It is Sonja. She has brought my evening meal. I finish rubbing oil into the barrel of my FN 1910 and put it into the drawer of the side table. I wipe excess grease on my pants, adding another layer to the gathering stains.
Twenty two. I have cleaned and reassembled the pistol twenty two times. Tonight is the night.
Horst gave me the pistol as a gift, a memento he said, of all of our good times together. He sits atop a pile of newspapers on the dining table, his head still half blown away. The sight of his exposed brains and bone no longer take my appetite. I ignore him as best I can, though he insists on carrying on a conversation with me. If I continue my silence, perhaps one day he will take his leave from these earthly realms, as he should have done 17 years ago.
“Why would I leave you, Comrade?” He listens to my thoughts which is a habit I find most reprehensible. There is no privacy.
“Privacy is overrated, Serge. Without me you are just a lonely old bugger who scares old ladies and little children.”
This is the truth. I am feared by most who cross my path. People look at me and they see past the wrinkled sweater and scuffed shoes that I wear. They see that I am a monster.
The Great War stole my humanity. The crimes that I committed should have had me killed by a firing squad, or sent to a prison in the frigid east. Instead the powerful men in charge decided to decorate me as war hero. I was given ribbons and medals and a stipend for life that pays for my meager subsistence. A hero to them for doing the dirty work that they could not do. Yet when they avoid my gaze I can see that they too know that I am a monster. I kill men in cold blood. I see the spray of their blood and hear the cries of their mates as their dead bodies fall. I create grieving mothers and widows and fatherless children who must go on in a world emptied of their most beloved.
“That is an old song you are singing, Comrade.”
Shut up! I am silent as I scream to him, and he laughs at me. But then he fades and I am left in peace.
Door knocks. I walk across the room, silently counting my steps.
I reach for the handle and begin to tap it with my trigger finger.
As I am about to open the door I see that Horst now sits on the settee. I pause. Sonja, my sister sits with him. She smiles at me pleasantly. I close my eyes and will the vision away. Not real. Not real. Sonja is not sitting with Horst, she is on the other side of the door, holding a plate of warm vegetable stew with a heel of black rye. She will smile at me, ask after my health, never expecting an answer, then she will pick up the dirty shirts and socks to launder for me and will leave me to my evening meal alone. In silence.
When I open my eyes the settee sits empty. I breathe deeply in relief. Every night since returning from the front, my sister brings my supper. She long since stopped trying to get words from me. At first she begged me to talk to her, to tell her the horrors I had seen so that they would leave me. She pleaded for me to see a doctor, or find some help for this muteness. Finally she gave up. Now she respects my private nightmare, helping me merely with my basic needs.
Door knocks. My hand still holds the knob. I twist it open and turn to walk back to my chair.
I sit and look up. Standing in the open doorway.
Katja, my niece.
“My mother,” she strangles the words as her chin twists with holding her tears. “Onkel, my mother…” She continues to speak but her words turn to vapor before they reach my ears. I rise from my chair and walk toward her, silently counting.
She backs up, trying to hide her fear of the monster. She is outside still speaking to me, her pale blue eyes rheumy with tears when I close the door. Tap the knob.
Walk back to my chair.
I sit until it is dark and cold. Horst and Sonja sit with me, silent on the settee. I pull the weapon from the drawer and carefully load two bullets into the chambers.
“You are persistent if nothing else,” Horst is chuckling. Sonja says nothing though I feel her eyes penetrate me. I cover my ears, and rock back and forth.
Twenty two. Men without faces stare at me from the shadows. Twenty two.
The gun barrel feels cold and slick between my eyes. I change my mind and fit it into my mouth, tasting the bitter metallic tang so similar to blood. I bite down on the barrel. My body shakes uncontrollably. I feel no fear.
“Remember that one Tommy with the feather in his cap? What kind of moron would wear a feather in the trenches. I spotted that bird in my sniperscope first off and I says to you ‘ 12 oclock straight to rights we got a dancing peacock’. You shot him so clean that feather popped straight up into the sky, then floated down all gentle, like it was just a mild breeze that set it to dancing. Remember that, Serge?”
Despite the cold chill of the room, sweat flows down my forehead and gets into my eyes. I wipe them with my sleeve, then readjust the weapon in my mouth, pushing the barrel in so far that I gag.
“There was no stopping us, Serge. We were a force to be reckoned with. A force.” Horst jumps up from the settee and pulls Sonja with him. He begins to dance with her, spinning her around the room, over and through the waist high piles of discarded newspapers.
“Heaven. I’m in Heaven… and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak…” Horst sings loudly and off key. “I love this new music. I sure wish I had lived to hear it.” He laughs and spins Sonja away. She disappears into a vapid mist. Horst stops dead in front and I feel the sting of his gaze. Accusing.
“Better get busy, man. Time is wasting. Better pull that trigger.”
I grind my teeth on the barrel, adjust my thumb against the trigger. Blink sweat from my eyes. My body jerks with spasms. I stare directly into Horst’s black eyes and squeeze the trigger.
Another misfire. All of my breath leaves me.
I still live. It is a gross joke of fate. A terrible agony of laughter bubbles up from my chest and I choke on it. I pull the gun from my mouth and allow the vile noise to fill the room. Horst begins to laugh with me and for a moment all that exists is our maniacal sound.
“Some sharpshooter you are! Some great marksman! No damn wonder you are a big, decorated war hero”. Tears and noxious laughter gush from my body and it is many moments until I am able to be still.
After a time silence returns. I pick up the gun and begin to break it down. I wipe it clean of saliva and sweat, preparing it for another day.
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