolen coats – with the swastika sewn on. In another time, Sara might have laughed. Nazi jackets? They really expected the beaten, dying victims to wear the uniforms of their persecutors? It was almost too much for her to take.
Then one day, a voice crackled over the speakers asking everyone to line up outside the barracks. Of course, the few who understood the rough German had to translate for the others, because the majority of these soldiers seemed to only know their own language. Outside, the soldiers were taking down the captive's names and hometown, one by one. While standing in the chilly air for hours, Sara wondered if would ever see the world outside of this hell.
It was several weeks after that when a voice sounded over the speakers again. This time, however, it was a smooth German voice announcing "the names of the survivors of the Nazi camp Mauthausen." What followed was a long list of names, and then a long list for another camp, and then another. It lasted for hours that were filled with the sobs of the grateful and the desolate. A woman lying next to Sara began shaking during the list from Majdanek, sobs wracking her body. Sara gathered her in her arms, but it wasn't until the woman cried out "Vater" that she knew they were sobs of relief. Others in the room were not so lucky – many women were crying for the names that were not said. Some were still frozen, straining and praying to hear the names of their loved ones. Sara didn't bother; she had watched the Nazis slaughter her family six months ago.
One morning, they woke to the news that it was time to leave. Outside, soldiers had begun piling people into trucks. It was a little chaotic, but the air was buzzing with excitement. As Sara watched some trucks pull away, she imagined her empty home and her cruel neighbors. There is nothing for me to return to, she thought to herself. An idea flashed in her brain: what if she just left? There was confusion everywhere; she could slip past the soldiers and through the gates.
In a daze of emotions and uncertainty, Sara began walking. Her head pounded with new thoughts of freedom. Cries and shouts were surrounding her and she walked further to escape the noise. Her feet pounded rhythmically on the ground, and her heart beat faster with a sense of anticipation. Left, right; one, two. Hope swelled inside her as memories of happiness before the camps danced in her head.
Suddenly, everything stopped. She stood at the entrance, and the entire camp lay at her back. Five steps and she would be through the metal gates. Five steps and she would be free. Five steps and she would do the one thing she had dreamed of doing for seven months. Five steps...
Sara awoke to the rain. It pounded down on her, and she huddled further into the corner. Thinking back to that morning, a small, timid grin appeared under the grime. After so many steps, those five seemed like nothing.