Disclaimer: Not mine. You no sue. Me no have any money.
Rating: PG-13 at least. Given the subject matter in question, possibly more.
Bottom line: don't read if you don't like nastiness.
Sergeant James Logan looked at the open cast iron gates before him and almost retched. The stench coming from beyond them was potent, and assaulted his super-sensitive nose like a barrage of needles-–not only could Logan detect the invasive odour of human blood, excrement and sweat, but he could also, alongside that, smell a distinct chemical odour and a gruesome scent that he knew was that of carbonised human remains. He looked up at the gates once more, and silently read the words "Arbeit Macht Frei".
*Work makes us free.* Logan closed his eyes and tried not to recall what his superior officers had told him they’d found when they’d liberated this camp-–the bone-thin prisoners, the filthy barracks, and the endless mass graves. The beast inside him howled with rage, and he clenched his fists, biting his lip until he could taste the iron flavour of his own blood. Trudging inside the camp’s barbed wire fences, he felt his boots getting mired in the thick, all-pervading mud that served as the surface for the camp’s wide open spaces. The former prisoners were being corralled away from the barracks and into organised areas where they could be given food and water, and Logan made his way over to one of the groups, which was being looked after by someone he recognised-–Corporal Frederickson, one of the rank and file grunts from his own platoon. “Hey, Sarge,” the man said, his tired, red-rimmed eyes displaying the same fatigue and barely-veiled horror that Logan realised he had to be showing himself. “What can I do for you?”
“You got any room for someone to lend a hand?” Logan asked, gesturing at the meagre supplies that had been diverted from the Allied troops’ field station, in order to fill the bellies of the prisoners. “Looks to me like you need it, kid.”
“Sure,” the other soldier replied in a raspy, exhausted voice, handing Logan a ladle and a bowl. “Roll up your sleeves and join in, sir-–I think we’ll be here for a while yet.”
Logan took the ladle and scooped an uneven portion of the thick, lumpy gruel from one of the large pots that had been set up inside the walls of the camp. Handing the bowl to a woman, who looked at him with eyes sunk so deep into her skull that they seemed to be little more than black hollows, before taking the bowl with skeletal fingers and trudging away, Logan waited a few seconds before he ran after the woman and pulled out the bar of field-ration plain chocolate he had in the front pocket of his uniform, pressing it firmly into her free hand. “Here,” he said softly, knowing even as he spoke the words that she was unlikely to understand him. “Take it.” The woman looked at him with her blank eyes, as if she was stunned that a soldier could display such humanity, and then walked away slowly, her bare, swollen feet unable to carry her any faster.
Logan scratched the nape of his neck uncomfortably, the uneven texture of his rough fingernails doing nothing to alleviate the tension in his muscles, and then returned to where Frederickson was standing. The other soldier waited until he was back behind the table, and then respectfully pulled him aside, mindful that Logan was still his superior officer. “How many times do you think you’ll be able to do that, Sarge?” he asked bluntly. “You can’t help them all.” He gripped the arms of Logan’s tunic with both hands and nodded towards the milling throng of inmates. “Believe me, sir, I did the same thing when I started doing this. But we don’t have enough to feed them all-–we’ll just have to make do with what we got until we can get some real supplies here.”
Logan took a deep breath and nodded, rubbing at his eyes with a callused thumb and forefinger, and shouldering his rifle so that it hung more comfortably on his arm. “Yeah. Guess we’d better carry on, then, Corporal.” Unhooking his helmet’s chin strap, he threw it on the ground behind him and let his wild, jet-black hair feel the sting of the chilly, damp air. That made him feel a little better, although he wasn’t sure quite why. There wasn’t much to smile about here, after all; and besides that, he hadn’t slept in days.
For a moment, he remembered the invasion at Normandy, the year before-–the surf tinted a hideous pink by the blood that had been splashed into the water, the crimson-stained beaches strewn with the corpses of friends and the burnt-out wreckage of Allied vehicles, and the high ground spewing out the murderous, unrelenting fire of the German machine guns. He still remembered using his combat knife to jar loose a couple of crumpled bullets from the muscle of his right leg, and still not quite understanding why the wounds had closed after a few minutes (when by rights they should have killed him through loss of blood. He knew that for sure-–he’d see friends die from less serious wounds when they were fighting the retreating German panzer divisions, after all. But he was no less grateful-–this odd ability of his had come in handy for years now, and he wasn’t about to start questioning it right when he needed it most), and having to see his best men chopped into bloody chunks of meat and bone by the vicious enemy fire. He remembered all of that, and he reflected that no matter what Normandy had been like-–no matter how much blood had been spilled-–this was worse.
He narrowed his eyes. Across the camp he could see men in German uniforms, surrounded by American GIs. They hung their heads in defeat, their hands tied behind their backs, their gait slow and stumbling, slightly overbalanced and hunched over, as if in supplication to the American troops. Logan could smell their blood as it caked their muddy faces and hands, could smell the bruises that peppered their bodies, and he knew that they had been beaten severely already. He could also smell the faint tang of other men’s blood on them, and he knew instantly that members of his own company had been moved to take out their anger and disgust on these men.
Deep in his throat, Logan growled bestially, drawing a faint stare of disbelief from Frederickson (which he ignored-–he figured the guy was put-upon enough as it was without making a scene about it). Turning his attention back to the beaten German soldiers, he realised that he should have stopped his men here, instead of lagging behind to supervise rear-guard operations, but he also knew that he’d have been hard-pressed to make the effort. He was seething with rage himself, and it was all he could do to keep from charging headlong at the group of battered prisoners and killing them all with his bare hands. He could feel the angry beast within him tearing at its chains and begging for release again, and he felt a faint, familiar itching sensation at his knuckles. Scratching them absently, Logan swallowed his rage and returned his attention to those who really needed him.
Blinking, Logan turned his attention to the boy in front of him-–a thin, scrawny teenager with a shock of dirty blond hair that was almost white. “God...” Logan muttered after he’d handed the boy a bowl of gruel. “What kind of people would do this to kids?”
Frederickson shook his head. “I ain’t got a clue, Sarge. I really ain’t got clue one.” He wiped his hands on his fatigues, and then drew his knuckles across his forehead to draw away some of the nervous sweat that was plainly visible above his eyebrows. “When you see somethin’ like this… kinda makes your mind go blank.”
Logan growled again. “Yeah... yeah, it does, don’t it. Makes you wonder how these goose-steppin’ bastards had the nerve to call ‘emselves superior...”
The boy said something in a strained, rasping voice, as if he could understand Logan’s sentiments, his pale, almost electric blue eyes crackling with barely suppressed rage as he turned away. Logan winced as he caught the almost tangibly sour odour of anger radiating off the boy, and shook his head. Glancing at Frederickson, he looked for a translation, but the corporal simply shrugged. “Don’t look at me, Sarge. I ain’t the linguistics guy, remember? I just point my gun and shoot.”
Logan nodded sadly. “Yeah. Me too, kid.” He set about filling another former prisoner’s bowl, and tried not to let his surroundings bother him more than they already had.
Night came slowly, creeping over the camp like a black cloak. Logan knew he ought to be getting some sleep, but there seemed to be no way that his body would accept that. He tossed and turned under the blanket he’d been issued by the field station, trying desperately to make his body understand that sleep was what it needed, but to no avail. Realising that he wasn’t going to get any rest, he slipped out from under the blanket and padded silently towards the edge of the GIs’ base-camp, his footfalls quiet as a ghost’s. When he had put sufficient distance between them and himself, he sat down and glanced towards the stars-–what was left of them, anyway, thanks to the clouds covering the sky. If he’d been a religious man, he would have said-–somewhat melodramatically, he supposed-–that God was hiding His face from what had happened here.
“But that’s just it, ain’t it?” Logan muttered. “You ain’t there, are you? Else you wouldn’t have let this happen, and you’d be dealin’ out some of that divine justice on those assholes in Berlin. Instead, these people have to take the punishment for them. Where’s the goddamn justice in that?”
He ran his hands over his face, wiping away the nascent, angry tears he could feel beading at the inner corners of his eyes. “Now I remember why I don’t go to church... I’m always leavin’ angrier’n when I came in.” He jabbed a square-tipped finger at the sky, his brown eyes filled with animal rage. “If followin’ you means I gotta just accept this mess, then I’m glad I don’t.”
Logan lowered his head and began to pick at the dirt next to him with his combat knife, watching the scattered ants on the ground going about their daily routine, climbing over the knife’s blade and running across it as if nothing was wrong. He shook them off the blade as he began sketching lines in the ground absently, the thin marks forming no obvious pattern, but helping him to make sense of his surroundings, somehow. He murmured a mantra he’d learnt from one of his fellow soldiers as he swept the knife through the dirt, excluding the outside world from his senses.
And even though he tried his hardest not to, Sergeant James Logan, hero of the Normandy landings, cried for his fellow man that night.
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