Xerek and Karl's misadventures during the Second World War. Best if read following "Hindsight".
The boy froze, his breath catching in his throat. Slowly, deliberately, he set down needle and scalpel and raised his bloodied hands. Why anyone would press a child into service was beyond Julian, but Nazis had never been known for their compassion. Having a seven-year-old help with surgeries was just one more oddity to add to an already impressive list he had begun compiling during the last war. It seemed that list got one or two amendments with every day he spent serving in this one. A second curiosity was noted as the "boy" lifted his head. Thick glasses perched on his nose and a scruff of dark stubble covered his chin. Dear God... This was no boy, this was...
The word was blank with disbelief, as was Julian's expression. How in the name of all things holy had Karl ended up as a medic for the Nazi forces? Certainly not by choice, unless something drastic had happened in the last three years.
"...Julian?" Karl gaped. "Oh thank God!" he exclaimed, latching onto Julian's jacket and launching into a garbled mix of English and German so rapid and confused Julian couldn't follow it. Tears were welling up in the smaller man's eyes as he raced on, apparently trying to explain what had happened.
"Hold on, I can't understand you," Julian said, trying to disentangle Karl's fingers from his uniform. Karl blubbered on, tears pouring down his face.
"Karl? KARL!" The word was barked at the top of his voice as Julian smacked his friend soundly across the face, nearly knocking his glasses off. Karl reeled slightly with the impact, then shook himself and straightened his glasses, taking a moment to breathe.
"Thanks," he panted, "I needed that."
"What on earth are you doing in grays?" Julian asked, eager to learn how a man so gentle could possibly have joined German forces with a clear conscience.
"Shanghaied," was Karl's brief reply. "They wouldn't take no for an answer."
Julian nodded thoughtfully. "Do they know?"
Karl shook his head, which, Julian noted, was now sprinkled with gray.
"No, by God's grace they never found out." He rubbed his head as if it hurt. "Go ahead, shoot me if you must. I don't mind."
"I'm not going to shoot you unless you give me reason to." Julian told him, somewhere between annoyed and confused.
"I'm one of them, isn't that reason enough?"
"Are you really?"
Julian thought Karl might burst into tears again, his expression almost too painful to observe.
"No. I never vas. I did vhat I did to survive."
Julian nodded. Karl was a horrible liar. How he had managed to stay alive so long in the hands of hostile forces was beyond him, but he was honestly glad to see the little doctor alive.
"I know," Julian nodded, offering a handkerchief to Karl to clean the blood off his face and hands. "Come on, I'll take you with us."
"Us?" Karl blinked blankly.
"My unit. All 'gifted' young men like you and I."
Karl nodded uncertainly at Julian's attempt at a reassuring smile.
"They won't hurt you if I tell them not to."
"Er...thank you." Karl did not look convinced, but nodded his gratitude regardless.
"What's this then? You found something, Radio?" a young man, perhaps nineteen or so, had entered the half-fallen tent. It didn't take him long to notice Karl.
"Found yourself a kraut have you?" he asked, training his rifle on Karl. "Maybe 'gherkin' would be a better term. Not much to him, is there?"
Karl swallowed hard as the younger soldier nudged his shoulder with the barrel of his rifle.
"That's enough, MacDonnell." Julian stated. "He's on our side."
"You're telling me he's with us? A German?"
"Not all Germans are Nazis, MacDonnell."
"He's wearing the bloody uniform!"
"It's only bloody because he's a medic." Julian answered coolly. "You have absolutely nothing to fear from him, I assure you."
MacDonnell did not look as if he believed him.
"With all due respect, Sir, how do you know that?"
"This man is a friend of mine. He is a gifted surgeon and one of the most honest men I have ever come in contact with. His service in the German army was not voluntary."
MacDonnell continued to look dubious.
"You sure he won't chew our ankles off in the night?"
Julian rolled his eyes. "Yes. And if he does, you're twice his size. Surely you aren't afraid of someone less than half your strength and weight?"
It might not have been the most flattering argument, but Julian's taunt and raised eyebrow did the trick. Karl's physical stature- or lack thereof- had always been a bit of a sensitive subject, but now he was grateful for it. Hopefully the rest of the boys would feel the same way about his diminutive German friend.
They looked at both him and Karl sideways at first, but went along with it, if grudgingly. MacDonnell especially did not trust Karl, and took any opportunity he could to provoke the smaller man, hoping for an excuse to fight with him. Karl never gave him the chance, but sat and quietly took whatever prodding and insults MacDonnell threw at him. Karl's grasp of English was limited and MacDonnell's understanding of German even worse. Julian eventually told him not to waste insults on a man who didn't understand he was being mocked. He wasn't sure how true it was, but he was getting annoyed with MacDonnell's attitude himself and it did stop the taunting. Even as physically unintimidating as he was, Karl was the embodiment of everything the boys had been trained to hate. Not one of them trusted him, but they trusted Julian. What the CO said went, and for once in his life, Julian was glad he was in charge. The boys obeyed with minor protests when he told them not to bother the little doctor, and Karl meekly complied with any orders Julian gave.
He trotted along with them, keeping up surprisingly well for his short legs, still carrying his truncated German kit and wearing a cast off British coat and helmet that were several sizes too big over his German fatigues. Perhaps he was glad to be on the "right" side of the war, perhaps he would rather have been shot back in the tent, Julian was unsure. Karl's expression rarely shifted from a blank and haunted look and he never said two words to the other team members but instead muttered to himself for hours. Karl had never been one to talk to himself and so, despite his admitted ineptness in human communication, Julian tried to engage his friend in conversation. However, Karl, while he had never been a chatterbox, seemed to have lost all sense of language. Julian tried both German and English but got only brief, monosyllabic responses. Outside of the standard military responses of "yes, sir," "no, sir", "no excuse, sir", and "sir, I don't understand," Karl became confused and either struggled for a coherent reply or simply remained silent. Julian was not the most empathetic man on earth, but even a fool could tell something monstrous had happened. He tried asking Karl about it, hoping that if given the chance to vent his feelings, to explain as he had tried to in the tent, Karl might come back to himself somewhat.
"What happened?" Julian asked one evening over C-rations.
Karl, who had been mechanically shoveling the starchy, salty slop into his mouth, stopped and stared at Julian as if unsure who he was.
"Shanghaied," he said, the look in his eyes growing blank and distant until Julian was sure his face had vanished from his friend's field of vision. "They vouldn't take no for an answer..."
"Karl?" Julian waved a hand before the little doctor's eyes but Karl did not even blink.
"Karl?" Julian shook his shoulder slightly.
Karl jumped and returned to earth. His eyes darted over the campsite as if unsure where he was. Swallowing hard, he looked up at Julian and asked:
"Vhy didn't you shoot me?"
Julian just stared.
He tried asking twice more over the course of the tour and got the same disjointed answer, blank stare, and morbid question he'd gotten originally. The third time, tears had crept into Karl's pale blue eyes. Julian decided whatever had happened might be best left buried. He let the matter be.
More than one of the unit had reservations about Karl, particularly about his sanity. Max, who had led a rather sheltered life, was especially wary of him. Julian himself wondered just how badly the Nazis had wounded his friend's mind. Originally he had let Karl be, only requiring him to keep up and allowing him what rest he could under the circumstances. This turned out to be a bad idea. When left to himself Karl would stare into space and shiver, muttering in a tangled mix of language that probably didn't make sense to anyone but Karl. Though Karl had not been a smoker during their medical school days, he went rapidly through the cigarettes Julian offered. The smoldering little rolls of tobacco appeared to give him something to focus on, calming him to a degree. Karl's state of mind evidently improved if he was kept busy. Rather than excusing Karl from duties, Julian now piled him with chores. Karl became the camp servant, but didn't seem to mind. Indeed he was probably glad of the distraction. He prepared the camp fires when such a thing could be had, cleared sleeping space, prepared meals when actual food was available, washed the kits and any laundry that cropped up, and polished endless pairs of boots. The labor was menial, but it severed the dual benefits of keeping Karl distracted and the boys in the unit from becoming more hostile toward him. Eventually they took to ordering him about themselves, tipping him in cigarettes for his trouble and treating more like a pet than a person. Julian let it go. It was better to have them sending "Gherkin" on errands than to have them whispering about the possibility of the half-sized physician coming after them in the night with a scalpel.
Strangely, a medic was not something Julian's Special Forces unit had ever been equipped with. Karl made a much-needed seventh (or sixth-and-a-half, as the boys joked) man under Julian's direction. While none of them had sustained any severe injuries so far, he was certain it was only a matter of time. After a brush with Italian forces, Julian's fears were confirmed. MacDonnell (it figured, Julian thought) sustained a bullet wound to his left arm. Julian had never explained Karl's position in the unit to any of the other men, fearing further dissent in the ranks. Karl was not asked or ordered, but of his own volition stepped up and began treating MacDonnell's wound. The younger man did not take this well.
"Hey now!" he protested as Karl laid hold of his arm and began stripping back the fabric of his sleeve. "What do you think you're doing? Get off! I'm not gonna let some half-pint kraut saw me off at the elbow!"
He tried to wriggle away but Karl held him firm, evidently surprising MacDonnell with his strength. He had not expected a man so small to be so powerful.
"Hold still," Karl told him in passable English, sounding for the first time like the man Julian remembered. "Your injury is not zat bad. It isn't broken, but the bullet is still stuck."
MacDonnell could only gawk at Karl's sudden command of both English and his senses. It wasn't until Karl went in after the bullet that he began to protest in earnest.
"Hold him!" Karl barked as MacDonnell tried to squirm out of his grasp. Max and Cox exchanged brief glances before clobbering MacDonnell, pinning him where he sat.
"Get off, you bloody fools, get off!" MacDonnell bellowed as Karl dug in his arm. "Are you going to let this bloody dwarf murder me?!"
"Calm down," Karl told him, chucking the bullet over his shoulder and producing antiseptic and a threaded needle. "It isn't zat bad."
"The hell it isn't!" MacDonnell cried and launched into a tirade of language so foul Julian had to raise an eyebrow over some of the remarks. He'd never heard that one before. Or that one. Or that one. By the time Karl was finished, the swearing had died down to petulant grumbling.
"There." Karl said, stepping back and putting away his tools. "Try to keep it up. It'll heal more quickly."
MacDonnell just stared at his bandaged arm dubiously, as if Karl's touch had tainted him somehow. He gave no word of thanks, but didn't fling any insults either. Max and Cox let him up and he quietly went back to duty. Karl too returned to business as usual, the haunted look clouding his eyes once more, hiding the human being trapped inside.
Karl became their unspoken medic after that. The boys remained wary of him, but learned to trust him enough to let him patch them up when they became injured. Karl was most like himself when he was up to his elbows in blood, doing his best to put someone back together. The more complex the task, the more he returned to himself, but as soon as the moment was over, crisis averted, the stress would overtake him once more and unless Julian found something else for him to do, he'd go back to staring and gibbering to himself again.
"Sir...?" Max had asked as they trudged into the twilight of one cold November evening. "About the Doc...?"
It had become Karl's other nickname since becoming the unofficial medic. A decided improvement over "Gherkin", though Karl hardly seemed to notice or care. Julian glanced briefly over at his friend, who plodded doggedly on, taking three or four steps for every one of theirs, hands in his pockets since he had no weapon, oblivious.
"He's...all right upstairs? Isn't he?"
Julian glanced over at Karl again. The haunted look still lingered on his worried face. He wasn't quite sure what to tell his subordinate.
"Shell shock. Combat fatigue they call it now." he explained. "There are things about war that will turn a man inside out."
Max nodded. "What happened to him?"
"He hasn't said. I wouldn't bother him about it," Julian cautioned, eyeing the younger man. "He'll explain when he's ready."
Karl never did become ready. At least he never explained anything voluntarily. The chores, long marches, and frequent missions and encounters left them all dog-tired. Sleep never came easy in a war zone, but exhaustion certainly helped. Karl alone seemed to be immune to weariness. Julian could hear him muttering to himself as he lay in the dirt a few feet away. Julian was not exactly fluent in German, his skill mostly conversational. Cox was the only other member who understood the language, and Julian sometimes worried what the young man would overhear. Apparently Karl's self-made remarks were just as cryptic to Cox as they were to Julian.
"You ever wonder what he's mumbling about?" Cox had asked while keeping watch one night. Karl's groggy murmurings were only just audible on the ghostly night air. Julian shrugged.
"You speak German, don't you Sir?"
Julian nodded. "Somewhat."
"D'you know what he's saying?"
"Not really." Julian worried distantly where Cox was headed with this.
"Were you going to enlighten me?"
"I was, Sir."
"Well, he isn't muttering about us, Sir."
"I didn't think he was."
"But...what he is babbling about..."
"It's names, Sir. Names and numbers. Serial numbers, I'd wager. He's been repeating a list of them to himself for hours now. And when he gets done with that he just keeps going 'I'm sorry' over and over again."
Julian looked at Cox in the darkness.
"Names you say?"
Cox nodded. Julian thought about that. Those names and numbers could belong to anyone, soldier or civilian. Perhaps they were allies, or enemy soldiers. For some reason the list had been burned into Karl's brain and whoever those people were, he felt responsible for them. Julian dared not ask Karl directly, such prodding would likely push him over the edge. There was, however, another way to go about this.
"Give me one of the names, would you? Something easy to pick out."
"Doing a little investigating, Sir?"
"Something like that. Name please?"
Cox thought a moment. "Gottleib, Isaac J., 6411327."
Taking a mental pace back, Julian relayed the information across the continent.
Roger, a tinny voice replied in his head.
Need a recon on one Gottleib, Isaac J., serial 6411327.
Negative. No such person listed among Ally records.
Negative. Look up, please?
If you say so. Roger.
A longer pause.
Negative. That serial is not listed under any known service.
Search other records?
A long pause indeed.
Confirmed. #6411327, Gottleib, Isaac J. was part of a shipment of Jewish refugees taken to Buchenwald near Weimar a few months back. We intercepted the paperwork.
Buchenwald? Julian asked.
Buchenwald... The word meant "beech forest" in German. Hadn't E said she once lived in Weimar? And hadn't she said something about a wood not far from her old house? Good heavens, E. He hadn't thought about her in ages. At least she was safe in England. Though perhaps it was the Germans who were safer away from E. She would not be overly amused to discover Nazis camped virtually in her back yard.
Yes, one of the death camps. They do human experimentation there, evidently.
Julian abruptly let the communication drop. Dear God. Surely they were wrong. Such things did not exist. He'd heard the horror stories, but surely one man would not do that to another. He glanced over at Karl's now sleeping form huddled silently on the ground.
No. Not Karl. Never by choice. He'd been over fond of the very rats at the medical school. Karl would never even dream of doing something so barbaric. How could it even be true? And yet it fit perfectly. It explained everything far too well: the haunted look, the muttering, the shaking. They must have persuaded him at gunpoint. Karl would never have done it any other way. God... Julian rubbed his face with one hand, suddenly feeling profoundly ill.
He had entirely forgotten Cox was there.
"Find anything, Sir?"
"No," he answered. "Nothing."
Karl tagged along with them for the rest of the tour, all three long years of it. They never did find him a uniform that fit, but at least he was no longer obviously German looking. He never truly became part of the team, but eventually the other men grew to accept his presence. By the last year no one was calling him "Gherkin" anymore, he was simply "Doc" like every other medic in ranks. Karl, perversely, was most sound when things were most desperate. Bullets, blood, shelling, none of it bothered him. As long as he didn't have to deal with the ghosts in his head, he was all right, but the moment things calmed down he became haunted once more. Consequently, it came as something of a surprise when at last he cracked, not during an interlude of quiet, but in the aftermath of a freshly finished battle.
It wasn't much of a fight, small and comparatively brief, but still ugly. There wasn't much left of the war at that point, but several pockets of German forces had not yet gotten the message. Julian's unit had finally caught up to the rest of the allied forces, mixing in with Americans, Australians, and a handful of French. The bullets flew, so did more than a few shells, but in the end it was the allied troops who prevailed. However, the Germans had not given ground easily and more than young one man had dodged too late and too slow. Karl, not much good in a physical fight, had hung back. Now he scrambled from soldier to soldier, helping with triage. Once the dead had been separated from the wounded, Julian made sure his smallest subordinate was safe in the allied medical tent, coherent and up to his elbows in some poor boy's guts. The boy- Julian never found out his name- would live, so would a hundred others who by all rights should have died that day, saved by Karl's brilliant skill and gentle hand. Julian watched from a distance all day as clean up commenced, checking on him when he could to make sure things were as they should be.
It had been dark when the fighting started, the first bullets flying in the pre-dawn dusk. The last wound was finally stitched closed almost twenty-four hours later as the French sun rose over the belabored field and its former combatants. Julian, who had not slept either due to reporting and paperwork among him, his superiors, and the other allied officers, went to find Karl just as the first birds awoke and hesitantly began to chirp. Karl sat alone on a low, improvised bench, dazed and exhausted. He looked absolutely destroyed, his arms and uniform still coated in blood and gore, more of it streaked on is face and glasses where he had pushed them back up onto his nose; his eyes neither haunted with remembered ghosts nor alert with the pressure of a mission, but dead and empty. His breath came in labored gulps, as if he had run a long way, and beads of sweat ran down his face.
Julian watched as civilians, ill and injured, were brought into the tent now that the army's wounded had been taken care of. A little of the life returning to his eyes, Karl hauled himself to his feet, climbed back up onto his crate, and went to work. Julian stood back and observed, watching his friend do what he did best. The civilian injuries were mostly minor, the worst of their hurts laughable compared to those of the soldiers. Karl could have treated them with his eyes closed. Indeed, he seemed to be doing just that, his head kept slowly drooping until his chin was nearly resting on his chest and would then snap back up again. Julian considered taking him aside to get some rest, but a woman herding several small children elbowed in front of him. Ushering her brood toward Karl, she babbled something in rapid French. Karl nodded dumbly and went about fiddling with his equipment. The woman sat the smallest child, a girl of no more than three or four, upon the examination table. At her mother's command, the little girl rather unwillingly stuck out her arm. Karl faced the child, syringe in hand, and tried to smile.
"It's all right," he heard him say. "It vill only be a tiny pinch. A vaccination vill make you strong and protect you so you don't get sick."
Julian's brow furrowed. Karl's voice had become choked and wavering. His hands, usually so steady with such instruments, had begun to shake uncontrollably. The syringe fell from his hands, tumbling to the dusty ground below. A moment later Karl followed. His head lolling back and his knees giving beneath his weight he crumpled from the improvised stepstool, landing in the dust with a heavy thud.
"Karl? Karl!" Julian hadn't noticed closing the distance between him and his friend. Behind him the French woman shrieked and her children cried but he paid no attention. Karl lay limp and heavy in the dust, his eyes closed and lips parted slightly. His breath still came, but in shallow gasps. He was still alive, but he had reached his limit. He simply could not take any more. Scooping Karl off the ground, Julian elbowed past the still clucking French woman and headed for the barracks where the wounded lay recovering. Stripping Karl's gore-stained jacket, Julian laid his friend out on one of the few vacant cots lining the walls of the long tent.
"What's this then?"
An officer Xer recognized as Nelson Cornwallis had entered the tent. Perfect. He would do.
"Is this one yours?" Cornwallis asked.
"Something like that."
"Where did you pick him up?"
"Buchenwald survivor," Julian explained without batting an eye.
Cornwallis' eyes grew wide.
"The devil you say!" he gasped.
"Quite," Julian agreed.
"Dear me... Poor little chap. Is he all right?"
"I'm afraid I'm no judge." It was true enough. "He isn't physically injured. I think what he'll need most is mental counseling. Can I ask you to look after him for me?"
"Certainly," Cornwallis nodded. "Has the little chap got any family?"
"None here, he has relatives in New York."
"Ah, America. We have a shipment of French lads heading that way. I'll see he goes with them."
"Excellent. Oh- if you could please make sure he keeps his glasses. He's completely blind without them."
"Very good. I'll see he makes it to the USA in one piece, spectacles and all. You can depend on me, Xerek."
"Thank you, Cornwallis."
Julian looked back only once. Karl would be all right. Cornwallis would take good care of him until he got to America and with any luck, he'd be able to find E there. Yes, he would be all right. He had survived; he deserved that much.