We pull him away from the shelling. The guns still rumble outside as we journey deeper and deeper underground. The way down is supported. Strong. Beyond the thick concrete the earth turns to bedrock. A line of lights strung up the passageway to the door struggle to stay lit. When Hans closes the heavy wooden doors to the shelter behind all of us, they are the only safeguard we have to watch our footing.
I’ve walked this passage enough to know where the risky spots are. Near the bottom is a small divot that sent me spiralling to the ground a month before. We’ve just passed the broken chunk of stone that we all take care to avoid. The ground beneath our feet has been worn flat and hard by our boots. Up and down, over and over.
Instead of watching my footing I turn my attention to the boy four of us carry. I hold his left leg. Herr Kessler grips the right, sweat dripping off his forehead. Behind us both are Herr Fischler and Leon, supporting the boy’s head and upper body as best they can. The boy himself is a wreck. His uniform shields our eyes from the worst of the damage, but we know it’s there. In the stale orange light we can see the dark spots. I count over a dozen scattered throughout the shifting folds of cloth. A dark splatter crosses his left cheek. The boy’s mouth hangs limp. I can see broken teeth.
“Do you think Herr Steiner will fix him?” Leon asks. His German is garbled. Panicked. He is a newcomer to our group. Him and Herr Kessler hate going out more than anyone else. They have seen blood but the sight of death has still managed to evade them. They’ve never held a man’s arm while he faded.
“Better chance if we get him there quicker.” Herr Fischler snaps. “Laufst. Sprechen Sie nicht.”
As we walk we hear another shell explode outside. They must be trying for the barracks a block from our compound. Tough luck for them. They shell an empty building. The troops that might have been there are either dead or moved further into the city.
They will be upon us soon, and as much as the officers don’t want to understand it, they still must face reality. Better to fill up the numbers than keep everyone scattered.
We reach the bottom of the landing. The boy’s hair is matted to his forehead from sweat and dirt. It was Hans who saw him. He had run over to us, worried. A man. He said. Out on the street. Herr Fischler had asked if the boy was still breathing. A shrug from Hans was enough to send our little group out into the chaos. We carried him three blocks as the shelling thundered around us. So many of the buildings we march him past are empty. Broken stone and orderly holes that might have been windows once. That all seems so long ago.
Someone runs up to us. When he gets close enough to see I realize it’s Hauptmann Teller. His eyes jump from each of us to the body we carry.
“Dead?” He asks.
Leon shakes his head. Herr Fischler shrugs.
He stands aside. “Get him to Steiner then.” We pass by, our boots finding a unison.
The compound is a maze. We try our best to keep order and help those we can as the final stand struggles above our heads. It is my turn to check the vents tomorrow. So often they might get clogged with dust and debris.
We reach Herr Steiner’s room. Hans ran ahead, and the doctor is already preparing the table as we march the boy in.
“Good good. Get him on the table.” He mutters, scattering tools onto a metal tray. “I heard you coming.”
We lift him up and lie him flat. Herr Steiner wastes no time. He rips the shirt with two heavy pulls. There we see the brunt of the damage. Leon runs out of the room and I can hear him retching. He’ll clean it up.
Broken skin and blood and shrapnel. There doesn’t seem to be an end to it. In some spots I think I can see the pale white of the boy’s ribs. In others, the stringy mess of muscles of his diaphragm.
Herr Steiner clicks his tongue as he prepares. The tools are thrown into a pot of boiling hot water.
“Not good. Not good. Oh dear.” He says to himself.
And then he notices that we are all still there. He turns to us, concern suddenly on his face.
“Out… out.” He says. Shooing us away with his hand. “I’ll work on him.”
We all leave, walking one by one through the thin door to the hallway. I hear Herr Fischler groan and what must be the mess that Leon made. I stop and take one last look at the operating table before I close the door. Herr Steiner pulls one of the scalpels from the water. I see the steam curling off it as he slaps it down onto the tray.
The boy’s stomach still rises and falls. Every second he approaches what we fought so hard to avoid.
He is in someone else’s hands now.
“He isn’t going to make it.” Herr Fischler mutters as I shut the door. Leon leans against the wall, breathing heavy and clutching his stomach. Hans stares at the ceiling, his thick forearms crossed in front of him.
“We should have hope.” Herr Kessler says. “After all…”
“What’s it worth?” Herr Fischler says, turning to Kessler. “We’ve already lost three tonight.”
“They ran out during the worst of it. They were not being smart.”
“Their names were Gotzmann and Bauer and Feistel.” Fischler turns to Kessler, his eyes sunken in his head. Dark pits, skin stretched over his skul.. “Feistel slept on the bunk below you. Gotzmann over me.”
“They didn’t die for this boy.”
“Then what did they die for?” Fischler shouts.
We hear a scream from inside the room.
Fischler shuts up. He puts a hand over his forehead. The knuckles of his hand are still covered in mud.
We stand there in silence, all of us knowing that we won’t leave until Herr Steiner walks back out and tells us if we succeeded or failed tonight.
Their names were Gotzmann, Bauer and Feistel. They drank scavenged schnapps with us before we walked up that dimly lit passageway into the shelling outside. They sat with us in the rubble. They laughed with us at unfunny jokes and Hans’ stories of threesomes and of women more muscular than him. They watched the destruction of a place we all once called home.
Their patches were torn away long ago, just as we all did. Just as we all in the bunker must do.
Just as we will make the boy do, if he survives. He will watch his insignia burn, or we will send him away just as well.
We never killed. We must try and save.
Herr Fischler can only look ahead. We all know the reality. The questions we will need to give. Deep down, he hopes the boy survives more than any of us.