“There is no one here anymore,” I say; it is not something that needs to be said, but I say it anyway, just to listen as my voice echoes through the scorched husk of the town that was. The lonesome words mingle with the crystalline chimes of broken shingles as they cascade from the roofs above, down onto the macadam street underfoot: a ghostly, beautiful sound. They shatter in our path and we tread on their remains. Our boots will need polishing tonight.

Grackles watch from the shade of the ruins, oily feathers flashing.

“No one here?” Kurtz scoffs and kicks at the fractured marble vestiges of what once must have proved an impressive statue. “Who could have ever lived in such a place?”

“Partisans. Or, so says high command, at least.”

“Such ruin,” Kurtz murmurs. He stops by the shattered remains of a fountain to readjust his gas mask. Huffing, he peers at the houses around us and tightens the leather straps behind his head, his rifle bouncing on his shoulder. I can tell he is trying to imagine what this town must have looked like once, before the bombing raid, before the war. It must be a difficult thing to imagine, I am sure; hollow, coarse, and gray, the cluster of houses reminds me of nothing but an abandoned wasp’s nest.

“Tell me more of your sister. Tell me more of Anna,” he demands.

“You have heard enough.” It is tempting, though, to speak of her, as though to recall a forest while lost in a barren wasteland. “Promise me my descriptions of her will not become fodder for your imaginings, Kurtz.”

He laughs halfheartedly.

I take the field glasses from their pouch on my belt and bring them to my face, squinting through my mask’s dusty lenses. After a minute of methodical sweeping, I spy a single chimney standing in the far end of town, defiant of its desolate surroundings.

“Anything?” Kurtz is impatient to end this futile farce of a patrol and return to camp. His boots must be too tight; he has been complaining of aching feet all afternoon.

“Something. Maybe something.”

“Not certainly something? Only worth checking if it is certainly something.”

“A chimney, Kurtz.”

He sighs. “A chimney, yes, but an antenna?”

“Difficult to say. We will have to check.”

He shakes his head, weary and bored, as he follows me up the street. “Chimneys. Pah. Chimneys! Leave it to the partisans. At what moment do you know you’ve lost? If you ask me, it is the very moment you find yourself hiding your radio antenna in a blasted chimney pipe.”

 

 

What place has a little girl in the grisly tide of resistance?

            These are the querulous words I remember bitterly as my fingers brush the gunmetal dials of the humming transmitter before me. What business, I think, sneering, has the mendicant beggar playing the chooser? Who else among the rebels can simultaneously manipulate the anode dial, the aerial matching switch, the capacitors, and the tuning knob with the dexterous expertise and careful ear the equal of any concert pianist?

Only this little girl.

There has been no chatter this afternoon. The silence of this ruined place, this catacomb, this hollow ossuary, could drive a lesser creature to maddening torpor, I expect. But, I remind myself, what is silence when you are listening for something? Nothing more than a white canvas upon which to spy an awkward black mistake. In empty quiet like this even the most garbled of enemy transitions are simple to intercept.

I drum my fingers on the codebook beside the transmitter. My canteen is nearly dry, the bread and cheese reduced to crumbs. Would that Anton and his mule did not have to wait for the cover of midnight to bring me more.

The room behind me reeks of rot: a butchery once, I am told, even now denuded of its sanguinary accoutrements, the stench of slaughter and carcasses remains pungent. Ever since the bombings began such a stench is not uncommon in this ugly corner of the world. Fragments of the ceiling cover the floor like hillside scree, a constant, silent reminder of just how fragile the building around me really is.

And yet, I remain. Ascetic.

From out of the corner of my eye I notice a flicker of movement across the street. It is almost impossible to see out the tiny dormer window; the cracking glass is covered with the dust and grime of nearly a dozen bombing raids. But even through dust and grime, their black uniforms and long rifles, barrels coruscating dully in the sunlight, are unmistakable.

They have come for me.

As quietly as I can, I sink to the floorboards and crawl through the rubble to the front door. Whispering silent orisons, I set to work arming the tripwire bomb in a series of oft-practiced motions I am suddenly very glad Anton has made me memorize. I stretch a narrow strand of fishing line, almost invisible to the naked eye, across the rotting threshold, secure the end to the blasting cap, and ensure the dynamite is strapped discretely behind the doorframe, concealed coyly by an empty umbrella stand. With any luck, the makeshift bomb will kill the encroaching men without bringing the entire building crashing down along with it.

The footsteps are growing louder. The men outside murmur back and forth in a language whose very sound I have come to detest. There is no time to hide the transmitter, no time to go out the back window. I sequester myself in the broom closet and clutch my knife to my chest, waiting and praying. My breath has never sounded louder.

 

 

“See the pig on the sign,” says Kurtz, pointing. “What I wouldn’t give for a slab of bacon tonight. It will be barley again, I’m sure. I liked barley once, you know. Now?” He shakes his head and scoffs.

I look the butchery up and down: a sturdier edifice than the rest of the town, perhaps built on a cement foundation. After all, the chimney still stands.

“Shall we poke about?” asks Kurtz.

I nod. He moves for the door. I pluck him by his shoulder and shake my head. “Partisans can be tricky,” I remind him, whispering. “Through the window.”

With the butt of his rifle he breaks the glass. Wincing, he clambers inside. I draw my revolver and follow him over. The room inside is austere. The air is saccharine with the fusty odor of long dried blood. Gone is the clutter and mess I have become so accustomed to seeing in depredated ruins. Instead, there is only a singular table beside the fireplace upon which rests a still buzzing radio transmitter.

“Quite the eye you have,” remarks Kurtz. He strides across the room and stoops to examine our discovery. “A big one, too. One of ours. Cheeky louts can’t afford their own, of course.” He nudges the transmitter and grimaces. “Too heavy to carry back, I think.” He turns to me, grinning slyly. “Shall we say we found it ruined? That the partisans heard us coming and put the torch to it like the cowards they are?”

“Better than carrying it,” I agree, eyeing the bulky device.

Kurtz hefts the radio off the table and sets about stomping it into smithereens. “Imagine living in this shithole?” he exclaims, panting excitedly as his boot crushes the delicate electronics. “Pissing in a jug and eating wormy bread while listening to static all day?”

Soon, the transmitter is no more and Kurtz is stalking the room eagerly. “A butchery once, no?” he muses. “Maybe something’s left behind.”

“Something rotten, I am sure.”

“You are faithless,” he chides, and begins to root about in the pantry.

Curious, I search the rest of the room.

 

 

The bomb has not gone off. It should have gone off by now. I am hunkered at the back of the closet, my knees clutched painfully to my breasts. The darkness swims before my eyes.

My heart sinks as I hear the window shatter and the sound of their heavy boots thumping across the floorboards and crunching glass underfoot. They chatter excitedly in their ugly tongue. Soon, there is the sound of my radio being smashed to pieces. If Anton had given me a pistol I would burst out this very moment, surprise them in their wicked reverie, and put bullets between their eyes. But Anton had no pistol to spare, only a measly knife better suited to whittling than stabbing fascists.

My heart sounds as though it is beating inside my head and my breath comes in ragged fits. I am ready for death. I have been preparing to meet it for many years, now. Even so, the waiting is tremulous: a chord plucked roughly in a silent hall.

At last, the door creaks open and a shaft of milky light pours in.

From within the shadow cast by his stahlhelm’s brow, two red spots, the crimson lenses of his regulation gas mask, stare emptily into the closet. They glow like traffic signals lost in the depth of midnight. It is easy to imagine his eyes behind the glass, beady and set at cruel angles, as they sweep the gloom slowly back and forth, his retinas dilating in the dark as he searches for signs of life. For his enemy. For his prey. For me.

Behind him, the soldier’s comrade roots through the pantry, muttering happily, unaware of his partner’s discovery.

Perhaps my figure will meld into the darkness, a phantom shadow stretched like ink across the blackness, bleeding subtly into the shifting penumbra. He will shrug his shoulders, holster his gun, and move on to plunder some other helpless town.

He raises his revolver and crouches. Slowly, the barrel of the weapon moves through the air till at last it is hovering mere centimeters from my forehead. I imagine the muzzle is preternaturally cold to the touch. I am glad he has not pressed it to my forehead.

I stare down the barrel but there is no light at the end of this tunnel.

Several moments of stillness pass. The silence rhymes with cacophony.

You still have the knife, I remind myself.

Is there space in that narrow, quiescent lacuna between us to lunge and drive the blade into his throat? Certainly not before he pulls the trigger.

Martyrdom is not a bad way to go, I can hear Anton laughing huskily.

The muscles in my legs tighten as I prepare to pounce.

The barrel of his revolver recedes suddenly into the darkness. Silently, he stands, says something to his comrade, and shuts the closet door.

My fingers tremble around the knife handle.

What has happened?

 

 

A girl is crouched at the rear of the closet. She is clutching a knife to her breast. I open my mouth to call Kurtz but it only hangs open dumbly.

She looks like Anna.

That same piscine face, those purls of raven hair, even her sallow skin. It is as though Anna herself is trembling in the blackness of that hole.

Kurtz hums behind me. “Bacon, bacon, bacon,” he chants as he rummages, oblivious.

I stoop and put my revolver in her face. She does not cower or supplicate. My finger curls around the trigger and I imagine the lead slug passing through her head and burying itself in the wooden wall behind her. I imagine her body slumping backwards with a plangent thud. I imagine the evanescent flame in her pupils dwindling as a maroon stream trickles across the bridge of her nose.

I imagine Anna.

A churning within temporizes the threads of a moment into empyrean forever.

I think she fears me, and the thought stings.

The gap widens and is lost. My revolver finds its holster.

“Kurtz,” I say, “there’s no one here.”

Her eyes do not widen, her breath does not slow.

I close the door.

 

 

They exchange a few brief words, muffled through the decaying wooden door that has just shut in my face and doused the stifling closet in blackness. Refusing to breathe, to believe in the reality of what has just transpired, I listen as the two soldiers sweep the room one last time and head for the door.

The door.

A crack of thunder. The whole house quakes violently. Loose timber, dislodged by the explosion, comes clattering onto the floorboards. Empty jars caked in dust shatter as they shake free of their shelves. Dust clouds the air like mosquitoes in a slough. The rafters above groan dangerously.

And then, silence.

Two crimson lights trace spider webs in the black air before my eyes.

Afterimage.

Coughing, I find my way out of the closet and into the fresh ruins.

It is impossible to say which of the dead man sprawled and bloodied before me is he who spared this little girl.

My ears are still ringing as I begin to dig two shallow graves in the rubble outside. Rudimentary; they will have to do. Night has fallen. Even the black grackles have abandoned this lonely place of dying. Anton will come soon come to collect me and whatever else remains of our makeshift operation. He will be proud of my victory. I will not tell him of the silent man, his eternal pause, or the empty air hanging between us. I will not tell Anton of these things and he will be proud.

The thought stings.

Night falls quickly. The stars are ugly tesserae set indifferently into the sky above. Not round. Abrasions. Lapidary slashes cut across the amethyst crust of the twilight veil: peepholes. As I dig, I crane my aching neck back and peer through them to marvel.

Marvel.

I can only shrink from the fire burning beyond the shroud.

Evan DeCarlo’s story “A Place in the Choir” won second prize in the Fourth Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest. Evan’s story “The Faraway” won first prize in the spring of 2014. He is a senior in the Screenwriting Program at SVA, and is the author of the ‘Children of Noah’ trilogy of young adult novels. You can find out more about his work at www.evandecarlo.com