The sniper, an American named Tom Conner, sat in a burned up living room. The external wall of that little French apartment house had been sheared off by mortar rounds—German or American mortar rounds, who could really tell anymore?—when the Americans moved in some days before. Conner sat behind an upturned couch and watched the traffic circle. He’d heard from the scouts this little street corner was leaking Germans.
When they appeared, two of them, they crouched and shuffled along, and crouched and looked. They were ten yards from each other with machine guns at their hips.
Why do they wear black? Conner thought. They stick out. Everything is gray in France. Don’t they see that?
He watched them scuttle and scurry.
This job is nothing more than flicking ants off a wall, he thought. And that’s me: G.I. Bug Buster.
They popped up and ducked, leaped up, hid. He could hear them hissing at each other.
They’re talking fast, Conner thought. Kraut speak is fucked up. Geez, they’re talking fast. How can they understand each other? Maybe they’re nervous.
The Springfield rifle rested in his lap. Without glancing away from the Germans, he slid it into his hands. He was slow, gentle, quiet. The rifle was cold and comfortable. In the distance, three flat booms from the mortars out in the countryside—and the Germans glanced back. When they did, Conner flattened himself onto his belly. Then he watched them from beneath the couch.
The German closest to him was mean looking. Conner could see a sneer. The further one might have been younger. When they paused to navigate a fallen obelisk—some kind of monument—he squeezed the trigger. A little red bloom sprouted below the mean one’s eye. He flipped backward and his machine gun clattered away. Conner aimed at the younger one, but the younger one was scrambling through the debris, bobbing away too quickly. He disappeared behind a low chunk of rubble.
Ten minutes passed before the young German, Peter Huber, risked a glance. A very quick one. He couldn’t see from where exactly that shot had come. He could see Lehmann, now certainly dead.
I myself, Huber thought, must be lucky. Today is a lucky day to be Peter Huber.
He unstrapped his helmet and tossed it a few feet in the air. A nob of the concrete against which he was leaning, a little piece a few feet from his left ear, vaporized in a wide white puff and some shards raked his cheek.
He smiled and shouted, “Hallo, Yankee! Versuchen sie es erneut, du hund!”
There was no response. Ten minutes passed. Fifteen. Twenty. Huber threw his helmet into the air again. On its way back down, it seemed to spasm. It spun sideways and rolled to rest behind a pile of bricks out of his reach.
He stared at the bricks. His heart pounded and he thought how stupid it was to have done that. He was uncovered completely now and in the crosshairs of a sniper. Without the helmet he felt naked and even, somehow, embarrassed. But his heartbeat slowed and finally returned to normal. He smiled again and shouted, “Was für ein lustiges kleines spiel, eh Yankee?“
Odette Blanc, ten years old, heard him from her hiding place. The church, though it had been hit, was only partially collapsed. The bell tower still stood which was a miracle, she reasoned. It was something her mother once told her: Man is spontaneous or man is logical, but God is both miraculous and reasonable at the same time. She looked down at the soldier nestled in the pieces of the town scattered all over the streets. She saw his blond hair and thought how strange it looked compared to his black uniform and black boots.
If I could see him closer up, she thought, perhaps he wouldn’t look much like a soldier. He might look like a boy in soldier’s clothing.
Odette watched the boy. For a long, long time he was still. So was she. But then, suddenly, he jumped to his feet with his gun in his hands and roared and shot at the building across the street from the church. Rattle, rattle, rattle! And as quickly as he’d jumped up, he laid back down. When she looked at that building, she could see thin white tails of smoke or dust or both curling up and disappearing. The boy shouted something else. Who was there but her to hear? She couldn’t understand him.
Odette closed her eyes. Her thoughts lifted off. She imagined herself on the back of a winged horse. Pegasus, her mother called it in the stories she told.
He is strong, she thought, but very, very gentle.
She heard quite clearly the horse’s snorted breathing. She held his mane. As they mounted the sky, she saw France below her fading away—smaller now and so still.
About the Author: Paul Luikart just moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, from Chicago and he’s not quite sure yet what to do with his Chicago self south of the Mason-Dixon. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Chicago Quarterly Review, Curbside Splendor, Hobart, Pacifica Literary Review, Spartan, WhiskeyPaper, Yalobusha Review and others. His MFA is from Seattle Pacific University.
Story Song: “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” by The Animals
Photo Credit: Elisabeth Clem/Poppy and Pinecone