by Jennifer Migotsky

The secretary picked up her briefcase and trotted after Maj. Weymaker down the dim-lit dirty hallway to his so-called office—a sparsely-furnished brown room with a single yellow light fixture in the middle of the ceiling. Maj. Weymaker crossed behind the desk and put out his cigarette. As he gave instructions, his voice was controlled but tighter than usual. Beth had seen him blow up at secretaries before and was determined not to be another one.

A boom above shook the ceiling and the light fixture flickered like a lightning bug.

“Looks like we have company, sir,” she said, trying to lighten the mood.

Weymaker didn’t appreciate it. “Don’t treat the Germans like guests. Please.”

Beth swallowed quietly and stood patiently with notepad in hand. Weymaker glanced at his watch. “0900. Almost time.” He ran his fingers through his greying hair. His forehead was creased with crevices deep with worry.

“Miss Collins?” he said, looking up at her, “How can you be so calm?”

His simple question struck her as a compliment. Compliments made her uncomfortable. As usual, she took the evasive tactic.

“I’m not always calm,” she said, “You should’ve seen my mother. Maybe I inherited some of her calmness to survive the war. Compared to her—”

“You remind me of a young teacher I once had,” he interrupted, “So cheerful, patient, dutiful.” His tone hardened. “Weak …”

Beth’s eyes opened. His words were clearly not meant to be compliments but insults. At the sound of “yielding” and “submissive,” Beth opened her mouth.

“Sir, I don’t—”

But Weymaker continued. “She complied with students who deserved a slap in the face. Keeping everyone cheerful was her only priority,” he sneered, “She ignored the bullies and lazy students. It was as if she was afraid … of raising angry voices. Always trying to please everyone.”

“Sir, I do not know this teacher you speak of, but I am not a people-pleaser. If I seem compliant, well, isn’t that my job? You are my commanding officer.”

She was interrupted by a knock at the door. A young man entered and handed Weymaker a telegram.

“What is it?” asked Weymaker.

“Orders to evacuate, sir.”

When the young man closed the door behind him, Beth spoke up, “To be calm is a sign of strength, not weakness. It is not always cowardice to choose retreat. Sometimes it is a choice for survival, to save one’s energy for the fight tomorrow.”