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Last Train From Belgium

by Nicholas R Yang 2 months ago in Horror · updated 2 months ago
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Wernher Cratz examines what it means to be human on a train to nowhere.

Last Train From Belgium
Photo by Tom Geerts on Unsplash

“Ticket please…”

“What have I done?” Wernher Cratz looked at his dirt-caked and bloodied hands. They were more wrinkled than he remembered. Painful and blistered from clutching his rifle too tightly…

He hadn’t noticed the gunfire and explosions quieting down around him, or his comrades lining the side of the trench with their gas masks tight around their faces.

A shame really, had he only noticed the line of bloodstained, mud-caked, rifles that stretched so many kilometres down the corpse-filled trench; or the vicious glint of blackened blades affixed to the ends of them in the hazy light of burning no man's land, he may have had a chance.

The wall of infantrymen pushed themselves against the slick trench wall and kept low, waiting for a whistle. Wernher was on his knees over a dead boy in a light blue French uniform, the kid's face was caved in.

Slowly, he sank into the bloody, rat, and corpse-infested trench floor. His rifle had fallen to the ground in front of him and his head hung low as he stared at his righteous work, it was like some sort of bad dream.

Unfortunately, he looked like a corpse with his grey, pale, sickly-looking skin and filth-caked uniform. Someone might have warned him if he hadn’t looked like so many of the other dead heroes -or their pieces- scattered around him... A deathly silence hung thick in the starless Ypres sky.

“Ticket please, Mister Cratz…”

He wiped his hand across his gaunt face, leaving a streak of gore and some of his friend Erwin’s grey matter across it. Shaking from the shell shock, or a chilly autumn air whispering the song of Winter through what was left of the leaves around a desolated Ypres. That didn’t matter anymore.

The rain began to hammer down around him like so much artillery had that day. He felt confused and addled. Normally, the rain would clear the air but the stink of gunpowder, corpse bloat, and bodily fluids persisted… Not that anyone noticed anymore. They all had been fighting out here so long, everyone was just going through the motions.

“Aufmerksamkeit, gas geben!”

What did that radio operator say?

Then came those musical hymns. The ones everyone was so accustomed to now. That beautiful thumping sound, the whirring of high-speed shells slicing trails through the thick, smoke-filled air. The volley of shells slammed into the Belgian hellscape, no explosions though, just breaking glass and filth pelting the remnants of the wooden trench lines.

There were screams and calls from somewhere on the opposite end of the ruined field. Machine gun fire rattled the mounds of dirt that protected the men waiting to go over the top. Bullets whirred overhead, then came the panicked screams and yells of Wernher’s comrades.

Instead of a whistle, the trench line began to return fire. The Germans delivered volley, after heated volley, of lead toward the French line. A brownish yellow cloud slowly rolled over them, obscuring the landscape. Wernher had finally come back to reality, but it was already too late.

“Mister Cratz, your ticket. It’s to be punched, sir!”

A sickly sweet, burnt garlic smell permeated the air. It was lovely, warm, and inviting. It was far better than corpses, sulphur, and blood. It took Wernher back to his childhood years before everything became a mess. Sweet cinnamon rolls and juicy sausage, fried in garlic butter.

The air became thick and hard to breathe. He began coughing and sputtering as his skin began to blister and burn all over. Wernher rubbed his watering eyes, grabbing for his gas mask. Someone had taken it, they must have thought he was dead. It was already a lost cause, he couldn’t see or breathe and everything felt like it had been dipped in a pool of acid.

Out of instinct, he grabbed for his rifle and pushed himself into the side of the trench resting its muzzle on the battlements. Thousands of feet shook the earth around him as French war cries rang out through the choking fog. Wernher fired blindly, round after round, brass casings bouncing off of what was left of the wooden floor beneath his knee-high boots.

Bullets pelted into the men around him, they dropped, like some macabre stage play of marionettes. There was a wave of blue and bloody steel that crashed against the line. Wernher felt a sharp pain in his neck and a cold sweat took him.

He was pushed back as the man in the long blue coat and brown boots lept into the trench, driving his long and putrid blade into Wernher’s chest and pinning him to the back of the trench line.

The Frenchman closed the gap, allowing the burn of the blade to sink into Wernher's already injured body. A blue skull cap with glass eyes sewn into a burlap mask reflected his blistered, bloodied, and horrified-looking face.

Wernher didn’t recognize that man looking back at him in those tiny reflective surfaces, the world faded as the French Infantryman pushed a powerful foot into Wernher’s chest, knocking the air out of him.

The world faded and became silent…

“Mister Cratz, I need your ticket, please! You have to be punched.”

“What?” The Soldier Replied.

“I won’t ask again, Mister Cratz, I need your ticket or you are going to be stuck here.” the man in the burgundy hat and pressed suit, pulled a golden watch from his breast pocket and flipped it open with a click.

“You have 30 Seconds before we depart.” the Conductor stared at his timepiece while Wernher fumbled through his blue and red dress uniform pockets.

“15 Seconds, Mister Cratz.” The Conductor urged,

“I know I have it somewhere,” Wernher replied,

“May I, Mister Cratz?” The Conductor asked rolling his brown eyes behind his square-rimmed wireframes. Wernher sat back and opened his arms, the Conductor stuck his hand into the left side of his half-unbuttoned jacket, plucking a long ticket from the breast pocket, punching it.

“Time to go, sir. Enjoy the ride. Rest a bit, you look as though you need it.” The Conductor smiled and tipped his hat moving down the row and into the next car.

Wernher was confused and unsure of where he was or what happened. He stood up and looked down at the old car. The box-like seats were of buttoned red velvet, lined with gold trim, quite comfy considering.

Scattered about them were other pale men staring out the silver-lined windows, streaks of rain crawled across the glass as the train picked up speed. A pristine brown and green carpet stretched from end to end of the black-walled, brass, and wooden carriage.

Wernher turned to the man sitting across from him,

“Excuse me, sir, sorry to bother you. I was curious as to what train this is and its destination. I can’t seem to remember what happened or why I am here.”

The man was pale and skinny, dressed in a long blue peacoat and red pantaloons with shiny leather boots that reached his knees. He looked languidly over towards Wernher, the man was drained and tired.

“Funny you should say, I can’t remember either… So sorry I couldn’t have been more helpful.” he had a thick French accent and shot a weak smile at Wernher.

The Frenchman turned back to the window as buildings and trees slipped by. His eyes slowly closed and a look of relief crossed his mustached face as he drifted off into whatever horrifying things lay buried deep in his mind.

That was a strange thought…

Wernher sat back in his seat looking out the window. Ruined, fiery fields of dull black and grey flew by, some were dotted with shattered buildings. They seemed familiar, but Wernher wasn’t sure why.

“May I join you Mister Cratz?” a soft voice spoke, startling Wernher. A man was beside him.

"Had he always been with me?" Another strange thought.

He was far too skinny and in a black and white striped suit. His hands were dressed in rings and trinkets, while his long, manicured nails, grasped a brass goat's head that topped his ivory walking staff.

The man's hair was greasy, styled with a black combover, and he wore small circle glasses that sat securely on his long and pointed nose. He smelled of something like pipe tobacco and saltpeter.

“Yes, I don’t see why not. I am Unteroffizier Wernher Cratz, may I ask your name?”

Why did he say Unteroffizier?

“Oh yes, I know you very well my friend. I have been following your exploits for a long time now. My name is Stanas De Angelo and it’s nice to finally meet you in person. You are very impressive, your righteous work is legendary in my circles.”

“I guess my reputation proceeds me.” Though, he wasn’t sure exactly what Stanas was talking about.

“Let me pose a philosophical question to you Mister Cratz, if you would indulge me? This train isn’t stopping anytime soon, we have a long way to our destination. We might as well have a battle of wits while we wait.” Stanas snapped his ring-covered fingers, and a waiter dressed in a tight brown vest and bowtie came over, from somewhere.

“Two Weihenstephaner, please. You like Weihenstephaner, yea?” the waiter nodded and disappeared into the back of the car. Wernher nodded.

“Mister Cratz, are you a man who believes in God?” the fox-eyed man questioned, crossing his legs and laying the walking cane across his lap

The Waiter returned with a couple of pints of Pilsner and handed them to Stanas, disappearing into the back of the car once again.

Wernher took a drink from his glass, its clean barley and hop taste was the best thing he had ever tasted. He took another quick drink.

“Heavy question to be asking someone who you just met. But I would say yes. I do.” Cratz replied.

“Oh no, don’t misunderstand. This is just to establish that we have the same moral compass that we can form our ideas and thoughts from. I too believe in God, so let us work from his Commandments.” Stanas air quoted commandments, before taking a long drink from his own frosty mug.

“I trust you know them and you understand them. Let us ignore the fact that God had to use men to transmit his word, though he could create the whole of the universe in a couple of days. Then let us assume that these commandments weren’t biased from a writer's hand. They are infallible, like God. Are we in agreement?” Wernher thought on this a moment, then nodded.

“First, could you tell me where we are and what I did to deserve such a strong first impression? I can’t seem to remember anything before I woke up here.” Wernher interjected, and the man laughed.

“Ah yes, that happens to everyone who finds themselves on this train. I will tell you about you if you play my game of philosophy. Deal?” his smile grew long and wiley. “I have a note for you that will explain everything. Only if you are able to beat me in a battle of wits.”

The skinny man pulled a sealed letter from his jacket and flashed it, putting it back into its resting spot,

“I am not much for Philosophy. Truly, I am just a farmer's son. That being said, I do have some education and enjoy a good book every now and again. I fear I might not be able to keep up with you, sir. I will try, however.” Wernher replied.

Stanas’ eyebrows raised.

“Well, a humble man. I like that. Even after what you’ve been through… admirable. What are your thoughts on Lucifer the Morning Star? I trust you know the story of First Heaven and the fall?”

Wernher thought a moment,

“Well, sir, that's a hard question. It’s not black and white as it’s presented in the Holy Books. I believe that Lucifer was a jealous, vindictive soul. He was selfish and nearsighted and he blinded many with his wiles…” Wernher stared out the window for a moment, the grey-black fields whizzed by.

“Having said that, what son doesn’t want to please his Father? What son isn’t shackled to the need for acceptance by his family? Lucifer had that in common with humans. He had more in common with humans than he realized, I think.”

“You believe Lucifer to be right in his rebellion, then?” Stanas asked.

“Well, not exactly. I think Lucifer was crippled by the love he had for his Father and jealousy. Lucifer reacted as any young child would in similar circumstances, but, because he was an Archangel and very powerful, he was able to do something extreme, such as march against God's throne. This is what he did to get his Fathers attention.”

Wernher’s hands clasped his cool mug of beer, he leaned forward into the tray that folded down from the back of the seat. The feeling of the water droplets between his fingers was refreshing. He continued,

“Stanas, imagine being an only child; well only children, in this case. Imagine being the sole focus of a creator for eons and eons. Then, their Father decides to birth other children. Younger children, those who he needs to turn his attention to and take care of.” Stanas looked intrigued as Wernher continued his thought train, taking a drink of the crisp beer.

“I think Lucifer felt what all human children feel when they don’t become the centre of attention, and didn’t know how to deal with it. Like a human child, when a sibling comes into the world, they begin to rebel in some fashion. Lucifer's rebellion just happened to be on a massive, powerful scale, given his status as an Archangel. He was then punished accordingly, much like a child would be. Though, I am not sure if the punishment fit the crime of tempting a group of people with fruit. Mind you, I’m not sure what God was thinking. Making a fruit, basic sustenance for ancient peoples, off limits? Seems to be a bit of overkill. But who am I to question God.” Wernher looked into his glass, and waited for his seat partner to respond,

“Interesting take on the events. Let me propose a different side. Lucifer was an Archangel, and all his brothers and sisters were angels. There had been turmoil in heaven for a very long time. All of these angels, celestial beings might be a better term in this instance, appealed to God for help. They had been fighting so long that they needed it to end. Instead, God made Man as a substitute for the Celestials that he had watched fail for so long. He left them to their own devices while meddling in the affairs of humans. Lucifer was mad that God had refused to help sort out the mess in Heaven. Instead of trying to patch up the difference between brothers and sisters, God decided it was easier to toss the “trouble makers” out of their home and imprison them, unjustly, in a place he named Gehenna. Tell me, is that fair?”

Wernher thought for a while,

“I see your reasoning, Mister De Angelo. Life is not fair, however, God has made this so. Tell me, why wouldn't all beings be required to follow these heavenly laws? Yes, Celestials came first and are more powerful than Humans, but that shouldn't exempt them from laws passed down by God. God is the creator, betraying him and marching against his throne should have a punishment fit for the crime. Celestials, being the all-powerful entities they are, paid for their sins through imprisonment in Gehenna. Humans imprison people for breaking laws, Celestials should be no different. Please, let me pose a question to you.” Wernher spoke with a smirk.

“Isn’t it true in every child's life that they need to spread their wings and leave the nest? Make a life for themselves, build a family, and learn to live and solve their problems on their own. Is that not simply what God was doing when he ignored the Celestial's requests to play Father and stop their petty spats over nothing? There is a time in any being's life, Celestial, Human, or Animal when they grow up and are required to survive on their own. Could it not have simply just been time for the Angels to grow up and build lives for themselves? Of course, the variable here is the immense power God imbued the Celestial race with."

Stanas answered, he sounded a bit heated, "No no, Celestials are supposed to be different from Humans. They are holy, sinless things, embued with righteous power. God built them to be his host."

"You forget, Stanas, those are the same Celestials that chose to use their powers against one another and lay with their sisters and brothers of the human race, regardless of the warnings given. Nephilim upset the balance of the world God intended for Humans. Those holy powers given were used to attack the creator. How could they be sinless beings? It doesn't change the fact they needed to learn to grow up and fend for themselves. God gave them a world, just like he gave Humans a world. They ruined it, much like humans ruined this one. We pray just as hard as the Celestials did for God to deliver us from the evils around us. He didn't help us either.”

Wernher's beer had seemed to top itself up, but he hadn’t noticed. He was far too intrigued by the strange thought exercise he was taking part in with Stanas De Angelo.

“Yes, I see what you're saying. That is an undeniable truth in the circle of life and death for Mortal beings, just as evil is part of existence. The obvious question is, should it be? Should evil be allowed to exist? Why does it exist? All these terrible things that happened in Heaven and here on Earth, they seem to all have the same driving force."

Stanas thought carefully as he chose his next words, then continued,

"Please, listen as I tell you a story. Particularly, the plight of the Grigori Asbeel. During and after his fall, he pondered long and hard on why a God would not allow his creations to advance themselves properly. He couldn’t figure out why this being called God would choose heartless and destructive solutions to problems posed by his creations, rather than completely clean evil and malice from them. Asbeel came to the conclusion that God was secretly a tyrant within his being. Asbeel thought God was looking for worship from his subjects in exchange for aid, rather than helping them outright. Be it Celestials or Humans, once his children began to question him and speak ill of him he acted like a child himself and destroyed them, in the human being's case of course. In the Celestial's case, he tossed them into an oubliette of sorts. Does this not make sense as to why evil exists? Wasn’t Asbeel correct about his Father’s actions?”

Wernher pondered on this a moment, but the answer came to him quite easily,

“I believe I’ve heard this tale before. It was written in a less-than-holy book I read through once. Asbeel also came to the conclusion that God was little more than a common Celestial himself, jealously hoarding power from the rest of creation. He believed God to be mortal, hoarding his power to avoid annihilation, after all, I am of the mind that all things end. Celestials die, so why wouldn't God? This is a plausible answer to the question of why evil exists, most definitely. However, regardless of why evil exists the fact remains that it does exist and we all have to contend with it inside ourselves. As to why it exists, who knows, smarter men than us have tried to decipher this age-old riddle. The truth is, only God himself knows.”

Wernher paused his train of thought and called the waiter over, requesting a pipe and some tobacco. He took another long drink from his beer as the locomotive rattled on down its endless track, letting out screams of hot anger as it rolled into a foggy blackness. Stanas waited patiently.

“Where was I?” Wernher took the red and black oaken box, then was handed a green match tin from the waiter. He nodded and mouthed a silent, "Thank you." the server responded with a smile and turned away.

Wernher noticed the fancy golden clasps and admired them a second before flicking them open. The pipe bowl was made of a red stone that he couldn't quite place and the neck was of shining pearl. Wernher stuffed the pipe and struck a match from the army green tin box, he noticed “Bundeswehr” scrawled across it.

“Oh yes, the dichotomy of good and evil. Would you like some, Mister De Angelo?"

Stanas shook his head, "Oh no, thank you, I don't smoke. Please continue your point. I am anxious to hear." Wernher inhaled a few times, the tobacco smoldered cleanly. He held it a moment, then exhaled thick white smoke.

"Mister De Angelo, my point in all this is that Celestials weren’t acclimated to dealing with their newfound feelings of jealousy and hatred for their less than holy brethren on Earth. After all, they were the only things in existence until Human beings and Animals arrived. That's to say, they didn’t know about the evil within, or, what it was maybe. Regardless, they didn't know how to deal with it properly. In this aspect, Celestials and Humans are also the same. No matter why the evil is inside, no matter what motives God has for having the world the way it is, it doesn’t mean that we all have to descend into darkness and feed that evil. If God is a malicious, self-centred, power-hungry being, then why bend to his whim and allow that darkness to take you? This is where the Celestials erred and got themselves punished. I'm of the mind that all you need to do is try and live a good life. It doesn't matter what motives God holds, living a good and righteous life is the only rebellion you need. You can throw it into his face after the fact and ask questions when your time is up. This is what the Celestials missed."

Stanas was surprisingly lost for words. He sat a while, thinking while Wernher puffed away on his pipe staring at the raindrops dotting the windscreen.

“I can see that you are a man of intelligence, though you come from humble beginnings. Do you believe that you’ve lived a good life, Mister Cratz?” Stanas questioned,

“Well… I hope I’ve not finished yet. But, up to this point, I do believe I have tried my best to live a good person's life. All of us are fallible beings, Celestials, Humans, and Animals. We all make mistakes and we all are forced into situations where the outcome isn’t good or bad. Sometimes the outcome is bad or worse and based on the choices forced upon you the only option one would have is to do the less bad thing and make up for it later, be it in this life or the next. ”

“You believe in the concept of Karma, then?” Stanas pressed,

“Well, yes, I guess I do in some form or another. None of us can know what lies in the great beyond.”

“Do you think you’ve accrued enough good karma to pay for your bad deeds?” Stanas smiled.

“Unfortunately, I can’t quite remember what you’re referring to Mister De Angelo.” Wernher stared at the army green match tin he had been turning over and over in his hands.

“What do you remember, Mister Cratz?” the man touched Wernher's arm with his cane.

Wernher turned the tin over and over again, staring at it intently. There was a flash and a bang in his ears. This caused him to jump in his cushioned seat.

“I remember whistles and gunfire. So much screaming, fear, and garlic? Burnt Garlic. I signed up for the Bundeswehr and left home…”

“Yes, that you did Unteroffizier Cratz. You signed up to go kill other people… to slaughter your country's enemies. Do you believe this to be morally acceptable, given our understanding of how this universe works?”

Wernher put his pipe down and placed his hands over his face. Flashes of death and fighting scrolled across his mind's eye, it was like a reel from some gruesome movie. He killed other soldiers, A young French boy he had beaten so viciously with his helmet, that his face caved in. These horrible experiences and feelings gnawed through him, he felt like he was an actor in some bizarre silent film.

“I didn’t know…” he whimpered, tears flowing down his face. “I didn’t know it was going to be like that. I didn’t know how horrible and terrifying it would be. We were told that we were being sent to defend the Fatherland, not invade another's home.”

Wernher had begun to shake uncontrollably as he looked out the window. Raging battlefields and men dying by the thousands fluttered by the window of the train like it was clattering through the centre of no-mans land. Bodies lay strewn around the mud, heavy artillery pounded the ground around the train causing the car to rock and shutter angrily.

The other passengers began to stir, screaming and crying. Some stood up and began to fight each other, weapons and gear formed out of nowhere. Helmets, bayonets, swords. A calvary man ran the length of the cars, striking out at random.

Wernher cowered against the side of his seat while Stanas De Angelo watched the carnage unfold before him with a smile. The lights flickered, and then everything was back to the way it was.

“Do you truly believe what you are saying, Wernher? Did you really enter that recruitment office thinking this war wasn’t going to leave such horrible scars on your soul? That you wouldn’t have to pay for the terrible things you did in the end?” Stanas pursed his lips into a wry smile.

“I don’t know what I believed, but I didn’t think it would be like that… I was a fool but it was far too late before I realized...” he protested. The rest of the car's occupants stood up and moved to the aisle, forming a line.

“These people in here, they are the people you helped kill. These are your sins manifest.” Stanas spoke cooly as ghoulish soldiers with grievous wounds marched one after another, stopping long enough for Wernher to see what had happened to them.

British, French, and even some Austrio-German fighters. Cracked skulls, caved-in faces, eyes missing where bullets struck. Bloody uniforms, their heavy boots slamming into the floorboards of the train, pressing against his ears.

“Each one of these people you had a hand in killing. They died because of your choices, Mister Cratz”

“These can’t all be my fault… yes, horrible things happened out there. But, I did the best I could have done in a terrible situation. This war has gotten too far out of control. Like all those Celestials from the stories. I could only do my best…” Wernher defended himself.

Somehow, he found the courage to stand up and look all his victims in their faces, despite the stinging in his tearful eyes.

“To all of you, I am sorry. None of us knew what this war was going to be… Please, I beg for your forgiveness. We all deserve that at least…”

The lights in the carriage flickered once more and the line of ghoulish soldiers vanished in wisps of smoke.

“Well, that's unfortunate…” Stanas said as he stood up, straightening his dress coat “I guess you will pay penance another way. Sad, I was enjoying our chat and hoped you would be coming with me. As per our deal, here's your letter. Good luck in your purgatory Mister Cratz. Remember your lessons.”

Stanas pulled the paper from his breast pocket and handed it to a still shaken Wernher. He took it and sat down, cracking open the wax seal.

The note was handwritten, it read:

Dearest Mrs. Cratz,

We regret to inform you and yours that your son has perished in the beautiful fields of Ypres, Belgium; fighting in defence of the Fatherland.

Unteroffizier Wernher Cratz passed quick and painlessly. I know this has little effect on the pain and loss you must feel.

However, the Kaiser appreciates his noble sacrifice and hopes you take solace in the fact that your only son was brave enough to put himself in the line of fire during his short time in the Bundeswehr.

He did his duty valiantly and we are very sorry for your loss.

Wernher Cratz has become a hero of the Fatherland in his death…

Sincerely,

Gen.Obst

Helmuth von Molke

Horror

About the author

Nicholas R Yang

An Archaeologist and aspiring Doctor, I am a part-time writer from the East Coast of Canada. Written multiple plays, poems, and short stories.

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