Kostyantyn wiped the sweat from his face on the wool sleeve of his uniform as his squad pushed through a burning café. The air was thick with smoke and his mouth tasted of ash but he pressed on. The rattle of rifle and machinegun fire danced off the crumbling walls of the tombstone buildings all around him. As he stepped into the pulverized sidewalk, the smoke thinned to reveal distant black shapes scrambling into the rubble at the end of the block.
“Fire!” Lt. Yashin ordered as he unleashed a long burst with his PPSh. The rest of the men followed his command and the clatter of Mosin-Nagant’s and Tokarevs filled his ears. He looked down the iron-sights of his own rifle and shot at one of the black shapes. Dust and debris kicked up as stray bullets missed their marks, further obscuring the survivors they shot at. No return fire answered them.
“Look at the Fascists run!” Anton cheered as he reloaded his sub-machinegun. Kostyantyn felt vengeance pumping through his blood alongside the adrenaline of battle. All of the pain he’d endured, all of the brutality of the Fascists and his own officers, the friends he’d seen ripped to pieces, this would be the end of it.
Let your farms burn. Your families die, he cursed the shadows as he pulled the bolt back on his rifle. The shooting continued for what felt like only a handful of minutes until the silhouettes were no more. Lt. Yashin shouted over the chaos for the men to cease-firing. Kostyantyn’s heart pounded away inside his chest. Slowly, the squad made its way up the street. The gunfire of nearby engagements kept everybody on edge as they carefully stepped deeper into the dying heart of the Reich.
They came to the mouth of where the survivors had been retreating to: an eviscerated four story hotel. A burnt sign hung over the freshly-blasted hole in the building’s front. The sign was far too faded and perforated with bullet-holes to read what was once written there, not that Kostyantyn could even read Cyrillic, much less the alien characters of the Germans.
A ramp of debris and rubble led all the way to the exposed second floor of the hotel. Lt. Yashin waved the men to advance up the mound and secure the building. Kostyantyn started climbing the rubble, followed by his comrades. As he did, he passed the bodies of the Fascists who were too slow to scurry away into the building. Their black uniforms were covered in dust and the light grey powder of obliterated concrete. Most were young looking, with their close-cut blond hair tucked under black field caps and hairless faces frozen in agony. A few were old men, with grey mustaches and wrinkled hands.
On the second floor, a wounded Fascist clutched his stomach and blood oozed through his fingers. His skin looked like wrinkled wallpaper and his eyes were dull. With his free hand, he struggled to raise a pistol. Anton pulled out his Tokarev and put a bullet through the man’s chest. He slumped forward, the pistol falling hard against the floor. Anton pulled the pistol out of the dead man’s hand and tucked the souvenir into his belt. A few of the men chuckled as they passed the corpse.
They continued through the once-decadent halls and rooms of the hotel, looking for any sign of resistance. As he crept through, Kostyantyn couldn’t help but feel angry and envious at the scraps of luxury that remained in the forlorn rooms. Bed frames and pillows bigger than anything he’d known in his life, wardrobes that must have cost more than everything he’d ever owned and so much space for a single room. Each room just reinforced the anger that had sat in his stomach since the Red Army had crossed into Poland. What was my farm to all of this?
As the sound of his comrades became distant in the ruined maze of the hotel, Kostyantyn noticed a small trail of blood on the filthy carpet. He brought his rifle up and followed it, acutely aware of every floorboard creak as he did. He hoped that the trail would end in a dead Fascist and that the war around them might conceal his footsteps.
The trail diverted into a room.
Kostyantyn held his breath as he approached the door frame. He strained his ears for a clue as to how many were there.
The crack of a gunshot exploded out of the room. Kostyantyn instinctively ducked down but there was no sign that the shot had been at him. He reached to his belt but there were no grenades left. He cursed inside his head and closed his eyes.
With a second’s prayer, he turned into the room, rifle ready. To his surprise, he found the source of the blood. Two Germans were in the room, one sitting with his back against a section of intact wall and the other crouched in front of him.
“Stop!” Kostyantyn shouted. The crouching German slowly dropped a pistol on the floor and raised his hands to the ceiling.
“Don’t move!” Kostyantyn yelled again, his rifle trained squarely on the back of the Fascist’s head. The figure ignored his command and rose to his feet. Kostyantyn didn’t recognize it at first but the German was a boy. He turned around and Kostyantyn’s stomach knotted itself.
The boy’s eyes cut right through Kostyantyn, making it painful to meet his gaze. They were bloodshot and the skin around turned red from tears. The boy couldn’t have been older than thirteen, a pup of a child. When he couldn’t bear to look into the tortured green eyes, he noticed the blood splatter on the back wall. The boy had shot the second German.
The dead man was older and bald, his uniform tattered and dirty with a dark crimson stain growing across the chest. His green eyes, lifeless and open, looked down at the floor. Kostyantyn’s insides twisted as the situation dawned on him and the boy continued to stare at him.
“Bitte, beende es” the child said, his voice shaken and hopeless. Kostyantyn couldn’t understand the language but the expression made it clear what he had asked for. For the first time since he was drafted, his hands trembled.
Kostyantyn had killed dozens, if not hundreds of the Fascists since the commissars took him from his field. With rifle, grenade, bayonet and bare hands, he’d taken the lives of these jackbooted devils. Before every battle, the officers reminded him and the others that it was these blonde-haired and blue-eyed murderers who had burned down their homes, raped their wives and killed their comrades. The commissars spoke of their war against the Motherland and how killing these invaders was the noblest calling that Kostyantyn could achieve. Since he’d put on the itchy wool uniform of the Soviet Union, killing had been easy and easily rewarded with medals and promotions.
“Bitte, beende es.” The boy said again, taking a step towards the end of Kostyantyn’s rifle. He couldn’t meet the boy’s haunting and broken gaze. All he could think of was his parents, starved and emaciated, the winter the commissars had taken the village’s harvest. As Kostyantyn whimpered and groaned while his belly distended, his parents labored on, forgoing their meagre slivers of food so that Kostyantyn could carry on. When he was too exhausted to cry, he remembered the look on his mother and father’s face. It was the same look this boy was giving him now.
He heard the footsteps of his comrades coming down the hall and still his muscles were frozen. The boy’s face was struck with urgency.
“Beende es!” he cried, putting his head against the muzzle of Kostyantyn’s rifle. He swallowed hard, clenched his jaw tight and squeezed the trigger.
Inside the room, the report of the rifle echoed and Kostyantyn’s ears rang. The war was replaced with nothing and then a dull ringing. And then the boy.
He lay flat on his back, the grizzly aftermath of the gunshot apparent all over the wall and the corpse of his father.