Pepin saw him coming. The giant figure was coming for him, armed with a gun and dagger. His army boots thumped against the bristled grass, charred from the debris of bombings. He was speaking a mangle of foreign words — English — the devil’s own gibberish. A Yank was going to kill him and he wasn't ready to die. He swallowed down a lump in his throat and scooted back along the grass, wishing with all his might that the idiotic of a medic would get there before this Yankee slit his throat or put a bullet through his chest. A shard of ridged glass sliced through Pepin’s forearm but he didn't cry out. He bit the inside of his cheek and cursed under his breath. What was a piece of glass in his arm compared to that hellish ditch of fighting he just came from? What was a shard of glass compared to the dark blood trickling down his hand and running off his knuckles in warm, sickening pools. How could it compare to the zig zagged slit across his leg from a barbed wire he tried jumping to escape the shooting? He glared at the America with all his might and spat at him.
“Just try to kill me. Just try you stupid Yank!”
The America didn’t understand him, but continued walking. Thump, slush , thump, slush. The sound of death grew closer as the G.I. waded his way through the puddles of blood and piles of debris. Pepin dug his fingernails into the dirt and peered around for his comrades. They were gone, dead, or lying a few feet away in their own blood. He suppressed his screams, but couldn't stop a tear that trickled down his boyish face. Today was his eighteenth birthday, not that he even noticed. To him the days all ran into each other, and every day one more of his comrades died. Now the Yanks were on European ground.
The American was standing above him now, eyes dark and cold as steel. His jaw was sharp and he yelled something at Pepin. Pepin hacked up a glob of saliva and shot it on the American’s leg. The G.I. jerked back with another shout, then cast a chilling glare at Pepin. He raised his gun.
I knew it. Pepin felt numb and dazed. I knew the Yanks would kill me.
James cursed as he gained the ground between the German boy, Harry, and himself. He nearly tripped over the graveyard of bodies that lay like hurdles for an Olympic runner. He’d never seen anything like this before. Before he joined up, he naively pictured war to resemble cowboys and Indians. But the movies never showed the real scenes of warfare. And James knew why. No human being could bear the reality of war, and no human being could be completely normal after seeing what he saw – bodies blown to bits all over the ground, men’s intestines bursting through the gaping hole in their stomachs, glassy eyes staring at nothing, blood, blood, blood. And now Harry was about to add another corpse the the growing pile. Was there no humanity left in this hell hole? Perhaps there wasn't, but James still had a bit left and he was going to use it.
“Don’t shoot that German,” James yelled, straining his voice to be heard over the rumble of distant gunfire.
“Why the hell not?” Harry hissed. His breath smelled sour. “He’s as good as dead anyway.”
“Get lost,” James stood eye to eye with Harry, not flinching when the latter spit a wad of tobacco at his chest.
“Nazi lover,” Harry hissed, shoving James’ shoulder as he walked on. “Go ahead. Save the Nazi boy. But that don’t mean his kind will repay the favor when they find you.”
James breathed deeply, trying to keep his cool at all costs. It wouldn't be decent to beat the pulp out of his comrade. “I’m not a Nazi lover, Harry. You know that. But this boy is a human, just like you and me. I want to help him, Nazi or not.”
“Blah, blah, blah. Sentimental rot,” Harry called.
James knelt down beside the German who instinctively backed away. His face was ashen and his brown eyes were wide in fear.
“I’m here to help. I see a medic hasn't arrived yet and you’re losing a ton of blood.”
The boy stared, his face blank.
“Oh. Duh. You can’t understand a thing I’m saying!” James laughed to himself as he pulled out his first aid kit. “I can just talk and talk and you’ll just think I’m talking real intellectual, philosophical things if I speak in this kind of voice,” he cleared his voice and lowered it an octave. “But in reality I can talk about chewing gum flavors. Do you like cherry or licorice? Me? Well, I prefer cherry. Ever heard of Fred Astaire? ‘Course you haven’t. What about Frank Sinatra? He’s a good ol’ lad. I've never talked this much nonsense at once since I joined the army. It’s kinda fun talking nonsense to someone who can’t understand a lick of what I’m saying. Pancakes. Those things are good. I could really go for a cup of joe right now. Gosh darn it, I had lice this week. Stupid creatures. Now I’m sure you can sympathize with me there,” he glanced up at the German who was still staring at him, speechless. The boy shook his head and inched back.
“Ich spreche kein Englisch,” the boy said.
“I know. And I don’t speak German.” James held up the white bandage and motioned for the boy to hold up his mangled arm. The boy shook his head and yelled something at him. “I’m pretty sure you just swore ... and called me something that would make my mama wash your mouth out with soap. Good thing I don’t understand you. I can pretend you said, ‘Hey, you’re a real swell guy. Thank you so much for saving my life. You’re a real chum.’ But I know you didn't say that.”
The German looked perplexed. He began to say something, then stopped.
“Hold out your arm,” James motioned again for the boy to come near.
The boy glanced down at his arm. It was wet with black and crimson. His face drained of any color if has left. He slowly scooted toward James and held out his arm.
“Good boy,” James wrapped the bandage around the wound and the boy flinched.
“Das tut weh!” the boy screamed.
“Uhhh,” James glanced at him. “I’m guessing this hurts. Sorry, kid.” Once he secured the bandage, he began on the leg wound. “This will stop the bleeding until the medic comes. You’ll live. Don’t worry,” he patted the boy on the shoulder. “All finished.”
Pepin didn't know what to make of his chatter box of a Yank. First he saved his life, then he stopped the bleeding that Pepin thought would never end. But weren't all Yanks killers? Wasn't that what he was always taught? The American smiled and held out a hand.
“James,” he said.
Pepin understood and took the large hand in his. They shook hands firmly. “Pepin.”
James nodded, then fished around in his pocket. He brought out a chocolate bar and placed it in Pepin’s hand with another string of words. Pepin stared at the chocolate, then back at James. “Thanks.” He immediately ripped open a corner with his teeth and took a bite of the sweet, sugary treat. He then realized he was being rude. He ought to wait and eat that once James was gone, for he must be hungry too. And what could Pepin give him in return for all he had done? His good hand flew into his coat pocket where he kept a small pocketbook of German poems. The Yank wouldn't understand the words, but it would remind him of his act of humanity. He thrust it forward.
James slowly grasped the book with a big grin.
“And ... thanks, Yank.”
He watched as James stood up, still chattering on, then waved goodbye. Pepin waved back.