From an early age, Wilhelm Gruber had gotten used to the roar of jet engines above his home. On the playground at school, he could often look up, and see lacy contrails slicing the sky in elaborate cuneiform. Often, he'd spend several minutes staring, stiff-necked and squinting, wondering which, if any, of the trails had been left there by his father.
Wil Gruber was an average boy, by all standards: unruly brown hair, pale skin, green eyes; neither particularly handsome nor unattractive. He was a little on the small side, for his age, but his quiet nature hid a powerful temper. Doled out in rare but effective measures, this usually ensured that he and his few friends were left alone. His teachers complained about his wandering attention, but in a few subjects--mainly reading and social studies--the boy demonstrated an eager, even hungry, mind. His mother often included small notes of encouragement in his lunches, which he read, and later pocketed. When Crafts rolled around in the afternoon, he quietly dedicated each papier-mache sculpture or construction-paper heart to her, as well as to his father.
If there was one thing for which the boy never truly lacked, it was love.
The boy's father was a lanky man, handsome, and the clear template for his son's distinctive nose and eyes. He was something of a mystery. He never failed to lavish the fullest attention on his son, but the nature of his job kept him out for long portions of the day. On many days, training sorties managed to keep the boy's father away until long after night had fallen. That said, the man was a loving father, and while he didn't talk much about his work or past, the boy knew that his father was an important man--an officer in his country's legendary Air Force.
On occasion, the boy's father brought his son gifts, in the form of small die-cast airplanes. Typically, these were fighter jets from around the world. As a gift for his seventh birthday, his father had given him a metal replica, larger than the others, of a sleek fighter commonly seen on the airfield near which he lived. The man had leaned over him, candles still quietly smoldering on the lemon birthday cake, brandishing the unwrapped gift.
"This one is special, Wil. It's what I fly. Do you like it?"
The boy had smiled and nodded enthusiastically.
"One day," his father had said, "maybe you'll fly in something like this. "
Wil had only stared in wonder, at the gleaming earth-toned paint scheme; at the wing racks which held their own tiny plastic missiles. Later, the boy would look upon that moment as one of the happiest days of his childhood. It was the first birthday party he could remember where both his parents had been in attendance. Wil loved both of his parents very much, and among the other children he knew, Wil was aware that he had been truly blessed.
Wil's father was fond of watching the national news. On the days--usually weekends--when his father was home, Wil spent many a late afternoon sitting next to him on the sofa, watching the television. He regarded the hairsprayed anchors as they spoke in crisp northern accents; watched the video clips from events occurring elsewhere in the country. To be truthful, the boy never really understood much of what was being reported, and in fact, hated watching the news. But the news was what Wil's father liked, and because of that, Wil was willing to endure an hour or so of boredom every day. If Wil asked a question, his father was usually happy to lean over and explain what the people were talking about. Wil liked the personal time. Unlike the teachers at school, Wil's father never doubted his boy's intelligence.
On many occasions, Wil saw stories that talked about other countries. Wil heard about events going on across the ocean, and watched many stories about his country's neighbor to the east. Once, his father said, two republics had been part of a single greater superpower. However, a few years before Wil had been born, a couple of old men had gotten into arguments, and the larger nation had split apart. This, according to his father, was why, every year, the city held its famous parade. It was in celebration of the country's independence. Their country, for which Wil's father served as a fighter pilot, had made up one half of the former state, while their neighbors to the east made up the other half.
Wil remembered the parades well. They were grandiose affairs, where young women walked in traditional dress, tossing flower petals and candy ahead of rumbling tanks and spit-polished infantry regiments. In the background, meanwhile, military bands blared somber nationalist anthems. As a toddler, Wil had loved such things, saluting while his father had held him up over the densely-packed crowds. At that age, Wil had known and cared little about the arguments of dusty old men, but if dusty old men arguing meant more parades, then dusty old men were a thing that Wil could agree with.
Sometimes at school, Wil heard the other children talking about the country across the eastern border. Some, like his friend Leo, had family who still lived in the East, while others, like the lanky troublemaker Max, bitterly hated anything having to do with it. Max never said why
he hated the East, but nevertheless many a schoolyard fight started over Max's liberal use of a hate-filled epithet. Personally, Wil thought it was all rather foolish. To look at his classmates, Wil would never have been able to guess on his own which students still had Eastern ties, and which did not. For that matter, he guessed, most of his classmates wouldn't have been able to either. Still, the matter confused Wil greatly, and one day in his eighth winter, the boy decided to ask his father about the matter, one Sunday evening over dinner.
"Dad," he asked, "are we from the East?"
Wil's mother and father looked at each other uncomfortably. They set down their forks and wiped their mouths. Wil's mother stood up, gathering plates, while his father, meanwhile, leaned back, clearing his throat.
"Uh, no. Why do you ask?"
Wil stared down at his leeks. He looked up. "Somebody asked me about it at school."
Wil's father pursed his lips and nodded. He sat forward, elbows on the table.
"Was it that Sieboldt boy? Max?"
The boy nodded.
"No. No we're not. But being from the East doesn't make a person bad. You understand that, don't you?"
A pause, and then Wil spoke up again.
"Do we know anybody from the East?"
"You probably don't. You're too young. But yes. I used to fly with a few people from the East. They were good people. Some of them were even my friends." The boy's father stood up to grab an ashtray from the coffee table, before sitting back down and pulling out a cigarette.
As his father lit up, Wil said: "There was a war, wasn't there?"
His father's face clouded. He exhaled his first drag with a deep sigh.
For a moment, Wil's father said nothing. He tapped ash from the tip of his cigarette, and took another puff before speaking again.
"The old men," he said, "the ones that argued? The ones I told you about? Well...they were our bosses. They told us what to do. And once, long before your mother and I were married, they got into a few disagreements."
"Well, see, a lot of people in those day had different ideas. They had different ideas about the way a country's supposed to run; about what kinds of religion people are supposed to practice. Most of the time, people ignored these things. But after your mother and I were born, things started to change.
"After a long time of plenty, our country became very poor. Politicians started looking out more for themselves, and not for their people. After a few years of it, people started blaming each other. People started getting killed. Politicians, even regular people turned up dead in the streets, with their hands tied up. Some people got in their cars, went to start them, and the cars exploded."
A pause. "People did a lot of very bad things to each other."
"Did you do any bad things?"
Out in the kitchen, Wil's mother was loading the dishwasher.
"I did what I was told to do," his father said.
"When they told me I had to go, I went. I fought. I made sure people were safe, and tried to stop the people that were doing bad things. But there are still probably people who think I DID bad things anyway."
"Well," he responded, "back then, I hadn't been in the Air Force very long--I was still just a lieutenant--and I didn't like the way people in the old country started treating some of us. Things in our country used to be good, and after things got rough, some people in power started trying to tell us that we couldn't do certain things. They tried to say there were certain places we couldn't go; certain things we couldn't do, and they even tried to arrest us for the things we said. People got arrested in the middle of the night. Most, we never saw again."
"So people started fighting."
"What did you do?"
"Well, a few of the old men--good men--decided that should have a new country. Sort of start over. These men happened to control a lot of the military, and since I was a soldier, I did what they told me. I fought so we could have a country of our own."
"So you started flying to bomb the people in the East."
"Not right away. Back then, we shared everything--trucks, planes--and since everyone needed equipment to fight with, we had to do a lot of fighting just to try and keep some of it. Most of the bombings happened on the ground. I spent most of the war leading ground troops, and by the time I finally did get back into a plane, the fighting was already over. We'd already made a new country."
"Did you kill people?" Wil bit his lip.
Wil's father looked at him evenly. The boy thought he had made his father angry. Instead, his shoulders sagged, and Josef Gruber stared down at his hands. The cigarette had nearly burnt out.
"Were they people you knew?"
"Sometimes," he said. "People I knew. Friends of your mother and I. From school. Some with families."
"If they were your friends, why did you kill them?"
He leaned over to tousle his son's hair. There was no joy in the gesture.
"Your mother and I wanted to have a family, too."
A month or so later, Wil was playing outside, when yet another fight broke out near the swings, between Max and a dark-haired boy whose name Wil did not know. A small crowd of children quickly gathered, with some shouting encouragement while others pushed through to intervene. Like any good child, Wil ran quickly over to investigate, and it wasn't long before the hulking recess lady barged over, bellowing for everyone to get out of her way. The gaggle of onlookers parted like water.
As Wil struggled to see over the crowd, he saw that it was actually Max pinned on the ground, with blood leaking from his nose and lip. He had snow and woodchips matted in his blond hair, and over him knelt the other boy, slightly shorter but stockier. His knuckles were raw, and his eyes burned with a murderous rage. The recess lady, a gray-haired bull in poorly-fitted khaki pants, demanded:
"Max! Aaron! Get up! GET UP! What the hell is wrong with you two?"
"He started it," shouted Aaron. "He was talking about my sister! He said she was a dirty--"
"Liar!" Max struggled to his feet. "He's lying! I didn't say anything! I just--"
"Quiet! Both of you!" The recess lady wasn't having it. "Max Sieboldt, I've told you a dozen times--"
"He called her a dirty rag-wearing cunt!" Aaron glared at Max.
"No I didn't!" Max's blue eyes bled contempt.
"He's just mad because I heard that Eastern girls let horses--"
Aaron tore away from the recess lady's grasp, barreling into Max with a grunt of renewed outrage. The scuffle started again, and once again the other kids shouted and moved in closer. The recess lady grabbed both boys and hoisted them to their feet. They twisted, protesting with indignant shouts of "ow" and "hey!"
"Shut up," bellowed the woman. "Just SHUT. UP. All of you!
"Max, Aaron, you can explain this little incident to the headmaster. The rest of you little brats should know better."
The other children stared at their feet.
"Go on," she yelled. "GO! Or you can all join them as well!"
Dejected, the crowd drifted apart, and Wil watched as the two boys were marched roughly back toward the building. Wil hadn't heard any of what Max had said, but knew enough to bet that Aaron had been telling the truth.
Several days later, Wil's teacher informed the class that there was going to be a special exercise conducted. The teacher said it was like a fire drill, but different. Over the course of an hour, the teacher showed the pupils how, when a special siren sounded off, the kids were all to file out of their rooms, in order, and crawl on their hands and knees against the walls in the hallway. Doing this, the teacher told them, the children would be led into the cafeteria, where each child would be instructed to huddle together, under the long tables where students normally ate lunch. Like the other children in his grade, Wil did quietly as he was told. Watching the older students, however he observed the way most of them treated it as a joke; the way they laughed and punched each other on the shoulders. One boy leaned over and yelled "Boom!" into a girl's ear, at which point she cried out and began slapping him about the head. He laughed, and his friends laughed with him. Wil watched all this, and felt unease.
Later that day, Wil came home to find his parents huddled together in front of the television. He dropped his book bag and removed his shoes. Coming into the living room, the boy heard the man on television saying something about a "breakdown of diplomacy" and about an order for military forces to assemble at the country's eastern borders. What that meant, Wil didn't know, but he knew that he and his family lived near an airbase within fifty kilometers of their national boundaries.
"What's going on," Wil asked.
His parents looked up from the television, jumping as though startled. His mother's eyes were red, and met his own as though searching. Her mouth worked up and down, soundlessly, and she glanced repeatedly back at the television without answering. Over her shoulder, Wil's father held her hand, caressing the small of her back. His jaw was set, and a look of quiet discomfort played out on his features.
"Go play outside," he said. His tone was quiet but firm, and Wil didn't like it.
The next several weeks at the Gruber household were quiet and uncomfortable. Meals were eaten in silence. Wil's mother spent a great deal of time out in her garden, while his father stared for hours at the television, chain-smoking and tersely flipping channels anytime a newscast came on. At night, Wil laid awake and listened to the circling jets, while in the living room, his parents hurled muffled shouts and accusations . Sometimes, he thought he heard his mother crying.
Wil's father began working late more often. School continued, but Wil started noticing empty seats crop up in his class. At recess, Max snickered, gleefully taunting Leo and Aaron, telling them they'd be deported soon. The class saw visits from local police constables and fire marshals, who smiled and gave canned speeches about the importance of fire safety, or about how to report suspicious people. Over and over, the kids heard "duck and cover" or "tell your parents right away." After a while, it got so bad that Wil found himself praying for a math assignment. Around him, other boys doodled pictures of explosions, and heroic-looking soldiers. Their notebooks and desks became propaganda.
Spring came, and the days grew sunnier. In the beginning of April, a convoy of military vehicles arrived in town. They were Army units--medical and supply equipment, as well as a slew of covered trucks, carrying squads of young soldiers. The soldiers started making small patrols through town, nervously fondling their rifles and smoking cheap cigarettes in the town square. On one of the days when he was home, Wil's father informed him that many of the soldiers were simply passing through on their way east. He said they were staying in empty barracks. Many soldiers, he noted, had to sleep on floors for lack of cots. Wil absorbed this news without a word.
By later that month, the classroom at Wil's school had shrunken by half. Several of the teachers had "taken leave" as well, so several classes of different age groups were consolidated. Wil found himself surrounded by boys and girls as old as thirteen. Some intimidated boys like Max into silence, while others in many ways acted worse. The lesson plans became haphazard, and on several occasions Wil caught his teacher, a petite blonde in her late twenties, standing outside smoking cheap cigarettes. At home, Wil's father disappeared for a week, not bothering to inform his son about the reasons for going, or for how long he might be gone. In his parent's bedroom closet, the place where his father's uniforms usually hung went empty, no longer even holding a pair of boots.
The school ran several more emergency drills, and on several occasions class was canceled, with the official reason being "teacher in-service training." Wil stayed home on these days, helping his mother with chores and playing with the dog, Eva. On Saturdays, he accompanied his mother into town, when she did her shopping at the outdoor farmers' markets. He helped her pick out onions and carrots, and watched as she haggled with a fat man over the price for 20 eggs. He tossed coinage into the hat of a juggler. On one occasion as they walked through town, Wil's mother complained about the markets of late.
"The prices these days are outrageous," she said. "Many of the farmers I buy from aren't even showing up anymore.
Wil's mother simply stared ahead, glancing through opaque lenses at the sun. She never responded.
One Friday morning in late April, Wil's mother informed him that his father would be coming home for two weeks. Predictably, the news filled Wil with joy. He greeted his father at the door that same evening, springing up from his asparagus just as soon as he heard the second car pull in the driveway. His father smiled and held him close, spinning as he had done when Wil was only a toddler. Greetings between his parents were awkward, but they appeared genuine, and later that evening Wil caught them stealing ardent kisses in the kitchen.
Sneaking to the bathroom after bedtime for a drink, Wil heard a mild scuffle coming from his parents' room. He caught whispers and muffled laughter, and pretended not to hear.
For the next week, Wil's father was home when he left for school, and waiting there still when he came home. His father's manner was quiet but loving, and during this period Wil came to believe that maybe things were finally returning to normal. The beginning of May was a national holiday, and so on the first of the month, Wil slept in and then joined his father on a drive into town. His mother, he was told, went to visit his grandparents. Wil wondered why he and his father hadn't been invited along.
The city that day was chaos. Performance artists competed for coinage and applause. Live bands and art festivals clogged old-town squares. Wil and his father stopped at a local kebap stand, picking up a yogurt drink and a beer, after which they found an open street bench where they could sit with their oversized sandwiches. The day was bright, and surprisingly hot. Father fumbled for the bottle opener on his knife, while Wil picked a slice of mayonnaise-drenched onion off his shirt. His father smiled, taking a pull of his beer.
"Your mother," he said at last, mumbling around pita bread. "Says you've been helping out around the house."
"I guess." Wil grinned. He struggled with the cap of his yogurt drink, until his father finally offered to open it.
"Says you even helped her do her shopping."
"I picked out our lambsteaks."
"Really." Wil's father laughed, mayonnaise on the corner of his mouth. "You mean the ones that your mother's been saving for that big dinner she's been wanting to cook?"
"You're not supposed to know that!"
"Too bad I guess." His father nudged him. "But your mother doesn't need to know that, does she?"
He wrinkled an eyebrow. "I don't know..."
"Oh come on. I won't tell if you don't."
Wil sighed, complete with eyeroll. "I guess
." His father seemed satisfied.
"Good enough," he said, triumphant. "Then I guess
someone can afford to have an ice cream cone a little later, hm?"
Wil's eyes brightened. "Really?"
"Sure," his father said. "Why not?"
"The Rafaello stuff?"
"Whatever you want," he replied. He stuck out his hand.
Wil shook on it. "Deal."
For a short time afterward, the pair said nothing. They worked messily on their sandwiches, and Wil's father worked on draining his beer. Wil noticed the way that the condensation glistened on the dark green bottle; noticed the way that his father seemed to savor each taste. Wil couldn't relate; he'd tried a bit once. He didn't care for it.
After a while, Wil's father spoke up again.
"So after this week, if I'm going to have to go away again for a while."
Wil stopped eating. He looked up at his father. He'd suspected that this was what his father had brought him here to tell him.
"For how long?"
His father shrugged.
"I don't know. But I'm sure you've heard how things are going. My squadron needs me."
" Wil felt betrayed. "Can't you tell them no?"
"I wish I could. You've seen the news. The old men are arguing again." He hadn't, in fact, and he couldn't recall any recent parades, either.
Wil sat down his sandwich. He clenched his jaw, and fought back bitter tears of disappointment.
"I don't want
you to go."
"It's not fair
"I know." Wil's father set down his own sandwich, scooting closer.
"I know you don't want me to. I don't even want to. Your mother and I have been fighting over this for months. But my squadron needs me, just for a little while."
"You told me you were getting out soon. You lied.
Wil's father recoiled a bit as though slapped. His face aged ten years from guilt.
"I did say that, didn't I?" He shook his head.
"I shouldn't have. That was before everything else. None of this was supposed to happen. I never meant to..."
He trailed off.
"Look. Will. I'm sorry."
Wil saw the look of shame in his father's face, but he didn't care. He was angry, and feeling sorry for himself. He started to cry, and his father hugged him. His father kissed the top of his head.
"Listen" said his father. "We're going to be fine. I just have to take care of some things with the squadron. Just until the old men stop arguing, which I'm sure will be any day. A lot of countries are getting involved in this. I just have some things to do."
Wil looked up, sniffling. "Like what?"
His father stared across the courtyard. A troupe of drummers were busy banging away on an assortment of trash cans. On the rooftops, pairs of bored soldiers paced nervously.
"It's called standby," he told him. "If things were to ever get really bad, they'd need to get planes in the air as fast as possible. So we go on standby. When you're on standby, you just go to work, suit up, get in your plane and wait. Just wait. That's all."
"Really. You just do that for a few hours, and then the next guy comes on to relieve you. And everybody takes turns."
"You can come home though, right?"
He shrugged. "Normally. But the squadron needs pilots, and now's not a really good time. So for the time being, I'm going to be staying on-base, with one of the other officers. You'll be taking a trip with your mother." Wil's father reached around, grabbing a napkin from next to his beer.
"Here. Blow." Wil complied.
"You'll call us, right?"
His father nodded with absolute seriousness. "As often as I can."
"Promise. Now come here." The man grabbed his son in a headlock, messing up the boy's hair and rubbing knuckles hard across his scalp. Wil laughed and twisted away.
"So when do you leave?"
"Tomorrow night. Your mother better deliver on those lambsteaks."
"Sorry." He glanced over. The boy's kebap was still unfinished.
"You ready to go?"
"Yeah." The boy stood up, yawning. "I'm full." He lifted his shirt up, showing his distended belly.
"Full, huh? All right. Saves me the cost of an ice cream cone."
Wil nudged him. "Aww. No fair!"
His father smirked.
"That's what I thought. Just make sure you don't tell your mother."
They tossed their garbage into a nearby trashbasket, and turned to walk back to the car.
The following day came and went, with Wil's mother cooking a massive farewell dinner. Wil and his parents ate with a few neighbors--also military--and together they laughed, talked, and eventually pushed away from the table, satiated. Dishes were gathered. Goodbye kisses were exchanged. Wil's father departed early the next morning, and Wil's mother woke him so that together they could see him out the door.
The exchange was brief. Wil's father was already standing by the door, looking crisp in his blue dress uniform. His bags were already at his feet. Wil's parent's kissed and hugged; his father whispered something, smiling, into his wife's ear. She responded with tears, and a sudden burst of laughter. They kissed again, gently, and then Wil's father leaned down to embrace his son. "
"Do what your mother tells you," he said smiling.
Sleepily, Wil nodded. He grabbed his father again. This went on for approximately five minutes, until at last his father grabbed up his bags and, to many cries of farewell, he closed the door behind him, disappearing.
Later that night, Wil crawled into his mother's bed, clutching the stuffed dog he hadn't held since he was six. He fell asleep there, listening to his mother's suppressed sobs.
The following morning, Wil came to understand why so many kids had been disappearing from school. He was woken early, and told to pack a few changes of clothes. They were going to stay for a while at his grandparents, he heard his mother say. He wasn't told why. His mother said he could bring a few toys, so he chose to pack his stuffed dog and his father's toy jet plane.
An hour and a half later, they were gone, driving out on the winding country roads that led out of the city. They didn't take their usual highway route. The old farm owned by Wil's grandparents sat on a curving stretch of dirt road, in a valley three hours west of the city. Its remoteness from any towns or highways was a break from the bustle of the rapidly arming city. Wil and his mother arrived to a joyous welcome, with plenty of warm embraces between Wil, his mother, and her parents. The boy also quickly discovered they weren't alone. Two of his aunts' families had also come to stay, bringing with them their own children. There were five between them; two boys and three girls. Wil knew all save for the youngest, a toddler of no more than two. Wil learned that her name was Sonja. The afternoon ended with a large dinner, after which the children chased each other across the yard until dusk.
Wil's loneliness ebbed within days. He was now freed from the pressures of school, and had an assortment of playmates available on a constant basis. Wil bonded with his cousin Heinrich, who was close to his own age, and together the two of them rode bikes, and explored the woods out behind the family farm. Playtime was interrupted only by brief chores and meals, and continued on until twilight, when the sky turned dusky orange and the fields began to flicker with the cool blue starlight of fireflies. The only ones who didn't seem to be having any fun were the adults. To be certain, their manner at meals was jovial enough, and they were always affectionate to their children. But Wil watched them; saw the way they clustered inside, around the living-room coffee table. Sometimes they argued loud enough that Wil could hear them the front yard.
Once, while getting a glass of water from the kitchen, Wil heard the adults, whispering out in the dining room.
"Look," said Uncle Albrecht, "All I'm saying is, we're in a bad place. Sure, we're well back of the fighting, but what are we going to do if the Eastern forces break through?"
"We don't know that they will," countered Wil's grandmother.
"You want to leave that to chance? Look, I know a guy from university. I say the word, and he can put us in touch with suppliers. It's not much, I know, but at least we'd have something to fall back on; something we could use to defend ourselves."
"No!" Wil's mother cut in. "I took my son out of the city because I didn't want him involved in this. We're not hurting anyone here. There's no reason for them to bother us. Arming ourselves will only bring trouble."
"But Anja," said Aunt Linde, "You think they're not going to try to quarter troops here? With all the land our parents have? We have to be able to stand up to them."
"How are six carbines, a shotgun, and a rusty shovel supposed to stop trained infantry?"
"We don't have to fight them directly. There are connections." This from Anja's father.
"A lot of people in this area were in the Resistance, back during the first War. It might take some time, but I'm sure all the old networks are all still in place."
"But what about our children
?!" Anja all but leapt from her seat.
Albrecht looked at her sadly.
"What about Josef?"
Anja leaned over the table; slapped him.
"God damn you, Albrecht. Don't you use him against me in this. Do you even remember what they used to do to people? Ask Mother. Ask her how they lined up and shot entire families.
"My son is not even nine years old--Linde, Helena, Albrecht, some of your kids are even younger. We can't do what we did back then. What we need to be doing is leaving the country, while we still can."
Aunt Helena shook her head. "With what money?"
"The pawn shops still run."
Her mother cut in, gentle but firm.
Wil's mother paused, still standing over the table. The boy had placed his glass back in the sink, and was now standing in the kitchen doorway. His mother sucked on her bottom lip, breathing deep as if to calm herself. In a quiet, steely voice, she finally said:
"Wil. Go outside and play."
He stared, not moving.
He ran. Later that evening, the mountain horizons to the east grew dark, and as night came on there could be seen flashes like summer lightning. Pinpricks of light snaked heavenward, and muffled thumps shook the ground. On the porch, Wil's younger cousin Andrea pointed out the lights, exclaiming:
"They're not fireworks."
This from Sebastian, Andrea's older brother and the eldest cousin at 14. He stood, and turned to go inside. Apparently, Wil's cousin had heard things too. He only wished that he himself could hear more. Not for the first time, Wil found himself missing his father's laughter.
A week passed, and the flashes of light grew closer. Now they came from the north as well as the east. Nobody left, but the house still saw a number of visitors. Some were neighbors, like the elderly couple across the road. Others were businessmen from nearby towns. On several occasions, Wil saw young men and women, possibly students, engaged with the adults out in the living room. Their faces were eager, but they could never truly hide their anxieties. Nobody could these days. And then, one Sunday afternoon following brunch, the power went out.
Televisions and dishwashers all went unexpectedly silent. Digital clocks went black. Conversations between the adults trailed off. After a few confused moments, Wil saw his mother turn to Uncle Albrecht.
"I don't know." He called out into the living room. "Helena, check the phone." Albrecht's wife rushed to grab the cordless. She peered in from the bedroom hallway.
Wil's mother and uncle both looked at each other, jaws tensing.
Albrecht: "I'll run across the road."
The words had barely escaped his lips when a sound like two quick explosions shook the house. The ground vibrated, and on the side of the house facing the road all the windows shattered. Wil heard baby Sonja start wailing. The house became a frenzy of movement; checks to see if anyone had been hurt. The only damage was to the windows, and one vase, which had fallen off the the upright piano and broken. Several picture frames had also fallen flat.
Anja Gruber turned to her son, told him "stay inside," and followed Albrecht in running to the door. Wil slipped out behind them, standing out on the porch while the two ran up the driveway.
The old couple from across the road was already coming to meet them, their hunched frames moving with slow but obvious urgency. The two groups met halfway, and Wil slowly approached the quartet. He looked up. He heard jet engines; silent just a moment before, but now clearly fading. The four were talking; the elderly couple appeared unharmed but were clearly shaken. The old woman was talking with Anja.
"They've even lost power in the city. I heard it over the radio. They say the central line's been broken through."
Slava's mother and uncle exchanged glances.
"Josef," said Anja. "Oh God."
"What's happening," asked Wil.
The grown-ups turned to look at him. "Get inside
," barked Uncle Albrecht.
" Wil stomped his feet. "Tell me! I want to know NOW
"Wil, listen to your uncle--"
There was a metallic shriek, and then the ground shook again. The concussion was marked by a brief shadow overhead, and as Wil looked skyward, he at last saw the source of the noise. A pair of swept-wing attack aircraft, no more than a hundred meters up, were bearing west at speeds well above supersonic. Wil didn't recognize the paint schemes, but even as the planes shrank into the west, he thought he could still identify the bristling armaments they bore. Each aircraft carried a full loadout across a half-dozen underwing munitions racks. If those planes were heading west, Wil reasoned, and his father was still stationed on the line back east, then that meant--
He didn't have time to finish the thought. From the west, an eerie wail split the sky. It started low, and then grew slowly louder; a steady, panic-inducing harmonic. Wil had heard that the nearest town hosted several large garrisons of reserve troops, as well as surface-to-air missile batteries. The wail began to vibrate in Wil's teeth, making his head hurt. He felt afraid. The old couple, who had already lived through this sort of thing, recognized the sound immediately. They craned their necks to the west, scanning.
"Air raid sirens," said the woman. She turned to Albrecht.
"Our house, sir, it has a basement. We built it, for during the last War. If you'd need to, sir, your little ones. They can go..."
"Thank you." Uncle Albrecht glanced over his shoulder. Linde and his wife were running out to meet them. Their daughter Sonja was now red-faced; she was still screaming.
Anja spoke up. "Albrecht."
He turned. Shock was starting to set in. "Yes?"
"I have to go into the city. You know that. They'll need me. I'm taking the truck. Keep Wil safe."
"Good luck," he said to Anja. He called back across the road.
"Helena! Get everyone across the road! Inside. Find something to hide under. Wil, you too. Go inside. Do it!"
"But my Dad!" Wil cried. He grabbed his mother's shoulder. "Mom, where is he? Is he gonna be okay?"
Wil didn't have time to hear an answer. He found himself lifted bodily; shoved roughly forward by Aunt Helena, in the direction of the house across the road. The old neighbor followed suit, frantic to save her husband. In the west, more explosions shook the ground, and black smoke was now rising up over the mountains. The air-raid sirens mixed with gunfire, but suddenly as the noise escalated, Wil looked back at his mother. He found that he could no longer hear anything at all. Everything seemed slow, as though underwater.
Pushed toward the neighbor's house, toward the basement surrounded by other screaming children, Wil found himself thinking about what his father used to say about the old men arguing.
When the old men argue, he wondered, do they cuss and spit like the kids at school? Do they push, do they shove, do they kick and pull each others' hair?
Another explosion rumbled in the west. Wil found himself shoved underneath a washbasin. Hunched with his knees drawn up, Wil momentarily found himself back at school. More jets roared overhead.
Do they fight the same as we do, he asked himself? Do they go to the headmaster's office?
The sirens continued their wail outside. Sonja added her cries to theirs.No
, it suddenly occurred to Wil.
He didn't suppose they did.