Flash Fiction: Burning Uniform
This weeks challenge gave me the title.
The sounds of fighting were distant, now. The orders alternated between “tactical withdrawal” and “orderly retreat.” He looked down at his leg again and shook his head. He felt fortunate nothing important had been hit by the bullet. Removing his bayonet from the fire, he took a deep breath, grabbed a nearby stick and sank his teeth into it, and dove in. The haze of pain obscured his vision and he had to rely on the sensations in his calf. Mercifully, the bullet was not deep. The proper angle forced the object out, and before he could think better of it, he heated the knife again and pressed it flat against his leg.
The bayonet hadn’t originally been his. He’d lost his rifle somewhere in the scramble after the building had been shelled. As the enemy poured through the streets, his thoughts had not been for tactics or vicious killings, but for the home he missed, the parents he feared disappointing, the wife he’d never see again. He thought of her now as the pervasive smells of blood and powdered rubble were joined by that of his seared wound.
He spat out the stick. Amazingly, his captain looked like he’d just stepped off a parade ground, minus a scratch or two.
“On your feet, Obersturmführer! Why are you out of uniform?”
“I was wounded.” He pointed to the exposed leg flesh under the rolled-up cuff of his trousers. “I could not walk.”
“You must do more than walk now! We must fall back.”
“To what end?” He began rolling down the trouser leg.
“I said, to what end? Think about it, Hauptsturmführer Oberst. The eastern front is collapsing. The Allies are here in France. Our enemies are closing in and show no signs of slowing down.”
“I will not tolerate such an attitude! It is always darkest before the dawn, and the dawn shall come for our glorious Reich! Now, get back in uniform and start marching!”
The lieutenant shrugged and looked at the barrel. His captain narrowed his eyes and peered into it. The dark eyes went wide and he stepped back in horror.
“Adalbert… was ist das…”
“You know, there were those amongst our SS superiors who said it was a mistake to allow a Pollack like me into your ranks. At the time, all I wanted was to prove them wrong. Now I see their assessment was correct.” He drew his Luger. “Yes, I can speak six languages fluently. Yes, I have killed our enemies at range and up close. Yes, I have shaken the hand of the Führer.” He thumbed the safety. “But there will always be the image of my wife being taken from our home burning in my mind. What cowards to come for her while I was at the front.”
Oberst finally saw what Adalbert was doing and went for his own weapon. The pistol went off, a whip-crack breaking the growing quiet of the ruined city. Blood blossomed across the shoulder and chest of the black uniform and Oberst looked down at the wound in shock. Adalbert aimed and fired again, destroying the German’s knee. He collapsed, and Adalbert limped over to take the rifle from him.
“Danke. I had lost mine.”
“You traitorous Schwanzlutscher! I will see you hanged for this!”
“I never did understand this arrogance of yours. Any of yours. How can you consider yourselves so superior when you can’t even look your victims in the eye, and must herd them like cattle into large rooms of death?”
“You stupid Pollack. Do you have any idea how long it would take to kill every last Jew individually?”
“It’s not that hard, Oberst. Let me show you.”
He raised the Luger to Oberst’s forehead and squeezed. At close range the bullet exploded out of the back of the German’s head. The Hauptsturmführer fell backwards and twitched by the burning barrel. Adalbert sighed, holstering the pistol and looking down at the spatters of blood on his white undershirt.
He whipped his head towards the sound, arms going up. Three men in green fatigues approached with rifles aimed. Adalbert’s mind raced.
“Ne tirez pas, s’il vous plaît!”
“Huh. Got us a Frenchie.”
“Nah, look at him, he’s a little swarthy for that, ain’t he?”
“Can it, you two.” The man in the middle lowered his rifle a bit. “You speak English?”
“Yes.” Adalbert kept his hands up. “And, to be honest, I am Polish.”
The middle American raised an eyebrow. “So’s my mom. What’re you doing this far back?”
“I was…” Adalbert looked down at Oberst. “I was resisting.”
“I’d say you did a fine job of it!” One of the Americans gave Oberst a kick.
“Knock it off, Hudson.” The Polish-American slung his rifle. “That leg looks like it could use some attention.”
“Yes, it could. I can walk, though.”
“Good. Hudson, take the platoon forward, hook up with the 101st. Sullivan, you’re with me. We’re taking this man back to HQ.”
“Yes, sir!” Both enlisted men responded at once. Adalbert picked up Oberst’s rifle and slipped his arm through the shoulder strap.
“I’m Lieutenant McManus of the 82nd Airborne.” The American extended a hand, which Adalbert shook.
“You in the service, Kozlowski?”
He looked back at Oberst. “Yes. For my part I simply tried not to die, and to prove I was no coward.”
“Well, no offense, but you’re probably in for a rough time. You’ll need to be debriefed and you’ll likely be considered a POW.”
“Trust me, Lieutenant, compared to this, time with your American debriefing will feel like a vacation.”
“Yeah, well, wait ’til you meet the feds.”
They started back towards the American position. Hudson lead the other men on. Next to Oberst’s corpse, within the barrel, the fabric of the jacket, cap, shirt, tie, and boots became consumed. Old orders and photos crinkled and blackened. The armband burned. Soon, all that remained were charred pairs of silver lightning bolts.