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The Second Son
  • Текст добавлен: 20 сентября 2016, 18:14

Текст книги "The Second Son"


Автор книги: Jonathan Rabb






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Текущая страница: 18 (всего у книги 19 страниц)

The thick beard shouted over. “Julio. Your mother needs to make a bed for these two tonight. The woman is a doctor.”

The boy pushed himself up and nodded, and Hoffner followed Mila across the mud.

Inside, the house was old stone, the ceilings too low for a tall man to stand upright. Pots and pans hung from hooks and shelves, and a drinking trough of wood stretched along the back wall. Two young girls sat at a round table, with a few photographs in frames hanging behind them. One showed a man with a mule and a rifle.

The man was seated across the room on a low stool. He was rubbing a cloth along the rifle’s barrel. He looked up when the son called for his mother.

There was silence, and then the sound of an aeroplane from somewhere above. The man set his rifle against the wall and crossed to the doorway. He stepped outside, stared up for several seconds, and then looked out across the fields to the men in their caps and their uniforms-each of them staring up-before he returned. He took the rifle, sat on the stool, and began to rub it again with the cloth.

The mother appeared from the back room in an apron skirt and green blouse of coarse cotton. She was slender, and her hair fell from its ties in thin wisps of brown and gray. In any other place, she and Mila might have been sisters.

She spoke to the boy in a kind of Spanish Portuguese, only a few words making themselves known to Hoffner. The voice was deep and quiet, and she turned to Mila and continued to speak. Hoffner heard the word “ frango” several times and thought she might be referring to the general, until Mila said, “She wants to know if we’ll eat chicken. I told her yes.”

Hoffner nodded, and the woman motioned to the two girls. They followed her out into the courtyard, and the boy sat where they had been. He found a cloth and began to rub his rifle in the way his father rubbed.

Hoffner said to Mila, “Tell him the boy is too young to have a gun.”

She knew why he said it; and she knew there was no point in repeating it.

The father, still focused on his rifle, said, “Will they make such distinctions in who they kill?”

Hoffner watched as the man continued to clean. “No,” said Hoffner. “They won’t.”

“It was a German plane,” the father said, “or Italian. Hard to tell in the dark. He was lost. Tomorrow or the next day he’ll drop his bombs here. For now he saves them for the city.”

“Then you should send your family east.”

“You have a car. You’re more than welcome to take them east if you like.”

“And you’d let me?”

“No.” The father looked over. “If you want to make it to Badajoz, you need to go tonight.”

Hoffner was struck by the sudden candor. “The captain outside thinks otherwise.”

“The captain wants to herd us into trucks and send us back to where you came from, or into Portugal. He’ll take my wife and daughters tomorrow. He’ll get them somewhere safe.”

“But not the boy.”

“If Badajoz falls, a boy with a rifle sitting here won’t make any difference. Neither will his father. So we go to Badajoz with you.”

“You’ll have to talk to the captain about getting me my car.”

“Your car is already halfway to the city,” the man said. “It’s loaded with rifles and ammunition and food. The captain probably drives it himself. He’s very brave. He’ll make three trips tonight, and he’ll hope the fascists choose to sleep before they make their full assault. At dawn he’ll tell you your car was needed, and that you can’t go south, impossible now with Yague only twenty kilometers from the city. He might ask the doctor if she can stomach the war, but you-he’ll tell an old man not to think beyond himself. Do you want to get to Badajoz?”

“Yes.”

“With a boy too young for a rifle?”

“Yes.”

“Then we eat and sleep, and I come for you later.”

At just after 1 a.m. the man shook Hoffner awake. They had laid a straw mattress by the trough, and the smell of garlic and chicken fat was still thick in the air. A dog or goat lay sleeping under the table, and Hoffner looked up to see the man and his son already with their rifles slung across their backs. The man waited until Hoffner was sitting. He then held out a small pistol to him.

“I have my own,” Hoffner said. His hand was throbbing.

“I’ll take it,” said Mila. She was standing somewhere behind the man.

Hoffner looked over. He hadn’t heard her get up. They had slept. There had been no questions last night. She had given him that.

She was in trousers and had borrowed a shoulder wrap from the mother.

The man led them to the back room. His wife was sitting on the bed with the two girls, each in a long nightshirt. The mother’s hair was down across her chest, and she looked much younger. She held out her arms and the father nodded the boy to her, but the boy shook his head. The father reached over, took the boy by the shirt, and pushed him to his mother. There were no tears as she held him, and the boy finally wrapped his arms around her. He then kissed his sisters and stepped back. Hoffner looked away as the boy ran his sleeve across his eyes. The father leaned in and kissed his daughters and his wife. The wife said something too low to be heard, and the father kissed her again and then stepped over to the window. He peered out and climbed through.

He led them across a field and into a gathering of trees. Hoffner smelled the horses before he saw them, two deep brown colts tied to a tree and gnawing at the grass. Each had a blanket where a saddle should have been, but at least they had bits and reins. Mila ran her hand along the nose of the first and then quickly pulled herself up. Hoffner found a stump and brought himself up behind her. He wrapped his arms around her waist, pressed himself into the shallow of her back as she took the horse deeper into the trees. The moon followed them through the branches, and Hoffner let himself find sleep.

They were on an incline of high grass and boulders when first light came. The horses had proved more than worthy, a steady canter for much of the night. No one had said a word. Now it was little more than a walk, the horses’ nostrils heavy with breath and their hides moist and glistening.

The trees had thinned just beyond Villar del Rey, leaving an open sky and white moon to light the fields and scrubland along the way. Hoffner had lost feeling in his right foot an hour ago, but it was better than the shooting pain that now circled his thighs and backside. Either would have been enough to keep his mind distracted, and for that he was grateful.

Badajoz appeared across a valley as they crested the hill. Red tile roofs climbed haphazardly from the banks of a river and settled at the top of a hill, where a wide wood stretched up, then down another slope. Two stone towers, the color of wet sand, edged themselves beyond the tree line, no match for cannons or grenades. An ancient gate-Roman or Moorish, it was impossible to say which-stood along the bank and waited imperiously at the end of a solitary bridge.

The aeroplanes had already done their damage. Sections of the outer wall lay in rubble, with hastily positioned sandbags and trucks at the breaches. Roofs throughout had been torn away, while streams of smoke spooled up into the air. The father pointed to a larger cloud rising from a distant hill. It was from the east.

“Lobon or Guadajira,” he said. Hoffner imagined these were towns on the other side of the river. “They’re leaving nothing behind.” The man looked down into the valley. “It’s quiet. No aeroplanes. It means they’ll be here this morning. From the south. We need to cross.”

He led them down the path and spurred the horses to give what little they had left. The grass gave way to low shrubs, and the horses snorted as the ground grew more uneven. The smell of burned wood and gunpowder filled the air. At the bridge, not a single soldier was standing guard.

“There’s no reason,” the father said, as if reading Hoffner’s thoughts. “Yague and his Africans will be coming from the other side. If they take the city, we’ll need to defend this.”

They were on the bridge when the sound of a solitary motor stopped them. Instantly, the father brought them back down and pressed them close to the first of the stone stanchions.

They all peered up, waiting to see the aeroplanes. Instead, the echo grew louder off the water, and they turned to see the little Ford from Toledo driving through the gate. The car bounced its way across the bridge, until the thick-bearded captain at the wheel saw them and pulled to a stop. The father led the horses back onto the bridge, and the captain cut the engine.

“Salud,”the captain said.

“Salud.”

“I was wondering where those horses had gotten to.” It was the same easy voice from last night.

“My friend here was wondering the same about his car.”

It was a good answer. The captain nodded. “Two thousand from Madrid have come down to defend the city. Militia and Guardia. They’re setting up barricades.”

“It’s quiet.”

“The last of the aeroplanes came an hour ago.” The captain opened the door and stepped out. He turned toward the city and waved his hands above his head. A mirror glinted from somewhere on the wall, and the captain brought his hands down. “They’ll let you in the gate.”

“They would have let us in anyway.”

“Yes,” said the captain, getting back in the car, “but now you won’t waste so much time shouting up from the bridge.” He closed the door. “You choose to go in, it’s no coming out until it’s done. You know that.”

“So there’s a chance we’ll be coming out?”

The captain waited and then looked at the boy. “Your rifle is clean?”

The boy nodded.

“Good.”

The father said, “And they’ve brought guns from Madrid?”

“They have the high ground. It should be enough.” The captain looked at Hoffner. “You know how this might go, friend, and still you feel the need to get through.”

Hoffner said nothing.

“I’ve heard the stories of Coria,” the captain said. “The prison fortress. Terrible things.”

“Yes,” said Hoffner.

“Badajoz isn’t a place to find revenge for what they did.”

“I’m not looking for it.”

“Maybe revenge isn’t such a bad thing to be looking for.” The captain turned to Mila. He seemed to want to say something. Instead, he started the engine. “I’ll see you inside the walls.” He put the car in gear and headed off.

There was no escaping the silence. The streets stood empty, save for the occasional grind of a truck or a voice rising from somewhere behind the stones and brick. The horses moved slowly. Twice Hoffner saw young children-tears running down their cheeks-pulled along by mothers, whisked through doorways, and locked safely away. This was how war finally came, he thought, not in the open back of a truck with songs and rifles raised or on a road where men could trade stories and cigarettes. Even the crack of a sniper’s rifle signaled nothing. It came in the silence and the waiting, and the grim certainty that, one day, the dying here would all but be forgotten.

Hoffner heard muffled laughter and peered down an alleyway. Two men, old and unshaven, sat on stools in the shadows, a wooden crate between them. They were drunk. Their heads rested back against the stone of the building. One was humming something low. The other looked over. For some reason he nodded. The man coughed and laughed again. Hoffner nodded back.

“This isn’t their fight,” said the father. “They’ve had theirs. At least they know it.”

The father led them through the streets and into a wide plaza at the foot of the southern gate. There was a strange symmetry to it all, trucks and cars lining the wall, with blue-shirted men and women and uniformed soldiers nestled above in whatever cracks and openings they had found for cover. The two largest trucks stood in front of the gate, while a group of soldiers directed boxes of ammunition to different points along the line. It was already hot, and the dust and grit beneath their feet swirled in tiny clouds of gray smoke.

The father took the horses close enough to hear voices-orders shouted, the relay of information from men with field glasses standing at the topmost reaches of the wall. This was where they would make their stand.

The father and the boy dismounted, and the father handed Mila the reins.

“You take them where you’re going. No reason to have them here.” He nodded to one of the streets off the plaza. “You take that one around, six or seven streets. It’s to the left. You can follow the numbers.”

Hoffner had shown the father the address for the last of the names on Captain Doval’s list-the Hisma liaison in Badajoz, the man hoarding those too-thick crates. There had been no reason to tell the father why.

“Thank you.”

The father nodded and looked at Mila. “You’ll be needed here. A doctor.”

“Yes,” she said, “I know.”

Hoffner waited for her to say more. Instead, he watched as she dismounted and held the reins up to him. He stared at her, disbelieving, and saw the same eyes from the hospital, the same eyes from Durruti’s camp. She was needed here.

She squinted through the sun as she continued to look at him. “You find what you need and come back.”

Hoffner barely moved.

“Take them,” she said, and she placed the reins in his hand. “I’m needed here.”

“I thought you’d be with me.”

“Not for this.”

“I thought you’d be with me,” he repeated.

“I am. But I’m needed here.”

Hoffner hesitated. “And if you’re not here?”

She stared up at him. “Then you’ll find me.”

She drew closer. She waited for him to lean down and brought her hand to the back of his neck. She kissed him, and he felt her fingers press deep into his skin. She released him and whispered, “You’ll come and find me.” And she pulled away.

Hoffner watched as she walked off. He thought to turn and go but called out, “Mila.” She continued to walk. Again he called.

She stopped. The father and the boy moved on, and Hoffner dismounted and brought the horses behind him.

She looked almost pained as he drew up. “You need to go,” she said.

“I know.”

“Then why don’t you?”

He watched her face grow darker, and he pulled her in. His arm drew tight around her as he felt her cheek press deep into his neck.

“There is no going anymore.”

Her hands clasped at his back. Her lips pressed gently into his neck and she pulled back and he kissed her. She then turned away, and this time he let her go.


The German

The house was like the rest, three crumbling floors of iron and stone, the wood at the bottom of the door split in wide gaps. Hoffner tied the horses to a post and knocked with the side of his fist. He listened. He knocked again, then spoke the name, loudly enough to be heard in the next house. There was movement, and the door slowly pulled open.

A man, small with gray hair, stood in a shirt, trousers, and suspenders. His left arm and hand were shriveled by disease. The fingers reached only to his waist, and the rest hung limp at his side. He leaned his head out the doorway and peered down the street, as if he was expecting to see others. He stepped back and looked up at Hoffner. He spoke with caution. “The fighting has started?”

“No,” said Hoffner. “Where is the German?”

The man continued to stare. “You have the wrong house.”

“No.” Hoffner spoke in German. “I have the right house. I don’t care about the guns. I want only the German.”

The man waited and then said, “I don’t understand this language.”

“I can find a few militiamen at the gate to translate for you. Shall I go get them?”

It was clear why the men of Hisma had picked this Spaniard. He remained unflappable. He waited another few moments and then pulled the door fully open and motioned Hoffner in.

The hall was narrow and dimly lit, with stairs at the side leading up into the shadows. The man led Hoffner beyond them, into a room at the back. It held a few wooden chairs, a low table, and something that had once been a rug. The place had the smell of wet towels left too many days moldering in a corner.

Hoffner looked over and saw the man holding a small pistol in his good hand. It was aimed at Hoffner’s chest.

Hoffner said, “Is the German here?” The man remained absolutely still. Hoffner said, “I’ve told you I don’t care about the guns.”

“Take your pistol out and place it on the table.”

Hoffner removed his pistol and set it down. “The German-is he here?”

“I don’t know about any guns.”

Hoffner stared back. What else was the man going to say?

“He’s told you he comes from Berlin,” said Hoffner. “That he’s part of Hisma, Hispano-Marroqui. He isn’t. He lied.”

The man continued to stare, and Hoffner looked around for a chair. He found the least uncomfortable one and sat.

They waited like this for perhaps a minute before Hoffner said, “I’m not sure what the sound of a bullet would do right now, but I’m thinking you’re not that eager to find out.”

He located the source of the smell. It was a rope mop propped against the wall, standing in a pool of oily water.

Hoffner said, “Yague will be here in the next few hours. He’ll take the city. He’ll thank you for the guns, and you’ll march around with him and point to the people who’ve done you and your little arm the most cruelty. Then you’ll watch him shoot them, all for your Spain. I don’t care one way or the other. I want the German. I want my son.”

The man’s eyes widened for just a moment as gunfire erupted in the distance. It was pistols and rifles. The man turned his head and listened intently. The fighting continued to build as mortars began to explode. He looked at Hoffner. “The sound of one bullet wouldn’t make much of a difference now, would it?”

Hoffner tried not to think of Mila. He shook his head easily.

“You say he’s your son.” Hoffner said nothing, and the man continued. “He told me he was forced to burn his papers. It was too dangerous to keep them in the Republican zone.”

“He never had any papers. You should clean that mop.”

“He knew important names.”

“Sanz in Teruel, Doval in Zaragoza.”

The man hesitated.

Hoffner said, “Obviously I know them as well. He isn’t here to help you. You need to believe me. When does he come back to the house?”

The man kept the gun raised.

Hoffner said, “Does he know where the crates with the guns are hidden?”

This seemed to snap some life into the face. The man waited and then shook his head.

“Good,” said Hoffner. “Then he’ll need to come back. You shouldn’t be here when he does.”

It was clear the man was running through the last few minutes, making sure he hadn’t missed anything. Yague might be at the gates, but he wasn’t inside them just yet. Slowly the man brought the pistol down and slid it into his belt.

“If you try and follow me,” he said, “I’ll shoot you. If you try and leave, I have someone who watches the house who will also shoot you. You understand?”

“Which room?” Hoffner said.

The man showed a last moment of indecision before saying, “Top floor. The attic room.”

Hoffner stood. He picked up his pistol and moved to the door.

It was hours of waiting under a row of slanted beams. There was room enough for a bed, a bureau, and an open window that peered out to the south and brought the sounds of killing up through the streets.

Hoffner had found a little alcove behind one of the beams. Mercifully it was out of the sunlight. He sat in a chair with a glass of water-two or three days old-but the heat was too intense not to drink. There was no door, just the stairs, climbing up through a breach in the floorboards. Two pictures hung in simple frames behind the bed, the Madonna gazing out and a saint pensive at his desk. There had been no attempt to hide them. Such was the faith in Yague and his troops.

Hoffner listened from his perch. The sound of gunfire crackled like oil in a hot pan. Had he been able to block out the screams and the shouts, he might have imagined himself on a summer night in Wannsee, the sky wild with lights and a warm explosion of fireworks from above. But the screams and the shouts continued. It was a time without feeling, without memory. All Hoffner had was the image of Sascha standing by that well. It waited with him.

He heard him first on the floor below, then on the stairs. Hoffner sat very still and turned his head. He remained obscured behind the beam as he stared across the room.

Sascha emerged through the opening. He had shaved, and what hair there was lay slick across his scalp in stray lines of black and gray. He was bone thin in a peasant shirt and pants, and his face was red with blotches from the heat. He carried a bag. He set it down before walking toward the window. He leaned out and peered across the city.

Hoffner found it oddly peaceful watching his son. He tried to see something he knew of the boy, in the posture or the gaze, but there was nothing. Hoffner set down his glass and said, “Hello, Sascha.”

Sascha turned, a quick movement though not sharp, and his eyes settled on his father. Whatever surprise he felt he kept to himself. He continued to stare.

Hoffner said, “You look well.”

Sascha said nothing.

“Did you kill him?”

Sascha’s eyes narrowed. It was the only hint of recognition. He saw the pistol on his father’s lap. “Are you intending to use that?”

Hoffner waited. He shook his head.

“I didn’t kill him.”

“You’re lying.”

There was something so broken-down in the way Sascha stared. It was as if all his strength lived in the tightness of his jaw, his narrow shoulders taut and high against the neck. Were he to release, he might have collapsed or wept, although Hoffner couldn’t recall even a moment’s tears from the boy.

Hoffner said, “You left the film. In Coria.”

“Yes.”

“So I would see it.”

“When it went back to Berlin. Not here.”

“What a stunning act of kindness.”

“And yet you’re here.”

Hoffner tried not to see the hatred in the eyes. “Do you ever ask yourself what you’ve become, Sascha?”

Hoffner expected anger or accusation, but Sascha showed neither. Instead, he turned slowly to the window and stared out.

Sascha said easily, “They’ll be breaching the wall soon. You can hear the grenades. They’re actually close enough to be throwing grenades. They’ll have to climb over their own dead to get to it, but they’ll take the wall.” He stared and listened and said, “You think I killed my brother.”

“I know you did.”

Sascha breathed out as he stared. He shook his head. “How could I kill him when he’d already killed me?” He continued to gaze out. “You still think you won’t be using that pistol?”

Hoffner felt suddenly rooted to his chair. It was all he could do to say, “Killed you?”

“This”-Sascha turned and glanced around the attic-“this is what I’m forced to be because of Georg. He took my life. I took his.”

Hoffner heard the words but refused to admit what they meant. His head began to compress.

“How?” he said.

“ ‘How?’ ” Sascha repeated lazily. “And that makes a difference to you?”

“Yes.”

“With my hands around his throat, and his around mine.” The voice conveyed nothing.

Hoffner heard himself say, “And the bullet?”

Sascha’s stare was equally empty. Something registered for a moment and then was gone. “I don’t know why that. Maybe it just seemed right.” He turned back to the window.

There was a long silence, and Sascha said, “Not enough for him to be the Jew. Not enough for me to tell him it was a mistake, too dangerous.”

Hoffner hadn’t been listening. “You killed him-”

“Because he was a Jew?” The bitterness poured out. “Don’t be so stupid. You think that meant anything to me? You think that could mean anythingto me? He made his choice. It was his to live with. He knew it had nothing to do with me.”

Hoffner heard the unintended anguish in Sascha’s voice, the eyes searching through the memories. It was a mind now tearing itself apart. Hoffner felt no less undone. “And for that he’s dead?”

Sascha regained his focus. He looked again at Hoffner, the loathing directed at both himself and his father.

“No,” he said. “Not for that.”

Sascha reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. It looked as if it had been balled up, then flattened and folded into a neat square. The wrinkles across the front showed dirt and fingerprints. Hoffner stared at it and felt the blood drain from his face.

“This is what he did,” Sascha said. He held the paper out to his father. Somehow Hoffner found the paper in his hand. “This is what he was too much of a coward to admit.”

Hoffner felt the creases on his fingers, the moistness of the paper. He forced himself to open it and, in an instant more unbearable than any he had ever known, Hoffner saw the words he knew would be there:

To the Ministry Secretary in the Matter of Alexander Kurtzman:

Hoffner closed his eyes, and the air drew out of him. There was no reason to read any further. No reason when he knew the letter by heart.

“At least he led me to the guns,” Sascha said, now staring out. “At least here they’ll show me some respect.”

Hoffner heard the desperate certainty in the boy’s voice, the invented logic of a mind no longer in control. Sascha had convinced himself the Spaniards would take him for a Hisma envoy, a man sent from Berlin. He had convinced himself he could be Alexander Kurtzman again.

Sascha said, “They’ll probably have to be taught how to use them. Still-”

Hoffner felt his hand begin to shake, his throat tighten. It was barely a whisper when he spoke.

“Georg didn’t write this.”

Hoffner saw the paper scrolling through the typewriter, the keys planting themselves on each line, and the words:

Alexander Kurtzman, born Alexander Hoffner, is the son of Nikolai Hoffner, the son of Rokel Hoffner, a Jew. By the Nuremberg Statutes of 1935, Kurtzman is a Jew. He must be expelled from the party.

Hoffner had left his signature off the page when he had sent it-a month ago, maybe more-and here it was in his hands again. Such letters always came with anonymity. It gave them substance. Even the fool at the Ministry-Steiner or Stiegman or Steckler-had said it.

Hoffner opened his eyes and saw Sascha staring at him.

Hoffner said, “I was the one to tell them you’re a Jew.”

Sascha’s stare became almost hypnotic.

Hoffner continued. “It didn’t matter what happened to me. But you-you had to be given a way out.”

Sascha’s brow lowered and his face began to contort. “A way out?”

“I wrote it to save you, Sascha. To get you away from these people, once and for all.” Hoffner struggled to find the words. “I did it to save you, and you killed him.”

Sascha began to shake his head, slowly at first, then more forcefully. He turned to the window and tried to stifle his breath, but each came with greater force.

“You’re lying,” he said. It was as if he were pleading with himself. “You were in the letter. You were mentioned in the letter. He wanted to destroy us both. Don’t you see that?”

Hoffner felt the weight of Georg’s death like a vise pressing down on his head. There was no escaping it now. He had killed his son, just as if he had wrapped his fingers around the boy’s throat himself.

“No,” Hoffner said, his voice hollow. “Georg would never have done anything to you. He loved you.”

Sascha’s hands clenched at the sill.

“I did it to save you,” Hoffner said. His eyes filled. “I did it because-”

Sascha turned. There was no seeing beyond the hatred in the eyes now. He came at Hoffner, hands stretching out. He grabbed his father’s chest and pulled him from the chair. The force brought them into the beam, and Hoffner felt the wood slap across his face. A moment later, Sascha was throwing him against the wall; Hoffner tripped back, down onto his knees. He tried to bring himself forward, but Sascha began to kick his feet into Hoffner’s gut, the face pure madness. It was a face beyond redemption.

“You stupid, selfish man!”

Hoffner reached for Sascha’s legs. He pulled them out from under the boy, and Sascha toppled back, his head smacking against a beam. Sascha began to stumble toward the floor, and Hoffner pulled himself up. He began to speak, but Sascha’s foot caught him across the cheek as the boy fell. Hoffner felt the room begin to spin, and he saw Sascha on his back. Hoffner lunged.

The body was so thin, the chest and arms little more than bones and flesh; Hoffner felt his own weight clamp down onto the boy. Sascha’s fingers dug into Hoffner’s chest, but Hoffner leaned his arm farther into the throat. He heard him choke-he heard his son gasping for breath-and he stared into Sascha’s face, the cheeks red, the lips full with blood.

“You killed him.” Hoffner heard his own voice, small and desperate. “You killed your brother.” Sascha struggled, and Hoffner brought his other hand to the neck. “You let me kill my own son.”

Sascha broke his arm free. Hoffner braced for the nails against his cheek, but he saw Sascha’s fingers begin to claw against the floor. The pistol lay just out of reach. Hoffner watched as Sascha’s hand drew closer to it. He saw the fingers on the barrel, the sound of the pistol scraping against the wood, and he felt his own weight press down, his own hand tighten around the throat. There was no voice, no pleading, no miracle to save this boy from himself.

Hoffner stared at the pistol. He heard Sascha cough for breath and felt his own life drain out of him.

I did it to save you, he thought.

Hoffner saw the gun in the boy’s grip, and he closed his eyes.

A silence came, filling Hoffner whole. He lay there, pressing down on the boy’s throat and begging to feel the metal of the pistol against his own skin. If this was prayer, it was the only one he had ever spoken. He heard the snap and he called out, but it was his own chest, his own gasping for air that he felt. The stillness was suffocating, and Hoffner opened his eyes.

“Oh God.”

He stared down and saw Sascha perfectly still, eyes frozen on the gun, arm outstretched. The boy’s neck had broken.

Hoffner staggered back. He pushed himself up and sat with his head against the bed. There was no thought. There was nothing but to stare at this lifeless boy. Hoffner cried out to a God he had never known and damned Him for His silence.

Outside, the guns breached the wall, the dying began, and Hoffner grabbed for Sascha’s chest. He pulled him in and wept-for the boy who had been his and who now lay in his arms.

Hoffner cradled his son to his chest and wept for the life he had never known.


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