DISCLAIMER: All named characters in this story do not belong to me, they belong to the creators and producers and studios that own Xena: Warrior Princess.
THE HISTORY: I am not a historian, or a history major or a major expert on history. This story, first and foremost, is a work of fiction. Not everything depicted in this story is historically accurate, particularly the details pertaining to the Nazi nuclear program. For example: the Nazis never developed a nuclear reactor capable of firing a nuclear bomb. Fritz Houtermans is a real German scientist who worked on fission experiments and developing nuclear technology. However, he did not remain in Germany and joined the war effort in America. Merkers was a mine but not a cover for a nuclear storage facility, etc. etc. I tried to be as accurate as possible without interfering with my intention to explore the effects of WWII. Plus it creates drama, and I know how much you guys love drama
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SPOILERS: THE XENA SCROLLS.
Roused from sleep, her eyes slowly focused and the diluted fog cleared. She looked about confused, the light unchanged, the air of the same frigid, stale quality that hung inside the little room. There was nothing to suggest it was morning or that any time had passed at all, except for the key that turned in the lock and the emergence of a figure behind it with two cups of coffee. Melinda stood, smoothed her clothing with nervous, controlling hands and looked about embarrassed as Jack offered her a mug.
She took it gratefully, stared back at him jaded. He scanned the room, saw Janice sleeping and took the other coffee for himself. Beside the bed, the empty bottle of cognac sat next to glass tumblers stained with rust coloured smears. His eyes narrowed at Melinda as she rushed out of the room. He followed, locking the door behind him and turned to see her beneath the soft light in the cellar, shadows arched across her tall frame, eyes downcast.
He walked in front of her and waited for her to respond, sipping his coffee gingerly. She refused to look at him and stared at the stone ground. He lost his patience.
"You were drinking last night?" Jack asked, an irritated edge in his voice. She merely nodded. He ran a hand through his hair and sighed, "You know you shouldn't be drinking." Melinda nodded, rubbed her forehead with slender fingers and took a sip from her coffee.
"Melinda, it's not that I don't trust you, it's-"
"You care " she replied in a low voice, "I know." He shuffled his feet and bit his bottom lip, swallowed his coffee in loud gulps. He decided to change the subject, gone weary of the silence.
"How is she doing?"
Melinda took a sip of her coffee, the lingering bitter taste in her mouth made her want for the sharp, warm cognac, "Very well, considering what she's been through. I can't even imagine "
"She was well cleaned up before you saw her," Jack said, looking back at the room, "I saw her straight out of a fight."
"She handled herself well enough in Greece "
Jack shook his head solemnly, "No this was different."
The thought echoed in her mind and nausea pulsed through her forehead. Melinda knew it was true. Life was different. Janice changed, and for all the nights and days spent together, she did not know what had become of her friend. She was told there was a fire at the hotel in Greece, that Janice Covington's room was destroyed. The Janice she knew was a dissolving memory.
She too, had changed. Melinda Pappas, the quaint American girl. Usurped. Ruined by war and murder and heartache. But Jack took care of her. His compassion drew her to him and his fierce devotion kept her at his side when she could not fathom being alone.
"She was a wreck."
Melinda blinked, hearing Jack's voice in her conscious, shrugging off her reverie. "She needs rest," she said.
Jack nodded, placed two fingers beneath Melinda's chin to tilt her face toward his. Their heights a perfect match, he rested his forehead upon hers, exotic brown eyes staring level at cold, piercing blue. He placed a hand on her upper arm, rubbed gently with his thumb and kissed her cheek. Her gaze was forlorn, hinted with suffering and he spoke softly to console her. "She'll be fine."
She managed a slight nod, paralysed by the lie. He bushed his lips against hers; a languid, familiar warmth. She tried to relax into it, to crave the sensation of it as she had countless times before. The contact broke and a peculiar guilt surfaced, collected thick at the back of her throat. Unnerved, she turned from him, edged toward the stairs. He sipped his coffee and followed. It was better not to pry.
"What time is it?" She asked, glassy eyes toward the wooden staircase that led to the kitchen and larder, to the bar countertop and the café floors where soldiers and citizens mingled, shared in sympathy and loathing, divided by loyalties.
"7:30," he mumbled, mouth latched onto the rim of the coffee mug.
She sighed. "The café will be open soon. What needs to be done?"
"Not much. I'm sure Ben and Helen could use your help with the inventory. I'm going to start more baking."
Empty footsteps on hollowed maple creaked, bodies ascending to the world outside, welcoming into their consciousnesses the faces of customers deformed by worry and wear. The usual clients would arrive: friends, acquaintances, resistance members that were only boys and men and women of the village with little to offer other than a few marks and grieved smiles. They would share knowing glances and secrets between them, swap information and plans through code and signals, and delight in the comfort of Jack's home-cooking. A bottle of wine brought genuine laughter when they could afford it, authentic warmth in the pit of their bellies -the aching sweetness of mundane acts that brought a little delusion. A little hope. Their sons were not dying at the Russian front. Their friends were not disappearing, sent packing on rail lines. The weakened enemies would fall, and the blame would fall on someone else. Shut the cacophony of violence outside glass doors and take in the comfort of a haven contained.
The Nazi soldiers would come in, and some were quite agreeable. Guided by the grip of trauma, they would sit, in packs, hateful eyes upon them. They were the transfers from the Russian front. They cowered beneath the General and ached for escape, kept their silence for their paychecks and went home. In the privacy of an empty café and under the influence of drinks, their pain would surface, grieved and shrunken eyes that sunk into their brains, staring at candle centerpieces unblinking as the flame flickered on the wick. Their uniforms cleaned of blood, there was something they had seen, a horror that they would not share. War was alive in their heads as they looked back with tortured children's eyes, boy's eyes. Youths with baby fat on their faces hid behind their SS caps. Another drink, Jack, they'd say with wavering voices or, You there, boy! A drink! Good boy. Strong Austrian boy. Or Helen -Melinda, the usual please. I'll drink to you. Bella ragazza!
Then the Nazi General would barge in with his customary crowd of the worst kind: soldiers that shot the light bulbs out to spare their aggravated hangovers. They were old and young, smart and stupid, German and a fair-haired, blue-eyed Jewish man of privilege that despite his power, brandished on his lapel the mark of the yellow star. Juden. When they came in, Ben would hide in the wine cellar and Melinda with him, for the General craved their attentions the most: they were easy to provoke and humiliate. Jack endured the General's petty torments while Helen served his company drinks and food. Other Nazi soldiers sunk into the corners or turned their backs with stiffened shoulders: afraid, disgusted, embarrassed. The Jewish man, a snitch for the Nazis, would belittle Jack, the Jewish looking man, he'd say. And he'd let everyone know that he was better, of course, than Jack the peasant, the stuttering fool, the haggard little man, and when he was drunk enough: the beggar who fucked that Austrian whore. Jack would ignore them, scurry back to the bar knowing that each of the officers knew Melinda well: all the details of her body down to its faintest scars.
Melinda cleaned the bar countertop and sighed dejectedly as she arranged the empty tumblers and porcelain mugs in a line. Ben, with his white apron, notepad and pencil tucked into the front pocket, walked over to the front door, wiped the long, blonde bangs from his eyes and turned the display window sign to 'Open'.
Splayed on the bed, Janice stared bleakly at the ceiling. The sheets wrapped around her body pinned her to the mattress, tightly wound around her legs and torso. A captive in the castle, she filled her mind with thoughts of escape. But in asylum, she grew bored.
The atmosphere in the tiny room rarely changed and she would listen for the voices above her head, the calamity of footsteps and the muffled drone of a radio perpetually tuned to news on the German front, nationalists yelling through the little speaker. Earlier, Melinda brought her lunch and cleared up the dishes when she was done. With lunch came an array of books that Mel took from the bookshelves in her bedroom.
"Got you some of my old books to read," she said, "I'm afraid that's all I can bring you without arousing suspicion. All of those books would be burned if they found them. Be careful with them." Janice thanked her and after Melinda locked the door, she scoured the stacks of books, eyes consuming the titles and authors as she thought of what to read:
- Ulysses, Joyce is too complicated. Swann's Way, Proust is too French. The Picture of Dorian Gray, sounds boring. The Odyssey, I've read it. A Farewell To Arms, no
She lifted the heavy stack to reveal the last book, a hunter green hardcover over yellowing, fibrous pages. War Poets: A Collection. Her brows furrowed and she opened the cover to the index where the names of the poets were listed: Hemingway, McCrae, Owen, Sassoon, above the embedded print was scribbled in faded ink: Jack. She ran her tongue along her bottom lip. Poetry from the first war. Her lungs strained, anxiety invaded her body. She turned to another page, examined the index. The titles flared out of the paper, pained words stained with patriotism, trembling hands that sought to find glory in their suffering. Or perhaps they were all outraged, all mirrors of the horror reflected in her mind, aflame with the rage of Caliban: the morbid epiphany of truth.
Janice tossed the book at the end of the bed and it bounced across the mattress, landing open on its spine. She dared not look, reached for Wilde instead and became absorbed in the elaborate prose; read to drain away the listlessness in her bones, moving onto another novel when she finished.
Hours passed into the night as she wandered into sleep with her dreams consumed by portraits of twisted souls and disfigured heroes. Time melted into moments of quiet and fear, lapses of distorted images and consuming dread. She imagined her own face, the tortured mask it bore and wondered if she would ever escape her tormented history. Bars appeared around her, enclosed her in a cage as panic flooded her chest, heart beating wildly. She gripped the bars and rattled them, cold iron numbing her skin. They would not give. Beyond them, dark oblivion and danger looming, camouflaged predators watched from the shadows.
She collapsed at the bottom of the cage, felt the frozen stone beneath her exposed skin. Her eyes travelled down to her hips, searched out the poorly sewn stitches on her pelvis. She lifted her shirt to expose the wound and saw her flesh: hollow and empty of organs. The gash was clean of blood, covered in plastic-like lacquer that shimmered as she turned her hip to look through the gaping hole to the ground. Panicked, she covered the void with a hand, disoriented and afraid, hoping the missing flesh would reappear if she ignored the striking ugliness. Her eyes searched frantically but the cage was empty. Air and stone. Her hands groped the ground for something to hold onto, palms gathering handfuls of dust as fear swelled to overtake her. And then warmth enveloped her, spooned behind her as slender arms encircled her. Comfort.
Moist breath on her neckline, behind her ear, made the hair on the back of her neck rise. Her hand reached out and felt the smooth flesh of a warm, naked thigh. Her fingers trailed upward, fascinated by the heat and the blood flowing beneath the flesh, the live pulse that ticked through solid muscle. Her body transitioned, unable to feel the cold ground as she was cradled. Incubated. Her fingertips reached a sharp pelvic bone and flared hips. She turned in the embrace, yearning to see behind her, and as she moved, the figure shattered.
Awake. The bed was empty; stale air pervaded the shallow lit room, the buzz of the light bulb filled her ears. At her feet, a pile of books strewn beside her ankles, spines creased and pages scoured for content. The open book of war poetry sat vulnerable, unperturbed by the disarray or her unconscious movement. She remained still, shrouded in the cotton sheets that wound tightly around her in fever-sleep.
The morning passed without incident, the familiar droning of footsteps and customers' voices filled her ears. Melinda brought Janice breakfast, tried to start a conversation and was called back onto the café floor. Janice accepted it without much thought; reality began to set its form. Like the morning and night before, she sank her teeth into hearty bread dipped in thickened broth, the flavour rushed onto her tongue as the sponge-like bread melted in the heat. She ate and read throughout the day, tuned out the sound of the buzzing light. She was rarely visited except for Melinda bringing her food and coming back to clean up dishes. She filled her mind with the familiar tales of Odysseus, reading the words she'd read before to assuage her boredom.
Time became a complex quantity, defined by the appearance of food but otherwise stretched beyond recognition. As the dinner hour approached, Janice became impatient, paced the room. She raked her brittle nails across dry skin. Her breathing grew heavy. She envisioned her veins, parched and shriveled. Weak blood, weak blood. Her heart raced. As she turned, each wall became a copied blur of the other. Reality was slipping away from her, twisting into a whirl of confusion and madness. She needed air. Something new, something unlike the stale poison circulating the little room. She wanted the biting cut of frost or the unbearable thickness of heat: anything but the same air she breathed, any place but the cellar room.
Suddenly, footsteps snapped her attention toward the door. Counting the footsteps, she measured several bodies but lost count. Anxiety rose up from her gut. Stomping feet echoed flatly on the stone. Combat boots and rubber soles. Hushed voices and then a door closing at the top of the staircase: the larder exit to the cellar. She heard them approach, felt the static essence of live bodies poised in waiting, gathered outside her door. Predators. She pressed her palms flat against the door, felt the presence of the living flesh outside, bodies with vivacious pulses reverberating through the air and stone and metal.
The wine rack shifted away from the door as the lock was invaded, scratched about inside, and the tumblers noisily turned. Rusted hinges groaned in sloth, loathe to be put to use, and Janice felt her pulse lump in her throat. Her hands tightened into fists. She would kill them if they dared to touch her again. She would not be taken back to the castle. She would not be taken.
From the doorframe, a man in gray peasant clothing emerged, short trench coat radiated the scent of winter air, cedar trees and snow. Curt, greasy-brown strands stuck out of his workman's cap. Fang-like teeth shined chipped and disfigured behind thin lips. Ice-blue eyes regarded her with a hint of mockery. He lifted his cap and brought it next to his heart, bowed toward her, "Good evening, your Majesty."
Jack appeared in the doorframe and booted Braun in the ass. "Enough, Braun," he said, edging into the room.
Braun rubbed his backside with both hands and turned to scowl at Jack, "Ah, Guinevere, your knight hath arrived."
Jack ignored him, approached Janice casually. "How are you feeling?"
"Fine," she replied, hid the vertigo and ebbing adrenaline, "what's going on?"
Braun piped up from behind them, "Didn't tell her, eh, Jacky? What kind of Galahad are you? Fear not, Miss. French aren't you? Ol' Jacky-boy is what you might call en retard."
The corner of Janice's lips turned up in the beginnings of a smile and she pursed her lips to disguise it. Jack crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes at Braun. "She's American," he mumbled.
"Ah! American, eh?" Braun said, returning the knife-like gaze, "Well then, that makes much more sense! Tearing through a Nazi castle alone! And I thought she was the Lady Réjane, when she was really Annie Oakley!"
Braun turned and headed into the wine cellar, gesturing at Janice and Jack to follow him. Janice approached the doorway, and paused, turning to Jack, "Does he ever stop?"
Jack grimaced, "Unfortunately no. But he's a damn good soldier, and a good man. Seems he was born a jackass though."
Janice nodded, her posture stiffening. Patting Jack on the shoulder, she spoke freely, "Thanks for helping me back at the castle. I owe you big time "
"No," Jack waved his hand in the air, "no you don't. Did what I had to do."
He offered her a kind smile and she returned it, walking out of the room to join the congregation of men in the center of the wine cellar. All stood, peasants, arranged in a tight-packed semi-circle crowded around Braun. He stood at the front of it as though on stage. Helen sat at the back on spare café chairs with Melinda. Jack and Janice moved toward them, and Helen caught them approaching. Melinda followed her diverted gaze and found the two struggling through the crowd. Janice met the fascinated stare and caught Mel's infectious smile. Jack walked slightly ahead of her, and when Melinda rose to greet them both, he planted a loving kiss on her lips. Melinda blushed and turned away from him as he greeted Helen with a friendly grin. Melinda stole a glance at Janice and saw her staring at the front of the crowd.
She walked beside Janice, brushed her shoulder.
"Hullo, Mel," Janice said and her eyes lingered on her.
"Janice," Melinda smiled back coyly, reading the expression.
"Are you gonna tell me what's going on or do I have to keep guessing?" Janice crossed her arms in front of her chest.
"Well... " Melinda began, rocking on her heels.
"Alright! Quiet, the lot of you animals!" Braun yelled over the crowd.
Melinda leaned in close to her and whispered, "You're one of us now."
"Tonight's the big night," Braun continued, "Time to take one back for the true Germans! Genuine sons of the Motherland! I take it you boys brought equipment?" The peasants nodded; some proudly revealed the gamut of weapons hidden beneath their peasant trenches and cloaks.
Braun looked around approvingly, "Good! Pray you don't have to use them. Though, these are desperate times and desperate men must do what is necessary to survive but for Lady Luck to offer us relief! Tonight we take what we like. Antibiotics. Food. Ammunition. Take it all. The storehouse in the woods is just outside the village walls. We're going to destroy it. It's guarded. Naturally. But the Nazis will be preoccupied with a little distraction cooked up by our very own Prinzessin eh, Melinda?"
The peasants snickered and turned toward her in the crowd. Melinda blushed and bowed her head in acknowledgement. Braun gestured toward Janice from the front of the assembly, "America sends us gifts! Uncle Sam is generous indeed. For not only do we have the beautiful Melinda and our darling marksman Jack, but a Nazi slayer! A pile of Nazi corpses, or so legend has it, lie dead at the hands of this woman. What soldier is more a hero than this? She will accompany us through the woods as part of our infantry."
Dissenting voices and groans echoed off of the cellar walls. Janice scanned the crowd, eyes narrowing, and crossed her arms over her chest as she listened.
- Surely, you're joking, Braun!
- A woman in the infantry?
- Look at how frail the young girl is! How small!
- Melinda is of different stock. An exception. Women were not designed to handle war.
"Silence the lot of you, savages!" Braun shouted above them, "You should be sent to the Congo to get your hands cut off! We have Jack's word that the girl is a natural killer!"
- You are mad, Braun.
"America sent this woman here," he said, "there must be something precious about her. Yes, precious like gold. Greedy again, that rich Uncle -wants something from us. But first they will have to give us a little incentive " The crowd went silent.
Jack frowned, "What are you talking about, Braun?"
"Come now, Jacky, just a little business. But I'm afraid that will have to wait... for now she needs an identity in case she is discovered." His eyes searched for hers in the crowd, and when he found Helen sitting on the bench, he directed his speech at her, "You are responsible for forging the young woman's papers. Make her German." Helen nodded.
"Is that alright with you, fair lady?" He said with an exaggerated bow toward Janice.
She sneered, "It will have to do now, won't it?"
"Good," he said clapping his hands and rubbing them together, "then it's settled. Melinda! Gather together a team that will go with you to the square. Preferably soldiers with a good arm. You know how easy it is to miss with potato mashers."
The crowd dispersed; men surrounded Melinda vying to be chosen. She looked for Janice and grabbed her wrist before she vanished into the crowd. Leaning close, head bent, she was aflame with anxiety, "Come back safe." Janice covered Melinda's hand with her own but did not reply. She turned away and ascended the stairs to join Jack and Braun.
Jack surveyed the gathering soldiers in the kitchen; the sound of loading guns clicked in the semi-quiet as each man concentrated on preparing his firearm. Braun handed Janice a loaded pistol and winked at her. Janice rolled her eyes and took the gun. He chuckled, stared at her intently, "The Ice Queen melts "
Janice tilted a pistol toward his chin.
"Don't waste your bullets, your Highness," he quipped, "I'm merely the royal clown."
The corner of her mouth turned up in a menacing grin, "Then, peace! You rogue."
He smiled broadly, eyes bright, "Aha!" He winked, "As witty a piece of Eve's flesh as I've ever seen!"
She smiled genuinely, "Shakespeare?"
He nodded, "Is it not a requirement in America? Fine Art, I mean."
Her expression soured.
"Well at least you're not illiterate." He smirked, and snapped a magazine into a Luger pistol. "Jack has faith in you," he said. She stared at him, unsure of his sincerity.
He smiled enigmatically, "Jack and Melinda cannot both be wrong."
"Melinda?" Her brows furrowed.
He nodded. "One would think you were some messiah, the way she speaks of you of your exploits in Greece."
The war had not destroyed everything. "Idealism, of course," he continued, "there are no saints anymore. No heroes."
"I think we have enough," Jack said, walking over to Braun and counting the bodies in his group. "We should leave. Melinda will be heading to the square."
"To the woods, then!" Braun said merrily, holding his pistol aloft. He walked toward the front door and peeled it open, pressed his body along the doorframe and peered down the street. Finding it vacant, he signaled the rest of the men to follow. Jack and Janice stepped out, searching for targets. Braun stepped down onto the cobblestone street and the men filed out, eyes probing the shadows for danger. The last soldier shut the door; adolescent eyes burning with ambition beneath his dark cap. And behind the experienced soldiers, Ben stealthily followed. For manhood. For glory.
They wound through the labyrinthine streets, through the shadows, keeping far from the reach of the streetlamps. Footsteps silenced by layers of snow and mud, they entered the woods through the back passages of the bordered village. Flashlight beams flickered on the horizon, paralleled and tossed from side to side scouring the darkness. Braun gestured toward the group and backed into the shadows. They waited. Officers in the distance were approaching.
A noise from inside the village walls erupted with a cloud of orange fire, the ground rumbling from the force of an explosion. The flashlight beams whipped in the direction of the noise as they bobbed in the hands of the Nazi officers. The men barked orders at each other, scrambled toward the gates in confusion and rage. First two. Then four. Then another, loading rifles as they ran.
Jack swallowed. Melinda's distraction. He removed the Luger from its holster and walked up to Braun, shared a knowing glance. Minutes passed as they secured a path. Braun led, followed by Jack and then Janice, scurrying between the trees, seeking refuge behind dead trunks and large cedars. Janice signaled: all clear. Braun gestured toward the rest of the men. Ducking into the darkness, they travelled quickly. The storehouse was in the distance ahead.
It was small, made of rows of cedar trunks and slabs of cedar wood, reminiscent of cabins in the Alps. Jack and Braun walked the perimeter. It was deserted. Janice surveyed the doors, quickly unhooking the open padlock and dropping it into the snow. With the aid of the other peasants, she pulled open the heavy doors and they raced inside with the thrill of adrenaline in their veins, gluttonous eyes coveting the shelves of medicines and bread and firearms. They did not steal for relief, taking as people deprived of care or luxury. It was sabotage. Defiance. Anger. Power. They wanted it all. They wanted it back.
Jack and Janice stood at opposite ends of the storehouse watching for guards. Braun sauntered into the complex, a smile forming on his lips as he reverently perused the busy Resistance. He swayed slightly as he walked, the arrogant manifestation of revenge about him, nostrils flaring with his new authority. The men were scrambling; frenzied hands clawed at the supplies, clumsy movements broke glass vials of medicine and shattered bottles of wine. Destruction. He inhaled a savoured breath, his smile broadening, voice whispering,
"Now is the winter of our discontent "
His eyes landed on a shorter figure, unfamiliar to him in profile. Braun frowned. The face was too young. Curiosity struck the youth, and he turned to face Braun, arms full of stolen supplies. Braun's eyes narrowed at the boy and he turned to head toward the door, approaching Jack.
"Are we so uncivilized as to enlist children in our infantry, Jack?" Braun asked, flicking a piece of food from his teeth.
Jack stared at him incredulously, brows furrowed, "No."
"Then why is that boy of yours rummaging about in the storehouse, eh?"
"That Benjamin," Braun said casually, amused as the horror appeared on Jack's face, "Blonde. Quick on his feet. Hardworking. A good boy. Hardly have to wait for an order at the café before he's back at my table with it "
Jack cursed, pushed Braun aside and headed into the storehouse. Braun continued to talk into the air, voice and manner caustic, "Oh, but these enemies of mine bring them here and slay them in my presence!"
Jack scanned the storehouse and located the boy instantly. He lumbered toward him, furious and afraid, "Ben! What the hell are you doing here!?"
Ben started and swallowed, bit his lip. He straightened his body to stress his size, looking up to meet Jack's angry gaze.
"I'm defending my German honour," he said simply, "by helping the Resistance. By helping you and Melinda, and Helen."
"Goddammit, Ben, you know it's too dangerous. You shouldn't have come here!"
"I am not a child anymore, Jack! I'm fifteen! To my father and to God, I am a man. This is my first chance to defend my country."
Jack sighed, bit the inside of his cheek as he thought of a response, "A man should be at home protecting the people he loves."
"I cannot protect all that I love when I am caged."
"Does Helen know you're here?"
"She'll find out soon enough."
"She's going to be furious with you!" Spittle flew from Jack's mouth.
"She'll be pleased when I come home a hero."
Braun wandered into the storehouse, carrying a bag of empty glass bottles, rags and lighter fluid. He began to fill each one, stuffing the rag into the bottleneck after filling the bottles halfway. He passed each Resistance member, mumbling to them, and they turned to exit the storehouse, arms clutching bags of supplies. He looked toward the doorway as Janice approached. She followed the Resistance to protect them.
Braun approached Jack and Ben, thrusting a pair of bottles at Jack's chest.
"Excuse me, for barging in -I do believe that neither of you shall be heroes or asses unless we live through the rest of the night. So unless you would like to continue this conversation in hell "
He turned to Ben, "You are to follow Little Jean and her band of merry men toward the café "
To Jack, "And you are going to help me torch the place."
Jack opened his mouth to protest, but closed it, feeling uneasy as the minutes lagged on.
"Go, Ben," he said staring down at the boy.
Jack fixed his vision on Ben for as long as he was able, watching him assimilate into the crowd of Resistance members. Janice flinched as she recognised him. She looked back at the storehouse with hesitation, but seeing only darkness, returned her attention to the group.
She crouched low, walked ahead of them to clear a path. Standing guard at the storehouse, the sight of explosions disturbed her. Melinda. How long had she been there? Ten minutes Fifteen. There were too many guards that ran into the village. Her thoughts gnawed at her. She stopped and let the group continue to the café, turning back into the chaos.
Braun lit the end of the rag and tossed a glass bottle through the storehouse window. He heard the bottle smash on the wooden floor and the voluble gust as the flames ignited on the oil, bathing the cabin in flames. He lit another one and tossed it through the front door. Around the back, Jack did the same, lighting and throwing petrol bombs until the flames stormed through the windows toward the roof. He met up with Braun.
"Let's get out of here," he said, "The Nazis will see the fire."
Braun and Jack began to jog toward the stone walls that bordered the town, feet crunching on the snow. Jack glanced at the fire, apprehension creeping into his face. He turned to Braun as they jogged.
"You know. I didn't check for explosives in that shed."
Braun chuckled, "Ah, Jacky. The Jew in you always expects the worst. If there were explosives in that shack, these hawk's eyes would have seen them!"
Immense heat erupted at their backs; a violent force launched them off of their feet and into the snow. The debris cascaded down around them, burning, caught in the tree branches and set the cedars aflame. The embers burnt their skin, the flash from the explosion left their flesh reddened. Braun cursed. Jack turned to him, fuming,
"Fucking hawk's eyes, eh!"
Braun recovered slowly, "Curse me all you want! We set out to destroy the storehouse and look-" He waved his hands toward the rubble, "See? Destroyed!"
"The whole forest is going to burn!"
"Long enough for us to get back to the café undetected!"
The two men staggered to their feet, looking up with widened eyes as they stared down the shaft of a gun barrel. It clicked; a bullet launched into the chamber. Live.
A Nazi officer.
"Turn around and put your hands up."
Jack glanced terrified at Braun, "You ever get tired of being wrong?"
"Shut up!" The officer barked. "No talking!"
Jack and Braun glanced at each other briefly and faced away from the officer. Jack swallowed repeatedly, chewed on his bottom lip as his hands trembled. Braun stared down at the snow.
The officer's eyes absorbed the scenery in haste. He aimed the gun, "The famous Resistance, is it?" A sneer. "I'll only need one of you."
Jack squeezed his eyes shut. Braun was silent.
A gunshot sounded from behind him. Jack heard the body drop. He clenched his teeth, hissing breaths laboured through the barrier. He opened one eye, stared to his right. Braun was kneeling with his eyes shut tight, mumbling to himself quietly. Jack's brows furrowed and he turned to look behind him.
The Nazi officer lay in the snow, the contents of his head spilling onto the ice and mud. Beyond him, Janice bounded forward with a Luger at arm's length. She slipped along the moistened ground, reached them panting and bent over, resting her weight on her knees. Braun turned around, the realisation of what transpired behind him gradually surfaced on his face.
"Aha! Lady Luck!" He got to his feet with a wide grin on his face, "Not so vindictive as I thought her to be, though a bit shorter than I expected... "
"You're welcome," She replied and offered a hand to Jack as he stumbled to his feet.
As Braun urged them forward; Jack gazed at Janice reverently, "Now we're even."
She smiled, "Let's get out of here."
The forest burned in patches. Fires spread from the tops of trees to the watery snow around the trunks. Alarms blared from the speakers posted around the village wall and the lookouts. They watched the Nazi soldiers floundering. Trucks sped from the mouth of the stone wall onto the mud, loaded with more officers, a fire hose and water tanks. As they slipped inside the stone perimeter, Janice looked toward the town square, searching for a sign of Melinda's crew. Each time she glanced toward it the square was empty. She watched Jack, noticing he too impulsively turned in the direction of the square, worry etched into the creases of squinting brown eyes.
"She's probably at the café," Janice whispered to him.
"Probably," he replied, still staring in vain.
He turned back and saw that Braun had disappeared far ahead of them. He swallowed, unnerved, heard the shouts and the chaos that emanated from the forest. The reckless mission would have consequences. They might all have been compromised. And Ben, too young to be fighting would have already seen too much, and Helen was going to seethe at him for letting the boy go along. And Melinda
Jack stopped suddenly, craned his neck to hear. Footsteps. His eyes darted to the corner, saw the emerging shadow projected from the streetlamps on the cobblestones. He only had a moment. He turned, seized Janice and backed into the shadows: a narrow alleyway where he barely fit them both. His hand clamped over her mouth, stifled her protest. She struggled as he held her down.
Confused at first, Janice resisted him, stared at him peculiarly and opened her mouth to speak. The hand came up and covered her mouth. She felt the pressure of it at the corners of her lips, the restraint blocking and holding. She blinked; the water behind her eyes collected and wiped clean the contents of her vision. The streets dissolved and the darkness, the lights and the smell of smoke became nothing. She felt hard metal pressed at her back and behind her head, flat and uncomfortable. Her nostrils flared with the scent of tin and steel and copper, a chemical that she could not name. At the pressure on her mouth, the taste of earth and rot was wedged onto her tongue with a piece of wood that the guard forced across her lips, pushed down until the corners of her mouth ached.
And then she saw him. The doctor with the white curls that bubbled from his bald head, the white coat, the cold eyes, the gloves and the scalpel. He spoke in German but she was too frightened to understand him. The blade had her attention. The waistband of her trousers was cut with scissors, a little patch removed to expose her pelvis. A light, hot and blinding above her forehead bore into her eyes, drove her to look down and stare at the little blade descending onto the soft flesh. She screamed and tossed her head. More words in German. Inexplicable pain. A line of scarlet emerging slowly, slowly beneath the blade.
She collapsed in his grasp and Jack grunted as he felt the sudden weight. The soldier had past the alleyway in haste. They were hidden. They were safe. His hand left Janice's mouth and he turned her in his arms, whispered to her, shook her a little. Nothing. He swallowed, panicked, looked for signs of breathing. She was pale, her eyes closed. He repeated her name. Nothing.
Jack cursed and lifted her into his arms, manoeuvred through the alley into the streets. He could not get to the town square with her. He had to get back to the café. She was breathing, he noticed, as he kept a brisk pace through the winding paths, wandering through the shortcuts, up and down stone stairs in the light. If he was discovered, he would say she was injured by the explosions. Some civilian casualty. A victim of sabotage. He ducked into another lane.
Dread seized him and he glanced up from his feet. A truck revved as it turned into the top of the road ahead of him. Between the white high beams a figure stood, illuminated in silhouette and petrified. The truck barrelled onward and the engine filled his ears.
"Hey!" He called to the figure ahead. "Move out of the way!"
But there was no answer. He tried again, struggling with Janice in his arms. The truck came closer. Jack moved himself away from harm, holding Janice close to him. Before the silhouette hit the front of the truck, another came from the shadows and pushed him out of the way. The hero slammed against the bumper and the grill, rolled beneath the tires, flattened once and then again. Crimson tracks marked the vehicles path, and the break lights flared in the darkness. A Nazi jumped out, and his head snapped up at the live figure standing over the other. Jack saw their faces and on impulse ran into the street, driven by profound terror.
Ben stood over the body, stricken and shaking. He stared: a dull glance that mixed numbness with denial. He did not see the Nazi approach. The Nazi looked down and saw the man bleeding with limbs broken and obtusely twisted, head crushed and gaping and inflamed. A mask of horror overcame him and he looked from the boy to the body and back. The Nazi glanced up at Jack and their eyes met. They knew each other. He frequented the café. A good customer. A quiet man, the Nazi soldier.
Jack saw agony spread across the hardening mask of the soldier's face, but he turned away quickly, his fear directed at the body. Jack swallowed as tears gathered in his eyes, his throat was raw. He ran his hands through Janice's short hair absently, searched for comfort. He gripped her tighter. She whimpered. Brains and skid marks and entrails. The dead body was Braun.
"I'm sorry, Jack," the Nazi said, and he looked at him imploring.
Jack simply stared, tears slipping down his cheeks as he felt the cold pinch of winter air upon his skin. Ben began to weep, full of fear, guilt and confusion. The Nazi frowned, saw Janice and then looked back at the body. Then the boy. In his throat, he felt the bile rise, his mind struggling to ascertain the truth. It returned to him, an echo in his head: it was his fault, his fault completely. He hesitated and then turned on his heels, running for the truck, abandoning the scene behind him. The engine revved and the gears huffed as the vehicle sped off into the forest: the paramedic truck rushing to bring the firemen aid.
The sounds of anarchy outside the village walls seemed somehow muffled in Jack's ears. He was still staring. He glanced up at Ben, tried to remember what it was he was doing. He had to get the boy home. And Janice. His responsibilities. He remembered. With a shaking voice he instructed Ben, nudged him forward when the boy would not move.
"Braun?" Ben said as he glimpsed down, tears turning his vision into blotches of colour.
"We have to get back to the café, Ben."
Ben stumbled a little as Jack pushed him onward. The boy hardly moved.
"Please, Ben, my friend is sick."
"He's sick. Do I get the doctor?" The boy looked up at him, delirious.
"Braun is dead, Ben," Jack said, pushing the boy again, "We have to go."
"No he's not. No, no, he's not. He needs a doctor."
He would kick the boy if he had to but Ben obeyed him, understood the nudges and the prompts to carry on homeward. They trudged on until they reached the café and Ben asked again if Braun needed a doctor. Jack shook his head over and over.
He kicked at the front door with his boot. It opened and Helen emerged, eyes wide with fear.
"My God!" She gasped, reaching out to pull on Jack's forearm. "Get in Get in!!!"
Jack fumbled Janice in his arms as he walked into the house, steadying himself as he approached the kitchen table underneath the soft light. Ben followed and Helen slammed the door, grabbed the boy and yanked him aside.
"What the hell were you thinking?" She demanded.
But Ben just stared, eyes and nose and cheeks red from crying, tracks of dried tears darkening his fair complexion. She slapped him with her open palm across the face.
Ben met her eyes and said gently, "He needs a doctor."
Helen turned, saw Jack laying Janice on the bare kitchen table. Janice's chest calmly rose and fell, eyes fluttered, deeply entranced in sleep. Helen observed them all in silence and disbelief. Jack looked at the furniture and the walls, forgot himself. The kitchen door opened.
At the sound of Melinda's voice, his head whipped in her direction. She walked over to him and embraced him tightly. He was safe. Her eyes closed in ecstasy, languidly reopening as she exhaled. Her breath caught, nails dug into his shoulders and he froze, tucked the hope for comfort he wanted from her away, let his pain fester a little more.
"Janice?" Melinda's voice was meek, horrified. Her hand covered her mouth in shock. Her heels echoed on the wooden floor, hollow-sounding in the silent room. She spoke her name again, standing beside her and touching her cheek. Her fingers snaked down a limp arm and entwined themselves in chilled fingers. She squeezed the hand and awaited a response. There was no change.
"She fainted," Jack said over his shoulder, his back to the kitchen table.
Ben had turned his attention to the window, "He needs a doctor."
"She needs a doctor?" The anxiety in Melinda's voice rose.
"No," Jack replied, waving his hand in dismissal, "Ben is confused. She just fainted. Take him home, Helen."
"What happened?" Helen demanded.
Jack swallowed, eyes puffy and red. He ran a hand through his hair and stared at the floor, "Braun is dead."
"What?" Helen shrieked.
"No!" Ben yelled, "He needs a doctor!"
"He was hit," Jack stammered, "It wasn't his fault, Helen. He died a hero. It was what he wanted."
Helen's expression crumbled; she hid her face in her hands. Her weeping filled the silent room, voice muffled through her fingers, "Where is he?"
"Outside. In front of the soldier's clinic."
"You just left him there?"
Jack was infuriated, "There was nothing I could do!"
Helen dropped her arms at her sides, stiffened, a disgusted expression on her face. Jack's voice quieted,
"Please take Ben home. Now."
Jack looked up at Helen. "Please," he said, "I will tell you more tomorrow."
She nodded and turned to the boy.
"C'mon, Ben," she said, taking his hand and leading him out the door, across the street to her home, to the familiar trappings of his room.
The door clicked shut. Melinda, still holding Janice's hand in her own, turned to Jack.
"A truck hit him. Ben was in the way of the truck as it came down the street. Braun saved him. Got killed."
She paused, let the quiet blanket them as she watched Janice sleep. "What about her?"
"I don't know. We were hiding in an alley. A guard was coming and I grabbed her so we wouldn't be caught. I don't think she saw him. I covered her mouth to keep her quiet. She fought me and then nothing. She just fainted."
"What does that mean?" Melinda said under her breath, brushing the hair from Janice's eyes.
"I don't know."
The silence lingered between them, soft sounds emanating from Janice's throat.
"Everyone is downstairs," Mel said.
"The Resistance boys "
"I guess, I have to tell them too "
She let go of Janice's hand, laying it gently on the table, running her fingertips over the soft, delicate fingers and knuckles carefully. She turned and approached Jack, put her hands on his shoulders and coaxed him to turn around. He obeyed, head hanging in defeat. She cupped his face, lifted it to look into his solemn eyes, tears collecting in her own.
"Are you okay, Jack?"
Her brows furrowed, lips pursed as she suppressed a sob. Her eyes closed as she leaned her forehead on his, letting his warm breath run along her lips and beneath her nose. The tips of her fingers traced patterns in his cropped brown hair.
"I'm so sorry," she breathed, her voice wavering with emotion. She tilted her head and captured his lips in her own. He broke away and sucked in a breath as his grief surfaced; his arms clutched at her back and crushed her to him. He buried his face in her neck. They lost track of time, absorbed by the warmth of the embrace. When he pulled away and wiped at his cheeks, he met her eyes and whispered.
She nodded slightly and let go. He straightened himself, adjusted the flaps of his collar and headed through the kitchen door to the cellar.
Melinda walked back to the kitchen table, grasped Janice's cold hand again. She let the other brush the red-gold bangs from her forehead in an attempt to wake her. She called her name, rubbed her arm, her cheek, her stomach, but there was nothing. Just murmuring and insignificant noises that surfaced intermittently from her lips as though she was dreaming.
Mel took a cloth from the cupboard and ran it under the faucet, lathered it with soap. She returned to the table with it, dabbing Janice's forehead, tracing down along her temple, past her ear and down her cheeks and jaw to her throat. She cleaned the layers of mud and grime collected from burning ashes and slipping on the forest grounds. She reached her collarbone and began to remove Janice's coat, gently lifting her up to ease the heavy garment off her shoulders. Then she focused on the muddied combat boots, removing them carefully, dropping them onto the floor. Returning to Janice's upper body she hesitated, unbuttoning the top button of Janice's white cotton shirt, and then another, peeking beneath the fabric. An undershirt. She gingerly removed the shirt and then the belt, trousers and socks, running the cloth along Janice's arms, around her wound. She scrubbed her feet and calves, stopped at the knee. She blushed in spite of herself, irritated at her stubborn, diffident nature.
She tried again to wake Janice and again the silence prevailed. Melinda groaned as she lifted Janice into her arms, unsure if she had the strength to carry her to the bedroom. But she was determined, walking stiffly through the hall as Janice murmured from the movement. She deposited her gently onto the bed. Mel kicked off her own shoes and climbed beside her; ran her hand affectionately back and forth against the smooth flesh of the uninjured arm.
"What happened to you?" Melinda whispered, gazing down at her friend.
The muttering got louder. Janice tossed her head back and forth, eyes squeezed shut as she moaned incoherently, hands clenching and unclenching and then reaching up. Melinda caught her wrists, rose onto her knees and leaned over her. The sounds turned into words: No, no! Stop! Enough! No, no, no
She jerked awake, startled green eyes staring out, her wrists held on each side of her head. Janice looked up and searched the woman's expression, heard her name spoken with an American accent. She sobbed. At last.
"It's okay, it's okay " Melinda murmured, voice breaking with emotion as Janice clutched at her desperately. She returned the forceful grasp, cradling the back of her head. She held Janice to her breast protectively, resting her cheek atop red-gold hair. Janice's fingers tore at Melinda's blouse, grasped the fine material in fists. Confused, she wept into the collar of Melinda's blouse, hiding her face. Melinda kissed the top of her head, "It's okay."
As her cries subsided, Janice leaned back in the embrace, her forehead inches from Melinda's. Her eyes were frantic, her voice quiet, "Are you here to rescue me?"
Melinda stared back dumbstruck, cupped Janice's face in her hands, "Janice what are you -"
"The Americans. Our troops. Are they here? They must know I'm here. The Nazis have captured me "
Silence as Melinda stared blankly, panic rising, breathing laboured, "Janice don't you know who I am?"
Her bright green eyes moved across Melinda's features, absorbed the curves and structure. Janice's brows furrowed, tremors dwindling. Her fingertips reached up and caressed tear-streaked cheekbones, thumb traced the corner of Melinda's lips. "Mel?" Her voice was small.
Melinda sobbed, "Yes." She clutched at Janice's shirt. "Yes, it's me."
"Are the Nazis gone?"
"No more "
Melinda gaped at Janice's stricken face, saw a helplessness in her that she had never seen. Tears ran down her cheeks as she embraced her.
"I had a horrible nightmare," Janice continued. "We should just go home. Come with me. Back to America and we'll translate the scrolls there take it to museums. Let's just get away from Greece and go back home."
"Janice, please, just stop " Mel insisted, pulling away and reaching up to feel Janice's forehead. "Stop." It was hot, clammy. A fever perhaps.
Melinda instructed her to lie down and she lay with her, each staring at the other, each confused and broken. Mel's hand stayed atop a fever-warmed cheek, thumb brushing back auburn hair. Janice spoke first, eyes skittish, voice whispering,
"Is it safe?"
Melinda cleared her throat. "Yes," she said softly, "I'm with you. It's safe."
"I think so too," came the quiet reply.
She stared at her gravely, "You need to rest. I'll stay here."
Janice averted her eyes, "I don't want to dream again "
"Dreams are all we have." Mel leaned forward, lips closing slowly over Janice's forehead. She reached down and clasped Janice's hand between her own. She ached, disoriented by her grief, consumed until she wasn't sure what it was that fed her pain. She recalled the sight of the explosives in the village square, the diversion she had to create. Destroying the Nazi offices and buildings. The fire burning and devouring; everything turned to dust, everything shattered. "Sleep. You're safe."
She watched as Janice calmed, breathing came in steady patterns. Sweat began to break out on her forehead, darkened clumps of red hair clung to the moist surface. Melinda brushed them aside. Fatigue held them both but peace overtook Janice first as she settled into sleep. Mel ran her thumb along Janice's knuckles, observed the tanned complexion of her friend, darker than she first remembered. How had that detail escaped her? Her brows furrowed. She kissed Janice's warmed hand and her eyes finally closed from exhaustion.
When she woke, Jack was standing beside the bed and nudging her shoulder. He looked worn, aged in the hours past since she last saw him. Mel gingerly rose from the bed and whispered to him.
"We need to take her back downstairs."
"Okay," he replied, "Everyone left a long time ago."
"Have you heard anything from Helen?"
She nodded, stared down at the floor and smoothed the creases in her outfit with controlling hands. Jack lifted Janice, mindful of her healing injury, and headed toward the kitchen. Melinda held open the doors as they travelled through the larder and descended the stairs to the wine cellar. She moved the shelf, unlocked the door, the ritual of the act suddenly unsettling. And as the waft of stale air hit them, Jack lay Janice down on the bed. She did not stir. Neither of them could look at her. He walked out and Melinda closed the door, the loud creaking of locking tumblers destroyed the silence. But Janice did not wake.
The world oozed bright light and colour, tipped sideways and then back: rocking on the moving axis as she stumbled about, fighting the distance and the vertigo. She reached the door, thinking that something was missing but not remembering what it was, and she fumbled for the tiny key. The keyhole wobbled, back and forth with the earth, skittered away from her like an insect. At last she conquered it, shoving they key successfully through. It turned and creaked, and the door groaned as it opened, groaned again as it shut. She fell when she let it go, hitting the cement floor of the tiny room. It bruised her, but she felt little of the impact as she clawed at the duvet and climbed into bed next to the warmth of a body.
Her hands travelled down, seeking the hands of another. And when she found them, she brought them to her lips, kissed them and held them there. They were beautiful hands, or so she thought them to be, attached to delicate wrists and the soft pulse of blue veins. Dainty and feminine, powerful and capable. Very beautiful, she decided, very lovely. She inhaled their fragrance: the faint-sweet aroma of perfume. They were warm, and she took comfort in them, lethargy creeping into her movements. Her eyes slipped closed.
A scream ripped from deep within the throat of the body next to her, animalistic and incomprehensible. Melinda jerked awake, searching for the creature, eyes glazed and movements slurred. The woman beside her flailed and shrieked. She lifted slowly, tried to pin her down but the motions were too quick. Wild eyes met her own and Janice leapt at her, clung to her, arms wrapping around her neck and pulling.
"Janice," Melinda croaked, "Whas thematter?"
The replies were unintelligible: Idontknowanything, Idontknowanything! I swear! I don't! Stop! Stop! Stop! It hurts! It hurts! I'll tell you anything. Anythingyouwant! Enoughenoughenough
"Janice, please " Melinda begged, "I don' understand."
"The doctor "
"You need a doctor?"
"No! Keep him away from me!"
Janice wailed into the crook of Melinda's neck, scratched the back of her head and shoulder as her nails dug into the skin. Melinda held her, feeling the world tip back and forth, feeling tears creep into her eyes out of frustration. She didn't understand. Mel rubbed her back to soothe her, wanting desperately to return to the silence and the comfort of sleep, the warmth of Janice's body next to her own.
When Jack tore into the room, Janice was calming, her sobs reduced to sharp inhales of breath and soft, erratic whimpers. He stared at the two of them, running a hand through his hair, wiping the sleep from his eyes.
"What the hell happened?" He asked, walking to the foot of the bed, wanting to make eye-contact with Melinda.
She stared blankly at him, numbed. "I dunno," she slurred.
He wandered over to the bed, leaned in close to her. The scent of liquor rolled off of her instantly.
"Melinda," he said, his voice wavering with anger, "how much did you drink?"
She remained quiet and tangled her fingers in red-gold hair. Her arm went around Janice's waist and she tightened her hold. Mel gazed emptily at the floor.
Jack put a hand on his forehead, leaned back in the tiny chair beside the desk. He stared at the ceiling. His jaw moved, clenching and shifting to the side as he ground his back teeth. She was drunk again. Piss drunk. Idiotic and off-balance. It was endless. The hope he had that it was subsiding was swiftly gone. She hardly drank in the past weeks, but she was as before, drowned in alcohol, unrepentant and uncaring. Miserable.
And Janice, Jack peered over at her, was suddenly like a child. Terribly frightened of the monsters he couldn't see, the ghosts that lingered in her mind, existing there alone. He tried to understand but could not believe. She had nightmares, he knew, but nightmares would pass.
"I'm going to send for the doctor tomorrow," he said, unsure if they were listening. Silence returned to him. His anger flared again. "Melinda, get upstairs! You're making things worse."
"No doctor!" Janice shouted, trembling.
Melinda wearily pried herself away from Janice's firm grasp. Janice pulled her back and cried out,
"You can't take anything else!"
Mel tried again but Janice overpowered her. Jack threw his hands in the air and rose from his seat.
"Fine!" He spat. "I'm going to bed. Talk to me when you're sober, Melinda."
The hinges squealed and the tumblers clacked. The sound of the shelf shifting in front of the door came muffled through the thick metal.
Janice refused to relinquish her grasp and Melinda was too tired to fight her. She leaned down, taking Janice with her, to rest in bed on her side. Janice's hands wrapped around her neck, kept Melinda's lips next to the clammy forehead where strands of red hair stuck to the sticky flesh. Melinda kissed her hairline, lost in her own delirium. Sleep was coming to her. She was certain of it now. And every aching cell in her body welcomed it with delight.
Her eyes opened, thick with sleep and her pulse throbbed painfully through her head, pronounced at her temples. Warm breath caressed her collarbone, inviting heat incubated her, tied her down to the soft mattress. Strands of hair tickled beneath her nose and her vision focused. Janice lay entwined with her, sleeping peacefully with her hands cupping the back of Melinda's neck. In the night her undershirt rose above her navel, her legs, tan-brown and muscular, were exposed. Mel froze, bewildered by the intimate position. She had to get away.
Melinda removed herself carefully, adjusting their positions and stopped halfway. Janice's eyes were open. Her lips parted, breath coming in gasps as she struggled to explain herself, remembering little of the previous night. She focused on Janice's gaze and realised her eyes were vacant, blurry. There was an unnatural quality to them: a drowning look. The look of the dead. Mel propped her up in her arms.
"Janice?" There was no response. Melinda panicked, in her hysteria searched for a pulse. Still alive. She spoke again, "Janice, what's the matter?" But there was nothing. A blank look and than a flicker of her green eyes, adjusted to stare directly into Melinda's own.
"Speak to me." Silence. "Please."
Her eyes moved again, staring with unchanged emptiness over Melinda's shoulder. Melinda watched her swallow, the muscles moving exaggerated at her throat, the sound of it faintly carried into the air. She waited patiently, tasted the residual flavour of hard liquor on her tongue. The headache pulsed with renewed vigour. She covered her eyes. It was probably late. She wondered if business was slow, if the events of the night before kept people away. She hoped it was true.
Something was horribly wrong. Janice needed help. She rose quickly, turned toward the door to send for Jack. As she stepped forward, she felt pressure around her wrist and was yanked back. She spun around, saw Janice staring intently at her. Her wrist was suspended in the air, squeezed in Janice's hand.
Melinda exhaled a breath, startled, "I'm going to come right back." She saw her lost expression. Profound fear, fraught with uncertainty. Torment. Mel approached her, cupped her face in her hands, "I promise."
Janice hesitated and then leaned back onto the bed, staring up at the ceiling, thoughts swirling inside of her mind. The tears collected in Melinda's eyes. She was frustrated, worried. Something was wrong. She unlocked the door and moved the shelf, covered the entrance as she left. Toiling to keep herself contained, she bounded up the steps, searching for Jack or Helen, anyone. She needed a doctor.
Janice sat up in bed, eyes wandered from the ceiling to the desk chair. Her eyes widened, fixated on the desk. She covered her mouth in shock and sank back down onto the mattress. He sat plainly, hands folded in his lap, bubbling grey curls, thick black spectacles. Staring at her, motionless and silent. His hands were slicked with fresh blood. His throat was slashed and gaping, eyes bulging in panic. His chest moved in and out. A loud wheezing sound choked through the flaps in his throat. The Nazi doctor, just as she left him. White lab coat and grey clothing beneath, body pale and drained of blood. He peered at her from the chair. A desperate face, mouth open in the shape of an 'o', air sucked in and trembled feebly back out.
She covered her face, peeked at him between her fingers and then squeezed her eyes shut.
"Whatever you do, don't speak English," she said, "You have to promise me you won't."
She nodded, lying on the bed in Melinda and Jack's bedroom. Janice watched Melinda disappear down the hall and turned back to stare at the ceiling, pleased to be away from the dingy cellar room. But she loathed being alone, hated the lack of company and occupation. Left alone with her thoughts, it was always the same: visions of death and war and laboratories, the French pilot burned to death, the Nazi with the holes in his face, the doctor smiling and choking on his own vomit, the young man she shot, the cold metal slab and the dull, empty ache on her side. All of the pain, she remembered, until she passed out on the slab with the stoic guard above her. Just business, was it? Just business. They cut her open, but it was just a symptom. War was the stage and all the men were players. She was on the wrong side, of course, the losing side, that's all! They were enemies and so it had to be. Just business. Human Nature, the rotten, bastard child of Mother Earth.
All three marched into the room: Melinda carrying long strips of gauze and a pile of clothing as Jack and Helen followed behind. Melinda put the gauze and clothes beside Janice's head, sat beside her on the mattress. Jack and Helen spoke next to the doorway away from them.
"Why a man?" Jack asked, turning a square fold of paper in his hands.
"Orders from the Americans," Helen replied, "That same French contact that sent you the distress signal."
"They've contacted you?" Jack said, frowning.
"No. The man inside, what was his name Becker, right?"
"He told you?"
"Yes. Last night, he said he got a message from them on the radio."
Jack paused, "So why a man?"
"If she's to finish her business here " Helen became quiet, eyeing the body on the bed, "and I don't know now if she will, but the Nazis won't accept a female guard posted at the mines. They would see through her in an instant."
Jack shook his head, examining the forged documents beneath his fingertips, "It always has to be complicated "
Melinda placed two fingers beneath Janice's chin, forced her to make eye-contact. Mel was blushing and her voice was quiet. She squeezed the gauze in her hand absentmindedly, "Janice." She ran her tongue along her bottom lip, her eyes were skittish. "There's a man who's coming to make sure you're okay. But he thinks you're a man." She flushed deeper red. "I, um I have to bind you." She reached for the gauze and placed it beside Janice's arm. Janice stared blankly. "Unless you'd like to do it?" Melinda asked. Her voice sounded hopeful. Janice did not respond. Mel sighed and nodded.
Her slender fingertips snaked toward the hem of the white undershirt, her eyes darted from the movement of her hands to the blue-green eyes that gave her permission. There was no distress in them, even as the cotton fabric of her undershirt lifted and exposed her. Melinda repositioned her back, attempted to shield Janice's body from Jack and Helen. She took the gauze and began to wrap it around Janice's chest, flattening her breasts. She spoke to Helen and Jack to distract herself.
"So," she began, "Are you positive he won't want to examine her bandages?"
"Not if he doesn't see them," Helen replied, "Put the undershirt over that and then the shirt and hopefully it will be thick enough. He shouldn't notice."
"Hopefully?" Mel asked, a hint of shock in her voice.
"I don't have any better ideas," she replied.
"Nor I," Jack chimed, scrutinizing the papers, "Think this photo will pass? It could be anyone. It's so faded."
"He damaged it in the war, right?"
Jack nodded vigorously, "Right."
Melinda completed her task, leaned in toward Janice, "Too tight?"
She shook her head. Mel fished into the pile of clothing and recovered a pouch filled with antiseptic vials and medicines. Janice stared at it curiously. Melinda smiled as she gingerly moved Janice's injured arm.
"I have all this gauze," she murmured, "I might as well."
"Helen, he'll be here soon," Jack said from the doorway, "Thanks for picking up the clothes."
"No problem," she replied, "She's the same size as Ben, so it was easy to get from the tailor."
"Shall I go get the doctor now?" She asked softly.
"Yeah," Jack replied, "Melinda's almost finished."
She placed her hand on his shoulder before turning and heading down the hall to the café. Jack closed the door and walked over to the bed, helped Melinda with Janice's new uniform.
"Still not talking?" He asked, unsure of whom to address the question.
"No," Mel replied, buttoning Janice's shirt and tucking it into her trousers.
He looked down at the vials of medication and hid them in the desk. "Well," he said solemnly, "I suppose, today, that's a good thing."
A short time later, a soft knock rumbled through the door. Jack got up and opened it. A stout man with small spectacles and a head full of ruffled black and grey hair wobbled into the room. He wore fine clothing, a dark three piece suit and a black tie, expensive shoes that were polished to shine. His greying moustache was trimmed and impeccable. His black bag bounced on the side of his knee as he walked, and when he reached the bed, Melinda rose and stepped back from it.
"So this is your nephew, Jack?"
Jack swallowed. "Yes."
"How long was he fighting?" The doctor asked casually, holding out his hand toward Jack.
"Three years on the Russian front." Jack placed the documentation in the open palm and the doctor adjusted his spectacles as he read it, blinked, held it further away, and adjusted his spectacles again. Jack's hands shook, "He damaged it. We're going to get it replaced."
The doctor handed the papers back, his rough voice rumbled, "If that is all that was damaged by those Soviet pigs, the boy should consider himself lucky." The doctor paused, staring at Janice. "What seems to be the problem, Christofer?"
Silence. Jack and Melinda stared at each other, wincing. The doctor seemed unimpressed. "He's mute?"
"Only since he came back," Melinda replied, hands fumbling with the hem of her shirt.
"The boys that come back from the Russian front do strange things sometimes " The doctor's voice trailed off as he leaned closer to Janice's face, scrutinized the unusually feminine characteristics. "How old is he?"
"Seventeen, doctor," Melinda said.
"Seventeen, eh? Awfully young "
"He was very passionate about serving the Fuhrer," Jack added.
"Indeed," the doctor replied, opening his black bag on the nightstand, "And broke the law just to do it."
Jack swallowed, Melinda shifted her weight from one foot to the next, crossed her arms over her chest. The doctor shone a light into Janice's eyes, watched for movement, made low sounds in his throat as he made little discoveries and compiled the observations in his mind. He undid the top buttons of Janice's shirt and Melinda felt her pulse hammer inside her chest. She gripped Jack's forearm and bit her lip. Jack ran his hand through his hair and swallowed nervously. The doctor merely sat on the bed and placed the cold metal end of the stethoscope beneath the fabric, listening intently, looking distant at furniture and inanimate objects.
"This boy seems very odd," he said, rising and putting his stethoscope away, "Underdeveloped."
The doctor nodded, staring at Janice's face, interest lingering on her tanned complexion. "Too much sun," he said, walking around to the other side of the bed. "Yes." He nodded his head. "Too much sun." He looked at her eyes, clear and bright green. "The boy appears to have good fitness, or at least the makings of good genes but his blood has been poisoned. I think it is the sun. As for the lack of speech " The doctor looked up and regarded Jack and Melinda as he sealed his bag and straightened his tie, "He suffers from an unusual level of melancholy. But that can be easily fixed. I myself feel unusually quiet at times -pensive, that is. A man has a lot on his mind. I recommend he rests with no human contact. It will only excite him and aggravate his condition. When he begins to talk again, he should be taken out when there is no sun. To the cinema, perhaps. He should also be witness to ordinary things, like children playing outside. It will calm him, get his mind away from war and back at home."
Jack approached the doctor and shook his hand, "Thank you."
"It is only my duty," he replied, "Good day, sir," and then to Melinda, "Madam."
Jack escorted the doctor back to the café, Melinda closed the door after them and went to Janice's bedside. She leaned close to Janice and placed her hand over Janice's stomach, searched for the gauze beneath the fabric with her fingertips.
"It hurts." Melinda said, reading the look on her face.
"Okay. Let's get it off." Melinda unbuttoned the cotton shirt and gently removed it, followed with the undershirt. She bit her lip as she removed the gauze, noticed the slight redness that formed from the constricting bind. "Sorry," she said sheepishly, and she watched as Janice took a deep breath, chest freely expanding.
"Think you can walk with me back down to the room?"
A nod. Melinda half-smiled.
"Will you stay with me?" Janice rasped.
Mel gazed at her, surprised and relieved by the sound of her voice.
Janice continued, "I don't dream when you're with me."
Melinda pursed her lips and let a hand glide through the cropped hair at Janice's forehead. "Of course," she replied, "I promised."
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