[For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, Barb Black gave me this prompt: Write something based on The Killers' song "Human". I gave the most super of all Marens this prompt: "A woman is talking on a cell phone outside of a department store. Her eyes and face are red. She is crying.. What just happened?"]
Pops had flown in the Great War, so now he was far too old and fat to fly. He fixed engines now, and it had become a superstition among the pilots that if you bought Pops a beer the night before your mission, you would come back alive. So I did, dutifully, and Pops fixed me with a hard stare, at least, as hard a stare as he could manage, and said flatly, "Be careful, son. You never see the ones that get you," before putting his head down on the bar and snoring loudly.
I was thinking about Pops now, sitting on the floor of a shabby wood cabin, in the middle of a clearing on top of a small hill somewhere in the French countryside. We were almost clear of the hot zone, finally ready to turn and head for home when a last, desperate shell exploded right near the tail. He was right- none of us saw it, just heard the boom, felt the rattling and shaking. It didn't seem to hurt us much, but then we lost control. Shrapnel probably cut a control wire or two, so when I realized we couldn't turn to get back home, I got us up as high as I could, we all grabbed our chutes and jumped.
We lost each other on the way down, and I found myself caught on a large pine, suddenly brought to an abrupt stop by the branches. My lights went out when the twisted cords slammed me against the tree trunk, and when I came to, I was in this cabin. Someone had taken my pistol, my pack of supplies, everything but my uniform and boots. I looked around the cabin, which looked like someone's hunting retreat, surrounded by tall fir and spruce, and thought about Pops' warning. Indeed, we had not seen it.
But his record was still intact. I was alive. I was thirsty, and cold, and I had a headache worse than any hangover, but I was alive. I thought about escape, just like they had taught us. Reckon by the sun, then head west- eventually you'll find friendly forces. I considered that, but noted the fading sun through the cracked window and thought better of it. My head still pounded, and whatever force brought me here was probably in the area somewhere. I figured getting some rest wouldn't hurt anything, regardless.
I wondered about Sully, and Smithy, and Russ, and Greg Thomas, and George, and Lawrence, who was due to go on leave next week. They all left the plane before I did, but I could only hope they remembered their training at this point. Or at least that they remember that the sun sets in the west. We were striking Cologne, looking for airplane factories or other heavy industry that we could put out of action to help bring the war to an end sooner. I wanted nothing more than to end this stupid war, and get back to that base hospital where I can finally talk that nurse with the long legs and the high, tinkling laugh into coming home with me. I hoped whoever was out there might bring my crew back to this cabin, so we can compare notes and come up with a plan.
Based on our heading, I figured we had to be in eastern France, or possibly in Belgium. Either way, we weren't more than a couple of days' walk from the front lines, either British or American. I hoped I would hit American lines, because I knew the food would be better. My stomach growled in sympathy. Quiet down, I thought. It will be at least another day before you have anything to eat, so you had better get used to the idea.
The door banged open, and in came what I assumed were German regulars down on their luck. On the films we had seen, the German troops sparkled with shoe polish and had perfect creases in their pants. These five had parts of uniforms missing, ripped insignia, shirts untucked and dirty, and were unshaven and rank. I stared at each man in turn, trying to offer an apparent defiance I did not feel. If one of them had a couple of aspirin, I was prepared to join their division right then and there. They all had either handguns or submachine guns, though, which was the important part, since I did not.
We stared at each other for a moment, then one of them stepped forward. He had a short nose, dark hair, and cruel, closely set eyes. The others seemed to defer to him, so I assumed he was a sergeant of some kind.
"You do not speak German?," he asked. His accent was thick, but not comically so. I could understand him if I listened closely.
"I do not," I said. Name, rank and serial number, I thought. It was kind of funny, because I didn't have any real secrets to spill, even if they wanted me to.
"My English is good, yes?," he said.
"It's better than my German," I offered.
"It probably is. Do you know where you are?"
"Not exactly. France, I think."
"Not exactly," he said. "You parachuted down 2 miles into Germany, and you are now my prisoner. You and your war criminal friends will no longer soil the earth with your sin."
"Do you have my men also? Take me to them," I said.
"I will not," he said calmly. "You are my prisoner, air terrorist, and you will answer for your crimes against my Fatherland."
I tried to follow his logic, looking to see where this mad escapade was headed. "It's war," I offered. "Your people bombed London. Coventry. Birmingham. Liverpool. We gave you some of your own back."
"Yes," he said. "We did. If you attacked Berlin, where the monsters and fools who constructed this madness lie, so much the better. But Dusseldorf? Cologne? Stuttgart? You bombed women! And children! Not the leadership! The people! And this 'you did it too'? Is that all the morality America has to offer the world? You did it to me, so I do it to you? Is the world just children squabbling over a ball in the schoolyard?"
He drew his pistol, the leather holster making a slapping sound against his thigh. I reached for mine before I remembered that it wasn't there. It was a Luger, which I had seen pictures of, but had never seen in the flesh. I always thought it was an ugly gun, too many ostentatious curves. Not like the American Colt .45, which was all business, straightforward and utilitarian, just like us. I realized that however ugly the gun, it would efficiently and quickly poke holes in me just like every other gun, and I would be just as dead, no matter the aesthetics.
"What kind of man does this? What kind of man flies high above the people, dropping death on them from the great beyond? What kind of man cares not who he kills, who he wounds when his packages go off?" My eye followed the bobbing dark circle at the end of the barrel, which bobbed and weaved as he spoke, always remaining pointed enough at me to ward off any thoughts of rushing him and trying to grab it. The hole looked enormous.
I thought about when one of our men, a bombardier, got a bad case of combat fatigue, trembling in his bunk, holding an MP's .45, crying and screaming whenever any one of us looked at him. It was Pops who talked him down, got him to put the gun down and let us take him away to the infirmary. When I asked him about it later, he simply said he just pretended he was arguing with his long dead wife Esther. "Just keep agreeing with them until they get tired of talking."
I thought about challenging him, about how much courage it took to lob a V2 over the horizon at British citizens who had done as little to him as the Hamburg residents who lost their houses had done to me. But I followed Pops' dictum, keeping quiet, watching the deadly tip of his pistol.
"Who does this, American? Are you a man? Are you a human being? Or just some monster who kills kids and old women for fun? A beast who takes to the sky in his flying machine and doesn't stop until scores of Germans lie dead?" He looked equally capable of crying , screaming, shooting himself or shooting me. I stayed on the floor, letting him continue.
"My Elsa," he said haltingly. "My Elsa lived on Burgenstrasse in Hamburg. Do you know it? Of course you don't know it. You Americans never care about anyone but yourselves. My Elsa was waiting for me. She...we...I was going to have...was having...a son. A son, do you understand me? A SON! And then the planes came. And Elsa was on the stairs when a bomb, an American bomb, YOUR bomb, collapsed the building. My sister told me. They carried her body out of the building, American, my dead child in her belly. Do you have any idea how that feels?"
I looked at him. They taught us Germans were beasts, of course, monsters that had rose from the ashes of Versailles to torture the world again. But if what this guy was saying was true, and if German bombers had taken my wife's life, I'm not sure if I wouldn't blame all Germans either.
Just then, a German I hadn't seen before burst in on this little play, chattering away in their language. I didn't speak it, but you could make out a word or two. "Americans" was in there, and I heard, as if in a counterpoint, a large, rolling boom that seemed to be coming out of the woods nearby.
The leader looked at me squarely, and I heard the distinct metal on metal sound of him cocking the weapon. If this is it, I thought, I'm going to make a run. I'd rather die on my feet than on my knees. I started measuring the distance, figuring on a plan of attack. I'll stay low, like they say in football, and just rush the guy, hoping I can close the distance before he can fire. I kept an eye on his finger, waiting for the slightest twitch.
"Schnell!" the new guy said, and suddenly his comrades were rushing out the back of the cabin, away from the noise. The leader, whatever his name was, took a long look over the barrel of his gun at me, then joined his friends, fleeing to the east. I heard another rolling boom, never so glad to hear the sound of shells going off, and got up. I hoped against hope that meant American forces were coming, then started running like the devil, hoping I could convince the sentry of my Americanness before he decided to fill me with lead.