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Today's Story by James Wolanyk

Roux didn’t know much German, but he could make out Children’s Library, and that was enough.

The Library

Frank Roux stood on top of a hotel, a mere fifteen feet off the ground. Days of artillery fire and rain had finally taken down the building, turning one of the most lavish hotels in Germany into concrete remains. Perhaps more accurately, he stood at the top of the former hotel, staring up into its disemboweled torso. He nestled his carbine beneath his arm, listening to the hum and growl of a Sherman tank at his side, burning down his last cigarette before the patrol continued. He only smoked when he was nervous. Those days, he went through a pack and a half by morning.

In the beginning, he didn’t smoke at all. War had changed him, and if he ever survived it, he’d have so much to tell his kids. There was no if for the matter of having children – if he made it home alive, he’d have enough kids to repopulate his hometown.

Another Sherman rolled past Roux. It crawled on its treaded haunches, peering in all directions, a predator eager to eat the first meal of the day. But it seemed to be alone in its hunt, detached from the infantry and other armor at its rear. Diesel fumes poured from its nostrils.

He stomped out the cigarette and stole a few steps forward, descending the stairs of broken glass and dust. A short jog back onto the main road, and he was in his element again.

With a tank at their rear, his unit walked toward the edge of the block, scanning the empty café windows and decorative gardens near the city’s center. Shrubs sprouted from the pavement, looking horribly lost in the presence of twisted steel and burning skin. But there, at the block’s end, concealed by rows of hedges and flanked in barbed-wire clusters, Roux spotted a library’s burned-out shell. It was four, perhaps five stories high, reaching up in an attempt to dwarf the church steeples. Had it not been for the war, it might’ve been the subject of vacation postcards. Bronze plaques stared at Roux from the front doors.

Roux didn’t know much German, but he could make out Children’s Library, and that was enough.  He peered through the eviscerated wall sections and rubble doorways, looking past the rebar skeleton and concrete skin, trying to focus on something in the shadow: a children’s book illustrated with scarlet and violet, enshrined a shaft of sunlight to reveal its true vibrancy.

Much like the others had an inclination to loot silverware, he felt a compulsion to snatch the book. It wasn’t a clear feeling – it was an abstract, absurd mental image, with a child on each lap and Roux reading the book aloud just before bed. And suddenly he knew why he wanted it.

He looked back toward his platoon leader, a replacement. Roux didn’t know him well, but a good portion of war had been learning to trust someone without caring for them.

Roux nodded toward the library’s shredded stomach and pointed with his carbine’s muzzle.

I’ll check it.

The platoon leader paused. He squinted, gazing up and down the front face of the library, and then shrugged. He gave a whistle. Two soldiers perked up beside Roux.

He pointed toward Roux.

Go with him.

They nodded and crept toward him, carbines slung over their shoulders. Roux had seen them before, but couldn’t put their faces to the sound of a scream, so he hadn’t served in combat with them. They were both young and scared, like him. One of them fumbled for a cigarette.

Standard protocol dictated entering a building with more than four, but his unit didn’t have that luxury, still waiting on replacements for replacements.

Roux stepped through a blown-out window. There was no clear divide between the streets and the library, since most of its ceiling and outer walls had been pulverized into mounds of dust atop pavement. A strange wonderland of shadows and bright colors, with stained-glass windows refracting their beauty across the rubble and scorched books, it seemed like a vestige of beauty in the madness. Pristine stairs led to a second floor, and a third beyond that.

At Roux’s feet, surrounded by heaps of discarded ideas and charred shelving, the children’s book stared up at him. He didn’t have time to read the cover. He waited until the other soldiers looked away before he grabbed it, stuffing it into his rucksack and tightening the clasps.

Then he heard it.

Something scraped across the floor – muffled, rapid – and it wasn’t far. Within the lobby, everything sounded close, loud. Roux didn’t know what was where, and more importantly, who was where.

His own breathing felt like trespassing, and his shivering felt like approaching paralysis. He wasn’t supposed to be there. Upstairs, imaginary enemies stirred, waiting for Roux to prove he was a living target.

He stepped forward, his carbine raised to his shoulder.

Both soldiers followed him. Though Roux outranked them, perhaps by the slightest margins, he didn’t know what to do. There was no doctrine for how to be prey. Something, somewhere, became their predator.

Roux started up the staircase.

Frozen in his ascent, listening to the clap of footsteps behind him, he heard it once more. It skittered across the floor.

Once he reached the second to last step, he leaned forward and peered around the corner. Empty, dark, a forsaken place with footprints entombed in the carpet of dust and rotted wood.

I’ll check it.

Suddenly he hated himself.

Another noise. Scratching, ripping, dragging across the floor. No longer ambiguous, it waited just a room away. Roux could feel the thumps as they knocked through concrete. If he pressed his ear to the wall, he might’ve heard their heartbeat.

They might’ve heard his.

Roux took the final step. His spine tensed, expecting a bullet, or perhaps to feel the snap of a tripwire. When he realized he was still alive and in one piece, he wondered why he didn’t check for the tripwire. War made him forgetful.

More scratches, raking across the floorboards and through the oak door beside his face, beckoning to be explored but warning to back away. No time to turn back. Roux felt the hot breath of both soldiers at his back, scared beyond their wits but bound by orders, and he did what he despised – he panicked.

His hand fumbled for the brass knob, and before he could shoulder his carbine with one hand, he threw the door open.

Light flooded the room. The door bobbed on its hinges, demure in the wake of such violence, and Roux could do nothing except stare at the source of the scratching, silent. It wasn’t armed, nor was it deadly.

A dog stared back at Roux.

He reveled in the confusion, but it seemed that the dog did, too. It was a shepherd, large and sprawled out across the hardwood, blinking with the same beady eyes as an old friend. Roux felt the brush of Michigan winds on his face, the crescent breeze of Lake Superior, and the warm fur of his own shepherd beneath midnight skies. For a moment, the smell of dirt and birthday cake overtook the odor of rotting wood. All because of those eyes.

And now his dog stared back at him – at least, its brother did – a pink tongue hanging from its mouth, ears twitching with each gunshot.

Black and brown streaks stained its fur. It didn’t look starved, but it had hungry eyes. In that instant, all it wanted to do was look. No barking, no growling, no fear despite the weapon in Roux’s hands – it just watched. Panting breaths filled the stillness.

Roux turned to the other soldiers. They were smiling, nearly laughing with relief, and he couldn’t blame them. He nodded toward the staircase.

Without words, both men departed together. Roux listened to their footsteps echoing down the stairs.

The shepherd dragged its paws along the floor once again, imitating that dreadful sound. Roux’s lips tugged back into a lopsided grin. With his carbine slung back, he began to walk closer, palms overturned and outstretched in a show of surrender.

At first, its paws pulled back. Its eyes shifted in unease.

Roux stopped. He waited, watched, listened to the dog as it calmed itself.

He sank down to his knees and pulled himself closer. Inches from the dog, feeling its exhales against his face, studying the rise and fall of its chest, he looked into its eyes. They were deep and black, shining in the darkness.

Roux placed a hand on its head. Its fur shivered beneath his touch.

Don’t be afraid, he whispered with his lips, feeling the hair on his own neck stand up with the far-away thump of artillery shells. The shepherd’s hairs stood up, too.

If he ever had children, he would tell them that there is always a silver lining.

Roux slumped against the wall beside the shepherd, letting the dog lay its head in his lap, and ran a hand along its belly. He felt its warmth against his legs, its breath on his palm, and every twitch of its ears. With his free hand, he fished the children’s book from his rucksack.

He flipped to the first page and brushed the ash stains away.

“Chapter one.”


James Wolanyk is a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts. He’s been published in Linguistic Erosion and Farther Stars than These.   He enjoys the company of dogs.


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