“Joining the Degreasers” by Bo Balder
April 27, 1972
Twaik am Meer, Protektorat der Niederlände, Grossdeutsches Reich
Madder had always figured he’d end up with the Degreasers, like his brother. And what could be cooler than traveling all over the German Reich in a Panzer car, protecting the roads against Greasers, human horrors created by the Mengele vectors?
He just hadn’t anticipated that they would come for him when he was on the verge of winning all the marbles in the whole village. A shadow fell over the game as he joggled his marble for the last throw. A wave of excitement swept through the bystanders on the beach. He glanced aside. From the lack of shiny black boots and machine oil smell Madder figured it wasn’t the Gestapo and so he could keep focusing. Right now, the game was more important.
“Slide over, will you, Kamerad?” he asked, politely, as he could smell scorched machine oil and knew it couldn’t be anyone from the village. “I’m winning and you’re standing in my light.”
“Madder, I believe? Mind if I watch?” asked a deep, scratchy voice with a funny accent.
Madder was focusing too hard to look up at its owner. As he’d guessed, a stranger.
He waited until the man stepped out of his light to flick his marble into the jar. It slammed into Herzmuschel’s shiny bird’s egg, ricocheted against six of the smaller clay marbles, broke two, and rolled around in the pot.
“Gotcha!” Madder cried triumphantly and swiped his profits into his already bulging marble pouch.
“Not fair,” said Herzmuschel, his cheeks red and his blue eyes swimming. “You never lose anymore!”
That was true. The last few weeks Madder had done nothing but win. It was as if he could send the marbles any direction he wanted.
“Madder? Got a minute now?” asked the sandpaper voice, less patient than before.
He looked up, and had to crane all the way back to take in the stranger’s full height. The man was dressed in a long, ancient leather coat, decorated with ammunition belts, guns, knives, and unfamiliar tools. His face was black with dust, with two paler circles around the eyes. On top of his square head sat bulging goggles. Madder’s mouth fell open. A real Degreaser. The machine oil smell meant he’d come straight from his Panzerkampfwagen.
Madder looked around for the Panzer. They were awesome. He had seen them pass by last year, squat and gray and stinking, but then he’d still been too small to squeeze to the front of the crowd and had only managed to catch glimpses. His big brother Winkle had posed in the gun turret, proud to be part of the heroic team that faced dangers unthinkable in their placid village. Madder had screamed Winkle’s name as loud as he could, but his little boy’s voice hadn’t been able to outshout the rest of the village.
He checked if he’d grabbed all the marbles and smiled up at the man. “Winkle sent you, right?” he asked.
The wide mouth twisted into a grimace. “Sure, boy, sure. Let’s go to your mother, so you can get your things.” His face looked like Madder’s mother when she promised him a treat she couldn’t deliver or when he asked about Winkle and why they called him a Greaser. Adults always lied to suit their own purposes. The man wasn’t going to take him to Winkle at all, he bet.
Madder got up and shoved the bulging pouch in his coat. It had been Winkle’s, and before that Porre and Klaff’s, and maybe even his father’s when he’d been a little boy.
“I’m not going to mother,” Madder said. “I have time off, she said so herself. I been planting taters the whole day, now I get to play marbles.”
“You’re not going back to the fields, trust me.”
Madder looked around for an escape route, but the Degreaser grabbed him firmly by the arm. “Come on, boy, we haven’t got all day.”
No, they didn’t. Dusk would be closing in soon, and no sane person wanted to be outside at night. The Gestapo didn’t have as much control over the Untermenschen or Greasers as they might wish. Many experimental subjects had escaped the camps, or maybe only their diseases had, and it wasn’t safe outside of the security of Gestapo-patrolled villages. Which meant most of the Reich. So many people had been killed by the American Atombombe, or died afterwards from the Mengele vectors, that the Reich was still a pretty empty place, even thirty years later. People said the vectors had also gotten the English and the Americans, because suddenly the planes and bombs had stopped coming.
The man’s grip on Madder’s arm was too tight to slip away and get back to his marbling. He was dragged to his mother’s house as if he was a little kid instead of a young man of nearly twelve.
A group of fathers had appeared on the path. The man halted. Herzmuschel, the coward, hid behind his father’s broad back.
“Now, Madder, hand over those marbles, there’s a good boy,” Herzmuschel’s father said. “You didn’t come by them fair, and you won’t be needing them anymore.”
Madder clutched his coat tighter about him. The men’s eyes on him made him feel small and dirty. He’d always been aware the whole village kept an eye on him, but only half sure what it was about. Your brother’s a dirty Greaser, his mates called him if they didn’t want him to play. Assholes! he’d shout back. You mean a De-greaser. He’s a De-greaser. But it had never felt this personal. Now they seemed to hate him, all of a sudden, instead of Winkle.
He shouldn’t have won all those games. He flicked a glance up at the stranger. There was no change in his solid presence at Madder’s side. The man hadn’t changed his mind, then. No. He wanted Madder because of what he could do with marbles. And throwing stones at coneys. Tears burned in his eyes. Why hadn’t mother warned him? Or Winkle?
“He’ll hand over half,” the stranger said. “What he won today. No more.”
Herzmuschel’s father spat out a fishbone he’d been chewing on, but nodded. Herzmuschel made a face at Madder.
Madder dug out the handfuls of clay marbles, and the robin’s egg he’d won. It was so pretty. He held his hands out to Herzmuschel, but at the last moment he dropped the marbles on the ground.
The man dragged him away at once, but Madder managed to turn his head and stick out his tongue at out. Let him find all the marbles in the fading light. Tattletale.
The Degreaser turned without hesitation onto the path to their house. The lantern had been hung by the door, which meant that his mother knew that the man was coming. The man opened the door and pushed Madder ahead inside. “Ma’am, I’m back!” he called out.
He nodded to Madder’s mother when she appeared from the kitchen. “I’ll be back in a few years, and earlier if necessary.”
Madder snorted. Nobody ever called his mother ma’am. What was this fellow up to?
The stranger chuckled. “I haven’t introduced myself yet, huh, Madder? I’m called Hefty, I’m the leader of the Degreaser Battle Group ‘Undentable’.”
The same group that had taken Winkle, two or three years ago.
“We need a new gunner, and we thought of you. Your mother has agreed to letting you go.”
Madder nodded, his mouth full. “When are we going?”
“Right after dinner. Your pack is ready.”
What pack? He owned the clothes on his back and his marbles, that was it.
“We packed extra clothes,” said his sister Segge. Her mouth looked pinched, but her voice sounded sweet. “You need warm things for in the gun turret, you’re going to be sitting still a lot. ” Her eyes went to a bundle in the corner.
Clothes. Okay. Madder didn’t really care about clothes.
Mother and Segge set the table. Hefty got Father’s old place.
With one hand, Madder spooned in the food, with the other, he stroked his pouch, still half full of marbles. Life was pretty good right now. It would have been better with all the marbles and especially the robin’s egg. He cast a resentful glance at Hefty.
“You do realize they’d have beaten you up and taken all the marbles,” Hefty said.
“Maybe you want to give the pouch to your brothers and sisters. On the panzer, you won’t have time to play marbles.”
Half a shrimp dropped from Madder’s mouth. “Then I’m not going.”
Segge’s face turned red and it looked like she wanted to cry. “Mother has promised, Madder. And you want to see Winkle again, right?”
Hefty said nothing, but something happened between him and Segge. Adults and their secrets.
“Come on, Mad. You can pick who you give them to. Remember when Winkle gave them to you?” said his brother Helm.
He remembered. And Winkle had not given them- he and Wellhorn had had to compete for them. “Catch!” Winkle had cried, before they could prepare, and thrown three marbles into the air in rapid succession. Segge had tried to grab Madder’s collar and failed. She’d meant to keep Madder from showing his speed. Why?
But although he still didn’t quite grasp her panic at that remembered moment, he stifled the urge to repeat Winkle’s action and plunked the precious bag on the table.
“You can divide them between you,” he said, his voice subdued because of the hugeness of letting the precious marbles go. He wasn’t a kid anymore, he didn’t need them, did he? It still hurt.
Mother began to cry, wiping her eyes with her apron. There was nothing Madder could say to her. He’d sort of always known he would follow Winkle. Only he’d imagined it to be a triumph, with all his friends seeing him off. Not weighed down by the tearful faces of his family, the memory of Segge trying to keep him from the Degreasers. Not sneaking away in the night, with all the boys and fathers against him.
He lifted his chin. He was going to be fine, have fun, shoot Greasers, see the wonders of the world. No more potato planting or shrimp raking. He’d come back with amazing tales and everybody would be astounded and awed by him.
Segge and Wellhorn sat petrified on their seats. Madder felt suddenly shy about embracing mother, but he did it anyway. She cried harder and didn’t hug him back.
“Well done, boy,” Hefty said. “Get your bundle, we gotta go.”
His mother was white and red in her face and her hands kneaded her apron wildly. “You’re worse than the Gestapo.”
Hefty didn’t get angry at the insult. “It’s better this way, ma’am, you know that too. Goodbye.”
Hefty helped Madder load his bundle onto his back. They walked through the dunes to the Panzer car. Madder had never been out so late, and he was glad of Hefty’s hand on his shoulder. Every shadow, every clod of beach grass rustling startled him. Gulls screeched overhead. What if there was a wild Untermensch, or a bunch of German troopers out for a bit of fun? The red light of the troubled sky glittered on the gun in Hefty’s hand. Would Hefty shoot them?
The Degreasers and their Panzer cars escorted caravans all the way to Berlin in the east, or to the Südfrankreich Protektorat. He might not see his village again soon, maybe not for years. He looked back for a last glimpse of Twaik Am Meer but all he saw was the dunes crouching against the night sky. Tears filled his eyes, but he didn’t wipe them off. Hefty might notice, and think Madder wasn’t suitable for a gunner’s life. He didn’t want to spend the rest of his life fishing and tending potato plots. And he’d see Winkle again soon.
They left the dunes behind. Without the reflection of the sea, the night seemed even darker than before. His feet sounded dull on the wooden planks of the path, and occasionally his foot shot through a rotting piece of it. It made sense the Panzer couldn’t get all the way to the beach.
“There it is ,” Hefty said.
Madder saw nothing at first, but then he smelled hot acrid air and heard a hissing sound. Something hot and smelly shot into their faces.
“Is that from the wood gas engine?” he asked.
“Yes,” Hefty said.
They walked on, a little faster now.
Hefty grabbed him under the armpits and swung him into the air. Only Madder’s sense of honor as marble master made him able to hold his shriek inside. His knees banged against something hard and in a panic he reached into the black, star-sprinkled sky. His right knuckle bumped into a piece of pipe and he clung onto it.
“Climb, boy, climb. That’s your spot up there, in the turret.”
Madder blinked as hard as he could, but the night light flickered on so many shiny unknown things that he couldn’t guess where he was going.
A hard hand grabbed him and dragged him through a small opening. For a terrible moment Madder thought he was falling into a pit, but his feet landed hard and unexpected on a metal surface.
“I’m Hoar,” said a voice, followed by a wet cough. “Tomorrow morning I’ll teach you to shoot, but for now we’ll have to share the bench.”
Hoar pulled down Madder so his buttocks hit a wooden bench. “As my old man always said, eat and sleep when you can, stay awake and fast when you must.”
The voice sounded gruff, but the words were friendly enough. Madder was glad he wasn’t alone up here in the cold dark turret. His left side warmed up from Hoar’s arm, his right hand became chilled from the metal wall and the sharp wind. He decided to stay awake and see where they were going. How could the Panzer car drive in the dark?
Men busied themselves around him and called out incomprehensible instructions. Metal rang, and a fire glowed up, burning low and hot. Exhaust puffed into the air, and the car pushed forward with a jolt. Two bright yellow bolts of light shot out in the front. The men on the car could see just enough to drive, but everyone for miles around could see the car as well. Wouldn’t that draw Greasers and other outlaws?
Madder clung to the iron edges of the lookout gap until his hands were cold. He stuffed them between his legs and wished he had mittens or a muff.
“I’ll light us up,” Hoar said, and burst into a terrible cough. He struck a match and lit a storm lamp. The fish oil smoke immediately swept away on the wind, which was a blessing.
Madder delved into his pack and found not only new mittens and a hat, but also a thick sweater that he was sure belonged to Wellhorn. Rabbit wool, strengthened by his mother’s or Segge’s hair. He could really use it. He pulled the sweater on over his coat. The thick wool gave off his brother’s unmistakable personal smell of fish, sweat, something salty unique to Wellhorn. Madder’s eyes burned. The wind, of course. He turned his head away from the meager light of the lamp and stared fixedly into the darkness.
The next morning, Madder woke cold on one side and hungry. A bench in a metal turret was a far cry from the comfy alcove at home, surrounded by his brothers’ warmth. He wriggled his upper body through the turret’s embrasure and looked down on the Panzer car. It was bigger than a dory, but smaller than a herring buss, and looked like a cross between the two. It had a kind of a narrow deck allowing you to walk between the bridge, the gun turrets and the hatch to the downstairs living quarters.
The Panzer wagon rolled on thick padded wheels, over a straight black motorway straight into the rising sun. At the end of this road, he’d see the bomb crater of Berlin.
On all sides were new forests of straggly birch and alder, fields of winter oats and newly planted potatoes. Next to him, red-eyed and yawning, sat Hoar. He must have stayed awake all night.
A tall man with red hair stood on the bridge, scanning the countryside with his binoculars. When he turned to give a Sieg Heil greeting at Madder, the boy realized it was Hefty, now far less dusty than before. Of the men who manned the cannons he could only see the back of their heads and their hunched shoulders. Madder felt like a king, high up in the turret, able to see farther than them.
In daylight, Hoar showed up as a thin, pale man. His nasty cough and red-spotted handkerchiefs suggested ill health, but he was as rough and cheerful as Hefty and One-Eye and Stomp, who all carried around some reminders of previous encounters with Greasers. Hoar treated him like a younger brother, with gruff friendship and the occasional cuff. It felt like home. He just wished it was Winkle to give out the acceptance and the rough hearty slaps, but they’d meet up with him later, Hoar said, with the same tone of voice Hefty had used to him on the beach, yesterday.
Hoar taught him how to shoot, how to reload, how to turn the turret, and how to stay warm and supple while you waited. Hoar turned slowly on his gunner seat around the middle pole that held up the protective roof of the turret. First, he made a circuit in one direction, then one clockwise.
“Otherwise we get nauseous, boy. What was your name again?”
Madder felt Hoar’s fire before he saw movement or heard shots. Hoar sat up straight to find his targets, blew out his breath and fired off a salvo.
“Do you always hit them?” Madder asked. Wounded bandits, spurting blood, curses and cries for revenge. It sounded scary and exciting at the same time.
“I hit who I want to hit,” Hoar said. “Except Greasers, they’re too fast. That’s where you come in.”
“And Winkle, right?” Madder said.
“Winkle? Yes, yes. He’s, uh, loaned out to another team.”
“Is Winkle a good shot?”
“Great shot. The best,” Hoar said. “Shhh.”
After two days of instruction Hoar returned to his front cannon job, because Madder was already faster and more effective than he on the trigger, hardly missing any of the targets with the 7.92 mm-MG gun. Madder hit twice as many targets in the same time as Hoar to start with, and after a couple of weeks of practice, ten targets for each single target Hoar hit aiming, wasting time, waiting for that moment in between breaths. No wonder Herzmuschel and his father had been resentful at his marbling success. He was faster than any normal person.
Madder had been the only gunner in the turret for two weeks now. It was lonely up there. He missed his brothers a lot, his sisters some, and sometimes mother. He even missed Hoar after Hoar stopped instructing him and went front. The village he missed not at all. He’d never realized how bad it had been, being called names and how many games he’d been excluded from until he found the respect and camaraderie from the men on the Panzer. Hoar always made a place for him next to the fire or give him extra potatoes.
“For a growing boy,” he’d say.
Madder’s ration for the machine gun was ten rounds per day to stay in practice. He mostly shot birds out of treetops because they were sufficiently difficult to hit, or pheasants, and the weekly deer or boar to continue to provide for the team. Wasting nothing. Even the shredded remains of crows and rooks ended up in the soup pot.
Greasers. Madder hadn’t seen a single greaser yet, and he was getting impatient. He wanted to test his newfound shooting skills. According to Stomp’s stories, the ones he told every night over dinner, Greasers moved almost faster than you could see. One moment, you were safe, the next, ten of them would be standing around you, their claws spread and their teeth ready to bite your face off.
He clenched his hands tighter around the gun’s trigger, and then loosened them up again because Hoar had taught him that clenching made your hands numb.
His eyes wandered over the road, forward, sideways, to the back, to the other side. And then back again. A swarm of birds boiled up from their tree. Madder swerved the barrel back to the tree. Birds flew up for many reasons, but one of them was threatening movement below them.
His finger tightened on the trigger. He didn’t see anything. Or did he? A lightning streak shot across the road. Scheisse, that was fast. He’d have to be even faster than those streaks of lightning. Greasers, had to be.
Without conscious decision, he squirted a volley over the road. He didn’t see the results, if any.
“Scheisse!” someone below him shouted. He should have flung down the red flags to warn them. No time for it now.
His finger stuttered on the trigger. The wet smack of ammunition on living flesh. Something red appeared on the road. Too close for the Mg. Madder swerved inside the turret and positioned the Schpagin hand machine gun. His fingers decided whether to shoot or not, they were faster than his head. He felt more than he saw that he hit something. One more time! After three rounds he sensed the danger was over, but didn’t yet trust the feeling. He didn’t take his finger off the trigger. He was far too hot and he itched all over.
“Was it Greasers?” he called down.
Hefty’s square head appeared in the frame of the gun turret’s windows. He must be standing on the ladder. “Yes. Good shooting, boy. You hit five of them.”
“Is it safe now?”
“Yes. Come help with the wounded.”
Wounded? The heat in his body diminished. He shivered as the cold wind cooled his excited sweat. Who’d been hurt?
He peeled his stiff, sore finger from the machine gun and stood up. Everything ached. How could that have happened, in those few minutes?
He wriggled through the sight hole and climbed down the ladder.
Stomp and Hefty stood around a figure lying flat on the deck. It was Hoar. He wore a red, bloody grin on his face “Hey Winkle,” he said in a bubbling voice.
“Good shooting, Mad. But they got him,” Stomp said.
Madder was stupid enough to squirm through between Hefty and Stomp. Across Hoar’s chest ran four parallel stripes. His coat was in tatters, and his chest frothed red and blue. Madder had never seen a man’s insides. They were very like a rabbit’s insides, which he’d never gotten upset about. But because it was Hoar, his friend, it felt very different.
“Are you going to die?” he asked.
Hoar laughed, but halfway through it became a rattle that didn’t stop. His white hand swept back and forth, looking for Madder didn’t know what. Then the hand stilled.
“Goddamn,” Stomp said.
“Yeah,” Hefty said. He sighed deeply and swiped his goggles off his head. He didn’t seem to know what to do. That frightened Madder.
But Hefty steeled himself and roared to stoker Hare. “Faster, Arschloch! The caravan is pulling ahead.”
“Why did they attack us, Hefty? What did we ever do to them?” Madder asked.
“Don’t be silly, boy,” Stomp growled. “Food and coal, like everybody else. And because we kill them, I guess.”
The Panzer wagon sighed and moaned but managed to get up more speed with creaking wheels. The car drove over some bumps and lumps. When Madder saw the red spots on the crumbly black pavement behind them, he understood what the lumps had been. His doing. But it hadn’t been enough, because Hoar wasn’t there anymore. It was his fault.
Hoar had mistaken him for Winkle. It was nice to be taken for his brother. It made Madder feel closer to Winkle. But surrounding that good feeling was the bad feeling about Hoar’s death.
Stomp the gun went astern and Hefty put a tarp over Hoar. Madder climbed into his lonely tower, vowing to be more vigilant, even faster.
The next day they drove off the highway and picked up a lanky boy called Ourjack from a village by the river Rijn. Ourjack talked weird and Madder vowed not to befriend him. That clearly had no future if people could just die on him like Hoar.
Madder missed the fish and shrimp and even the tiny bitter-salt periwinkles of home. The wooden box with smoked herring that he had found in his suitcase was gone in a day. On the Panzer wagon, they ate stew with rabbits and birds. For the rest, they received oats and potatoes as payment for their protection of the trade caravans going east into the Reich proper.
He and Ourjack, who was not as bad as Madder had imagined, formed a tight team now. They cooked pheasants and ducks, and baked flatbread. They played marbles with stones, which was a good thing because Madder always won and stones were free.
Madder was eager to see some real German Uebermenschen at last. Mother had explained to him that even the Gestapo or SA men he’d seen were Untermenschen, or they wouldn’t have been sent out to patrol the lesser parts of the Reich. And Hefty denied being a Uebermensch. What with his ugly face and red hair and rheumatic limbs, Madder believed him.
But when they stopped to trade in Köln and Duisburg, traveling through miles of rubble to reach the centers of the shrunken, bombed-out cities, the people he saw looked just like his family and everybody else, even though they spoke a different kind of German. From the amount of rubble in the middle of the new forests he could tell the big cities had been even bigger before. Stupid Americans with their bomb.
In Duisburg they delivered kippers and took in newly smithed scythes and plowshares. Madder had never seen a new, shiny tool before.
They met a caravan going west. Madder went out and up to ask if they’d seen Winkle, but nobody had. Hefty got a bit muddled when asked what caravan Winkle was traveling with. “I’ll know it when I see it, boy.”
“Hefty,” he asked. “Why are we Untermenschen? And where are the Uebermenschen? How can you tell?”
Hefty scratched under his goggles. “Ha. That’s where the Fuehrer made his big mistake, sonny. Mengele created diseases in the camps, the vectors, they thought would kill off the Untermenschen, but it killed everybody. I guess there is no difference between Untermenschen en Uebermenschen after all. Some of us lived, most died, and some others turned into Greasers.”
“Mom says we’re occupied by the Germans. That we used to be an independent state.”
“Sure we were. My mother grew up in a real house, with coal stoves and food on the table every day. She says. And radio. And now there’s just rubble from the war, and nothing to eat except rabbits and mice and birds.”
“And fish!” Madder said.
“Yeah. That’s why it’s so empty here and most people live on the coasts or river borders. More food.”
“Will it always be this way?”
Hefty shrugged. “Don’t ask me. I’m a crippled ex-soldier driving a Panzer car. What do I know? Maybe the rest of the world will come and save us one day. England and America are as dead as we, but maybe the Japanese. Or the Africans. They say the virus only works on white people.”
It was the autumn, the year after the first, and they had been traveling south behind the caravans.
Madder pushed his goggles on top of his head and peered over the dusty road. It was so hot here in the south, and the light was so bright. Every now and then the sky shone achingly blue, like a person’s eyes, instead of always being covered in roiling clouds. The Americans had done that, Hefty said. They’d bombed Berlin. He’d seen the great crater of Berlin and the new settlement on its edge. But now they’d traveled south, all the way to the borders of the Middle Sea. He breathed deeply, and it seemed as if he smelled the brine already. The caravans went over a route delineated by the decaying cities of the past, pulling ever farther south.
“Soon we’ll eat chowder, buddy!” Hefty yelled up to him. “Only a little bit farther.”
Hefty sat on the foredeck, ensconced in a comfortable chair they’d found in an abandoned building in Parie, a blanket over his aching legs. He wasn’t healthy anymore, but his mind was still sharp. They’d lost Stomp and One-Eye somewhere along the way. One-Eye had been felled by a shot from a frightened villager in Sachsony, Stomp had left because he’d found a woman.
Madder walked a couple of circuits around the Panzer every time they stopped, to exercise his muscles and joints as Hoar had taught him. He was fed up with sitting in his turret. But it wasn’t enough. His body remained restless. He wanted to move, walk, run, know he was alive. Maybe planting potatoes and dragging for shrimp wouldn’t be a bad price to pay for freedom.
No, if he was totally honest, he was never going to do that. He wanted to feel the wind in his hair, never sit still again, never follow another order, never again do the same thing every day. He wanted real freedom, not to be the slave of a Panzer wagon or a potato field. He stared at the mysterious woods and endless fields besides the road. That’s where he needed to be.
He had still to talk to anyone about it. He couldn’t leave them without a gunner. And he didn’t want to get off in this hot foreign country, but closer to home. He walked ever more circuits around the Panzer, tried to walk faster every day, but the restlessness didn’t leave.
The others, even the young ones like Ourjack didn’t feel the same things he did. Stomp had left, but not because of restlessness. Why was he different? He was faster, that’s why he was a gunner. Was there more to it? Was that why even his own team now sometimes looked with assessing looks at him when he jogged circles around the wagon? More than ever, he wanted to ask Winkle, but they’d never encountered his caravan yet. His best guess was that Winkle had died on the job and everybody was too chicken to tell him.
“Hey Hefty, when we get to the sea, will we turn around and head North?” Madder asked.
Hefty cleared his throat. His always hoarse voice had only become worse. “Sure, buddy. There are always caravans that pull to the North, you know.”
“Okay!” Madder hesitated. “When we get back home, I want to leave and find a girl, like Stomp.”
Hefty said nothing.
“Sure, kid, that I understand. But you’re young for it. You might have to wait a few years yet, do a couple more trips with us.” Hefty’s voice sounded a little weird. Perhaps he also wanted a woman and to go home. But he had never told Madder where that was. Maybe old people forgot.
Madder closed his eyes and inhaled deeply again. Saltiness, rotten fish, the best smell there could be, even though it wasn’t quite Twaik am Meer.
Even with his eyes closed, he felt the change in the air. “Hefty, they’re coming!” he shouted. “Ourjack, take Hefty down in the hold, now!”
Ourjack came up running. “Hey, Madder, you bastard, we at it again?” he cried cheerfully, despite the danger.
Ourjack had turned out to be the best friend Madder ever had. Despite the hard, monotonous work, they could at least have fun, something all those old guys had forgotten about.
Madder pushed his goggles down and turned his first circuit. The Greasers were still too far away to hit, but the last two years had taught him that that could change very quickly. He knew about their strange high jumps, their contorted faces, their anger, their greed for what the caravans brought. If it was true that the Fuehrer had made the Greasers, he got that. But he wasn’t sure that even Hefty knew the real story, and he was at least forty.
His finger jerked once and Madder knew in his gut that he had scored a hit. He had no time to check it out. The hatch clanged shut, footsteps clip-clopped over the iron deck, and a moment later the deep boom of the stern cannon sounded. Ourjack. Where was Etchen with his aft guns? Surely they hadn’t been hit yet?
He turned a circle, finger at the ready. Where were the Greasers? He couldn’t see them, but he could feel his hackles rising and his gut churn. There, to the left of the road, he spotted three, no, four and to the right, yes, a whole slew of them sprang from the deep rosemary bushes.
Madder fired and fired. There were so many, even he couldn’t get all of them in one swipe. He had to reload, saw and felt them closing in. Scheisse. Clang. One had landed on the foredeck! Over to the machine gun. He fired. The white face with the red eyes still approached, slower now. Again. He had to turn to shoot the ones coming in from behind. When he completed his circuit the Greaser he’d already shot was trying to climb into the top of the turret. Madder rammed his barrel into the heaving, naked chest.
Something stopped his finger on the trigger. It wasn’t a Greaser. It was Winkle. Impossible. His heart hammered, the knot in his gut scrunched tight. Winkle threatened him, Winkle wanted to kill him? Didn’t Winkle remember his little brother?
Madder’s finger fired.
The power of the shot shocked the Greaser loose from the turret, his head and his chest a bloody pulsating mass.
Madder kept shooting. They all had to die, the bastards.
“Hey. Madder! Hey!”
It was the voice of Ourjack. “They’re all dead. Stop wasting ammunition.”
Madder looked at his right hand. The finger hammered on the trigger mechanically, almost faster than he could see. He forced the finger to stop.
“Scheisse, have you ever seen so many,” said Etchen. “Big ones, too. Dirty Greasers.”
Madder dragged his almost-too-wide body through the turret’s hole and climbed outside, ignoring Etchen and Ourjack’s questions. Ourjack put his hand on Madder’s shoulder, but Madder shook it off.
He jumped down the side of the wagon and walked to where the dead Greaser lay, his arms and legs spread-eagled the way he’d fallen, riddled by Madder’s bullets.
He knelt down beside the body. The man’s—no, the Greaser’s—hair must have been a dirty blond once, now it was bleached nearly white by the southern sun. His eye whites were bright red with blood, but they’d once been a familiar blue. The claws on his hands, just like the ones that had so ruined Hoar’s chest, years ago, were gloves with iron nails sewn onto them. The body looked well-fed, better than most people Madder had met.
The man. It wasn’t just a man, it was his brother Winkle. He hadn’t been mistaken. In spite of the hair and the red eyes, this was definitely Periwinkle.
He’d shot Winkle. His own brother. Who clearly hadn’t been loaned out to another Degreaser team. Or died, either. No wonder Madder had never found him, despite his incessant questions to every caravanner and Panzer car crew he encountered. Winkle had become a Greaser.
Madder looked at his shooting hand, trembling uncontrollably now. He’d been so fast. He was the only one on the Panzer wagon who could shoot fast enough to hit Greasers. Winkle had been that fast. Winkle had become a Greaser. Greasers were people. Kind of.
He wished Winkle had killed him. Then he wouldn’t have felt this empty. Worse than when Hoar and One-Eye had died.
He put his hand on his heart, then on his belly. That’s where the great wanting resided, the urge to run pell-mell until he dropped. He thought about his sisters, and his mother’s worried looks. Winkle. So he was going to turn into this and they had known somehow. Red eyes, the ability to run faster than the human eye could track. Maybe other things that weren’t so visible.
The blast of the big gun had torn through Winkle’s clothes and into his body. At the charred edges he recognized a threadbare sweater that Mother had knit long ago. On the outside, Winkle wore a newer, paler sweater, knit as intricately by an unknown hand. Winkle had never knit that himself, that was women’s work. Madder’s eye traveled to a half-finished woodcarving hung on Winkle’s belt. Clearly intended to become a crude rattle. Could Winkle, changed as he was, have had a family? People like himself? Did he have a wife and child who would wait in vain for him to return?
Madder looked down the side of the road. Nothing there but gray-green, fragrant scrub. But there had to be more Greasers hiding somewhere. No, not Greasers, people. His sister-in-law, his nephew or niece.
Degreasers were the killers. They killed Greasers, who were really just people, fast people. Like him and his brother. So Degreasers were his enemies, not his friends.
It meant he couldn’t stay on the Panzer car. He started walking. He had bad news to bring to his sister-in-law.
“Wait, Madder, wait, you’re too young, you can’t make it alone yet!” Hefty called out. “Stay a little bit longer! You haven’t changed yet!”
Hefty panted and stumbled after him on his sore legs. Poor old Hefty, who’d been like a father to him these past years. Didn’t he owe him a goodbye? But Madder’s shoulders stayed stiff and he looked straight ahead.
He should have been walking here by Periwinkle’s side. But they’d lied to him and now he was alone.
Free, but not as it should have been.
|Bo Balder is the first Dutch author to have been published in F&SF and Clarkesworld. Her short fiction has also appeared in Futuristica Vol. I and many other places. Her sf novel The Wan, by Pink Narcissus Press, was published in 2016. Visit her website: www.boukjebalder.nl.|