Brian was running away. He dumped his laundry basket into the trunk of his car, wrapped his computer in a towel and stuffed it underneath the mixture of dirty and clean clothes, and took off North. His college midterms went poorly and the paper he wrote for the world philosophy class was just dreadful. He was tired and haven’t slept in a very long time. Life had gotten to be too much lately and he had enough of it. He drove into the night. He liked staring into the passing lights, it was easy to lose oneself in the monotony of the highway in the dark — nothing to really see, just the passing the headlights, reflectors, and the lit highway signs.
He drove most of the night. In the gray pre-dawn, he noticed a small billboard for a rest stop, offering hot coffee. Without making a conscious decision, Brain found himself turning off on a small side road and then into a parking lot of a medium-sized diner. Quite a few cars were already parked in a cluster around the front entrance. Soft yellow light spilled out of the curtained windows.
Brian parked his car in the closest spot he could find and walked into the diner. It was a prototypical diner — little wooden booths with red fake leather benches along one wall, curtains on the window, a breakfast bar, a waitress in a light blue dress and white apron hurrying around, sounds of food cooking in the kitchen at back, a smell of burnt coffee. The surprising thing was the number of customers already at the place — more than Brian would have expected in an out-of-the-way establishment like this at this early hour.
He looked around. There wasn’t an empty table and all of the bar stools were occupied or had belongings indicating that they were taken. A man sitting alone in a booth looked at Brian and motioned for him to take a sit at his table.
“You don’t mind?” Brian came over and asked.
The man wore a casual shirt, no tie. He looked tired as he clutched his steaming cup of coffee. He indicated for Brian to sit opposite him.
“Thank you,” Brian said. “I really need a cup.” He smiled a little apology for intruding on the man’s morning routine.
“That’s okay,” the man told him. “Sally will be right over with a cup for you.”
“Great.” Brian looked over at the woman busy pouring more coffee to her patrons around the room. “Really needed a little caffeine, was driving all night,” Brian said.
“No problem. We’ve all been there,” the man said. “Name’s Mike, by the way.”
“Brian. How are eggs around here?” Brian asked just to be friendly. He didn’t really feel like eating.
“Not bad, but muffins are better,” Mike said.
“Hmm,” Brian grunted uncommittedly, looking around. It was a strange collection of people. Mostly there were young adults, about his age, but there were also men and women quite a bit older. No one was really talking — it was too early for conversation. Brian caught a few looking at him furtively and turning away quickly when he noticed them. There seemed to be pity in their gaze that made Brian uncomfortable somehow. I’ll just drink and go, he told himself. There was no reason to linger.
“So, where are you heading, Brian?” the man asked, looking over the rim of his coffee cup.
“You know,” Brian said. “It’s Spring Break…”
“Ah, ten days of fun and relaxation. Getting away from it all, hmm?”
“Something like that,” Brian said and tried to get the waitress’ attention. Coffee and go.
“Sally works on her own time frame, no use making eyes at her. It never works.”
“Thanks for the tip,” Brian said. “Do you come here often?” The man, Mike, seemed to know a lot about this place.
“My first time, really,” he said with a strange expression.
“Philosophy,” Brian answered.
“I studied eastern religions myself,” Mike said.
“Oh.” Something about the place was making Brian just too uncomfortable. Did he really need coffee this bad? He considered just leaving but felt awkward. The man…Mike was just trying to make conversation, he didn’t know that Brian was running away, dropping out, leaving his friends and family without a word of his whereabouts. It wasn’t the man’s fault that Brian’s life sucked. “I took a few religion studies classes,” Brian said feeling guilty for wanting to walk away.
The waitress Sally brought him a cup of coffee without being asked, placed it on the table in front of him, and left. Brain didn’t feel like calling after her to ask for cream and sugar — there were none on the table. Well, he was now committed to stay. He took a sip. It was decent if a bit burned. He had far worse at far better places.
“So I have a good one for you,” the man said.
“It’s a moral dilemma that a professor of mine gave to all his students at the beginning of the semester,” Mike explained. Brian groaned inwardly — he was sick of moral everything. “So if you could go back in time to when Hitler was born, would you kill him?”
“I beg your pardon?” Brian almost choked on his coffee.
“Would you kill a Hitler baby?” the man asked.
Brian felt eyes focus on him from all around the diner, he was sure there was a hush, a collecting holding of breath waiting for his answer. He pretended not to notice.
“You know it’s a standard moral dilemma. The baby is still innocent, but the man destined to grow up is known to kill millions. Would you stop that slaughter if you could?” the man pressed.
“I don’t know,” Brian said, taking another sip of his black coffee. “I guess I would kill him.” He decided to give a simple answer.
“Great!” The man appeared to be genuinely happy with Brian’s response. Around the diner, there was a ripple of excitement.
Brian looked into his cup — it was almost empty. When did he drink the whole thing? Hopefully, Sally would come back with a refill soon. Surprisingly, he was starting to relax a little. Perhaps ordering breakfast wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
He looked up. The man across from him was not there, he must have slipped away while Brian drunk his coffee. He looked around the diner. People were wearing very old fashioned clothing. He hadn’t noticed that before. He looked more carefully, paying attention to the room. Was it always decorated in such an antiquated style? Brian knew a lot of diners in New York were very old timey in appearance, but he was driving on the West Coast. This diner seemed a bit out of place here. It looked more like a pub, really. All this dark wood trim and shiny brass…
He scanned for Sally. She was behind the breakfast bar counter, still wearing light blue dress uniform and white apron. He motioned for her to come over. She waved back and rushed to his booth.
“What can I get for you, mein herr?” she asked. That was quite a change in attitude.
Brian looked her over. The light blue dress was floor-length, going down all the way to her black booties. It seemed to be made after the fashion of Little House in the Prairie or close to it. Brian’s stomach told him that something was off. He looked at his sleeve. He remembered throwing on a polar fleece sweatshirt with his college logo stitched over the right side. Now he was wearing a worsened wool jacket with leather patches over the elbows and a stripped white cotton shirt. What the?
“Would you like another cup?” the waitress asked.
“Yes. Yes, please,” Brian said. He looked out of the window. Outside was a cobblestone street, horse-drawn traffic was delivering goods in the early morning light. The street signs were in German, he was almost sure, except for the fact that he didn’t speak or read German and he found no problem understanding the words. The parking lot and mild California spring were gone, replaced by gray wet streets and trees with just a hint of green buds.
“Here you go. And here’s the muffin you’ve ordered,” the waitress — was she still Sally? — said.
“Thank you. How much do I owe you?” Brian asked. He wasn’t sure he had any money…the right kind of money. He was sure this place didn’t take plastic or ePay.
“You’ve paid already, mein herr,” she smiled sweetly and pulled out a few coins from the pocket of her apron to show him.
“Oh, yes. Thank you,” Brian said again and tried to give the waitress the “everything is fine” smile. She left him with coffee and muffin and returned to serving other patrons.
There was a rolled up newspaper on the bar stool left by someone earlier that morning. Brian took it. He was sure it was in German. He looked for the date, sweat pooling uncomfortably under his armpits. April 11th, 1889. Ten days before the birth of the baby. Brian didn’t know how he knew, but he knew that Adolf Hitler will be born on April 20th of this year, at 6:30 in the evening.
“Excuse me.” Brian turned to stop the waitress on her way to deliver a hearty breakfast of eggs and sausage to a red-haired man sitting in a booth next to his. “What town is this?”
“Braunau am Inn, Austria, mein herr,” she said. She didn’t seem to be surprised by the question.
For the next few hours, Brian sat and drunk more and more coffee, while reading the entire contents of the found newspaper. He had ten days, until Easter Sunday, to find the Hitler family and kill their newborn baby.
The sun was high in the sky by the time Brian felt ready to leave the safety of the pub. He got up and found a few coins in the pocket of his suit. He left a few pennies on the table, he hoped that was enough. He never studied history in a concrete kind of way. His classes at Berkeley were always more abstract, painting the sweeps of time in general brush strokes — completely not helpful for the nuances of actually living in Austria in April of 1889. At least language wasn’t an issue. Brain spoke perfect German — Austrian? — so it seemed, and so did everyone around him. At least no one — the waitress — had complained so far. Brian would have enough problems with the cultural barriers.
He was about to leave, when the waitress rushed to bring him a long wool coat, gloves, and hat.
“Don’t forget these, mein herr,” she said sweetly and even curtsied.
“Ahh, thank you, Miss.” Brian looked around the diner again. Was he missing anything else? A suitcase perhaps? How was he supposed to live here for the next ten days? He put on the coat and hat and stashed the gloves into the coat’s sides pockets, giving himself a reason to quickly rummage through the contents inside. There seemed to be a key and a card in there. He pulled out the card and read: “Kaffeemühle Boarding House.” At least the question of where he was staying was answered. He turned to the waitress who was still standing holding the big wooden door open for him. She pointed down the street, anticipating his question for directions.
Brian smiled and took off down Salzburger Vorstadt, a quaint little street on which the pub was located on the bottom floor of a three-story yellow building. He had ten days.
His room at the Kaffeemühle Boarding House was clean and comfortable and apparently paid for. There was a suitcase stashed in the corner with clothes that fit Brian perfectly. Several days worth of newspapers were laid out on a small round table by the window with white lace curtains. There was a leather bound bible by his nightstand with a bookmark of ripped newsprint sticking out of it. Brian went to take a look.
The phrase “How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock” was underlined. Psalm 137, Brian noted. He vaguely remembered a discussion of Apoditic Law in one of his classes — “an eye for an eye” law as it was generally known. He wasn’t sure if it could be applied before an actual crime was committed. But someone thought it was important to remind Brian of the principle.
Brian sat and considered how he should be reacting to this whole situation. According to what he remembered from his introduction to psychology 101, he self-diagnosed psychosis with hallucinations to explain what was happening to him. He was under a lot of pressure. That’s why he was running away, after all. But when the psychology professor talked of hallucinations he didn’t make them seem so real. And what Brian was experiencing was very real indeed.
He decided to go for a walk. Braunau am Inn looked like a small town. He could walk the streets and look for limits to his hallucination. Brian didn’t know much about Austria or Germany or World War II, for that matter. Some members of his family were killed in the Holocaust, but his grandparents didn’t like talking about it and Brian didn’t like asking about it. He had a vague recollection that Hitler’s father worked for a local government, so perhaps he could go visit Braunau am Inn town hall and make some inquiries. Somehow, not killing Baby Hitler never entered Brian’s mind.
He walked around most of the day, stopping at various shops, reading local notices, checking out the general mood of the local population. It was very interesting — history come-a-live. Brian was proud of his imagination. If he was crazy, he was crazy in the most creative way.
He returned to the pub where he first arrived for supper. He ordered sausage and cabbage. The waitress, the same one, brought him more black coffee and a big slice of black bread and a sizable dollop of butter with this order. It was all excellent. One of the best meals Brian had in months.
He slept well in his clean white room down the street and returned to the pub for breakfast and again for his evening meal, having explored the town some more. He noticed that some of the customers at the pub were regulars. There were a family of five and a man with a bright orange facial hair he had seen the day before.
Brian tried to listen in on the conversations around him. The economy wasn’t good, apparently. He figured people from all time periods grumbled about finances. And the local government wasn’t keeping the streets as well maintained as it used to — again, the same refrain as in Brian’s time. People would always complain about potholes, he thought. You’d think the governments would learn what pissed their citizens off.
The orange-haired man thanked the waitress and asked something about renting one of the rooms above the pub. So this was a boarding house, too. The waitress said that all the rooms were taken. There was a family with a pregnant mother within days of giving birth living in the room the man wanted to rent. The waitress explained that this was why it seemed that the family had left, but in fact, they were just preparing for the birth of their fourth child. Having gotten a cause for no vacancy, the man left to look for a room elsewhere.
Brian called the waitress over. “I heard you speaking with that man. You’ve mentioned a pregnant woman?” Brian figured that in a small town like this, there just couldn’t be too many women close to giving birth. And he believed that his imagination would have placed him conveniently close to the one woman he was interested in — why make it difficult? His mind would crack in convenient ways, Brian reasoned.
“Frau Klara Hitler,” the waitress told him. “We’ve been letting rooms to the Hitler family for a few years now. Herr Alois Hitler works as a customs official at the German border, just a few streets over.”
“Thank you very much, Fräulein Sally.” Brian finally remembered the correct address in German, although he was probably using the right words all along. He wasn’t very sure. And the woman might not have been Sally… Well, if she wasn’t, she didn’t complain.
The waitress smiled at Brain and left him to finish his supper.
The following day, Brian went to investigate the customs office. He asked for some documents that he might need to transport musical instruments across the border. Brian didn’t know much about the politics or policies for moving goods. Such logistics have always bored him. He thought about some non-threatening items that were big and valuable but not obviously in high demand. Pianos popped to mind. He vaguely remembered his grandmother talking about a tall black upright grand she had as a girl and how her family had to leave it behind when they fled Germany before the War. So Brian went it with questions about piano transport from Germany to Austria. He asked specifically for Herr Hitler sighting a recommendation from a friend of a friend.
Herr Hitler was a severe man with a thick ugly dirty-white mustache and much older that Brian imagined him to be. Fifty, or there about, Brian guessed. Herr Hitler questioned Brian about his needs, and Brian had a feeling he found him wanting — too Jewish, perhaps? Brian never experienced outright racial discrimination before — he was raised in San Francisco, for god’s sake! It felt bad, vaguely menacing. After an hour of what felt like an interrogation, he was thrilled to be back outside in a weak April sun. Brain decided that Herr Hitler was a dead end, so to speak, as unhelpful as only a low-level bureaucrat was able to perfect to be. He planned to focus on his wife, Klara, and returned back to the pub for supper.
Nothing happened that evening or the following day. Or the day after that. Brian only had five days left. He was started to get worried. But at least he knew where the family was staying. He became a regular patron of the charming yellow-stoned pub, glimpsing Herr Alois Hitler several times as the man drunk coffee, always at the same time of day.
On Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday, Baby Hitler’s birthday, Brian planted himself in “his” booth and waited. He still didn’t figure out how he was going to take out the evil dictator, but at least he would be in the right place at the right time. He sat and read the newspaper, alternating between ordering plates of sausages and some sweet pastry thingies. He also drunk beer — with each passing hour, he was getting more and more nervous and alcohol courage was all he had an easy access to. The beer was very good. And so were the sausages. Everything was really good. Who knew German food had flavor?
By evening nothing happened, and Brian went back to his room at Kaffeemühle.
The pub was supposed to be closed on Easter Sunday — people went to church around here. Brian went too — he spotted Herr Hitler and a couple of his kids there.
Just after noon, someone rushed in to get the Hitlers. It is happening, Brian thought and followed the family back to the pub. He told Fräulein Sally — or whatever her name was — that he was a medical student and offered his services. The waitress patiently explained that it was very difficult to convince the doctor to come on Easter Sunday. But babies come when they come, there was no way to ask Frau Klara Hitler to keep her legs together until Monday. Brian agreed.
The doctor, a thin bespectacled man in a black suit and carrying a big black leather doctor’s bag, arrived around three in the afternoon. Thank goodness — Brian didn’t have a clue about delivering babies other than boiling water, which he asked Sally to do already. Still, he was in the position to do the deed he came here to do. He hoped his mind was happy and ready to release him from this psychosis as soon as the baby died.
Herr Hitler spent the afternoon at the pub’s bar, drinking beer slowly and deliberately. Some women took his other three small children and cared for them in another room at the inn somewhere. Brian, as a doctor to be, was allowed into the bedroom where Klara Hitler was attended by the real doctor.
Brian had never seen a birth of a child. Sure, he was well educated and knew how “it” worked, but it was very different in real life. Klara, a woman about half the age of her husband (that made her just a few years older than Brian), was in a lot of pain. There were no drugs, no anesthesia, no epidural, just pain. At some point, Brian felt like he was on the verge of vomiting from the empathy. He stepped out of the bedroom, pretending to get a glass of water for the doctor. There was a reason he never wanted to go into medicine…or biology…or even chemistry — Brian just couldn’t handle the gore and the suffering. And human birth had plenty of both.
Baby Adolf arrived into this world at six thirty in the evening, right on time. Brian was completely spent physically and emotionally. How do doctors do it?
The baby was taken away and washed while the doctor attended to Klara — she needed a few stitches or something. Brian left the bedroom. He was definitely suffering from PTSD…or will suffer. He would probably never have sex again, he decided. Probably.
He went to find the baby. It was red and wrinkly. A patch of dark hair was standing like a brush from the top of its little head. An older woman was washing it…him in a metal basin. The baby cried. It was a strange cry — a new baby cry. It sounded like it wasn’t able to breathe and cry at the same time. So there were strange interruptions to the pathetic sounds. It was completely helpless.
Brian watched. This baby will kill over forty million people in just a few decades. It was an evil thing. The world would be a different, better place if it never existed.
But it was so pathetic, so helpless. As hard as Brian tried to see the darkness in this crying proto-human, he couldn’t find it. It didn’t turn evil yet. Not yet.
The woman said something to him, and Brian tried to focus on her words. She wanted him to hold the child while she went to get the doctor. She was worried about something.
Brian took the baby wrapped in a white sheet. It looked bluish, purplish. This was the moment. He was alone in the room with it. The baby was already having problems breathing. He just needed to hold it tight, little face pressed against his body. A moment or two and it would all be over. Brian’s heart beat like a bludgeon against his ribs, turning off his ability to hear. He bent down and started to administer CPR. Cup the little face and force air into the child’s mouth, then press on his little chest to keep his heart going. Then again. And again. And again.
The doctor ran in and took Baby Hitler from Brian. It was going to be okay, he said. Brian fainted.
He came to at the breakfast bar. The waitress Sally was pouring him another cup of coffee. People around him were looking at Brian with sympathetic understanding. They were wearing California casual clothing — mostly jeans and t-shirts and sweats. Quite a few had their school logos on their chests.
The door opened and a woman walked into the diner. She looked disheveled and tired like she had been driving for a long time. Her cap had USC embroidered onto it. She looked around. There were no empty tables. An older woman motioned for the girl to join her, inviting her to share the booth. The young woman walked over and sat down. Sally brought her a cup of coffee. Brian looked at her with deep sympathy. He caught others sharing the same look. Perhaps she was the one.