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From These Unhonored Dead

By Christopher Jones

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Gripping the top of the poster with a black-gloved hand, Ben ripped it from the crumbling brick wall, loosing a shower of mortar and rotten stone. He crumpled the stiff posterboard, the glue backing flaking away and fluttering in the breeze like snow. The very last thing this godforsaken town needed was more snow. He stuffed the ancient poster into his burlap sack and stepped through the slush a couple of feet to the right, where another old advertisement clung stubbornly to what was left of the playhouse exterior.

Wind, not heavy but slashing, gusting, cut straight through his woolen gray uniform, piercing the soiled white shirt underneath and flaying his skin, deboning him like a landed fish. He rubbed at his face, his patchy scruff. Three days without a shave. His cheekbones stood out, his face lean and sharp like a razor itself.

His breath whipped away in the morning air, adding the foulness of his mouth to the omnipresent stench of decay and putrefaction. Somewhere in there should have been the smell of opening leaves, the taste of oncoming spring. Not this year. The slush puddled around his thin, scuffed boots and leaked through onto his socks. What was left of his socks, wool, two pair, standard issue. Supposed to have been relieved of duty, these socks, six months ago. Like himself, they had not been, and would more than likely die on the job.

The playhouse wall extended a few feet above his head, where it terminated in a long, ragged line slumping toward what had once been the front of the theater. Ben had gone to a play here, once. Nice theater, red velvet and gold trim around the balconies, and plush seats he sank his bottom into while his mother fussed over the program and whether the theater-glasses were clean enough to see through. Long gone, mother. Ben wondered if some of the dust blowing through the ruined street behind him had once been her. If not, then father, or his sister Annalika. Or one of thousands of others, burnt to ash by the bombs, bombs that were never supposed to fall on the Fatherland.

He reached for the next poster, to reap scanty fuel for the barrack fireplace, when he heard a scraping, a shifting of the rubble on the other side of the wall. Probably a dog--Ben’s once-faithful companion Hippi, perhaps, come back from the forest--but then a small cry, a human voice, quiet but unmistakable in the dead town’s silence.

Ben shoved on the wall, testing it. Solid enough. Placing his palms on the top of the cracked brick he hauled himself up and poked his head over into the theater’s burned-out interior. In the pile of debris mounded at the wall’s base, something moved. A hand. A small hand.

For a moment, Ben couldn’t process what he was seeing. What the devil was this? But gradually it dawned on him--this was a child. He hadn’t seen a child in months. How could it have got here? Why wasn’t it dead? But it wasn’t. It moved again, and the cry came, renewed. An inhuman thing, mewling, like a cat in agony.

“Hey,” he said, in the general direction of the child.

The hand stopped moving. Ben waited, arms beginning to shake a little from the strain of holding him up. He pushed up a little farther until he could bend himself in half and lean his upper body on the wall, letting the jutting fragments of brick grip his thick woolen coat and hold him in place.

“Hey,” he said again. “Come out of there.”

No reaction. The claw-hand was still there, blackened and missing a nail on one finger, but with the unmistakable rosy pink color underneath that spoke of blood flow, of life. Ben waited. He could do that. His whole life these days was spent waiting, and he knew that no child would be able to keep still longer than he could. So he hung there, feet a half-meter above the snow, head on the other side of the ruined wall, and watched.

It took a couple of minutes, during which the sun gave up its feeble attempt to spray light through the mat of gray that blanketed the sky, and retreated to shine down on other, happier places. Eventually, though, the claw moved again, dislodging a half-brick and what had been the armrest of a theater chair. A spasm shook it, and a whole arm appeared. Attached to a shoulder. Underneath a ragged piece of masonry, a leg moved as well, scraping across the frozen ground. The mewling cry sounded once more, as if the thing--the child, Ben reminded himself--were calling for help.

To help, then, or not? It was safest not. Children were a burden, riddled with disease, perpetually hungry, noisy in an environment where a noise at the wrong time might get him shot. Nothing but a burden, when his back was already bent double from the weight of what he carried.

All that went out the window when a face appeared. Up to then, Ben could pretend the form was simply a kind of animal--there were still a few of those around--but a chunk of wallpapered plaster flipped away and rolled down the mound of detritus, revealing a blood-streaked face framed by stringy, matted hair with more dirt in it than even Ben’s own.

But the eyes. Those eyes.

Blue like ice on a lake. Blue as the palest midwinter dawn. Blue like the first snow-burdened periwinkle in the high meadow. Ben might have left the child, if it were not for those eyes.

The thrashing of the child had dislodged the corpus of a different, higher mound, and splintered timbers combined with shattered stone to slide down and cover the child once more. The cry cut off, mid-whimper.

Ben flipped himself over the wall, boots landing with a crunch on the inside. Slinging his burlap sack across his shoulders, he splayed his arms to keep his balance and slid down a nearby mound to where the child had been. Ben dug, flinging dirt and filthy snow right and left, trying to uncover the child’s head before its breath gave out.

He made no progress, the unstable refuse pile refilling any hole he made, and he began to despair that once again he would fail to save a life that only he could rescue, when a hand shot from the pile, crashing through the rubble and reaching for the open sky, like a corpse summoned from a grave.

Ben gripped the hand with his left and the scrawny bicep with his right, and hauled upward. Showers of sodden dirt caved in on the little figure, but Ben’s strength was enough to pull the child loose from the ground until its face broke the surface. It sucked in a ragged breath, coughing and hacking. Either blood or filth sprayed from the child’s mouth. Ben wiped at it with the burlap sack, still keeping tight hold on the arm and tugging the child downward, off the pile, until it lay supine in a cleanish patch of week-old snow.

A boy child, in torn clothing, nothing more than a thin cotton shirt the color of mud and a pair of flannel pants ripped off at the knee. Shoes, though, real ones, the kind with thick leather soles, and those in good repair, too, though of course they were filthy, like everything on this child. He lay there, breathing shallowly and coughing every few seconds, turning his head to the side to expel a dark concoction of mucus and soil.

Probably not blood, Ben decided. Probably not.

After a moment free of hacking, the child opened its impossible blue eyes and fixed them on Ben. No flicker of recognition--why would there be?--passed across the child’s features. But the eyes nailed themselves to Ben’s face and stayed there.

Ben crouched at his side. “You okay?” he said. The eyes never left him, but the child made no sound, not even a repeat of the unearthly cry from before. “Where do you come from?”

The child didn’t reply beyond trying to sit up. Ben put his hand on the child’s warm back, and helped. It might make his lungs clear more easily. The child made it to a sitting position with some effort, and sat, hands in lap, surveying the surroundings.

The theater’s old front was completely gone, marquee, ticket booth, and second-floor balcony a pulped mass strewn from the middle of the theater’s interior to the edge of the far side of the street. The other three walls stood in varying states of ruin, with the one Ben had climbed retaining the largest share of its original shape. Black tongues lapped at their faces where the fire had licked them.

Within, most of the chairs had burned, leaving metal skeletons twisted into grotesque shapes, often draped in plaster. Comically--tragically?--a part of the stage remained, offering an empty play to a ruined house.

Beyond, over the walls, hung a ring of mountains like the edges of a bowl. White-blue sky lay in a smooth pane of glass laid over them from every point of the compass.

The corpse child rose from the ground and began to stagger toward the front of the building. “Hey,” Ben said. “Where are you going?”

No answer. The child picked his way over the loose stone and ash, leaning over and bracing his hand on a rubble-strewn pile for balance.

“Stop,” Ben said, following with ginger steps on the detritus. “Come back here.” But the boy didn’t. Small strides carried him away, an eddy in the snow. Ben shouldered his sack and marched after him. “You can’t go out there like that,” Ben said, but he might have been talking to the wall.

From far over the hills came the crump of artillery. Ben didn’t know if it was theirs or the other side’s. At least none of it was falling on them today. Or for several weeks. He had lost count. The boy put his foot onto a board that wouldn’t hold, and his foot went out from under him, dumping him on his side. There came that cry again, unearthly coming from the throat of the kid.

Ben bent and gripped the child’s thin shirt, dragging him upright. The child didn’t look at him, keeping his eyes out, toward the front of the wasted theater, as if he could see something there. Ben kept hold of his filthy shirt, lest the child go running off again. His glove showed straight through it, so bare was the thread of it, and Ben could tell it was homespun, too, a kind of shirt he hadn’t seen since he was a child.

If this child had wanted to, he could have torn right through the shirt and out of Ben’s grasp, but once Ben had a grip on him, the child stopped trying to go his own way and docilely followed where Ben led. When Ben paused to tear another poster off the wall, the child stood by his side, gazing slowly but intensely about the street, as if he’d never seen it before, though that was impossible.

He saw a long row of two-story apartments, their dusty, cracked facades flanking a snow-covered cobblestoned street. Some were still intact, standing empty but whole, as if waiting for their owners to return. Ben could name those owners, going right down the street, and tell you how they died. Most of them. Some had left, and presumably died elsewhere, but Ben could name the manner of those deaths, too. There was little enough variation.

The baker’s across the street had long since lost its windows and its contents, and now the sign stood over the shattered panes of glass like a ragged smile. Herr Schultz had made good pretzels. Ben could still remember the taste of them. Next door, the bootmaker’s place had been looted several months ago, after Frau and Herr Angulie had been blown up by a land mine outside of town. And so on. Once-bustling, the town had sunk, slowly at first, then with gathering speed, into a staring caricature of itself. Before the war, there had been children on this street, all hours of the day. Ben himself had played football here, scored a goal between that bent lamppost and the newsbox four feet farther along.

Well, now there was a child on the street again. Ben supposed they should get along to the barracks before the latest snowstorm hit. To the southwest, a band of darker clouds threatened new snowfall, and the breeze had begun to get up again, tossing bits of straw and puddles of ash up and down the street as it went. They did not want to be out here when the light failed.

“Come on, kid,” Ben said, slinging his sack over his shoulder. The scavenged posters and other rubbish should give them some light, some warmth. Maybe it would keep the town’s residents at bay tonight. Enough to protect the kid, though. It would be enough for that.

Because for all that it was empty, so echoingly empty it was filled only with silence, there were still residents in this town. They vaguely resembled, even, the former occupants. But these were not people with whom one could have a pleasant chat over a cup of dark coffee. These were not people at all, really. Keeping them at bay was almost as important as standing one’s post. Almost. Except that nothing mattered more than being found on duty, when the end came.

Ben threaded two fingers between the kid’s bony arm and his rib cage. Ben’s eyebrows shot up. There was some meat on the kid’s bones. Not muscle, not really, but fat. The kid had been eating. Ben squeezed the kid’s bicep experimentally, as if judging a hog. Yeah. Some substance there, more than he would have expected. The cadaverous children that had slowly disappeared off the street over the past couple of years couldn’t have found enough food to feed a chicken, let alone themselves, but here was this kid whose arm felt like, well, like he might be human, instead of animal.

“What’s your name, kid?” Ben said. The kid paid him no attention, just marched slowly onward half a pace in front of Ben, held there by Ben’s grip. Ben shook him lightly, to get his attention. “Kid. Name? What’s your name?”

No response. The kid didn’t even turn his head to acknowledge he had been spoken to. They passed the bombed-out school, leveled right down to the half-sunken boiler room, stripped of everything useful and now nothing more than one of the many graveyards in the city. A gust shrieked out of the alley opposite, and Ben shivered, though not from cold. He cast a glance skyward, and the band of dark cloud was swiftly swallowing daylight. Too swiftly. They’d have to pick up the pace.

So instead of trying to get the kid to come around, Ben doubled his own pace, roughly dragging the kid beside him. This pace was too fast for the thin legs, and he stumbled every eighth step or so, jogging then to catch back up. Ben didn’t let go of his arm. “I gotta call you something, kid. You a mute?” He stuck his head in front of the kid’s face--not slowing any--to see if he understood. The icicle-eyes bored into Ben’s green ones, but without expression. There wasn’t anything to indicate the kid even knew where he was.

Muttering under his breath, Ben frogmarched the kid around the corner of Thalienstrasse and down past the grocer’s, into the centralplatz, where they’d had all the pro-war rallies back when there was anyone to come to them. Back when there had been someone left who believed in the war. Ben remembered standing in this square dozens of times--right over there, next to the remains of the police station--and cheering and saluting and burning things. Back when they could choose what to burn, when they had things they thought they didn’t need so much. What a thing that would be now, Ben thought, to have a huge bonfire in the centralplatz again. Would everyone come?

The entire southern wall of the town hall had fallen over like it had been shot, lying nearly intact and blocking the road, covering the cobbles with cinderblock. Not long ago, Ben had built steps out of some of the rubble, and he and the kid took them at speed. They raced across the wall with its huge mural of the Fearless Leader now begrimed by ash, and dust, and the incoming, outgoing footprints of Ben and the few others left to guard the place. On the far side, a stone staircase led down into the dark, though truth be told the dark was gathering outside so quickly there wasn’t much difference.

Behind the two of them, back in the direction of the centralplatz, Ben heard a low moan, like the wind, but he knew it wasn’t. It was Frau Geller. She was always first.

Ben prepared to pick the kid up, if necessary, and take the stairs down two at a time, when the kid stopped dead and turned back toward the sound, eyes showing white and brows furrowed. Ben ripped his shirt a little, trying to keep his grip. It tugged the kid backward toward the staircase, but the kid kept his face pointed back in the direction of the sound.

“Not now, kid,” Ben said. “We got no time.”

But the kid ignored him, and even took a tentative step toward the moaning, now joined by two or three other voices. Ben jerked him backward. He’d gotten much heavier all of a sudden.

Then the kid made that mewling sound again, only this time it rose at the end, as if he were asking a question.

“Oh, no,” Ben said. “We don’t talk to these ones. If you’re gonna talk all of a sudden, talk to me.” Bodily, he heaved the kid over his shoulder and ran down the stairs. The kid cried out again. Ben wondered if he could see Frau Geller, gray dress, pinched face, hair pulled back into a severe bun, tiny glasses perched at the end of her nose, translucent and shifting like the fog, a wraith slinking across the ruin of the town hall. It was a thing Ben had seen far too often. Pausing only to slam the iron door shut behind him, Ben fled down the worn stone steps into the cellar.

#

Frustrating, to have the bunker be the place they were forced to gather. There were abandoned houses, dozens of them, many with excellent views of the surrounding hills, but it was impossible to be in those places after the sun went down.

Not that the thick concrete walls and reinforced iron of the door were complete protection. But it made them feel better. And it helped that the wraiths mostly refused to force themselves through such solid defenses.

The child wandered the length and breadth of the room, quartering it like a visitor to a museum trying to make sure that no piece of art, no matter how obscure, evaded notice. But the room wasn’t big enough to hold his attention for long. Only about ten meters by six, the bunker had been hollowed out of bedrock as a last resort for when the garrison’s high command had to seal themselves off from capture.

It didn’t work. Most of the high command were vaporized by a shell--a single shell--that landed right in the middle of their roast chicken dinner. A misfire, almost certainly, as no other bombs had fallen that day. Somewhere, a gunner had simply launched a shell for his own amusement.

There was no holding things together in the town after that.

But Ben had his orders, and more stripes on his sleeve than anyone else. He moved the group to the bunker, all of them. That was back when they had twenty-five or so, packed in like tinned fish. Now they were six. Any day, they’d lose another, and another. Everyone knew how this was going to end, war or no war.

Jozef. Franz. Eberhard. Dieter. Abelard. And Ben. And, well, now the kid, he supposed, whatever his name was.

A pair of candles, flanking the stairway, gave uncertain light. In one corner, a pot-bellied black iron stove belched its smoke up the thin tin chimney into the air some ten meters above. Most nights, like tonight, it was warm enough, though it could get really hot if they found coal hiding somewhere. Abelard had brought pieces of an old table, polished oak, and he fed the carcass through the grating. The flames, always hungry, licked at the new offering with thanks, and gave a pleasant warmth in return. Ben loosened his coat.

He expected the half-frozen child to go to the stove like a magnet to steel, but he gave no sign that the heat meant anything at all to him. His circuit of the room’s perimeter complete, he sat down on the dusty concrete a few feet away from the left-hand rear corner, and wrapped his arms around his legs, drawing them up toward his chest.

“What is with the kid?” Abelard said, from his recumbent post to the stove’s immediate right.

Ben shrugged. “I don’t know where he came from. Found him in the theater.”

“Doing what? Performing Goethe?”

“Lying under a pile of rubbish.”

Franz grunted. “Probably trying to get warm. What’s his name?” Franz got up, went over to the kid, and kicked his foot to get his attention. “Hey kid. What’s your name?”

The kid did not respond, not even looking up at the tall, gaunt soldier looming over him. He kept his eyes fixed on the steps, and said nothing, did nothing, other than slowly breathing in and out. If he hadn’t been breathing, Ben would have thought he was dead.

Franz crouched, reached out, and took the kid’s thin face in his spider-like hand. “Kid, I’m very politely talking to you,” he said. “My name is Franz. I would like to know your name.”

The kid said nothing. But Ben heard Franz’s sharp intake of breath when he saw the kid’s eyes.

“Yeah. That’s exactly what I thought,” Ben said.

Franz let go of the kid and retreated to his throne, a much-repaired wooden chair scavenged from the gasthaus at the end of Keylwerthgasse. “Never saw the like,” Franz said. “Except…”

“What?” Jozef said, as if just coming awake. His short body was laid along a section of the short wall, and it was sometimes possible to forget he was there at all.

“Kid’s eyes are like theirs,” Franz said. “Never saw eyes like that on a living man before.”

Jozef’s head came off the floor and he regarded the kid in silence for a moment. “Still haven’t. That’s no man, or I’m the Fearless Leader himself.”

Ben unslung his pack and dumped its contents on the meager pile next to the stove. It was a night’s worth. Maybe. If they hoarded. Which they would, because there was no way they’d go back up until their watches--bless the Swiss and their superb craftsmanship--told them the sun was well up in what remained of the bleak, ruined sky.

On the short wall by the stairs, to the right of the black mouth of the stairwell, stood a set of wide, sturdy wooden shelves, on which were stacked cans of food. Once crammed full, the shelves now showed gaps, like the holes in a good loaf of well-risen bread. Another thing that was running out.

“We need to talk,” Ben said. It was his tone, more than anything else, that perked up heads around the room. No one moved their bodies more than a little, still less came to attention, as they might have in days gone by, but there was a subtle reorientation toward Ben as the focus. He stood in the center of the room, where he could see everyone’s faces.

“I know it’s dangerous to go out. I know we none of us like to risk the wraiths. But we can’t stay here forever, and we can’t keep the fire going on what I bring in my sack, not forever.”

“None of us going to live forever,” Abelard said, “‘cept maybe for Dieter, ‘cuz he’s so mean even death don’t want him.”

Dieter shrugged and spread his hands, denying nothing.

Ben’s voice was hard. “Anyone thinks like that, they can go up the stairs right now.”

An uncomfortable shifting, but no one challenged it, and no one volunteered.

“That’s what I thought,” Ben went on. “We have a job to do, and we’re going to do it. That means more scavenging, from everyone. We’ve neglected the duty roster, but I think it’s time--”

“The duty roster?” Jozef said. The force of his statement pulled him upright against his wall. “What duty are you talking about? To protect the town? Against what? Against whom? For what? For whom? Everyone is dead except the six of us. If the ‘enemy’ wants this place, why can they not have it? Why do you think they haven’t already got it? As if we could stop them, if they came through the pass.”

Jozef came right up to his feet. He was shorter than Ben by a couple inches, but made up for it with a solidity like the rock the room was carved from. “No, sir, we have only one duty left. Stay alive as long as possible. There’s no one to protect but ourselves.”

He advanced until he was standing no more than a foot away from Ben. Their coat buttons practically touched.

A thousand things ran through Ben’s head, none of them useful. One, though, stayed in its central place in Ben’s mind--a picture of his father, going out the door one Sunday morning. Glorious, sunny morning, with birds winging back and forth between the apple trees, and there was his father, a piece of his jaw missing and a chunk of leg left in Belgium, shouldering his pack and his rifle. “You can’t go,” Mother had said. “Haven’t you given enough to this war?”

“To the war, yesh,” Father had said, with the mushy accent caused by the gap in his face. He placed his cap on his head and adjusted it to just the right angle. “But never to my duty.”

“You swore to protect me and the children,” Mother said, voice hard.

“This is how I can fulfill my oath.”

“Damn your oath.” Mother spat into the fireplace.

“My oath is all I am,” he said, and went out the door. They never found his body, that Ben ever heard. All that was sure was that he didn’t come home. If he had kept his promise, Ben never knew it. But the words still rang in his memory, like his sense of himself.

Ben said to Jozef, “My oath is all I am.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“It means I stand my post. If I die for it, well, who isn’t going to die?”

“Faugh,” Jozef said, backing off and hurling a thin stick into the corner. “Die then, if you’re so excited about it.”

“I don’t want to die. But I also don’t want you to die. Who went out for fuel this morning?” Ben said. His gaze challenged each man in turn, and none would meet his gaze for long.

“I can’t...I have no hope, Ben.” This was Eberhard. Ben had begun to wonder whether he was still alive. “I know I should get up and go out, and do something, but why? What does it come to? What does it mean? Tonight I’ll be right here, and tomorrow, and the next day. Forever it goes on. And then a shell catches me, or a...a wraith...or I die of boredom. But what difference is that? Have I not already died? Here I am, in my grave, and Hell is above me.” He pointed toward the low ceiling, not more than a few centimeters above Ben’s head. “I have descended below Hell itself.”

There seemed no reply to this. Once a great scholar, Eberhard had been destined for politics, university, long walks along the Rhine and deep discussion with physicists and poets. Now he was here.

The boy shifted, stuck his knobby legs out straight from the wall. His face remained fixed on the stairway, but his slight movement reminded Ben he was there.

“There’s the boy,” Ben said.

“What about the boy?” Franz said, getting up to warm his hands by the stove. It was putting out very little heat at the moment. The oak chair’s fuel must have given out. Even with the seven of them in the room, it had begun to get chilly. That was an invitation to no good.

“I found him in the town. There might be others.”

Derisive snorts. “Where? Rising from the ground?” Franz said. “Don’t we know how that works already?”

“But he’s not one of them,” Ben said. “We can touch him. He needs us. Without us, he’ll be claimed for sure. Are you going to let that happen? Ourselves, fine. We’ve stood our post and done our best. But there are other people out there. We don’t know how many. What if we left them to fend for themselves?”

Sullen glances, but no outright challenges. There was, in fact, the boy, sitting against the wall. No one could say it was impossible.

From somewhere above, on the staircase, came a low, moaning cry. Blood drained from their faces.

“The fire,” Jozef whispered. “Stoke the fire!”

Abelard whipped open the grating and Jozef grabbed an armful of combustibles from the pile, shoving them in. Too much. The coals, low enough already, sputtered and smoked, but made no flame.

“You smothered it!” Abelard said, flinging Jozef back and kneeling to blow into the stove’s belly.

But there wasn’t time. The candles flanking the stairwell guttered and went out.

Even before the wraith reached the bottom of the stairs, they could see the unearthly glow of it as it descended. In the ruddy light of the coals, their faces were those of the damned.

Eberhard rose slowly from his place along the wall. “I’ll go,” he said, taking a hesitant step toward the entrance, like a man making up his mind. “It will only take one, might as well be me.”

“No,” Ben said, but without force. Someone had to. Once the thing was inside, it couldn’t be removed. Couldn’t be fought. Couldn’t be evaded, for all it was slow like a cloud peeling away from covering the moon. It would never tire. Never stop. They had played blind-man’s-bluff with one for hours, one night, screaming and dodging until Gunter tripped in his exhaustion. Then the thing simply drained his life away, fading afterward as a jewel cast into a dark pond.

Usually the warmth of the room kept the things at bay, but as in so much else, Ben had not been watchful. Had not been true. He had failed his men, again.

So one of them would die tonight, and why should it not be Eberhard, who seemed almost to welcome it?

“No!” Ben said, more firmly this time. “It will be me. When I am gone, you men can do whatever you like. But I can do this, at least, for you.” Shoving Eberhard back against the wall, he turned and strode toward the staircase.

The boy, until this moment as still as cast bronze, leaped to his feet and interposed himself between Ben and the doorway, his back to Ben, his arms outstretched as a barrier, and his eyes eternally fixed on the stairs.

“Kid! No!” Ben said, but there was a wiry strength to the child that made him difficult to dislodge. It was like grappling with an octopus. He would remove one arm from his path, but another came to take its place. Their strugglings carried them toward the stairs. Almost they were at the mouth of them, and still the boy writhed and wrestled and kept his thin body between Ben and the door.

Ben looked up the dimly-lit passage. “Herr Schneider,” he breathed.

On the stairs, now just four or five from the bottom, was the spectre of the former councilman, a seller of books, a man who had once read stories to the children in the town square, sitting on the edge of the fountain to tell his tales to clouds of young ones. Ben remembered. He had been one of them.

But there was no kindness in his visage now. No recognition, nor mercy, either, in the ice-blue pits of his eyes. He was dressed--if such a being can be dressed--as he was every day Ben remembered seeing him. He and his wife had died when a shell had gone through a corner of their house and destroyed the supports under their bed. The rescue crew had found them still holding one another, suffocated under a mountain of dust and rock.

Now he was coming for Ben, and why not? If anyone was going to take him, Herr Schneider might as well be the one.

But the boy would not relent. Now he was hissing and howling, clawing at Ben to stay between him and his doom. How could a boy who should have been frozen and starving have this much strength? For he was very strong, a kind of feral energy pouring out of him that Ben struggled to match.

Ben grabbed him by the waist and made to throw him aside. He could, at the last, save this one child, even if he had been able to save no one else.

But the boy twisted in his grasp and slithered away, shirt tearing wide now and exposing the bony back, the outline of ribs. And a birthmark, red and angry against the white skin, just above the right hip.

Ben froze. He knew this mark. It could not be.

The momentary shock of it let the boy loose. He leaped up one stair and stood with arms outstretched, facing the wraith.

Then, at last, he spoke. “Manfred,” he said. His voice was preternaturally low, the voice of a grown man. It should not have been possible for it to come from the throat of this boy.

Ben expected the wraith to reach out--it was close enough, now--and drain the life from the boy. Ben cried out and reached, as if to pull the boy back, the boy with the impossible mark, but rough hands seized him. “Wait,” Eberhard whispered in his ear. “There is more here than you understand.”

Because it was Eberhard, Ben paused, and watched.

“Who are you?” the spectre said.

“Do you not know me?” the man/child said. “Do you not see me, even now, as you always did?”

That voice. No. Unimaginable.

“Willem,” the wraith finally said.

“Ah, good. Then you do remember.”

“Stand aside. You and I have no quarrel.”

The boy did not move a muscle, except to say, “Neither have you, with anyone here. Not you, nor anyone in this place.”

“Faithless. Slothful. Wanting,” the ghost rasped out.

“No.”

“Where were they when Elise and I took our last choking breaths?”

“Exactly where they said they would be. Exactly where they pledged their oaths to be.”

“Then why were we not saved? Why were none of us saved!” At this the wraith loomed up, larger than before and at the same time a wan light bloomed behind him. Above, on the stairs, more of the wraiths appeared, sliding painfully through the door and descending the steps, moaning, calling out. Now Ben could hear what they said, though it had been nothing but moaning before. Names. They were calling out the names of the living men below.

But the boy remained in his place. They could not pass without touching him, as his form filled the doorway. Had he grown, as well? Aged, even? Ben could not see his face. But then, he did not need to.

“All die. All come to their ends. All that matters is that we were at our posts when that end came,” the boy said.

“Why, then, do we walk still, instead of going on?” This question raised a howling from the crowded mass behind Herr Schneider.

“Ask your Elise,” the boy said.

The ghost hissed as if branded. “I cannot! She is not here!”

“And have you ever asked yourself, in your thoughtless rage, why she has gone and you remain?”

The wraith opened its mouth and poured out a sound so horrid it rattled the cans on their shelves. Ben heard it through his bones and teeth, and he thought they would shatter.

“Begone, you, and all of you. These men have stood their oath. They owe you nothing but to keep to it. If they remain true, you will leave them. Search elsewhere for satisfaction for your hopeless rage.” The child’s voice rang up the stone passage, and like a wind dispels fog, so it scattered the forms there, tearing holes in them like rotting cloth, until only Herr Schneider remained, a lone, diminished figure on the worn hard stairs. Agony ate at his once-kindly face.

“We were friends, once,” Schneider said. “To repay me our friendship thus…”

The child laughed, a rolling, full laugh the like of which Ben had not heard since...since the day his father went out the door that last time.

“I have not repaid you at all, for what do friends owe one another?”

“Only that they are true.”

“Manfred, my dear friend. We once swore to be heartbrothers until the stars fell. Do you remember?”

“Yes,” the ghost said. “Yes, I remember. Do you stand upon that oath?”

Ben could have sworn he heard creeping hope in his reedy voice.

The child reached out his hand. “My oath is all I am.” And he and the wraith clasped forearms, as brothers do.

The boy and the wraith began to fade away, locked together by an oath that would never be broken. Ben tore himself from the grasp of his men and hurled himself at the thinning figure. “Father!” he cried, reaching out.

His father’s head turned and regarded him with a broad smile. “So I keep my oath to you, my son. Keep thou yours to me.”

Before Ben could close his hand on his father’s arm, they were gone.

Ben knelt on the stairs and sobbed for a long time before his men could persuade him to come down and sleep on the thin blankets piled up for a bed.

But the next day, they went up, all of them. The sun never shone that day, and still the rolling thud of heavy artillery ran through the ground like an earthquake. It was two more weeks before a plane--a fighter, just one--came through the cloud and dove low across the face of the ruined town. They were out, all six of them, and they stood next to the broken fountain and let it see them. It passed once, twice, and left with a waggle of wings.

Two days later some men came rolling down from the mountains in a truck. Well-fed, armed, fresh men from somewhere Ben had never been. But Eberhard could speak with them, and he said the war was over.

“Not officially, they say. But in the next few weeks. They could take us to a camp.”

Ben said, “Tell them we’d rather die right here.”

“Hey!” Jozef said. But he didn’t mean it.

Eberhard told them. They muttered among themselves for a while, and finally climbed back on the truck. Their leader said something, and the truck rolled out along the road to elsewhere.

Ben looked at Eberhard. “They don’t have any orders to imprison ghosts,” Eberhard said, his eyes on the dusty road.

The men went back to scavenging. Ben went down Franz Josef Strasse and found Herr Schneider’s house. He rooted through the shattered brick until he found what he sought, then went to the town square and sat on a crumbled edge of the fountain and began to read out loud.

One day children would come to hear him. He was sure of it.

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About Christopher Jones

Christopher JH Jones (alias Mr. C and Cj Lehi), after decades without success, quit writing in 2013. After trying repeatedly to grow up—without discernible success—he repented, and has gone on to publish several books in multiple genres. He is known for his business book, From Poop Into Gold: The Marketing Magic of Harmon Brothers, and other nonfiction titles; for his true-crime historical thriller series Trinity Flynn; and for Twelve Upon a Time, his collection of original fairy tales. A prolific writer of short fiction as well, Cj has published two short-story collections and been featured in six anthologies.

His latest labor of love is founding Drabatic Press. We’re all still waiting to see how that turns out.

Cj resides in Lehi, UT, with his wife Jeanette, their eight children, three children-in-law, one murderous cat, and a stray hummingbird. He loves Twitter, (@cjhjones), Instagram (@iamchrisjones) and visitors to his website (iamchrisjones.com).

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