Chapter 1: Max (October 1942)
There is an odd opinion in this world concerning women. They are thought to be submissive things, there to be pretty and so men have something to show off. They are not, in any way, dangerous, scary, or something to be remotely worried about. This is not true in the least. Women, from my experience, are impersonations of the devil herself. Hidden among us males, they let us believe we are in control, the superior sex, and laugh behind our backs at our foolish thoughts. Although this may not be true for all women, every experience I have had with one seems to pound this belief even deeper into my mind.
All of this runs through my mind as my mother’s arms wrap around me in her tight embrace. I hug back, my grin feeling like it will rip my face any moment now. I’ve been in the army for a year now, but I was recently allowed home for two weeks to celebrate Erntedankfest with my family. I look over my mother’s shoulder and see my three younger sisters and my father standing in the doorway, all smiling. My father is leaning heavily on a crutch, his right leg having been blown off by a bomb in the first world war. I feel as though I’m currently acting as my mother’s crutch, she is clutching herself to me so much.
“I missed you so much my little hase,” she murmurs. My smile grows even wider as she uses her pet name for me. Bunny, referring to my horrid case of buck tooth when I was a child.
“I missed you too Mama,” I whisper into her hair.
“Woman!” I look up to see Papa yelling from the porch. “Let the boy breathe!” Mama sniffles a bit and laughs. When she looks up at me, her eyes are red and puffy.
“I think your Papa wants to see you,” she says smiling. I give her one last hug, then turn and tromp up the steps to my little house.
“Come here you three,” I say, and Krista and Annelise come charging into my arms. I look up and see Ruth standing still, her arms crossed.
“What’s wrong, mein Schatz?” I smile at her, and though she hesitates a second, she smiles back. “Were you worried your older brother forgot you?”
“Nein,” she says, running into my arms. “I was worried you wouldn’t come back.” I feel the prick of tears and quickly blink. Is this what my family has been going through this whole time? I look up to where my Papa stood above us. His face is as stoic as ever, but I can see his eyes are shining.
“I missed you guys,” I whisper to my sisters. Then I look up, realizing that someone was missing from this tear-stained reunion.
“Where’s Klaus?” I ask, referring to my younger brother. I turn and look at my mother, but her eyes flick everywhere at once, refusing to meet my gaze.
“I believe I smell something burning,” my father clamps his hand on my shoulder and I jump, not realizing that he had moved next to me. “Let’s go on inside and get you settled.”
“He’s doing what now?” We’re all sitting around the small kitchen table eating dinner when I finally get an answer to my question.
“He’s out signing up for the war.” I glare at my mother, and she quickly looks away, turning instead to meticulously cut up her meat.
“I thought I told you to never let him sign up?” I quickly lower my voice when I see Annelise flinch out of the corner of my eye. “I’ve been trying my entire career in the military to keep Klaus from having to join, and here you are going back on all of that because ‘every other boy his age is doing it?’”
“Max, we realize that this may be upsetting to you, but -”
“No, Papa, you don’t realize. I’ve seen men out there who are Klaus’s age and younger blown to bits because they didn’t know how to shoot a gun. Hell, I’ve seen grown men die because they walked a step out of line and got their legs blown off by a planted bomb. I’ve learned not to get too close to people after the first few friends I had had their heads blown off right in front of me. So my apologies, Papa, if I come off a little harsh, but I would do anything in the world if it meant that Klaus didn’t have to see any of that.” I’m breathing heavily by now, and I can hear Krista sniffling beside me.
My father sighs. “Why don’t you take the girls to bed, Elisabeth?” My mother quickly gets up and ushers my sisters into their room. I look back at my father, but he refuses to meet my gaze. I huff out a breath, then stand abruptly, my chair toppling over.
“I’m going to find Klaus,” I growl, “and I’m going to do my best to talk some sense into him.” I turn and walk out of the kitchen, and as I pass my sister’s room, I pause when I hear my mother singing a soft nursery rhyme to them. I sigh. This is how life should be. No worries, no tears, no fathers, sons, and brothers leaving one day and returning in a box the next.
I walk down the familiar streets that are not so familiar anymore, so covered are they with propaganda and signs supporting the Fuhrer. I’m not paying attention to where I’m going, so when I finally look up, I’m dizzy and disoriented. There are old beggars sitting on the sides of the street, and I jump when a car horn blows next to me. I realize that I’m in the middle of the street and quickly move to the sidewalk, getting honked at a few more times along the way. Still in a daze, I stumble a few more blocks and find myself caught in a flurry of moving colors and people. I push my way through, a few muttered curses following me, but give up after a few meters. I turned and began to push my way out of the crowd, trying to look over the shoulders of the people pressing in on me from all sides to try and find the enlistment office, but it was no use.
I had finally made it to the edge of the crowd when it happened. A loud bang, a noise like a gunshot, and then people start to scream. More gunshots go off, and I dive to the ground, curling into a ball and covering my ears.
Suddenly I’m back in a tank on the battlefield hurtling towards the enemy’s front line and covering my ears against the echoing of bullets pounding on the metal all around me. Someone’s screaming, but I know it’s not me since I’m biting my lip so hard I see blood spatter the floor below me.
“Max.” A hand grabs my shoulder and I reach for my gun, knowing that they’re an enemy who somehow got into the tank, but my gun isn’t there and a voice is calling my name. I curl tighter into my ball, shoving my hands against my ears to try and block out the noise, but I can still hear the voice and feel their hand. I’m shaking in terror, and I taste salty tears mixing with my blood.
“Max.” Someone is pulling at my hands, trying to get them away from my ears, trying to get them behind me, trying to take me prisoner.
“Max.” I aimed a blind kick at the person and felt my food connect with something soft. There was a yelp, and then all was silent. All I could hear was my heavy breathing and the soft thump as someone sat down heavily near me. The gunshots were gone, and though I could hear the murmur of voices in the distance, it seemed like the commotion had calmed down. I slowly opened my eyes, looking around me. I was in a back allyway, still curled against a wall. There’s a soft flutter above me and I jump, only to look up and see a poster supporting the Furher flicking in the light breeze.
“Max?” I spin at the voice, raising my fists to block my face, ready for whoever came at me, but when I finally spotted it’s owner, a young boy with a mop of dark brown hair that fell and covered his eyes, I lowered my hands.
“Klaus?” The kid breaks into a grins and goes to move off of the wall he’s leaning on when he stops and doubles over coughing and holding his chest.
“Damn Max,” he wheezes. “You got me pretty good.” I grimace when I realize that he was the one I had kicked.
“Sorry. Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” Smirking, he pushes himself up the wall into a standing position. “You looked pretty bad. Wanna tell me what happened?” I shiver, remembering the sound of the shots and how it sent me back to the war.
“There was a gun-fight, I think. In the parade. People were screaming and it was crowded, and I guess I just freaked.”
Klaus is silent for a few seconds, and when I look up, it looks as if he’s deciding between laughter or tears.
“Those were fireworks, Max. Those people, they weren’t screaming. They were cheering.” I look up sharply. Fireworks? I’d forgotten about those. We weren’t allowed to use them in the military in case they gave away our position, but I remembered that they were occasionally used in large celebrations or events.
I shake my head, trying to clear away the tears that had formed. I feel Klaus’s arms wrap around me, and I hug him back, grateful to have someone to hold on to.
“I’m just glad you’re home,” Klaus whispers after a minute.
“So am I, kid.” I sigh and pull him closer. “So am I.”
Klaus shows me around town for a while, and we even stop at one point to get streusel. It’s only when we pass by a poster talking about enlistment do I remember why I came to find Klaus in the first place.
“So,” I start, trying to keep my tone light. “Papa told me that you’re signing up for the war.” Klaus stumbles and I see his eyes go wide.
“I didn’t think that Papa would tell, and I figured I’d be home before you.” I grin at the fear in his voice. Maybe next time I told him not to do something, he might actually listen.
“And why weren’t you?”
“My friends took me out to a bar and -”
“You’re 15! You’re telling me you broke two laws in the span of a few hours?”
“Bruder!” He turns to me in shock. “You won’t tell Mama, will you?” I smirk, knowing that I could get quite literally anything I wanted from Klaus right now.
“Only if you -” Boom. I’m cut off as the ground shakes under me and I fall forwards, trapping Klaus beneath me.
“Please tell me those were just fireworks,” I hiss at him, gasping for breath.
“The hell they were!” My brother’s eyes are flicking around wildly, and his voice is raspy as he scrambles to push air back into his lungs. “We need to get outta here before the witches blow us up!” Witches? I glance around to see what he’s talking about, and then realize it’s not important. We can deal with the witches once we’re safe. I push myself off of Klaus and look around. If only I knew where I was.
“Boys!” I turn at the shout and see an older man standing in the doorway of a shop a few meters away. I grab Klaus’s arm and start dragging him towards what I now recognize to be a small bakery. Once we’re inside, the man directs us down a flight of stairs to a bomb shelter where a few other people are huddled against the back wall. I turn back to him when he doesn’t follow us down.
“Aren’t you coming too?” He shakes his head sadly.
“No, my child, I must stay and help any others who are lost outside. Go down and be safe now.” His eyes crinkle in a smile, and I thank him one more time before picking Klaus up and carrying him down the stairs into the cellar. I pull the door shut above us, but leave it unlocked so that anybody else who needed it could enter. I heard a slight sob come from one of the other occupants as all the light shut out and we’re left in pure darkness.
It’s hard to tell time in the cellar, and I think I may even have dozed off at one point, but it must have been at least a few hours of hiding before the ground stopped shaking. A couple more people joined us in the shelter, but from what I could tell, the old man wasn’t any of them.
We had sat in silence for a while after the last bomb fell when the trap-door was opened and a man poked his head in.
“Karl!” He turned to yell over his shoulder. “There’s people in here!” My eyes were still shut against the blinding light, but I could hear the thudding steps of Karl as he came over to join his companion.
“Thank God! And they’re alive!” I slowly began to open my eyes, and managed to get a glimpse of a portly little man with a dusty mop of brown hair. I couldn’t see his companion and I assumed he had run off to go find more bomb shelters.
“You lot are the first group that we’ve found who made it through the night,” Karl manages to huff out. His face is red and sweaty from running, and I feel kind of bad for the poor guy.
“I’m Karl Weber. Me and some friends are in the Wehrmacht and were in the area when those blasted witches dropped the bombs. We figured we’d come looking to see if there’re survivors.” There was that word again, witch. I’d meant to ask Klaus about it but had completely forgotten.
“You there!” I look up, startled. The man is pointing at me and gesturing for me to get out of the hole.
“You look strong. Come on out of there and you can help get everyone else up.” I clasp the hand that he reaches towards me and pull myself out of the cellar. I take a deep breath and immediately double over coughing as my lungs are filled with smoke, dust, and debris instead of air. I turn and reach down a hand, pulling up Klaus, then an old lady and her husband along with a few others.
While we help people out of the hole, I take my chance and turn to Karl.
“Everyone keeps talking about the witches. Who are they?” Karl’s face screws up in confusion.
“You mean to tell me that you ‘aven’t heard of them? Where you been all this time, hiding under a rock?”
“I’m in the army. Not much word reaches us out there.”
“Still, kid, I’m surprised you haven’t heard anything about them. Ah well, some people are just luckier than others, I suppose.” Sighing, he stands and stretches his back for a second before rejoining me on the ground. “They’re called the Nachthexen, or Nightwitches, and they run around Europe bombing the hell out of Hitler and his troops. They’re completely silent, you never hear or see them coming until it’s too late and everyone and everything around has been turned to dust. Those Soviet bit-”
“Max, darling, is that you?” I turn and see a familiar face staring up at me, and realize a split second later that she’s one of our neighbors. She pulls me in for a hug before I can answer, and it’s only when I look over her shoulder, blinking dust from my eyes, that I see the body lying in the rubble.
“Excuse me, Mrs. Koch,” I whisper as I gently pull out of her embrace and walk over to him. The old man who had called to Klaus and I during the bombing and let us hide in his cellar lies buried under bricks and cement. One of his legs is twisted at an odd angle and there is a large dent in his head from where something big fell and hit him.
“Oh dear,” Mrs. Koch gasps when she sees who I am looking at. “Poor Mr. Becker. He was a good man. Made the greatest bread in all of Germany.” She leans forward and gently closes his eyes, then puts her hand on my shoulder.
“We should go and see what of our homes made it.” I turn and follow her, not bothering to wipe the tears from my eyes. Klaus leans on me, limping from what most likely is a broken ankle, and we trudge along behind the Kochs through the aftermath of the witch’s bombs.
I’m pretty much carrying Klaus by the time we reach the rubble of what used to be our neighborhood. We pass the Koch’s home first, and I stop to help Mrs. Koch step over the large chunk of chimney that fell across the front porch. She stumbles up the crumbling steps and when Mr. Koch steps forward to push open the door, it falls off it’s hinges and falls onto the floor with a loud thud that makes all of us jump back. I’m about to turn and head on to see what is left of my old home when a small voice peeps out from the dust.
“Oma? Opa? Is that you?”
“Julie? Is that you?” Mrs. Koch pulls her arm from my grasp and runs forward to envelop a small dark-haired girl in a tight hug. “Where are your parents, liebling?” The girl points a shaking finger at a pile of collapsed beams under which I see a man’s shoe sticking out. Next to it is a vaguely woman shaped figure with an arm missing.
“She must have thrown herself on top of the child,” Klaus whispers in my ear, and I have to turn away from the reunited family when I realize that he’s probably right.
“We should go,” I whisper to my brother, and taking his hand, I lead him out of the house.
“Why would anyone do something like that when they know that they’ll only kill innocent people?” I look down at Klaus and realize that he’s shaking. Pulling him tighter to me, I sigh.
“Becuase it’s war. And in war, it doesn’t matter who dies, so long as you win.”