Csilla steeled herself as she knocked on the Lakatoses’ door. Now that they’d had some time to get settled back into Abony, she felt it was time to try to reclaim whatever possessions they could. Surely at least a few people would give them a decent welcome and return their belongings.
“Who’s there?” a female voice called.
“This is Csilla Bergman with four friends. We’ve come back to Hungary, and we thought we’d visit some old friends.”
Mrs. Lakatos gasped. “Csilla Bergman, the daughter of Olivia Veksler and Miklós Bergman? Come right in, my dear child!”
Csilla turned the knob and walked in with the others. They were greeted by the sight of Mr. Lakatos shaking in a chair, as Mrs. Lakatos dabbed her eyes.
Mrs. Lakatos held out her arms to them in turn. “Thank God any of you returned. My husband just barely escaped death himself. As you can see, he’s still very shaken up by his close call. Have you come back with any others?”
Csilla cast her eyes to the ground after Mrs. Lakatos had hugged her. “We are all that’s left. All the others are gone. The only people who might be alive are two friends who were arrested a long time before us, Eszter Kovács and Jákob Gerber. Four of Eszti’s sisters might also still be alive. Other than that, there is no one.”
“No one? You have no mother or sisters anymore? I knew most of your men had died in that vile labor brigade, but I thought women and children would be treated better.”
“No one,” Csilla repeated. “Xéncsi might’ve been here with me, but she lost her mind in the train. My mother and I were screaming at her to go with me, but she couldn’t understand anything that was happening. I last saw her dancing off with my mother and Beatrix. It’s too much to hope that she snapped out of it before it was too late.”
“Don’t ask how they died,” Kálmán said, clenching his fists. “It’s enough to know they’re no more.”
“What happened to you, Mr. Lakatos?” Aranka asked. “Were you arrested?”
He nodded, still shaking. “In October, I was arrested for my anti-Nazi and anti-Arrow Cross activities. I was put on a list of so-called criminals waiting for execution. The Soviets liberated us just in the nick of time. I was this close to facing the executioner.” He buried his head in his hands.
Mrs. Lakatos motioned to the kitchen table. “Are you hungry? I can’t imagine you’ve been eating very well without parents to cook for you.”
“Yes, please.” Klaudia’s eyes lit up. “I can’t wait to get my shape back.” She’d always been proud of developing early, and still didn’t feel like a real young woman without her full curves and bustline. At least she was finally menstruating again and had her body hair back.
Aranka entered the kitchen first and looked curiously at one of the embroidered runners on the table. “Mrs. Lakatos, is this by any chance one of the bureau runners my family gave you for safekeeping?”
Mrs. Lakatos hurried in after them and inspected it. “Yes, it sure is. I have all the bureau runners your family gave me, and your silver serving platter. When you take your leave, you can take them all with you.”
“How about my mother’s rosebush?” Kálmán asked. “Is it outside?”
“Yes, we have that too. Unlike certain other people in this town, we’re glad to give back our friends’ belongings.”
Csilla felt an icy knot growing in her stomach. “You mean some of our other neighbors might not give back our things?”
Mrs. Lakatos shook her head. “I never realized how rare my family was. A lot of these other people are glad you were deported, and haven’t been giving back your houses and possessions. I’m sure you’ve already experienced a little of that. Have many people been glad to see you’re back?”
Kálmán laughed sarcastically. “We’ve either been greeted with indifference or shock. A few people have been angry to see some of us came back.”
“Thanks for being so nice to us,” Móric said as Mrs. Lakatos put a platter of smoked fish, bread, and goat cheese on the table. “I wish my family had had time to leave our things with you.”
“It’s nothing doing.” Mrs. Lakatos winced a bit at how small fourteen-year-old Móric looked for his age. “You can have extra portions if you still feel hungry. Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll catch up your growth eventually. Even some boys your age who haven’t spent the past year under God knows what circumstances are short or small. You could be two meters tall in five years, just as some boys who start out tall end up barely over a meter and a half.”
“Will you go with us to stake our claims at the other houses?” Csilla asked. “We have a lot of things we need to claim, and I know they’re probably all still there.”
“Of course. But for now, all you need to concern yourselves with is lunch. I have a chocolate pudding for you after this.”
“May we have tea?” Klaudia asked.
“Whatever you want, my dear child. Guests always get whatever they want here.”
Csilla nudged Klaudia. “You haven’t told Mrs. Lakatos your happy news. While we’re here, she ought to congratulate you.”
Klaudia blushed. “Kálmán and I are engaged. We’re getting married at the end of next year, after we’re seventeen.”
Mrs. Lakatos smiled a big smile. “Is that so? Normally I’d think fifteen is far too young to make that kind of serious commitment, but after what you must’ve lived through, I suppose you’re not really a normal fifteen-year-old. You’ll be a beautiful bride. By the end of next year, your hair will be nice and long again.”
“Thank you.” Klaudia reached for a piece of fish.
“And remember, you’ve always got a place here. Maybe my family isn’t so common in our attitudes, but we’d rather do the right thing than go along with an immoral crowd. As bleak as things must seem, you must remember that decent people still exist.”