By Paul Hynes
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 32nd contest was Steampunk.
Pete smiled at the reassuring click of the shutter falling into place over the storefront, it seemed he wouldn’t have to wrestle with it tonight.
The sleepy Pennsylvanian county seat of Carlisle didn’t really require shops with shutters but Pete’s Dad had always felt that it made the storefront look more professional, like Sanderson’s Seeds was going into competition with Chrysler or IBM. It was funny really, but he missed the old man and liked to think he was honouring his fuss.
It was for this same reason he was knocking off at 4 exactly even though he hadn’t had a real customer for over an hour. A rush of orders and deliveries in the early afternoon usually wound down to gardeners and hobbyists by this time. The seed store he had inherited did okay but it seemed most of his customers came in to talk. Farmers always liked to talk to someone who wasn’t one of them but knew enough about the industry that their anecdotes wouldn't be difficult to understand. Pete was a good listener and thus a good businessman.
It was a pleasant September evening and he felt like a walk to take it in. He was comfortable with not heading home immediately. Mary was aware of his tendency to wander and Pete knew that as long as he was home in time for dinner he wouldn’t be in any trouble. He strolled through downtown Carlisle, smiling occasionally when he passed a customer or an acquaintance on his way towards Ted’s, the diner his walks would usually take him to.
Ted’s was where many of Pete’s friends congregated, and it was good to pop in to see how things were, even if just for a cup of coffee. The place hadn’t changed much from when Ted had first moved to Carlisle from Pittsburgh following the war. One could have guessed it was still the fifties by looking at it, if it weren’t for the ubiquitous Rockefeller ‘64 placards that could be seen in the street outside. Pete opening the door invited a friendly murmur although Ted had barely poured him a coffee before leaning in conspiratorially.
“There’s a girl here askin’ for you.” Ted nudged over to one of the booths where a dark haired woman gazed at her coffee, apparently deep in thought.
Peter was bewildered, he didn’t recognise her although those at the counter now also leaned in. Apparently his arrival had been anticipated to help solve this mystery.
“How’s that?” Pete asked.
“Didn’t say, but when she asked if you were around I said you might be in later. She seemed keen on meeting you.”
“You could have sent her to the store.”
“Thought about that but it didn’t seem to have anything to do with seeds. Seems personal.”
Pete looked at the woman again and it now became clear she was aware of being the subject of the conversation.
“Strange accent, think she might be a kraut.” Ted added.
This was a possibility that didn’t sit well with him but the woman was staring at him now and so he decided to get to the bottom of it. The schoolboy jibes of encouragement along with threats of what Mary would do to him when she found out about his German girlfriend were confined to background noise in his head as Pete tried to consider what the woman might want him for.
“Can I help you ma’am?”
“Are you Peter Sanderson?”
Her voice did indeed have a European sound to it which may well have been German, clear and neutral but certainly not from round these parts. Her clothes and hairstyle looked like she might be from a city or maybe even from across the Atlantic.
“At your service.”
“I was wondering if you could help me-please, do sit down,” She motioned across the table whilst putting a satchel on top of it.
“My name is Nina Maur, I don’t know if you recognise that name? Maur?”
“Can’t say I do…” Pete went to go on but she had already produced a black and white photo which she placed before him.
It depicted three people in uniforms, all with the same dark hair and looks. It seemed clear they were relations. A young girl beamed towards the camera in between two men who appeared to be in their twenties, both grinning. They might have looked dashing in their uniforms, had they not been adorned with swastikas.
Pete frowned, he had an idea where this was going.
“That was me in the middle,” the women said sheepishly, “and those were my brothers; Bastian and Rudi. I realise how this photo may look but I promise you none of us were Nazis. They were conscripted into the Nazi’s war, just as I was made to join the League of German Girls. Before the war I had two brothers, now I am an only child. I have no fond memories of this time but I wanted to show you this picture as I think you might have seen Bastian in a similar uniform.”
For a moment all Pete could see was a flight suit and its contents, then he was back with her.
“I’m sorry ma’am but-”
“You were involved with the incident, yes? The German plane?”
Pete lowered his voice.
“Who told you that?”
The German plane. This was what Pete had been dreading ever since Ted had commented on the woman’s accent. The only attempted Nazi air raid against the continental United States had been a failure, one that had concluded in his own backyard and under his watch.
“The museum curator told a lot of stories, not all of them made sense.”
Pete gave a resigned sigh. That would be Frisby. The man was notorious locally for his seeming need to tell tall tales and as such he had cornered the market for tourists who were interested not only in Carlisle’s role as a historic colonial township but also in what had happened to the German bomber that had crashed there. To call him a museum curator was charitable but he did have a gift shop adjacent to a patch of waste ground where he claimed the site of the crash to have been. It was ultimately harmless and most people locally were happy to indulge the man, Pete included, but if Frisby was citing him as a source for his tales he reckoned he might need to have a word with him.
“You were right to not believe everything Mr Frisby told you, he’s well-known for exaggerating I’m afraid.”
She didn’t seem disheartened at that.
“Were you there though?”
“I was but I’m afraid I can’t go into it.”
As far as Pete knew he genuinely couldn’t.
He had barely been out of school when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour and like most young men at that time he had been desperate to hit back at the Japanese. That hadn’t stopped his father from insisting he needed Pete’s help in the seed store however and when the draft failed to call he was left to do his bit on the homefront. He had volunteered for Civil Defence as a member of the Ground Observer Corps, tasked with keeping an eye out for anything suspicious in the sky in the name of preventing another enemy sneak attack.
To that end Pete had spent the months immediately after Pearl nervously watching the skies. He had studied what types of German aircraft there were and the distinguishing features that might tip him off to one which wasn’t previously recorded. He had scolded people for not maintaining a blackout in spite of their complaints, even if he had felt silly doing so. Then the war had begun to turn in the Allies favour and his role became more of a chore, updating the regional headquarters with reports of nothing suspicious every other week, then every other month, until the Corps itself had been disbanded just before D-Day.
It made sense, any danger to the mainland United States appeared long past and as Allied troops had marched into Paris that Summer it seemed like the Germans themselves wouldn’t last much longer.
“I can certainly say it was a shock, seeing a plane fall out of the sky like that. And to then find out it was German-”
Pete could remember his confusion at the panicked call from the United States Army Air Force that September afternoon. The sightings of the unidentified craft were already piling up from casual observers and thus they were hurriedly contacting anyone trained for the task. He had run from the store to grab his binoculars and notebook from home, just in time to realise he didn’t need them.
The largest plane Pete had ever seen was well below the clouds, from a distance it appeared to be hopping on the horizon. To his horror he realised it wasn’t far off from doing so as it drew nearer Carlisle. He could hear screams from downtown as it glided silently above his head, no more than a few dozen feet from the ground, before he heard an almighty crash in the fields not far from his parent’s home.
He had been the first one there, everyone else appeared to be in shock. It was clear no attempt at a landing had been made but the craft was in good shape, considering.
Pete had done his best to control the situation, instructing the crowd that had inevitably gathered that this would need to be investigated and they shouldn’t jump to conclusions. He managed to prevent any souvenir collecting before the army arrived, and more importantly he had prevented anyone else from seeing what he had seen.
The army trucks that subsequently surrounded the crash site did this job for him and Pete found himself being thanked for his quick thinking and composure from an embarrassed Colonel. The man had also sworn him to secrecy about the affair for good measure although he had gone without clarifying what exactly Pete could say.
Pete had played his cards close to his chest since then and eventually his peers had given up on trying to get information out of him. The journalists had been more persistent but there were dozens of townsfolk willing to share their own exclusive accounts with the German raiders and by the time those came to nothing it seemed they had forgotten about him. Yet here he was being put on the spot after all this time.
“Let me show you what I have found out then.” Nina pulled several worn out documents from her satchel and laid them in front of Pete, she prodded them earnestly but he refused to look.
“In Germany we didn’t know it was a plane at first. The Nazis told us they had fired a new type of rocket at America. We received the news about Bastian a few months later. He was reported to be missing in action. That was all they would tell us. My father tried to get more information and was told instead that Bastian had died in an accident.”
She opened the documents despite Pete’s reluctance, they had been typed in German with swastikas at the top of each page.
“An accident is different from missing in action. My father asked about this. Then he was told to stop asking questions. And he did. Things were getting worse for the Nazis and to ask too many questions could lead to you being called a defeatist. And then you’d be dead.”
Wearily she moved the papers to one side and took out another photo.
“After the war I was able to get into contact with other pilots who had known Bastian during the war. Their stories changed but with enough rumours I was able to find out he had been made part of the Amerikabomber project. We found out after the war that it had been a plane the Nazis had sent to America and I think Bastian was the one who piloted it.
The picture was of eight men in flight suits, there was a circle around the one she believed to be her brother. Pete remembered all to well their clothing and the giant bomber that loomed over them.
He pushed the photo away.
“It was a miracle that it crashed where it did. A minute earlier and who knows how many people would have been killed. If your brother died trying to kill people then I’m sorry, but I don’t feel bad about his mission failing.”
The German woman’s eyes widened at that but Pete didn’t give her a chance to respond. He didn’t want a scene. It was a misunderstanding, he explained to Ted, before walking back to the store at a less than leisurely pace.
Getting into his truck Pete contemplated driving to the gift shop to give Frisby a piece of his mind. Perhaps he’d take it out on the store itself if Frisby had left for the day.
He gathered his thoughts and instead opted to go in the direction of home. Not back to Mary but to his parent’s old home, and the fields behind it.
Unlike the waste ground where Frisby had set-up shop, the actual crash site was good farmland and had been put back into use the following season. Pete wished it hadn’t, staring out into endless rows of sunflowers felt inappropriate somehow. The scene mockingly hung over his own memories.
“Is this where it happened?” A German accented voice asked from behind him.
Pete flinched. He hadn’t heard a car engine but there was Nina Maur standing behind him all the same, her features paler in light of the setting sun.
“Rudi died in Siberia ten years ago, I have nothing to mourn him with other than memories. If there was something for Bastian, I was just wondering if maybe,
She paused to cover her tears. Pete faced the sunflowers instead.
“Your brother died before the plane hit the ground.”
The sniffling behind him stopped.
“The plane was flying lower and lower for over an hour, that was one thing every ground observer the army had spoken to commented on; it didn’t make a sound. A plane that size should have been deafening but it didn’t make a sound. There’s no way a plane can stay in the air for that long with its engines off so there was something making those propellers turn.”
“Did you find out?” Nina seemed to have composed herself despite her face reddening with tears.
Pete said the word as though he were cursing. He had anticipated Nina’s confused reaction.
“Yeah, yeah I know. It seems outdated, silly almost. Hell, even back then the Nazis had their rockets and jets. But they attacked Pennsylvania with a steam powered plane. Or at least they tried to.”
“We had run out of oil.” Nina stated neutrally, joining the dots.
“Yeah, or at least that was what made the most sense to us. Thing is they did a rushed job. And that’s why I didn’t want to talk to you about your brother.”
The craft had been in good shape after the crash, notwithstanding the gaping holes in the fuselage where the field had ground it to a halt. It was thanks to those that Pete had been able to see the bodies. Their eyes were grey and cloudy. The skin, where exposed, reminded him of a cooked lobster though the smell was more reminiscent of roast meat. The bodies had come apart very easily it seemed. The faces were placid all the same, their nerve endings had boiled first.
It was the sort of scene he wouldn’t have wanted anyone else to see, let alone the sister of one of the crew. But she had been persistent.
“I don’t know if it was the turbine or the ventilation or whatever else, I’m not an engineer but it got too hot for anyone to survive from what I saw. It looked like it had happened quickly if that’s any-”
Nina stepped alongside him and let out a sigh, as if relieved.
“Thank you.” She whispered finally before walking in amongst the sunflowers, plucking one out of the ground.
In the twilight she was alone in the field where her brother had fallen from the sky. Nina held the sunflower in her hand before folding it carefully and putting it in her satchel.
In a different light, by itself, the new scene didn’t seem so bad to Pete.