“What time is it, Jørg?”
Schütze Jørg Mortesson turned over onto his back and raised his arm just enough to catch a glint of blue light from the burning building a hundred meters to the north.
“Five minutes before midnight. Now be quiet or the Ivans will hear us.”
“What day is it?” asked Erik Wallender.
Mortesson grunted and said, “You know it is the 22nd.”
“How do I know that?”
“Because I told you an hour ago that it was April 22, 1945.”
“Is it the Führer’s birthday?”
“That was two days ago; don’t you remember? They gave us Schnapps.”
Wallender turned away and shrugged.
Mortesson scratched the thick stubble of his red beard. Lice hopped around his dirt encrusted finger nail and he sighed. “Erik, do you want to make it home to Stockholm?”
Mortesson waited as Wallender thought the question over. “I’m not sure. How will they treat us now that the Germans have lost the war?”
A shot rang out and Mortesson calculated it came from one of the government buildings to the east. The Ivans were tightening the rope and he could feel it scratching his neck. He swallowed and then answered, “They will probably hang us but you don’t have to worry about that, Erik.”
“Why is that, Jørg?”
Mortesson laughed and then spat onto the bare ground where a few feeble blades of grass struggled to survive. “Because, my dear Erik, the Ivans are going to cut our throats first.”
There was a cough and then the lieutenant called out from his slit trench south of their hole: “shut up over there.” In answer a Russian machine gun sprayed the brick wall that formed the northern line of the Nordland Division’s defenses on the edge of the Tiergarten, south of the river Spree. Mortesson pressed his body against the damp soil and held onto his helmet. Bursts of machine fire continued for several seconds and then stopped.
Mortesson crawled to an opening in the wall and peered out across the wide avenue that bordered the Tiergarten on the north. Several new fires had broken out in the building across the way and he could see silhouettes of Russian soldiers running in the ruins.
“Erik, prepare yourself. They are coming.”
Mortesson picked up his Mauser and entrenching tool and moved to a bit of raised earth that he used as a firing stand. Suddenly, he stopped because the usually vociferous Wallender was silent. “Christ,” he muttered as he quickly crawled back to their hole.
Wallender lay face down in a puddle of blood.
Mortesson rubbed his chin with his left hand and nervously spat again onto the ground. Shivering from exhaustion, fear, and pity, he checked to see if Erik lived. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he closed his friend’s eyes with his right hand and then slowly relieved him of his ammunition, grenades, canteen, three cigarettes, and a bar of chocolate.