by Myles Abroad
A group of people flees an occupied region. What price will they pay to survive?
|(Word Count 1343)
Breathless...Running...Exhausted... Jakob gasped as he drew in a lungful of cold air. He felt as though he had been running and stumbling through the dense frozen forest for hours; the branches snagging his clothes, tearing at his face and hands. In the distance, he heard gunshots; dogs barking.
"Shit, they have dogs," he rasped.
Instinctively, he looked behind, stumbled and reached forward to break his fall only to meet open air as he cartwheeled down a ravine. He fell heavily on his back driving the wind out of his lungs; rolled, coming to a stop on a smooth surface. He lay there looking up at the iron-gray sky desperately trying to catch his breath.
He heard a crack and the surface he was lying on dropped to a gravel bed, icy water pouring down the collar of his coat. As the shock spread through his body, he let out a cry scrabbling to rise. A strong hand clamped his mouth shut as he was pulled out of the water. He stared into Vanya's grim face.
"Keep it down, Jakob," he whispered harshly.
Jakob stood; soaked, shaking uncontrollably. "How many are left?" he asked.
Vanya shook his head. "I'm not sure...I think Esther is not far behind. I heard gunshots..."
Jakob spun around, his heart in his mouth, as a silhouette appeared at the top of the ridge; instantly relieved when he recognized Esther. She disappeared and came back into view, her arm around Pavel as she helped him slide down the incline.
"Esther, Pavel! Thank God you made it." He said kneeling beside them. He anxiously looked at Pavel, gasping for breath and holding his arm, blood dripping from his hand.
"Pavel. You're hurt!"
He nodded, "My arm. I can't go much further..." Pavel looked upstream and Jakob followed his gaze. They were in a deep gorge that disappeared around a tight bend. The stream running through it was wide but not completely frozen over leaving a narrow channel of running water.
"You can go up upstream," Pavel whispered, "but stay in the running water to hide your scent from the dogs. You'll be out of sight once you get around that bend."
"What do you mean by 'you', Pavel?" Jakob implored.
"I'll climb the other side of the gorge and go straight to lead them off," he said grimly.
Jakob was sick with fear for his friend. "No Pavel. We'll help you. You can't do this... "
Pavel grabbed his coat collar and shook him. "Listen, Jakob. This is the only way. You have to get out. The information in your head is too valuable." He shook his head in despair. "We must have been betrayed!"
He looked then at Vanya. "You know where the factory is, right?"
Vanya nodded. "Half a mile upstream."
"Good. Now go!" Pavel hissed as he pulled himself up. "Someone will meet you there after nightfall."
Jakob followed Esther and Vanya into the shin-deep water and wearily forged his way upstream. As they approached the bend, Jakob looked back to see Pavel climb the incline and disappear.
As they walked Jakob kept anxiously glancing over his shoulder expecting to see soldiers appear around the bend. He could no longer feel his feet as he trudged through the frigid water, his body shook convulsively. He stumbled and fell forward into the stream. A hand gripped him under the arm and he felt Esther's warm breath in his ear as she whispered, "Not too far, Jakob. Then we can rest and get warm."
Infused with hope he pushed himself up but stopped when the heavy silence of the forest was shattered by distant gunshots.
"Pavel" he gasped. 'How many more of us have to die?' he thought bitterly as he felt the yellow star sewn on the front of his coat.
Esther grabbed his arm, "Come on Jakob. Pavel bought us some time." They exchanged a look of despair and continued.
Vanya left the stream to climb the opposite embankment, Jakob and Esther followed closely. Reaching the top, he was relieved to see a derelict factory, the rear entrance gaping wide and dark.
They crept through the dim interior, the occasional filthy skylight preventing the factory from being cast into complete darkness. The smell of fuel and oil hung in the air, as they pushed through the gloom of a deserted machine shop, Jakob avoiding a mechanic's pit littered with building debris.
They continued through a hallway into an office, daylight pouring through the broken windows. He was startled by the noise of an engine. Looking up, he saw a staff car followed by two army trucks approaching the factory entrance.
"How did they find us?" he gasped. "Quick! Back to the woods."
"There's no time, Jakob," Vanya said looking around desperately.
"We'll freeze out there," Esther added. "Let's stay indoors and split up."
Esther ran to a stairwell while Jakob and Vanya hurried back to the machine shop, Jakob making for the mechanic's pit. He hesitated when he heard dogs barking, the smell of diesel giving him an idea. He saw a steel drum next to the pit, ran over and looked inside. It still held some fuel.
"Quick Vanya. Soak your coat in the diesel. It'll mask your scent from the dogs." He whispered as he took off his overcoat and dropped it in the barrel. He drew it out saturated and put it on, the fumes making him reel. Vanya followed suit and faded into the gloom.
Jakob emptied the rest of the diesel into the pit, dropped into it and lay under a sheet of corrugated iron.
Minutes passed before he heard a dog whine, heavy footfalls and quiet voices. He knew to keep perfectly still while he waited for them to pass, but it was so cold. He desperately tried to control his shaking body, the chattering of his teeth. The fumes of the diesel were making him swoon, he felt like vomiting.
He heard a dog snuffling above the pit and then quickly padding away. Someone stopped at the edge of the pit, then a stream of water bounced off the sheet of iron.
'He's pissing on me!' Jakob thought incredulously. In the distance, he heard dogs ferociously snarling and a woman's scream cut short by two gunshots. The man above yelled at his comrades and their running footfalls faded.
Jakob lay there with tears in his eyes remembering Esther's gentle smile and kind words...
"Jakob!" he heard Vanya whisper.
Jakob crept to the edge of the pit and spotted Vanya who motioned for him to wait before he quietly slipped out of the machine shop. Jakob slid into a crouch tightly wrapping his arms around himself.
It was very quiet now. 'Maybe they have left, 'he thought. He heard silent footfalls approach the pit. He held his breath, his heart thumping loudly. Looking up, he was flooded with relief to see Vanya.
"Vanya..." he said, standing up but stopped as icy fingers of fear gripped his heart. An SS officer was standing behind Vanya holding a Luger.
"Well done Vanya." he said.
Jakob was stunned. He looked into Vanya's face who looked back, pleading for understanding.
"Everyone has a price, Jakob," The officer continued while stormtroopers silently filed in. He holstered his weapon and continued. "We couldn't let you get away to betray us, could we? You had your chance but instead, you chose your Mother's people." Jakob watched him light a cigarette.
"Maybe we should give you another chance." He said stepping forward holding the burning match.
"Or maybe not," he said as he dropped the match into the pit. Jakob watched with horror as the flame slowly dropped into the puddle of fuel.
Vanya awoke with a start, sweating, his heart pounding; the same nightmare replaying. Thirty years and he was still plagued by guilt.
"Ah, Jakob! I'm so sorry." he cried bitterly.
He looked at Esther peacefully sleeping beside him. He lay back down pulling her close remembering the SS officer saying, "Everyone has a price..."