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Playing War

The damp foxhole eight-year-old Peter was crouched in had been punched into the dirt road by a solitary shell, possibly misfired from a gun of monstrous proportions. It was a grey early spring morning. The snow had turned into a cold rain, but Peter was not perturbed by the icy water seeping into his tattered shoes or the face numbing blasts of wind. He kept his eyes fixed on the edge of the forest sporadically pulling the trigger of an imaginary machine gun to cut down wave after wave of snarling Russians as they emerged from between the trees.
“Na na na na na,” the boy chattered to simulate the sound of machine gun fire.
“Reload!” He shouted before pulling the invisible bolt back to resume firing.
“Na na na na!”
“How’s the defense of our village going soldier?”
Peter looked over his shoulder and saw two soldiers with rifles slung over their shoulders. Each of them clenched a burning cigarette between their lips. Their gray uniforms were baggy, and they kept having to lift up the brims of their oversized hats embroidered with the mighty imperial eagle that kept falling over their eyes. As they got closer, Peter could see the soldiers were just boys probably no older than sixteen.
Free from the watchful eye of their disciplinarian officers the two boys attention had lapsed a bit. They laughed at each other as they passed the boy sitting in a hole playing out his make-believe version of the war. Peter was enamored; they weren’t old enough to shave yet now here they were in the uniforms of full-fledged Wehrmacht soldiers!
“Have you killed any Russians?” Peter blurted out.
They stopped and turned to him. The slightly taller one on the left took a drag from his cigarette.
“Have we killed any Russians?” he repeated the question slowly.
“Just yesterday I used this to shoot a red sniper right out of a tree at 200 yards,” the young soldier said as he clutched his rifle.
His companion was gritting his teeth as if trying to stop himself from grinning.
The wide-eyed boy took another step towards Peter and unsheathed a small blade from his side. “And this knife I used to cut off Koniev's dick!”
“You’re lying!” Peter gasped.
“It’s true when he was done he shoved it up Zhukov's ass!” his friend’s voice cracked as he burst into laughter.
All three of them were laughing now. “My name is Eric,” the taller soldier introduced himself. “I’m Victor,” his friend said with a smile.
“I'm Peter,” he said wiping the cold raindrops from his brow.
What are you doing out here in the cold?” Eric asked as he stepped inside the crater.
“My father is a machine gunner on the eastern front,” Peter explained. “So that’s what I want to do when I join the Wehrmacht.”
“How’s your training going?” Eric asked as he squatted down next to Peter and surveyed the pretend battlefield.
“I’m cutting them down by the division!” Peter said proudly.
“If only we had a thousand more like you,” Victor snickered.
“What’s that just beyond the tree line?” Eric asked urgently. Peter looked directly into the empty forest.
“There they are on our two ‘o clock!” Eric shouted Peter swung his imaginary gun around and fired in the general direction.
“Now our twelve!” Eric gasped pointing in a new direction.
Peter quickly adjusted his aim, but they were coming too fast.
“Ah, they’re back on our two!” Eric said feigning panic
Peter swept the whole tree line imagining the bodies Russian soldiers piling up in front of him.
“Now they’re on our six! We’re surrounded!” Erich clenched his heart in mock despair.
“It was a well-fought battle you should be proud,” Victor counseled them.
“Yeah after that I need a cigarette,” Erich announced.
“Do you smoke soldier?” he asked Peter as he pulled one from the open pack.
Peter shook his head. Erich took a puff. “Want to try? It helps if you're hungry.” Said Erich offering his cigarette to Peter.
Peter slowly took it from between his fingers and closed his lips on end. He took a deep breath and the small ember glowed a bright red and with a hiss burned its way down.
Peter’s eyes teared up, and he started coughing. He salivated, and his stomach churned, but he managed not to vomit.
“Well I guess you’ll get used to it,” Erich said reassuringly.
That night Peter stared into the darkness and listened to the sound of enemy tanks grind the brittle spring forests beneath their treads. The rattling iron behemoths tearing across the soft earth grew louder as they neared. A white flash spilled into the room and not a second later a thunderous explosion rattled the walls of the room. Peter felt the air leave his chest and his heart start to beat out of control. Dogs howled in response, and people could be heard pouring out into the narrow streets.
“This is not a drill!” A voice echoed from a megaphone. “Please in an orderly fashioned proceeded to the nearest underground shelter!”
“This is not a drill! The voice receded into the night. There was another blast that shattered the windows. His mother burst into the room. “We have to go now!” she shouted.  Peter grabbed the small emergency watched his grandmother had prepared for him and followed his mother and grandparents out the door.
The streets were choked with panicked people being herded by soldiers into cellars and other community shelters. The rumbling guns shook the very earth, and the storm of shells light up the night sky brighter than any lightning. Peter paralyzed by the magnitude of the encroaching inferno.
“Keep moving!” His mother screamed pulling him along.
The crowd they were with was being funneled into a cellar. A soldier shepherded them down into the hole. Peter was one of the last ones in line. When he got to the door, he realized Eric was the soldier.
“Eric what’s happening?!”
“Don’t worry you’ll be able to come out by sunrise,” Eric said confidently.
“Now hurry up and get down there.” Peter didn’t ask any more questions, but before he got to the steps, Erich stopped him.
He quickly looked around and kneed down next in front of Peter. He took Peter by the hand and took something out of his coat. He placed a round object in Peter’s hand and closed his fingers around it. Peter stared slack-jawed for a moment when he realized he was holding a grenade.
“Keep this close to you and don’t let anyone else see it. I promise you'll know when to use it.” Erich whispered to Peter. Without a word, Peter concealed the grenade in his coat and hurried down into the shelter.
Peter stood crammed in the dark against the earthen walls of the cellar clutching the ball-shaped explosive all through the night. The wooden door rattled in its frame, and they were showered with dirt whenever round bursts too close overhead. The barrage petered out, and the impenetrable subterranean dark was filled with the sound of anxious people stirring in the claustrophobic confines. There was no all clear, but no one wanted to be the first to open the door, and so they waited.
After a while, there was the deep growl of engines and the clattering of metal as tanks passed overhead. They were muffled yells and the quick pops of small arms fire. The door to the surface was ripped open and sunlight flooded into the room blinding everyone inside. Peter shielded his eyes with his arm. He could see two large men silhouetted by the sun looming at the top of the stairs.
“Du Kommt!” Hissed a Russian.
Peter could hear his mother weeping. The people closest to the door put up their hands and started up the stairs. There was the clattering of a machine gun and the maniacal cackling of Russian soldiers. Peter looked around at the sorrowful faces of the women and children as they gave themselves over to the invaders. Peter slipped his finger into the metallic ring and pulled the pin and dropped the grenade on the floor.

If you like my work, please consider making a donation. I one day hope to have enough to hire some artists to work with and adapt some of these pieces into graphic novels. In the meantime, though most of the money will probably go towards pot and coffee.


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