The shot pierced the air and echoed in his mind. Meine's heart thudded in fearful anxiety and a lump clenched his throat, making it difficult to breathe. Slowly, afraid of what he would see, he opened his eyes and locked onto the sight before him. Color drained from his face and for a moment, the world around him froze. His stomach twisted in distaste and he cringed, clasping a tight hand over his belly.
His eyes widening, he diverted his gaze. "No
Max's voice delivered Meine back to the present. "Hey, good job! Got him right under the helmet!"
" His mouth turned dry, his tongue fending off any words. I aimed above him
"Okay, let's go for the other one
He looks pretty shaken; should be easy to take care of him." Humming, Max clicked the scope to his left, but suddenly flinched at the explosive roaring of the MG 34s and rifles tearing towards the enemies. His mouth fell slightly agape as his eyes caught charging men drop to the ground like stones. The resistance launched themselves behind trees, responding with their own weapons. The British commander hollered and thrust his blade into the direction of the Germans, his horse fighting with all its might to flee from the noise. He watched as a round ripped down the field and into the body of a fellow soldier. Falk! The young man barely had time to cry out before slumping into the trench and out of sight. Max's blood turned icy, his smirk non-existent.
Quickly, Max snapped back into the façade, turning to Meine. "Meine
Meine said nothing, his gaze down, his body shaking uncontrollably. I know I aimed above him
I know I did
"Meine! This isn't funny!" Eyes narrowed, Max stamped his foot into Meine's side. "HEY!"
The painful kick was all Meine needed. With a yelp, his head turned towards Max. "Wh-what?!"
"You know damn well 'what'!" Max jerked a finger outwards. "We have a job to do, so get! Firing!"
Meine winced at his friend's tone. It was rare that Max would act in such a way; in fact, Meine had never seen this side of him. Hesitantly, with both hands now clutching the rifle, he brought his head on level to the sight, his knuckles turning white. His stomach twisted at the limp body of the young man, a puddle of blood seeping into the grass. Beside him huddled his friend, who fumbled to get the blasted machine working. The unmistakable look of horror lay written in his eyes. Meine's finger slithered to the trigger. His mind screamed to stop, to run...
Meine's heart turned cold at the eruption. Before he knew it, the soldier fell over his friend, an ever-growing scarlet circle forming on his uniform. Meine's teeth tore into the inside of his bottom lip, the bitter taste of copper splattering against his tongue. With a hoarse yell, he lurched himself away from the opening, the rifle slipping from his limp grip. His surroundings began to sway; a loud ringing tore at his eardrums.
Two hands roughly gripped at his shoulders and Meine jerked his head up, barely able to make out the blurring figure. "Hey... hey!" the figure called out, shaking him. "Get a hold of yourself...! Meine!"
Max swore loudly and shook him harder, completely oblivious of being in open sight. "Meine! Answer me, you... Now is not the time to freeze up! Those men are counting on us to protect them, and this is not helping!" He slowly turned his head outside. "Mei... Scheiße, get down!" Wrapping both arms around Meine, Max threw him down to the ground, shielding his body. A second barely passed before a swarm of gunfire broke into the bell tower, turning the stone into nothing more than choking dust. Both men flinched at the sound. Max's ears were deafened by Meine's screaming as the young soldier fought to claw himself free, his fingernails wildly scraping across the floorboards. Kicking like a rabid animal, his feet slammed into Max's body, heels sinking deep into his kneecaps. Against his better wishes, Max bit down on his tongue, fighting back a loud yelp. A slab of brick crumbled from the ceiling and struck him in the shoulders, ripping apart the thin fabric of his uniform. His grip faltered. Before he could manage to regain his bearings, he found his arms to be holding nothing but air. He lifted his head, eyes wide with bewilderment.
"Meine! Zurückkommen !" Despite the pain in his shoulder, Max moved to push himself up, but immediately dropped back onto the boards as the bullets screeched inches over his helmet, a downpour of rubble falling upon him.
His cries reached no ears. Meine clambered down the ladder, his hands and feet barely touching the creaking rungs. Run, his mind screamed, run! The instant his boots felt the cement, he whipped his body around and broke into a sprint. He barely registered his surroundings as he rushed through alleys and streets. Barrages of lead and grenades lacerated through the sky, the screams of anguish not far behind. Meine dove into a back street, tripping over his own feet and smacking his torso into a large crate. His face writhed in pain as he struggled to his feet, shaky hands gripping the wooden frame for support. His heart pounded against his ribs, shrieking murder. His left hand clutched at his chest, dots of scalding sweat coursing down his face and neck. He staggered weakly into an abandoned house and his knees folded beneath him, slamming into the thick boards.
Meine loosened the strap on his helmet, jerking it off his head and flinging it aside before dragging himself over to a wall. Resting his back against the wall, he shuddered and let out a shaky breath, hanging his head in fatigue. Every muscle in his body chattered; every organ threatened to burst; his bones ached. His throat and mouth turned barren, it pained him to swallow. Forcing his head to turn, his eyes marked the bell tower in the distance, the top entirely filmed in a billow of dust. The gunfire had ceased to continue; there was no movement from inside the tower, no...
His eyes widened; his body grew cold.
With a mighty lurch forward, he willed his legs to rise. Teetering back and forth, he pushed onward to the doorway, and upon reaching it he gouged his nails into the side casing to keep himself from falling. His heart thumped faster.
"Max! M-Max!" he cried, gasping as the very action cut the inside of his throat. He placed a hand over his neck and coughed, almost buckling to his knees.
At that moment, the world exploded into a monstrous earthquake. Meine was thrown off his feet and onto the floor as an onslaught of mortars came hailing from the air, shrapnel spewing left and right upon impact. The windows shattered and sprayed shards in all directions. A piece missed Meine's head by an inch. He hardly managed a scream and scrambled towards the stairway, his fingers scraping against the glass. His legs discovered newfound strength and pushed him upright, yanking him up the stairs and thrusting him into a room with a small bed and cracked window. Meine quickly shut the door and wobbled over to the break, his eyes suddenly open wide at the sight. The shell-scarred road was flooding with his unit; they were retreating! He caught a glimpse at Armin, who fired down the street before vanishing into an alley. One soldier took a bullet to the back and fell. Another wrapped his arms around his friend who had been shot and jerked him into a building. They split off in numerous directions, fleeing like terrified animals.
A loud crack came from downstairs. Meine swung his head around and wasted no time scurrying under the bed, pinning himself as close to the wall as possible. He planted an ear to the floor, hearing nothing but muffled voices, none of them familiar. Whether they were his unit or the enemy was unclear to him, but the last thing he wanted to do was take a chance. He had left his rifle in the belfry; he was helpless. He held in a breath as boots stamped up the stairs, coming to a bone-breaking stop at his door. His eyes refused to look away.
The blood in Meine's body froze. No...
A large force swung the door open, rattling against the wall. Four boots stepped in, one pair smaller than the other. Thick, French voices muttered to one another; nothing they said meant anything to Meine. The barrel of a rifle came into view and the soldier could have sworn he saw a trail of smoke snaking its way out. The smaller pair clicked over to the bed, stopping a fraction away from the bed post. The second moved towards the closet, opening the bi-fold with his rifle. From what Meine could see, it was empty. A sharp "Merde" escaped the second's mouth and he kicked the barrier. He then walked to his friend and pointed to under the mattress with the toe of his left boot. Meine silently pressed himself closer to the wall, his heart bouncing off his ribs. If only he could merge into the wall...! A pair of bony knees were placed on the boards, followed by long, spider-like fingers. The very sight of those fingers made Meine want to cry out. He shut his eyes, quietly wrapping his arms around his body, teeth biting down on his tongue.
Two sudden pops burst from the first floor, taking Meine and the two men by surprise. He slowly opened his right eye. Another "Merde" escaped the second's mouth and the barrel vanished from Meine's sight. The one with the spider fingers rose to his feet, the unforgettable sound of a pistol cocking bouncing off the walls. Out of nowhere, a shot ripped through the thin mattress and smashed within the boards, missing Meine's chest by a hairsbreadth. Meine launched a hand around his mouth and held back a shriek, fingers and knuckles ashen. His ears screeched. Without another word, the unknown men hurried out. The world grew calm for only a single heartbeat, then was disrupted by a storm of thundering rounds. Despite his best attempts, a wrenching yell broke through the dam and ran out the room. Just as quickly as the firefight began, it halted. There came a muffled thud, then silence.
Minutes passed before Meine pulled himself into the open, sweat trailing down his face and seeping through the cracks of the boards. With just enough energy, he stood, leaning to the wall for assistance. He tottered from the room and down the hall, placing a shaky grip on the banister. Sprawled amongst the lumber lay five men: two German, three French. All were riddled with crimson punctures in the torso. At the bottom of the steps rested the man with the lofty fingers, quivering and gasping for air. Unlike his partners, he was struck with only one bullet, just below the collarbone. His shirt was wet with blood, the red liquid trickling down his body. His breath was hollow; his eyelids were drooping with each rise and fall of his chest. In his limp hand he held the pistol. Slowly, he turned his head to Meine, his eyes clouded by mist. A choked gurgle broke free from his mouth before his head lolled to the left.
Meine wasted no time. He raced from the steps and over the bodies, his ears deaf to the world. He darted outside into the backyard, plummeting to his knees. His hands clutched the dead strands of grass and a mighty hack ran up his throat and out his mouth. In a matter of seconds, bile spewed forth, striking the ground before splashing his hands and jacket. Tears stung his eyes and rolled down his dust-stained face as he slumped to his side, strangled sobs cutting his throat. He moved his knees close to his chest and began to scream...
* * *
A nineteen-year-old Meine stared blankly at the paper before him, the words a complete puzzle to him. In the background of the dim den, the unforgettable voice of the Reich Minister, Dr. Joseph Goebbels, crackled in the background. Upon the envelope it was delivered in was the seal of an eagle; he had recognized it from when their neighbor's son received last week. Though not as powerful or threatening as its successor, the Wehrmacht eagle had no trouble to inscribe pride into those who wore it.
There was an irritated sigh and a wiry hand snatched the paper from Meine's grasp, causing his head to shoot up. Before him stood his older brother, Ansel Steinmann, twenty-four. Next to him was Friedrich, the oldest, twenty-seven. Ansel's face sported a clean-shaven look; Friedrich preferred to have some facial hair, but it was all temporary. The last thing he ever wanted was to resemble a filthy backwoodsman.
"No use trying to have you read it; not like you ever went to school..." Ansel glared and gently tapped the paper with his ring finger. "You know Braun's son? The one who got a letter just like this?"
Meine simply nodded.
"Good. You're... what, nineteen now? Yeah..." Ansel looked at the paper again, a mysterious glint flashing in his eyes. "I'm not going to bother to sugar-coat it, Meine. You've been drafted into the Heer." He walked over to the kitchen table, grabbing a cigar. "Friedrich is too busy working in the forest and supporting this house, and my schooling isn't over for another two years... As much as we'd love to help the Reich, we would have to give up our life duties. The responsibility falls on you."
Stunned, Meine rose from the chair, almost knocking over the newspaper on the arm. "Me...? But... But, I have to watch over Dad. He can't be alone in the house!" Ten years ago, Tavin, Meine's father, suffered a debilitating injury while working in the factories when a piece of metal exploded from a machine and pierced him in the leg, just above the knee. It had come close to severing the bone. Crippled, Tavin was confined to his bed and it was up to Friedrich, seventeen at the time, to help finance the family.
"We've been saving up to hire someone to look over Father. It should be enough until Ansel's schooling is over," said Friedrich. He moved to the radio, clicking the volume off. Out of all his dislikes, he despised Goebbel's voice with a passion.
"Do they know about his medicine...? What about his allergies? The doctor said..."
"They're going to have everything under control, Meine." Friedrich didn't move from his spot, leaning against the small desk in the corner. "That shouldn't matter right now. You're ordered to leave for training in two months. If you refuse to go, they'll throw you in jail. If that happens
we'll be marked as traitors in the Führer's eyes. You, me, Ansel
Ansel cut in, "Do you want to have that hang over your head? What would you rather do: make the Führer attain his dream, or bring fault to our family?" He walked up to Meine, towering over him. "The last thing my father needs is being labeled a betrayer to the Fatherland."
My father. Not our.
I would never want that!" Meine lightly clenched a fist, staring up at Ansel. Fear gleamed in his eyes, a small lump forming in his throat.
The ceiling gave off a high groan. Above them was the room of their father, shifting the bed as he turned this way and that on the firm mattress.
Friedrich barely glanced up, his dark eyes on his youngest brother. "What's your decision, Meine? Your family, or yourself?"
Meine's eyes inched to the paper.
"Family... yourself... Family... Get up...!"
* * *
"Steinmann, get up!"
Hands shaking Meine grasped him back into the present, his body a contortion of spasms. He coughed hoarsely, almost feeling the urge to vomit again. His eyes picked up the vague silhouette of a body kneeling before him. With whatever energy he had managed to cling to, he raised his head to the person. All color from his face dissolved.
"What in the hell are you doing here!?" Martin's hands coiled around Meine's arm and thrust him to his feet. His face was ablaze, his teeth ready to tear Meine's throat apart. "Why weren't you up in the bell tower!" He shook him again. "Antwort!"
It hurt to breathe. Meine could only stare in terror at the Feldwebel, eyes wide. As if he was struck in the stomach, his knees gave in and he doubled over, breaking down in tears. Unconsciously, he gripped Martin's arms and immersed his face into the man's chest, violent sobs striking him. Stifled words squirmed free from his covered face and floated to Martin's ears; however, none of them made any sense. Martin moved to shove Meine away and scream his head off, but a heavy sigh exited his lips. Gently, he perched his hands upon Meine's shoulders and pulled away, his eyes an unusual calm.
"Don't... just... don't." Sighing again, Martin looked past the puddle of last night's chow and into the house, spotting the bodies. He looked back to Meine, helping him over to a small tree and setting him in the shade. "Take deep breaths, Steinmann. Then you tell me why you weren't in your position."
Trembling, Meine flooded his lungs with as much air as he could, giving off wild shudders with each exhale. "I... I w-was up there... w-with Max... h-h-he was t-telling me to shoot. I did, s-sir... I ki... killed two of them. Then, I just froze... I got scared...!" He gulped a couple of times and wrapped his hands around his body. "Max t-tried to snap me out of it, but we were suddenly under attack... m-machine gun... I couldn't take it anymore. Max told me to s-stay, but I didn't listen... I didn't want to listen. I... fled..."
"I r-ran into a house... that one..." He raised a limp finger at the house. "I s-saw the unit retreating... then... I heard people downstairs. I hid... th-they came in and almost found me, but then someone else came in... They left, a-and I heard gunfire. I went to s-see, and..." He shivered and buried his face in his hands.
Martin shook his head. "You don't need to tell me anymore. The battle's over; the enemy fell back and ran for the hills. Some of the lighter-wounded men decided to assist in the fight... We're lucky they joined in." He took Meine's arm and slowly pulled him up. "Are you wounded?"
"Alright... Come on, we need to meet up with the Hauptmann." He turned to walk away, but caught a glimpse of guilt on Meine's face. "What?"
Meine swallowed. "How many... did..."
"Twelve, thirty wounded... but, none of them were on you. They hid mortars in the woods; we had no chance of taking those out." He led Meine out of the yard and into the streets. Meine had to grip his arms tighter to not look at the destruction. Slabs of houses were blown from existence, charred holes littered the roads, and streaks of blood marked where soldiers had fallen, enemy or ally. The stench of sulfur and dust misted above their heads.
"I should have d-done my job... It's m-my fault..."
"No. They hid the mortars. Even with you up there, you couldn't have hit them..." Martin led him onward until they reached a small church, or what was left of it. There stood Smoke and Ritter, their uniforms smeared with blood. Some other soldiers stood scattered, all of them tending to their friends or themselves. One of them was Max, helping hold down the soldier Meine saw get hit in the back. Max was covered in filth, his hair a mess; he almost looked like a different person.
In no time, Smoke walked over to Meine, his eyes flaring with rare fury. "I told you to not make a mistake, Steinmann! And what do you do? You run off! I gave you an order! I trusted you! Do you mind telling me just what gave you the bright idea of disobeying a direct order?"
"I told him to!"
Their heads simultaneously turned. Max let go of the man and hurried over, wiping dirt from his face. "We were under heavy fire up in the tower, sir. We were trapped. I told him to run before something bad happened." He gestured at Meine. "He refused to leave, but I forced him to. I knew we couldn't afford to lose our sniper."
Wordlessly, Smoke looked to Max and Meine, then back to Max. "That better be true, Hexenkopf. I don't want to believe some cocked-up lie just so you can save your friend's hide."
"It's the truth, sir." Martin stepped forward. "When I found Steinmann, he told me everything. As much as I hate to admit it, Hexenkopf here speaks the truth."
Smoke shoved the emptied pistol into his holster, adjusting his officer's cap. "Very well, then... Father, go tend to the wounded, see if any need the last rites." He raised his tone, looking to the soldiers in the area. "The rest of you! Search for any missing soldiers. I don't care if they're French or German or even British. You find them. Kappel, you're with me. Dismissed!" With a last look at Meine, he turned and walked off, Martin trailing not far behind.
As soon as he left, Max walked over to Meine's side, his face straight. Meine's eyes fell downcast and he started to speak, but Max roughly grabbed him by the jacket and yanked him close, glaring. Yelping, Meine tensed up, taken aback at his friend's action. What...
"The next time I tell you to do something, you better damn well listen! If you pull that shit again, I will make you regret every second of your life! Are we clear?!" His voice was low, growling like a wolf.
"Y..." Meine pushed back tears and croaked out, "Yes..."
"Good..." Max let out a deep breath, suddenly wrapping his arms around Meine. He then pulled away. "Come on... we got digging to do..."