By Michael Washburn
Chris Sievert didn’t know whether the disturbing visions he began to experience in his thirteenth year grew from a long-ignored brain injury, or whose fault the neglect of that injury might have been. The question that troubled him was whether the visions were pure fantasy, or harbingers of events soon to unfold.
The beginnings of the strange events were fairly low key. One blazing afternoon in August, the boy walked up to the front door of the farmhouse. He badly needed a drink of water, and people in rural Wisconsin are so friendly and kind. He thought he’d just knock on the door and ask the farm hand for relief from the sun, which was closer to the earth than he could remember it having been in his life. But no one answered, so he thought it might be time for a bit of derring-do, an act reminiscent of when he and his pal Mike had tucked bottles of Coke inside their jackets while Mr. Robbins was in the restroom of the ice cream shop. He opened the door and stepped inside.
The farmhouse was an oblong box pierced by beams of light at many points along its rotting sides. Bits of dust drifted, the only motion in a space full of disused tables and chests and with rakes, shovels, and spades encrusted with dirt and mud. Chris tried pulling a string dangling near the entrance, and the light came on. Well, someone’s been payin’ the bills. He yanked the string again, walked over to the sink halfway into the place, and twisted one of the rusty handles. This drew groans from within the building’s infrastructure, but no water. Then he looked around and saw a ladder leading to a dark rectangle of space near the far wall. His footsteps echoed as mites of dust eddied in the light coming through on either side of this hushed place.
At the foot of the ladder, Chris paused, in doubt about the stability of the rungs leading up into the darkness. Then he grabbed a rung, and then the one above it, and lifted himself up into the unseen space. On this floor, light filtering through the opaque window at the far end of the building gave everything the kind of glow you saw in some of the paintings Mr. Pratt showed in art class. Here was even more dust, floating in the silence and mingling with the spider webs that had sprouted in the corners.
He peeked into the small room off the hallway running from the window to another room at the front of the building. Here was a bathroom, almost clean enough to suggest that someone used it regularly. This sink produced water, clean water as far the boy could tell, and he drank and drank before stepping back into the hall.
I have to know what’s down there!
In trepidation, Chris took five steps. Then he stopped in his tracks, thinking he’d heard a clack! on the floor below, like the locking or unlocking of a door. He waited. Silence reigned again. He proceeded down the hall, straining to hear anything besides his feet on the aged boards. Then he was inside the room at the front of the farmhouse, where the weak light made the outlines of the chests and shelves just visible. There, lying against the wall, was a chest to compare with the one where Chris’s father kept all the photos of the family on their treks to other regions of the state. It was a heavy wooden affair sealed by two black clasps and coated with dust and debris, including bits of plaster from the ceiling.
He had to know what was in the chest. Maybe it was money, or maybe someone had left a lifetime’s collection of baseball cards or comics inside. Sometimes you heard about the discovery of such valuables in an abandoned or nearly disused place like this one.
To his amazement, the clasps did not resist. He pushed them up and flung the top of the box into the wall. Shooing dust from his eyes, he coughed hard for a full minute. Maybe it had been decades since someone opened this. He looked inside, and it was as if he were privy to something only adults are supposed to know about. Here was a yellowed stack of newspapers, all written in a language he didn’t know. The pictures formed a panorama of tanks, phalanxes of marching soldiers, officers addressing troops, and parades through a city that wasn’t Chicago. He studied one of these parades. It was on a different scale from the spectacles you around here saw on July 4. Filling much of the street was an enormous flag, above men in a truck who seemed to command awe on the part of the onlookers, awe of a kind you rarely saw even in church. In those instances where you could make out the spectators’ faces, they appeared to be ordinary men and women who had found their saviors after years of wandering in a wasteland of the spirit.
Dust spilled off the top newspaper as he picked it up and unfolded it. At least the articles were in a format he recognized, and there were even cartoons, but not the kind with talking animals and other funny characters. Well, actually, one page featured several panels showing someone who looked like an animal—a pig, to be exact—and who wore a symbol Chris did not recognize. But he had seen it before—what was it called? The pig-man was holding up a sign with writing in the weird language.
Another cartoon taught you how to use a device that looked like a baseball bat with a huge snub nose. Four separate frames showed a man holding and manipulating the device, with arrows and instructions sharing one word throughout: Panzerfaust. He flipped through the pages, surveying the pictures and images. The people on parade were on some kind of holy mission against the pig-men. If pig-men came and knocked on your door, you could use the Panzerfaust on them. Again and again, creatures with that symbol—that star—had a hideous appearance. To the extent that he could follow the content of the newspapers, Chris did not like it. The unease it engendered overpowered the thrill of uncovering the secret and forbidden. He thought: This is weird. There are no Nazis in Wisconsin!
Climbing down the ladder, Chris thought he heard again the sound that had briefly paralyzed him. He stood at the base of the ladder and gazed into every corner of the farmhouse, and silence prevailed once more.
Outside, the sun had not relented a bit. In his chest, he had the heavy feeling that comes when you have done something bad, and the foundations of your world are not sound. He wanted to run, to take off over the expanses of green and violet, but he didn’t want to start sweating. Chris started off down the hill, and got a hundred yards before something in the air made him stop and turn. A tall man gazed down at him from a spot on the plateau just to the right of the farmhouse. He couldn’t make out any traits except that it was a man at least six feet in height, most of whose body was covered in spite of the heat. He had no idea how long the man had been gazing at him. Chris took off.
Chris was at a loss to explain why he disliked his social studies teacher, thirty-one-year-old Ms. Watkins, so intensely. But he thought it was partly her air of sanctimony, her contempt for views that didn’t comport well with her own, and her tendency to use terms loaded with historical significance that he didn’t fully grasp, as when she alluded to certain “fascists” holding seats in Congress. One day, she threatened him with detention for his rude reactions to her remarks in class.
On the following morning, Chris didn’t see the stormtrooper until he’d raised the muzzle of his machine pistol, pointing it right at the school bus. The kids inside were laughing and carrying on and seemed oblivious to the man outside. Chris leaned back in his seat, resting his lunchbox on his knees, and rubbed his eyes with both hands. He couldn’t believe there could be a Nazi here, raising the barrel of his gun against a bus full of children.
He looked out the window again. A policeman was waving a baton at the bus, which had stopped at a packed intersection on the outskirts of Medford. The bus got moving again, and Chris wondered what was happening to him.
Chris had seen his father’s brutal side, had felt it deeply throughout his life, but never more so than when he had become friends with a big shaggy dog he met in the park. The boy was dribbling a basketball, and the thing just bounded up to him out of nowhere. The dog was so friendly, like a lovable stuffed animal come to life. It nuzzled you and licked you, it was nearly as long as you were tall, and it also seemed at times like a loving elder sibling. It taught you how to play games, rather than vice versa. They played for hours, Chris throwing balls and then going to the store and coming back with a packet of crackers. The dog could catch anything in its maw! They romped and played for half and hour before the carload of adults came and they jumped out and grabbed the dog and Chris’s father wrenched the boy away, his thumb leaving a purple mark just inches above Chris’s left elbow. “Goddamn it, Chris, what the fuck are you doing?” he bellowed at the confused boy, who nearly wet his pants. Then the father checked himself mentally, realizing he’d been a bit too rough. Instead of yelling at the boy, he explained why the dog couldn’t be his friend. It was sick. That was part of the reason it was so friendly. They had to take the big fellow away, to where it couldn’t make people sick.
He didn’t know where the dog went, only that he would not see it again. It had seemed so happy and so well-adjusted to its own existence, and how they had made it yelp when they grabbed it! How little Chris or the dog had suspected that anything was wrong until that awful moment. Now he brooded over the fact that they were going to do to the dog what fascists did to people they didn’t like. Perhaps in certain ways the world of today was not all that different from the bygone era he’d read about and heard about from Ms. Emery.
When the man in the white coat gave Chris a shot, an inoculation against what the dog carried, he felt none of the sharp pain he expected, only pressure, as if someone had punched him through a pillow. Then he felt dizzy and wobbly and had to sit down, but he was already on the floor and the doctor and nurse were pulling at his elbows and calling his name as he blacked out. Before losing consciousness, he wondered where his father was. He’d see that man, and his father’s equally ill-tempered friends, soon enough, what with the parade coming up.
He woke up in his room back home. Someone was watching television in the other room, a sound that would come and go for days as Chris came and went.
He put one foot on the floor. Someone on the television was talking about the possibility of hurricanes this summer. The other foot touched down, as Chris touched his temples and wondered what the ringing meant. Maybe I’m dying. He was a kid! Why hadn’t they stood over the bed, waiting to explain things and comfort him as soon as he woke? He staggered out of the room and down the stairs. When he had descended a few steps, the remaining stairs looked like a pattern on a rug, winding down and down in an intimation of infinity, and you could lose yourself in relation to the top or bottom, down and down and down—I’m falling!—he screamed, calling for the unseen occupant of the room down the hall from his room, and then he was passing through the empty air and then his skull crashed.
The sounds and the haze attacked his senses again, but now there was a form, a face, poised above him in the shroud, expecting something from him. “Chris,” said his father, “you’s a decent boy, you gonna be o.k. Don’t try to do nothin’ now, kid, you’ll rue it. Rest.” The face withdrew. For some reason, Chris thought that others had been in the room with his father. How desperately he needed help right now. Bad visions were coming, he could feel it, yes, Chris Sievert could sense the coming of mental dislocation as ominous and unavoidable as the most fearsome hurricane.
Grinding metal. The sound made the haze go away. The rattle of tracks turning over and over and the shouts of scores of people tore through the air. Chris sat bolt upright in his bed. He clutched the windowsill and peered outside.
The Tiger tanks were moving steadily along the road that served as the town’s prime point of entry, past the gas station with the plastic green mushroom bearing its name, past the mighty tankers parked perpendicular to the road, then past the Kentucky Fried Chicken with its children’s park full of hot red, orange, and yellow ladders and slides. The incongruity of the scene amused no one. Townspeople yelled and cried and ran. A man in overalls tore by, pointing to the routes leading out of town, and a fat woman in a pink t-shirt struggled to keep up, followed by three small kids. Another man came out of the KFC and just stood dumbfounded. More people were clambering into cars and dashing every which way through Medford’s streets.
Amid the shouting, Chris made out an effort by the police to mobilize resistance. Two deputies standing behind a squad car parked near the center of town were yelling orders to a group of men running toward them with rifles and shotguns. Behind another squad car, just yards from the courthouse, the sheriff and a third deputy watched in disbelief, training their pistols on the advancing column.
The dust had obscured the infantry moving in along with the tanks. But as they drew closer, Chris could make out the helmets of the Werhmacht troops crouching in the spaces between the vehicles. A flash came from the MP-38 of one of these men, and the fellow standing outside the KFC grabbed his abdomen and collapsed into a ball as blood spattered the door and the ground near the kids’ park. Several more flashes followed, and suddenly one of the deputies near the center of town had no head. The glass of his car exploded into a million fragments, and the second deputy was lying on the ground with his face in his hands.
The sheriff and the deputy with him popped up from behind their car, fired, and ducked as rounds whizzed by and more glass sprayed the hot concrete. Then the sheriff, taking over from the dead and wounded deputies, waved at the group of men carrying arms and indicated the positions they were to take. A few of them made it to those places while others fell and screamed with jets of red spurting from their arms, legs, bellies, and guts.
As if the soldiers had realized his importance, fire now focused on the sheriff’s position. Rounds obliterated what remained of the windows of the squad car by the courthouse, and then the sheriff popped up and fired repeatedly until only a click! came from his pistol. One of the men of the Wehrmacht fell and clutched his neck, gasping. Then the sheriff was kneeling behind the car and yelling at the deputy. One of the men from town, a big fellow with a hunting cap, kneeled and fired his shotgun at the column, making several soldiers fall at once. Whether they were hit or just going for cover, Chris couldn’t tell. Then an MP-38 opened up from another position, and parts of the man flew all over the street.
Chris stared in horror as the muzzle of one of the Tigers turned. The invaders were moving out from between the tanks and spilling into the streets, pausing to spray the wounded townspeople with fire and to train their sights on the few resisters who hadn’t perished or fled. The sheriff, who had reloaded, and his deputy fired stubbornly, and yet another soldier fell with his hand on his spurting neck. The muzzle of the Tiger belched smoke and fire, and then the squad car was spinning in the air and the two cops were nowhere to be seen. The invaders were spraying the street indiscriminately. A few Medford folk who had hid behind a car tried to flee, only to see parts of themselves spraying the ground in front of them before they fell. Another belch from the lead Tiger, and the courthouse imploded in a shroud of plaster and brick. A man with bloody stumps where his legs had been was trying vainly to pull to safety.
One of the deputies, whose partner had died at the start of the onslaught, was just barely alive. A bespectacled officer with a dignified, aristocratic Prussian bearing strode over, aimed carefully, and shot him through the right temple. Another officer was waving his Luger at a handful of terrified residents, who obediently moved into the corner formed by the post office and pharmacy. That was when Chris walked out of his hiding place, stepping over bodies until he came to a dead farmer clutching a pitchfork. He picked it up and charged at the back of the murderous Prussian.
“It’s all so hard to make sense of, all so overwhelming for a kid,” said the voice in the gray blur of the hospital room, somewhere to the right of where the boy lay, with a gash running from his right nipple to his belly, as if raked by some ferocious carnivore. “Adults make assumptions about what a kid will understand. They don’t know what might flower unexpectedly like weeds from depths of his imagination. They use words that you don’t know, and your mind gropes and flounders and tries to figure out what’s what.”
Slowly, the shape that was talking grew distinct. An old man, maybe sixty, prone in the next bed, with his grizzled head turned toward the boy.
“But Chris, there’s a lot more going on here. After you attacked a man on the street during the parade, a man you thought you recognized from a recent visit to a farmhouse, people thought you were plain crazy and should spend the rest of your existence in a padded room. They were most uncharitable to you, Chris. I knew your dad, I knew how he was with that drink in him. He went after you and called you all kinds of things that I won’t repeat and one time he hit you in the head and chipped your skull and loosed the gray matter into other regions of your little brain. But I won’t go too far into that, there’s no point.”
Chris tried to speak but couldn’t. He went on listening to the voice from the next bed.
“So the question is whether you’re wrong in the head, or have this smarts, this ability to extrapolate. Ain’t that a fifty-dollar word? I think you have both the ability to extrapolate, and the knowledge to extrapolate from. Because you just might have gotten a hint of the history of this area. During the war, they interred a whole lot of Kraut POWs in a camp near here. No one knows for sure, but a few of them, or maybe just one of them, may have gotten out. You’d think you’d have to scour the earth, go looking in the east Texas bush or in Paraguay or some place, but as they said about Hitler’s book, the obvious place to check out may be where no one thinks to search. Or maybe some among us knew, but no one cared. In any case, there is at least one very bitter and determined National Socialist in our midst. You are not crazy, Chris. You are not crazy. You are curious, and prone to speculation, and so am I.
“What does this fugitive, this renegade, have planned? His kids, his nephews, his stepkids, his grandchildren—how do they figure into all of this, and how many other adherents to the sick cause are out there? Who on God’s earth knows, Chris? Who knows?”
About the Author:
Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer. His fiction has appeared in Rosebud, The New Orphic Review, The Long Story, Valley Voices, The Tishman Review, and other publications.