|Last Man Standing
Author: charli615 PM
Like every other kid in Germany, Werner thinks he's prepared to die for his country and his Fuhrer. Only, it turns out war isn't quite what he expected. And as his world crumbles around him, Werner learns that sometimes it's better to be a coward. That way, he might even get to go home.Rated: Fiction T - English - Angst/Hurt/Comfort - Words: 4,105 - Published: 02-03-13 - id: 3097962
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Last Man Standing
The month of April was cold that year, as the winter chill gave no sign of waning. The sky was clear, and it could have been a beautiful day, but for the roar of approaching tanks, and the distant sound of a fierce battle.
Werner Schultz crouched in a makeshift trench near a small village a stone's throw away from Leipzig. His serious dark eyes fixed ahead; his frozen finger hovered above the trigger of the beast of a machine he'd been put in charge of. A gust of wind sent a shudder running through his. Werner swallowed as he just made out the shape of a tank rolling over the crest of a hill.
'Willie,' he croaked, his voice weak after too long spent in nervous silence. 'I think the Yanks are almost here.'
The other boy looked up. 'We'll let them get closer, then let rip with the gun. Blow them sky high, I reckon.'
Werner nodded. 'Yeah.' His free hand, tapped the side of the trench. He was nervous, of course, but also rippled with a sense of anticipation, almost excitement. This was his chance to prove himself, this was what he'd spent his life being trained for… but more than that, this was his chance to help kick the bastards out his country, to snatch his own portion of revenge after what they'd done. He thought briefly that he should have been far more scared than he felt, but the other boys, there was six of them in total, seemed to share his frame of mind. Though, in reality, you could never tell. No one wanted to be branded as a traitor, or be accused of spreading defeatist ideas. Werner swallowed again as the tanks rolled ever closer. Nothing, no ounce of patriotism or fighting spirit, could dispel the rising queasiness inside of him. He took slow breaths.
Time to prove yourself, Werner, he thought, this time having to force the anticipation, time to make your country, and your Fuhrer, proud.
Then Werner turned to the others. 'We should… attack soon. They don't know we're here-' He tried to sound inspirational, but public speaking had ever been his forte. '- so we should attack when they're next to us. Element of surprise; maximum impact.' Werner looked expectantly at his team, and suddenly felt a surge of affection towards them. He'd been put in charge of this little bedraggled troop of boy soldiers not long ago, but he felt they'd become quite a team. Now, he eyed them one by one. There was Wilhelm Gloeckner, of course, who Werner had known forever; they'd been best friends since Volksschule and Werner was the only one allowed to call him Willie. Klaus Eberhardt was another familiar face from school; sandy-haired with a sense of humour Werner had come to appreciate. He didn't worry about them; at sixteen they were the same age as him, and could look after themselves. It was the others that worried Werner. Despite everything he'd ever been taught, some part of him was starting to doubt what part kids had to play on the battlefield. Heini and Benno were fourteen, and Arne had yet to celebrate his thirteenth birthday. For a second Werner considered sending the younger ones home. He, Willie and Klaus could take on the Yanks themselves… but then he remembered the bodies hanging from streetlamps with a sign around their necks…
Deserter, traitor, coward. Werner had no wish to join their ranks. Besides, he argued to himself, the kids had chosen to be here. They wanted to defend their country, same as him; the nation's last defence; a bunch of kids. Werner pulled himself together; this wasn't the time to start doubting. He just had to trust that his Fuhrer knew what was best. And after a lifetime of trusting, this was easy.
'Well,' said Klaus in a rather final sort of way. 'Good luck to everyone.' He bit his lip and then breathed out slowly. Tension had started to grip everyone.
Willie nodded. 'Here, here.' A small smile, meant to install confidence. It took everything for him to force the crazed expression onto his face.
'We'll be fine,' Benno actually, genuinely grinned. 'We're German! We'll take the Yanks down easily.'
That made them all smile. The innocent, senseless enthusiasm of youth was powerful enough to override any fear. 'Of course,' Werner nodded. He hesitated for a moment, unsure what he was meant to do. He had been put in charge by a fretful Home Guard man who had since disappeared, but Werner didn't know how to lead, not really. He felt ridiculous in a man's army uniform that was much too big for him. But he was thankful for one thing at least; the others were shivering to death in the shirt and shorts of their Hitler Youth uniforms. He wanted to say something inspirational, but Benno had done a much better job. That left only one thing to be said. The most inspirational, powerful words a German boy could hear.
'Heil Hitler!' Werner said, as loud as he dared. Any doubt, any fear, vanished in an instance. As long as Germany had Hitler, nothing could go wrong. It was a belief so genuine Hitler himself would have been proud.
'Heil Hitler!' The words echoed back, accompanied with a small salute.
Werner smiled, his finger found its way to the trigger. A moment later, as the first tank rolled by, the gentle movement of Werner's trigger finger prompted the mechanism to do its job and all hell broke loose.
It was over very quickly. The force of the resulting explosion blew the tank on its side. The boys sent a volley of bullets in the same direction with their adopted machine guns. There was no response. They grinned at each other; it was such an unexpected success that their victory clouded their childish thoughts.
'Yes!' suddenly Benno was on his feet. 'We did it! We beat them!'
His head was visible above the top of the trench, but he was so convinced they'd wiped the Americans out that it didn't bother him. A moment later a single shot hit him square in the eye and the scrap of a fourteen year old kid was blown backwards.
'Scheiss!' Klaus couldn't help but scream as a pool of blood emerged from the hole in Benno's head.
My God… Werner's thoughts were muddled as he stared dumbly at Benno's body. Those bastards! He's just a kid… he didn't deserve this….
'I'll kill them…' Willie murmured. 'I'll bloody kill them!'
Their main weapon forgotten, the boys scrambled for their guns. Trigger after trigger was pulled; shot after shot was fired. And shot after shot was aimed at them. It wasn't a game anymore; Werner could hear the shots ringing in his ears, and it terrified him.
A shout went up, from the Americans, in broken German; 'Surrender now!'
'No!' The words were out of Werner's mouth before he could stop them, and the others nodded in agreement. The bombardment, the reality of warfare might have been bad, but the fear of the enemy, the fear of capture was worse. Like they'd been taught, the boys were stupidly prepared to fight to the last man. Werner swallowed… the American's were so close…
Drilling into his brain…
Bang. Bang. Bang.
A thump to the left. A scream.
Arne? The sweet natured twelve year old? The scream fell silent; the sweet natured twelve year old was no more. Why was it always the youngest that fell first?
The puddle of blood was expanding; Werner felt like throwing up.
Another scream… but not of pain, but anger. Werner baulked; Heini was on his feet, running at the enemy, firing, screaming like hell.
'For my brother!'
Brother? Heini and Arne were brothers? Somewhere in the dark recess of his memory, Werner remembered that this was the case. Heini was blown backwards into the trench, his entrails horrifically visible as he suffered as painful a death as his brother.
I was in charge, Werner thought, horrified, I was supposed to look after them…
And now a mother had lost two sons. Something like a tear glistened in his eye. The world was so loud, so incredibly loud…
I don't want to die.
A single sensible fact of life.
To hell with Hitler! To hell with Germany! I don't want to die, especially not like that!
In a second Werner throw himself to the floor. He no longer cared if they thought him a coward; he no longer cared about anything. He just wanted it to stop. He wanted the war to stop. More than anything… he just wanted to live.
Silence. A little while later, Werner was aware that there was only silence. He knees were pressed against his chest; his hands clasped together on the back of his head. Why was it so quiet? Why had they stopped shooting?
'Bloody hell, Frank, they're just kids.'
English… Werner didn't understand the words, but the fact that the voice was just above him scared the hell out of him. He clenched his eyes shut. The voices died down… they obviously hadn't seen him… Slowly, Werner uncurled himself and looked around. He blinked.
No… There was no way to comprehend the sight which met his eyes. Five bodies. Not boys, bodies. Because they were all dead.
Werner Schultz, the last man standing.
Because he had cowered when they had fought. But Werner didn't have time to think such things. He scurried over to Willie.
His best friend. No…
'Wake up, Willie, wake up!'
There was no exterior bleeding; Werner could see no wound. Yet Willie's eyes were wide and unseeing; his face filthy and pale and lifeless. The only sign of damage was a trickle of red from the corner of the half-open mouth that would never smile again.
Impossible. A dry sob echoed from Werner's cracked lips. 'Come on, Willie, wake up. What will I tell your mother, eh? She doesn't like me anyway… never has done, has she? Not since I made your sister cry, when we were eight… Do you remember that, Willie? We were playing dares and I hit that bird with the slingshot. That was funny wasn't it? Oh God, Willie, please wake up…'
Question after question that Werner knew would never be answered. His best friend was dead, but that didn't stop him was shaking the lifeless form vigorously, as if to force life into the empty shell that was once a boy called Willie. Werner's eyes dashed around. Klaus didn't look half as peaceful as Willie. Werner couldn't help but wonder… did he have siblings? Really he knew very little about Klaus, except that he was awfully funny, and dreamed of being a famous Comedian. That wasn't going to happen now.
Shakily, Werner rose to his feet, and rubbed a tear off his cheek. He surveyed the scene. Heini… They had never called him Heinrich, it didn't suit him. Arne… so small in life, and even smaller in death. His full name was Arnold, but Heini called him Arne so everyone else did too. With a pang of guilt Werner realised he didn't even know their surname. And Benno… Werner didn't even know the kid's full name. Was it Bernd, or Bernhard?
'Oi, put your hands in the air!'
German, but with a rough American accent. Panicked, Werner spun around to see her gun pointed in his direction. It seemed unreal. Werner did as he was told… there was a sense of emptiness in him. His lip trembled.
'Please don't shoot me,' he stuttered.
The soldiers, there were more of them now, looked down on him pityingly.
'We won't shoot you son,' said the German-speaking one, 'as long as you do as you're told.'
Werner stepped backwards. His fear was so intense it made him dizzy. His eyes darted around, and rested on Willie once again. His lips trembled and tears brimmed in his eyes as the American approached him.
Werner was almost a man. He'd started shaving. And now he cried.
The bemused Americans just stared at him. What could they say to a soldier that was little more than a boy? The tears streaked down his cheeks; every emotion he'd ever suppressed burbling out of him… I want my Mutti! I want to go home! … I don't want this, I don't want this … Why me, why me, why me?
All Werner could do was cry and cry and cry.
The soldier was meant to pat him down, to search for hidden weapons; instead he patted the boy's back, awkwardly, yet soothingly. 'There, there, son. It's all over now…'
Yes, yes it is. Somewhere in the corner of his mind, Werner acknowledged this. It was all over. Everything he'd ever lived for and fought for. Everything his friends had died for. Where was his Fuhrer now?
Not coming, not here. Hiding, in his bunker in Berlin, probably.
For the first time, Werner felt, for certain, that war was already lost. Looking through tear stained eyes, at the battle-scarred soldiers before him, he realised just how hopeless Germany's situation was. Surrounded on all sides by vengeful armies.
His friends had all died for nothing.
Werner sobbed again, clenched his eyes closed, to shut out the pain. His nails drew blood from his clammy palms. Still, salty water rolled ungraciously down his cheeks. Briefly, he considered killing himself. He still had his Hitler Youth dagger; it was sharp enough to do the job. That was the noble thing to do wasn't it? Like the Romans who used to fall on their own swords. All the senior officers had cyanide tablets for this purpose. Would cutting his throat be quicker or more painful?
But Werner didn't seriously consider it; he didn't have the guts. He was too scared. He wanted to live.
Even though his friends were dead and he wasn't and the country was in tatters for the second time in half a century and the world seemed to be over and maybe just maybe Hitler couldn't save the nation after all.
But he still wanted to live.
Werner wiped his tears away with the back of his grubby hand. The Americans guided him away.
I'm a coward, Werner thought miserably.
But maybe, just maybe, he was glad that this was the case. At least he had a future. At least he could go home.
Unlike poor Willie…
Werner fought back the tears once again. The Americans ushered him onto the road. An ambulance had parked up next to the tank, and nurses were dotted around, tending to the wounded. Werner couldn't see any bodies; it looked like they hadn't killed a single one. He didn't know whether to be relieved that the Yanks had no reason to hate him, or angry that his friends were dead and gone for nothing.
The German-speaking American soldier, who seemed to be a sergeant of some sorts, looked Werner up and down for a moment.
'Sit down here,' he said finally. 'We'll get someone to treat your head.'
'My head?' Werner repeated weakly, but the soldier had already moved on, and Werner was left only with the company of a weary-eyed twenty-something who had a gun trained at his head.
Werner hadn't noticed it before, but he was now aware of a sharp pain in his forehead, an area that did fear slightly wet. Gingerly, he raised a trembling finger, but winced as contact sent pain shooting across his whole head.
'Don't do that, young man, it'll get infected.'
Werner glanced up; the Sergeant was back, this time with a nurse. She was pretty, though Werner wasn't in the mood to notice. The Sergeant disappeared again, but this time Werner didn't mind. The nurse smiled kindly at him, a strand of her light brown hair falling into her face. She opened a first aid kit and starting cleaning the cut. Werner tried not wince as alcohol burned the cut. His eyes watered anyway. The nurse's facial expression changed; she looked at him deeply, her brow creasing into a frown.
'How old are you?'
Werner blinked at her. A vague memory connected the word 'old' with 'alt'. She was asking him how old he was. He was tempted to lie, to make himself older, but he couldn't be bothered.
'Sechzehn,' he admitted, finally. 'Sixteen.'
The nurse pressed a bandage to his head. 'Too young for a soldier,' she said softly. Again the English was so painfully similar to the German that the meaning of her words was clear.
'I am not child,' Werner protested in his broken English, stringing the words together. The nurse leaned forward and brushed dirt from his cheek. Her skin was soft and cold against his. 'Yes, you are.'
Werner swallowed. She was right, of course.
'What is your name?' she asked the question slowly, so he could understand.
'W-Werner,' he stuttered in response. 'Werner Schulz.'
'Well, take care, Werner.' She stood up to leave, taking her first aid kit with her. Werner raised his hand to his forehead once again, feeling the thickly-padded bandage, and sighed. His eyes drifted to the sky. A bird glided peacefully overhead, so far removed the war-damaged continent below.
Werner's eyes followed it, unblinking.
How nice to be so free.
'Hey, kid!' Werner almost cricked his neck as he sharply looked to the left. The Sergeant.
'Nurse Hutchinson reckons you're only sixteen.'
Werner hesitated, then nodded.
'But you still enlisted?'
Werner hesitated. Had he enlisted? He'd never resented it, he'd wanted to fight for his country, but the circumstances surrounding his 'enlistment' hadn't exactly been conventional. He'd been fifteen, tall for age, walking down the street. Two SS soldiers had come up either side of him and bundled him into a car, to take him to the front. He'd met up with Willie and Klaus later, when they'd been pushed back. 'Not enlisted,' Werner stuttered slowly. 'Not exactly.' He said what had happened, all those months ago. He felt stupid saying it, like a pathetic tell-tale. It didn't feel like much to complain about. He still viewed as every boy's duty to want to defend their country.
The Sergeant nodded sadly. 'I thought as much,' he said. 'Look, son, I'm going to search you, okay? Then I'll let you go.'
'W-what?' Werner stuttered, struggling to his feet.
'Put your arms out,' The American said. Werner did as he was told, and the man padded him down like he should have done before.
'What do you mean let me go?' Werner asked.
The American stepped back for a moment. 'You're just a kid. I get that; you don't belong here. You should just go home.'
Werner nodded, and the soldier continued to pad him down. But he stopped when he reached Werner's waist, and frowned. Reaching underneath Werner's tunic, he drew the dagger from its sheath.
'What's this?' He demanded, all friendliness gone in an instant.
Werner froze. He'd forgotten about that. 'My Hitler Youth dagger,' he stuttered in alarm. 'I'm sorry, I forgot…I…'
'What were you going to do with it?'
'Nothing! I forgot I had it!' Werner panicked, suddenly scared that they'd accuse him of planning to attack after surrendering.
But the Sergeant nodded reassuringly. 'Okay,' he said, pocketing the blade for himself. 'I believe you.'
Werner breathed a sigh of relief.
'Now,' the Sergeant continued. 'Get yourself home.'
Werner felt on the brink of tears again. 'I…Thank you,' he said in a small voice. He went to walk past but the sergeant grabbed him by the scruff of his clothes.
'I think I can trust you not to do anything stupid can't I?' he said pointedly. 'I've been easy on you because you're a kid. But if you cross us, the allies, you do anything to fight against us, I'll treat as I would any other enemy soldier and come down on you like a ton of bricks. Understand?'
Werner nodded weakly. 'Absolutely, sir.'
The American released him and stepped back. 'Off you go home, then.'
'Yes,' said Werner hurriedly. 'Thank you…'
'No problem. Look after yourself kid.'
Feeling rather self-conscious, Werner stepped wearily past soldiers and nurses. His first step, he realised, was to head into the village. Then he could make sure he was walking in the right direction. Home was now so tantalisingly close… he reckoned he could reach his village in an hour at most. He at least recognised this area. So Werner followed the road, keeping to the edge to avoid any military traffic, and set foot in his first plot of American-occupied Germany. The weather seemed at least partially to have warmed a little since the morning so Werner undid the buttons on his uniform. It'd have been better to change; he felt conspicuous and vulnerable in a muddy uniform, but he didn't have anything else to wear. He'd just have to avoid the Americans and hope he didn't get captured again.
By asking a few questions Werner was able to gauge which was the right direction. He set off, his heart ascending with every step.
It had been far too long.
And he was free to go there! Werner's eyes drifted to the sky again. This time, though, he saw no need to envy them. Losing Willie and Klaus and the others… it was a blow. And it still hurt. A lot. But somehow, the prospect of home overrode his grief. He was more excited than he had the right to be. The first time he truly, properly recognised a farmhouse was a wonderful moment. It seemed deserted, but Werner didn't care. His village… his village was barely ten minutes from here!
He started to run. If anything, his short spell in the German army had made him fit.
Across two fields, down a lane, cutting through the woods. These places he knew so well from a childhood cut short.
Then he was standing in the middle of the village, next to the square. Werner ran still, up a lane or two, round a corner…
And then he was there.
A modest little cottage in a line of modest little cottages. Werner ground to a halt in front of one. In the garden to the front, a middle-aged woman talked over the fence to her neighbour, deep in conversation.
Werner opened his mouth slightly. 'Mutti…'
She didn't notice, but before Werner could speak again the neighbour looked up and gasped. 'Hilde, look.'
And so his mother turned around, and screamed. 'Werner!'
'Hello, Mutti,' Werner replied, his voice thick with emotion.
His mother pushed through the gate and, half a head shorter than him as she was, threw her arms around him, hugging him fiercely, her face nuzzled in his chest. 'You're safe. Thank heavens, you're safe.' Her words were choked on tears of joy.
The neighbour smiled, but her eyes… she looked almost scared. 'Hello, Werner,' she said tightly. 'Is… is Willie with you?'
Werner froze; the words stuck in his throat. But his mother, so, so oblivious said cheerfully. 'Frau Gloeckner, you know your Willie is always late. Always lagging behind my boy. He'll be along shortly, I expect. What's he doing Werner? Bandaging himself up after another fall?'
Werner almost said yes. Because that's exactly what Willie would have been doing. He was clumsy; always had at least twenty cuts or bruises. There was the assumption that if Werner was all right, so was Wilhelm. The boys' parents couldn't imagine one without the other. They'd always been together; Werner and Willie all the way through school and then even in the army. In that moment, Werner almost expected his best friend to burst through door, grinning at his sick deception
Focusing on that door, hit Werner hard. That terrible realisation that Willie wasn't ever going to walk through it again. That he wasn't coming back.
How could he tell Frau Gloeckner? And what about Klaus's mother? And Heini and Arne's and Benno's mothers?
'I'm sorry-' Werner started to say, but the words caught in his throat.
Sorry I couldn't protect him. Or any of them. Sorry I failed. Sorry he died for nothing.
He started to cry again, forgetting to be embarrassed. Onlookers gawped but Werner either didn't notice or didn't care. Or both. His mother hugged him tightly, protectively.
Werner clung to her like a child; his tears dissolving on the top of her head.
But it was all right, now. Despite everything.
He was home.