By K.M. Updike
I stare at the picture of Flash and Mom, sitting outside by the mail box on our street. It’s spring time, and Mom’s lilac bushes are in bloom. I can smell their fragrance even from the black and white photograph.
For moment I forget there’s a Kraut soldier breathing down my neck every ten seconds and looming hunks of halftracks surrounding us. I forget the snow chilling my bones, that I’m stuck here with ten other guys waiting for them to kill us, and for a moment—I’m home. I’m waiting on the porch for Pop on a Sunday afternoon. Mom’s there and the girl next door with the big smile and freckles. We’re laughing at Flash.
Someone kicks my arm, and the picture goes flying. I whirl around, and the Kraut barks in my face, “Auf! Up!” He kicks me again. I lunge to my feet, and he snaps his rifle to his shoulder. I lurch to a stop.
He grins and juts his chin. “Yah, yah. Come, American.”
“Hey!” A G.I. grabs my arm. “Come on. Let it be.”
I glower at the Kraut, and he jeers.
The guy holding my arm pushes me back.
I jerk from his grip and look for my picture. It’s fluttered away across the snow, toward a huddle of officers. The Kraut colonel catches my eye.
He’s silent, fingering his chin, the brim of his hat casting his eyes in shadow.
I take a step to retrieve my photograph, but the Kraut blocks my way. I shove his shoulder, and he jams the rifle butt into my gut.
Pain wrenches through my ribs. I double over, holding my stomach. The Kraut knocks me across the shoulders, and I crumple to the ground.
The world throbs in and out, blurry. The Kraut raises his rifle to his shoulder. I know he’s going to shoot. My head pounds. All I hear is the pulse of my heart. I grab at the snow, grappling for my picture, for Flash, Mom, and Pop behind the camera. I can’t die without them. Not without holding them.
Voices holler far away, and the Kraut stops. He lowers the rifle and spits in my face.
Relief clears my head, and someone lifts me, pulling me back into line.
“That’s one way to get killed,” the G.I. says as he sits down beside me.
I rub the back of my neck and look for the photograph. But it’s gone, blown away out of sight. The colonel stares at me, his arms crossed in front of him.
“What’s your name, kid?” the G.I. asks.
“Pete Battle.” He holds out his hand. After a moment I break my glare at the colonel and shake Pete’s hand.
“Sorry about your picture. Sweetheart?”
I drive my fists into snow. “Family.”
“How long you been out here?”
“Since Omaha Beach.”
“They’ve been talking awhile.” Pete nods to the colonel and his lieutenants.
“Figuring the best way to kill us,” I say.
Pete nods. “Didn’t think they’d keep us for long.”
I look away, a bitter taste rising in my mouth.
Pete rests his hand on my shoulder. “Whatever’s going to happen, hating’s not going to make it any better.”
A shout rises from the officers, and the soldiers guarding us move in.
“Auf!” The Kraut waves his rifle, and we prisoners stand, shuffling around to keep warm.
The lieutenants return to their halftracks, and the colonel gazes at me over his shoulder.
“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t hate his stinking, Nazi guts.”
Pete doesn’t answer.
The colonel climbs the hulk of his tank, but before he steps inside, the air rumbles. Everyone looks up. A whistle shrieks through the sky.
“Move!” Pete shoves me, and I face plant into snow as soldiers run for cover. The whistle cuts short right overhead. Someone screams.
The world erupts, and an explosion shatters the havoc for one split second. Dirt and snow rain over me. I scramble to my knees, and another explosion knocks a halftrack onto its side.
Machine guns spatter in between more whistles and explosions. Americans fall in heaps.
I scrabble through the snow for a shell hole, sliding inside as an explosion blasts a shower of shrapnel and snow over my head. Shots ring out, and five more explosions shake the world while I shiver in the bottom of the hole.
Then silence. Like a blanket falling over the racket. I unwrap my arms from my head, listening to be sure it’s real and I’m not just dead in a hole.
A bit of warmth still lingers in the dirt as I crawl to the edge of the hole.
Smoke drifts across the clearing, shell holes lay scattered throughout, a German lies dead a few feet away.
It’s the Kraut, his face turned from me. His rifle flung out above his head. Pete Battle lies beside him.
The tank stands immobile, the trap door hanging open, the runners splintered metal.
Wind blows drifting smoke into the trees; the clearing lays littered with the crumpled figures of silent men.
I reach for the Kraut’s rifle and climb out behind the cover of the halftrack. The body of a lieutenant lies crushed beneath it. I move down the line toward the tank. I round the halftrack, and the Kraut colonel stands there, his Luger pointed at my head.
I halt, gripping the rifle, unable to move.
Blood splatters his coat from a hole in his right sleeve, his face is flecked with scratches.
I stiffen, chest heaving.
“Drop,” he says, low and firm.
I let go, and the rifle clatters to the ground.
He waves the Luger. I step away from the halftrack. He circles me, keeping his distance. But his gun hand wavers. He grimaces in pain, and his hand falls.
I take a running leap at the colonel, and a shot rings in my ears. We hit the ground on the colonel’s back. The Luger skids across the snow toward the halftrack.
The colonel sends me sprawling with a punch to my jaw.
I shake the haze out of my head.The colonel blunders across the snow for the Luger, and I claw at his boot. He lands one kick right to my nose.
I let out a cry, and the colonel scrambles for the Luger. He grabs the pistol, but I’m up off the ground, tasting blood, and I ram him back into the halftrack. He falls limp against the hood, and I punch him hard in the face, driving another blow to his stomach.
He drops the Luger and slumps to the ground as I punch him one last time.
I stumble backward, heaving, blood warm on my lips. I look around for the Luger and take a step for it. My knees collapse beneath me, but I pull myself up and snatch it from the snow.
I turn to the colonel and grab him by the front of his coat, shaking him conscious.
“You were going to murder us all, weren’t you? Weren’t you!” I smash him into the halftrack and push to my feet, aiming the Luger.
He lays there, staring at me, clutching his arm.
Tears blur him into the bulk of the halftrack.
“You dirty, Nazi son of a—” I ram the barrel against his head. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t kill you!”
The colonel’s eyes close in defeat, an exhaustion consuming him.
“Come on!” I yell.
He lifts a shaking, bloody hand from his wound. I press the barrel harder into his skull, and he pauses. Then he reaches into his coat breast pocket. I quake with terror and rage, but I let him do it.
When he pulls a glossy slip of paper out, the breath is ripped out of me.
Mom’s smile, shining in black and white. Her hand clasping my kid brother’s resting on her shoulder. The lilacs.
My hand pressing the Luger into his head falls. I stumble backward, my breath still. I swallow down an aching throat. I want to collapse on the ground, my legs won’t let me.
“Bette,” he whispers, reaching into his coat again. “Ana, Ivo, Frank, Jana, Gero.”
Next to the picture of Mom and Flash he holds another. It’s children. Smiling children, a dark haired, beautiful woman holding them close. It’s all there in black and white.
“My Bette,” he whispers. His eyes fall closed.
My knees bend, and I’m breaking into a thousand pieces. I fall to the ground, the barrel of the Luger filling with snow.
For a moment it’s like seeing spring and the lilacs blooming.