Death. That was the smell. Max Beckenbauer hadn't been able to quite put a name to it before. But now it came to him. Death.
Yes, he thought, it smells of death.
He seemed incapable of any other thought. Here he was, supposed to be their saviour, yet he was rendered inept, consumed by a million emotions that, like the smell before, he couldn't put a name too. He felt…. Empty. As if the emotions boiling inside of him were subjected to a glass barrier. He knew they were there, yet he couldn't feel anything. In fact the only thing he could feel was…. An odd little sensation at the base of his throat, like he was going to throw up…
A doctor would have made the observation that Max was suffering from severe shock. Max would have said that he didn't know what suffering was; suffering was here, in this place. This was suffering and Max was loath to all the times he'd complained about his life. What right did he have?
"Jesus," He heard one of the others mutter. They were all staring, wide eyed. Max thanked God that they hadn't been the first to arrive. They'd been given a warning that it was bad… But then even that warning had been insufficient. Nothing could have prepared them for this… His mind wandered, unable to focus on his surroundings.
"Poor Max," A whisper in the wind of conservation. Yet even in the deathly silence, Max's hearing remained astute. He listened in muted fascination as they discussed him.
"Lance Corporal Beckenbauer, the German one. He's a Jew, isn't he? Reckon his whole family were out on the continent,"
"You don't think…"
A silence filled by a shrug. "It's bad for us," A heavy voice for a heavy moment. "But it's worse for him. It's his family isn't it? His family could be here…."
Max walked forward, purposeful strides in a purposeful direction. Eyes focused in front. He tried not to look at them; at their bulging eyes and hollow cheeks, that followed him endlessly. He was their saviour, yet he was as helpless as them. He could feel his façade crumbling. The glass sheet that shielded him from his own emotions was cracking and splintering. He could already feel the first drips and drops of misery, of pain, of horror, of remorse, of guilt… Max tried to push them back.
"What right have I to feel such things?" He growled to himself. "Oh god, oh god. I…"
Controlled Heavy breathing; in, out, in, out… Max used a wall to steady himself, but he could feel it…. Riding up at the back of his throat. It spewed out his mouth, splattering the wall and the dust-ridden ground. Clutching his stomach, he leaned against the shack; his breathing just as heavy if a little more rugged.
There was a snort, then a snigger. Max could feel eyes on his back. Slowly, he turned around. The two eyes frowned at him and glinted. Bright blue on a sunken, twisted face that observed the vile substance on the ground with a mixture of pity and disgust, primarily the latter. Max's own eyes travelled down the uniform, then to the white armband, and then focused on the face. He tried to work out what the bastard was really thinking, but the face was expressionless aside from disgust.
Max tensed. And just like that, he was broken.
"I'll kill you, you bastard!"He screamed suddenly, speaking German for the first time in months. He didn't even notice. His emotions, free of the protective barrier he had mentally built, burst free with such force strong enough to propel Max forward. His fists bunched, ready for the fight. Anger, the strongest emotion was pure, intense fury.
At what they had done to his people, to his country, to his continent, and god forbid to his family. At what they had done to him.
"I'LL KILL YOU!"
He was screaming and crying and raining down punches at a man who wouldn't fight back.
And then there were hands, pulling him backwards, away, gentle hands that held him as he cried like a baby. He, a 27 year old soldier, was rocking back and forth on the soiled ground, sobbing his little heart out.
And just like that, his anger was diminished and replaced with something much, much worse; remorse.
Why wasn't I there? How could I leave them in Germany? I ran off to England for an adventure and left them… I could have protected them…. If they are dead, and surely they must be dead… It is my fault, I should've protected them… I… I…It's not fair… Oh god, why are you so cruel? Why did I leave them...? It is my fault, it is my fault… I have lost them forever: My mother, my father, my sister, and all those cousins…. Gone.
But those gentle hands held him and muttered soothing things in his ears. That he his family may well be alive. That it was over. That this sort of thing would never happen again.
"Lies," He sobbed. "Don't tell me all those lies,"
A little while later, when Max had composed himself enough to walk, he staggered through the hellish place, supported by his comrades, who themselves had tears on their faces. Near the entrance they stopped. A lorry had arrived, and men were unloading the first relief packages.
Max felt so far removed; he barely recognised the commotion until he noticed men handing out lipstick…. Lipstick? That was also the first time he realised they were in the female section of the camp. Max felt sick with himself, but then anger surfaced again… They needed food and medicine, not cosmetics! Yet, like everyone else he failed to recognise the importance of lipstick; these skeletons, who had been made to feel like monsters for too long, could finally feel human.
Max didn't notice the girl who was looking at him and frowning; he was too absorbed in watching the unpacking of the lorry. Lipstick smothered her starved lips, and she was as unhealthy looking as the rest of them but her eyes worked perfectly and…. Her heart beat faster as she stared at that dark-haired, blue-eyed, freckled British soldier with dry tears on his cheeks.
Max….Could it be? Surely that was impossible, the chances of it being him so minute. But Max does live in Britain, and he could well have joined the army… could well have been posted here…
Hope was all there was to cling to. She pushed her way through the crowd, to get a closer look… He looked much older, but then it had been six or seven years since they'd last seen each other face to face. But she was sure it was him. There wasn't a doubt in her mind; she even recognised the mole on his chin.
She shouted, or attempted to shout it, out loud"Max!"
But she hadn't shouted in so long, and her voice was hoarse and painful and barely more than a whisper. She tried again"Max!"
This time it was louder, but he still didn't hear. He moved towards the lorry.
He's leaving, she thought fearfully, don't let him leave!
Another British soldier glanced at her as she stepped away from the crowd and cried out again, still to no avail.
Max was still shaking, but trying to hide it as he conversed with the driver of the lorry. He thought he heard a shout in the background, but he ignored it, for fear of unleashing his emotions again.
"Max!" He could hear a friend of his, Sam, calling to him. "Max, look!"
Slowly, he turned to face his friend, only…. There was a girl with him. At least she was wearing the lipstick so he assumed she was a girl. Her hair was still short, but long enough to see it's true colour; dark. Her eyes; they appeared dark blue, but Max knew up-close they were speckled with green. Her body had no curves; she was starved, filthy and little more than a skeleton. But at that moment it didn't matter. Nothing mattered.
"Hallo, Max," The girl said softly
"Anna," Her name came out as more of a moan than anything else. He tried it again; this time it was a shout, of victory, of overwhelming joy… "Anna! Anna!"
He was running to her and hugging her and holding her so tightly that he never wanted to let go. And she was holding him and hugging him as they collapsed onto the floor panting and crying and laughing all at the same time.
He was whispering to her. "You're alive, thank God you're alive!"
Her head rested again his shoulder, a look of pain on her face that said the million things that couldn't be spoken out loud.
But it didn't matter. Nothing mattered. Because Anna Beckenbauer was alive.
Because Max's little sister was alive.