Who knew something so small can be so fearsome?
That's what I thought when I held Novak from behind as tears blurred my vision. He got into fights so often that he developed such a cruel side to him, and also this twisted moral code of mercy killing of his.
My eyes softened when I saw how sickly frail and tired his face looked under his cap.
He gently removed my hands from him and sat impassively on the bed. His face still cast no emotion. He swung open the cylinder of his revolver and proceeded to fill the remaining empty chambers with cartridges.
We were both alone in this cemented prison. Despite Novak chasing out the people who were in this room, it felt a lot more suffocating. The dried blood crested across the dirty pavement did not help either as I recalled the treacherous game.
Licking my dry lips, I nervously opened my mouth.
"I heard you killed a spy," it was not unusual to have macabre incidents in this camp but Novak knew who I was referring to.
He ignored me and continued to place the extra cartridges on the bed. He spat out his charred cig and replaced it with a new one.
"It's war. What did you expect?" He answered.
"She was not a spy but a sweet girl. You let your men rape-" '
"They weren't my men," Novak bluntly interrupted, denying his involvement.
"Was there... Was there no other way?" I looked at Novak who remained unmoved and silent yet he looked down as if to cover his complicated expression.
I knew deep down that he was tired of all the things he did but a part of me just couldn't accept it.
"Take out the knife that idiot gave to you," he signaled for me to give the soldier's jackknife.
I took the wooden handle and stared at it, recalling the fool in-love. That soldier was so naively in love with Grisella. I was distraught when I heard the news of how Novak killed her, I felt mortified and scared. He stared at me with his dead eyes, waiting for me to give it to him.
"...Do you realize what you've done?" I wanted to hurl so many things and yet he couldn't even give any concern. How could he be so heartless?
"I did what I had to do. It's nothing new. Now, Give. Me. The knife,"
In contrast to what he wanted; I hid the knife even further behind my back. He only sighed and lazily folded his arms. I felt hot tears forming around my eyes as he offered no consolation nor remorse to what he had done.
"She didn't die pathetically if that's what you're thinking. I gave her mercy."
"Mercy? You always used that to justify your actions," I felt my gutted frustrations boiling to the surface.
"I granted her a swift death. After all, in this place, it is considered a privilege."
“Then, when the time comes, will you also give me your so-called mercy, Novak?” The room was stagnantly suffocating. I didn't hide my reproachful indignation. And it.. I hurt him.
I saw how his pupils which were shakily fixated on me— no, it was for a short moment that I thought that despite how he was staring at me, it felt like he was looking at someone within me.
"...The war will be ending soon," he tried to change the subject.
So he plans to do it to me someday too.
"We're already surrounded from all directions. Two powerhouses of a nation had declared war on the Empire."
“...What?” I was too stunned to hear this news, to the point that a surge of hope welled inside of me. However—
"Soon we'll be ordered to destroy all evidence." This time he stood up and walked towards me as I backed away clenching the knife hidden behind me.
"Evidence? On what?!"
A shiver ran down my spine when he slowly pointed his finger at me. "War crimes. Crimes against humanity. Those enemy nations follow a code of honor, after all."
"Are you saying that you'll kill us?" Me?
Sensing my anguish, Novak offered something I could never refuse.
"If you choose to cooperate with me, you'll have a better chance to get out of here alive," Novak offered. “Although that depends on how good you are…” He trailed off.
Ha! I couldn’t believe it. I thought he was different from those men. He never touched me before. He’s changed.
"What will happen to the others?"
"Do you wish to be buried alongside them?" Novak gratedly sneered. "Will you wage your chance of freedom for this petty honor and selflessness?"
Seeing that I was unmoved and silent, he set his gun down on the bed and threw a rucksack at my feet as it landed with a heavy thud. He proceeded to throw away the grimy clothes he's wearing. At first, it caught me by surprise, and I was leery of whether he'll actually do something to me. However, when he peeled off his remaining article of clothing, that's when he revealed his true identity.
His —no, her ashened body's complexion was battered with painful bruising. When she removed her footwear, it revealed her charred toes from gangrene infection. I was amazed at how she was able to handle all that pain. Seeing her vacant eyes as if she knew that the harbinger of death was waiting for her, it was already futile to live in the state she was in.
"Those are my ration for the following week and my uniform," she forcibly switched our clothing.
"Wait, what will happen to you?"
"Man's fate has always been a gamble. The longer you play, the higher chance you'll lose. Thus, the longer you live, the higher chance you'll—" she trailed off.
-Die. We both knew what she wanted to say next but stopped herself as she clucked the cylinder back into place.
"Given the certainty of loss and death, the only reasonable action is to bet on something we can win in," she continued.
"Will you not regret this?" I asked as she returned with a bemused expression
"Regrets are for the living to be burdened with," she grimaced.
What do you mean, Novak? "Why... Why me? Out of everyone… Why me?" I couldn't help but ask.
It didn't make sense, after knowing her for quite a while. She rarely expressed any altruistic views and actions, nor were her actions done out of malice. I couldn't understand her complexity.
"It’s because I’m tired, Jem. Extremely tired. But I can’t just die. I need a purpose,” she looked at me as though silently saying: I need you,
“I won’t die a meaningless death…,” Novak muttered under her breath.
“Say... do you believe in god?" she asked with a rare smile.
After pondering for a moment, I replied, "I believe there is one."
"Do you think I'll be able to face it after I die?"
We had a moment of murky silence. Seeing that we were both unsure what to say, she resumed herself quietly.
She resolutely placed her weapon at the side of her temple, the stillness of her movements felt like she was already accepting her demise. "I guess this would be my gamble,"
"W-Wait!" When I screamed, she stopped to look at me.
"Do the rest. From now on, I am Jem Krovsker and you will be Avil Novak." She declared as she threw her silver-plated dog tag which embedded her name.
I tried to stop her but her eyes bore no life nor hope. It was as if she was saying that her life, her humanity, ended far too long ago.
"Face the wall."
Tears flowed down my cheeks as I grasped the knife, trembling. It dawned on me why she didn’t take the knife.
"Turn around," she said to me seriously, pressing the muzzle further into her right temple.
"Turn. Around!" This time Novak heightened her voice.
"No! No! Don't do it! Please! Just...! Just...!"
I didn't know what I was begging for but it only fell on deaf ears.
"Face the fuckin' wall! NOW, Jem!" her voice cracked.
I wished for time to stop. I wished you were never kind to me then maybe this would have been easier.
"Please, at least...give me this mercy," Novak's sincere somber tone reflected from his pleading eyes to the point that I became speechless.
It was the first time I could get a glimpse of her vulnerable humanity as if she had already found solace in death.
I cried and faced the grimed wall. But I changed my mind and turned around “Sto—” it was too late.
I hardly heard the pneumatic sound as it drummed against the hollow space. All I could remember was how she sunk on the bed like a lifeless doll. Yet this doll, at last, finally became free.
There was an absence of life, just dead silence. I tried to walk towards Novak's slumped, bloodied figure but my legs wobbled as I fell to the ground. I crawled on the uneven floor as she bled on the shabby bed.
The sight of her welted corpse made me shudder. I clutched the knife in tight defiance as I shakily moved the knife towards her blotchy skin. Blood trickled down from her opened temple which constantly pooled under her. Despite the horrible scene, Novak’s face was oddly at peace.
After setting aside my frittering quandary, I steeled my resolve. I did what she ordered me to do. And repeatedly said to my guilty conscience that this person is a murderer as I disfigured her face. It was a privilege for her to die this way. I did nothing wrong. I… am innocent.
I rigidly stared at the bloodied knife, which now felt like a heavy burden that was given to me by the soldier. I turned my head quickly, refusing to look at Novak's face. Hearing the heavy boots which trotted against the dreary cemented floors, I quickly got up with a heavy heart.
I must continue…
Securely fastening the dirtied cap, I walked out from the dismal prison. I gripped Novak’s dog tag as my heart hammered nervously when there were 2 soldiers standing in front of me. I glanced at them faintly from the edge of my cap, my expression contrite when I recognized one of the soldiers.
It was the man who gave me his knife to kill Novak.
In the end. I couldn't bring myself to avenge your lover...
I briskly walked past them without looking back. The oppressive smog surrounding the camp felt suffocating. I swerved against the current of soldiers, frantically recollecting Avil's instructions. The anxiety of being eyed down with scrutiny weighed heavily in my mind.
Swerving through the intricate maze, the place was littered with despair. I gripped my jacket tightly, wanting to shut my senses as I continued to toil away on foot. It did not help when I heard the screams and moans bouncing off the cemented walls. Calling for help, begging for mercy, it was as if the cries of despair clung desperately like a shackle.
I almost faltered when a bare-boned prisoner held on to my boots helplessly —repeatedly muttering, “murderer” at me, at Novak. I forcefully shook off the hand and plodded on. I had sealed this man’s fate by choosing to save my own life — as did I to Novak. I can’t afford to go back, especially after experiencing the horrific torture and violence that was thrusted upon us. It would all forever be engraved as a painful scar.
As if I had trudged a yellow brick path, I gruelly looked back and saw the camp’s sinister tall wired-mesh fence slowly getting smaller and smaller in my view. How funny that something so small compared to the vastness of the world, would forever be a nightmare to many and the only ending for some. I welcomed the freezing temperature with delight after what felt like a long tortuous journey.
The iced wind blew hard with a deafening eolian tone. It's as if the ghost of Novak’s voice like a fleeting wisp resounded into the cold winter air. I walked the snowy path outside the camp. Nobody suspected that I was a different person. I held my jacket closer to shield myself from the cold but my hand crushed something inside the jacket's pocket. I fumbled, pulling out a pack of Novak's favored cigarettes.
Opening the small packet revealed a lonely bent cigar, a feeling of complicated emptiness welled inside of me. I reached out for the lighter from my pocket and lit her final cigarette.
She never intended to hide anything, she never denied and simply admitted her acts. I've always wondered why she treated me differently than other prisoners, it was as if she was repaying a debt.
Grabbing a piece of tobacco, inhaling the musky tar scent felt like a small leap of liberation, a lingering foul, bitter taste of freedom.
Iced winds buffeted as if it was continuously slicing through my skin, it felt like I was drowning in needles. The serged tunic threatened to fly off as I clutched it even tighter. The cigar which only provided little heat was snuffed out within a few minutes, pushing me further into a hypothermic state.
Even breathing was painful, feeling the icy air sting my throat. I couldn’t feel a thing anymore, just the growing weakness of my limbs. Despite the seemingly hopeless, apocalyptic scenery, I pressed on. Gathering every energy I could muster to pull my boots out of the sinking white bed.
I imagined a distant dream wherein I could meet my family again, almost unreal, compared to staggering into no-man’s land. A lifeless wasteland littered with shrapnels and bones. Amongst the rubble in ruins, there was no sign of life, only the smell of rusting iron and body decay was present.
A familiar voice echoed across the snowy graved path as I took weakened steps towards what seems to be a hazy figure in the middle of an endless white dessert. I didn’t know if I was hallucinating or if I was closer to heaven by this point, but one thing I know for certain is that voice belongs to someone who is supposedly dead.
No way… Novak killed her… How?
Before I could even take one more step, much less utter her name. In my final stream of consciousness, I could barely make out her face as I collapsed into the barren white death as if all the weight from before had overflowed. The numbness had left me immobile, however my senses never dulled at the last moment. The last thing I saw despite my blurred vision, was a glimpse of a familiar slender figure of a brunette rushing towards me.