Three weeks before my family went into hiding, back in 1940, I got jumped on my way home from school by three boys from another neighbourhood. I was fourteen, the three likely much older. While I remember very little of the actual conversation that partook, I remembered the word “kike”, of course, and the fact that one of them had been holding a fireplace poker. I’d been grabbed and pulled into a narrow alleyway, book bag ripped from my hands and content spilled out and stomped on. When I gave an angry shout, one of them punched me, hard, and the back of my skull collided with the brick wall they’d forced me against.
I’d fallen unconscious. Once I’d awoken, the sun had already reached the west, and the ache from my head still flared, but cooled by something I couldn’t see. And then I heard it, a familiar voice, saying something in such a desperate tone. Eric kneeled over me, hair fussed and brows furrowed with the smudges of a rust-coloured brown on his face and hands, and his eyes and lips were all bruised and swollen. He’d demanded I open my eyes as I felt him grab at my wrist and take my pulse, return to shaking me lightly by the shoulders, and when sure I had escaped without much major injury, he’d dragged me to my feet with the most insecure courtesy he’d never bothered to fake around me. In my state of lethargy, I didn’t even register Eric as a part of this new reality; it felt like the air had lifted me from my feet and carried me on its back, careful not to let me falter or lag behind.
An unfamiliar doctor woke me later in a room I didn’t recognise; I’d been taken to the last remaining Jewish hospital in Berlin. When my family was allowed in, Mother fretted over me as if I had regressed in age and was again a baby, Isaac kept smiling at nothing in particular whenever we caught glances, and father… well, he’d tried to hide a realised worry that the incident had brought on. But none of this came to matter to me, it couldn’t matter to me, because I had remembered Eric Cartman. It was a shaky memory better left forgotten, but I’d seen him, heard him calling me away from the shadows that had enveloped me.
I had tried to make sense of it then, why Eric had saved me beyond this vague sense of friendship we for some reason had. He’d acted so hostile towards me and often reminded me of his reasons for loathing me, even wished me dead on several occasions, but he’d, for lack of a better word, saved me. There were many solutions I’d cooked up, many ludicrous and outrageous that seemed impossible to me then. Eric had avoided me for a week afterward, ignoring my normally welcomed insults and locked himself away in his own private room of his dirty little house, rejecting my existence moreso than just my company. It’d appeared that he’d come to finally, truly resent me, and I left him be.
My attack had frightened father so greatly that not but a week later, he was planning on taking us far away. We were to fly beneath the new Regime’s notice and resort to hiding like a pack of wild beasts awaiting the return of spring, lounging about in caves or holes beneath the earth. I found the whole ordeal distasteful, but my father knew that action must be taken. He’d made arrangements with a colleague near the North of Germany, and we each were allowed one single trunk to pack essentials. My parents scrambled to collect priceless pictures of family, both deceased and still living; jewelry and metals from their ancestors, things of worth both tangibly and sentimentally. Isaac collected together things to pass the time and entertain him; books stolen from the school library, journals, drawing pens given to him from a previous birthday, playing cards, a knit bag full of marbles and his record player. It felt wrong, packing a very few selected items over others, knowing I’d never see the dejected belongings again, and the indecision had me resorting to pack light; a box of matches stolen from a local store, the books Stanley had given me over the years, my best clothes, a collection of poetry books by Goethe, and my favorite records.
The night before the departure from our beautiful Berlin home, I went to see Eric one last time, realizing I probably owed him more than his headache-inducing friendship was worth. The garden had always seemed so different at night than it did during the day. As I slunk across the yard and hopped the gate for the last time, it was as if I’d accidently stumbled into the wrong lawn. I expected Eric to be there just as he had every time before, waiting with an insult and a false frown at my knocking at his window, like always. But, when I knocked on his window, he didn’t answer. I tried again, three knocks, like always, but still, nothing. This upset me; I was well aware that he was holed up in his room, incasing himself in his own worthless self-pity, so I searched the grass and dirt for something to throw. I failed to find a pebble, and in my anger, I threw a rock at his window. A fraction of the frame smashed under the might of the rock, and it startling him from his bed. Eric noticed the broken glass immediately after the rush of air, and then he saw me. I had come to thank him for helping me, now to apologise as well for breaking the glass on his window, but he before I could say anything, he told me to go. In the light from his room, I watched the anger pass through his face, the loathing, the utter seething hatred, and he told me he never wanted to see me again. I listened as he told me to leave, that he hoped my family would get arrested, that we’d be hanged, killed one-by-one. Tears flooded to my eyes when he said he wished I’d die a dirty death for a dirty kike, and I forced my legs to work. Nothing seemed real as I sprinted from his yard and scrambled over the gate. I hid out behind a hedge, quietly sobbing and gasping and desperate for air. I sat there for what seemed like hours, lost and confused, as if I’d been mistaken; Eric hadn’t saved me after all. No, he’d been initiating the commanding the boys who’d jumped me, he’d planned my attack.
That was the last I’d seen Eric in three years. For those seven months in hiding, I relived that moment over and over in my mind. His expression, his stance, his hateful words; it hadn’t looked like the Eric I’d known my entire life. He’d called me Jew more than my actual name in the years we’d been whatever we were to each other, but I didn’t think him capable of actually hating me.
But now everything made sense, and it had only taken me three long years to figure it out, and even then, I’d need the most obvious hint that was possible.
Eric pulled away as suddenly as the kiss had begun, and, upon opening my eyes, I saw him look away from me with the worst sort of desperation on his face. I blinked, but found I could not reach for him. Only a simple question graced my thoughts, now, so I asked.
I’d meant to sound more genial than I had; my words came out flat and dense and I noticed him stiffen, as if he were internally debating the best truth for me to hear. Really, any answer would do at this point.
Finally, he sighed. “A long, long time. Long enough to drive me insane.” A hesitation, perhaps to see my reaction, no, he didn’t look up; to experience my reaction, to suffer by it, but we mutually did nothing. “I’m not exaggerating,” he quickly added, vainly justifying himself.
“I know you’re not.” I was attempting to sound reassuring, but Eric still seemed unsure. He’d averted his gaze, desperately searching for something to watch other than me, and his jaw was clenched into a mortified grimace, but, as if conflicted, his body remained so close to mine. Despite the exhaustion that everything presented, the fear, the trauma, the threat of discovery looming overhead, he reminded me of the stubborn brat I’d known what felt like centuries ago. The memories forged from within me a brilliant warmth. In a moment of impulse and sincerity, I rolled my weight to the balls of my feet, brought myself back up and tentatively placed my lips back onto his.
The war and all its barbaric hells were so instantly forgotten with this new form of escape. I’d seen my parents kiss before, relatives, newlyweds and sweethearts, but never had I done so myself, and never like this; body wedged so clumsily against a dying tree, hair greasy and matted, mouth and lips laced with my own vomit, skin dripping in perspiration; I felt the weight of these months of imprisonment and knew myself disgusting, but I had forgotten how to care. Eric seemed surprised by the unexpected contact I’d secured between us, but slowly, surely, he fell into step and welcomed me, removing his grip on my arms and pressing himself along my ribs. He gripped at the backside of my coat, pulling me against him. In his movement, he’d made for himself an outlet for all his fears, his loneliness and his careless unrestraint. I suddenly realised that Eric Cartman loved me, so much that it hurt, so much that he’d been preparing to, if his plan faltered, die for me. I thought again of my mother’s ring as I allowed him to swallow me whole and shelter me within him.
Our embrace was clunky and unprofessional; I bit him more than once and the breath from his nose tickled at my lip, but it was anything but unpleasant. Men were being sentenced to death for this. I’d seen them, triangles in place of stars, and now I understood why. Yes, I could taste the depravity, the sin. I didn’t love him, not the way he loved me, because I could feel that in every breath, but this indulgence was too limited to pass up so quickly.
While in reality, the kiss has been nothing but a few moments, it felt even less so in this new world I’d been so engulfed in. Eric parted first, and gazed down at me as if he’d been praying for the day I’d gleefully renounce my sanity for him. Now that it had finally become a certainty, he wasn’t ready to part with it just yet. This struck me as amusing, and again I balanced my weight to affectionately rub the tips of our noses together while I giggled, intoxicated by newly formed nerves and adrenalin. “I’ve never done that before,” I told him, and he gripped tighter at my back as if this were the greatest of news he’d ever heard, grinning like a madman into my hair.
Eric released his hold on me, but moved to grip hard at my left hand, pulling me from the crook of the tree. We dropped the contact, and despite the flicker of disappointment that welled in my palms, we kept it that way, but it was now that Eric felt inclined to travel at my side and at my pace, slowing should I need it. Eventually, he said, “I followed you.”
I tried to analyze this three-word confession, but became puzzled the more I thought on it. “What does that mean?”
Another laugh parted his lips, one of greater spirits and enjoyment then I’d ever seen on him. “I joined the Youth for the anonymity, so I could file through records, to find you, to see if you’d been caught.” This was news to me. I’d been under the assumption that our meeting had been an accident, but, thinking back, I should have known better. Along with his many other talents that far outnumbered mine at this point, Eric was a master architect of scheming. He garnished my reaction before carrying on. “After you left so suddenly, I didn’t have much of a choice. I had figured that, if I kept patient and played my aptitudes right, I would be in the higher up’s good graces in no time.”
Accumulating all this new knowledge, I pictured Eric in a newly fitted uniform charming the generals and officers of the Nazi Party and Gestapo so he could selfishly use their files. It was strangely flattering. Hena had told me of God’s intention to guard us, but Eric had made a valiant effort enough in human skin.
“I kept track of you, you and your family,” he told me as he hopped across an iced-over stream. I attempted the same, almost slipping as he caught me on the shoulders. “When I saw you’d been transported to Grodno, I begged for a transfer, hoping I’d catch you before the deportation.” I looked up as he aided me over the gap, into his face; his smile was small, and his eyes were vivid despite the darkening day. “At my stupidest, I’d thought I would be too late.”
My lips perked despite my willing them not to, as this was the closest to admiring me that he’d ever admit to willingly. I reminded myself of how selfish I was being, and my thoughts returned to my parents and Isaac. “And, my family-”
“I never saw their names,” he informed me, and I hoped that interrupting me would not become a force of habit, “so, wherever they are, it’s not here.”
I sighed, relieved, and I felt myself smooth down. “Eric, thank y-”
My words broke as he bent down, leaning into me again, but in place of another peck to my lips like I’d expected, he laughed and smacked my back with a loud thump. “Thank me only when I get us on that train, alright Jew?” It was near impossible not to snicker.
Given his openness, I made a silent truce with him that I would not pester him with questions and inquiries until we’d at least made it to the forger. Now finally comfortable with one another, I allowed nicknames of older times, Jew, or Ginger. While he’d laughed aloud upon my referring to him as Fat Ass, he impishly smacked my arm when I’d mentioned Theodore, his much despised mid-name. We talked about Stanley and Kenneth, and Eric informed me that they were back in Berlin, as safe as they can be in times of war, and that they would mention me even after my leaving. I offered up story after story of our childhood together, while he would dismiss his actions and claim me too stupid to remember it correctly. And to think, all this sincerity with but a few touches between our lips; I’d have been spared a good few fights if only we’d realised this method sooner.
It had been at least an hour in as he turned to me with pleasant news. “We’re almost out of the woods, soon, I’ve got a car waiting just about a mile off. If we stick to the roads outside of town, we’ll make it to the forgers by nightfall.” He began instructing me to walk looking down and keeping a respectable distance from him, tucking my curls into the hat and hiding my nose in that ridiculous scarf, but just as we’d discovered the perfect route once outside of the forest, a noise caught Eric’s attention. He froze, every sense in tune with our surroundings.
And then we heard it.
A sudden cracking in the distance alerted us to a nearby unwanted presence from behind, and both of us went rigid and cold.
A man’s voice, in German, made a call from his end of the gap, attempting to grab our attention. Both Eric and I were well aware that the locals did not speak German.
“Shit!” he hissed under his breath. He moved to grab roughly at my hand, wrapping his fingers around the small of my palm and clamping me tightly in his grip. “Shitshitshit, we need to run, now!” We began to sprint, hast overpowering out need for stealth, but whomever had discovered us began to pursue. Beyond the sounds of our heavy breaths and the clomping of our shoes in the snow, I heard him instruct of me, “Don’t let go for anything, you stupid Jew!”
I tried so hard to believe him, and kept thinking over and over, ‘We will escape this, somehow.’
The man behind us continued to call after us. “Who are you?! Wait!”
My ankles, already bent to begin with, twisted and turned in agony beneath my skin, but I had no choice but to ignore them as the hopes of our freedom literally rested yonder a single set of hills just beyond our reach. My heart raced and my stomach clenched, but I refused to stop now. “I swear to you now, I won’t let them take you,” Eric vowed between violent breaths. It could have meant anything; take me away from him, take me to Birkenau, take me back to execute me, kill me, anything, and any and all possibilities were circulating through both our minds as we ran for our lives, but I had promised to trust him, so I kept my grip in his.
I knew Eric knew that I was the force slowing us down. I tripped over rocks and my own numbing bones, and with our hands together, he suffered along with me as I held him back. He ineffectively pulled me along with him, but the journey's end beyond the trees faded as the man progressed closer to us. “Cartman!” he yelled. “Cartman, is that you? Hey!”
Panic overwhelmed us as we ceased our stupidly vain attempts to outrun this person, and I looked to Eric, begging him with my eyes for a solution. Please! Please do something, dammit, or we’ll die!
“Stoppen, Cartman!” He was practically on our heels now, and, with a meaningful narrowing of his eyes, Eric grabbed hold of my neck and slammed me into a nearby tree, but made certain that it was gentle enough that I would not be cut by the bark.
“I have a plan,” he informed me with a whispered breath. “Fight against me.”
He didn’t need to explain further. I brought my arms up, grabbing at his clasp on my throat and worthlessly wrestling against his pretend chokehold, digging my shoes into the thin snow to create the impression of struggle. We stood in our acting positions until the uninvited visitors joined us in this clearing, and I avoided seeking Eric’s face, knowing I would wholly fear the expression he’d shaped to trick our pursuer.
When I opened my eyes, unaware of my closing them in the first place, I saw two young men, familiar only in my most recent memory. One was the quivering Stotch, the only one of the group who’d used Eric’s first name, and the other the stocky boy who’d lead the group, whose name I couldn’t for the life of me remember. Now I understood, why he’d taken this excuse over my being a lost civilian he’d so graciously helped; these boys had seen my face before.
We were improvising.
“Please, don’t kill me!” I yelped, making certain that my voice cracked and panic overpowered my tone. Hopefully, it was enough to distort the sound enough.
“Eric, what-?” Stotch began, out of breath and bewildered.
“I found him!” Eric interjected. He hid his gaze scouring the rest of the clearing from the other two Hitler Youths, making positive that they were alone. “I saw this Jew make a break through a blind spot, so I went after him. Looks like he’s alone. Bayer, Stotch, I’m glad you’re here.”
Bayer’s blond eyebrows curled, perhaps confused as to which blind spot I’d managed to squeeze through in such a tall prison wall, while Stotch let out the brightest and most innocent smile I’d ever seen on anyone whose age exceeded twelve. “Eric, you caught a runaway? Congratulations!”
“We’d seen you venture up into the woods in such a rush,” Bayer told him. At this point, I’d ceased my fighting Eric’s hold, and instead played the role of the forsaken Jew caught again by German might. I slumped against the tree and allowed myself a moment to catch my breath. “Stotch and I thought you might be in danger, so we came along after you. Why didn’t you call for help?”
Eric was a brilliant liar, and thus he wasted no time in fabricating this story. “He was fast, so I figured that I shouldn’t waste time tracking him and getting rid of him.” A few words, and it was so potent that even I began believing it, chilled by the very suggestion of dying at Eric’s hand. He’d already shot me at once that day, after all.
“Why didn’t you shoot him?” Stotch asked. His eyes were so widened when his gaze fell to me that the possibility that he’d never actually seen a Jew up close stood valid. “Don’t you have your gun?”
If he hadn’t been so carefully securing me, I imagine Eric would have shrugged. “The thought didn’t cross my mind in all the rush.”
Stotch believed it wholeheartedly, and began to offer Eric his own pistol, feeling he deserved the final kill, but Bayer’s eyes were darkened with doubt. With a single motion of the hand, he kept Stotch in his place.
“Didn’t you kill this kike last I saw you, Cartman?” he asked so simply.
It was as if the world had split again, dissolving away, and we four were the last left alive by the abrupt impact. My eyes grew wide and I felt my chest expand, like a frightened deer, and my breathing ceased altogether, but Eric wasted no time. His grip on my neck released instantly, and he, hands and mind now free of his playacting restrictions, stole the jammed pistol from his inner pocket and aimed it toward Bayer, then Stotch. The uncomplicated departure we’d sought was impossible now, and the only solutions drew to either a standoff or a death sentence. From Eric’s side, I edged closer to him, placing a wary hand upon his shoulder and keeping my gaze forward, helplessly. If I’d myself had a gun I would have felt a bit more valuable or self-assured despite not knowing how to fire one, much less aim. In the position I was in, I’d been reduced to little more than deadweight while Eric had been forced to save both our skins. I would have thought that as an incredibly troublesome burden, but, beyond the intensity of his stance and the rigidness of his shoulders, Eric held his own with all the composure of a cornered predator, too prideful yet to scurry into submission.
From his side of the last of the world, Bayer noticed my hand, then the arm Eric had placed in front of me when Bayer took a daring step toward us. He kept still for a moment when, to my amazement, he broke out into a fit of under-breathed giggles.
“What game are you playing, Cartman?” he asked, but it wasn’t a genuine question. “No,” he concluded once he fully registered the intimacy, the distance we’d abandoned and the comforting touches. “I suppose the answer to my question is obvious. Did this kike,” I flinched at the contempt in the word, “cast his magick and ensnare you in his trap? Is this why you’re attempting to run off with him, why you’re shielding him behind you?”
Eric ignored Stotch’s alarmed exclamation; he instead stared Bayer down, processing a comeback to defend his standing. He smiled with all his teeth, smug and self-aware, and moved the gun’s aim upward. “And what if he did?” He took another step backward toward me, his own form of comfort.
Bayer smiled, but he did not appear sinister, not even superior; he looked to me as if he were genuinely happy. With the tiny and quivering Stotch as his backup, Bayer reached into his coat pocket and leisurely pulled out a silver pistol. “Well, we’d kill him, naturally, and turn you in for treason.” His tone matched his expression to almost a fault; the prospect of a double-execution with a criminal and a deserter thrilled this boy. “You’ll hang by your arms, Cartman, for these crimes that you have committed, and the Jew will never see past today. It was stupid of him to have trusted your judgment in the first place.” His steady hands began to grip at the gun, finger snuggly fit against the trigger, and with all the coolness of a true evil, and with no effort at all, he aimed the barrel at my skull. “Your gun’s jammed, Cartman, I can see the bullet logjam. Good luck defending yourself with that.” His gaze shifted between us, and he eventually stopped on me. He was so close I could see every spark of intent flicker behind his eyes, and my heart leapt into the core of my throat, the terror turning my insides to ice. Without hesitation, Eric took his gun and tossed it opposite me, cursing it; I heard it crash into the winter earth and abandoned yet another hope of earn our freedom. “To think that General Strebelow had such a soft spot in his heart for you, Cartman,” Bayer grinned. “Just wait until he finds you now, coated in the blood of the kike you tried oh so hard to save.”
His finger moved, and I flinched and awaited my long-overdue execution, but a heavy weight at my flank shifted to shield me from the inevitable bullet. Eric had not only moved to take my place before the might of the pistol, but had also forced my form so far backward that I now stood back to back with the oak tree. Behind Eric’s back, I could only hear as Bayer’s smile fell. “Step aside, Cartman,” he grumbled, and it was so faint that I hear only the threat in place of words. “He belongs to the Reich, to the Further. Not to you. Is he truly worth the cost of your own life?”
I held my breath, but nothing happened; no one dared move nor speak, but Eric outright refused this offer, to save himself, by standing his ground. Against his bones, the determination vibrated throughout his entire being, and an incredibly selfish part of myself, the part that knew and wanted Eric to love me, felt the paramount rush of a tremendous joy at that moment, and if I’d had that instant to catch my breath and steady my footing, I would have done more than bury my face in his heavy military coat to express my thanks. Eric was so warm.
But I wasn’t thinking; in holding me behind him and saving face afore this executioner, Eric had just warranted his immediate death sentence before mine.
“Fine, then.” Bayer sighed and took one, two, three full strides forward towards us. Eric glowered down at his former ally, but otherwise made no move to protect himself.
From behind him, I was panicking. My knuckles clenched so roughly into his back that they turned white and I desperately held tears back, because it had dawned on me, like the sudden impact of light or noise; it was here, in this place, that both of us would meet our end. There was no hope of reaching the train station with those inaccurate travel papers calling us entirely different names. There was no more Malines or Bruges or maybe London or Lyon, where the war wouldn’t touch us and we could be free. And even if those things had never even existed at all, it was at that crushing second that the realization crumbled the last of my certainties, because up until then, Eric had convinced me that they were real.
But we were going to die, right here, like animals, and I would never see mother or father or Isaac again. The last thing I would ever have in my entire existence upon this cruel and pitiless planet was Eric Cartman. It was the cruelest of jokes that God could play.
“No,” I whispered, too low and pathetic for Bayer to hear.
In return, Eric’s arm bent and grasped mine, pushing me so that I would be able to slink successfully around the trunk of the tree and make a mad dash for it. He was offering me an out, to take the role of diversion so I could perhaps successfully make it past the final hills that stood in our path. I batted his arm away and clung harder to his back. This was my answer.
Bayer himself had done another switch, and now seemed rather pleased with the whole situation, humming a tiny melody as he cocked the gun and places it again against Eric’s unmoving skull. “I guess I’ll personally have to deal with you, then. Good riddance. This new world holds no place for traitors.”
If only things had gone slower, if only Eric hadn’t moved and senselessly adopted my place on the opposite end of the gun, then maybe things would have gone differently. Eric had told me very plainly to run, to take the escape while he endured both our punishments and served as a distraction, but I was far too pigheaded and far too stupid to ever do such a thing. He had been right, I’ve never listened to him, and I’ll be damned if I’m to start now.
I jumped before I could even think about what I was doing, swerving around Eric’s torso and making a mad grab for the gun. At that time, the lunacy of my impulsiveness meant nothing to me in the threat of losing the last person who made me feel alive and human, and for that split second, it struck me as fair trade. As if culminating from the months of starvation and ill-treatment, now inflicted by Bayer alone in my mind, I burst into a solitary movement of pure, unadulterated panic. I had to stop him, Eric couldn’t die.
I wouldn’t let him die.
“Don’t!” I screamed, but I was too late. Bayer turned to me in surprise, and I managed to grab his wrist.
Everything felt so slow. My brain didn’t even register the gunshots until I felt something sharp and burning cut deep into me, and suddenly, everything became very, very warm. I had managed to grab hold of Bayer’s wrist, but even then, I’d done nothing but steer his aim onto myself, and he’d easily slipped from my hold and took aim. Stammering backwards against the massive oak, I descended to the snowy ground below and oh, did I feel it then, bullets wedged amongst my insides, and that’s why it was so warm. I suddenly saw all this blood everywhere. It was mine.
My hand wandered to the core of the warmth, and I pulled it back up so I could see the copious red soaked onto my skin, and my first thought was, ‘I hope I won’t lose mother’s ring.’
“Kyle!” I heard Eric shout, and before long, he was kneeling over me, pressuring my wounds and stroking my face, calling me and begging me through shaking gestures to stay with him. It was then that the pain hit, hard, but when I opened my mouth, I couldn’t scream. Oh, God, please, it hurt! Tears were instantly in my eyes, down my cheeks, and the heat of everything reminded me of summers in Berlin.
“Kyle, shit, look at me!” Eric continued to cry, desperate. He roughly grabbed at my chin and forced our eyes together, and it was then that I could really feel him there, beside me, and my middle began to throb in excruciating waves. Agony pulsated through my entirety, from my muscles to the core of my bones. Even his touch scorched me. “I need you to look at me! Kyle!”
As the pain began to fully register, I noticed Bayer from behind Eric’s shoulder. “You even named him?” he all but laughed, and I saw Eric’s jaws clench shut, his eyes narrowing to violent slits. I stretched up and grasped hold of his sleeve, attempting to clench the pain away, pleading for him to defy the laws of reality and compel this overwhelming pain to end. “It’s a shame that I’ll have to put your sweet little pet down, Cartman.” The gun clicked. “And such a touchingly loyal one, at that.”
Eric was gone before I had the chance to comprehend what had happened. “I’ll kill you!” I heard after I’d narrowed my eyes in a wince and placed my hands again over the swells of pain and gore bursting from my stomach. “How dare you fucking hurt him!”
Though eyes roughened by the flames of my own blood, I witnessed Eric leap upon our attacker, forcing him off his feet and to the ground. Bayer let out a cry of surprise, and another shot fired in the scurrying mess. Eric kept his ground even as a bullet passed through his shoulder, red now trailing down his arm. Moments passed when Eric had managed to obtain Bayer’s gun, grasped at the tunnel and, in many rapid motions, brought the handle down onto the other boy’s face. Again and again, and screams overwhelmed the air around us. Like myself, Eric hadn’t desired any bloodshed whatsoever over our leaving, but now that it was inevitable, and now that he’d been angered beyond any redemption or conciliation, he’d become determined to carry out this new burden with the greatest precision he could.
Eric shifted to the right, and I saw from where I rested that Bayer’s facial structure had collapsed, nose and eyes ruptured and gushing blood, but he still breathed. The agony besieged his limbs so that even as Eric stood on shaking legs and freed his hold, he remained on the snowy earth, whimpering pitiably and searching for salvation. He turned his gaze to Sotch, whom we’d all forgotten. The blond remained untouched and shriveling yards away, face stained with tears.
“Stotch!” Bayer yelped, voice cracking under the hurting. “Shoot him, he’s gone mad! Our orders were-”
Eric aimed the pistol and with one blast, Bayer stopped shrieking. I didn’t look, and when I managed to pry my eyes open again, Eric’s familiar face coated in fresh blood was coaxing me away from death’s door. He unbuttoned my coat and ripped at a piece of his own, pressing against the wounds in the stomach. In that moment, I became afflicted with a horrific sense of guilt, and I wanted to kiss him again.
“Eric- I’m… sorry…” I was mumbling, thoughts erratic and incoherent, and the air in my lungs felt as heavy as lead. It was beginning to snow, I could see it now. Tiny puffs of white spiraling down from the heavens.
Another push of pressure to my stomach, and I suddenly needed far more air in my system than was there. Eric was rushing, and peeking through a pained wince, I noticed the absolute look of urgency in his eyes as he continually pressed the scrap of his coat against me. “It’s okay, alright?” He sounded so heartbreakingly lost; there was barely any strength in his words. “Just hold on, I’ll get you out of here.” He snaked his arms beneath my knees and neck and easily lifted me from the ground. I felt sick and heavy, but, for better or for worse, I had become engulfed in this sense of sanctuary as Eric wrapped himself around me, and everything felt right again.
Eric wasted no time; as soon as he’d secured me in his arms, he began trudging forward through the snow. He had completely disregarded Stotch, who remained nearby in a petrified pile of dread, wide-eyed and devastated. The blond had taken the entire scene without so much as a word, but he wasn’t worth the hesitation and time.
Stotch, however, felt the need to speak. “E-E-Eric?”
Nothing stopped; Eric kept walking, and he didn’t look back at his once-comrade as he spoke plainly and stoically. “Go back to camp, Leopold. I want you to forget everything you’ve seen here.”
Silence. We made it a few steps before the world once again became deafening. One, two, three, four, five, shots rang, three of which struck Eric, two travelling all the way though him from back to front, and I saw his face fall just as Bayer’s had. One final shot, another at Eric’s back, and I felt it hit my leg on the way out, but there was no pain.
Riddled with bullet holes, Eric collapsed to his knees, but kept a harsh hold on my shoulder and legs so I wouldn’t fall, and I clung to him as he sat and allowed his own pain to fester and rot inside his organs.
Stotch gave out a long, insulting sob. Grief-stricken and conflicted, he’d done just as Bayer had commanded of him, and shot the traitor. “Forgive me, Eric!” he cried, and the gun was thrown into the snow with a dulled clatter. “I’m- I’m- Oh, sweet Mary, forgive me, Eric!”
And with that, he was gone.
Eric moved to lay me down first and foremost, stretching me out comfortably in the snow before collapsing at my side, stomach down and face buried in the icy sheet that bit into the bare skin of our necks; undignified, yes, but we were beyond the eyes of the world now, and had become the last two people on what was now our own Earth. Snow continued its way down, catching on Eric’s skin, his coat, and his hair.
I was the first to speak. “It hurts.”
“I know,” was his pained reply. Both were so mindless, merely observations, but I supposed, in our state, we should both be thankful that we were still breathing. I cranked my neck to look toward Eric, and discovered he’d been watching me the whole time. “I wouldn’t have left you,” he promised to me, for some unendurable reason giving me more proof behind his sacrifices. “Not to him, not to anyone.”
“I wouldn’t have left you, either.” Even with this failing body, I suddenly had an urge to laugh, but I knew I couldn’t. My vision grew hazier with each passing second. “Eric, I think I’m dying. It’s getting harder to see you.”
“I’m sorry,” was his only reply.
Eric coughed and winced at some inner pain. “Don’t be stupid. Helping you was the best damn thing I’ve ever done.” This was his real voice, and I felt privileged that at he’d allowed me to hear it one last time. “But,” he continued, “if you see your God up there, and he tells you that, that if you hadn’t said yes to me, if you’d gone to the camp in Birkenau, that you would still be here, and that you would have seen your family again, then I…” He paused. “This isn’t what I wanted.”
Weighing Eric against everything else, my family, my body, my freedom, everything, seemed far too cruel. Giving up the lot to lie beside him, very slowly draining my life away, was a once in a lifetime circumstance. Had our plan gone as it should have, had I said no, had we never even met, I would never have experienced it. And now that I was there with him, I had been far too overcome with something grand to have regretted this doom we’d naively set ourselves up for.
I didn’t want to die, and I was so terribly scared. But, without him, I would be nothing. “Even if it is true, I would have still said yes.”
Eric laughed, and I could barely hear him. “Liar.” He knew I wasn’t lying.
Everything went quiet for a moment, and even though he was plain in my sights, I was so afraid that he’d left me here by myself again. But then I heard, “Everything will be fine,” his voice strained even worse, “if you’re the last person I see.” I’d sob if I could, hit him, even, he was hurting me so much by his kind words. “Then it was all worth it. I’ll be-” he rasped, panting for the air speaking was robbing from him. “-happy, if you’re the last thing I see.”
I owed him more than I could ever repay, so I allowed him his final wish.
He didn’t speak after that, but he kept staring at me, as if, together, lying in a bed of snow and freshly-spilt blood, had become the greatest of fates, for him at least. Long enough to drive me insane, is what he’d said; how long he’d loved me. Perhaps he was mad to have fallen so hopelessly for the enemy, but it was likely that I also shared within me that same insanity to have so greatly trusted and cared for the nemesis of my own people. We’d both craved the fantasy of freedom, a place of escape where we could live liberated, of his duties and my blood, and I’d pictured it, too; a home in London or New York or Bruges or Amsterdam, where we’d be welcomed with warming hands and gestures by equally warm people; where he would play me the piano and compose for me another piece; where I could fall for him with as great a passion as he’d claimed to have for me; a wondrous home, where he could hold me and I would kiss his mouth and fingertips, and where not even God himself would dream of damning us.
Such a place was a lie, a mere idealistic dream, and, lying there in my own leaking remains, it felt so far away.
Despite not looking toward anything but him, I didn’t notice until the touching of our skin that Eric had moved his injured arm to lay a tender hand on my cheek. In return, I struggled to move myself as close to him as I could manage, curving myself along his torso and lining my eyesight with his own. We were so close, our matted hairs tangled. I grabbed hold of his remaining hand as gently as I could, but failed to lock our fingers together. And it was at this distance that I could at last sense it; his crippling dread, his final struggles of panic as the last of his senses faded away. He was as frightened as I was, maybe more.
What an oddity he was; a romantic trapped within a war, who so fears the consequence of death but stands against it so readily. I would never have imagined this of Eric Cartman; the boy who tormented me, who claimed to despise me and want me dead and buried, but who salvaged and protected me up until the very end. In spite of the still violent tremors from the agony erupting from my middle, I rolled and buried myself deeper within the thin blanket of snow, our intertwined hands locking fingers and sticking together with the drying blood. He smiled, a faint yet content smile, and we kept smiling at one another as our insides coated the white ground beneath us.
Eric bled out first, his fingers still resting on my cheek, and again I felt so alone. I watched him, unblinking and teary-eyed, and kept our ice-cold hands firmly gripped together. It still hurt; I could feel myself slowly leaving. The sensation was like being pulled up by something forceful and constant that was far too impatient to wait for me and my silly desire to keep living. Death was cheap. If God really was above me, watching me die, then I’d surely, in many ways, have been cheated. I wondered how damned I would be if my last thoughts were of doubting God and His might. Laughable, considering my other sins. It was as if He were punishing me for my abandoning His people, for managing freedom, if only for a brief time, while they continued to suffer.
While I had lived without a thought to an afterlife of any kind, and while I still did not know what awaited everyone in Birkenau, I knew that whatever happened, Hena would manage to find God; Abraham and baby Sarah, the Rosenfelds, my entire family eventually; every parent and child and grandparent filtering through this endless torture of existing until, eventually, they would be greeted at death’s hand by a loving God. But not Eric and most definitely not me. We were to die alone, side-by-side, and I had become content with this certainty.
Dying felt like many things sharing incredibly intimate moments, rolled into a culmination of gradual nothingness. With the last of my strength, I placed a kiss upon Eric’s empty dead lips, and the mid-fallen snow of November, I thought of his song and tried to remember the notes.
What felt like centuries passed and I remained there, both body and conscious, and yet the tune of that long forgotten piece still alluded me. Stotch would lead men to our bodies, I knew, squawking to these soldiers his side of the story. The Germans would in turn observe our corpses’ closeness, and Eric’s hand left against my frozen skin. They’d share the mutual feeling of disgust, and Eric and Bayer would be carried far away from me.
My body would be left in this inappropriate cemetery before they’d returned in both seconds and years. I would be placed with the others from the ghettos whom had lost very similar blood to my own. The same blood, if you were to ask these men.
In this state between life and whatever awaited me, I no longer possessed a voice, but my thoughts remained. Every transition regarding sight felt numb and muffled, as if my entire being had been packed away deep within my skull. Left with nothing but these thoughts, I saw everything. What felt like a blink, and I was there, Eric Theodore Cartman’s funeral at a small Cathedral in southern Berlin, insignificant and under-attended. His mother remained at the coffin’s far end and in full view, hands blocking her sobbing face from the world who cared so little about her son. Stanley and Kenneth would be seated in the pew, suits and all, but they wouldn’t find it in themselves to cry. Again I blinked, and I saw Hena in Birkenau, baby Sarah and Abraham nowhere in sight. Immediately sentenced to death, oh, sweet, tiny Hena.
With enough will, Isaac came into view, healthy, happy, and full of vigor as he hugged at mother’s blouse. He’d grow taller, she’d grow older. I thought of how they’d moved to America after the war, oceans away from a bloody past that was now a fleeting nightmare, and, everything would be so perfectly warm for them. My family would avoid the camps, live to see past the despair of war. Isaac would go to school in America and learn English and Engineering and build for himself a successful future. Father would manage to reopen his law firm overseas, and my mother… well, she wouldn’t get her ring back. My face was numbed by the cold and blood loss, but I knew warm tears were spilling down my cheeks.
I thought of my family receiving a phone call from a man with accurate records that a Kyle Broflovski had indeed perished in the Polish Ghetto of Grodno on November 15th, 1942 by gunshot wounds. Yes, my name. He’d use my name. The man would apologise for their loss, never once mentioning Eric Cartman. Father would hold mother as she cried, and Isaac too would hold her from her back.
I saw what I wanted to see. The loneliness consumed me; oh, how I wished that I could join them in my own dream, to kiss my mother’s face and ruffle my brother’s hair, but I was too distant. I wasn’t even a human being anymore, not without any blood.
There’d be a funeral even without a body, and the Rabbi would speak a prayer for my soul. I knew these words; I’d heard them at my grandmother’s burial. “Yit'gadal v'yit'kadash sh'mei raba b'al'ma di v'ra khir'utei,” he would say. “V'yam'likh mal'khutei b'chayeikhon uv'yomeikhon, uv'chayei d'khol beit yis'ra'eil, ba'agala uviz'man kariv v'im'ru: Amein. “V'yam'likh mal'khutei b'chayeikhon uv'yomeikhon, uv'chayei d'khol beit yis'ra'eil, ba'agala uviz'man kariv v'im'ru: Amein. Y'hei sh'mei raba m'varakh l'alam ul'al'mei al'maya. Yit'barakh v'yish'tabach v'yit'pa'ar v'yit'romam v'yit'nasei, v'yit'hadar v'yit'aleh v'yit'halal sh'mei d'kud'sha. B'rikh hu, l'eila min kol bir'khata v'shirata, toosh'b'chatah v'nechematah, da'ameeran b'al'mah, v'eemru: Amein.” Amen. “Y'hei sh'lama raba min sh'maya v'chayim aleinu v'al kol yis'ra'eil v'im'ru: Amein. Oseh shalom bim'romav hu ya'aseh shalom aleinu v'al kol. Yis'ra'eil v'im'ru:” He would pause, and my mother would let out a loud sob, before his last and final, “Amein.”
My family would fill bits of the synagogue, muttering along with their own Amens. Mother would cry, father and Isaac wouldn’t.
Finally, my fate flashed before me like cruel transparencies of an existence that I’d been robbed so coldly of. A single train ride, carried by what felt like wind, and I’d have made my first steps into Belgium, Eric dizzy and proud at my side. He would celebrate by touching my hair, to know that we were both still alive. Three more years, we could have made it; a simple living in Manchester as vagabonds bereft only by experience. He’d unsuccessfully attempt to teach me English, and I’d use the little I knew to acquire a place working in a war factory, while he’d do something brilliant, sell compositions, construct balustrades, or rise himself in the corporate world, and we’d sit ourselves by a little wooden radio as he’d translate for me the unconditional surrender of Germany.
He’d wish to move to across the Atlantic to America, and I’d fuss and argue but find myself predictably following behind him anyway. We’d together purchase a flat on the far side of Boston, and Eric would complain about everything except the orchids I would plant in our little window box facing a green park. Everything would be warm. Together, we would form a solitary limb. He would take steps in touching me, kisses and loving pulls and mischievous teases and I’d find myself falling for him in a repetitive process, finding new reasons to love and hate him daily. And the bombs would subside and nothing would ever harm us again.
But this wasn’t real. This wasn’t truth. It was nothing but an illusion that my fading concious decided to create. Despite my eyes almost completely blind, I was staring at a corpse, dying at his side.
But in this next world, he’d find me. I knew he’d find me, same as he found me in Grodno. He’d be perfect. He’d reach for me, face cleaned of enemy blood and torso rid of bullet holes, a smile gracing his lips. Waiting for me, and I swear I would see angels in every angle of him. Everything would be white and clean, and warmth would fill me top to bottom. It would be right, the two of us together, and there would be no longer a need to question, to restrict myself to the silly desires of the living.
We’d be reborn, him and I, bodies newly formed and untouched.
Eric would move to place a single kiss betwixt my brow, all-encompassing yet soft, muttering something along the lines of “Dumb Jew” and “Don’t wander off”.
But I didn’t know. I could pretend in the delirium of dying. There could be nothing but black for all I knew. But, looking at the face of an old and loving friend laying at my side, I knew I did not regret any of this. My sight had faded completely; he was the last thing I ever saw, and I felt so happy.
The pain became almost nonexistent as these thoughts filled my head. There was no feeling anywhere, not anymore, and whatever awaited me beyond this place, I was ready. I hoped Eric was, too. With that, I gifted to my unconventional savior the last of my conscious, a simple explanation, a reward for his now lost bravery.
“Thank you,” I whispered, but there was no longer any sound to my voice.
I wished Eric a farewell. In the depths of nothing, I heard his song become vivid and clear as I closed my eyes and thought of the warmth of summer.