The Out of Time Motel

by D. Gansen

 

I heard thunder roll behind me like a faraway drum solo. “Oh man,” I muttered. It was dark and I was lost somewhere south of the interstate in the middle of North Dakota. Now, I was going to get caught in a storm and I was driving my dad’s ’69 Boss Mustang. The thought of hail deflowering its pristine, black, shiny-as-glass lacquer, made a lump of anguish jiggle in my stomach. It was the second car my dad ever owned, and he was pretty much in love with it; but on my seventeenth birthday, he handed me the keys and title. I almost started to bawl. I didn’t though, because men don’t cry over sentimental stuff.

My headlights made a puddle of light that led me down the road, but all around me was the prairie darkness. Then, like a miracle, as the first drops of rain fell, I saw a light ahead. I put my foot down and pretty soon I could read the sign. Individual yellow light bulbs lined up to announce: Out of Time Motel. It wasn’t a very reassuring name, but I turned in anyway and was relieved that the parking lot was asphalt, not gravel. The paint, you know. I stopped under the green fiberglass awning and smiled to myself as the rain tapped on it, trying in vain to get to my car.

I rolled down the window and looked through the wall of glass into the office and saw some chairs and the registration counter. There was no clerk, but all the lights were on and the neon sign beside the door told me that there was a vacancy.

I grabbed my duffle bag out of the back seat and went in. It was Dad’s duffle bag from when he was in the Guard. I wasn’t sentimental about it. It was just handy.

The little brass bell on the door jingled and startled me, and by the time I turned back to the counter, a young woman was standing behind it, looking at me. She didn’t say anything for a couple of seconds. Women stare at me all the time. Why not? I’m twenty-five, tall, and good looking.

“I found you just in time,” I said, gesturing behind me. It had started to rain hard. By then, I was beginning to get the impression that she wasn’t admiring me—she was studying me.

“It’s only going to get worse, too,” she remarked.

I could only see her from the waist up and it struck me as odd that someone so young would be wearing a crisp, short-sleeved white blouse and have her hair all humped up like Mom did when she was a kid. She made me think of Laura Petrie on that old TV show, Dick Van Dyke.

On the counter, a book lay open. She took the silver pen from its stand and offered it to me. When I got closer, I saw that she was holding a fountain pen. I had only seen those in old movies. The register was one of those books that you write your name and license plate number in.

The girl must’ve seen that I was puzzled, because she explained, “My boss is a nostalgia freak.” She pointed to the lobby and I noticed that the furniture was low and tailored and that gross avocado green like the toaster Mom threw away a long time ago. On the brown Formica-topped coffee table were magazines with names I didn’t recognize. One had a picture of the old president, John F. Kennedy, on it.

The girl took my credit card and, to my amazement, put it through one of those manual machines that makes a carbon copy of the number on a piece of paper.

“Out of Time Motel must mean out of step with time,” I said, giving her one of my charming smiles.

She looked at my card before handing it back to me. “Well, John, everything is relative.” That seemed like an odd thing to say and I was beginning to feel awkward, but she continued. “Cable hasn’t made it out here and we’re out of reach of any cell towers. Consider yourself in the mid twentieth century, it will be less stressful.”

“No problem,” I said, but took a look at my phone and felt like a junkie looking at an empty nickel bag. I nodded at the door on my right. “Is that a diner next door?” Just then a bolt of lightning brightened the room like an atom bomb flash, instantly followed by a staggering explosion. I ducked instinctively. “Jesus!” I yelled. “That was close!” Then hail started to fall out of the sky like white buckshot.

The girl was perfectly calm and glanced around the room. “Good. It’s still the twentieth century.” I assumed she was kidding and smiled. Then she pointed towards an alcove where an antique vending machine stood beside an even more ancient Coke machine that looked like a big metal cooler. “Diner’s closed for the winter. There are plenty of stale cheese crackers.”

I squinted at the vending machine—all fake wood and buzzing fluorescent lights. My stomach growled.

“How about a hot dog?” she asked. “Put your bag in your room and come back.” She handed me a key on a ring with a plastic tag.

*****

The room was the same as the lobby: all ’60’s and ’70’s furniture. Everything looked new. “Reproduction,” I told myself. I didn’t think about it much, though. Decorating is a woman thing.

Back in the lobby, I checked the nameplate on the registration desk. “Stella?” I asked it. “Who names their kid ‘Stella’?”

“Come on back, Johnny,” Stella shouted. Nobody had called me “Johnny” since I was thirteen and announced that I would no longer answer to it. My grandfather’s name had been John, and I wanted to be like him.

I passed the desk and stepped through an open door. Now I seemed to be in Great Aunt Lilly’s living room. There was dark, stuffed furniture and a big wooden cabinet like hers. She had called it a sideboard. A record was spinning on the phonograph and a woman was singing something about the “white cliffs of Dover.” Because of my interest in the Second World War, I knew it was a song from the 1940s. I looked down at the bomber pilot’s jacket I was wearing. It had been Granddad’s way back then.

“Hey Johnny,” Stella called again. I would have to tell her to lay off the “Johnny” bit.

She was in the kitchen, pulling hot dogs out of a pot of boiling water with tongs. The pot was avocado green, the stove was avocado green, the refrigerator was… you guessed it. I had returned to the ’70s. As I put my hand on the back of one of the chrome and plastic chairs, I caught a movement in the corner of my eye and turned. Sitting just inside the back door was the biggest German shepherd that I had ever seen. He was making purposeful eye contact with me, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had said, “Wie geht’s?”

“That’s Mr. Beretta,” Stella said.

I put my coat on the back of the chair and sat, but Mr. Beretta did not take his eyes off me. “Has he killed anybody lately?” I asked. I squirted ketchup out of a bottle that looked like it belonged in the diner.

“It’s been awhile,” she said.

I looked up to make sure she was kidding, but now she was staring at my coat.

“It’s a bomber jacket,” I said. “Granddad was a B-17 pilot in the Second World War. A B-17 is a…”

“Bomber plane,” she finished. “I’ll give you fifteen hundred dollars for it.”

I choked on the bite of hot dog I’d just taken.

“Okay, two thousand. Cash.”

I loved that jacket even more than I loved the Mustang. Not in a sentimental way. It’s just that it was so cool.

“No!” I said louder than was necessary.

Mr. Beretta’s ears perked up.

“Okay. Relax.” Stella sat back and folded her arms.

I could feel her eyeing me. I ate in case it was going to be my last meal. Two hot dogs later, she let me in on what she was thinking.

“Johnny,” she started. “Do you believe in ghosts?”

Ghosts! What next? Wasn’t this place weird enough? “I never thought about it,” I said, “but they seem like sentimental wishful thinking or too much imagination to me.” Neither of those conditions cluttered my mind.

Stella sighed. “Yes. Humans do a lot of wishful thinking. But,” she continued, “there are places in the universes where essences, or one of your imaginative people might say ‘spirits,’ get caught.” She glanced at her watch and got up. “We have time. Let me show you what I mean.”

The hot dogs were flailing around in my stomach. I had to go; I couldn’t outrun Mr. Beretta. The dog gave way so she could open the back door, and he and I followed her out onto the cement patio.

I thought I was losing my mind. The surface, open to the elements, was dry. The sky was clear and glittering with constellations, but I could still hear the thunder and the rain.

Stella raised her arm and pointed to our left: westward. It was darker than the inside of my closet where I used to hide when my poor little sister screamed because no one could understand the sounds she made. She was trapped in her head, inhabiting her own strange world. Now I was trapped in this one.

About two hundred yards away, a glow was silently moving and growing. I considered running, but I wasn’t afraid. It was just instinct, I guess. It took a long time for me to make out its shape—their shape, and when I did, I squeezed my eyes shut then opened them, but it didn’t help.

Six ghostly horses and their ghostly riders were charging towards us. It was like watching the negative print of an old western movie. Hooves churned, spurs flew, the men gestured and their lips moved, but I couldn’t hear them.

As they passed I could see every detail in glowing white. Their hats were stained with sweat, their long mustaches fluttered, their six-shooters glittered and their rifles flapped in their scabbards. Then they carried on with their chase or flight, gradually disappearing into the east.

I closed my gaping mouth, sucked in a lungful of cold air and shouted, “What the hell was that?”

Stella waved at the flicker they had become. “I call it the ‘posse’. In 1866 they rode into that canyon after a gang that had robbed a bank and killed five people. The posse was ambushed and murdered. Now, they’re trapped in the Vortex, and every Friday night they ride into that canyon. And I don’t know how to help them.” When she and Mr. Beretta went in, I stood like an idiot staring after them.

I wasn’t scared. Granddad wasn’t scared when he piloted his shot-up B-17 toward England after bombing the hell out of Germany. Even when he realized he couldn’t make it, he kept it level so the crew could bail out. He was a hero and I wanted to be like him. So I went inside and started yelling. “What the hell was that?” Mr. Beretta glared but I didn’t care. “Who are you? Why did you show me that?”

Stella looked at me with her dark calm eyes. She put two cans of beer on the table and opened them with a pointed can opener. I sat down in a hurry and took a couple of big gulps.

“Johnny,” Stella started. I scowled at her and she tried again. “John, if I didn’t need your help, I wouldn’t have shown you and I wouldn’t have brought you here.”

“Brought me? I’m on my way to see…” I couldn’t finish while she was shaking her head.

“Your cousin in Wyoming would be very surprised to see you.”

Marley and I had exchanged emails. “Are you some kind of hacker?” I asked.

Again she shook her head. “I’m the most powerful Vortex guardian in all the universes. If it pertains to my job, I can do almost anything—almost.”

This was either silly or very serious. “Vortex,” I repeated. Mom and Dad liked to go to Sedona, Arizona, so I knew something about this. “Isn’t that supposed to be in Sedona where the hippies go for the vibes and you can get your palm read cheap?”

“We’ve provided that area with some atmosphere,” Stella said casually. She was saying all of this like we were just passing the time of day in simple gossip. I let her go on because I didn’t know what to say. “I can’t have a bunch of humans hanging around here,” she said. “It’s too dangerous. Even the Lakota Sioux won’t come within two miles of this spot. They don’t know what it is, but they don’t want to mess with it, either. You Europeans would come in droves because it would seem miraculous, and you know how you are when it comes to the possibility of a miracle.”

I wasn’t sure but I didn’t say so.

“I guard the Vortex because it can serve as a passage. It can be a passage between universes, dimensions, planes, times… or any combination of those. Things get through from time to time and I have to catch them and send them back. I imagine you’ve seen some of the TV shows about chupacabra or werewolves or UFOs. They didn’t get through my Vortex, but all the guardians aren’t as watchful as I am.”

I’m not superstitious at all, so this all sounded crazy to me, but I’m as curious as the next guy and it didn’t look like they were going to kill me, so I went along with it. “Vortex,” I said again. “Is that where the posse came from?”

She turned her head away and scratched the brow of Mr. Beretta who had come to sit on the floor beside her. “No. They died so close to the Vortex that a part of them got trapped. The energy of the Vortex holds them here. Even if the person doesn’t die here, if something that’s, let’s say ‘imbued with their spirit’ is brought here, the Vortex will draw out that spirit and hold it, too.” She gestured in the direction of the diner.

I turned to look at it through the window. There were lights on inside. “I thought it was closed,” I said, then felt sick when she replied.

“It is.” She rose and leaned over the sink and opened the window. I could hear music.

*****

Stella turned and looked me in the eye and asked, “Scared, John? Do you want to see why I brought you here and why I wanted your coat?”

I wasn’t scared when I dug my fingers into the fleece lining of Granddad’s coat, just wary. Great Aunt Lilly gave me the coat for my eighteenth birthday. It had been one of the few things left of Granddad’s. Grandma burned everything she could get her hands on after he died. I never knew Grandma, so I asked Great Aunt Lilly about that. She told me that Grandma had been angry. I had to push her pretty hard and use my favorite nephew status to get her to say more, and even then, she averted her eyes and said that her brother had not been quite faithful to Grandma. That didn’t seem like a reason to burn a guy’s stuff. Granddad had been a kid back then, and Grandma hadn’t gone with him to South Dakota where he got his training. She shouldn’t have been surprised that he had a fling.

Great Aunt Lilly had given me a picture, too. It was a picture of Granddad and his crew standing in front of their bomber. She had always told me I looked like him and the picture proved it. There he was: young, smiling, hat cocked to one side, hands in the pockets of his jacket—now my jacket. It could have been me standing there. Great Aunt Lilly had the jacket because Granddad had forgotten it the last time he left—when he left and never came back.

“Show me,” I said. If Granddad wasn’t afraid to fly that sputtering plane on two engines until all the other guys in that picture got out, even though he knew it would be too late for him to escape, I guessed I could face a ghost.

I followed her back to the lobby but the dog stayed behind. To make sure she knew I wasn’t scared, I made a joke. “Is he a guardian, too?”

Stella didn’t laugh. “Yes. He chose to be a dog this time.”

I kept quiet as we entered the lobby and passed through the door to the diner. I prepared myself for what might be in there. I hugged Granddad’s coat. Great Aunt Lilly told me that his last words to her were, “Don’t worry about me.” Of course she worried about him. He had been on his way back to the war, back to flying that big heavy airplane six hours one way, all the time taking fire from the ground and from the sky; and six hours back to England, concentrating, muscling those primitive controls, putting the danger out of his mind while he tried to find his way home and keep his men alive.

I stepped into the diner. Was it built yesterday? The chrome gleamed, the plastic was smooth and the colors were intense in the sunny fluorescent light. The jukebox glowed, and a hundred little bulbs on its front flashed red, then blue, then green. It was playing some peppy, swingy music and I wondered who had put their quarters (no, it said five cents) into the slot and pushed the buttons.

Stella glanced at her dainty little watch again and gestured me to one of the turquoise upholstered booths. “The owner had this diner brought up from Rapid City,” she said. “The Vortex took it over.” She put a finger to her lips.

I heard voices. They were faint at first, but as they got louder, the speakers became visible. A group of six teenagers appeared beside the jukebox. They were talking and laughing and dancing a little. The girls were wearing full, calf-length skirts and white socks and loafer shoes. The boys were wearing white t-shirts and jeans with the hems rolled up a few times. They were wearing white socks and loafers, too. They didn’t seem to notice us.

The middle-aged couple now sitting at the counter didn’t notice us, either, or the guy with a newspaper sitting a few stools away. There was a pale young man behind the counter who put a cup of coffee down in front of the newspaper man, then leaned his elbows on the speckled Formica of the counter. He sighed and wiped something off his cheek.

The bell on the door jingled, and I craned my neck over the booth to see. Another young man had come in, but this one… My heart punched me in the chest. He was wearing khaki flight overalls and a bomber captain’s hat. He looked just like me. Stella grabbed my arm to keep me from getting up. “Wait,” she whispered.

The newcomer smiled happily and approached the counter. “Greg!” he said to the other young man. “I’m back!” There was no response or acknowledgement. The young man in the coveralls, Granddad, stepped back and frowned.

Stella released me. I jumped up and yelled, “Granddad!”

The young man looked at me for a minute. Of course he didn’t know who in the hell I was or why I was calling him “granddad.” He didn’t even know he had a son. Dad was born eight months after he left—two after he died.

I wonder what he thought as he realized that I was his double. My heart banged against my chest again as he crossed the twenty feet that separated us. I couldn’t speak, but he said, “Who the hell are you?” It never occurred to him to be afraid at the sudden appearance of a strangely dressed doppelganger.

I had to swallow hard before I managed to say, “John Dealy.”

His green eyes didn’t flicker, but there was a long pause and I could tell he was thinking, trying to make sense of it. He looked slowly around the diner, letting his eyes linger on the young man behind the counter. Finally he said, “I’m John Dealy.”

The lump came up in my throat again and tears were trying to squeeze their way into my eyes, but I certainly wasn’t going to cry in front of a fearless war hero. “I know. Dad wanted me named after you.”

“Who’s your dad?”

“Gavin Dealy. Grandma’s name was Marge and I had a Great Aunt Lilly.”

The young man blinked. “Marge,” Granddad murmured. His green eyes darkened like mine do when I’m sad, then they brightened and he said, “Little Lilly.” There was another long silence since, apparently, I had been struck dumb. He was more resilient than me. “How long has it been?” he asked.

I glanced at Stella, but she wouldn’t step in.

“Sixty-six years,” I said.

“They must all be gone by now.”

“Your whole crew survived, Granddad.” I was excited to be able to tell him that. “Three of ’em lived long enough to see your name on the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.” I don’t think that meant much to him. Did they even call it World War II back then? “I even talked to one of ’em five years ago. His name was Coffee. He said great things about you.” That old man had reinforced my desire to be like my granddad.

The young man in front of me smiled. He remembered them as he had known them: young, like him. “They were good kids.”

“You’re a hero, Granddad. You saved them.”

At that, he looked at me hard and I thought he was angry, but his green eyes softened before he said, “It wasn’t heroic, I was responsible for them.”

“Was it scary?” I dared whisper.

“Not for long.”

“You were scared?” The words got stuck in my throat for a second.

“Sure,” Granddad said. “Anybody who says they’ve never been scared is either stupid or a liar.” He was matter-of-fact about it. Then I saw that he was looking at my coat—his coat. I was clutching it. I must’ve seemed like a kid hugging his security blanket, like Suzy hung on to that goofy stuffed elephant I won at a carnival. He must’ve wondered where I got his old coat.

“Great Aunt Lilly gave it to me just before she… died.” I continued without thinking. “Grandma burned everything else.”

Granddad rubbed his chin and once again turned his head to see the sad young man at the counter. “Well, I don’t blame her,” he finally said. “She gave me a break though, and promised not to tell anyone else.” He went on before I had a chance to ask what he meant. “I don’t suppose you know what happened to…” he gestured with his chin towards the counter, “Greg.”

I didn’t even know who Greg was, but Stella said softly behind me, “He committed suicide when he found out you were dead.”

I was surprised when tears filled those green eyes that were just like mine. “Poor kid,” he said. Then he looked at Stella. “Why can’t he see me?”

“You’re on different planes. It’s like there’s a wall between you.”

A tear ran down Granddad’s cheek.

“Give him the coat, John,” Stella said. “They’ve both touched it at the same time. It will bring them together.”

That’s why she had wanted my coat. She was a determined Vortex guardian.

Granddad looked at me. He wanted it bad, I could tell. I knew I would give it to him, but it was hard to get my arms to hold it out. When he touched it, I suddenly felt bigger somehow. I knew he felt it, too, because his eyes widened. We both held it. I didn’t want to let go. Maybe he didn’t either, but that other young man was more important to him than a stranger like me.

My hands opened slowly and I gave him one of those trembly, screwed up smiles people do when they’re about to burst into tears. That young man, war hero, and my grandfather saluted me. “Thank you, Johnny,” he said, looking me in the eye. “Thank you.”

I saluted him, like a little kid imitating an adult, like that little boy in the pictures of John Kennedy’s funeral.

Then my granddad put on the jacket.

Suddenly, the young man at the counter straightened, grinned, and yelled, “Johnny!” He jumped up and easily slid over the counter. He ran into Granddad’s arms. I could tell he was crying.

It was more than the hug of two casual friends, and I think I know why Grandma had been so angry, but I felt glad for them. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. I didn’t even notice when the jukebox went silent, or when the teenagers disappeared, or the middle-aged couple, or the newspaper man. Even after the two young men faded away, I kept staring at the empty place.

I don’t know how long I stood there, but eventually I realized that I still had my arm raised in that final gesture of respect. It was pretty sentimental of me.

“You did it, John,” Stella said.

I didn’t even turn around when I said, “You can call me Johnny.” Granddad had been scared, so it was okay for me to be scared. Granddad had cried and been sentimental, so I could be those things, too. I felt my shoulders shake and, for the first time since I was thirteen, I heard myself sob. I had told myself so many times that men don’t cry. When Great Aunt Lilly died, I had stood, stone-faced in front of her coffin. My dog, Jake, had gone to sleep for the last time while, dry-eyed, I had held his paw. And Suzy… poor little Suzy, screaming and screaming because she couldn’t make anyone understand her. Poor Suzy, with her face frozen into a squint so nobody could tell she was smiling—nobody but me. I should have cried for her.

I was sad, but somehow, I felt relieved, too. It was like Granddad’s coat had been something heavy and letting go of it had changed me. After I blew my nose and rubbed my face dry, I returned to Stella and said, “He was a hero.”

*****

That Vortex guardian and I talked for a long time about what had happened and how she could help the other inhabitants of the diner. Later, in the ’70s-inspired hotel room, I slept like a man with a clear conscience and a clean bill of health.

By the time I was ready to leave, it was nine a.m. I had my duffel bag but not my coat when I left the room and walked into a bright, cool day. A lot had changed out there.

The parking lot asphalt was broken and weedy. The sign was leaning and peeling. I turned to look at the building. The Out of Time Motel had turned into a broken down relic: a matriarch who looked her age. I don’t know why I wasn’t surprised. Maybe I was all surprised out.

I walked to my car, which was now sitting under a dangerously leaning awning, and tossed my bag into the back seat. I turned to the plywood wall which had once been glass and saw a little sign stapled where the door had been. Written in faded black marker was one final message from the past: Closed.

 

The Reserve

by W. Blake Heitzman

 

Before the Krauts spot us, we rush into the fog that crawled up from the marsh. Like an amoeba ingesting prey, it absorbs us.

Its heavy air deadens the sound of weapon fire and wraps us in silence. The vapor thickens. The terrain dissolves into gray, smothering my sense of direction. It takes away up and down. My balance teeters. My muscles harden, unsure of every step.

I can’t see my feet. To gain my bearings, I glance at Sergeant Stowski. Suspended in the cloud, legs bicycling futilely, his figure is unnerving.

The mist shoves icy fingers down my collar and chills me to my tailbone, but I put one foot in front of the other, churning like Stowski, only sensing progress when an oak materializes out of the haze and slides past me, its twisted anguished limbs disappearing, leaving me again suspended in dimensionless space.

The fog thins, sliding back toward the swamp. We’re in the open, bare as babes to Kraut snipers. Without a word, my men dive into cover and await my orders.

“Lieutenant, it’s all wrong,” Stowski whispers.

“Yeah, Stow, it is.”

He doesn’t have to explain himself. He’s got the instincts of a street dog. It keeps him alive. It keeps me alive.

This time I feel it, too.

I shove my helmet up against an oak’s gnarled roots. The sound of it grinding and scraping bangs in my ears. Helmet jammed in place, I tilt my head and check out Stowski.

On his belly, he wiggles himself up between the bullet-stopping roots of another ancient tree. Eyes wide, nose moving back and forth, he’s on alert.

It’s morning, and we’re soaked in mud. Every day we’re soaked, soaked sometimes all day and all night. Socks soaked, feet numbed to clubs. Fatigues soaked, wet itchy wool underwear stuck to us and cold as ice. We just lie in it. The Heinie is out there somewhere, so we stay down. Better to shiver than to get cut in half by machine-gun fire.

I raise my arm, hand in a fist, signaling the patrol to hold position. Though I don’t see them, their faces pass through my mind: Reynolds grins sarcastically; Brown’s terrified, his eyes wide and dancing over the brush; McWilliams’ lips move in silent curses but his ears listen for movement; Adams lies on his side, watching to the right, calm and waiting for something to come so he can kill it; and Rubens, backed up against one of these trees, scans our rear, his rifle swaying left to right and back like a branch in a breeze.

But there is no breeze, no sound. It’s dead silent.

“Call Cutillo off point.” I signal with a fist to my helmet.

Stowski nods and makes a weird sparrow warble that only he can do. Tiny but shrill, it knifes through the haze like a bullet.

I tense, glance about without turning my helmet. My heart bangs against my rib cage, and I think, Shit, my heart’s too loud, the Krauts can hear it. Then I catch myself, Calm down. Calm down. No jitters, not now.

Stowski peeks around his tree, sticking his head out, daring Heinie to take a shot.

Slowly, so slowly, you wonder if he’s crazy, he pulls back into his oak fortress and shakes his hands, palms up, at me.

“Bob, that ain’t like Cutillo. He hears that whistle and he’s back in a snap,” Stowski says. “Think he didn’t hear?”

I shake my head. “It’s dead as a graveyard here. If he’s there, he heard.”

“Last I saw, he’s twenty yards up by that tree. Had to hear. Want me to send Reynolds to check?”

Stowski runs his finger over his throat like a knife and mouths, “SS, ambush.”

“Nah,” I whisper back. “We would’ve heard a tussle if someone got to him.”

“Too quiet, Bobby,” the sergeant says, again. “Look at these trees. They’re all wrong. We’re in the middle of a war, but no artillery since we moved into the fog. No gun shots neither. Nothing.”

I look up at the trees, medieval oaks, twisted and gnarled. An hour ago we were in a splintered forest, topless sticks poking out of the earth, pruned by TOT, time on target artillery fire, dozens of shells exploding together in one spot, shredding lumber into mulch and every other living thing into mush.

These druid oaks here—not a branch, not one twig broken.

“At least one stray shell had to wind up here,” I whisper to myself.

“Yeah, that’s it, that’s what’s wrong. It’s like a reserve or something,” Stowski says and grins. He’d found the words to pin down the wrongness he feels in his gut.

I frown at him. “We walked through the fog, how long, you think?”

Stowski goes adventurous, like he’s sure there are no Germans, no SS ambush, just us, and he pulls himself up out of the roots and pushes his back against the tree.

I know he’s right, but I stay low anyway. One thing war has taught me: never trust the obvious.

“Time seems longer in a fog,” he says. “So—an hour?”

“How far do you think we came?”

His shoulders jerk as he expels a perplexed, “Huh?”

“A mile?”

“Not even—you move slower in a fog. Ain’t no way we wandered out of the action.” His statement, half question, gets to my point. He knows what I’m thinking.

“Yeah,” I say. “This front is forty miles long, how does this place go unscarred. Like you said, ‘a reserve or something.’ Krauts should be here, or have been here, but no sign of ’em, not even a sheet of shit paper.”

Stowski stares up at the twisted branches, bare and black against the sky, then says, “Garden of Eden, maybe? Guess we got lucky, stumbled our way out of the war. Maybe I should celebrate with a smoke.”

I harden my frown. “Not yet.”

He chuckles and scans to his right, still suspicious, still tense.

I thrust my thumb forward and say, “Give Cutillo another whistle.”

We wait, but Cutillo doesn’t come. It makes me edgy. We both are.

“Maybe he’s pissin’,” Stowski says, a half-hearted lie meant to calm his anxiety.

His eyes go dog wild.

Seeing that, I tell him, “Call the men up. I want them in here close—real close.”

Stowski waves his arm in a circle, a signal that will be passed back through the patrol until everyone gets it. Then he juts his chin at the tree where Cutillo was.

“Hey, Bobby, the fog’s blowing in again. You think it’ll bring the war back?”

“No—something else.”

I stand up and yell back through the woods, “Everybody get up here! Fast!”

There isn’t a sound.

I turn to Stowski. He’s gone. His rifle is there, its barrel against a root. Then I see him stalking forward, a grenade in each hand. He’s intent on something on the ground. It looks like water, then it flicks to the right, its tip changing from a point to a span of fingers that gropes a tree root. It releases, turns into a point, and whips toward Stow. It stops a few yards in front of him. I see another one by the tree where Cutillo disappeared. It slides across the ground, a shimmering pool of gel that stretches another tentacle toward Stowski. He lobs grenades to each, gently, like softballs to six-year-olds, then he races back and presses himself against me and the tree. Inches away, his wolfish eyes gleam into mine.

“We need TOT,” he says. He yanks my elbow and we run.

 

The Curse of the Katz

by Leonard Schlenz

 

Mickey’s Tavern is a puzzling place. It’s a beer joint with a tiny touch of class, part saloon, part museum; it’s a morning hangout for feral hippies with gray ponytails, a veteran’s foxhole away from the cold reality of a drizzly city in November. On the glass shelves behind the bar sit mementos from the great sea battles, little basswood ships and carved sailors. They sit in front of a very large mirror that pretends to double the seductive assembly of spirits in Mickey’s little corner lot.

Like a lot of the older taverns, its old pine floors are baptized in a perfume of spilt beer, and you can still smell the Camel smoke from the fifties, and you don’t have to be real perceptive to sense the confessional resonance of a million regrets embedded in the plaster wall. The owner, Mickey, says the place has character; the neighbors call it blight, an eyesore that attracts the worst kind.

Like a lot of beer joints, you have three choices of draft beer, and you can buy a shot of just about anything, but you won’t be ordering a Mai Tai or a Tainted Heart or a Mojito there, unless you go behind the bar and fix it yourself. From the inside of Mickey’s the only reality is the distant evening traffic zipping home through the drizzle to the south of town, or now and again, the heavy west door whooshing open, letting in a burst of autumn setting sun. The regulars will look over at the squeaky door each and every time and squint into the sudden brightness as if they’re expecting someone.

It’s a special day, “Half price for everything except the good stuff,” Mickey says. The calendar date is circled. Drinks are always half price on that day, but this anniversary is an anniversary numbered in the tens, and so extra special.

A rabble of drinkers usually lingers inside the place from noon on. Today is not much different for them except that Mickey lights some candles; it’s a candlelight vigil, sort of, related to all those relics of war that line the altar behind the bar where Mickey wipes a glass mug with a rag.

The clientele; they’re working people, and people without work, and every now and then people in nice clothes who walk in by accident, but mostly they smell of gas and oil, asphalt or burnt rubber, or even the smell of dumpsters where a few of them have slept the previous night.

Darryl, Mickey’s sort-of partner, is especially nervous today. Because of the curse.

He doesn’t hear what anybody says because he sits there talking to himself, monitoring the door that lets in the traffic, along with the whiffs of tobacco smoke from those who linger outside in the cold. It’s a day of remembrance. Remembering when you could smoke in your bunk back in ’44, and how, now, you can’t smoke in your own place. But mostly, remembering those scary days waiting for the Zeros to come buzzing in with the sun behind their tails. This frosty day is a day of atonement, though Mickey and Darryl don’t quite know the extent of the atoning to be done.

Snuggled between the Bacardi and the Ballantine’s is the centerpiece of Mickey’s Tavern, a hunk of twisted metal no bigger than half a piece of burnt toast; it’s a piece of charred shrapnel from the frigate they called the Katz, pulled out of Darryl’s backside, a harsh reminder of the guts of the boiler room where Mickey and Darryl traded shifts back when. The shrapnel honors that one day when the Japs left the Katz burning and melting and badly punctured as she bounced like a giant discarded cork off the coast of Formosa. Darryl has told many a tale with the relic held gently in his hand, and when he’s a bit tipsy he swears it beats like a little heart.

Of course there’s more to the Tavern’s artifacts than a hunk of charred metal. There’s lots of old ship stuff from the big war, shell casings from the Army/Navy surplus store down the street that hold the pretzels, black and white photos of battleships and cruisers, a picture of two sailors, smiling for the camera, arms joined over the shoulders like woven rope… Mickey and Darryl at eighteen. It’s November and cold on South Broadway, but you can see from the pictures how hot and humid it was back then in the South China Sea, and that’s where their thoughts still float after all these years. In those old black-and-white photos.

On the east wall are yellowed articles from newspapers and some overhead shots on the cover of magazines… of big ships with big wakes. One of the regulars sets his mug on the bar and asks for a refill, and whispers, “What’s with Darryl? He seems more out of it than usual.”

Mickey just shrugs. It’s nobody’s damn business. A man pushing on in years can have his own special stresses, those which come from noise, for example, which occurs to him now because it is in fact getting noisier as the early evening evolves, and it’s not the sun but nightfall that lingers just outside the door. But that’s not it either. Darryl is talking at the mirror like it was a big screen TV. The war is in the mirror. He’s asked Mickey to see it too, but Mickey doesn’t see it. Doesn’t want to see it.

Crunching gravel starts the evening off; the clientele begins to ease their old roadsters into place on the gravel lot, and hike their choppers up onto their stands. Mickey’s Tavern can be a rough place. It’s best to stay out, go someplace else on Saturday night if you’re not a regular. And it’s understood that troubles are handled inside, without police, as no one would want Mickey to lose his liquor license. Dirty laundry is hung inside, not outside. Mickey runs a tight ship.

Darryl presides at the end of the bar; Mickey does the bartending. The poolroom clicks and clacks quietly like distant ack-ack fire, and outside, somebody tinkers with a chopper and it pops and grumbles, seeking that perfect pitch. Darryl rises from his stool and shuffles into the poolroom. “Where you goin’ Darryl?”

“Just seein’ if anybody needs anything,” Darryl says. He helps out where he can though he’s had no business interest in the tavern for years. Darryl is first in, last out. Though he’s old by some standards, he’s grizzled and greasy, not too old to stand under oil pans part of the day helping his boy in the shop. Mickey understands that when Darryl sits at the bar bobbing his head, looking into that mirror, he’s looking up at the sea.

It seems like yesterday to Mickey, the sinking of the Katz. The ship was cursed from the start. She should have been christened with holy water what with its faulty boiler and single-minded navigation. It’s an old story. Worn out after all these years. But it just wasn’t fair the others got to die. The boiler crew, Mickey and Darryl and Graves, survived the Japs, and then the sharks, but then Graves, even Graves just disappeared afterwards. Never wrote. No postcards from Waikiki. Nothing. Leaving just the two of them.

Or so they made themselves believe all those years. But this was a special anniversary, the end of the curse. Where the buck stopped. They’d only recently talked it through, and tonight Darryl says, “Enough already. We can’t go on with the lie.”

“Shut up, Darryl.”

“It’s not up to us anymore, Mick. Like they say, our comeuppance will arrive like a thief in the night and the thief is at the door. Seaman Graves is not in Hawaii. Never was.” Darryl looks into the giant mirror; all the action is above deck, the ack-ack guns reverberating below deck; he knows the silver fish are speeding towards them… “The Katz has come home to roost. We let him down. And you damn well know it.”

It’s a quieter night than usual. There’re no fights yet. Nothing to write home about as they say. Except for maybe a last note in the diary, a goodbye note, “Let it go Darryl. We suffered enough.”
“Look in the mirror, Mick. It’s calling us. The Katz is calling us back.”

And finally, Mickey, the owner of Mickey’s Tavern, begins to see, maybe not in the mirror like his old friend, but he sees; he is once again back in the belly of a frigate, huffing and puffing in the deep blue sea. Inside the Katz. In the warm blue sea. And those in the belly of the cursed beast tending to the boiler are the most at risk.

*****

And from inside the perimeter walls, the entire footprint of Mickey’s beer joint, there is a bleating like the bleating of sheep, or to Mickey and Darryl the sound of melting metal groaning and men moaning; and the sweating walls surely are the bulkheads leaking.

But not entirely believing his own eyes and his own ears, Mickey says, “I think we’ve sprung a leak somewhere,” and him and Darryl both stand there with their mouths open like kids in a spook show, and they watch a small streamlet of water running down the wall from the ceiling next to the big clock that’s stopped. “Over there, too,” Darryl says. “Water’s trickling’ down that wall now. And what’s with the clock?”

Mickey shakes his head, “When it rains it pours. Ain’t that the damndest thing you ever saw… so is it raining outside?”

“Stopped a few hours ago, and as you don’t have an upstairs I don’t imagine there’s any plumbing up there which could burst.”

And then Darryl starts his mambo dance with the ghosts in his head, having ditched the boiler room with poor Graves trapped there, bobbing his head to avoid the imaginary strafing of a new wave of Zeros coming in against the sun, part of him wanting to go back for Graves…

“Why don’t you step outside and take a break, Darryl; see if you can see any way the water’s coming in from up there.”

“Hey, what’s with the water, boss?” It’s another regular who’s been hanging there for ten years, a big plumber with big hands, shaking his head and pointing to a little puddle starting to form near the dartboard.

“Go about your drinkin’, Leo. Mind your business. We’ll take care of it.”

“I’m a plumber, and it is my business, boss.”

Mickey takes a fresh mug from behind the bar and fills it, saying, “Here… on the house.”

The plumber shrugs and walks away, saying to his stubble-faced, skinny partner, “I told him, I told him. Not my problem.”

By now all thirty or so patrons are starting to notice the puddles on the floor. It’s widely assumed the restroom has run over again, and most have homes to go to and warm beds for the most part, and the water is not their concern, except one regular who’s walking unsteadily out of the poolroom with a cue stick pointed up. He has Chinese characters tattooed on his bald fat head and is crankier than the others and says, “Hey bartender… the shoes are getting squishy back there,” and another mumbles, his lips moving like slow honey squeezed out of a plastic jar, “Sure thing, Mickey boy, it’s gettin’ to be a regular swamp back there.”

“You don’t like it, y’all go somewheres else,” Mickey says, as Darryl is returning from outside shrugging his shoulders, and Mickey is starting to understand something the others, except Darryl, don’t, and he breathes in deeply, remembering the sweet sickening smell of men’s skin burned black in diesel oil in ’44; and he looks over to Darryl who’s quit dodging imaginary bullets for the time being, and they both stop to listen to the far-off screaming coming out of the walls where sharks munch down on cooked flesh, and dive bombers release their torment in wave after wave, and the bending ship shrieks as if the rivets themselves feel excruciating pain.

A voice in the crowd says, “You want I should open the door and let out the water?” It’s the plumber Leo, and he knows a bit about plumbing and he knows there’s no way in hell that water should be leaking down the walls like Niagara Falls.

“Nope,” Mickey says. “Just drink up and get out. All of you, outta’ here, we’re closing up.” Most of the crowd has left already and the water is a good three inches deep now. The last man slips and departs on his butt with the rushing water and the delirious hooting of his companions.

It’s just the two of them now and the floor is six inches deep in warm water and rising, and the lights start to flicker and the neon blue and red which encircles St. Pauli Girl turns dull as cinder. The jukebox and the girly pinball go next, their neon sputtering and dying with hardly a fight. All that remains is the fragrant candlelight. There’s enough light from the candles and the city outside to make out the steady stream of water rippling down next to the calendar, the calendar of U.S. Naval War Ships, and making slurping sounds, where little maelstroms no bigger than bathtub swirls find openings in the pine floor, beneath which is the cellar where the kegs are stored and boxes of liquor, and cases of bottled beer; and that’s where sits the old cast iron boiler built in the twenties. And now Darryl says to Mickey, “I sure wish I knew the words to that sailor poem.”

“Secure the west bulkhead!”

“No, that ain’t it.”

“Damn it, Darryl. This was your doing, now secure the west bulkhead!”

Mickey’s in charge; and Darryl follows orders like it was only natural for him, and he sloshes his way through the water to the door and pulls it snug, then bolts it. Out of habit he moves to the window, outside of which there’s actually a night-lit city he’d forgotten about, where his boy lives, and where his grandkids are probably home watching TV. He turns the cardboard sign from Open to Closed. He knows deep down that it’s not the Japs, but the Lord, that will have the better of this night. “I’ve got more candles,” Mickey says, and he wades through the water back behind the bar where he opens a cupboard and pulls out two big candles mounted in silver gravy boats. “Got a match, Darryl?”

“Course I got a match,” Darryl says, and he wades back through the water still flowing in ripples down each wall like a contrived water display, or some fancy artwork on a new slick marble building. The walls are still bleating; he pulls out his Zippo and lights each candle. The water is up to their knees. It’s warm, and he lights a Marlboro while he’s at it, inhales and holds it in his lungs for a while like it’s his last.

“Proceed to the boiler room. Get Seaman Graves out of there before it blows.”

“You know we could drown down there,” Darryl says.

“We are the boiler tenders, Darryl, so tend your boilers!”

Each takes a candle. Mickey leads the way through the dancing shadows. The trap door is next to the restrooms in the poolroom. Darryl holds Mickey’s candle while Mickey reaches into the shallow water and unlocks the padlock on the trap door. He tugs it upward, letting a river of water disappear into the darkness below. It takes both of them to lift it fully open and Mickey leans it against the wall.

“Maybe this time we’ll get it right,” Mickey says. He looks back into the bar area but it’s too dark to see much. A steady stream of warm water pours down the wooden stairs and Mickey grabs onto a rail with one hand and holds his candle with the other. “Here goes nothing… it’s slippery, Darryl… watch your step,” he says as he’s sucked straight down in a swirl of warm water and floor trash.

Darryl is old but he’s wiry and strong, and he grabs the slippery railing, “I’m right behind you.” Though it’s in two feet of water, the boiler is a monster of growling fire, sucking air and rumbling. But beginning to sputter. “The water’s already killing it,” Mickey says. “I’m not sure what there is to do here.”

The cellar is cavernous and dark, the air smelling of damp cement. Holding their candles upward they slosh into the darkness towards the diminishing glow and the warmth of the boiler. Empties float nearly three feet above the floor now and Mickey stands at five foot six, Darryl to slightly more. Mickey makes a pirouette with his candle, casting shadows on twenty thousand dollars of inventory, old doorknobs, and broken stools. He yells, “Graves? Graves? You in here, Graves? For god’s sake come on out.”

“Water’s coming fast now,” Darryl says, and they watch it wrap the wooden stairs in swirls, then they hear the thump of the trap door slamming shut, sucked inward by the rushing sea, and they listen as the water still hits the floor above like a tropical thunderstorm, and all the time running through every crevice of the old tavern down down down to the cellar, down to the timbers that brace the ship, both candles flickering.

“Don’t think we could lift that door again if we wanted to,” Darryl says. “And I think the boiler’s had it.”

And then he too shouts out, “Graves? Seaman Graves?”

“She’s a goner all right.”

“But what about Graves?” Darryl says, as a splash hits his candle and it sputters, sending up a smoky whiff of candle wax. He pulls out his Zippo but it’s futile to relight it. Mickey’s candle is dim as well and they shiver.

“People gonna’ wonder where all that water came from,” Darryl says with a hint of humor, and in the lingering flickering candle light Mickey sees a twinkle in Darryl’s eye.

They’re ready, as they have been for some time, since ’44, “Seaman Graves, are you there, Graves?”

Mickey’s Tavern is a watery tomb that smells of oil and fire, and the nauseating sweet smell of burning sailors, and now, above, they can still hear the faint sounds of strafing, the buzzing of dive bombers, and in their hearts they feel a blessed peace as they do their level best to do right by Seaman Graves.

 

Girl in a Mask

by Gregg Zimmerman

 

1. Epiphany

The evening wind picked up, sending waves and furrows racing through the wheat fields, and mountainous cumulus clouds scudded across a sky of deepening blue. Leaves rustled and the loose doors of barns and sheds rattled as the dying reds and yellows of a beautiful sunset faded in the west.

The two sisters, auburn Angelika and blonde Serafina, whirled in the wind in ecstasy, aprons and colorful sashes flying behind them. Never since the innocent days of childhood had they felt such elation: it was if the world had arrived at a new beginning and the horrors of war and a brutal occupation were things of the past.

“The Nazis are gone, the Nazis are gone!” sang out Angelika in a sweet-voiced but unmusical chant, while Serafina, two years younger, sang a provincial folk song full of joy and happy expectations from her youth.

The young women waltzed and pirouetted, bumping each other and giggling like schoolgirls as the impact nearly knocked them sprawling in the tall grass.

Angelika, ever on the alert, stopped abruptly and stood staring as she caught a movement out of the corner of her eye; Serafina kept singing and twirling, waving her slender arms in the air like flashing bronze-peach colored stalks in the last rays of the declining sun.

Angelika took one half-running step toward the farmhouse which was concealed from view behind the milling shed. But she could not abandon her little sister, even to summon help.

Three men had slouched into view from the field behind the tool shed. Ragged, scruffily bearded, and grimy in their worn Russian military fatigues, gaunt and pale as if they were half-starved, the three advanced slowly with the downcast demeanor of beaten mongrels.

“Ladies, beautiful ladies,” said the man in the lead, raising a dirty white hand in a gesture of supplication. “We have walked for days and days, and have not eaten.” The man, whom Angelika noticed bore a jagged scar high on his cheekbone, half-concealed beneath a frayed beret, spoke Russian in a soft, plaintive voice. Both women, of course, spoke Russian fluently.

Serafina stopped twirling with a gasp of alarm, which quickly gave way to another emotion when she recognized the men as belonging to the Soviet military.

“Soldiers, Angelika, Russian soldiers!” she said in an adoring tone, as if she were addressing war heroes from her homeland. She moved toward them with a greeting on her lips. Angelika looked on with trepidation, her mouth forming a severe line.

Suddenly, as if at a pre-concerted signal, the two soldiers behind the leader sprang forward. Serafina made not a sound, and Angelika’s warning cry was cut off by strangling fingers at her throat as the men grasped the two women and hustled them after the man with the scar, who had kicked open the door of the nearby tool shed.

2. Horror

The two girls, auburn Angelika and blonde Serafina, crouched against the shed wall beneath a broken horse yolk that was suspended by pegs. Their lower clothing lay in a tangled heap just beyond their reach; their upper clothing had been clawed to tatters and no longer concealed their breasts or privates, which they both felt a desperate need to cover. Neither woman reached for the discarded clothing.

The man with the scar favored the girls with a leering look as he stood, slowly fastening his breeches. His two companions lay back against a pile of leather harnesses, passing back and forth between them a water bottle filled with contraband vodka. Unlike their leader, they avoided eye contact with the women and made no remarks to them.

Serafina sobbed quietly. Angelika stared at their persecutors with eyes of stone.

“Ladies,” said the man with the scar. “That was a very kind welcome, I’m sure my comrades will agree. Your country women are renowned sluts, and as I expected it was not the first time for either of you. But now with deepest regrets we must be leaving.”

He lazily withdrew a German Luger from his pocket and pointed it about in an offhand manner as he spoke.

Serafina’s eyes opened wide, she inhaled loudly to launch a scream. The man with the scar lowered the pistol and shot her through the temple.

Serafina slumped sideways against Angelika, splashing her neck and breast with blood. Angelika shuddered with a spasm that she quickly suppressed. She said nothing, cradling her sister’s bleeding head in her lap and fixing her stony, menacing glare on the man with the scar.

The two other soldiers leaped to their feet and put away the bottle. The discharge of the gun sounded like an exploding mortar round in the confined space of the shed. One of them fastened his eye to the crack at the edge of the shed door, checking if the coast was clear.

The man with the scar approached Angelika in an unhurried manner and placed the gun barrel against her forehead. Angelika neither flinched nor blinked, continuing to fix his eyes with her stare.

“Andrey, the other one!” hissed the man at the door. “They will be coming!”

The man called Andrey caressed Angelika’s cheek gently with the gun barrel. “Blondie would have talked,” he said with a grin that revealed large, stained, horse-like teeth. “But not this one. She is proud!”

“Andrey!” the man called again with a note of panic.

“She would kill me with her look if she could, this one. Sweet-faced vixen, remember me by this,” and he took Angelika’s chin in his hand and tilted up her face. He pointed the gun barrel at the lightning-shaped scar high up on his right cheekbone. Then he brought the handle of the pistol down with a crack on the crown of her head. Angelika’s world exploded into blazing stars, followed by darkness.

3. The Mask

The Leather Flask was a run down public house at the edge of the city’s business district that was heavily patronized by the newly arrived Soviet soldiers, mainly because it was close to their base. The soldiers threw around their scanty silver half-rubles as if they were Dutch guilders, as they may as well have been with their power to purchase the services of the aging hookers with crow’s feet at the corners of their eyes and missing teeth or the scrawny half-starved village girls with their frayed sleeves and dirty necks who had begun to congregate there.

The less inebriated regulars noticed the recent attendance of a girl of a different class, well dressed with a statuesque figure and auburn hair that gleamed like fine golden mesh in the harsh light of the incandescent bulbs without shades. She came in regularly at the fall of darkness and sat for a couple of hours at a corner table away from the others, spurning company but watching the comings and goings of the soldiers with the fixity of a spy from the central government. She always left alone.

On the third day of her presence a non-commissioned officer by the name of Egor, who wore the characteristic red breeches of the hussars—a great bear of a man with a kindly face and a twinkling eye—threw down a few extra brandies and water and determined to make a pass at her. He approached her table and sat down, blocking her view of the entrance. Leaning forward, he caught her upper arm in a familiar grasp and whispered his proposition into her ear. His offer was answered with a resounding slap on the face. Egor’s bushy mustache rose to reveal an indulgent smile and he began to move away when the lady caught his upper arm in turn. “Wait,” she said imperiously.

He looked into the glacial grey-blue eyes that stared coldly into his own and for a passing moment he felt something akin to fear. He also noticed the surpassing beauty of the woman and quickly banished any reservations.

“Andrey with the scar,” she said, “do you know him?”

“Andrey, Andrey, there are a hundred Andreys, dearest lady—”

“Andrey with a jagged scar like a lightning bolt above his right cheek.”

“I’m afraid, sweetest love—”

“Find him for me and you can do what you will with me. And you can keep your dirty kopeks.”

Three days later Egor the bear-like hussar led a slim village errand boy wearing an oversized hat with earflaps through the encampment to the motor pool. A mechanic and his helper were leaning over the engine compartment of a transport vehicle, working on the engine block with a pair of wrenches.

“Andrey with the scar,” muttered Egor, and he felt the slim figure beside him give a sudden start as if of recognition.

Later that night in an un-mown hay field behind the makeshift barracks, Egor the hussar grasped in his arms the most delectable, frigid woman he had lain with during the course of a long and hideous war.

* * * * *

Tomas Stefanik, biochemistry professor turned house painter, wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand and climbed down the scaffolding to the dusty street. A well-dressed woman noticeable for her profusion of auburn-golden hair was waiting for him at the curbside.

“Tomas,” she said in a hushed voice that was familiar to him.

He gave a start, staring at her face. “Angelika, my God, I have not seen you for—it must be more than a year now!” And he hugged her to his breast, the joy of this unexpected meeting overwhelming his usual circumspection.

“My god, the Nazis are gone, can you believe it! At long last life can return to normal, and no one has risked more for this moment, has sacrificed more, than you—”

“The Russians are worse,” she said.

“No, no, Angelika, they are a little crude, perhaps, a little ill-mannered, but—”

“The Russians are worse. The rest of you will find out in time what I know now.” And then she related to him her story in as few words as possible. The joyous smile on Stefanik’s face melted away, a growing horror overspread his features, his hand went out to her with fingers splayed apart as if beseeching her to end the assault her words were making on his sensibilities.

“I, I have to sit down,” he said, slipping to the pavement. “How many atrocities can a man bear in one lifetime? She is—was—more than a daughter to me. She was the savior of my family!”

He rocked back and forth as if in physical pain. “Serafina!” he whispered.

“Yes, Serafina,” she said, dry-eyed.

“Oh, oh,” said Stefanik, making an effort to regain his composure. He owed these two women—Angelika and Serafina—a debt of gratitude that time would never efface and that he would never be able to repay. In the dreadful days of 1939 when the Nazis stormed into Poland, Tomas Stefanik was verging on world recognition as a research biochemist in his professorship at the University of Krakow. He had made breakthroughs in the function of the adrenal gland and was delaying the publication of his results until he completed his investigations into certain practical applications of his discoveries.

The invasion could not have come at a more disruptive time for him. As the Nazi persecution of the Jews intensified, it was Angelika Pacek, his brilliant undergraduate student and research assistant who stepped forward to assist him in protecting Jolanta, his Jewish wife, and their two daughters when all the others turned their backs. She hid the family in a cellar on the family farm for six months, and when Angelika went off to join the partisans in their unequal struggle against the occupiers, her angelic sister Serafina served as the lifeline to the concealed family, bringing them food and supplies and keeping them informed of the great, tragic events happening in the outside world. For six months the family knew no greater joy than Serafina’s regular visits when she gave all she could of herself to cheer them up, even teaching the two girls, who adored her, folk songs and keeping them amused by telling them fairy tales and ancient legends of the Polish countryside. At the end of six months Angelika returned to the farm bringing the official papers after having established the needed contacts to spirit Jolanta and the two girls out of the country to a safe haven in Sweden. Stefanik, less worldly than his young protégée, never fully understand how she had accomplished this seemingly impossible feat; all she would ever tell him about it is that he would sleep better not knowing. To this day, Stefanik’s family awaited the coming reunion in their tenement in Stockholm.

“Now,” said Angelika, “my mentor, my esteemed professor, my friend, I need you to do something for me. I need you to do a thing that only you can do.” And she kneeled down beside him on the curbside and whispered her request into his ear.

“No!” he cried, “it cannot be done! The science is not perfected—”

Again Angelika made her request, and again he protested. “It would kill you, my dear, kill you, do you hear? Request anything, but not that!”

“Very well,” she said coldly, rising to her feet. “Tomas, be easy. I will never again trouble you with a request.” And ashen-faced, she turned from him and began to walk away.

Tomas Stefanik, scientist and now house painter, found himself crawling after her on his hands and knees. Lunging forward, he wrapped his arms around her legs and brought her to a halt.

“A week from Tuesday, 3:00 pm, at my studio on Lubicz Street,” he stammered. “It will take me that long to gather supplies—and even that is only possible because of the disorganized security of the Soviets. Come alone, and please, oh please, try to change your mind.”

* * * * *

The studio was tiny, and the truckle bed had to be collapsed and turned on its side to make room for the medical equipment and chemical supplies.

Angelika sat on the edge of the coffin-like wooden box that would have to serve as a surgical table for the upcoming operation.

“When I complete the procedure that will stimulate your adrenal gland, the production of adrenalin will be constantly elevated. Your rate of metabolism will increase, and you will need to breathe a richer mix of oxygen than the atmosphere provides. So you will have to wear an oxygen cylinder and a gas mask wherever you go.” Stefanik held up the mask for her to view—a conventional army-issue combat-green gas mask with a tinted glass eye plate and a breathing port from which the activated carbon had been removed. A small, malleable copper tube provided a connection to the oxygen tank that would need to be strapped to her back.

“I smuggled out six oxygen tanks,” Stefanik resumed. “At the feed rate we must set, each tank will last you 24 hours. You’ll use up one per day, and have to change them. That gives you six days. I will try to obtain more tanks in the meantime. Remember, without the oxygen you will quickly grow lethargic and suffocate within an hour. When you finish your mission come back here and I will try to reverse the procedure. You know about the adaptive memory of our biological processes—I’m not sure I can do it. If not, oh Angelika,” and he squeezed her hand, “this will be irreversible—a death sentence.”

“I have fought beside the partisans,” she replied quietly. “I am not afraid.”

“When you wake up your strength and speed will be abnormal, incredible. But you are still made of the old flesh and bones. You can break your own as easily as your opponent’s.”

There was a silence. Stefanik was clearly reluctant to start the procedure.

“If that’s all, let’s do it,” said Angelika.

“I just can’t bear the thought of losing you both. Can’t you get the partisans together again? There should be a sniper who can take care of your mission by the more conventional means.”

“Where they are all now,” Angelika replied, “Serafina has joined them there.” She lay back on the box while Stefanik applied the anesthetic.

4. The First One

Oleg Pravdin, assistant mechanic with the Soviet Infantry, walked through the un-mown hay field behind the garrison’s barracks. He felt the desire to have a woman strongly tonight, and had meant to remind Andrey of the “girling” expedition he had been promising to lead for a week now. Andrey’s girling expeditions simultaneously satisfied Oleg’s two most pressing cravings: the thrill of the chase, and the sensual bliss of having his way with a woman. It was far more rewarding than throwing away his scant earnings on aging whores or village sluts that smelled of garlic and onions at low dives like the Leather Flask.

But Andrey was stubborn, maintaining that girling must not be done too frequently. “These war-ravaged peasants,” Andrey had observed, “are used to a few dead women popping up here and there, but too many and they will revolt.” Oleg had come to consider Andrey somewhat of a barrack room philosopher, and it was rumored that he had picked up some university education somewhere along the way. At any rate, it was Andrey—and of course he had the final word on the matter.

Andrey had disappeared from the motor pool an hour earlier than usual. So tonight Oleg would be on his own.

Descending a shallow declivity that put him out of sight of the garrison, he thought that he heard a noise to his right. A burnt and abandoned building left by the Nazis, little more than a foundation with a couple of fire-scarred crumbling block walls rose from the weeds at the edge of the field. A rather small, strange figure stepped out of a ruinous doorway and stood facing him.

Oleg’s mouth fell open and he craned his neck forward. At first he took the figure to be a soldier who had somehow emerged from the front line of battle. Dressed in green military fatigues, the figure wore an outlandish head gear that Oleg recognized after some effort as a gas mask. Some sort of metal cylinder rose up from behind the shoulders and was connected by a gleaming copper tube to the gas mask. “Hell’s devils,” Oleg muttered as he discerned, both by its slender build and by the cascade of golden-red hair that surrounded the mask, that it was a woman. The distinctive color of the hair told him which woman.

“You,” he said.

“Yes, me.”

“What do you want?” He fumbled for a moment and drew a Soviet issue Tokarev pistol from the ill-fitting German holster he had pilfered from an abandoned Nazi encampment.

There was no answer.

“I don’t want no trouble, miss.” He pointed the pistol in her direction with a trembling hand. “It was Andrey who offed your friend. I didn’t want to do it. Why the mask—”

The figure lunged to its right with blinding speed. Then it darted to the left. Oleg did not realize, did not have time to notice, that the two movements had also eliminated the distance that separated them.

The handgun was struck from his hand with a force that broke three of his fingers and sent the weapon spinning over the top of the scorched wall. Then Oleg experienced a series of sensations unlike anything he had encountered before. It was as if some sort of lethal machine clasped and crushed his body with unfathomable strength. He felt himself shaken as a mastiff shakes a kitten, and heard his own bones popping and cracking and felt his flesh being mashed to a pulp through waves of unbearable physical agony.

In the morning they found Oleg Pravdin’s corpse at the foot of the ruined wall. Every bone in his body had been broken and splintered and his rib cage was crushed in as if he had been hurled from a vast height. In fact there was some speculation, soon discarded as implausible, that he had been dropped from an airplane. It was also noticed that high on his right cheekbone there was a large jagged wound in the shape of a lightning bolt, apparently carved with a knife.

5. The Second One

Andrey and Pavel the gunner sat on a wad of disheveled blankets that served as a bunk in the corner of a barrack building. The room was lit by a kerosene lantern as the high command had not bothered to extend an electrical feed to the barracks. Pavel was pale and agitated, swiveling his head at every sound, real or imagined, and shuffling his feet or twitching his hands. Andrey, on the other hand, appeared calm and unperturbed as he meditatively smoked a small briarwood pipe.

“You saw the scar,” Pavel uttered abruptly.

“Yes, shut up, be quiet. Do you want the whole garrison to hear us?”

“The body was smashed—like a fly—smashed!” The last word was almost shrieked.

“Yes,” said Andrey.

“It had to be—because of the woman. The blonde woman you shot when we were out girling.”

“Yes,” said Andrey.

“Well, we’re next, you—don’t be stupid!”

There was a silence that Pavel once again felt constrained to break.

“How did they do that to him?”

“That’s the only mystery.”

“You should have shot the other one, you stupid bastard! Like I told you.”

Andrey grinned, revealing his great horse-like teeth. “They may get you, but they won’t get me.”

Pavel lunged at him, but Andrey moved deftly aside.

“Pull yourself together, you fool. I am not the enemy.”

“This girling business was your plan, you brought this upon us.”

“You were not complaining when you were riding the little mares with their legs in the air.”

“Go to hell and be damned, you devil,” said Pavel, but his tone was conciliatory.

“Anyway, it won’t help things to let you know, numbskull, but I have a plan.”

* * * * *

At a discrete distance, so as not to be recognized, Andrey and Pavel watched the roaring flames that consumed the Pacek family’s farmhouse lick upwards into the night sky. The farmhouse which had endured six years of Nazi occupation did not survive six weeks under the Soviets.

“Well, they weren’t home, what did you expect,” grumbled Pavel. “So this is your plan? A lot of good it will do us.”

“They know we struck back, and that the Soviet military is on to them. Let’s go.”

The next morning Andrey submitted a request for a transfer to the Warsaw garrison. He said not a word of it to Pavel.

For his part, Pavel made a concerted effort not to be alone. Wherever the soldiers congregated, that was where he would be found. This was after hours, on his own time. But while on duty he was subject to the orders of his superiors.

The Soviet authorities had begun rounding up the Polish intelligentsia: doctors, university professors, and highly educated professionals that Stalin’s government anticipated might interfere with their plans for Poland. As the jails and prisons were not spacious enough to accommodate these detainees as they awaited transportation to destinations still being worked out—Siberia, military detention centers, or oblivion—the military units were called upon to assist in creating temporary local detention centers.

Pavel’s superior officer knew that he had carpentry and building experience in his private life before the war, therefore he was co-opted to join a team of two other soldiers and a supervising lieutenant to inspect and report on the condition and suitability for use of an abandoned spa and resort complex twenty kilometers outside of Krakow.

Upon arrival of the transport vehicle on the grounds of the resort, the lieutenant dusted off and unfolded a set of blueprints for the facility that he had somehow acquired. To Pavel’s chagrin, the lieutenant dispatched the three soldiers to inspect the buildings separately.

Pavel argued, irrationally the lieutenant thought, to be allowed to team up with one of the others. His request was denied, and the three were ordered to return from their assignments with logged inspection reports by 4:00 pm. The blueprints were distributed and each man provided with a kerosene lantern.

The weather was cool and drizzly as Pavel set out on foot across the overgrown entrance drive to a large deteriorated building at the rear of the compound. The structure still retained the vestiges of luxury, although it had been in disuse since the Nazi occupation.

Electric power had long been cut off, which made the building, whose window spacing was designed for incandescent illumination, exceedingly gloomy inside. Just as Pavel closed the grand, nine-foot tall entry door behind him and prepared to light his kerosene lantern, he thought he heard a sound common enough along the busy streets of Krakow, but out of place in this secluded place—the rumble of a motorbike. He quickly opened the door again—silence. Shaking his head, he lit the lantern and set to work.

In spite of his strained nerves, Pavel soon became immersed in his work, and made his way through room after room, inspecting walls, flooring, fixtures, and making notes. His focus was interrupted by the distinct sound of the opening and slamming shut of the entrance door. Dropping his log book and snatching up the lantern, Pavel rushed into the corridor and called out “Who’s there?”

There was no answer.

Instantly apprehension transformed into icy terror, causing his knees to wobble and beads of cold sweat to break out on his forehead.

He must get out and join the others at all cost. There would be protection where there were numbers.

He sprinted toward the entryway, the kerosene lantern swaying and causing crazy shadows to rush up and down the walls. Then he stopped short with a gasp.

A solitary figure in military fatigues and wearing a gas mask stood against the door as if barring his exit. It occurred to him that, caught by his enemy like a rat, he would be gassed and suffocated in the corridor. With a shout, he pulled his handgun from the pocket of his uniform jacket and fired off two rounds. But the figure was no longer in the doorway.

Was he seeing things? No, there it was, springing out from behind an ornamental column. But the rapidity of it movements! The unbelievable, shocking quickness!

Disconcerted, he dropped the handgun rather than the lantern as he intended. He darted up a high-piled carpeted staircase with a rich mahogany banister, and wheeled around at the top. His pursuer was almost upon him; he dashed the lantern into its face and rushed through a heavy-paneled oak door into one of the upstairs luxury suites. Slamming shut the door, he noticed a heavy metal latch which he shot into place. Immediately a thunderous impact rattled the door in its frame. The doorknob was twisted and he heard metal snap within the lockset. Next there was a second impact against the door and an upper panel buckled inward but did not give way, as if it had been struck by a battering ram. There was a high-pitched scream of pain—could that be a woman’s voice? Pavel turned and raced in almost total darkness down the hallway. A band of light could be seen beneath the door at the far end. Once past that, he might be able to exit the building and hide among the overgrown bushes and trees in the landscaped yard.

Another explosive noise, and—was it possible?—something seemed to be inside the annular space of the wall on the left side of the hallway. He heard wall studs cracking and breaking at the impact of an irresistible force. He threw open the door in front of him; a flood of daylight entered the hallway. A brief glance over his shoulder revealed a large chunk of plaster falling from the wall and crashing to powder against the floor boards while an ominous moving bulge in the plaster followed in the direction of his flight. Internal boards and studs cracked and splintered as a large body made its passage through the annular space in the wall. It appeared that only the strength of the heavy oak wainscoting prevented his attacker form bursting through the wall and into the hallway. It was the vision of a nightmare.

Pavel ran toward the balcony, fully prepared to hurtle over the balustrade to drop down to the overgrown sward below. He flung open the French door leading to the balcony. With a horrible crash and explosion of plaster, the wall behind him burst outward. He once again whirled around—he could not help himself.

There before him, fatigues covered with plaster powder and the splinters of wall boards, and with a splash of kerosene flaming above the left breast, stood his attacker. Brief as the vision was, he could not be mistaken—the figure was a woman.

* * * * *

The lieutenant saw it first—a cloud of smoke rising above the building Pavel had been assigned to inspect. By the time he and the two remaining soldiers reached it, the entrance corridor was fully involved in flames. He now regretted not investigating the two earlier popping sounds that could have been distant gun shots.

“Pavel, Pavel!” the lieutenant shouted. There was no response. He took a step as if to enter the inferno, then thought better of it.

“One of you, go around the back!” he ordered. “There may be a way in from that side. You, help me here,” he said to the other soldier.

The two of them moved in opposite directions along the ground floor, breaking windows with a shovel and a garden hoe they had found and peering inside the rooms shouting Pavel’s name. They had not proceeded far when the lieutenant heard a voice behind him.

“Sir, it’s no use going in.”

He faced the speaker. It was the soldier who had made the circuit of the building. The lieutenant started—the last time he had seen such a horror-stricken face was when he had led teenage boys into a fire fight for the first time.

“Sir, follow me, you’ll want to see this.” Without another word he led the lieutenant and the second soldier around to the rear side of the building. There, beneath an overhanging second floor balcony with an ornate limestone balustrade lay Pavel’s body. It was nearly unrecognizable, having been crushed and pulverized to a near jelly-like state. The lieutenant observed, high on the right cheekbone, a jagged cut in the shape of a lightning bolt. This wound did not seem to be related to the other injuries.

6. Andrey with the scar

The day after word came back of Pavel’s hideous death, Andrey sat alone in the barracks. He rolled the notice carrying the denial of his transfer request into a tight tube, lit it with a match, and applied it to the tobacco packed in the bowl of his briarwood pipe. He drank shot after shot of straight vodka until his lips pulled back to reveal his horse-like teeth in a sardonic grin.

He held his hand straight out in front of him—it did not quiver.

“Ha, ha,” he laughed. “Ha, ha, ha! For once justice is being done; I thought I would never see the day. Well,” and he rose to his feet, “let’s finish this. If I have to go, I hope it’s my little red-haired vixen who takes me out. Because,” and he wobbled on his feet for a moment before steadying himself, “because of all women I love her best.”

He marched with two duffel bags brazenly into the armory, throwing into them a protective vest, a submachine gun and two ammo belts with a hundred rounds, two handguns, and a battle helmet. He was not able to lay his hands on any grenades, which had been at the top of his list. It is a testimony to the utter lack of discipline among the Soviet occupiers that he was neither stopped nor challenged as he made this unauthorized appropriation of military hardware and walked slowly out of the armory and then the garrison half carrying and half dragging his heavy bags.

* * * * *

Andrey had not forgotten his vodka, and had consumed a dangerous, near lethal dosage when he rose to his feet once more. He had been sitting with his back against the Pacek farm tool shed where all of this had started only two weeks ago. For over an hour he had seen no human beings. His liquor was now gone, he saw no reason to protract things.

He put on his battle helmet, then the protective vest which weighed like lead. He thrust the two handguns into his large pockets, and inserted an ammo belt into the submachine gun, throwing the strap around his shoulders. Being a veteran soldier, he accomplished these preparations successfully in spite of his inebriation.

“Ladies,” he shouted, “or shall I say lady. I’m back. This business between us is not finished. Come out, wherever you are.”

He pointed the submachine gun into the air and fired off a burst of rounds.

“Come out now,” he resumed. You’ve traded kiss for kiss with your other two boyfriends. Now it’s my turn. Best for last.”

He skirted the milling shed and was next to the foundation of the house now.

“I know you’re here watching me. You’ve been watching us all along. You Polish girls can be coy, but no need for that now. We know each other like husband and wife. Like husband and wife, I say, you know it’s true. There are no secrets between us.”

Silence.

“I miss you, you fiery-haired virago. I want to marry you, that’s why I’m here. Ha, ha!”

Time passed, the hot sun beat down on his helmeted head. His mood changed.

“Your friend, the blonde—was she your sister? Now there’s one, I tell you. But she got what she deserved. None of us—your three boyfriends I mean—thought her performance was very good that day. Now, you… that’s another story!”

Andrey suddenly noticed a solitary figure standing at the edge of the wheat field. He did not see how it arrived there. He squinted and began walking toward it.

“You are the most vile scum of creation,” said a woman’s quiet voice.

“Oh, it’s you at last!” Andrey cried. “I knew you would come. Having once tasted, how could you resist!”

“I am going to kill you now,” she said.

“Ha, ha! Maybe that’s better than marrying you after all. Marrying you would be a living death.”

She came for him, and for a moment he was taken aback by the rapidity of her movements. As she darted from side to side in a tacking motion, drawing ever closer, he sent a spray of rounds in her direction. He lost sight of her as the gun stock kicked against him.

“Drunken fool,” she said from her place of concealment. “You have the arms of the Kremlin with you, and I bring only my bare hands. Still, I will kill you now.”

“Where are you?” he muttered, moving in the direction he had lost sight of her.

There was a frenzied motion among the wheat stalks and he discharged a second prolonged spray of rounds into the field.

Suddenly she shot out of the wheat field and ran behind the tool shed. He strafed the shed with rounds until the ammo belt was empty. He suddenly recalled that the other ammo belt was in the duffel bag. Angelika stole out of the shelter behind the shed and raced to the duffel bag. “Are you looking for this?” she said, withdrawing the ammo belt and flinging it into the wheat.

Roaring wordlessly, Andrey threw the submachine gun from him and pulled out the two pistols from his pockets. He began firing at her with both hands. But Angelika had retreated behind the shed again.

Andrey stalked forward, meaning to circle around the shed and flush her out. He told himself that if he could get between her and the field and cut off her retreat he would have her where he wanted her.

As he rounded the corner of the shed he noticed that its door was hanging ajar. “Stupid slut, I have you now!” he yelled triumphantly, running to the doorway. He was convinced that she was hiding inside.

The loud metallic squeak of a hinge caused him to look up in time to see the open shed door swinging toward him with incredible velocity. He half turned; the wooden door slammed into him and exploded into fragments. Andrey was thrown headlong into the shed. The two guns flew out of his hands at the impact of his heavy face-forward fall to the floor. He lost consciousness momentarily, reawakening to his own retching. He wheezed amidst the puddle of vodka he had made, trying to regain the wind that had been knocked out of him. He spit several splinters out of his bloody mouth which he became vaguely aware were broken teeth.

When he was able to direct his attention to external things, he saw before him in the doorway the girl in the mask.

“What’s your name?” he asked thickly, trying to navigate his words around the ruins of his mouth.

“It won’t matter, where you’re going.”

She advanced toward him in a slow, deliberate manner.

Appearing to awaken at last to his predicament, he thrust out his left hand in a placating gesture. “Is there nothing I can do?” he asked, a plaintive quaver in his voice.

“Yes,” she said with silky sweetness. “You can bring back my sister that you stole from me.”

“I can do it! I have the power to do it, to bring her back to you!” With his right hand, which had been hidden from her behind his outstretched arm, he flung the thin-bladed knife that he had withdrawn from a compartment in his boot. The half-obscured light from the doorway was sufficient for him to see the knife sink to the handle in her side below her left breast.

“But you would not like her smell,” he finished in his old taunting tone.

Angelika gasped, fell back a step, dropped to a knee, fought to suck in a breath of air. Then gathering herself, she was on him like a tigress.

7. Epiphany

The moonlight streamed down on the village cemetery that had grown greatly in size over the past six years. The chirping crickets stilled their song at the sound of an approaching footstep. A strange figure came into view. It was a woman dressed incongruently in battle fatigues and wearing an army-issue gas mask. Blood streamed from a wound in her side and she moved as if she were at the end of her strength. She dropped to her knees when she reached the most recent grave site, then unhooked and flung away the gas mask, revealing a face pale with suffering, but filled with a sort of ethereal beauty. Angelika lowered her face to the ground, her spreading auburn tresses looking spectral in the moonlight. Then she wept for the first and last time, her tears mingling with the freshly placed soil over her sister Serafina’s grave.

 

Raifuku Maru

by Roxana Ross

 

1925, somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean

Deep below the ship, something stirred. Vaguely female, she was as old as time and ached with a powerful, dark hunger. Alone in her watery prison, her influence could still reach out. It had been a long time since she’d had companionship and longer still since she’d been able to sate herself. Such was her nature that her emptiness and loneliness constantly gnawed at her, but she could not possess without destroying, and nothing she consumed or destroyed could satisfy either her hollow hunger or her desire for revenge.

Once a goddess, known and feared by every people that ever plied the seas, she was now reduced to a petty, slightly mad, and very trapped entity. She had been bound so long ago that even legends about her had passed from every collective memory except her own. She remembered.

It had been a much shorter time, just three days, since the Japanese freighter Raifuku Maru had left Boston Harbor and headed out to sea. It had been an even more recent time, a few hours before, since any of the 38-man crew knew where they were. Before that, after the coast had slipped over the horizon, a thick fog had risen out of the choppy Atlantic Ocean, despite it being a clear April afternoon.

Unaware of their peril, the ship sailed on without problem until the navigator fell ill, complaining of a massive headache. He stumbled off to his bunk, fighting blurry vision, dizziness, and an almost crippling pain behind his eyes. Unwatched, the needle of the ship’s compass spun around in circles for 30 minutes before anyone noticed.

1945, 20 years later

The roar of the radial engine was so loud that Tom O’Halloran could barely hear the pilot’s voice in his headset, asking for a check of their course. As one of five planes in a training mission, Tom didn’t see why the pilot couldn’t just follow the other planes, but apparently his fellow trainee wanted to do everything by the book to impress the old man. As the plane’s radioman and bombardier, Tom felt he was mostly just along for the ride this time. Today was Tom’s twentieth birthday, and a quick jaunt out and back in formation was not a bad way to spend the afternoon. Hanging out at the beach would have been better, but there was always tomorrow. Spending December in Florida was great.

Fort Lauderdale vanished behind them quickly, leaving nothing but dancing ocean and wide open skies visible from the rear of the plane. Facing backward as he watched the coast disappear, Tom didn’t see the dense, grey cloud until it was around them. The three-man crew soon found themselves lost in the sullen gloom with almost zero visibility. Far below the plane, something stirred.

1925

The ship’s cook, Satoshi, was an ancient, wrinkled, and nearly bald little man who made the sea’s best gyoza dumplings. While he worked in his cramped, steam-filled galley, he kept up a constant muttering of curses, prophecies, and blessings, emphasizing his incomprehensible statements by banging a wooden spoon against the edge of the iron stove.

“Not good, not good,” he moaned, wiping sweat from his brow with a dingy edge of his apron. In front of him a large metal pot of rice bubbled to the point of boiling over, then abruptly calmed. Gingerly, Satoshi lifted the pot lid with a chopstick through the handle. Inside, the rice lay uncooked at the bottom of the water. As he watched, the water began to boil again. This time he didn’t stay to watch, but ran to find the captain.

1945

“The cloud didn’t look this big when we were outside it,” said the pilot, Greg Yosten, his eyes narrowing in confusion. “I could see blue sky on the other side before we went in.”

“Come in, Flight 19, this is Tom. Seems Greg’s gotten this Avenger a little off course. Any of you guys still in the cloud?” O’Halloran heard nothing but static on the radio, which had fallen silent shortly after the bomber entered the cloud.

“All my gauges, everything, they’re all going haywire up here,” Greg’s voice sounded calm in Tom’s headphones. “When we get out of this mess, you may have to read me directions from your old Boy Scout compass to find a heading.”

Tom pulled a little leather box out of his jacket and flipped it open. Inside, the compass needle whirled around, seeking north but not finding it.

1925

Satoshi flung open the bridge door and hurried inside. At the shiny brass wheel stood the ship’s captain, Katsu, who worriedly stared into the endless fog on all sides of the freighter.

“Honorable captain,” the cook began to say.

“Not now, Satoshi-san. We’re having difficulties.”

“I believe our situation is worse than you know, captain.”

The captain, a striking figure in his starched uniform and cap, turned to look at the wizened man who stood before him, reeking of old grease.

“I don’t want to hear any more of your superstitions, Satoshi. Auspicious timing or not, our hold of grain is due across the Atlantic by a certain time. Nor do I believe whatever other nonsense you have for me today.”

The cook, who had joined on with the ship because he believed its name was a good omen, had begun to wonder if the name might also hint at a cursed existence they were now stuck in forever. In Japanese, the name Raifuku Maru could mean “coming full circle” or “returning perfection,” but the problem with circles was that they had no end, and the problem with perfection was that it could never be reached.

“What time is it, Captain? What direction are we going? How far is the nearest land?”

The captain’s watch had stopped shortly after the navigator, a long-time friend named Tomoharu, had fallen ill, but the captain didn’t notice right away as his concern for his friend was replaced with concern for his ship. Checking the clock on the wall, he saw that it had stopped, too.

“My rice pot has boiled three times,” Satoshi said. “Each time, when I check the finished dish, the rice is uncooked and the water cool. Something has happened to us in this fog, and I fear we are more than simply lost.”

Back in his bunk, Tomoharu tossed and turned in agony. Inside his head, a female voice painfully whispered words of loss, hunger, and a desire for a destruction of all things that were human. Convincingly, she told him lies and made her feelings his own. He was nothing in the face of such power. He should give himself, the ship, everything, to her.  To sink to the bottom of the ocean and be with her forever was a fitting tribute to her terrible majesty.

“No… no, I can’t. Stop it, stop it!” he cried. Now her insidious voice changed tone and spoke to him of eternity and loneliness, pleading, and cajoling. He could help. He must help. He was hers, to cherish or destroy.

Tomoharu suddenly knew what to do, but he would need to talk to Katsu. The captain kept the only key to the fuel supply room on his belt. There was enough fuel stored for their journey to blow a giant hole in the ship, big enough to bring them all down to his fearsome mistress. Katsu would understand the need to soothe such awesome pain and sadness, or Tomoharu would make him see. Anything to ease the monstrous agony Tomoharu now felt as his own.

1945

“How long can we go before we need fuel, Greg?” It seemed like they’d been circling in this cloud forever. They had to be circling, somehow getting separated from their formation and now out of radio range.

“Keep your shirt on, birthday boy, you’re not going for a swim any time soon,” Greg answered. He sounded jaunty, but he was beginning to feel a touch of fear. With no working gauges, he had no idea how much fuel they had. They could always bail out in a hurry, but he didn’t want to be known as the trainee who ditched his plane in the ocean.

Back in the turret, David Lorenzo, the plane’s gunner, finally chimed in on the conversation.

“I don’t want to hear any more about this stupid cloud, or fuel. Until the weather changes, let’s talk about something else. Anything else… Tommy, give us all a free Japanese lesson so when we get over there we can tell ’em to kiss our ass in a way they’ll understand.”

Tom had learned some Japanese from a neighbor when he was a child in Hawaii. Since Pearl Harbor, he’d brushed up his rusty phrases and taken a serious interest in learning the language until the Navy put him in a plane instead of an office.

“How about, ‘Hajimemashite,’ instead? That means, ‘nice to meet you,’” Tom said with a grin.

“Nice to meet ya,” David snorted. “Yeah, that’ll do. Right before we blast ’em, make sure you yell, ‘Hajimemashite!’ on the radio. Nice to meet ya, and sayonara!”

Tom began to feel a headache coming on, and he took off his headphones to rub his temples. When he put them back on, they increased the pain so much he almost took them off again, but before he could, he finally heard something on the radio.

“Danger like dagger now. Come quick!” The voice with its broken English on the radio wasn’t from one of the other planes. Not unless there was a Japanese pilot up here with them.

Tom hastily tuned the radio equipment in hopes of finding the voice again. The first sentence didn’t make sense to him, and he mentally translated the word “dagger” back to Japanese while he waited for more. In contrast to the quiet panic that had been building inside him when the plane seemed alone in a void, his found his mind calming down as he went through the possibilities. Futokorogatana meant dagger, but it also meant “right-hand man,” like aikuchi meant “dagger” or “friend.” Oddly, all the words that he knew for dagger also had other meanings. A tanken was a dagger, but also a word that had something to do with time, or exploration, and a tantou was either a weapon or a charge. Dagger was a tricky word.

1925

Tomoharu walked purposefully through the door and stared at the captain, who was sitting at a desk with his book of English phrases, carefully puzzling out a distress message that he planned to broadcast on the radio. When he saw his friend, Captain Katsu felt relief burst inside him.

“Feeling better, Tomo-san? I’m pleased to see it. I need you to help me translate and then we need to figure out how to escape this unnatural fog.”

“We must make a sacrifice to her,” Tomoharu said.

“Have you been talking to the cook? That sounds like something crazy he would say.” The captain set down his pen and took a better look at Tomoharu. “You don’t look well, now that I really look at you. Perhaps you should go back to bed.”

“You don’t understand! She’s out there and she’s alone. Horribly alone. But we can go to her and then she won’t be so sad. By giving ourselves, our ship, to her, we will make her happy.”

“What are you talking about? Are you feverish?” Katsu stood up to feel the navigator’s forehead but jumped back when Tomoharu lunged at him.

“Give me the keys! I’ll show you!” Tomoharu was enraged now, as the voice in his head fought to take control of him. “She wants us, everyone! This ship will be hers, too. Hers to destroy!”

The two friends grappled for a moment before the captain broke free and ran out the door. Outside, the deserted deck was slick and water dripped from every surface in the dense mist. Tomoharu was right behind him and skidded slightly as he gave chase.

“What has come over you, Tomoharu? Why are you doing this?”

The evil grip on the navigator’s mind eased slightly as the pleading of his friend almost broke through to him.

“We—we—we have to… go to her.”

Before he lost complete control again, Tomoharu decided to sacrifice himself in hopes that it would be enough to save his friend and the others on the ship. As Katsu watched in fear and horror, Tomoharu ran straight at the edge of the deck and threw himself over the railing.

For a moment Katsu was paralyzed, and then he dashed to the railing himself, but it was too late. His friend was gone.

The fog, however, was still there. Not fully understanding, but mindful of his duty, Katsu slowly walked back to the helm and shut the door behind him. He had a distress call to make but little faith in its usefulness. Tomoharu had been the one with decent English.

1945

“Katsu…” with a rush of nausea, Tom O’Halloran had visions of another time, another life, when he’d also felt smothered in a grey miasma, so similar to what wrapped the bomber now. Sweat rolled down his face as he turned to look out the window, knowing and dreading what he would see. He could feel her, now, at the edges of his mind.

“Hot damn!” Lorenzo saw it, too. There was a clearing in the fog. And not just a sucker hole, either, but a space that showed all the way down to the ocean. And there, sitting, almost waiting for them, was a big, grey ship flying the Rising Sun flag, the Raifuku Maru.

Like a tunnel meant just for them to find and sink the freighter.

“It’s not a war ship,” Greg said. “What do we do?”

“Hell, it’s a stinkin’ Jap ship, and it’s in the wrong ocean. It could be a spy, or maybe they’ve made up one of theirs to look like somethin’ harmless.”

“We’re coming in range. We can drop a few on them,” Tom said the words with a twist in his gut. He knew now that they were all doomed, but maybe, just maybe, if he gave her the Raifuku Maru this time, as he had refused to do before, she would let them go.

“Ok,” Greg said. “Let’s do this.”

The Avenger’s bomb bay doors creaked open. With a sob, Tomoharu sent down gleaming death into the past to save his present. Hajimemashite, sayonara.