By: Lee Emmons
In his dreams, Hans was twenty-two again. It was dark in the streets. He huddled behind a burned-out car in the ruins of Berlin. The Russians had advanced to a position only a few meters away. He could hear the screams of the Hitler Youth defenders as they lay dying and wounded nearby. Fires raged among the still-standing buildings, casting distorted, monstrous shadows among the rubble.
Hans had removed all SS medals and insignia from his uniform. He knew that men with his background were shot on sight by the Russians. Wiping the grime from his face, he contemplated the end of his life. Surrender was unthinkable. He would rather die than submit to Soviet captivity. Pulling out his pistol, he placed it firmly against his temple.
Against all hope, Hans had believed the tide of the war would again turn in the Fuhrer’s favor. But now, surrounded by the hated enemy, the reality of the war had come crashing down. There would be no miracle weapons, no division of the Allies, only more death and misery. Hans had killed many people; in that he took some small drop of solace.
As he was about to pull the trigger, a soft voice called out to him in German. “Don’t do that, Lieutenant.” The voice belonged to a tall, emaciated figure in civilian clothing. Dark, hypnotic eyes bore into him. Rotting, yellowed teeth were visible in a ghoulish mouth.
Hans pointed the pistol at the man. Only a lunatic would appear out in the open amid house to house fighting. “The Russians are right over there. Quiet down or die here with me.”
The man chuckled. “The Russians are everywhere! I have no interest in dying today. If you come with me, you may live as well.”
He beckoned Hans with a long, bony finger. The German soldier got up as if drawn by an invisible force. The man led him down a debris-strewn side street between two collapsed buildings. Bracing for a hail of gunfire from the Russians, Hans walked unmolested into the shadows.
The strange man stopped and looked Hans over. After a moment of deliberation, he suddenly snapped his fingers. “They will see you again now. You must move quickly.”
Hans ducked down as a Soviet shell crashed nearby. The ground shook as if stomped by a prehistoric beast. “Who are you? What do you want?” He had to yell over the din.
“You can think of me as the friend you desperately need. I want nothing now, but we’ll meet again.” Flashing a grin that chilled Hans’ heart, the man handed over a small felt bag.
Hans took the bag with trembling hands. Inside, he could see dozens of diamonds and colored gems. Looking back up where the man had stood, Hans saw nothing but the empty alley. He was alone.
Getting up, Hans slowly navigated his way to the relative safety of a cratered apartment building. From there, he worked his way back to the edge of the fighting. The boundary of the Third Reich was four teenage defenders holding anti-tank weapons. He called out to them in German. Seeing a lieutenant, they smartly saluted.
Hans ignored their pleading looks and kept walking. Staying in the shadows, he moved away from any human, German or otherwise. The encounter with the strange man had given him hope that he may yet survive the war. He didn’t get far. An SS detachment, looking for deserters to kill, had set up a position two buildings down.
As Hans watched, they shot two men and began stringing their bodies from the nearest lamp post. He hid in the ruins of what had once been a dressmaker’s shop, taking refuge between two wooden racks.
The dream ended there as the old man woke, gasping for air. He wiped the sweat from his clammy skin. Outside, it began to thunder. Looking out the rain-hammered bedroom window, he could see a flicker of lightning in the distance. Standing on ancient legs, he tried to maneuver his way across the hall to the bathroom. At ninety-seven, it was getting hard to move at all.
After completing his business, the man formerly known as Hans climbed back into his bed. His body ached from the effort. Another flash of lightning illuminated the dark corners of the room. He was not alone. A figure emerged from the gloom.
The voice cut across three-quarters of a century. “Good evening, Hans. Or should I call you Peter? It’s a pleasure to see you after all this time.”
The old man felt an unfamiliar panic rising in his throat. “How are you here?” He stammered the words.
Stepping forward, the strange man leered at him. “You always knew I’d come calling. I helped you escape Berlin, now it’s time to pay the debt.”
Losing control of his bladder, the ancient man began trembling. “What do you want?” His voice was barely a whisper.
The skeletal man let out a mirthless laugh. “You’re almost dead. I want nothing from you now. But I will take something.” Clutching a photograph of Hans’ twenty-year-old grandson, the visitor laughed maniacally.
The old man screamed. The sins of the past had finally come home.