Falkeberg was the most depressing place I’d ever seen.
The village was a ghost town, all but wiped out by some earlier battle. Under an empty gray sky, the empty gray streets were littered with debris, the empty gray buildings ravaged by mortar shells. The hands of the crumbling old clock tower were frozen at a quarter to six, and the burned-out hulk of a tank sat in the middle of the town square like some lunatic monument to destruction. Only a harsh winter had shown any mercy for the ruin, obscuring the scars of fire and shrapnel under deep snowdrifts.
It had been two long days and uncounted miles since my squad got lost in the wilderness, separated from our platoon during a firefight. Falkeberg was our first sign of civilization, if not life—and unlike me, the rest of the men were glad to see it. We had casualties, and were short of food and supplies that might be found in the abandoned village. It was practically a Christmas present.
I still didn't like it one bit… but then, I hadn’t been thinking too clearly for days, even before we took off on this forest fiasco.
It all started with a simple letter. For weeks, I had desperately waited and hoped for a word from home before Christmas—but once it finally came, I wished I’d never received it. Because in it, as best she could, Ma broke the news to me that my old dog had died.
I took it hard. Logan was my best friend for as long as I could remember; I grew up with him, and sometimes he was almost more like a brother than a pet. He was always there for me, even when I felt like I didn’t have anyone else. I still carried one of his tags on the chain that now held my own.
Maybe it was easier to mourn for the animal back home than the friends I’d watched die on the battlefield. Whatever the reason, even through the struggles of the days that followed, the loss hung over me until I was sure it had affected my mind. My senses started to play tricks on me; I felt urges I couldn’t understand. It was hard to concentrate, and harder to control my once-even temper. Somehow I knew it was more than a mood, more than just grief or battle fatigue… and it scared me more than the Germans ever could.
The lonely, haunting Falkeberg stirred up those rampant new instincts more than ever. I didn’t understand how or why, but I could taste something wrong in the very air I breathed.
Behind me, the two walking wounded in our party were tending the one man confined to a stretcher. The other three who were able-bodied had fanned out to look for provisions in the deserted buildings. I took the point, and rambled ahead with my rifle in my hands, looking into alleys and doorways for any sign of trouble along the north end of the square. I felt more nerved up with every step I took, but I found nothing on the entire street.
Finally giving in to the idea that just maybe there was no danger after all, I shouldered my rifle and turned to go back to the others.
I never heard the grenade explode. I only felt the pain, a wave of fire that swept over me and through me. Then there was only a red haze in my sight, shouting and gunfire in my ears. I couldn’t move; I couldn’t think.
I could only feel—and the terror was worse than the pain.
The sound of the firefight seemed much more distant than it was. It was all over with very quickly; at least two more grenades exploded, and after the last one, the silence was sudden and complete. I was desperate to move, to raise my head and at least look my killers in the eye, but I could only lie helpless in a pool of my own blood. Even the pain was fading away into a ghastly, crawling sensation, inside and out.
I thought I knew then what it felt like to die… and maybe I did.
Across the square, terse commands and muttered remarks were spoken in German. I heard them unnaturally well. Then booted feet began to crunch back and forth through the snow, taking stock of the destruction, and after a long time I heard someone coming my way.
The pain flared up white-hot as someone kicked my side, and a pale round face leaned into my view, leering like an idiot. I felt rough hands groping over me, looking for something. They found my dogtags and gave a hard pull, snapping the chain.
And then, I snapped.
The rage was even worse than the terror. It took me over, mind, body, and soul, and only afterward was I able to piece together the memories of the things it made me do.
The German was dead before he hit the ground. He lay sprawled in the snow with his neck crushed, my dogtags in his hand, and that cruel mindless grin still pasted on his face. Standing over him, I could smell his blood and mine—and I knew the difference.
Even after months of fighting this war, he was the first man I’d ever killed.
His nearest comrade shouted a warning. I was on him with one leap, and left him bleeding his life away in the snow on my way to the rest of them.
Some of them found their guns in time. I heard the shots, felt the hot shock of the bullets; but I was already hurting, and that little bit more only drove me that much further out of my senses. I saw red in every sense of the phrase—red fury, red blood. More than that, I smelled it, tasted it.
But now I felt nothing.
After that first grinning grave robber, there was only instinct, a thoughtless reaction to the pain. Make it stop—kill or die. Animal feelings and animal deeds, things beyond—and beneath—the human soul.
They had souls. Not one of them tried to run.
Not one of them had a chance.
Something inside finally began to wake up as the last one to hurt me fell lifeless from my grasp. For the first time since that eternity ago when I was just a nervous kid peeking into alleys, I looked around the square, and some part of me finally understood what I saw.
They were all dead—all but one.
That last one, not much older than me, stood with his back against a wall. He had a revolver in his shaking hand. He was staring straight into my eyes… and seeing nothing at all.
A shudder passed through me. The smell of blood threatened to drag me back down into that place again, and with a sudden surge of terror in my gut, I fought it back. Panting hard, every part of me spent, I stared at the soldier and waited. For him to act, for something in me to rise above what I had become—or for it to overwhelm me again and make me tear him to pieces.
After a long time, he lowered his hand, and the gun fell to the frozen ground.
Maybe it was mercy; maybe it was surrender. Either way, it was just the little bit I needed to wrench my soul to the surface. I let out my breath and lurched two steps toward him, even then not sure what I was going to do, but the madness was gone.
He cringed when I moved forward, but he never looked away. I couldn’t read his expression, but somehow I could read his scent—and underneath the fear, there was something like pity.
For all I knew, the bloodlust would come back. If I kept him there, I might kill him, and I didn’t want to do that. Maybe he had done terrible things too, but it didn’t matter. In that moment he was just a scared young man, like I had been.
Like some part of me still was.
Standing face to face with him, I looked him in the eye, and dredged up from my dazed mind the German translation for one word.
His blue eyes got a little wider. Very slowly, he slid sideways along the wall, moving away without ever taking his eyes from mine. Finally, at four yards, he turned and bolted for the woods beyond the village. I watched him until he disappeared—and he never once looked back.
Without thinking, I bent down, picking up his revolver in my bloodstained hands. I fumbled with it for a moment and finally got the barrel open. As I turned it over, six bullets dropped into my palm. The soldier had never fired a shot.
After scrubbing away the blood on my skin with handfuls of snow, I buried my comrades in the churchyard at the edge of the village. The mangled corpses of the Germans were left for my new brethren—the wolves. Though my mind had slowly settled, I still felt the animal instinct lurking just beneath the surface, and my sharp new senses and reflexes now obeyed it over my human will.
But the way I had healed was the most frightening change of all. The pain was gone, the wounds of bullets and shrapnel vanished without a trace. Even the scars of childhood accidents had disappeared as if they never even existed.
I cut my hand while digging the graves, and as I watched the wound close before my very eyes, I wondered numbly what I had become.
Finally I finished what the dead had started, scavenging for food and supplies to take with me when I fled that lonely village and its ghosts. I didn’t know where I would go. I only knew that after what I had done, and how I had changed, I could never face anyone I knew and loved.
When I left Falkeberg, I left behind my life… and with it, still clutched in a dead man’s hand, the dogtags that had cost me so dearly.
On that day, I swore I would never be branded again.
© 2004 Jordanna Morgan -send feedback