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He slouched in the passenger seat and squinted at the too-bright world behind a pair of Ray Bans. Already he could feel the headache coming on. “What is this place?” he asked, his gears chugging a bit slower than usual today.
Story Notes: This is a work of fiction concerning the characters in the series and has no relation to the lives of the real persons involved in WWII. This is purely for entertainment and no disrespect is intended. Written in 2010.
Dick Winters—Major and legendary redhead—passed him a grin that was almost as bright as the noonday sun overhead. “Hermann Göring’s Officers’ Club,” he answered archly.
Lewis Nixon—Captain and legendary alcoholic—turned and stared at his friend, apparently still clueless as to what the hell was so amusing about some bloated, wax-faced Nazi’s partially-demolished cocktail lounge.
Winters maintained his grin as he sprang out of the jeep, and Nixon had no choice but to drag himself out with as much enthusiasm as he’d had on his first day at Yale. (Which he’d only attended because “Harvard” didn’t rhyme with any drink in the Sacred Trinity of alcoholic beverage types: Beer, Wine, and of course, the Holy Spirits.)
“It was discovered yesterday,” the major explained, striding boldly up to the two armed troopers standing just outside. “Had it on double guard ever since.”
“I can vouch for that, sir,” chirped the baby-faced private at the door.
Winters put on a scowl, though he was unable to keep it entirely straight. “Oh, anxious to get off duty, O’Keefe?” he heckled.
Private Patrick O’Keefe’s smile never faltered. “No, there’s just so much to see and do, sir!” he insisted cheerfully, handing the house key over to Winters.
“You coming?” he called over his shoulder, fitting the key in the lock.
“Yeah, ‘m comin’,” Nixon mumbled, forcing himself to trudge forward, scuffing gravel over the toes of his boots. This had better be one hell of a present, he thought tiredly. Like a huge bed and sixteen solid hours of DO NOT DISTURB.
It was dark inside and cool as a cave, a welcome relief from the retina-searing daylight of the sober man’s world. Winters clicked on the lights and started down a whitewashed stairway, his footsteps tapping lightly on the stones. Nixon followed, dropping his full weight on each step, while the two privates scurried at the rear.
At the bottom of the stairs Winters pushed open an iron gate and stepped into the sprawling room beyond. At this point Nixon felt they were far enough underground to risk removing his shades, and as he lifted his head and actually saw what was in front of him, his mouth drifted open in shock. He took a few numb steps forward, feeling like a mortal who had just stumbled into the hall of the Olympian gods.
Shelf upon shelf of liquor, wine and champagne stretched from floor to ceiling around the oval-shaped room. A long corridor straight ahead held more bottles, numbering at least in the hundreds. Priceless works of art hung in the spaces not occupied by racks. It was a museum. It was a wine cellar. It was the eighth wonder of the fucking world.
A bar stood in the center, littered with gold-rimmed goblets and crystal wine glasses. Fearsome eagles clutching swastikas in their talons glared down at the American intruders but failed to dampen Nixon’s awe. He crept farther into the room, his mind unable to comprehend such a sight. He was almost convinced that he and the rest of the company had died sometime last night and now they were all in Heaven.
“It’s all yours.”
Nixon turned to gape at Winters. If this was Heaven, Dick Winters was God.
The redheaded man smiled warmly from the doorway. “Take what you want, then have each company and battalion HQ take a truckload.” He nodded crisply. “You’re in charge now.”
Nixon tried to speak, but such a tremendous feat is impossible when you’ve forgotten how to breathe. His mouth moved, but only a few strained noises managed to squeak past his larynx.
Winters chuckled, his eyes twinkling in a way Nixon hadn’t remembered seeing since before Normandy. “Happy V-E Day.”
Since falling to his knees and groveling at the feet of Dick “God” Winters in front of two subordinate officers wouldn’t look very flattering, Nixon managed to get his tongue working again and stammered a fainthearted “Thank you” to the man he suddenly wanted to marry and worship for the rest of his life.
Winters flashed a closing smile and turned, presumably off to attend business elsewhere and leave his companion to do what he does best, but Nixon’s gears suddenly jolted as he woke up from his stupor.
“Hey Dick,” he called, and Winters turned around. Nixon smiled craftily. “Have a drink with me. Just one.”
Winters gave him a strained, we’ve-been-through-this-before look.
“You mean you’re gonna give me the pick of the litter of this whole trove—” Nixon threw his arms wide, “—and not even share a little toast with your best friend?”
Winters didn’t appreciate the guilt tactic, but Nix had found his soft spot. As usual. He sighed and walked back. “Alright. One sip.”
Nixon beamed like any spoiled brat accustomed to getting his way and darted off to find the best bubbly within his reach. Winters watched him peruse the shelves like an excited bloodhound and shook his head, trying not to laugh. The man was incorrigibly decadent and would more likely become a monk before giving up the sauce, but he had his noble moments. That is, moments when Dick wasn’t playing father-figure to an overgrown, drunken Peter Pan. Nixon was capable of selflessness and temperance—he just needed a good example to learn from. Winters hoped to be that example.
Nixon returned from his quest with three bottles and two crystal glasses. “I’ve never seen such a selection in my life,” he said, setting down his harvest. “Can’t even tell what some of this stuff is. Must be thousands of bottles here.”
Winters picked up one of the three. “What’s this?”
“Ah, that’s Krug, 1931. Blanc.”
“. . . What is it?”
“Champagne, want some?”
“Let me look at the rest first.”
Nixon pointed out another bottle. “This is dessert wine. Thought you might like something sweet. Non-drinkers tend to prefer a more—”
Winters eyes settled upon the last bottle, an expensive-looking baroque beast in black glass. Its white and gold label was covered in indecipherable text. He picked it up, surprised by its weight. “And this?”
“No idea. Something Greek, maybe. Wine, I think. It was in this fancy box, real ornate. Looked promising.” He grinned devilishly. “Wanna crack it open?”
Winters looked up. “Don’t you think it’s unwise to drink from strange bottles?”
“Don’t you think it’s unwise to jump from airplanes?”
For all his blunt sarcasm and cocky flamboyance, Lewis Nixon had an uncanny way of putting things into perspective sometimes. Winters surrendered the mysterious vino. “You’re the expert.”
Nixon peeled off the foil and set to work with a corkscrew. Winters took the opportunity to glance around the spacious room, at the large domed skylight above, and then at the two wandering troopers he’d forgotten about. “Lager, O’Keefe,” he called, “head back topside and keep an eye out. I’ll be up in a minute.”
The privates chorused their acknowledgment and made themselves scarce, just as a tremendous pop sounded in Winters’ left ear. He jumped and sent Nixon an annoyed frown.
“Cripes. Thought I’d never get that thing out,” he muttered apologetically, giving the bottle’s mouth a curious sniff. His right eye winced a little.
“How’s it smell?”
“Alright, I guess. Different.” He slid Dick’s glass over and poured a tiny amount. It looked more viscous than normal wine, and it was a deep, velvety shade of indigo bordering on dark blue. Winters had never seen a wine of such hue.
“Wow,” he muttered. “Get a load of the color.”
“Probably some kind of exotic fruit,” Nixon said, pouring his own glass to the brim. “S’not uncommon to throw in something besides grapes. Enhances the flavor and all that jazz.” He set down the bottle and raised his glass with a rare, affectionate smile—the kind of smile that seemed to appear only in Dick’s presence. “To victory.”
Winters imitated the gesture. “To friendship.”
“Amen to that.”
Crystal chimed musically as they toasted. They tilted their glasses back at the same time, but Winters was the first to pull his away. “Ack!” he rasped, eyes watering, giving a few coughs. “Lord Almighty!”
Nixon gulped down his first mouthful and shuddered involuntarily. It looked like every hair on his body was standing at attention. “Woah,” he choked, shaking it off. “Jesus. Man. That’s strong.”
“The aftertaste isn’t so bad.” Nixon smacked his lips thoughtfully. “Kind of sweet. In a rotten, putrid sort of way. Like decaying flowers.”
Winters was grimacing in disgust and doing nothing to hide it as he pushed his half-finished glass away. “Well, you can enjoy that rotten, putrid aftertaste all you want, Nix. I’m heading back to Battalion.”
“But you just got here.”
“Daddy has work to do, Junior.”
“Oh, go to hell, Dick.” Nixon threw the foil scraps at Winters, who laughed and easily dodged them. Nixon shook his head, smiling helplessly. “What’re you doing tonight?”
“Sleeping. With Sink’s permission, of course. Why?”
Nixon ran his finger around the rim of his glass, staring down at the bluish liquid and shrugging. “Fox found some swing records at the Hof and they’re throwing a party. Thought maybe we should check it out, make sure nobody has too much fun.”
Winters narrowed his eyes, the corners of his mouth curving upward. “I’ll think about it.”
Nixon raised his glass obligingly.
“And don’t drink too much of that stuff, Nix. It can’t be good for you.”
Winters grinned and walked away, disappearing up the stairs and leaving Nixon by himself. He stood forlornly at the bar for a minute, then tossed back his glass and drained it in two gulps. The rich liquid coated his throat with its heady, curious flavor, bringing about another involuntary shudder. It pooled in his belly like quicksilver, heavy and cool and malty. It really wasn’t as bad as Dick said. Once you got past the weird taste, it felt pretty good going down.
Nixon licked a drop from his finger, studied Dick’s glass, thought what the hell, and finished it off. Then he wedged the cork back into the bottle and turned to stare at ten thousand bottles of booze on the wall.
He beamed, rubbed his hands together, and set to work.
It wasn’t long after leaving Hermann’s clubhouse that Winters began to feel a little thin in the blood. The lightheaded sensation persisted into the late afternoon, though not intensely enough to be anything but a bother. By the time chow hour approached, however, Winters was certain the wine from earlier was making him ill. He decided to take a half hour and sleep it off on the sofa at Battalion HQ.
He delegated a few of his tasks to Speirs and Lipton before sinking down onto the silk-embroidered luxury enjoyed by only the highest-ranking Nazis in Nazidom. In two beats he had slipped into the deepest, most peaceful slumber of his life.
He slept through dinner, where Colonel Sink made a special appearance and gave a rousing speech in honor of the victory over Europe. He slept through the swing party that took place afterward, even though the music and revelry was loud enough to wake the dead two blocks away. He slept through the drinking party that took place after the swing party, and was fortunate enough to miss the Flight of the Screaming Eagles, which was the title given to the nude, drunken stampede of about sixty American paratroopers through the streets of Berchtesgaden. He slept through everything, even the howling and firing of rifles that occurred shortly after 0300 hours.
He was out cold, lost in a dreamless, spiderweb-thin state of unconsciousness, and nothing was capable of waking him but his internal alarm clock; the clock which, for a brief time that night, had ticked in the wrong direction.
Lipton was the only other man up at 0600 hours that morning. He sat comfortably at a table before an open window in the dining room, drinking coffee and watching the sky over the Alps begin to lighten. Winters sat down across from him and poured himself a cup of joe from the steaming carafe. “You’re up early,” he said amicably.
Lipton smiled over the rim of his mug. “That’s because I haven’t gone to bed yet, sir.”
“You’re kidding.” Winters poured cream into his cup and stirred.
“I don’t know how anyone could sleep through that racket last night.”
“Guess I must’ve been a little sick.”
“If you were, it doesn’t show. You look like a million bucks.” Lipton paused, his eyes resting on Winters’ face. He frowned slightly. “Maybe more. How’re you feeling?”
Winters took a cautious sip from the piping hot cup. “Great. Decent night’s sleep is good medicine.”
Lipton shook his head. “No, it’s more than that. You look different.”
Lipton mused for a moment, trying to put his finger on it. He gave up with a shrug. “I dunno, sir. I probably need some shut-eye myself.”
“Yeah, you and the rest of Easy. There any food around here? I feel like I haven’t eaten in a week.”
“Cooks probably have some leftovers if you can’t wait till breakfast. They’re set up in the kitchen in the back. I think Walter’s there if you wanna pester him for some grub.”
“Think I’ll go do that,” Winters said, scraping his chair back. His gut felt as hollow as a kettledrum. “Oh, by the way, you didn’t happen to see Nix last night, did you?”
Lipton tried to conceal his grin. “I last saw Captain Nixon around 2100 hours, sir. Captain Speirs and Lieutenant Welsh were helping him to bed.”
“Unconscious. Dead to the world. Hadn’t even had that much to drink.”
Winters sighed heavily. “I’ll go check up on him after I get some chow. If you see any of the other officers, tell them we’re having a meeting this afternoon in the study. We need to discuss how to maintain some order around here and see if Sink’s pinned down our next objective.”
“I’ll do just that, sir,” Lipton nodded.
Winters ambled out of the dining room and down the corridor that led to the kitchens. He gingerly sipped his coffee as he went, thinking about how great a stack of Mom’s buttermilk pancakes would be right now, when he passed by a broad mirror hanging on the wall, glancing at it briefly.
The sight of the man in the frame was so surprising that he stopped in his tracks, causing coffee to slosh over the rim of his cup. The hot liquid dribbled down his fingers, but he didn’t feel a thing—he was too engrossed in his reflection to notice anything else. He stepped closer to the mirror, his eyes wide and his lips parted in wonder.
It was the same person, that he was sure of. But something had changed. Something about Dick Winters was different.
He hesitantly reached up and poked his cheek. Felt the same. He leaned in closer, his nose only an inch or two from the glass, studying himself with as much care as a nervous teenage girl before her first prom.
The questions dawned on him gradually: what happened to the crow’s feet? And the fine wrinkles under his eyes? They were hardly there anymore. And that scratch he’d gotten on his forehead at Normandy; it was gone. His skin looked flawless, firm and freckled and untouched by creases or worry lines. And his hair—what the heck?—it was no longer the same dull, lusterless shade of apricot it had been since Bastogne. Now it was shiny and sleek and fiery orange.
Winters, certain by now that his body had undergone some sort of physical transformation within the last eight hours, became highly aware and conscious of every movement he made. He could feel the changes; his muscles felt stronger, fuller, more flexible. He figured maybe the sleep had done it, but it couldn’t possibly have been that rejuvenating. The faint stiffness that still lingered in his Carentan wound had vanished, as if the bullet had never hit his leg. Even his hands looked changed—the hands of a civilian, not a rifle-callused soldier.
Winters studied his reflection one more time, and then it finally struck him: he had seen this face before. He recalled it precisely, down to the last hair.
It was how he had looked while fixing his tie in the bathroom mirror at his parent’s house. The same day he had left for college.
He leaned back, ashen with fear.
In the mirror, nineteen-year-old Dick Winters leaned back, too.
A moment later the mirror was empty, and the sound of boots thudding rapidly down the hall faded with youthful, energetic haste.
The heavy wooden door to Nixon’s lavish bedroom busted inward with a loud bang. Winters leaped across the threshold and bounded toward the bed like a frightened deer, dodging the obscene number of liquor and wine bottles that stood watch on every available surface.
“Nix, wake up!” He grabbed the lump cocooned within the covers and shook it vigorously. “Something’s happened!” When there was no response, Winters grasped the sheets in his fists and yanked them down, not caring if his comrade was sleeping in the nude again.
“Get up, Nix! For crying out loud, something is seriously—”
Winters froze so completely that for a few seconds his heart ceased to beat.
Curled up in a soft nest of pillows, swimming in a pair of oversized PT shorts, lay a young boy, sleeping peacefully. Soft locks of dark brown hair lay scattered across the child’s forehead, spilling over his thick, well-defined eyebrows. His upturned nose still had that babyish curve to it, but it was definitely familiar. So were those lips. And that freckle on the right cheek. Dick remembered how he had made fun of it once upon a time. Hey Nix, how’s that wart/boil/carbuncle/lesion/leprosy coming along? I think it’s gotten bigger since yesterday. Thought of any names yet? (Winters normally wouldn’t ridicule physical traits that people couldn’t help, but Nixon had been calling him Firecrotch for two weeks and payback was long overdue. God, Officer Candidate School was a nightmare.)
Winters took an unsteady step backward, but his ankles suddenly couldn’t bear his weight—he stumbled and fell on his rear. “No,” he uttered, gazing at the little human being that couldn’t possibly be his best friend. “Oh my God, Nix . . .”
The boy stirred, apparently wakened by the thump Dick had made when he hit the rug (and most certainly not his frantic cries or shaking). The boy sat up and rolled his fist over his eyes, smiling cutely. His narrow chest was hairless and white, the dogtags around his neck hanging almost to his belly button. He was skinny but padded with baby fat (especially in his face—those cheeks were begging to be pinched), and he seemed to be in that awkward, knock-kneed stage between toddler and boy; Dick put him at about six or seven.
“Mornin’, Dick,” he said in a high, reedy voice that just barely held the timber of the man he’d become in twenty years. “You sleep on the floor or someth . . .” He frowned, going quiet.
Winters could see it in those familiar dark eyes, the same alarm and confusion that would soon unfold into wild, screaming hysteria. “Lew,” he said softly, “whatever you do, don’t panic.”
Fear was etched onto Nixon’s cherubic face. “Dick? What’s going on? Why’s everything so big? Why do I sound so funny? Why’s . . . oh Christ, my hands!”
“Lew, calm down—”
“What happened to my hands!” he yelled, his voice piercing and bright. Lord, his tantrums must have driven his parents nuts.
Winters crawled forward and laid his hands on Nixon’s shoulders. They practically spanned the breadth of his body. “Nix, listen to me. Something happened to us last night. Something changed us. It made us younger.”
Nixon’s eyes began to water, his features to twist, and Winters knew the kid was getting ready to burst into tears. “You don’t look younger. You look bigger!”
“I’m not bigger, Nix. You’re just smaller.”
The first fat, hot tears rolled down Nixon’s cheeks. “Dick, I’m scared! What happened to me? Why are my hands so small? Wh-why do I sound like this?” He sniffed, a wet, slurpy sound. “And what the hell am I crying for!?”
Winters didn’t know what to say or what to do at this point. All he could do was act upon his instincts, and his instincts told him to hug this child and get him as far away from Germany as possible. He didn’t have to do much; he just opened his arms and Nixon fell into them.
“Shh. It’ll be okay, Nix,” Winters murmured, stroking the boy’s dark hair. His skull felt so small, his bones so tiny and fragile. He could get killed out here. He was no match for anything. He could fall out of a tree and die. He could slip into a lake and drown. God oh God, this was no place for a kid. This was no place for Mrs Nixon’s baby boy.
Harry Welsh’s voice blurted outside the door, “Hey Nix! Rise and shine, buddy! It’s time to—” He appeared in the doorway and halted, blinking. “Dick? What’re you doin’ here? You seen Nix any—”
Nixon turned his tear-stained face toward Harry, and that was all he had to do.
“Oh my—” Welsh leaned up against the door frame to keep from falling, his face as white as paste. “Ohhhh boy.”