beengone

Kleines Madchen Verloren (Little Girl Lost)


Thalem, Germany

April 3, 1945

 


 

After


When Dick woke to see the little girl standing in his doorway, he wondered hazily if a person could get drunk just from kissing a person who had been drinking. Because that was the only explanation and he was already closing his eyes when the incongruity of the moment hit. He jerked his head up and looked again.

There was a girl standing in the open door, mute and still. She was wearing a thin dress even though the building was chilly. The wall sconce shone but so bright it was hard to see the details of her face, her dress.

He opened his mouth to say something, anything, but nothing came. Only a sharp panic that strangled all words. He always took care to choose the perfect time, the perfect place. To make sure the door was locked so no one could come barging in. And he’d definitely locked the door—he remembered it distinctly.

The mattress shifted and Nix muttered something under his breath. He slung a heavy arm around Dick’s waist and nuzzled the back of his neck, his mouth startlingly warm.

“Lew…” Dick twisted around, shoving Nix back with his shoulder. “Lew!

“Yeah?”

“There’s—” He looked at the door and caught his breath. As if he’d been watching a film with a clumsy splice, the scene had altered. The girl was gone, the door shut tight. The only light in the room was a thin strip of moonlight creeping in through a gap in the closed drapes.

“There’s what?” Nix asked, his voice raspy with sleep.

“I…”

“Well?” 

He closed his eyes firmly, then opened them again. Nothing had changed. The room was as it should be, empty of anyone but the two of them. “I… There was…” It hadn't been a dream or a figment of his imagination, had it?

“C’mere.” Nix finally moved. He tugged on Dick’s arm and rolled him to his back, then pushed up on one elbow. He traced Dick’s lower lip with his thumb and gave him a sloppy kiss. “There was what?” 

Dick made a helpless gesture as he pulled away from Nix’s caress. Now that he was fully awake, he realized how bizarre the moment had been, how any attempt at explanation would make him sound delusional, maybe even insane. But Nix would never, ever let him not tell now… “This is gonna sound nuts, but I thought I saw someone in the doorway. A girl.”

“In our doorway?” Nix looked over at the closed door, squinting a little. “That door over there?”

“Yes that door over there. Which door did you think I meant?” It was ridiculous, the spurt of anger that burned his chest. Nix was just asking the question anyone would ask.

Nix raised one eyebrow. “I don’t know, Dick. I’m half asleep here.”

“Sorry, Lew.”

“Well.” Nix shrugged. “There’s no one there now.”

“I know that. Wait…” He slid out of bed. He was only wearing his shorts and the place was freezing—every hair on his body rose in protest as he searched the room.

Due to his rank, he’d been given a private bedroom and bathroom. The rooms were luxurious compared to what he was used to, but they were small—there were only a few pieces of furniture and none were big enough to hide even a small child. Still, he searched. He poked his head behind the curtains, looked behind the desk. He even switched on the bedside light and opened the wardrobe to peer inside. 

Feeling increasingly foolish, he went to the door and tried the knob. The door was locked tight, the key on its hook to the right of the door. Exactly where he’d hung it earlier in the evening.

“Nothing, huh?” Nix lay on his side, head on fist. In the faint lamplight, his eyes shone black with laughter.

Dick shrugged in irritation. “No.” 

“You, my friend, had a nightmare,” Nix drawled, even pointing for effect.

“It wasn’t a nightmare.”

“Then what was it? Too much tea. Not enough sleep?”

He crossed his arms, aware how ridiculous he must look, half naked, insisting that he’d seen a— “It wasn’t a nightmare.”

“Okay, it wasn’t a nightmare. C’mon.” Nix patted the bed, “I’m getting cold and you gotta be freezing.” He held up the bedclothes and smiled invitingly.

Dick looked around the room one more time, then gave up. He hurried across the room and got in. Turning, he moved back until he was flush against Nix, back to front.

“Jesus, you’re cold. Here…” Nix pulled the covers up, cocooning them together. “Don’t be embarrassed. Everyone has nightmares.”

Dick huffed a little. “Not me.”

“Yeah, well, you’re Mr. Wonder Major, we all know that.” Nix chuckled against Dick’s shoulder and he jerked an elbow in annoyance. “Ow!”

“Well, stop it.”

“Yeah, okay, okay. I’ll be nice.”

He said nothing. He pulled Nix’s arm around him and held him close. He wasn’t sleepy anymore.

Nix bit his ear, whispering. “Do you want to make love again? I don’t have to leave for an hour or so.”

He shook his head sharply. Which was rude; he looked over his shoulder. “D’you mind?”

“If I minded, I wouldn’t have asked,” Nix, said, his voice filled with gentle laughter. “You should know me better than that.”

Dick wanted to say that most of what Nix did was a mystery to him, but that might open up a completely different can of worms, so he just shrugged. 

They were quiet for a long moment, then Nix murmured, already half asleep, “So what did she look like?” 

“Who? Oh, I don’t know. I couldn’t see much. Because of the light.” Dick shifted restlessly. “It was just…” 

“Just what?”

He tightened his lips. He hadn’t, as he’d said, seen much. He’d just felt it and that vague, irrational reaction was unfamiliar and more than a little disturbing. Finally, because he had to say something, he muttered, “It was just that she seemed so sad.”

Nix leaned up to kiss the crook of his neck, then settled back down, warm and solid. Dick lay there, listening as Nix’s breath evened out, wondering if he was going crazy.


~~~~~~~~~~~~


Nix was gone by the time he woke up again. He’d pulled back the curtains a foot or so before he’d left, something that always made Dick smile—Nix knew he liked to wake up to the sun. Well, when it shone. It looked like it was going to be another gray day even though it was mostly still dark outside.

He reached for his watch already knowing he was late. Yep, five-twenty; he’d meant to be up at five. 

He had thrown back the covers and was swinging his legs out of bed when he remembered the odd dream. He froze, half out of the bed, his heart in his throat. It had been something about a girl and an open door and even as he tried to recall it, the details bled away, like he was trying to grasp smoke.

He shrugged and got up. In the light of day the dream seemed doubly unreal and he thought of Nix’s words. Maybe that was it—maybe he hadn’t been getting enough sleep or something.

In any case, it didn’t really matter. He had to get cleaned up, eat breakfast, and make it to CP in thirty-five minutes or he’d hear about it from Sink. Easy wasn’t going to be in Thalem for very long and he had to coordinate clean-up operations with the town. It wasn’t something he relished doing but at least his men would, for the most part, be out of the line of fire and able to get some much needed rest.

He was dressed and reaching for the doorknob when the image of the girl rushed back again, this time clear and vivid. He stood there, almost afraid to turn the knob, afraid she might be out there waiting for him.

He took a deep breath and shook his head, disgusted with his wild fancies. He jerked the door open. There was no one in the hall; he could hear the normal, prosaic sounds of Zielinski puttering around in the kitchen below.

He shook his head again and closed the door smartly behind him. Dismissing all thoughts of the night, he reviewed his mental list of the day’s duties and strode down the hall.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~


By nineteen hundred he'd forgotten about the dream. The memory had been shoved aside by the day’s tasks—reports and orders and paperwork. Nix showed up about twenty hundred saying he couldn’t relax with all the crying and could he sack out on Dick's bed for a while? 

Dick, distracted by an addendum to his report on Easy’s initial contact with the Landsberg camp, said of course without really looking up.

He spent the rest of the evening in his room at his desk, writing letters to his mother and DeEtta, only half aware of Nix, asleep behind him. A little after ten, promising himself that he wouldn’t sleep, that he would just close his eyes for a bit, he took off his boots and shoved Nix to the other side of the bed. Then he climbed up and lay back.

***

His eyes flew open. In that instant between sleep and consciousness, he knew he’d fallen asleep when he hadn’t meant to just as he knew that Nix needed to leave right away. It was late but not that late—Zielinski probably wasn’t even in bed yet. 

He tilted his watch to the light and gave a little sigh of relief. Only five after twelve. Which meant Zielinski was already in bed and that it wouldn’t look too odd for Nix to be leaving his rooms. 

He groggily pushed the covers back, only then realizing he'd pulled them up. Nix was turned towards him, sound asleep, his face buried in the pillow. He was frowning and Dick hated waking him because even in sleep he looked tired, almost exhausted. But two days in a row was chancing their luck and it had to be done.

He was leaning over to stroke Nix’s cheek when he felt it again—he was being watched again—he knew it. As if the muscles in his neck had suddenly atrophied, he forced his head around and looked.

There she was.

Standing in the open door, unnaturally still, the light from the hallway haloing her entire body. 

This time Dick could make out a little more detail, enough to see that that her dress was an odd grayish color and her skin was pale, as if she’d been cooped up inside for far too long. Or been very ill.

He looked closer and rubbed his eyes with his fist. He must be really tired or really going crazy, because for a minute he thought she’d faded in and out, like a light flickering on and off. 

Blindly, he reached behind and fumbled for Nix’s hand. “Lew—” When he got no answer, hissed, “Lew!

“I see her.” 

Nix’s voice was muffled by the pillow but Dick could tell he was wide awake. “Not a nightmare?”

“No, not as far as I can—” Nix gasped and sat up. He leaned over and jabbed the heel of his hand in a tender part of Dick’s chest, gesturing wildly. “What the—? Where’d she go?”

“Get off,” Dick whispered, scrambling out of bed. But it was too late—when he straightened up, the door was closed, the girl was gone as if she’d never existed.

Numb with familiar shock, he turned the same time as Nix turned to him. They stared at each other, neither saying a word. 

Dick had to clear his throat before saying raggedly, “Well…” But that was it—he didn't have any comments or explanations other than the obvious, ‘I guess I’m not going crazy.’ He raised his eyebrow asking for Nix's opinion because he was always the one with the answers, the one with the intel.

But Nix’s face was pale and he shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know, Dick.” His voice was just as hoarse, just as disbelieving. “I mean, shit…”

Dick could only agree. “Yeah.” 

“D’you think one of us should go take a look?” Nix jerked his head to the door, clearly saying without saying that there was no way he’d be the one doing the looking.

Dick wanted to do anything but what he did just then. He sighed and switched on the bedside light, then went to the door. He unlocked it and slowly pulled it open. He peered out, then stood back to show Nix the empty, dark hall. Then he closed and locked the door and came back to sit on the edge of the bed.

Finally, after a moment that was too blank, too long, Nix shivered from head to toe. He fell back and gazed wide-eyed at the ceiling. “Shit,” he said again.

Dick reminded himself that Nix needed to leave, that any if he stayed, it wouldn’t look natural or normal. But the idea of sleeping alone, waiting for the girl to come back… He said with a shrug he hoped was casual and not anxious, “Hey, Lew, could you… I mean, why don’t you…”

“Shit, yeah, I’m staying. I’ve seen men shot out of the sky, legs blown off with the boots still on.” Nix crawled back under the covers, “But there is no way in hell I’m going back to my place right now. That was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen.” He grinned shakily up at Dick.

“Thanks. We’ll talk about in the morning.”

Nix turned to face the door and muttered, “More like we’ll be drinking in the morning.”

Dick ignored him. He turned off the light and lay back. Then gave up any pretense that he hadn't been disturbed by recent events and rolled to his side so he was facing the door. 

The silence settled in again, but he could feel Nix thinking. “Any comment?”

“What do you mean?” 

“Well, how old do you think she is?”

“I don’t know kids, Dick. Maybe four, maybe five.”

“Did you see anything else?”

“Nah, just a little girl standing in some light. I’m cold, c’mere…” Nix tugged Dick over until he was on his back. He lay his head on his chest and mumbled, “It’s weird, but you usually don’t keep that hallway light on, right? And anyway, I didn’t realize it was that bright.”

Dick hadn’t thought about that and it was weird. Light discipline was so ingrained at this point that he would never allow the lights on all night, even if it wasn't necessary. He rubbed his cheek against the rough fabric of Nix’s uniform and agreed. “Yeah.”

“Besides,” Nix shrugged. “She was crying so bad it was hard to see what she looked like.”

“What?”

“Crying. Her face was all twisted up. I couldn’t get a good look at her.” 

He craned his head to look Nix straight in the eyes. “She wasn’t crying, Lew. She was just standing there.”

“Dick, I think I know crying when I see it.”

But he was already shaking his head in firm denial. “That’s not what I saw. I saw a little girl, standing in the doorway. She wasn’t crying, she wasn’t laughing, she wasn’t doing handstands. She was just standing there.” His voice had gotten louder and he shut his mouth tight, afraid of what else would come out.

Nix was staring at him, eyes wide, mouth open. “I… Yeah, okay, I guess that’s another thing we’ll be talking about in the morning.”

Neither spoke again, each lost in their own thoughts while they waited for sleep.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

By unspoken agreement, the next morning they spoke only of military matters as Nix straightened his hair and clothing. Before he unlocked the door, he gave Dick a peck on the cheek and took off, walking quickly down the hall. 

Dick showered briskly, scrubbing his skin as if he could scrub away the night. He dressed with his back to the door, insanely worried that the little girl would return while he was stark naked. 

He met up with Nix and Harry at breakfast. He kept his eyes on his oatmeal as he half listened to their desultory talk about a card game someone from Fox was holding that night. If it were any other day, he’d make some comment about gambling, but he was too tired to rebuke.

Harry, always quick to recognize secrets and heavy silences, picked up on their distraction. He kept shooting suspicious glances, from Dick to Nix, then back again. 

Finally saying he needed to get to work and that he’d meet up with them later in the day, Dick shoved his uneaten breakfast away and hurried from the room, ignoring Nix’s look of concern and Harry’s look of curious glee.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“So?”

“So?”

Nix huffed a sigh and rolled his eyes. “What do you want to do about it? And,” he continued before Dick could open his mouth, “don’t tell me it didn’t happen because both you and I know what we know.”

Dick tried for a smile. “That doesn’t make any sense, Nix.”

“Yes it does and you’re avoiding the subject.”

Dick kicked a stone and shrugged. “Yeah, okay.”

They were sitting on the broken wall that surrounded Thalem’s main church, watching as the weak sun sank behind a line of trees. The day had been overcast again and the sun had made only a brief appearance as the clouds shifted and reformed. Even so, he didn’t think the grey day accounted for the odd pressure in his chest, the feeling that someone or something was sitting on him, making it hard to breathe.

He rubbed his chest and wondered if he was coming down with a cold. Lipton was still coughing from his bout of pneumonia—maybe he'd gotten sick and didn't know it.

A faint rumble grew louder and he looked up as a jeep full of privates passed by. They saluted grimly and he and Nix followed suit. 

Nix took out a cigarette and nodded to the departing jeep. “On their way back from Landsberg?”

“Yeah, they’ve been helping the doc.” Dick didn’t add that the privates hadn’t wanted the duty—that went without saying. “Have they found more camps?”

“Yeah, I’ve got a new report waiting for me back in my rooms. Should be interesting.”

He didn’t clarify and Dick didn’t press for details. He’d find out, in any case, later on that evening.

Nix lit his cigarette, then nudged Dick’s ankle. “So?”

“So?”

Nix threw his hand up and the match went flying. “Jesus, Dick!”

“Sorry, Lew. I just don’t know what you want me to say. I have no idea what we should do because I’ve never seen a—” He couldn’t say it out loud. The whole thing was so outlandish.

“You want to come stay with me tonight?”

“Would that do any good?”

“Like I would know?”

“Well, you’re the one that wants to do something about it.” 

Nix laughed out loud and Dick cracked a reluctant smile—even to his own ears he sounded cranky and querulous.

“Okay, so we’ll hang out in your room and wait.” Nix took a drag off the cigarette.

Dick watched him inhale a lungful of smoke, distracted for a moment. He hated cigarettes, but had to admit that when Nix smoked, it was almost attractive. “How will your being there help me?”

“What do you want me to say? Let’s bring in the troops, bring in artillery? You think a Sherman’s gonna stop a—”

He forgot his brief lust and interrupted with a quick, “Don’t say it.”

“What—'Ghost’?” Nix raised his eyebrows. “That’s what we’re both thinking, right?” When Dick didn’t answer, Nix rocked against him, bumping shoulders, elbows. “Right?”

Reluctantly, he nodded. “Yeah.”

Nix nodded back. “So we’ll meet up at your room, say around twenty-two hundred?”

“Yeah, fine.”

“And we’ll wait around to see if she shows.”

“Fine.”

Nix stood and tossed his half-smoked cigarette away. “You okay?”

Dick snorted and got up as well. He straightened his uniform, saying sarcastically, “I should be the one asking you that. You’re the one who  looks like you haven’t slept, or shaved, in days.” It was a gentle reminder—Nix’s beard was as heavy as it had been in Bastogne.

Nix ran his hand over his jaw. “I’ll get rid of it soon. Keeps me warm. Besides, it makes me look scary and that’ll scare off the you-know-what.”

Dick sighed. “Don’t. It’s not every day that I see a… You know.”

Nix laughed without much humor. “You can say the word, Dick; words won’t kill you.”

“Ha, ha.”

“Okay, okay.” Nix patted him on the arm. “I’ll see you tonight. I’m going to find Harry and talk him into a game of poker.” He strolled across the street, already pulling out another cigarette.

Words won’t kill you. Maybe not and anyway, it wasn’t the word itself. As a youngster, he’d spent many terrifying hours captivated by a variety of horror serials that his uncle let him listen to on the sly. So it wasn’t that he didn’t like to be scared, per se. It was just the idea

Ghosts simply didn’t fit with his personal beliefs and he’d always thought such notions as so much hogwash. Mysticism and spirits were all right for Catholics, but not for him.

Except…

He thought of the little girl standing in his doorway and the way she’d faded in and out, the way she’d disappeared in the blink of an eye—it looked like he might’ve been wrong.

He shivered, then glanced around, uncomfortably aware that he’d been standing in the street, gazing at nothing. He nodded to an old man that was standing next to a gravestone topped by an angel, then marched down Thalem’s ruined main street, hoping that Nix had the good sense not to tell Harry what was going on. 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“Will that be all, sir?”

Dick looked up from the report he had yet to sign and smiled. “Yes, John. Thanks for your help today.”

Zielinski’s plain face broke out in a smile and he practically beamed. “My pleasure, sir. Should I turn off the lights in the front room?”

“Please.” He nodded goodnight and began to gather up his papers and maps. 

He’d spent another day filling out reports and forms. By the time he brought his head up for air, it had been too late for dinner with the men. 

He’d gone back to his flat and sat in his tiny borrowed kitchen and finished the last of the day’s paperwork. Zielinski had tried to get him to retired to his rooms, saying it was much warmer on the upper floor. Dick had shrugged him off. He didn’t like to admit it, but he wasn’t looking forward to going to his bedroom. Which was ridiculous. He was a grown man. And he’d been through two years of Sobel, D-day, and Bastogne. He could handle a little girl.

Grimacing at his cowardice, he stacked his papers together and tapped them on the table firmly. Then he got up, turned off the kitchen light, and headed up the stairs.

Everything on the second floor was quiet and still. The hall clock chimed the half hour— only thirty minutes until Nix showed up. He’d spend it getting cleaned up, maybe a shave.

He was reaching for his doorknob, reminding himself that he was almost out of shaving soap, when he heard a familiar giggle. He sighed. Zielinksi hadn’t bothered to tell him he had guests—probably was so used to Nix being here, that he didn’t even think about it. Which wasn’t necessarily a good thing. 

He opened the door and said evenly, “Hello, Harry.”

Harry looked up and waved his cards. “There you are. We’ve been waiting for you.” He was lounging on the bed, legs crossed. Nix was on the bed as well, leaning against the headboard. He’d taken off his boots, but Harry hadn’t.

The window and curtains were open a crack to let the cigarette smoke out and there was an open liquor bottle on the floor and another on the nightstand. Harry was flushed—which meant he was already a little drunk. Nix hadn’t been drinking at all—Dick could always tell. 

Harry grinned from ear to ear and Dick waited with a sinking heart. He wasn’t disappointed. “So,” Harry tried to smother his grin. “I hear you two have a little ghosty problem.” He giggled again and threw a card down on the bed.

Nix’s own grin didn’t reach his eyes and he shook his head. “Don’t look at me. He came by, saying he knew something was up and I’d better tell. I tried to brush him off, but you know Harry.”

Harry leaned over the pile of cards and thumbed through them. “Yeah, like you two could keep secrets from me.” 

A chill ran up Dick’s back and he forced a smile, avoiding Nix’s glance. There were secrets and then there were secrets. And his career would be over if the most important one got out. He took off his jacket and hung it up in the wardrobe. “What’d he tell you?”

“That last night, on the stroke of twelve, you guys were visited by a little girl. A little girl who wasn’t really there.” Harry gave Dick a narrow-eyed look that was probably supposed to be sinister but was merely goofy, then turned back to his hand. “Too bad you couldn’t be haunted by the ghost of Rita Hayworth. Now that would be something.”

Nix mocked, “Rita Hayworth isn’t dead, Harry.”

“Yeah, well, whatever. Anyway, this girl woke you guys up, scared the pants off you, and now you’re gonna see if she comes back tonight.”

Harry wasn’t looking up, thankfully, or he’d see the way Nix choked back a laugh, see the blush Dick couldn’t hide. 

He thought about ordering Harry out and even went so far as raising his eyebrow at Nix—who just shook his head sharply. It was too late—any objection would just make Harry more curious. They were going to grin and bear it. 

He sat down at his desk and opened the drawer. If he had to grin and bear it, he might as well be productive. He pulled out a half-finished note and got his pen.

“I doubt she’ll show. It was probably all a bad dream.” Nix spoke lightly, feigning a nonchalance Dick knew he didn’t feel.

“You never know, we could get lucky. Hah! Gin! And speaking of—” 

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Harry toss his cards down and reach over the edge of the bed for the liquor. He got a bottle and settled down again. “Hey,” he said, pointing the bottle at Nix, “What were you doing here at midnight, anyway? Going over our next pullout?”

Dick flushed again, hoping Nix would come up with something good. He heard the cards being shuffled and then Nix saying calmly, “Nah, Sink had some paperwork for Dick that I forgot to deliver.”

Harry said mournfully, “Sink.”

“Yeah, Sink,” Nix agreed, just as mournfully.

"You work too much, Dick," Harry muttered, and then louder, “So what time’s this party getting started?”

Without turning around, Dick answered, “Around midnight.”

“We got two hours to kill? I better get more booze.”

Dick turned to quash that idea, but before he could, Nix said sharply, “Harry, are we gonna talk all night or play cards?”

“Jeez, louise, keep your shirt on, Nix. Yeah, okay, give me a minute to look at this crappy hand you just dealt me.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Dick watched them for a moment, then sighed and turned back to his note to DeEtta. He loved Harry like a brother, but he didn't know how to keep a secret. If this got out— “Harry?”

Harry didn’t look up. He was scowling at his cards—they must be really bad. “Yeah?”

“No telling the men about this, right? They’re jumpy enough as it is. Some wouldn’t take it so well.”

Harry twisted to look at him, his grin fading. “Sure, Dick. I won’t tell a soul.”

"See that you don't." He picked up his pen for the third time. And put it down. There was no use trying to finish the letter; he just wasn’t in the mood. 

He put the letter away and stood up. He paused for a moment, then went to sit in the armchair in the corner of the room, grabbing the Life magazine that Nix had left a few days ago. He told himself he'd changed seats because he was tired. That if he couldn’t stretch out on the bed, he might as well be as comfortable as possible.

But as he looked at the magazine’s cover without really seeing it, a sly inner voice piped up and said he just didn’t want to sit with his back to the door any longer than he had to. He pursed his lips and snapped the magazine open, forcing himself to concentrate. He skipped the articles on the war, instead submerging himself in a story about ranching in Hawaii and was soon lost.

He'd moved on to an article about the skyrocketing costs of food back home when he heard Harry asked Nix a question.

“Hey, Nix?”

“Yeah?”

“You have a little girl.”

Dick looked up. Harry wasn’t frowning at his cards anymore—his luck was probably turning.

“Well, yeah, I have a daughter, Harry.” Nix shuffled a few of his cards. “What of it?”

“I don’t know. Just thinking. How old is she?”

Nix hesitated, then said, “She’s almost four.” His eyes were neutral but Dick could see the building tension in his shoulders, hear it in his flat tone.

“The same age as your ghost?”

Nix’s face stilled into a mask, blank and lifeless. Like it had been the day Dick had found him in his bedroom, downing drink after drink, fresh from Operation Varsity. “Yeah.”

“Huh.”

Nix leaned forward and hissed, sharp and accusatory, “What do you mean, ‘Huh’?”

Dick closed the magazine. “Harry.”

Harry ignored him, ignored the look in Nix’s eye. “I mean, don’t you think it’s weird that she showed up here?”

“Are you saying my daughter’s dead?” Nix’s voice rose on the last word and he bent forward, a terrible look on his face.

“Harry!” Dick rarely used that voice outside the battlefield, but enough was enough.

Harry jerked around and shot Dick a guilty glance, dropping his cards on the bed. He muttered contritely, “No, sorry.” He slapped Nix’s knee and said again, “Sorry, Nix. That’s not what I meant. I just thought it was weird, that’s all. I never meant…” He scooped up the cards and looked at Dick again, trying for grin. “Sorry. Don’t know what I was thinking.”

“Most likely you weren’t.” Nix smiled but Dick could see the effort it took—his eyes were still dark with anger.

He wanted to get up and grab Nix tight or at least take his hand, but all he could do was say, “Lew…”

Nix shook his head, eyes fixed on his cards. “It’s okay, Dick. I’m fine.”

He settled back in his chair, not satisfied, but willing to let it go for the moment. “Okay.”

“So Harry," Nix said, "does this mean you’re gonna let me win the next round?” 

It was an obvious olive brand and Harry picked up his cards with a grin. “Yeah, right. Like you need my help cleaning me out.”

The two men returned to their game, talking softly as they threw cards down and picked them up. Dick bent his head over the magazine, his concentration completely broken.

Nix had only ever spoken about his wife and daughter that once. And Dick never asked.

But then, he and Nix didn’t talk about a lot of things. Their affair, started in Bastogne, was one of those things. He preferred it that way—if he didn’t discuss, he didn’t have to acknowledge and define. And—in this case—ascribe a moral value to it. He knew it was cowardly, knew one day he’d have to pay the piper, but he hadn’t been able to make himself face himself. He needed Nix on some fundamental level although in the beginning, he’d told himself it was merely for the companionship and nothing more.

It had taken only two weeks in a foxhole in the Bois Jacques to put to rest that little bit of self-deception.

Still, that didn’t help when he began to wonder about the future. Wonder about what he was going to do after the war if they managed to make it to the end without getting killed. He knew most soldiers wouldn’t give much thought to an extra-marital affair, but he wasn’t most men and when he thought about it, when he thought about what he was doing to Nix’s fractured family, it made him sick.

He frowned at the course his thoughts had taken and told himself to stop it. That they still had over an hour to kill and worrying about his thing with Nix wasn’t going to help any. That it was important to take it slow and wait until the time was right.

And then he would see what he would see.


~~~~~~~~~~


“Fellas, she’s not gonna show.”

Nix rolled his sleepy eyes. “Harry, we heard you the first seven times.”

“It wasn’t seven, it was—”

“Yeah, we know.”

“Okay, but she’s already twenty-one minutes—”

“We know what time it is.” Nix reached out and touched the bottle of booze on the nightstand. He’d remained painfully sober—Dick knew he was dying for a drink.

“Yeah, but—”

“Harry,” Dick murmured.

“All right, all right.”

The nearer it got to midnight, the more nervous everyone had become. At eleven-thirty, Harry had thrown down his cards and began pacing a short arc around the foot of the bed. Nix didn’t move from his place at the headboard, but he smoked cigarette after cigarette, silently grim. 

About ten minutes to midnight, they’d gotten into a brief argument over where to stand, each wanting a place by the small window on the other side of the bed. Nix said that he’d already seen the ghost and didn’t need a better look. Harry said that his vision was just fine and since it wasn’t his room, the ghost wouldn’t be looking for him.

It had been ridiculous and petty but also funny because Dick knew the real reason they were fighting over the space—it was the furthest spot from the door a person could stand without actually hiding in the corner of the room. 

Fed up, he'd told them both to shut up and sit down or leave. They'd sat down on the bed, facing the door. At eleven fifty-five he joined them. So there they sat, shoulder to shoulder like owls on a tree limb, Harry, Nix and himself, looking as silly as could be. All they’d need, he thought, was for Zielinski to show up—he’d never live down the embarrassment.

Looking at his wristwatch one more time, he shook his head. “Harry’s right. She’s not going to show. I guess it’s time to call it a night.”

Harry grunted, then stood up and pulled on his jacket. “Well, you guys sure know how to show a fella a good time.” He picked up the last bottle of booze and waved it. “Walk you to your place, Nix?”

“Sure Harry, I’ll—” Nix shrugged into his coat, then turned to Dick. “I’ll see you tomorrow?” 

Nix looked so unhappy, he wanted to reach out and take his hand. But Harry was waiting by the door, watching. “Yeah, sure. See you tomorrow.”

Nix gave him a speaking glance as Harry pulled him through the door and they were gone, the room suddenly too lonely and quiet. 

He sighed. The place smelled and looked like a bar—he picked up the ashtray and the empty bottle and dumped them into the wastebasket, then straightened up his desk. He was just closing his window when he heard the sound of heavy steps outside in the hall.

Nix strode into the room, breathless, rosy-cheeked but grim. “I lied to Harry, told him I left my cigarettes here.” He grabbed Dick and towed him away from the window. “I know what’s going on. I think. I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.”

Before he could say anything, Nix wrapped one cold hand around his neck and kissed him, roughly, thoroughly. And then he was gone as quickly as he’d come. 

Stunned, Dick stood there for a moment, still feeling Nix’s warm mouth, trying to parse his words. Finally, he shook his head and pulled the drapes closed then locked the door. He collapsed on top of the bed and stared up at the ceiling. It was all too much. Ghosts and daughters and now Nix, acting rash and crazy. 

He told himself to get cleaned up for bed, but for once he ignored his own commands. He unlaced and toed off his boots, then crawled into bed. He lay there a long time and when he did fall asleep, he dreamed he was back home, on his own again, without Easy, without Nix.


~~~~~~~~~~

The next day moved at a snail’s pace. Dick decided to stay at the house—he could do his paperwork just as easily there, maybe even faster without all the usual distractions at the CP. He sat at the desk in the living room and got to work. And every time he looked at his watch, he swore the hands hadn’t moved. Zielinski noticed and asked him several times if there was a meeting he forgot and should adjust the major’s agenda? 

The third time he asked, Dick finally assured him that, no, it was just that he was a little tired. Zielinski gave him a sympathetic nod and left him alone for the rest of the morning. He must’ve heard Harry and Nix leave the night before.

At noon Nix showed up, looking as grim as the night before. He brushed by Zielinski, ignoring his, 'Good afternoon, sir' and bent over the desk, murmuring, “I need to do something. It’ll probably take a day or so, but then…” He looked over his shoulder at Zielinksi, hovering in the background, and bent closer still, almost brushing his lips against Dick’s ear. “I’m pretty sure I know what to do. All right?”

“Yeah, Nix, that’s fine.” 

He was confused and Nix knew it because he asked gravely, “Do you trust me, Dick?”

He didn’t even need to think about it. “Of course.”

“Promise?”

He paused. Nix was dead serious, but there was something behind his eyes, as if he was asking another question altogether. Clearing his throat, he repeated, “Yes.”

“Right.” Nix straightened. “I’ll see you when I see you.” He started to say something else, then took a deep breath and was gone without a glance back. Just like the night before.

“Everything all right, sir?” Zielinski clutched his file folders to his chest, frowning at Nix’s retreating back.

“Yes, corporal. Everything’s fine.”

“Very well, sir.” Zielinski left the room, still frowning.

He sighed and leaned back in his chair. What was that about? Nix was never deliberately secretive, not like this. He hoped he wasn’t going to do anything stupid. 

He looked at his watch again. He had less than four hours to finish up his paperwork and then it was over to the temporary mess hall. Where he’d spend an uncomfortable hour avoiding Harry’s knowing comments and smiles. 

He decided to go the coward’s route and ask Zielinski to bring his dinner to the house. 


~~~~~~~~~

That night, he lay awake long past midnight, waiting, but the girl never showed up. Turning restlessly in the bed, missing Nix’s warmth, he was shocked to find that he also missed his nightly visitor. As stupid as it was, he couldn’t help but pray that wherever she was, she was okay. 

~~~~~~~~~~


Dick signed for the envelope and nodded in answer to the runner’s salute. His workday had ended five hours ago but judging by the package, Sink had other plans for him. He slid the documents out and glanced over them.

“From the Colonel, sir?”

Dick turned around. Zielinski was in the kitchen doorway, a dishcloth in his hands. “Yeah, it's the plans for our pullout in a few days.”

“Would you like me to put them on your desk, sir?”

“No thanks. I’m going up anyway.”

“Very good, sir. Will that be all?”

“Yeah, John, get to bed." He smiled briefly. "You look beat.”

“It’s been a long week, sir.”

“Yes, it has.” It’s been a hell of a week. "By the way, Captain Nixon will be—" The door slammed open. Nix stood on the threshold, shoulders hunched. “Speak of the devil.”

Nix made a face and started to say something, then paused. He stared hard at Zielinski until he muttered something and returned to the kitchen.

Dick pursed his lips. “That was rude.”

“You mean Zielinksi?”

“Yeah.”

Nix strode in, waving away the objection. “He doesn’t mind. Listen—” He pulled Dick into the front room and closed the door. He was flushed from the cold and had finally shaved. And he was as agitated as he’d been before, his movements quick and abrupt. “I’ve got everything set, I think. We just need to wait for midnight and then we’ll go.”

“Go where?”

“You’ll see.”

“Lew. I can’t just—”

Nix grabbed Dick’s shoulders and looked deep into his eyes. “You said you trusted me.”

There was absolutely nothing he could say to that because not eight hours earlier he’d done more than that—he’d promised. “Yeah, okay,” he said slowly, “let’s go upstairs. We still have four or five hours to kill. Might as well be warm while we do it.”

Nix smiled. He gestured for Dick to precede him, a gleam in his eye. 


~~~~~~~~~~~


Dick bent over the board and looked up at Nix from under his eyelashes. “Stop complaining.”  

“I’m not.”

“Yeah, you are. Every time you move, you move in a complaining way.”

“What the hell is a ‘complaining way,’ Dick?” Nix slid a checker forward.

“Like that,” Dick pointed. “You just moved in a complaining way.”

Nix sighed and a grin broke through his gloomy expression for a brief moment. “Well, this isn’t what I thought we’d be doing right about now.”

Dick looked over at the door. They’d left it open on purpose, ‘Just in case’ Nix had said. Which meant they’d had to be even more circumspect than normal. Which meant that every time Nix leaned over to touch his hand or knee, he'd pulled back out of reach.

Nix followed his glance and muttered, “Yeah, yeah… Crown me.”

Nix had refused to let Dick in on his plans but as the night rolled on, his very visible apprehension grew. Every time his eyes darted to the door, every time he jumped at the smallest creak, Dick looked and jumped as well. By the time they’d finished the fourth game of checkers, he was surprised to find that his right foot was shaking back and forth, something he only did when he was very nervous.

Nix moved his newly-crowned piece forward. “Almost twenty-four hundred.”

Dick craned his head to see his clock—twenty-two minutes to go. “Yep.”

“We should probably get ready.” Nix uncurled from his place at the foot of the bed and picked up the clothes he'd gotten out of Dick's kit earlier in the evening. He held them out to Dick with a muttered, "Here."

He put on the jacket, gloves and scarf without a word.

Nix watched him, then said, “That’s about it. I’ve got the rest of your stuff in the jeep.” Nix hesitated, as if waiting for Dick’s objections.

Dick just nodded. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

Nix drew a breath, probably to give some sarcastic response, but just as he did, his eyes widened and he jerked his head to the door. Dick turned slowly. He knew what to expect, but still, he couldn’t help his slight gasp when he saw her.

Like all the nights before, she was standing just inside the open doorway, looking straight at him. Only this time it was different. Maybe it was because the ceiling light was on or maybe it was because he wasn’t half asleep. Whatever, this time he could see more of her features as they shifted in and out of focus. Not all, but enough to see that Nix was right—she was still mute and her face was dry, but she was weeping as if her heart were breaking. “Lew?”

“Yeah, let me…” Nix bent over and slowly held out his hand, palm open. “Es ist…okay. Es ist okay.

Dick’s German wasn’t even parochial, but he understood enough: ‘It’s okay.’ 

The girl’s reaction was immediate. She looked up at Nix, then gulped a long breath and stopped crying.

Nix looked up and forced a grin. “Okay, here’s where you have to trust me.”

Not liking the sound of that, Dick gave a cautious, “Yeah?”

“We need to take her for a drive.”

Dick opened his mouth, prepared to argue when Nix shook his head sharply and jerked his head towards the girl. Which meant, what? That Nix was worried she would get scared and vanish or that she’d get scared and lash out. Either were unacceptable, so he just shut his mouth and watched.

Turning back around, Nix held out his hand again and said something else in German that Dick couldn’t catch, then, “…auto… Seien Sie nicht.”

‘Car,’ and, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ Dick didn’t understand how so young a girl couldn’t not be afraid and then he remembered what she was.

Nix straightened up then whispered, “Okay, we’re gonna walk to the door. I’m hoping she’ll back up, but if she doesn’t, I wouldn’t try to go through her if I were you.”

It shouldn’t have worked, but it did. As they crept forward, the girl finally moved back a few paces and that was the worst moment so far because she didn’t move right—one moment she was in one place, the next, she was a few inches away turned away from them. It was unnatural and surreal and absolutely horrifying.

Nix stayed calm, as he always did in tough situations, but when they got to the hallway and he gestured towards the stairs, Dick could see the fine tremor in his hand. “Why don’t you go down first," he muttered without turning his head. "The jeep is parked at the curb.”

"Will she spook?" he murmured, then realized what he said, adding quickly before Nix could laugh, "You know what I mean."

"I know what you mean and I have no idea. Let's see and find out."

He nodded, then edged around Nix, hugging the wall. The girl didn't glance his way and in a few moments, he was on the stairs, heading down.

A regimental jeep was waiting at the curb where Nix said it would be. It was covered, thank God, but the sides were open—it was going to be freezing. He pulled the scarf tight and climbed in. He didn't have to wait for long; within a few minutes, they came out, first the dead girl and then Nix.

When the girl got to the pavement, Nix crept around her, then jumped in the back and patted the seat beside him. Not wanting to watch the girl get in, Dick turned his head and stared resolutely through the windshield. ”Nix?”

“Yeah, we’re okay. You can go.”

“You mind telling me where?”

Nix leaned forward and whispered into his ear, “Landsberg.”

He twisted in his seat, gripping the wheel tight. “What? That’s—” The girl was a pale blur—he steadfastly didn't look at her.

Nix clapped his hand over Dick's mouth. "Shh, and yeah, I know. It’s twenty-three kilometers and it’ll take us about two hours in the dark.” He removed his hand.

His mouth was warm from Nix's hand and he licked his lips. “We’ll be tried for desertion.”

“Already thought of that. Here…” 

Nix gave him a folded sheet of paper. It was a document from Sink giving Captain Nixon and one aide leave for a limited recon. It was dated through the following week. 

“It’ll be all right, Dick." Nix leaned closer, his breath warm, familiar. "We’ve cleaned out the entire area. I’ve already notified our sentry guards and the Poles. And there aren’t any active German troops within a hundred kilometers. We’ll be perfectly safe.” He tried to smile. “I can go by myself if I have to, but…” 

It was the ‘but’ that settled it. Nix had never asked for anything from him. Nothing other than his friendship, his company and—even though neither had spoken the word—his affection. 

Dick held the paper up and Nix took it. He turned the ignition and sighed. Two hours. They’d be lucky if they made it in three. Driving through the dark with only the weak moonlight and the jeep’s headlights to show the way was going to make the journey even longer. And then there was the return trip… “Lew?”

“Yeah?”

“When we get back, I’ll want an explanation.”

“I know, Dick. Let’s get this done and I’ll tell you all about it. By the way, your helmet is on the floor."

"I thought you said we're gonna be perfectly safe?"

"Well, better safe than sorry, huh?”

Dick tightened his lips, grabbed the helmet and put it on. He jerked the jeep into gear and they took off down Thalem's main street, the engine’s growl breaking the still night.


~~~~~~~~~~~~


The ride out was an ordeal. Dick kept one eye on the road, the other on the surrounding countryside, worried about road hazards, worried about running into a German patrol. There was one moment of alarm when his headlights caught the reflection of another vehicle but it turned out to be the burned-out shell of a car, left on the side of the road.

As for his passengers, they caused no trouble. Once, he saw movement out of the corner of his eye—Nix was bending over to say something to the girl. But other than that, neither of them moved. Dick couldn’t help the gruesome thought that it was like driving two statues around. 

Later, Nix told him that the ride to Landsberg was the longest two and a half hours of his life. That he’d never been so frightened, not even during Operation Varsity. How it was all he could do to not climb over the seat and get Dick to stop the jeep so they could take off running. How chilling it was that the girl never said a word and never looked at him again. But worst of all, how her hair and dress stayed completely still, even in the strong draft created by the moving vehicle.


~~~~~~~~~~~~


They reached the gates of the prison a few minutes before three. Dick pulled to the side of the road under a trio of pine trees. He took off his gloves and rubbed his freezing face and ears. Without turning around, he asked, “Is this all right?” He’d parked about fifty feet from the gates—close enough that they could see the compound, far enough that they'd have time to get away if anything happened.

“Yeah, this is fine," Nix said, sounding as tired as Dick felt.

"Stay here. I'm going to take a look." He got out, stamped his feet to warm his toes, then crossed the road and looked through the fence.

Taylor had ordered the security lights left on to prevent vandalism and the harsh illumination dotted the camp with eerie pools of yellow light. And, as if to add to the general air of loneliness and despair, a low-lying mist was snaking around the hovels, huts, and command buildings. All of the prisoners had been evacuated days ago but it was just as he remembered, although why that surprised him, he couldn’t say. Maybe because he’d expected the place to be less hostile at night. Maybe because he'd assumed that with the prisoners gone, the place would seem more normal. But, no, it was still an ugly, flat piece of land that reeked of pain and death.

What irony—a few days ago he’d vowed never set foot on Landsberg soil again and here he was, in the dead of night, no less. He shivered and returned to the jeep. Nix had gotten out and was waiting, hands stuffed in his pockets.

“Now what?” Dick whispered.

“Now we see if I’m right.”

They both turned and peered into the jeep.

The little girl hadn’t moved. She was still in her corner, staring straight ahead. She was no longer crying, her features now bereft of any emotion, as if she were stuck in neutral, neither happy nor sad. He wondered if she was also stuck in limbo, neither living nor dead. He shivered again and wrapped his arms around his chest. “Lew?” he said softly.

Nix nodded and edged towards the jeep while keeping his distance. He leaned down and pointed to the gates, calling out, “Okay. Vater? Sie sind Vater… er, sind innen dort. Innen dort.” Like before, Dick only recognized a few the words: ‘Father? In there. In there.’

For a moment, there was no reaction, and then the girl nodded like an automaton. She got up and jumped to the ground. Dick made himself watch, even though the sight of her in the jeep one moment and on the ground the next made his belly clench up in protest.

She rounded the jeep, still walking in her nightmarish way. Nix retreated before her, backing up until he bumped into Dick. When she jerked to a halt about thirty feet from the gates, Nix called out, “Es… okay, jetzt.” 

She started up again.

Dick thought she’d acknowledge them as she walked by, maybe just a turn of her head, but she didn’t—she kept walking straight towards the camp gates. “Should we go with her?”

“No,” Nix said slowly. “We’ll get going in a minute.”

“We can’t leave her here!” Dick reached for Nix’s arm, knowing he was being irrational—she was a ghost, after all, and no doubt safe from all the normal dangers. But the idea of leaving her in such a forsaken place— He let go and made to follow, but Nix grabbed his wrist, forcing him to stop. 

“Dick, it’ll be okay, this is where she needs to be. Besides, I don’t think—” His grip changed, tightened, and he pointed to the camp. “Jesus, I’m not dreaming, right? Look—”

At first he couldn’t figure out what Nix was pointing to. The layers of barbed wire and wood obscured his view, making it difficult to differentiate one thing from another. “What…”  

And then he saw it. Moving sluggishly towards them, a vague, vertical shape that slipped between the huts and mass graves. It reached the central path that ran down the middle of the camp and stopped.

"Jesus," Dick muttered. Because the form shuddered, the mist coiling around its base, growing thicker, twisting and twining, refining, until it was no longer insubstantial but the slim figure of a man. He began to walk towards them again, but slowly, head down. As he got nearer, the lights showed him clearly—he was wearing dark trousers and a white shirt, sleeves rolled up to the elbow. "Jesus, Lew," he repeated hoarsely.

Nix touched his arm, then pointed to the girl. "Is she—"

The girl saw the man and it was as if a light had been switched on. In the blink of an eye, her fragmented, transparent form solidified and for the first time, Dick saw how she must have appeared in life—a young girl with a brightly colored summer dress and dark hair that fell in curls to her shoulders. Throwing her arms up into the air, joy in her every gesture, she ran to the gates, crying in a thin voice, “Papa, papa! 

The man jerked his head up. He paused, arms out as if for balance, and then he was running, shouting a name. There was an awful moment when he didn’t stop at the wood and wire gates, but ran through them as if they weren't there. And then he was on the other side, falling to his knees in the dirt to catch the girl as she threw herself into his arms.

“How did he know?” Dick asked, half to himself.

“You mean, how did he know that we'd be bringing her, on this night of all nights? How the hell should I know? Maybe he comes here every night.” Nix answered, just as absently. “I’m not the resident ghost expert.”

Dick cleared his throat and looked down to find Nix’s hand in his, holding so hard their knuckles were white. He didn’t remember grabbing Nix, he didn’t remember Nix grabbing him. “Are we done?”

Nix shook his head and whispered roughly, watching the two figures in the middle of the road. “Wait. There—”

He wasn't sure he had the strength for more, but he couldn't not look and yes, the father was still cradling the girl close, stroking her hair, over and over; it looked like he was weeping.

Dick had never thought about children, had never had taken the time to think of them. But now he wondered how it would feel to be locked up, maybe put to death, knowing your child was all alone without any protection. It must have been hell. 

The thought triggered another and he wondered what had happened to the mother, if she had gone through that same hell—

The man rose and tossed the little girl up on his shoulders. She grabbed his collar, bending over look down at his face as if they’d done the same thing many times before. And then the man started walking, not towards Dick and Nix, but across the road, towards the treeline.

Frowning, Dick tugged on Nix’s hand. “Where are they… Oh—”

“Yeah,” Nix said thickly, quoting, “The women’s camp is at the next railroad stop.’”

Dick swallowed around the fist in his throat. “Christ.” 

Nix just nodded and gripped his hand tighter as the tall figure threaded his way through the dark trees and was gone. Just like that.

Dick didn’t even try to say anything. He stood there holding Nix’s hand, listening. A light wind had started up, making the pines sway and creak. It should’ve been a mournful, eerie sound, but it wasn’t—in this impossibly abnormal place, it was one of the most normal things he had yet to experience.

Finally, when he realized his feet were freezing cold, he ventured, “So…”

Nix laughed weakly at the equally weak joke and let go. “Don’t start that again.” He turned in a circle and put his hands on his hips. “That was something else, wasn’t it?”

“You can say that again.” His hands were as numb as his feet. He tugged on his gloves and flexed his fingers, trying to warm them up.

Nix stopped his circling and leaned over to touch his shoulder. “You okay?”

“I should be asking you that.”

“I’m…” Nix looked over at the camp. “I’m fine, I guess. Tired, but fine.”

He didn’t sound fine, and he didn’t look fine, but Dick didn’t point that out. If they were in any other place, he’d demand his explanation, but dawn was three hours away. “We need to go.”

“Yeah.” Nix stared at the camp for another long moment and then smiled a smile that still didn’t reach his eyes. “Here,” he tugged Dick towards the jeep. “I’ll drive. Get some sleep. You deserve it.”


~~~~~~~~~~


They’d been on the road for less than an hour when Nix downshifted and pulled the jeep to the side of the road so abruptly that Dick started up out of his light doze. “Is it a patrol?” he muttered as he peered into the forest.

“No, everything’s fine.” Nix took off his gloves and got out a pack of cigarettes. “I told you I’d give you an explanation, and well…” He shrugged. “I don’t want to wait until we get back. The only problem is that I don’t know if I can explain any of it.” He shook his head. “I mean, I’ve got some facts, but none of it makes sense and you’re gonna think I’m nuts.”

“Just start at the beginning.”

“Just the beginning.” Nix sighed and shook his head again. “Yeah, okay.” He lit a cigarette and twisted in his seat to face Dick. “It wasn’t all that difficult to figure out, really. I thought at first it was because of you.” 

Dick turned to match Nix’s pose, their knees touching. “It wasn’t… What do you mean?”

“I thought it was you the ghost was, well, haunting. That maybe you were sleeping in her old room or something.”

“You mean she wasn’t? I wasn’t?” He frowned, because what other answer was possible?

Nix’s grin was almost bitter. “Nah. It was me. She was following me.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Okay, let me start over. Yesterday—” Nix paused and shook his head. “No, two days ago, I visited the church and had a talk with the rector. You remember him? You saw him the other day.”

Dick thought about it. “Yeah, vaguely.”

“Anyway, I figured if anyone could give me the straight story, he could. So I asked him about the camps and if there’d been any kids interred with the adults.”

“I’m guessing by the look on your face the answer was yes.”

Nix nodded grimly. “Yeah, all children under the age of thirteen were hustled off with the women.”

“And most of them died, right?” 

It wasn’t really a question, but Nix nodded anyway. “That first winter. It had been unusually cold and they’d been rounded up during the summer. None of them had warm clothing.”

“Christ, Lew—” Dick closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead, wishing he could reach inside and rub away the grief that made his chest ache. “And the priest knew all about it?”

“The rector, and no. He says,” Nix weighted the word with heavy sarcasm, “that he didn’t know until it was too late.”

“Convenient.”

“Very.”

“What else?”

“He gave me a stack of photographs, said he’d found them on his stoop a couple months ago. He couldn’t give them to me fast enough.”

“What were they?”

“Family photos, mostly. Old and beat up. I figured they were confiscated when the prisoners were stripped of their other possessions. Here…” Nix stuck the cigarette in the corner of his mouth and dug something out of his breast pocket. He handed it to Dick—it was a photograph, its corners bent and creased. “Look familiar?”

Dawn was still a few hours away, but there was enough light to see the details. A modest house, a car off to the right, and the traditional family pose—the adults in back with the children in front. And yes, he recognized her. She was a bit younger and her hair was shorter—it haloed her face in a soft, dark cloud. She was dressed like the rest of the family, formal but not stiff—they were all smiling. They must have been at a party or a family function. Maybe a wedding—there was a women wearing a long, white dress in the background.

“They had a boy,” Dick murmured. But not really a boy—he was around thirteen or fourteen, tall and thin like his father, but with dark hair, like his mother and little sister. He and the girl were holding hands and Dick felt another stab of grief.

Nix nodded and the cigarette smoke that wreathed his face wafted gently out the window. “Yeah. He looks fairly old there. Maybe he was interred with the adults.”

“Or maybe he got away?” Dick turned the photo over. It was blank—there’d be no way to trace the family.

Nix threw his cigarette out the window and said, grimly, “Maybe.”

“I wonder who gave the rector the photos?”

“I’ve been wondering the same thing. I think it was a guard.”

Dick made a disbelieving face. “Really?” 

“Yeah, think about it. The Krauts stationed here realize their time is up and one of them starts to get a conscience. Maybe he’s been collecting them this whole time, I don’t know. Anyway, he figures he’ll hand them off to help identify the dead or something. Or maybe he just wanted to get rid of them in case they had to run and he didn’t want to get caught with them.”

Dick shrugged. From the stories of the released prisoners, the guards had been sadistic and cruel—he couldn’t imagine them feeling a moment of guilt or kindness. Still… “I guess we’ll never know, huh?”

“Probably not.”

They were both silent for a moment and then Dick said, “So this girl, presumably not from the town, dies. And somehow ends up in Thalem. What does that have to do with you?” He handed the photo back to Nix.

Who took it and held it to the faint light. “Remember that night I came over ’cause I couldn’t sleep? Because of that crying that kept me up?”

Dick had forgotten all about that. If he’d been thinking straight he would have asked about that—Nix generally was a sound sleeper. “I remember.”

Nix nodded.

“And that’s it? That’s why? She just started following you around because you could hear her?”

“Nah, that’s not why.” Nix glanced at the photo one more time, then tucked it in his pocket and stared moodily out at the road. “I never told you about my kid, did I? I mean, I’ve told you about my parents. But I’ve never…” He made an odd chopping motion and then cut it off mid-gesture. He pulled out another cigarette and lit it quickly.

Dick leaned over, but didn’t touch. There was something wrong here and he didn’t want Nix tying himself into knots, not after everything he’d been through. “Lew, it’s all right—”

“No, Dick, it’s not.” Nix drew deep on his cigarette, head still turned away. “None of this is right. See, I never wanted children. Cathy did and my parents wanted grandkids, so I thought, why not? Cathy would do all the work and my father would be happy with me for the first time in his life, so it was all right with me.” 

Dick didn't know what to say, so he just nodded.

“So we had a kid and it was okay. Ellie was sweet, but I didn’t…” He tilted his head, a faint, remembering smile on his lips. “She was always really quiet and good. Anyway, I got accepted into the OTS and I just sorta…” He took a drag off his cigarette and shook his head, as if that explained everything.

“Ellie is your daughter?”

“What? Oh, yeah. She was named after Cathy’s mom, Eleanor. Cathy hated me calling her that, Ellie, but she was such a tiny thing. Eleanor seemed too big for her.”

Nix paused again, lost in thought, and with a sick jolt Dick remembered the other night, the night Harry had found out about the ghost. He’d been on the right track after all—Nix still needed something from his family. Which wasn’t unusual—Nix wouldn’t be the first man to regret what he’d so casually thrown away. And if that were true, then Dick was in the way.

His stomach felt cold, like he’d swallowed a block of ice.

“So, back to our ghost," Nix said, trying to make a joke out of it. "I think that’s where she comes in."

"What do you mean?"

Nix shrugged. "I know it sounds insane, but I think she was following me—”

“Because you were missing your own daughter?” Dick hadn’t meant to cut him off, but the ice was spreading and he wanted this over as soon as possible.

“Not really.” Nix started fiddling with the gearshift. “As weird as it sounds, I think she knew that as much as I was missing Ellie, I wasn’t missing her enough. When I got Cathy’s letter, I was half angry…” He shot Dick a dark look, then whispered, “half relieved.” He twisted the knob viciously and his hand slipped. He jerked, hissing, “Shit!”

Dick grabbed his hand and examined it. Nix had cut his palm on something sharp—there was already a small pool of blood welling up in the center. He got out his handkerchief and bound it without saying a word.

As selfish as it was, he was grateful for the interruption—it let him recover his equilibrium and as soon as he’d secured the ends of the makeshift bandage, he was able to say in a normal voice, “So you think she was haunting you, punishing you?”

“Yeah.”

“And your penance was to help find her dad?”

“Or her mom, yeah.”

Dick stared out at the grey night and thought about what Nix said, thought about the events of the past few nights. He understood the why but didn't agree with the conclusion. “I don’t know, Lew,” he finally murmured. “That’s not how I see it.”

Nix rubbed his palm. “How do you see it?”

“It makes sense that she came to you because of your daughter, yeah, but remember, you heard her crying, I didn’t. You could see her crying, and up until tonight, I couldn’t.” His certainty grew as he spoke. “I think she came to you because she knew you would help her. Because she could reach something in you that she couldn’t in anyone else.”

Nix turned to stare at him, still grim, but listening intently.

He shrugged. “I never really saw her all that clearly, but she never seemed angry at you. Not once. She just seemed really sad. And tonight, when you asked her to come with us, she didn’t disappear or anything. She just came. So she would’ve had to have trusted you that much, right?” 

Nix took off his helmet and dropped it in his lap then ran his hands over his face. He said nothing for a long moment, but Dick could see him thinking, see the moment the words hit home—the hard line of his mouth softened and his shoulders relaxed. But still, his voice was hushed when he said, “There’s one more thing, Dick, maybe the worst thing of all and you’ll probably hate me for it.”

He wondered what could be worse than admitting that you didn’t love your own kid, but he asked anyway, “What is it?”

Nix looked Dick straight in the eye and said simply, “The fact that even now I don’t regret leaving them. That I don’t regret, mostly, the divorce. Because if I had to go back to them,” he reached out and touched Dick’s cheek gently, “if I had to go back, I couldn’t have you.”

There was an odd moment of silence that wasn’t quite silence and Dick realized what he was hearing was his own heart beating in his ears, too loud and not loud at all, like the concussion after a grenade blast.

“That surprise you?” Nix smiled, barely. 

He had to clear his throat. “Yeah, it does. I figured this was you trying to tell me you wanted to get back together with your wife.” 

Nix’s jaw dropped in complete surprise. “How the hell did you figure that? Are you— Didn’t you listen to anything I’ve been saying?”

“Yeah, I did, Nix,” he said with some pique. “I just thought—”

“Jesus, Dick, you have to make things so—” Nix grumbled, reaching out to grab Dick’s neck and shoulder. Bringing him close for a long, thorough kiss. Finally letting go with a muttered, “So do you hate me?”

He shook his head.“Not even a little bit.” And Nix was kissing him again, over and over as if he couldn’t get enough.

They drew apart at the same time.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

Nix didn’t answer. Instead, he searched Dick’s eyes for a long moment and then said quietly, “Dick, it may be wrong, wanting you and not my wife and kid, but at least it’s honest. I—” He broke off and shook his head a few times.

“Me too, Lew.”

Nix looked up.“You too, what?”

Other than his parents, he’d never had the words said to him, never said the words himself. And now that they were here— “I love you.” It felt good, freeing, and he said it again, "I'm in love with you."

Nix’s eyes widened. “I’ve been waiting a long time to hear you say those words.”

Dick sat up straight, jerking free of Nix’s arms. Of all the— “Well, you could’ve just come out an told me, you know.”

Nix rolled his eyes. But he was grinning when he said, “Jesus, Dick, it’s not a contest.”

Dick shrugged. “I know.”

“And there are no points for being first in, right?”

“I know that, Nix.”

Nix stroked his cheek, gazing at him searchingly. “I suppose we should get going."

“Yeah, it’ll be dawn by the time we get back. And I’m freezing.”

Nix nodded. He drew a heavy sigh, then put his helmet and gloves on.

Dick settled back, arms around his chest. He was exhausted, but strangely happy; what a night.

Nix was turning the ignition key when Dick thought of something he knew he’d worry about later. He reached out and touched the back of Nix’s hand. “Lew?”

“Yeah?”

“What about her mother? Do you think she’s still there? At the camp, I mean.”

Dick half expected another sarcastic, ‘What do I look like, the resident ghost expert?’ or at least a roll of the eyes, but Nix did neither. He nodded seriously and muttered, “Yeah, I do, Dick. I mean, that’s what people do when they love each other, right? They wait for each other?”

Dick swallowed and smiled and, as Nix turned the ignition and pulled out onto the road, agreed that it was so.



Before:

She sits on the tumbling wall. The old man is in the graveyard again, wandering from angel to angel and she wonders if he’ll see her this time, if he’ll say hello. He does not, of course. He walks by her without a glance, without a nod. She’s used to that, now. 

She’s thinking to follow him like she’s done most days because his home is cozy and warm even though she doesn’t notice the cold anymore, but something shifts in her world. It's as if everything just tipped and she raises her head and stares hard at the road before her. She feels it again—a ripple in the air and with it, a heavy sense that today will be unlike all the others that had come before.

Unsure if she’s frightened or not, she clambers down off the wall and goes to wait by the ditch, to wait for what’s coming round the turn of the road.




fin.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Story notes:
Richard Winters/Lewis Nixon
Band of Brothers
12,600+ words
Rough translation of title: Little Girl Lost
Episodes referenced: mostly Why We Fight
All characters belong to people and organizations that are not me
Thanks to J. for her quick and thorough read-through.