Falling out of Love in Stalingrad by Michael Pietrzak
The radiators in Viktor’s apartment still work—not with their past fervor—but they keep out the frost. He sits next to the window, wrapped in blankets, smoking a cigarette from the last box in his desk drawer. The war outside has cooled. The German Sixth Army has been cut off for two months and lives on rats, some say. Tanks of Fourth Panzer Army, those not charred and twisted by Soviet dynamite, burned the last of their fuel earlier in winter. Nightly, soldiers on both sides slip into eternal slumber in icy basements. Hope of breaking the siege of Stalingrad is lost, and the remaining invaders wait in ruins along the Volga River to fill a quarter-million coffins.
The German Army’s death rattle permeates the city but still it commands the heights, keeping Viktor’s from Anna. Small consolation, the lull in fighting has allowed him to travel south unmolested to his former home. Viktor’s building is intact, a sanctuary in the wasteland. He has heard nothing of his love’s state. Stalingrad’s few remaining civilians do not keep regular social hours and so news travels slowly. Viktor has spent a month alone, staring out his window to the East, cursing his slow recovery, and waiting out the war. Now a visitor intrudes on his solitude, startling him from his chair.
“Hello husband. I heard you had come home.”
Viktor stares at a woman in the doorway, bundled in a soldier’s coat, holding a ratty leather suitcase under her arm.
Viktor sheds his blanket and bounds across the room, ignoring the pain in his leg. He takes her in his arms and joyful tears fall to her shoulder.
“Oh, God, you have saved her!” he cries, kissing her eyes and her nose. “I knew nothing of what became of you my love.” He takes her hands in his and kisses them. “Every day I prayed for your safety.”
“I sent Anthony. I … I could not walk,” he says, holding her shoulders.
“Yet you cross this room in a single step.”
“You doubt my courage still, but do not doubt this joy.”
“I haven’t returned,” she says. “I have come to collect some things.”
Viktor releases her shoulders and takes a step back, confused.
“But, where will you go?”
“Back to Barrikady. The way is clear now,” she says.
“I do not understand. What is there for you?”
Anna says nothing and stares at her shoes. Viktor looks at the suitcase under her arm … The man’s jacket fastened tight around her… and he understands.
“Anthony,” he says.
Anna looks up and smiles, smitten with the name.
“Yes,” she replies. “He saved my life. Nursed me from sickness. Killed three Germans when they found us. It’s as if the month has been an entire lifetime, and… we have found love.”
Viktor feels light, as if outside his body.
“Did you ever love me?”
“There was a time…”
Viktor turns to the window and looks at the ruins stretched across the city like a coarse scar.
A thought enters his mind.
We survived only to find the dream dead.
He fixes his gaze across the apartment and begins walking. With both hands he picks up Davout’s rifle by the muzzle and hoists it over his head, swinging it into a glass case containing an ivory-handled pistol. A bloom of shards reach across the room, tapping across the wood floor, then settling in silence. Viktor picks up the pistol and confirms it is loaded. All chambers full. He walks toward the door.
“Where are you going with that?” Anna asks.
“Eleven weeks passed before President Garfield died from this gun’s injury. If Anthony suffers twice as long he will know half my pain,” he says, and walks out the door.
“No,” she screams after him, “No, I love him!”
Viktor leaves the building and takes a sharp right down Nevskaya Street, fingering the weapon handle in his coat pocket. Heavy snow is falling. A single word from Anna had cut him apart.
Yes, she loves Another.
A single word to decide on murder.
In the apartment, Anna makes her own decision. Glass crunches underfoot as she crosses the room and hoists Davout’s rifle from the floor. She carries it to the window.
Through pain, Viktor limps down the street, sure of his decision. A crack splits the air before a single ball of lead pierces his scapula and impacts upon a rib, fragmenting into sixteen pieces that lodge in his upper chest. The smallest escapes his breast, leaving a pin prick of blood on the front of his coat. The violence brings Viktor to his knees, and with curiosity he looks down at the red stain spreading across his front. He has time only to close his eyes and exhale before a second shard enters the back of his skull, littering the street with his concerns, his worries now laid to rest.