iThe Commandant is screaming in his ear.
He stares across the yard unseeing, unaware of the gates just fifty yards ahead. Unaware of the men stiff as boards at his side: one a Communist, the other a priest.
His legs want to collapse underneath him but he continues to stand, continues to stand even as his calves scream at the effort. His soles throb in their unforgiving wooden shoes.
The gray striped clothes are so worn against his skin; barely offer any protection against the chilly fall air. He needs to shiver but does not let himself and nearly burns with the ache of keeping still.
Gunshot, gunshot, gunshot to his right and he hopes that this is the end, hopes they will put a bullet in his brain instead of sending him to the back building, where he can sometimes hear the screaming in the darkness of the barrack—/i
She wakes up swiftly, as she always does when his voice tears her to consciousness. All is clear at once—it is the nightmare. From the angle of the sun through their bedroom window she figures it must be nearing dawn, as the soft light creeps through the blinds just enough to give color to the plain white room.
She doesn't waste time as she props herself up in her place, not bothering to worry about the pillows crooked behind her back. The sheets are smooth against her bare legs as she pulls her knees together, and braces. Next to her Max reels, twists violently from side to side while his mouth is open in an unsettling moan that cuts through the quiet room. His dark hair, dangerously long, nearly hides his tightly-shut eyes. Gently she eases her hands beneath his thin trembling shoulders. It takes a moment before she can nudge him where she wants him.
"Max, wake up." She doesn't have to think as she says the familiar words in German, the only language that will calm him. She's mastered the art of making her tone soft but very firm, slicing through his agony. His head is on her lap and she takes his feathery hair in her hands in an effort to keep it still. She caresses his temples, his cheekbones, feels the new stubble growing around his mouth as it scratches against her fingertips. The moan works its way into a scream. "Max," she calls once more, bending down to place a kiss on his forehead. His skin is so clammy. "Max, please wake up." As impersonal as she tries to keep her voice, the third time always becomes a plea.
His eyes slam open with a suddenness that startles her; they are wild and unseeing. His breathing is heavy as the scream abruptly becomes silence; his mouth remains gaping open. It takes a few moments for him to finally focus on her face; when he does, he smiles with complete relief until he cries.
He's quick to wrap his arms around her, pulling himself to his knees in order to grip around her middle, place his forehead between her neck and her shoulder. His cheek rests against her collarbone, and his tears soak through the thin cotton of her nightgown. She puts a thin hand against his hair and brushes through the tangled mess; her other arm wraps itself solidly around the small of his back.
"I don't think we should go," she sighs in slow, purposeful English when his terrified sobs quiet, when he releases her to sit against the headboard. The bed creaks as his weight shifts; her side is cold as his body leaves and she wishes he hadn't pulled away. Her hands collect uselessly on her lap.
"We bought the tickets." His English is even slower than hers; he replies in a shuddering breath as long fingers rub his eyes. The color in his cheeks is high. His bare shoulders are hunched as he brushes the final tears from his eyes.
"We can cancel. We can go again."
He sniffs deeply once, twice. He removes his hands from his face, looks at her. A sad grin softens his swampy eyes.
"I have to go now, Liesel."
She shakes her head, her long hair tickling her shoulders. "No, you don't." She takes his cheek in her hand, cupping around his firm jaw. He leans into her touch. "I just want you to feel good. To feel safe."
His lips are soft on the palm of her hand as he twists ever so slightly to kiss the skin.
The trigger is almost violent in its complete unexpectedness.
The crowd of prisoners is tight around them but it doesn't matter because it's been so long since she last saw him. He looks terribly old. He's crying and his skin sags against her touch.
"Yes, Liesel, it's me."
He freezes as he watches her tremble. "I'm so sorry." His voice is tender as he pulls away from her palm. The sudden switch to German does not help her connect back to the present.
Her eyes are tightly shut; she shakes her head jerkily to clear the image, the sound, the feeling. It takes longer than she wants it to.
"I'm fine," she sighs in determined English, although her hands shake beyond her control. There's nothing to do but wait.
"We're both having terrible days, aren't we?" She wants to be frustrated at his persistence of their native tongue, but his fingers are curving around her elbow in an effort to touch a part of her that doesn't tremble. She smiles in spite of herself.
"Maybe it's just nerves."
"It could be." The English makes her smile, and he leans forward to place a steady kiss on her cheek. "I'll make breakfast this morning."
"Are you excited?" He's at the mouth of the doorway when she murmurs it, a hand on the frame as he prepares to turn down the hall. He stops at the sound of her voice, pauses a moment in thought.
"Ja." It's a whisper that she nearly misses; she can only tell he responded through the sudden tightening of his fingers around the frame. His shoulders are taut for just a moment, but he rolls them and sighs and vanishes down the hall.
She leans back, her head hitting softly against the wooden headboard. She wishes there was something, anything, she could do for this nervous anxiety. The trembling begins to fade from her fingertips, and in a few minutes she climbs from the bed and joins him for tea.