Age of Edward Contest

Your pen name: FarDareisMai2

Title: From The Ashes

Type of Edward: WWII Armyward


Oh Lord, My God,

I pray that these things never end:

The sand and the sea,

The rush of the waters,

The crash of the heavens,

The prayer of man.

Hannah Szenes – "Eli, Eli"


We approach the electrified fence and I see a mob of people, men and women, some naked, some covered with blankets, all emaciated, filthy, and scarcely looking human. Some of them look to weigh no more than forty or fifty pounds, yet when we make our way to the gates, the people begin to cheer. They go wild, knowing that we're there to liberate them.

The next thing that strikes me is the smell. It's more than just disease and filth and the press of sick bodies. It's the smell of death and blackness, of misery and decay. I know that even when I'm an old man, when I close my eyes and remember, I'll still smell it—the sickly sweet stench of rot and burning flesh. It scorches the lining of my nostrils and gags me.

May 5, 1945: this day will forever be seared into my memory. I'm serving in the 41st Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, 11th Armored Division. My platoon was doing a recon mission near the villages of Mauthausen and Gusen in upper Austria, some twenty-five kilometers from Linz; the "home town" of Hitler, and the place where Eichmann spent his youth.

While we were out, we came across what we later learned was Gusen I, a sub-camp of the Mauthausen concentration camp complex. In addition, a German soldier surrendered himself and the other guards. Through a series of additional approaches and surrenders, we liberated both Gusen I and Gusen II, and were escorted to Mauthausen itself, where I now try to bring hope and salvation to despair and death.

Raised in Chicago, my parents hired a German nanny out of Jefferson Park when I was born, so I speak fluent German and address the crowd, urging them to return to their barracks so that we can proceed with the job of liberating them and taking the guards into custody. They do so willingly, and I don't know if it's a testament to their desire to get rid of the guards, or if it's because they've been so conditioned to follow orders.

We round up the German soldiers and send them off in three wagons to Combat Command B in Gallneukirchen, and then I task several men with gathering up the few prisoners who have escaped, since they're likely to die without proper medical care and food. I try to speak with the various groups of people that are in the camp. There are Austrians, Germans, Poles, Italians, Jews. A lot of different people are represented.

I come upon a group of women and ask if any of them speak German or English. One girl steps forward. She's filthy, they all are, and she's clinging to a scrap of blanket that barely covers her nakedness, yet somehow she's poised; if she weighs sixty pounds it's a goddamned miracle. Her skin is stretched painfully over every bone of her body, making her look skeletal.

"I speak German," she says.

"Good," I tell her. "Are these all the women? I'd like to check on all the ladies, if I may?"

She looks up at me and I'm struck by her eyes. They're huge and brown, liquid pools of sorrow and pain, made larger by the hollowness of her cheeks, but there's something in them, a spark that still lingers, even here among the ruins of the humanity around her.

"Thank you," she says.

I feel my brow furrow. "For what?"

"Ladies," she said. "It's just . . ." She looks up at me again. "No one has spoken to us so kindly in a very long time."

I feel a lump in my throat, and it takes me a moment to respond, because I cannot imagine the savagery and degradation those few words hint at. "After you, ma'am," I tell her, extending my arm and indicating that she lead.

Her eyes shine with unshed tears and she turns and leads the way to a horror that's beyond words. She escorts me into a barracks that is filled with people and bodies. They're crammed together, five to a cot, like so many sardines in a can. In some cases, the dead are still among them because the others are too sick or weak to move them. The smell is unbearable.

It is a nightmare I revisit throughout the camp: men, women, and children, crowded together like animals. The barracks are infested with lice and other vermin, and an epidemic of typhus is beginning to spread.

"What's your name?" I ask the girl. I say girl, because I don't think she's older than sixteen.

"Bella," she replies. "My name is Bella Schwan."

x x x

Under Colonel Seibel we bring in two field hospitals and begin treating the prisoners. Most are horrifically underweight and malnourished. They've been brutalized as well, and many are sick with a variety of ailments, including typhus.

We learn that Mauthausen not only served the German war machine by providing cheap labor for the granite quarry and munitions factory, but it also served its ultimate purpose of ridding them of "undesirables" with a policy of extermination through labor. The prisoners who worked the quarry, were mining granite for the grandiose architectural plans of the Third Reich, and most, at least until 1944 when the first large "shipments" of Jewish prisoners from camps like Auschwitz arrived, were political prisoners: Germans, Austrians, and Czechs—socialists, anarchists, communists, homosexuals, Gypsies, Bible students and Jehovah's Witnesses, the Intelligensia—and as the list of "undesirables" grew, so did the number of prisoners.

They were beaten for the smallest of infractions. They were forced to mine granite regardless of the unbearable heat or frigid cold, and without proper nutrition. They were forced to carry blocks of the dense stone, sometimes as heavy as fifty kilo, up the "Stairs of Death." One hundred and eighty six steps uphill, with prisoners kept so close together that if one collapsed under the strain, the domino effect could wipe out tens in one fell swoop. Sometimes, the guards even forced them to race up the steps, counting on them to fall. Then, if they were lucky enough to make it to the top, they were lined up at the edge of a cliff called "The Parachute Wall" and were forced, at gun point, to either jump or push the prisoner in front of them off the edge of the cliff.

I realize that is only the tip of the iceberg of the damage we face.

The hardest part is telling them we can't feed them right away.

"I know it's difficult," Dr. Cullen tells us. "But these people haven't eaten properly in months; they just can't handle a full load of food. We have to ease them back into it."

So under his supervision we start feeding them a thin soup, not much different than what they were given under the Germans. We also add a bit of bread, which is such a precious commodity that people cut each other's throats for a small chunk.

The next few days are a study in the utter depravity and cruelty of man.

We find piles of bodies—emaciated, skeletal. They hardly look human any longer, particularly where they've been partially eaten by rats. We're shown the gas chambers where they told prisoners they were going into a shower, let the water run for a minute, then piped in the gas. Both Mauthausen and Gusen have crematoriums to dispose of the bodies, and they worked twelve hours a day.

I sit with Dr. Cullen one evening, after a grueling day. There aren't enough translators for the number of prisoners, so I wind up spending a lot of my time helping the doctor. He's a good man. Young, but we all are, although I feel like this place is aging me fast. Still, he possesses an almost preternatural calmness, a surety of purpose that I envy.

We pass a bottle of scotch back and forth.

"I've never seen the like," he says.

"I hope I never do again," I reply.

"What they did to these people, Edward."

I nod. I'd heard some of the stories. The beatings. The icy showers and then being left out to the elements to succumb from hypothermia. Hanging. Drowning. Mass shootings. The "game" of throwing prisoners onto the electrified fence. The litany of depravity is mind boggling and leaves me feeling hollow, like someone carved out my insides with a rusty spoon.

I try to wrap my brain around it. I look at it from every angle. I wonder if I'm capable of such heartlessness and brutality, of such cruelty. I like to think that I'm not, but even the best of men get pushed over the edge.

Carlisle takes another drink. "I looked at some of the records with that other interpreter yesterday. Dr. Death spent some time here."

"Shit," I mutter. We'd all heard about Dr. Death, the Austrian doctor Aribert Heim, who performed experiments on prisoners.

"He injected them with things, Edward. Right into the heart—gasoline, water, phenol, anything to see if he could kill them quicker. Kill the Jews quicker. He removed organs without anesthesia. He . . . he eviscerated a young man and then decapitated him, boiled the flesh off the bones and used the skull for a paperweight."

"He put that in his notes?"

Carlisle shakes his head. "No, that last part one of the survivors told me. He was in the clinic when it happened."

"Christ. I hope they catch that son-of-a-bitch."

x x x

It's two days in, or is it three? The horror of this place overwhelms me. Jasper, Lt. Jasper Whitlock, my best friend and fellow officer and I are watching a group of civilians we've tasked with the disposal of the bodies. We'd gone down into the village and told them to dress in their Sunday best, and then we brought them back to the camp and made them dig graves and move the piles of bodies into them.

Four civilians to a body, one holding each limb. They tell us they didn't know, that they had no idea these atrocities were going on under their noses.

"Bullshit," Jasper tells them. "I can still smell the stench from those ovens. I don't believe you. You knew what was going on up here. And the next time something happens up this hill, maybe you'll make it a point to find out what and stop it."

They don't like us, but that's okay, because we don't like them either. At least we have the satisfaction of making them bury these people with a little bit of dignity, some shred of humanity, and even though I know it makes no difference to the dead, I feel honor bound to their memories.

We bury twelve hundred bodies that first day, and thanks to typhus and other conditions, we will be burying more, perhaps three hundred a day. People who had survived Aushwitz and other camps were sent to Mauthausen at the end of the war, surviving the death marches, only to die there in the final days of the war.

What we're witnessing has us all on edge. We're battle seasoned soldiers, every one of us, and Bastogne disabused us of any vainglorious heroic notions of battle. But this? This level of atrocity and death is beyond even our comprehension. I can't understand how these people survived.

I can't begin to fathom the will it took to live.

x x x

The day dawns and I'm once again needed at Carlisle's side. The other translator has gotten sick, and I'm the only one left who speaks German. Thankfully others speak Polish, Hungarian, even one guy who speaks Italian, so I'm not left to try to work through third parties. I turn to grab a sheaf of papers, and when I look back I gasp.

"Bella?" I ask.

She nods shyly.

If it wasn't for those eyes, I'm not sure I would recognize her. She is clean and fresh. Her hair is neatly pinned back, and is a beautiful, if slightly dulled, shade of brown. Her skin, though still taut across her cheeks and bones is a fine, pale porcelain. She still looks frail and terrifyingly skinny, but I realize in that moment that she is beautiful.

She is the first beautiful thing I've seen in days. I'm transfixed.

I hear Carlisle cough behind me, and I stop my staring. "Forgive me," I say. "Frauline Schwan, this is Herr Doctor Cullen," I say. My German is suddenly stilted.

"Frau," she says.

"Excuse me?"

"Frau Schwan," she replies.

I'm stunned. How can this slip of a girl be a married woman?

My surprise gets the best of me.

"How old are you?" I sputter.

She pulls herself up, sits a little straighter, and I can see I've insulted her. "I'm twenty three years old."

"Forgive me," I say. I turn to Carlisle and make the proper introductions this time. As he begins to gently ask her questions I learn more about her.

A wife at twenty and a widow by twenty one, Bella had been married a scant six months when her husband, a university professor and vocal opponent of the Third Reich, was sent to Mauthausen. He died within six months.

Carlisle's questions become more pertinent to her current situation. He examines her, making note of several scars and fading bruises. He asks her about them and she tells us. She tells us about the beatings.

Then Carlisle asks a question I can barely translate. I look at him, horrified.

"I need to know, Edward."

I swallow the lump in my throat. "Were you ever . . ." I trail off and start again. "Did they . . . did any of them ever . . ." I close my eyes. "Take you against your will?"

She blushes and shakes her head, but then she tells us how it did happen, to others. She tells us of the brothels in the camp, and of the women forced to service the guards, of the women and girls randomly dragged from their beds, only to return hours later broken in both body and mind.

I'm sure my relief is palpable that it wasn't her, that she wasn't one of them. Not that it's okay for it to happen to anyone, but especially not her. And I feel particularly appalled at the way I stared at her earlier.

Carlisle finishes his exam and determines that Bella is underweight and malnourished, but otherwise okay. He moves off to the desk to write some notes and update his charts.

She slides off the examination table and I turn to give her privacy as she dresses herself.

"Excuse me." Her voice is clear, strong.

I turn around and am captivated once more, and I feel a strange tightening in my chest. I want to hunt down every guard, every Nazi fuck that laid a hand on her. It's a primitive, protective feeling, and I can't understand what it is about her that brings it out in me. Why her and not the thousands of others in this god forsaken place?

She's staring at me, and I realize she's waiting for me to respond.

"Oh, ummm, yes?"

She tells me she wants to help. She has managed to learn a passable amount of Polish and Hungarian. She offers to translate to German for me, to help with Carlise's and the other doctors' work.

I relay it to Carlisle and he is grateful. It's not that the doctors can't examine the patients anyway, but being able to talk to them, to question them, to comfort them, makes their jobs easier. He tells her to return tomorrow and thanks her profusely.

She walks out and I hear him chuckle. I turn and look at him. He slaps my back and says, "It's okay to feel, Edward. It's okay to feel."

x x x

It's night, and Jasper and I have taken the boys into town. They need a break; we all need a break from the relentless horror of the last several days. We're in a local bar, but if I'm honest with myself it's really a whorehouse. Several of the boys are drunk and keep disappearing upstairs with women.

I don't begrudge them this release. After seeing so much death, after touching and tasting and smelling it for days, they need it. They need the intimacy, however fleeting it may be. They need to remember that there is more than just battle and hunger and death. They need to remember soft skin and tender caresses. They need to remember warmth and the sweet smell of a woman's sex. They need to remind themselves that they too are humans; to remember that they are nothing like the monsters that wreaked such devastation upon other human beings.

They need it as an affirmation of life.

I look over at Jasper. He's hunched over the table, tracing designs in the condensation left by the cold beer bottle. A pretty blond walks over to our table, her hips sway enticingly, she plants her hands on the table and leans over, showcasing her wares. Jasper doesn't even look up. His brows are furrowed and I can practically hear the gears in his head turning.

I look at her, I mean really look at her, and I know that six months ago I would have been upstairs with the rest of my men. Six months ago I would have found her curves and full hips attractive. I would have longed to have those scarlet lips wrapped around my dick. Six months ago I would have enjoyed lying on my back while her breasts bounced and swayed as she rode me.

Now, however, all I see is a painted whore. And although I'm sure dozens of Nazis spent time between her thighs, that isn't what puts me off, because whores are first and foremost businesswomen and I can respect that. They are the most apolitical creatures there are, serving only the almighty dollar, or deutschemark as it were. No, what puts me off isn't her politics, it's her apathy. It's the emptiness in her eyes.

Also, they're blue and they have no spark.

When she leaves, Jasper finally speaks up.

"I just don't understand it, Edward. I've spent my life studying war, and this . . . nothing I've studied measures up to this." He takes a sip of his drink. "The Turks and Armenians, the Bolsheviks and Cossacks, even us in the war with the Philippines, nothing is like this systematic, organized extermination. Nothing. They didn't have the machinery to do it. But these Germans, Edward? They built an industry around it."

"Hatred is a powerful weapon, Jasper."

"I just . . ." He looks up at me, confusion and despair in his eyes. "Where's the honor, Edward? There's no glory in this. None."

I shake my head and take a deep swallow of whiskey. Jasper comes from a military family. He's even named after a great-grandfather that fought in the Civil War. He has spent his life studying soldiers and war. Jasper grew up with stories of the glory and honor of war, of the nobility of a soldier as a profession. He's always known he would serve in the military, that he would make a career out of it.

His disillusionment is heartbreaking.

"I look at the people in the camps and I get so angry, and I want to hurt someone," he says. "I don't want justice, I want revenge."

I nod because I understand him better than he thinks. I wave my hand around the tavern. "All of them, all these people. They knew what was happening and did nothing. Hell, I bet some of them helped."

Jasper slams his hand down on the table and says, "Exactly! What makes a person able to look away from that? How do you live with that smell in your nose every day and ignore it? I don't understand. I just don't," he repeats, shaking his head.

I look around at my men and see that a few are missing, likely still upstairs. I know we have to start rounding them up and head back, but I linger a few minutes longer, seeking out some pretense of civility before heading back to the abject lack of it. Then we hear shouting from outside just before the door flies open.

One of the younger boys, Private Call, runs over to me. "Lieutenant, you gotta come quick. Paul, ah, PFC Atera, he's out of control, Sir, he's . . . oh, hell, please just come," the boy pleads.

Jasper and I are out of our seats and at the door within moments. The scene that greets us is a disaster. Paul is a hot-headed young man with a violent streak. It may have served us well in the field, at Bastogne, but not here mixed in with civilians, and he's snapped; the powder keg of emotions that Mauthausen has provided each of us with has exploded, violently.

He is standing in the middle of the street, with a terrified and bloody civilian on the ground in front of him, while Paul points a gun at the man's head and curses at him. Several of the guys are standing in a loose semi-circle around them, and Paul's friend Sam is standing in front of him, his hands up in the air, a placating gesture.

"Private Atera," I say. "What do you think you're doing?"

"This fucking fuck is one of them. He's a piece of shit and he needs to die," he says as he jabs the gun at the man's temple.

In seconds all the permutations of how this scene can go run through my head, and most of them are unpleasant at best, unacceptable at worst.

"Private!" I say loudly. "You are addressing an officer!"

"Sir!" he says, surprise cutting through the drunken anger and fury on his face. "Sorry, Sir."

"Now lower your weapon and hand it to Sergeant Uley."

He shakes his head. "This asshole brought them women, Sir. I heard him talking about it. He found them hiding and he . . . fuck . . . he took them to the camp. Bragged about it!" He turns his attention back to the man, "Piece of shit!" He screams and starts kicking the man.

I feel fury in the pit of my stomach. I think of the things Bella told us, of what these women endured, and a part of me wants to tell Paul to just let loose, to make an example of the piece of shit on the ground, but I can't. I'm an officer in the United States Army. I'm better than that.

"Atera!" I yell. "Cease and desist, private. That's a direct order."

Paul's foot stops mid-swing and it's like he deflates. His shoulders sag and he lowers the gun. The man is unconscious at his feet, blood everywhere, and this is a fucking mess. I walk over to him and put a hand on his shoulder.

"Give me the gun, private."

He looks up at me with eyes full of pain and confusion and says, "It's just not right. It's not right."

After securing the gun, I pass it back behind me to Jasper. "I know," I tell him. "But we have to be better than them," I say.

I have Uley get Atera out of there, although I will be filing a full report in the morning, and I have the civilian loaded onto a Jeep. "Get us to Dr. Cullen," I tell the private driving. Jasper will get the men rounded up and back to camp.

"It looks worse than it is," Carlisle tells me.

I must look surprised because he continues. "Head wounds bleed a lot. I'm not saying he didn't take a beating, but he's going to live."

I'm not sure, but I think I hear him say, "Not that he deserves to."

I can't say I disagree.

Jasper meets me at our tent and says nothing as we enter. He says nothing as we each undress and prepare for bed. Nothing as I turn out the light.

In the darkness I try to still my mind. I try so hard to reconcile the man I want to be with the base human that wants to punish and avenge. In the darkness, Jasper makes it so much harder.

"You should have let him kill the son-of-a-bitch," he says.

I'm not sure he's wrong.

x x x

Three weeks later and I've settled into a rhythm. Most of the unit has moved out, but I requested to stay on with the hospital. The 11th Armored Division is scheduled to be deactivated at the end of August anyway.

Jasper didn't seem surprised when I told him my decision. "I reckon you've still got some business here to finish," was all he said.

He was right.

The first two weeks were a flurry of activity in the camp. Of about eight thousand survivors, approximately five thousand were hospitalized. Still, about three hundred people a day were dying from typhus, and in those first ten or so days we buried about three thousand.

I've been assigned to the hospital unit as a liaison between the forces on occupational duty, the medical staff, and central command. My job consists of pushing papers, which most days only takes a couple of hours. I spend the rest of my time in the hospital, translating for Carlisle, often with Bella's help.

She looks better. Healthier. I think that having something to do, a purpose, helps her as well. Carlisle agrees with me. She is still thin, but she doesn't seem as frail. And when an emergency arises in the hospital, and the doctors and nurses are overwhelmed, Bella and I each lend Carlisle a hand, and I see first-hand how strong she is. I watch as she throws all of her weight, such as it is, to pin down the arm of a patient who is irrational and struggling. I myself am straining to keep hold his leg, while two nurses hold his other arm and leg until Carlisle can sedate him.

When we finish, I see her sway a little, the exertion too much and I take her by the arm and walk her outside. I try to make her sit down, but she won't have it.

"Please. I'd rather walk," she tells me.

I nod and walk alongside her.

"You don't have to babysit me," she chides.

"I know," I respond. "But I think I could use a walk myself."

We walk in silence for a few minutes, making a slow circuit of the hospital.

"I miss green," she states.

"Excuse me?"

"I miss green." She waves her hand about, "Everything here is gray and dead. I miss trees and grass."

"What about flowers?"

She laughs, and it's bright and beautiful. "I try not to be too greedy."

It slips out before I can stop it. "But a pretty girl always deserves flowers."

She stops and turns so fast that she trips and I have to grab her before she falls. Bella is still weak and thin, birdlike under my hands, yet having her in my arms feels right, comfortable, and inevitable.

"Is this what they call 'shell-shock?'" she asks.

I shake my head and brush back a piece of her hair that has come loose. I open my mouth to reply, but she presses her fingertips against it, silencing me, and I feel the touch course its way from my lips, through my blood, to the very marrow of my bones.

"Thank you," she whispers.

x x x

It's been two days and I can still feel the warmth of her fingers. It took some wrangling but I've managed to plan a surprise. We get through our time in the hospital, and Bella's consideration and understanding ease many of those we talk to. Finally, it's time for lunch and Bella turns toward the mess hall.

"Bella, wait," I call after her.

She turns. "Yes?"

"Ah, I have a surprise," I tell her.

"Surprise?"

"Yes, it's well, ah," and I'm stuttering like a fourteen year old asking his first girl out.

She takes my hand and says, "Surprise me."

Her thin little fingers grip mine tight, and I'm again amazed by her strength. It flows into me, and I feel my chest tighten; I feel a slow burn ignite in my belly.

"C'mon." I tug at her hand and enjoy the look of curiosity on her face.

I walk to a Jeep and help her up, then take the wheel. I drive us out of the camp, and as we cross the fence line I see her tense and then relax. I realize it is the first time she has been outside its enclosure in nearly a year. I reach over and squeeze her hand.

She doesn't let go.

I turn to look at her, but she isn't looking at me. Her face is turned up toward the sun, and the wind is blowing her hair. A tiny smile graces her lips and I see her take a deep breath, and then the smile grows wider.

"It smells good," she says. "So clean."

She's right. The ovens have stopped working, but the camp retains the odor of death and decay and illness. The systematic murders have stopped, but the fallout from the Nazi campaign continues, and although the numbers are finally dropping, people are still dying daily.

I pull over a few minutes later in a rural area. I jump out of the Jeep and run around to help her out, and when I lift her I don't want to set her down, but I must, and I do. I grab a rucksack out of the back of the car and grab her hand once more.

"C'mon, it's not far," I tell her.

"What isn't?"

"You'll see."

Five minutes later we're there, a meadow full of grass and trees and flowers.

"Oh, Edward," she says, and I'm thrilled that she's finally stopped calling me Lieutenant Masen.

I step a little closer, but I don't want to make her uncomfortable. "Green and trees."

"And flowers," she says with a smile.

"For a pretty girl," I whisper. I don't know if she heard me, but she's still smiling and that's good enough for me.

I pull a blanket out of the pack and spread it on the grass, and then I start unpacking lunch. It's not a meal at the Ritz, but there's bread, some cheese, a couple of apples, and I even managed to find a bar of chocolate, which I asked Carlisle about first, to make sure it wasn't too rich for her.

We sat and ate and talked. I learned about Bella's life before the war. Bella's mother died when she was a baby, but she spoke about her father, who had been a lawyer until the Nazis came and banned all Jews from the practice of law. He died in the pogroms on Kristallnacht. Friends of her father, non-Jews, helped her leave Vienna and hid her with relatives in the country, where she posed as their cousin, before a jealous neighbor reported them.

Bella fled and hid in the forest, until a sympathetic Catholic priest found her. He hid her, along with several others in the basement of his church. It was there she met her husband. The priest married them, but six months later her husband was captured while helping the priest forage for food. As soon as the Nazis identified him, they sent him to Mauthausen.

He never gave them up, however, and Bella and the others remained hidden for almost two years before the Nazis discovered them. The priest was shot on the spot, and the three women and one man were sent to Mauthausen. She hasn't seen any of them, and doesn't think they survived. I promise her I'll help her look at the lists of survivors.

Bella told me about Vienna before the Anschluss, the German annexation. It was a center of Jewish thought and learning, of art and theater, and she thrived on the philosophical and political debates her father and his friends engaged in over dinners several nights a week. She was going to begin her studies at the university when the annexation took place.

Her eyes light up as she begins to discuss philosophy, and before I know it we're engaged in an eager discussion of philosophy and politics, religion and faith. Soon our conversation passes into literature and Bella lights up even more.

"One of the things I've missed most is books," she tells me. "I think I could have withstood almost anything if they would have let me have my books."

I lie on my side, with my head propped up by my hand, and watch her as she walks through the meadow gathering flowers. She looks so young, and for a short time the horror and tragedy of the last few years melt away and I see the girl Bella once was. Her cheeks are pink and her eyes are bright. Her fingers deftly pluck and strip the flowers, and I see her close her eyes and skim the palms of her hands over the sprouting tips of the long grass.

I wonder how they would feel skimming across my skin.

x x x

It's been four weeks since Bella and I have begun taking our lunches together. She is trying to learn English, and is a quick study. Our conversations tend to be a mish-mash of English and German. I told her that we were speaking Germlish. I loved the way she laughed at that.

We can't always escape to our meadow, but I try to take her there at least once a week. Our time together is easy and comfortable, but I fear it is growing short. We're never at a loss for what to say, and her keen mind is engaging, captivating.

I will miss it.

I will miss her.

A rare daytime rain shower begins and I watch as Bella stands with her face upturned to the sky, her arms spread out as she begins to twirl and then laugh. Here, away from the camp, she's not Bella Schwan, widow and survivor. She's Bella, my Bella. She's young and beautiful, full of promise and hope. I'm mesmerized by her, and I can't stop staring at her as the rain begins to soak her clothes and they cling to her like a second skin. She's put on weight and the wet clothes reveal a shapely, rounded body beneath.

She is oblivious to her allure, candid and ethereal in her display. I bite my cheek to keep from groaning aloud and roll over and lie on my stomach so I don't embarrass myself. I can't allow her to see this, to think this is what I want from her. Because what kind of monster does that make me?

But I do. I do want this from her, and so much more, yet I won't take it. Enough has been taken from her already. So I'll watch and dream, and when the time comes I'll go home and marry Jessica, just like my parents want. Our family businesses will merge, and I'll work for the company until our fathers retire and I take over. I'll walk by a piano on occasion and tap out a few notes, maybe we'll have small upright and Jessica will urge me to play Christmas carols at the party we'll have at our house.

For now though, I allow myself to dream. I allow myself the fantasy that I can make a living with music, that I can I find passion and love and respect. And when I close my eyes and imagine I'm in the arms of my lover, I look and see Bella's face, but it's only my dream, so I allow it. Dreams hurt no one, they take from no one.

So I continue to imagine that it is her mouth on mine, and that it's her warmth that embraces me. I close my eyes and pretend that it's her soft skin beneath my fingers and her cocoa eyes that beg me for release. I envision a life filled with music and passion and love.

I open my eyes and find her staring at me. She is curiously still. I think maybe it's time to go.

"Bella." I call. "Bella, we should pack up."

She shakes her head.

"Bellaaaaaa," I tease.

She shakes her head again, but this time I see the quirk of a smile at the corner of her mouth.

I stand up. "Bella, don't make me come after you."

She bites her lip and takes off running.

I give chase.

I catch up to her near a copse of trees. She turns and grins at me before feinting left. I lunge the other way and suddenly I'm wrapped around her, and we're falling. I turn so that I take the brunt of the fall, grunting as I hit the ground. I roll to the side and she's cradled in my arms, and it's so perfect a moment it almost hurts. I brush a heavy, wet lock of hair from her face.

"Are you alright?" I ask as I look her over for any injury.

She nods, her eyes wide and searching.

It takes all of my self-control not to fist her hair in my hand and take her mouth with mine. Her body fits against mine perfectly and I can feel every soft inch of her, like two halves of a mold pressed back together. Her heart is beating so fast and hard, I can feel it against my chest. Or is it mine that is beating like that?

"I'm sorry," I say as I release her. "I shouldn't have done that."

She shakes her head. "No, it's fine," she tells me as she stands. "Really."

We start to walk toward the Jeep, and although the rain has stopped, our shoes make a squishing sound and a minute later I hear a giggle. I look at Bella and she's biting her lip to keep from laughing, but it's futile. We both start laughing aloud, the tension broken by wet shoes.

x x x

People have been leaving the camp as they get healthier and gain strength. Many of the political prisoners returned to their homes and families already. Others have no one and nothing to return to. It is the end of summer, and about thirty-five hundred of the original twenty thousand we found in the main camp at Mauthausen back in May, remain. At least three thousand succumbed to typhus and other illnesses in the first days of liberation, but most have been steadily trickling out of the camp.

I sit at my desk going over transfer forms, requisition requests, and other paperwork, but I can't concentrate on any of it. My mind is filled with questions. Where will Bella go when we finally leave and turn the camp over to the Soviets? Will she want to return to Vienna? Will she try to immigrate to Palestine, like many of the other surviving Jews? Or, does she perhaps wish to move to America? This last thought fills me with wistful longing.

I seek out Carlisle. I need to speak to someone and with Jasper gone, Carlisle has become one of my closest friends and confidantes. His calm and open demeanor always encourages honesty, and he never shies away from telling you the truth.

I walk through the one remaining hospital and it is nearly empty. The other field hospital has already been dismantled and reassigned. I hear a giggle and then a gasp. I walk into a room and find Carlisle kissing one of the nurses. They break apart and he cups her face with such tenderness and devotion, that it's apparent this has been going on for some time. Her name is Esme, and she is a good nurse, a good woman. I think perhaps they're a perfect match, if such a thing exists. They don't see me or hear me, and although it's wrong, I watch them for a moment from the doorway, jealous of their connection, before I turn and leave silently.

Lunch with Bella is quiet today. We are both deep in thought, although what she is contemplating is a complete mystery to me. I often wish I could read her mind, because my usual ability to read people's body language and intuit the things they don't say doesn't seem to work with her. She is always surprising me.

I gather my courage. "What are you going to do?" I ask.

"I don't know," she replies. "I think about America, maybe. But it scares me."

"Why?"

"Because it's so big. You Americans are so big and bold and brash. You are larger than life, all of you. I don't know what I would do there," she tells me.

I want to laugh because I feel like I am anything but bold and brash.

After we pack up, we go to help Carlisle with one or two remaining patients, more from habit than need. There is not much to do here anymore. After he finishes his exam, Bella makes her goodbyes for the day and walks away. Carlisle catches me watching her.

He nudges my shoulder. "Go after her," he tells me.

I shake my head. "I can't. It wouldn't be right. I don't want her to feel like I'm her only choice. I don't want to take anything from her," I reply. "She deserves a life of her own choosing."

"And how do you know she won't choose you if you don't give her that option?"

I close my eyes and shake my head.

"Edward," he continues. "After everything you've seen here, after everything we've learned about life and death and misery, don't you think you've earned a bit of happiness? Don't you think she's earned it?"

"But, she doesn't . . . I mean, she's never given—"

"For a smart man, Edward, you can be incredibly obtuse. I've seen the way she looks at you. You'd have to be blind not to."

I gape at him. Could he be right? Have I been so wrapped up in my moral debate that I failed to see what was in front of me?

He pushes me forward. "Go, Edward. Go."

My feet begin to move of their own accord and now I'm running. I bolt out the door of the hospital and skid to a stop, looking for her across the packed dirt. I see her walking toward the barracks and my heart leaps, excited and free to finally hope for what it hadn't dared before.

"Bella!" I call out as I start running. "Bella!"

She turns and watches me run to her. Confusion and surprise light her face.

I reach her and stop inches in front of her.

My hands cup her face.

"Edward," she whispers and closes her eyes.

My mouth covers hers and at first the kiss is warm and soft, gentle, a declaration. Then it becomes more. It becomes insistent and desperate, a claiming, and I want to pour everything I feel into it. She opens her mouth and my tongue makes its way in, and she tastes so sweet to me.

We kiss until we're breathless and I put my forehead against hers and it all rushes out gracelessly. "Oh god, please tell me this is right. Please tell me you feel the same way, because I'm desperately in love with you Bella, and the thought of losing you now is breaking me."

She laughs softly. "Of course I love you, Edward. How could you not know it?" she asks me.

I pull her tight to me, hugging her harder than I should, but I don't care because everything about having her in my arms is right. I kiss her again, and I hear some of the soldiers hooting and whistling. We both laugh and she ducks her head against my chest.

"Marry me?" I ask her.

x x x

Leaning back in my chair, I look over my desk and out the window. The falling snow is covering the trees and buildings with a thick blanket of white. I can see lights twinkling in the distance and I smile. Christmas is my favorite time of year.

I make my way from my office and through the living room, enjoying the smell of the tree that is so beautifully decorated, and the flickering lights of the eight candles in the window. At the kitchen, I stop in the doorway to watch Bella. She's taking baking sheets out of the oven and setting the cookies to cool.

"It's not polite to stare," she tells me without even turning around. I've never figured out how she does it, but she always knows when I'm watching her.

"I can't help it," I tell her. "The view is just too beautiful to pass up."

"Flatterer," she teases.

I walk over and wrap my arms around her, before planting a kiss on her neck. "Smells delicious," I say.

"Snickerdoodles," she responds.

"I wasn't talking about the cookies," I whisper in her ear, before sliding a hand up to cup her breast.

She giggles and turns in my arms, and then I kiss her and it's no less magical than that first time. Her fingers twine into my hair and tug, and a low groan escapes me. My hands slide down her hips and to the hem of her skirt. I start lifting it.

"Edward! Your parents will be back with the kids soon." She tries to bat my hand away, but I'm insistent.

"We'll be quick," I whisper before kissing her again. I don't want to give her a chance to reason with me. I want reason to fly out the window.

It does.

I love her against the kitchen counter. Her legs are wrapped around my waist and her arms are wrapped even tighter about my neck. With each thrust she moans in my ear, until I hear her whimpered cries of pleasure and feel her tense and then go lax, and a moment later I'm stifling my cries against her neck and then kissing her.

"I love you," I tell her.

"I should hope so," she jokes.

We both smile and I set her down again with a quick kiss to her nose. She straightens her skirt and we hear a noise at the door.

"Gott in himmel," she says. "One of these days we're going to get caught," she admonishes.

"But not today," I tell her, and swipe a cookie on my way to the door.

As we sit at the table for Christmas Eve dinner, I look around and I realize how blessed my life has become in ten short years.

Bella and I married two days after my clumsy proposal. Carlisle and Esme stood with us as witnesses. I was discharged from the army in November 1945, and Bella came home with me to Chicago under the War Brides Act.

I was worried my parents were going to take issue with my marriage to Bella, certain that they had their hearts set on a "merger" between our family and the Stanley's, but I should have had more faith in them. They welcomed Bella with open arms, and my mother took her under her wing, helping her learn her way in her adopted country and introducing Bella to her friends.

Instead of following my father into the family business, I chose to use the money I inherited from my maternal grandparents to open a music school for underprivileged children. I taught piano to the most gifted, and I am proud to say several of my students have obtained scholarships to Juliard, Carnegie, and Boston Convservatory.

I also play Christmas carols every year.

Bella volunteers with the Red Cross, helping them locate family members missing as a result of the Holocaust. I think it gives her a sense of purpose and a way to give her back some measure of control over the trauma of those years. Whenever they do manage to reunite a family, she cries but always says, "They're happy tears, my love. Happy tears."

Our son, Charles, was born three years after we returned to Chicago, and our daughter Renee was born two years later. Carlisle delivered them both. He and Esme married shortly after Bella and I, and after two years moved to Chicago when he was offered a position as an attending physician at the University of Chicago Medical Center. They will be here tomorrow for Christmas dinner.

Jasper went to France after we were discharged. The war had changed him, and he chose not to remain in the military. While in Paris, he met a lovely young lady named Alice and decided to stay there. He became a photographer and is now a renowned war correspondent. One of Jasper's pictures from the Korean War earned him a Pulitzer Prize. We are planning a visit to Paris next summer to see them.

Paul Atera remained in the army and was killed at the Battle of Inchon in 1950. His friend, Sam Uley, was promoted to Sergeant Major and served with distinction throughout the war in Korea. He is still in the Army. Embry Call went back home to Washington State after the war. He studied law and became an advocate for the rights of Native Americans. There are reunions for our unit, and I try to attend them when I can.

As usual, Bella's dinner is superb and after we've said our goodbyes to my parents, knowing we will see them the following day, we help the children leave out cookies and milk for Santa, and then tuck them into their beds. As Bella and I stand in the doorway and watch them, I can't help but feel fiercely protective.

I want to shield them from a world that allowed the horrors of WWII to happen. I never want them to have to see the degradation and despair that I saw. I know that I will fight with everything I have to keep them from suffering what Bella suffered, and I know that she would do the same.

But I also know that when they're older we will tell them how we met and why. I know that we will have to do our best to explain the unexplainable. We have to, because we can never forget. We can never pretend those millions didn't exist, no matter how uncomfortable or painful that memory is.

Sometimes, I still dream of Mauthausen. I wake up in a cold sweat, and I can smell and taste the death and decay, and in the dark I reach for Bella and hold her close, chasing away the darkness and death in the only way I know how, by living and loving and thriving. And when Bella's dreams are full of pain and despair, I hold her in the dark and whisper words of love and comfort.

I watch my beautiful wife kiss our children goodnight and I think to myself: this is what I did it for. And in this moment I am fulfilled.

I am complete.

I am the luckiest man on earth.


a/n: Please forgive me this long author's note. I don't usually blather on, but I feel like these points are important.

First, I wanted to thank Chicklette, scribeninja, and Krismom4 for their beta work on this story. I also need to thank Zigster for talking through it with me. I've been pushing this story around in my brain for months. It began to tickle my gray matter when scribeninja and I were discussing our love for the miniseries Band of Brothers. There is an episode which has the heroes liberating a concentration camp and while discussing that episode, this story began to germinate.

I've tried to remain historically accurate, but the necessities of story telling and word limits required me to condense certain events. It was, however, the First Platoon of Troop D, 41st Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, 11th Armored Division which liberated Mauthausen, and it was Colonel Seibel who was in charge. I tried to remain true to the conditions and statistics found in the camp. The horrors I recounted: the forced labor, the living conditions, the varied means of torture and death, the Stairs of Death, the Parachute Wall, the brothels, the medical experiments, the gassing and the crematoriums, are all accurate. The soldiers did force civilians to bury the bodies, and in at least one article I read, the order came down from Eisenhower himself, although I could not verify this.

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's website, 197,454 prisoners passed through Mauthausen. 95,000 died there.

I did a lot of research for this story and I have to credit, Former Staff Sgt. Albert J. Kosiek's personal account of the liberation, as well as the personal histories I found at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's website. Please take the time to go to the site, read the information for yourselves, and listen to the personal histories. No book will give you quite the same insight as their stories.

Notable prisoners of Mauthausen were: Simon Weisenthal, Peter van Pels - one of the seven other Jews who hid with Anne Frank, and Itzchak Tarkay. There were many, many more.

As a grandchild, grandniece, and cousin of Holocaust survivors, this story was rather personal for me, and something I felt was important to tell. I've always been awed and humbled by the way they picked up the pieces of their shattered lives and not only survived, but lived and thrived and loved and hoped again.

My thanks go out to the men and women of the U.S. military who helped liberate and heal the survivors. Not enough is said about the doctors, nurses and soldiers who were there to pick up the pieces.

The Red Cross began trying to trace victims of the Nazis in 1939, and the Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center continues to work to locate missing family members today. It took seven years for my grandfather to find his only surviving relative, a cousin, but credit goes to the Red Cross for their work in reuniting them. You can learn more about their work at their website: www . redcross . org

The poem I quoted at the top is by Hannah Szenes. She was a Hungarian Jew who had emigrated to what was then Palestine. Along with others, she volunteered to join the RAF and parachuted behind enemy lines into Hungary. She was captured almost immediately. Szenes was tortured and eventually executed. The poem was originally written in Hebrew, and has since been set to music and is a well known Hebrew song. What I quoted was the English translation of the version I learned nearly thirty years ago. This is a video of a lovely version of the song in Hebrew, in case you're interested: http: / / www . youtube . com/watch?v=UdOR_72bGQs

Finally, I know that Paul's last name in the books is never given, but I figured he could be an Atera. Poetic license if you will.

Thank you for taking the time to read the story. Please check out all the Age of Edward entries at: http : / www . fanfiction . net /community/Age_of_Edward_2010/84445/ and remember to vote when voting opens.