The Frozen War

She doesn't complain because she doesn't talk, and by the third day she's not eaten and her cheeks have sunk in from something more than hunger and someone, someone who doesn't have the time for her stops and kneels in his dirty clothes so that the girl, sitting on her cot, won't have to look up. There simply isn't a place to put her. He's stinking of a twice fallen empire. "Fraulein?"

Liesel touches her tongue to the tip of her upper lip, and looks up. Her hands are gray and black, the lines inlayed with ashes. She looks into a set of oddly paired gray-green eyes and the buzzcut, the dirty doctor's uniform. She isn't bleeding, so she doesn't understand why he's talking to her.

Liesel puts her hands on either side of his face, her dirty hands scraping against his golden stubble, and they look at one another for a very long time until something—something about his nose, the old break maybe, it stops her eye and makes her sit up a little. She says, "War is shit." And the doctor, for all his medals and stripes, cannot think of a single thing to say.

Maybe he would have been able to if they were still winning.

Before the fences are pulled down, the Germans pack as many Jews into the ovens as they can. Before the Americans and the British and the Russians, oh God, the Russians, the ones who will all come and not so much end the war as kill it.

The last rounds of Jews get sent to the stoves in fever, and Max sits in the back of the room and is saved because of the unlucky shift of the man in front of him, who sees his wife, or perhaps someone like her, as his wife is very dead. The Jews in the oven, like a last push before the bake sale.

Max lies against wire and his own naked skin and lets his ghost run his hands up and down his chest, checking to see if he had all his ribs. Maybe the Fuhrer had taken them too.

Two men in a ring.

The bell rings.

And Max falls over and looks up, against a press of indistinct faces screaming laughter and Hitler's perfect mustache trimmed for victory and the eradication of the Jewish infestation. In the back of the crowd he sees a particular shade of blonde and the hot brown eyes of a girl who is just twelve—but that isn't right, and he knows that, he knows she's older and—

And the lights flick on.

When Max finds Liesel they sit for a very long time with her shoulder against his upper arm, and they look at the long stretch of heaven's street, wiped clean. Max asks, hates himself for asking but he asks—if anyone survived.

"Rudy's father." Liesel says. Her eyes burn. She's cut her hair now, though the girlish hunger keeps her features from total maturity, even though her eyes have always been ancient. Max doesn't ask about Rudy. He'd never met the boy, even if he knew him.

"I gave him a kiss," Liesel says to fill the silence and because the fact of that kiss, the strangeness of kissing something cold and leathery, all of that remains with her. The instant of dying. Too fast.

Max shifts, a little. He does not talk about the camps. He is not even sure they were real. "Did it help?" he asks, but knows the answer.

Liesel leans against him a little, and he lets himself sink, until they're holding each other up. A man and a girl on heaven's street. It's the first time he's seen it in the daylight. He wants to point on the scuffs in the road, ask if that's where she'd played soccer, but he doesn't. He doesn't ask which heap belonged to who. He just looks at the empty spaces.

They're more terrible than lovely.