Thursday, June 2, 2016

Short Story: Ropes

I originally wrote this story in November 2014 for a Creative Writing Class - and the same one that I wrote Eleven Forty for. There were some revisions over the school year, including a version where it was actually a movie pitch to a Hollywood producer, but that idea went out the window. I wanted to write an alternate history story without actually mentioning the exact point of divergence, though there are some hints throughout as to what happened, and also to focus on someone caught up in the mess, but without the ability to change anything. 


Ropes

There was a time when the lights burned all night, but that was just a hazy memory now to Greg as he looked out the frost-etched window at the setting sun. Even in the evening, under the glow of artificial light, it used to be so warm and friendly, so inviting to be in New York City, the center of everything. Now, with only a few lights acting as beacons on a sea of dark blue sky and grey-brown slush on the streets twenty stories below, it seemed colder, unforgiving and dreary.

Greg turned back and looked up at the clock on his desk, the long hand making its methodical, uncompromising march to the 12 on top, while the smaller hand struggled to keep up as it neared the six directly below it. Greg sighed in relief that his work day was almost over, looking through the papers on his desk beside the old, trusty Underwood typewriter to figure out which to file, which to revise, which to put in the bag that would be taken to the furnace downstairs and destroyed. That one small piece of paper with the address scrawled on it in blue ink needed to disappear somehow before anyone saw it.

“Done for the day, Herr Collins?” a stiff German accent asked, startling Greg. His mind screamed at him, trying to activate a fight or flight response, but outwardly Greg simply shuffled that folded piece of paper into reports and files. Greg looked up to see the grey-clad, blond-haired, blue-eyed six foot tall Captain Hans Kreuger, the German officer in charge of the New York branch of the Militärverwaltung in Amerika, The Military Administration in America. He looked like he just goose-stepped right off a recruiting poster.

Ja, it’s six o’clock, and I have to go somewhere tonight,” Greg replied.

“I see,” the captain said. “I did not think you were one to go out for social events, Herr Collins.”

“It’s my grandmother, she is ill and not expected to live much longer,” Greg replied to his foreign superior.

Captain Kreuger was shocked at learning that. “Oh! I’m sorry to hear that. If that’s the case, take the rest of the week off.”

Greg just nodded solemnly. “Yes sir, thank you.”

Captain Kreuger nodded, then clicked his jackboot heels together and shot his arm out. “Heil Himmler!”

Greg snapped his arm out and repeated the call to the Nazi. After he was satisfied that his employee had done the salute properly, the officer mechanically nodded and stiffly turned on his heal to march along to the next booth. He was efficient, meticulous, and a die hard Nazi, with just enough of a soft side to give his underlings time off if they needed it.

Greg sighed in relief as he heard the German voice berating a man for a minor mistake on some paperwork, and pulled on his old, yet comfortable black jacket, picked up his battered suitcase and the nice fedora he had bought with his Christmas bonus, and walked down the hall to the elevator.
The elevator was crowded, and from the roof speakers quiet music played. While before it would have been soothing jazz music, the Nazi Regime’s hatred of jazz and other “decadent” music meant that now only martial music would play in the elevators. The two Nazi’s in the elevator hummed along, closing their eyes and smiling, as if they were either back home or on parade in front of the Führer, marching down Broadway after the conquest of the US.

The bell dinged and the door opened on the ground floor, and the soldiers who were in the elevator exited first. Common courtesy, Greg thought: after all, they have the guns. As Greg stepped out of the elevator, he noticed his childhood friend Will leaning up against the wall in the spacious lobby, reading a newspaper. Will looked up and waved.

“Greg! Haven’t seen you in a long time!” Will said, matching footsteps with Greg as he pushed the rotating door to leave the office building. Once outside in the cool late winter air, Greg placed the fedora on his head, and pulled it down as if to hide from the world.

“How have you been?” Will asked, wrapping an arm around Greg, just as he used to do.

“Busy,” Greg replied. “Work has been hell, with the uprising in the Midwest and Canada. At least New York is quiet for once.”

Will chuckled. “You worry too much, you know? You really need to loosen up.”

“Well my boss gave me a couple days off because of my Grandma, so I might take a day and go to a play or something,” Greg replied.

“I thought your granny passed away three years ago?” Will asked.

“My other grandma, on my father’s side.”

Will hmm’ed, but he didn’t say anything else.

They walked a few steps down the street. “Have you ever seen so many stars at night?” Will asked, looking up.

“No.” Greg had no interest in the stars, but that didn’t stop him from taking a peak upwards.

“Never seen so many stars before. Light pollution was always a problem. But not anymore.” Will continued to look around. “Silver lining, eh?”

“Sure.”

Only a few cars were on the streets: a few old big hulking American cars with massive fins like some spaceship, with American names like Chevrolet and Ford on them, made of good quality American steel from a foundry in Pittsburg or Detroit. Then there were the more numerous, but still rather small in number German cars: small efficient creatures, made of aluminum or alloys that could be spared from the production of tanks, airplanes, battleships and grandiose structures in Berlin. Volkswagen, Opel, Daimler, and half dozen names were on them, though it was hard to tell if there were differences, as they all looked the same, with only slightly different paint jobs. An automotive aficionado would have pointed out each difference, but it was of no interest to Greg.

One thing all the cars had in common was the regulatory sticker on the windshield, a ring of 13 stars around an outstretched eagle clutching a swastika, the symbol of the Third Reich’s occupation of America. Greg knew that symbol too well, as he worked for it every day, doing the paperwork that the conqueror’s demanded, and didn’t want to do them selves, all with that eagle and swastika glaring down at those that had been take over.

Greg and Will passed some marching soldiers, both the steel-faced Nazi veterans and inexperienced American volunteers from the west, patrolling up and down the streets day and night, looking out for any suspicious activity they could find: a car with a fake sticker; a package too big to be a present for a child; too many people gathered together and talking quietly amongst themselves; or, their favourite pass time, seeking out someone’s papers which were not in order when demanded. That was all that life was now: equal mixtures of stickers, stamps and emotionless faces of both the winners and losers, with a sprinkling of paranoia and a pinch of depression and fear.

 “Papers, please!” a Texan solider barked as if on cue as Greg walked to one of the checkpoints that split up New York. It was a sad, small wooden booth, leaning up against a non-functioning streetlight, manned by a trio of American Nazi soldiers with a tank and a machine gun nest to force the people to funnel through the checkpoint. They all sprung up almost overnight after marital law had been declared, like toadstools after a rain in a forest. Greg handed the papers over, and they were snatched from his hand, and looked over. Boredom was on both sides of the exchange, a boredom of duty, repetition and submission, with a simmering layer of tension and fear that was never acknowledged but was known to both parties.

“Your address is not from around here,” the soldier, a lieutenant said. “Why are you down here at this time of night?"

Greg’s heart skipped a beat, but he was able to keep his face impassive. “I am visiting my grandmother. She is ill, and not expected to last much longer. I just wish to make sure she is comfortable.”

The officer grunted, and continued looking over the papers. Greg could feel something sliding around his body, slowly tightening up as it made its way around him. He could feel his arm twitch, trying to break those ropes. But they were the kind that held down boxes on trains and boats. The kind used by the hangman. They would never break, unless someone took an axe or a flame to them, and even then it wouldn’t let go easily. But if they did break, chaos and destruction would burst forth, sweeping everyone around him into a tsunami of hatred and anger.

 The soldier at last nodded. “Very well, you may go.” He handed back the papers, and Greg passed by, a single cold drop of sweat working its way down his face. Will breezed through the checkpoint as he usually did, and caught up to Greg and carried on like a shadow to the momentarily relieved Greg. But those ties were still there, but had slackened off.

“Nazi efficiency,” Will commented.

“Those were Americans,” Greg replied. “Not even German.”

“They still looked, acted and behaved like Nazis,” Will shot back, though not too loudly. Those men were still in earshot, and didn’t like being talked back to. It really wasn’t paranoia if they were out to get you, was it? Those thick strings, hemp grown for durability and strength, closed tighter around Greg’s body as he thought of what they would do if they found any excuse to beat up a few civilians because they were having a bad day.

“So where are you actually going?” Will asked. “Your Grandma lives in the Bronx, no?”

“Going the long way around,” Greg hurriedly replied. “I need the exercise.”

Will didn’t say anything, but his eyebrow twitched upwards.

“Didn’t know you were so worried about your body,” he said, as Greg dug through his pockets to search for a pack of cigarettes, before finding it in his left pocket. He fumbled for his fancy, gold Zippo lighter, a gift from his boss for ten years of loyal service for the Occupation, his finger rubbing over the etched swastika on the outside. Fishing out a cigarette and sticking it in his mouth, he cupped hands in front of his face, to give the flame a fighting chance to catch the tobacco and paper on fire. He inhaled, feeling the smoke enter his throat and lungs, before exhaling a cloud of pungent air in a white cloud that could have been confused with both cold air or a miniature steam train set, similar to the one he had when he was a boy in Ohio before the Swastika swept in, lighting a flame like his lighter.

Turning down one street, then another, then another, going in a circular route for what looked like no reason that anyone following him would think Greg was either crazy or a spy. But he was neither, at least he told himself, and his SS security check confirmed it. Greg had smoked two more cigarettes in this time, tossing the butts away into the slushy piles of grey snow with other finished tobacco products, broken glass beer bottles and the unbreakable Coke bottles.

“Still haven’t cross the river,” Will commented. “Are you sure we are going to your grandmother’s?”

“You know better,” Greg muttered.

Will chuckled. “Ah, you must feel like a regular Sir Francis Walsignham then.” He thought for a moment. “No, Admiral Canaris. Being German and all. The Nazi’s like using German guys to compare to.”

Greg grunted, but otherwise didn’t say anything. After all, Canaris committed suicide during the war. Well, the Nazi’s claimed he committed suicide. Everyone knew otherwise, but wouldn’t say that.
“Have you ever thought how suspicious this all is?” Will asked.

Greg didn’t say anything. Of course he knew how suspicious it was. But if you don’t talk about things like that out loud, then you don’t have to consider it too deeply.

“All they would need is to know of that box of books in your attic,” Will said, one lips parting to show a smirk.

 Greg flinched as if a bullet had just flew over his head, barely noticeable to anyone walking by, and clenched his hands into a tight fist so his fingernails dug into his hand. Those bindings made themselves known once again, digging into his flesh. “They will never know. Plus, not like I ever read them.”

“But possession of forbidden works is a crime. You should know that.”

“I do.”

“Then why do you still have them? Just trying to taunt the SS, are you?”

“No.”

“Then why not get rid of them?”

“Because.”

“Makes you feel brave and heroic, standing in front of some books, doesn’t it? Sticking it to the man, the occupiers.” Will struck a heroic pose. “Defender of the Novel, Crusader of the Poem, Paladin of the 72! Years from now, rumours will spread of the Hero who protected five boxes of books and a suitcase full of records!”

Greg did his best not to chew on the nearly burnt out cigarette, so instead he pulled it out of his mouth and flicked off the ashes before putting back in his mouth. But he was still silent as he finally turned down a residential street, full of mid-rise apartments buildings, three story townhouses and people; so many people. Those older ones that were born before the invasion were stooped, shuffling along, in clothes that years before would have been boxed away or given to someone else less fortunate, and new jackets or hats or shirts or skirts bought to replace them. Some people even had patches on their clothes, which would have been a sign of low class before, but now was the average.

They kept their heads down, which they would have said was out of respect, but was really out of fear. The fear that one wrong glance would summon the police to their home one night, to cart them away. It happened; not as often as it used too, but often enough for the terror to be there: a midnight knock on the door, followed by loud shouts in both German and English, then a family - husband, wife, children, grandparents, aunts and uncles - all carted off and never heard from again, as if the tumor of dissent was so large that the only way to take care of it was the cut it out from the root.
But then there were the children. It was always the children who would, no matter what happened, play with each other on the streets, laugh and cheer as they kicked a soccer ball or played tag and made friends. Not even a dictatorship could rule out such fun.

The little kids, of course, would be brought up not only to tolerate the Nazis, but also to support them wholeheartedly. It was already being drilled into them, with their mandatory requirements to join the Hitler Youth and the propaganda they received in school. Greg remembered giving his six-year old nephew one of those new toys for Christmas, just a few short weeks ago, with the bright red plastic case and the two white knobs on the side. The first thing his sister’s son did was to do his best to draw a Swastika like he had been taught to do in class. And everyone there remarked and praised the lopsided yet straight lines and imperfect connections nevertheless. All Jimmy had to do when he went back to class was talk to his teacher about how his uncle or parent’s didn’t like the awkward swastika he drew on his toy for them all to disappear.

That fear of strangers seeing something suspicious was doubly reinforced because it was the ones you loved: your young child not knowing better; a cousin that was so engrossed in the Party he would denounce anything; an uncle working for the occupation…

But for now, the meagerly dressed kids with mud and grime over their pants and faces could live and play, as all children should. Greg allowed a smile to cross his lips as a red faced, brown haired boy let loose a snowball that sailed through the air and landed with a wet splat on the chest of another young boy, who fell into a snow pile with a laugh.

“Makes you almost wish you were a young, carefree kid again, huh?” Will asked, but Greg didn’t answer. Will knew Greg’s answer to that question already: it was the same one he would have given.

Down the slushy street, past the hunched adults and the frolicking children, was an old brick apartment building, four stories high. Half the windows were still intact, and about half of them had light streaming out. Greg turned up the walkway, and pressed the buzzer for an apartment on the third floor.

“Who is it?” a static filled voice asked.

“Delivery for Mr. Wirasaki,” Greg replied in the code he memorized.

“Mrs. Jackson will meet you,” came the static reply. The door of the apartment buzzed open, and Greg slipped inside.

“Well aren’t you being all sneaky and devious,” Will said, following behind Greg as he started climbing up the steps.

“One day, I wish you would just shut up and go away,” Greg stopped and growled, glad that there was no one around to hear the argument.

“What? For saying things that are true?” Will replied, turning around and facing Greg with only a couple feet between them. “Well, they are true, even if you don’t want to agree.”

There was a silence, the two men staring at each other; Will watched Greg with eagle eyes, holding his hands together behind him, leaving himself open on the front; Greg glaring at Greg under the rim of his fedora, his fists still tightly clinched and as white and bloodless as the snow in Norman Rockwell painting of pure American homeliness on the Christmas edition of a pre-Occupation magazine who’s name had been forgotten for not being appropriate in the New Order. Rockwell was one of those names that everyone knew but wish they didn’t know, mostly because he was an American, but one that supported the old ways. Some Resistance propaganda was just an old picture that Rockwell had done for the magazine, stuck to a wall somewhere. Rockwell may be gone, one of the innumerable victims of the invasion and occupation, but he was still alive. Just on life support.

“And still, here I am. Do you not have the backbone to make me go away?” Will taunted Greg. “Go on. Do it.”

Greg snarled and swung at Will, but Will was too fast and ducked as Greg’s fist swiped the air where Will’s face had been and it smacked the peeling wall, impacting the old wood with surprising force. The noise was loud, and had more people been in the building, they would have heard it. The few who lived around here in this rundown neighborhood would have assumed it’s somebody dropping something, or a fight going on, and just push it to the back of their minds, and carried on with life. The fewer questions that came up, the fewer answers that needed to be found.

If only Greg could do that. Those ropes were getting tighter, now constricting his neck, a snake hungry for a meal, a yawning drop demanding a sacrifice to Justice. One wrong move, and it was over.

Greg took a deep breath and let his fist unfurl. A few streaks of blood dripped from his knuckles and began forming shapes and images on the back of his hand and fingers: his mind tried to draw out the bright red tentacles reaching out for skulls and bones, crisscrossing each other in what he would describe as constellations of skin and blood materializing on the back of his hand. After a moment of staring at the design on his hand in morbid fascination, Greg stuck his hand into his pocket. It wasn’t that bad. It would go away, hopefully. He walked to the end of the hall, to the room he had called up to earlier. He knocked on the door, and waited for a moment as whoever was on the other side to look through the little peephole to make sure it was the person they were expecting, before unlocking the door, sliding the rusty bolt out of its latch and opening it for Greg.

“Ah, Greg, great to see you tonight,” a young man by the name of Jake said. He was tall and handsome, with a fire in his eyes that demanded action and excitement, most likely the reason for his being here and having joined this group.

“Been busy at the office, wasn’t able to get away too much,” Greg explained as he slipped off his jacket and kicked off his slush covered shoes, though he still wore a heavy sweater to fight the cold. He continued to clutch his battered suitcase as tightly as he could. That was the only thing he would never let go. “Anyone else here?”

“About half the usual people. Tom, Jerry, and Michal thought the Blackies were onto them, so they’re out hiding somewhere. Jen and Marty had to go out of town to see a relative in Pennsylvania. Don’t know when they will be back.”

Greg nodded, and was lead into the homely, if ill kept apartment. Coffee and beer stains were all over the floor and counter, while the dust liberally coated large areas of the apartment. Old cardboard and wood boxes full of clothes and old magazines and books piled up against the wall in a scarily haphazard way which made Greg nervous to walk near. In the center of the main room, around a small table, were four men and three women, all with some kind of drink in front of them. He could see a couple bottles of beer, a half empty bottle of vodka, a half full bottle of wine, a nearly depleted bottle of whisky and a tipped over bottle of rye which no one had yet set upright again.

Greg nodded to the folks around the table, and they nodded back to him. He took an empty seat, and tried to relax in the warm and stuffy apartment. Beside him, Harry slipped a cigarette from the package in his shirt pocket and stuck it in his mouth, then started searching for something to light it. After a moment of searching, Harry realized that he didn’t have any matches with him. But Greg quickly reached into his pant’s pocket, and after a moment of fumbling, pulled out his swastika etched Zippo lighter, and struck it. Harry leaned forward and puffed, getting the coffin nail lit up, before a cloud of smoke was blown from his nose and mouth. He nodded, a silent thanks to Greg.

“So, anything new at the Occupation HQ?” Jim, in hushed tones, asked Greg. His rough and calloused hands, from years of working hard and playing just as hard, grabbed hold of his beer bottle and upended it, his Adam’s Apple bobbing up and down on his throat as he drank it down. The beer, especially the cheap German imports, was much better than before. Will would have quipped, “Another silver lining?”

“Not much, rumors that they might ask for American Volunteers for the Russian Front. It sounds worse over there than anybody is saying,” Greg replied. That was an understatement: the censored Times and Herald, along with the Nazi Party rags, radio stations and TV channels all told the same story: the Commies were being slaughtered in the thousands, any and all uprisings are crushed, and the Reich continues to advance East. But the casualties were never mentioned, but even here in America, the soldiers from Germany were nervous that eventually they would be sent to fight the Russians. No one there wanted to do that.

“That would be good for us, you know,” Kelly said, running her precisely manicured finger around the edge of her wine glass. “The fewer fanatics on the streets, the better chance we have.”

“Do we have a date yet?” Greg asked.

“Three months,” Kelly replied. “Say around the middle of May.”

Greg bit his lips, but forced himself to nod. That would be around Hitler’s Birthday. Although the Fuhrer was now dead sixteen years, having died as his tanks finally rolled through Moscow in ‘45, his birthdate was a holiday throughout the German Reich. It was Himmler who led the invasion of Britain, the subjugation of the Middle East, the annexation of America.

Greg knew what he was getting himself into. It was dangerous for everyone involved, but here he was. Was it right? Maybe. Was it worth doing? Again, maybe. He didn’t want to think about that. Those questions were what made these things so hard to do. Those ropes were getting tighter, tightening around his neck now.

 Just a match, or a knife; let me cut the ropes…

Jake came around and offered a bottle of beer to Greg, but he declined, much to everyone’s surprise.

“Why not stay and have a drink with us?” Jim asked, taking the opened bottle from Jake and upending it, downing half of it at once. Five empty bottles already filled the table in front of him. Liquid courage was just as good as the normal kind, and easier to come by.

“I’m sorry I cannot stay longer. My home is on the other side of the city, and I do not want to be out after curfew.”

The assorted group shrugged. “Well, whatever you want. But what is the point of living if you don’t live every so often?” Jim asked again.

Greg stood up. “Maybe next time,” he said, and walked around the table, saying good-bye and putting on his jacket again in a rush, before leaving the apartment only minutes after he had arrived.
“That wasn’t suspicious at all,” Will said, following behind like the little puppy dog he was.

Greg didn’t say anything, but walked quickly down the hall to the stairs. He walked down the first flight and was turning the corner to the second, when a black arm grabbed hold of his shoulder from the shadows and spun him around.

The grip was tight, even through the black gloves, making Greg’s shoulder nearly pop out of its socket. Greg’s eyes went wide as he stared face to face with the Gestapo officer that stopped him. His cold blue eyes and long, lean face stared deep into Greg, and a small smile crossed his lips.

“Very good, Herr Greg,” the SS officer said in quiet English, with barely a German accent. “We got the information we need. You may take the wires off now.”

Greg nodded weakly, and opened his jacket and pulled up his sweater and pulled off the small recording device, along with the wires to a battery pack and the switch in his pants that turned the contraption on. His lighter nearly fell out of his pocket, but Greg caught it before it fell to the floor.

“The Third Reich and the Occupation is very pleased with your services so far,” the Gestapo officer continued, taking the device in his hands, and then slipping them into his own pocket and producing a piece of paper. “Especially in turning in the wanted criminal William Novak. We may need use of your services again. Until then, a bonus has been wired to your account, and this form will allow you to get home past curfew. I’m sure the money will be more than enough for compensation. Heil Himmler!” He barked, snapping his arm into a salute.

Greg snapped his arm up as straight as he could. “Heil!”

The officer turned around and walked into the closest room uttering some German that Greg didn’t quite catch, and a moment later three other SS officers followed him out, the black and silver ghosts silently tramping upstairs to where Greg had just been. It was going to be quiet in that room from now on, if the building itself wasn’t going to mysteriously go up in flames in the next half hour.

As soon as they passed, Greg allowed himself to weakly walk down the stairs, out the door, and down the street. The children were gone now, and only a couple of men were still out, hurrying home as the curfew drew near. A light snow with an equally light breeze began, sprinkling white powder over the city, covering the brown slush with a layer of white. Muffled by wood and brick, shouts of German and a woman screaming could be heard. Greg turned away, willing his senses to ignore it.

Will stood there, looking down on Greg as he leaned up against a short brick wall, crumbling from years without proper maintenance.

“Why did you do it?” He asked, his voice calm and collected, which would be much to Greg’s surprise.

“I… I…”

“It was the books. You just wanted to keep your precious books?”

“No.”

“The money?”

“No…”

“Your job?”

“N-no,”

“Your house?”

Greg said nothing.

“Your job? Your life?”

Greg was still silent.

“Or was it that you would rather kiss a jackboot instead of fighting for what was right?”

“We fucking lost!” Greg shouted at last, silencing Will. “It’s over! The Nazis won! There is no point to any of this, is there?”

Will just stared at Greg, his eyes unblinking. “We lost because of people like you.” Will came closer. 
“And there is no point anymore because the people like you are all that is left.”

Will turned around and walked away, as the swirling snow of the evening swallowed him up. Greg wanted to chase after, to apologize, to say sorry, but it was too late: years too late. The tightness around him went away, slowly, except around his heart. Maybe later he would return, but for now…

The rope jerked as a trapdoor was sprung, his heart caught in the tight grip. Greg grabbed his chest, slowly sliding down the crumbling brick half wall, and took a deep breath, a tear streaming down his face before it froze in the cold. Relief, exhaustion, sadness, anger, despair, joy, depression and a dozen other things all came and went in rapid succession, leaving only a shell behind as all the emotions burnt themselves out.

It was over.

Greg looked up. There were so many stars up there. More than he had ever seen before.


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