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Coming Back

The train clicked along the rainy countryside, its passengers still reveling in final moments of their liberty pass. Kurt sipped coffee from a cheap and ugly brown mug while his crew sprawled out across the car.

“You pig! It’s definitely a rash!” Heinrich yelled followed by a bout of laughter from the others as Thomas pushed him away, trying to hide his insecurity about the possible souvenir he acquired from the lower wharf whorehouse. The submariners, in fresh clothes, washed and clean shaven only looked respectable from a distance. To look at them for more than a moment was to see them for the loud and crass brothers they were. The smell of diesel fuel that never seemed to go away or the grease that rested in the corners of their fingernails were the true uniforms of their trade.

“Herr Kaleun! How were the girls in the officer’s ball?” Willie called out, waving a half-empty stein of beer. Kurt gave him a look that was equal parts officer and friend.

“Better than you’ll ever see, Matrose.” He answered with a look that quietly told Willie to check himself. The burly Saxon sheepishly nodded before guzzling down the second half of his beer. The men continued to talk and revel amongst themselves, still lost in the nightclubs and brothels they had squandered their wages on. A few of the lads, the machinists from Bavaria, had kept themselves in good order, sending letters to mothers or sweethearts down South. Whether in letter or twenty minute intervals, they had all reached out for something, a comfort to remind them they weren’t at sea.

Kurt closed his eyes, trying to fold away his memories like photographs.

You have to focus on the little details, she had whispered to him in the morning. He smiled at her words tickling his ear with her cute Swedish accent. The scent of jasmine that always followed her or the way her cinnamon brunette hair refused to ever cooperate with her designs come the morning. Even with all her style and makeup, she never looked more perfect than when she rose from the bed, its covers and sheets scattered from amorous friction. Even the overcast grey of morning seemed to brighten and she wrapped the crème colored sheet around herself.

There she was.

Minerva given life.

One of the navy attendants entered the car and the band of hooligans reined themselves in.

“We’ll be in Wilhelmshaven in about half an hour,” he paused, “You are to report to your boat immediately and be prepared to get underway before dark.”

The mood darkened instantly.

Wilhelmshaven. The name made every man’s skin bristle. It was the gateway to their hell on earth. Once they passed through the checkpoint, it was back to sweat, salt and exhaust. Each man knew he was just a quick review by the Kaiser’s favorite admiral of the week away from being thrust back into the terror of the North Atlantic.

Doing the best they could to keep bright their spirits before the seawater extinguished them, the men chatted far quieter now even after the attendant in his heavily-starched uniform left.

“Will you be here when I come back?” He had asked her, admiring her as she made no attempt to dress herself in anything more than the sheet.

“That depends. Will you come back?” she replied.

“For you? Always.” He said, giving her a cheeky smile. She had glided over to him and wrapped her arms around his neck. He could still see the flicker of fear behind her bright green eyes.

“You’re incredibly selfish, you know that?” she said, the echo of tenderness dampening the impact of it.

“That seems a little unfair, no?” He said, smiling coyly. She let the sheet fall off her body.

“You know what I mean.” Kurt shifted, reaching for a cigarette from the silver case on the nightstand.

“That’s what your other lovers are for.” He said, perhaps a touch too pointedly as he struck a match. Before he could even move the flame she reached out and pinched it dead before clasping his chin in her hand.

“I don’t miss any of the others,” her face hanging mere millimeters from his, “I miss you.”

“I love you too” he said, his smile naked on his still bearded face. She frowned at him and pressed off of his chest. He sprang into action and delicately wrapped her in his arms, kissing her neck as he did. He smiled as he remembered how her skin felt on his lips.

The train rolled along, bringing Kurt mile by mile back to the war. From the arms of his Minerva back to the cold gaze of the angel of death. But still, Kurt smiled to himself.

The men glanced at their captain, sitting quietly in his seat, his face locked in a half-smile as his closed eyes pointed out the window.

“Bloody officers. Probably nothing but caviar and dancing girls in those parties.” Willie grumbled.

“Oh come off it. The Kaleun’s not the white glove type.” Heinrich said, to the chuckle of the men listening.

They amused themselves by painting cartoons in whispered voices of their oil-stained and rough-hewn captain breaking glasses to the horror of prim and proper surface fleet officers.

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Homecoming

Anthony walked down the boulevard as rain poured down the brim of his hat. He felt the water slowly soaking through his overcoat and dampening his shirt while the wind threatened to dislodge his hat. He cursed as he contemplated trying to light a cigarette. He was discouraged from the idea as he crossed through an intersection and a fresh gust of wind sent rain slapping across his cheek.

Javecs was a typical Bolthar city: medieval, damp and insular. From the winding streets built upon cow paths to the decrepit red castle in the city center, it was a place that wore modernity with great disdain. Rows of rust colored brick buildings lined the street, dimly lit by the street lights. They were a far cry from the brighter and neater buildings of the capital that Anthony had become so used to. Also lacking was any trace of Orcish architecture. Not one statue or stoic stone building was to be found in this castle city.

His meeting with the Bolthar regional council was as frustrating as to be expected. Why Viktor thought that Anthony’s presence might warm negotiations was a mystery. Anthony was a sundrii and the old roosters in the council would never forgive that. If there was anything they hated more than an aljaman it was a deserter, real or perceived.

At the end of the block was a tavern with an appropriately self-glorifying title. The Freeman’s Pike was an ugly two story building with faded green paint and an iron sign swinging in the storm, its hinges squeaking and whining. Anthony stepped through the door, desperate to escape the rain.

Inside was a collection of locals, all clad in their oil-cloth coats and wet fur hats. The men sported the thick mustaches still fashionable up north and the few women present sat quietly, dressed in muted colors and rustically functional styles.

Anthony weaved through the patrons and found an open seat at the bar. He set himself down, removing his hat and running his hand through his damp hair to slick it back out of his face. The bartender was an ogre of a man with a sour face and a bald head atop broad heavy shoulders.

“Black gin” he ordered. The bartender studied him for a moment before turning to get the half-full bottle on the shelf. Within moments a tumbler of the bitter black liquor appeared before Anthony. He studied the other drinks available. The selection was limited to a few local beers and the strong red wines that every pub and roadhouse seemed to have at least one bottle of. He knew it would have been pointless to ask for Ten Crowns, his preferred bourbon.

He took a sip of his drink and the bitter liquid burnt his throat. He’d forgotten how strong and grim a drink it was. He remembered stealing a bottle of it and passing it around with the other serving boys one night in his youth. It was a hard drink then but he’d taken swig after swig that night. Age had not taken the bitterness out of it.

“You ain’t from Javecs are you?” the bartender asked, now made curious by Anthony’s familiarity with the customs.

“Korvolen” Anthony said, the town’s name rang like a curse. The bartender frowned and several patrons within earshot grumbled some.

“You don’t have a Korvolen accent.” The man sitting two stools to Anthony’s left tossed out as he shot back his own glass of black liquor, “You sound more like an aljaman.”

“I’ve been living down south, in Tybernia.” Anthony said slowly, now acutely aware of how rusty his Bolthar had become. Every man within earshot gave him a dirty look. Normally, he’d have kept the fact to himself but his contempt for their standoffishness overcame him.

Foreigners down south attracted company. Questions of home countries and of travels were the bread and butter of tavern conversation. Whether they had traveled themselves, the southerners had a craving for stories of lands outside their own sunny valleys and mountainsides. Perhaps it was simply a hunger for more tales of beauty and grandeur to match their own countryside. Perhaps his people in this rain-logged hole disdained interest in other lands because their own were so pitiful.

Rain continued to tap heavily against the fog-choked glass windows as Anthony took another sip of his drink. After years apart, he was back in that unwelcome land called home.

Departure

He waits in the airport bar, sipping on neat whiskey and watching the seconds tick by on his watch. The small carry-on at his feet holds nothing more than a single change of clothes. Through the window, he can see the mountains in the distance, enticing him to stay.

He clings to his memories of the night before the way one clings to covers on a cold morning, fearful of letting them slip even for a second. A day of wandering, countless jokes and affirmations of love. Was it just the alcohol that brought all these feelings up? Or were they genuine?

Inside he’s awash with feeling but to the world, he betrays nothing.

The chaos inside him ranges from happiness to fear. Was he too much? Had he been overbearing? Was it all real? What could he have done better? The anxiety grips him as he replays countless alternatives and different phrases. What had he done to deserve such pure love? How could he ever hope to repay such generosity? He dampens his turmoil with another sip of bourbon.

Time passes and the patrons at his sides come and go. None of them look at him. To the world, he is just another traveler. Inside his jacket is the ticket that will take him back to his city, to his apartment, to his life.

But in the opposite pocket, the one closest to his heart, are memories frozen in time. He smiles to himself, feeling warmer just knowing they are there. He spent the morning carefully studying them, stepping back into the precise moment they were taken. He doesn’t focus on himself but rather on the others. Their care-free smiles and silly faces, brimming with happiness and playful love are all he can think about.

The artificial voice announces the moment of departure and he leaves his drink alone at the bar. The walk to the door is quiet as he secretly prays for some miracle to delay him. He takes his uncomfortable and stiff seat while coming to terms with the fact that his hiatus in color is coming to a close. Within a few short hours, the mountains will slip away beyond the horizon and the squat gray architecture will return to dominate his world.

He slips a hand into his jacket pocket and touches the relics of happiness. Two small rolls of photos, four pictures each. He closes his eyes and smiles.