Warner stepped out of the train station into the frigid spring night. The rows of electric street lamps were dark. Whispy clouds flowed across the swollen pale moon that glowed most brilliantly in a field of stars casting their twilight glow over the piles of rubble. People scurried like rats among the ruins. Even at this late hour, the streets were crowded with people with nowhere to lay their heads. Hollowed-eyed men in tattered uniforms wandered aimlessly among beggars with dirt-matted hair. Limbless hordes leaned on the wall and held out begging cups. Warner looked around the squalid scene. An old man gazed at him through the flickering light of a trashcan fire.
Warner quickly looked away and started down the pock-marked street.
A soldier in his beat-up uniform, the right pant leg stitched up to the stump where his knee used to be, and an eye patch on the same side crutched trailed Warner on his crutch.
"Hey, you, sir! Sir!" he called.
Warner pretended he did not hear. He walked quicker, but somehow the man on the crutch picked up his pace.
Warner stumbled into a small crater in the street. His shoe filled with the frigid murky water. He heard retching and saw a man just a few feet steadying himself against a wall vomiting onto the sidewalk. Warner's stomach churned, thinking of what might have filled his shoe. He felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned and was face to face with the mangled soldier.
The young soldier's face was gaunt, and his single eye wondered wearily. His cheeks were sunken, and his lips were white and cracked. The bandaging under his eyepatch was stained with the rust-colored hues of old blood.
"Excuse me, sir. I'm sorry to bother you, but you were a soldier, weren't you?"
"I was a Luitenant," Warner replied.
The crippled soldier saluted.
Warner shook his head.
"What font did you serve on?" The one-eyed soldier asked.
Warner hesitated, "I was stationed in France," He replied.
"What was it like? Lots of wine and pretty French girls?"
"Yes, there was some of that," Warner shrugged.
"I was sent to Karkov myself."
Warner was at a loss of words. "I'm sorry to hear that," he said after a moment.
The soldier managed a smile. "It's not your fault. I always wanted to travel, and for my 18th birthday, the army decided to help me make that dream come true."
Warner smiled weakly. He tried to hide his shock that this disfigured soldier was still but a boy. Warner's biggest worry at that age was passing his exams at cadet school. Not finding enough food for the night
"I need to ask you a favor, Luiteant. I need something to eat. Please can you spare anything, even just a cigarette for a private?"
Warner hesitated. "Please," the boy soldier begged. "They stopped our pay."
"I'm sorry, I have nothing." Warner turned his back on the boy and continued on his way. "Fine, see you in hell, you occupation duty coward!"
The words stung. For Warner, the war didn't end until April 15th, 1946. He'd spent the last year sleeping in an open field surrounded by armed French sentries and penned in by barbed wire. It was a far cry from the charmed life he had been leading while on occupation duty in France. Warner hobbled along, listening to the cold water squish in his shoe. As he usually did when he was miserable, he thought about happier times.
For Warner, the war years had been some of the happiest of his life. He had planned on staying. He enjoyed the pace of life in the city of lights. He lived in a lovely flat with Anna, his pretty French girlfriend, and Warner hoped eventual wife.
Warner had jumped the gun when he wrote to his wife Emma, saying he wanted a divorce. He would send what he could to help support their daughter Katherine but wanted to be free to live his new life with Anna. He had even grown somewhat fond of her four-year-old son Louis.
During those carefree days in the summer of 42, Warner had planned the rest of his life while lying in a sun-soaked field with Anna and a bottle of wine.
He remembered gazing from Anna's lap, watching puffy white clouds lazily sail across the turquoise sky, and deciding they would return to this field every year. For the rest of their lives.
He was 34, and she was only 22, but the age difference didn't matter. When Warner was around, he felt like he was 18 again. He couldn't stand the thought of her with another man, but he still loved it when they all turned their heads to look at her.
Unfortunately for Warner, his quaint and quiet French retirement was not to be. The allies stormed the beach, and Warner was a prisoner of war a few weeks later. He remained in captivity for more than a year. During that whole time, Anna didn't send a single letter. Even though WArner wrote her feverishly.
For a while, he was able to delude himself into thinking she was too hysterical to write back to him. When that rationalization ceased to be reasonable, he convinced himself maybe anna wasn't receiving his letters. It wasn't until three weeks before his release she wrote him. It was a short letter.
"I don't love you. Please don't write again. Go back across the Rhein and forget all about me and France!"
The love of Warner's life vanished. She left him with only an insulting letter and a few burning questions that would cost Warner countless nights of sleep. Was this a recent development? Did Anna have a husband who returned from the war, or was it possible she never cared about Warner? Had it simply been advantageous to be with him? Had it all been just for food and protection? When the thought crossed Warner's mind, he remembered telling her he loved her, and the blood in his cheeks burned with humiliation.
The serenity of memories melted into an angry current running through his gut. Warner shook it off. All's well that ends well. The war was over, and Warner could return the wife, child, and life he already had. He wrote Emma just before his release. Warner profusely apologized and explained to his spurned wife that men make rash decisions under the strains of war.
He turned the corner onto his block. The windows had been blowing out on all the buildings, and the indoor ambiance drifted into the night. Warner heard children crying, women screaming dishes breaking. A squad of fighter planes swept low over the city sending all the neighborhood dogs into a frenzy. Some of the buildings were just piles of bricks. Walter breathed a sigh of relief when he saw his was still standing.
Warner climbed the stairs to the third floor and tried the door, but it was locked. Warner knocked, "Emma, it's me, your husband! Katherine Pappa's home!"
He could hear the sound of feet shuffling and harsh whispering. "Katherine Pappa has presents for you!"
The lock clicked, and the door opened. Emma stood in the doorway. Her hair blond hair was tied tightly back, and she wore a simple but elegant evening gown. Her ears glimmered with emeralds, and a small gold necklace was clasped around her neck with a small stone shimmering just above the cleavage.
Warner, convinced she dressed up for him, smiled wide and embraced his wife. She didn't hug back.
"My god, you look as beautiful as when I left!" Warner said, clenching Emma tight.
"What are you doing back here?" Emma finally said flatly.
Warner stared at her a moment. "Emma, the whole time I was in France I-"
"I don't want to hear any of it," Emma hissed. "I just want you to go. You're not welcome here."
"Emma, I'm sorry about everything, but you don't understand what war is like!"
"I don't understand what war is like?" Emma retorted.
"No, I never fought in a battle, but I've had plenty of bombs dropped on me. I've been strafed by airplanes while waiting in line for bread! I had to cover my child's body when bullets came through the walls!"
Warner didn't reply. "And what were you doing the whole time your wife and child were starving? Running around with some French whore!"
Warner slapped Emma across the cheek. She didn't cry out in pain but answered him with an angry gaze. "You don't want to do that again," she said menacingly.
Warner sighed. "I'm going to see Katherine, and we'll talk about this tomorrow. "
Warner walked into the living room and saw an American military officer's jack freshly pressed hanging in the living room.
"What's this?" he asked.
"That's Captain Martin Anderson's jacket. I patched it up and cleaned it for him. We've been seeing each other for almost 6 months now. Katerine loves him."
"How could you do this to me? I went to war for you!
"You men keep saying how you went to war to protect us, and you did all this to protect us. Well, look at how it turned out! You had a choice in France, but life here was not so simple for us. Now I suggest you leave before Marty gets here. Leave and never come back. Unless you like watching!"
Warner felt his heart stop. He lowered his head and mumbled insults as he shuffled out the front door and into the cold night to drift away with the untold multitudes who also had nowhere and no one.