Krupchik came by twice each day to force feed meager soup down Billy’s throat. Billy didn’t puke it up again. Billy spent three days tied to the same hard chair in the center of the barn.
Captain Chekhov did not return to the barn for three days. When he did, Captain Chekhov waved his soldiers away. He wanted to talk to Billy alone. He said, “Second Lieutenant William Burns, how are you doing this day?”
Billy looked up at the calm man. Billy growled, “I’ll give you three guesses, you son of a bitch.” Billy had insect bites along his exposed back. The night chills of the summer breeze hadn’t made him sick yet, but it would soon if Billy stayed that way much longer. The barn was kept warm enough to keep the prisoners alive through the cool nights, but not much warmer.
Captain Chekhov smiled, “You know, I’ll be honest with you, Billy. My gut told me right away that you are without a doubt an American. However, word got through that a particular young scientist, who fits your description, has been missing for some time.”
Billy blinked, and then stared straight into his captor’s eyes. “Huh,” he said, “you caught me. I’m that scientist.”
Captain Chekhov cocked his head. “You are? Hm, I doubt that any prisoner would make their interrogation so easy.” Captain Chekhov produced a flask from his coat, and a little matching cup. He poured himself a little drink and sipped it. It was water, but it looked like vodka to Billy.
Captain Chekhov said, “Is this for release? I know I am torturing you a little, but I have done this to many men, and this is only very mild torture. Is it some other physical pain that is causing this desire?”
Billy watched the commander drink, and his mouth watered. “Nope,” he said.
The commander lifted the glass to his nose, sniffed, and grimaced. He tossed the liquid into the dirt, and poured out the flask next to it. Billy watched with dry lips.
Captain Chekhov said, “Well, that means you must feel guilty. This particular scientist has every right to feel very guilty. He has done some terrible things. He should want to die. His parents were immigrants to South Carolina from Germany. They moved back to Germany at the call of the Fürher. This could be you.”
Billy stared at the puddle. “It’s me.”
Captain Chekhov leaned forward suddenly. He snapped his fingers and aimed his index finger at Billy’s nose in a burst of motion. Billy’s eyes jumped to the finger and flinched. Captain Chekhov barked, “What is your mother’s name?”
“Helga?” said Billy.
Captain Chekhov leaned back and frowned. He put the empty flask back in his pocket. He said, “No. No, that’s not it at all. If you are the scientist, this is quite a brilliant ploy to get away. It would make a lovely story. I let you go to America as Billy Burns, and you infiltrate into their nation, start a new life for yourself. As you walk away with your Americans you smile contentedly to yourself. You wink at me. I raise my voice, but it is too late. The Americans have you. I am outsmarted. Quite a story, is it not?”
“Yes,” said Billy, “It’s true, too.”
Captain Chekhov stood up and threw his arms in the air. “I don’t just believe anything that sounds good,” he said, “There has to be some facts and details that relate the truth of the story!” Captain Chekhov leaned over and got inches away from Billy’s left ear. “Why don’t you tell me your story, and I will understand you better.”
“Nope,” said Billy.
Billy stared over Captain Chekhov’s shoulder at the dark forest far past the farmhouse, and past the fields. “If I tell y’all my story, y’all won’t kill me,” he said.
Captain Chekhov pulled out his gun. He placed it on the desk in front of him. He said, “I’m not going to kill you now.”
Billy smiled, looking at the gun.
Captain Chekhov tapped the gun with his index finger, and pondered just shooting the prisoner for no reason, reporting it as accidental.
Captain Chekhov leaned forward, again, with his hand ready to pick the gun up and shoot. Neither man spoke for a few minutes.
One of the other prisoners broke the silence. He jumped against the chains and shouted at Captain Chekhov a wordless, painful yowl.
Chekhov turned his gun and shot the prisoner between the eyes. The gun blast rattled the old wood of the barn. “You have to merit a bullet around here,” said Captain Chekhov, to Billy, “You have to be German, at least. I can pretend you’re an SS Officer if you are at least German. Or you can speak Italian or French or Polish or something and I can pretend you’re a bandit like that animal. But you don’t speak anything, do you? You only speak English. Tell me your story.”
Billy did not break his stare. “No”
Captain Chekhov scratched his head with the barrel of the gun. He grimaced. “This is getting to be very redundant, yes?” Captain Chekhov then frowned and pointed the gun directly between Billy’s unflinching eyes. Captain Chekhov said, “Why don’t you want to tell me your story?”
Billy leaned back in his chair, and smiled at the weapon
Captain Chekhov frowned, and put the gun back down on the desk. Captain Chekhov put his gun in his holster. “My friend, I think I shall leave you for a while longer. I must think more on you”
Captain Chekhov frowned down at the captive. In this light, even with the huge bags under his eyes and the insect bites, Billy looked like Captain Chekov’s son. Captain Chekhov opened his mouth. Then he closed his mouth. “Did you know that I have a son about your age?”
“He still alive?” said Billy.
Captain Chekhov smiled and looked off into the clouds as well. “Yes. Fortunately, my son managed to avoid his call to duty, as I was so influential in his favor within the Party. He even looks a little like you, in the right light. He speaks fluent English, like a native, better then his father by far. You know, that’s a secret.”
Captain Chekhov looked down at his prisoner again. “Yes,” he said, “We don’t want anyone to know that he speaks only English, Spanish, and French at home, from native tutors.”
“Why not?” said Billy Burns.
“You want to die?” asked Chekhov, “You really want to die?”
Billy willed the horror back from his eyes. He looked at Captain Chekhov’s shiny buttons again, and squinted into them. Then he looked up at Captain Chekhov. He very calmly said, “Yes.”
Captain Chekhov put his hands on his hips. “I want my son to go to America,” he said, “Do you have any family?”
Billy shook his head. “Not no more.”
Captain Chekhov lifted his eyebrow. He said, with encouragement in his voice, “Do you have any friends?”
Billy shook his head, again. “Not since Blake was killed. No.”
Captain Chekhov slapped him gently on the back. “You and I are friends,” he said, “We are good friends.”
Billy frowned. “Says you.”
Captain Chekhov left his hand on Billy’s back a moment. “Yes, says me,” he said. He lifted his hand and rested it on the holster of his gun. He smiled as sincerely as he could, “I have a plan, and I need your help.”
Billy looked towards the other prisoners that huddled around the fading fire. “Kill me,” he said, “and I’ll help you.”
Captain Chekhov stared down at the American’s eyes. Billy stared back, unblinking. Captain Chekhov lifted his hand off his gun.
Captain Chekhov pulled out a boot knife and cut the American’s bonds. Billy fell forward into the dirt, weak and cold despite the summer weather. Captain Chekhov called to the soldiers playing cards by the fire. They untied Billy, and helped him to his feet. They held his arms while Billy walked painfully across the muddy fields to the farmhouse by the strawberry fields. The house was two stories, with three bedrooms upstairs, and three rooms downstairs. The house had simple Polish furniture, but no simple Polish people. The house only had a few soldiers, and most of them went to their tents between the jeeps and the strawberries at night, with the rest of the Russians.
Captain Chekhov dropped Billy on the couch. He sat down at a desk, wiped his hands on a clean handkerchief from his pocket, and rummaged through papers while he talked. The desk was covered with papers. “War does strange things to places,” said Captain Chekhov, “Take this house. It is a nice house, in a nice place. No people. No animals, either. There used to be people here, and animals, but there aren’t any anymore. We found it just after sunset, and knocked on the door, but no one came. When we came in, there was milk on the table, a cake burning in the oven, and candles lit for a pleasant dinner. People see uniforms and run. We would not have burned the house down, or raped any daughters. I will, in fact, leave a pleasant note when I leave.”
Billy sat down on a small couch by the door. He yawned. He moved his joints a little, to get blood back into his aching bones.
Captain Chekhov brought him a glass of clean water. “We have much to discuss before tomorrow,” he said
Billy took a long drink of the water, wishing it was vodka. He said, “I bet I can guess the story. You want me to help you get your son into America, in place of me, and then you’ll kill me.”
Captain Chekhov nodded, and scribbled some more on pieces of paper on the desk. He said, “Yes, that is the brunt of it. No use dying without a good cause to die for. My son’s life is a noble cause, I imagine.”
Billy hadn’t made up his mind completely. He stretched his arms and legs out on the comfortable little couch. He said, “Well, alright. How do you plan on pullin’ this off?” He took another long drink of water. He felt a little nausea glow from his stomach. He held his breath until his guts calmed.
Captain Chekhov didn’t notice. He kept scribbling away on papers. He said, “You will tell me about yourself, and your unit. I will write it down. Then I will send it to my son along with your dog tags and uniform. He will turn himself into the American authorities claiming to be you. He will escape to America, and no one will know any better. It is very similar to what I did for my first daughter.”
Billy sat up and craned his neck. He wanted to get a good look at the papers, but it was all Cyrillic, and unintelligible to him. “Why don’t he just defect?”
Captain Chekhov frowned. He put his pencil down and looked Billy directly in the eyes. He gestured like a father lecturing a son about economics, except Captain Chekhov had no newspaper and no tobacco pipe. “My son defecting wouldn’t look very good in my national standing. I am an important man in my little town. I am a proud member of the party. I have met Stalin many times, and the great man has even managed to remember my name once.”
Billy looked down at the ground. He said, “No, I guess it wouldn’t look very good.” He looked up again, “You could defect, too. Y’all could all go together.”
Captain Chekhov retained his lecturer’s tone, “And what of my remaining family? They will pay the price for any public escape.”
Billy persevered, “Y’all could all do it, you know, together.”
Captain Chekhov shook his head. He said, “I have a very large family, Billy. Many of them do not wish to defect. I can only carefully remove the ones that do one at a time. This is no small task with my duties during such a catastrophic war.”
Billy looked out a window just over Chekhov’s shoulder. Billy stared at the dark forest at the edge of the cleared farmland. He squinted into his own dark memories. “I never had a big family,” he said, “I had three brothers, but that’s it. They’re dead now, anyway. Never really knew my folks. What’s so dangerous about the USSR? I mean, ain’t you commies supposed to treat each other all equal? I mean, the Russkies with us in the camp always talked about how they were all equal, and we were racist, slaver pigs.”
Captain Chekhov shuffled his papers on his desk. He continued writing on a new paper that was blank and fresh. He said, off-handedly, “Well, there is what is said, and what actually is. Have you ever met Stalin?”
Billy’s eyes returned from the woods. He tried to get a look at the papers, but still couldn’t make anything out in the foreign alphabet. “Nope,” said Billy.
Captain Chekhov smirked. “I have, many times,” he said, “He is a very dangerous man, Billy. My system of government is often circumvented by the wicked. I look in the mirror for the finest example of that. I cannot remove Stalin from power, and even if I did, another like him — or maybe even worse, would take his place. However, I can certainly get my family out. I hope I can get them all out in time.”
Billy nodded his head. “I guess I can understand that,” he said, “If it were my family, I guess I’d do what I could.” Billy looked at the stoic guards in the room. There were two guards, with rifles strapped to their bodies, standing like suits of armor in the hallway. “I guess that’s what brought me into this goddamn war in the first place. I mean, all my brother’s dyin’ like that so close together right at the beginning. I just had to go out and get me some blood in return”
Captain Chekhov clapped his hands and pointed at Billy. The pencil fell and rolled down the table. “Yes! Magnificent!” he blurted, “That’s exactly what I need to know about! What brings you to this war? Where were you before? When is your birthday? I need to know the names of your brothers, and where they died. I need to know what unit you were in. I need to know about you. That way, I can pass this information to my son. Let me get a pencil and paper.” Captain Chekhov pushed back from the desk and picked his pencil up off the ground. He shuffled more papers on his desk. He spoke as he did this, “If you need anything, by the way, just ask. You’re doing me such a magnificent favor.”
Billy laughed, haughtily. He said, “Can you get me a pretty Polish girl tonight?”
Billy smiled. “Fantastic. I’m hungry, too. I haven’t had a good meal since the day I left goddamn Basic.”
“Basic training. You know, where they teach you how to be a soldier. We all went to a fancy Hawaiian restaurant right after and I had shrimp. They’re about as big as your fist, and tasted like crawdaddies. I was with my whole company, then. They kicked us out on our butts after we broke a table. They called the MP’s on us, but we were gone too fast for those assholes.”
“Oh, I see. Of course. Let me write that down”
***to be continued***