Panting with terror from the dream, he turned the lamp on with shaking hands, seizing the picture beside it so that he could trace over the lines of her features with his fingertips. It was the only thing that drove away the nightmares, as ashamed as he was of it. He had never been one to have night terrors, even as a child, Ludwig had slept soundly with only the occasional dream, and rarely nightmares. Now, he had nightmares every time he closed his eyes so that he slept little and was almost afraid of the dark. And they were always the same, the recurring dream of that night the Allgemeine Schutzstaffel, men he had known and counted as friends, had broken into his apartment to seize her. The twist that made the dream so horrifying was that she would rise and laugh with them, those black phantoms with red armbands, and they would congratulate each other on finding the real traitor: him. And every single one of their faces was a blank, smooth expanse of skin over their skulls with only shadowed indentations where there should have been eyes. Even her. And he was terrified because she had no face, but also because he couldn’t remember the face she had had…
He blew out his breath, tracing her face and hair and figure in the picture with his trembling fingers, moisture welling in his eyes before he put the picture down and tried to stem the tears by burying his face in his pillows, nigh to stifling himself. He strangled the sobs, ashamed that even now she had such a hold on him, ashamed that he still dreamed about her, ashamed that his greatest fear was forgetting her face. He calmed, but still the rivulets flowed down his cheeks as he found himself remembering and reliving his last encounter with her. If only he had been softer, kinder, more forgiving! But he had not been any of those things, instead, he had tried to intimidate her, manhandled her, and she had shown not a trace of the deference and respect he had been accustomed to from her. Instead, she had shown him her defiance and her pride, her utter fearlessness, and her last words to him had been so full of assurance. At the time, he had thought her so misguided, but now he could only admire her adamant belief in her cause and now he was lost to his regret.
That was what his anger had faded to with time, to such deep, soul-burning regret that it was only the thought of leaving Gilbert with absolutely no one to lean on that kept Ludwig from attempting suicide. He wished he had been less angry at the time, better able to see what needed to be done, to try to save her and tell her that despite it all, he still loved her. But he had been blinded with his hurt at the betrayal; at the secret she had kept from him so well that he had never suspected her of anything. And hadn’t she been right in the end? The war was over, his country had fallen, and he didn’t know anymore whether he should take pride in the work he had done or not.
He dried his tears and got out of bed, bone-weary and wishing he could sleep, but afraid to try. Instead, he left his room, checking the clock. It was nearly five in the morning, but there was no point staying in bed. He padded to the kitchen in his bare feet, turning on the lights and reaching for the recipe box. It was the only thing he had kept from his pervious apartment, the only remainder of her besides the picture. He sifted through the cards, looking for the cinnamon coffee cake recipe that had always been his favorite. He deciphered her nearly illegible scrawl, gathering the ingredients slowly before he began measuring the wet and dry ingredients into separate bowls.
“You remembered,” her voice said, as if she were standing just behind him. He nodded in agreement; clinging desperately to the voice that he heard, but knew wasn’t really there.
“Gently now,” she said, “Halve the wet ingredients. You know how much you hate a messy kitchen.” He followed her instructions, saying nothing. He had learned that speaking to this specter of his mind dispersed the illusion, drove her voice away. It was his private solace, his most shameful secret: that when he baked using her recipes, he could hear her voice as if she were still with him.
He had been unable to part with her box of recipes, of all things, when he had sold the apartment and all its contents. His excuse was that her recipes were good, and he needed to feed himself and Gilbert if they were moving in together. When Gilbert had nearly destroyed the kitchen trying to bake one of her cakes, Ludwig had disposed of the ruined attempt and made it himself. Hearing her voice that first time had been terrifying: it was like she were a ghost summoned from his own personal hell. But if she was a ghost, she was benign one, never threatening, never insulting. She only offered him advice and only while he was baking. The conflicting desire at first had been overwhelming. He had wanted desperately to hear the voice that had faded from his memories, but was afraid and ashamed that he was hearing voices, and hers at that. Now, it soothed as much as tracing over her picture.
“Why a spoon, Ludwig? You should really be using a fork,” she said, and he could hear the puzzlement knitting her brow, and a smile pulled at the corners of his mouth because he had used a spoon on purpose. He found a dinner fork and began beating the last of the wet ingredients into the batter. After he had poured the batter into a pan, he threw together the topping haphazardly, cinnamon, sugar, and nuts spilling across the counter.
“You’re being messy on purpose,” she accused, and he held in his amusement while she grumbled, “I should have known.” There was no real irritation in the voice; rather, it was a sigh of resignation tinged with the hint of a knowing smile. He ignored it, wondering again if the voice was a hallucination. The way it reacted to him suggested that it might be, but a ghost with its own consciousness would have too.
“I’m fairly certain that this isn’t healthy,” she pointed out finally, her voice gentle, and he shrugged in response, not certain if it was really her or not, but not much caring either.
“You don’t care, do you?” she queried, “I wash my hands of this nonsense.” That was too funny to not laugh at because she was the nonsense. The cake went in the oven.
Gilbert dragged himself in, still too sleepy to comment on Ludwig’s laughter.