Before Christmas by Gosia Nealon

23 December 1943
Gestapo Headquarters on Szucha Avenue, Warsaw, Poland

An armed Nazi guard walks me through a maze of corridors into a small room. I detect a whiff of bleach that fails to mask the ominous smell of blood. Harsh light pours through the window.

The guard pushes me toward a chair with spots of brown paint peeling off across from a desk cluttered by issues of Wehrmacht magazine, a black telephone handset, and a lamp. A faded picture of Hitler on a wall gives a sickening sensation in my stomach.

Soon I hear the heavy click-click of heels on the corridor floor. The door swings wide open to reveal a fair-haired man in a gray uniform with a diamond-shaped SD insignia, accompanied by a severe-looking brunette. He pays no attention to me as he walks around the desk and settles in the large wooden chair. His female companion takes a seat at a small table with a typewriter.

Soon they are followed by a large, scowling Gestapo agent in a black leather jacket with a scar across his right cheek. He carries a whip and escorts a gaunt man in a torn charcoal suit who has black rings around his eyes and dried blood all over his head and hands. The butcher salutes the uniformed man and pushes his victim into the adjoining room, leaving the door open.

The uniformed man examines a file on his desk while his secretary inserts paper into the typewriter. He shuffles the file to the side, raises his pale blue eyes, and smiles at me before addressing me in German. “I’ve always admired smart women like you.” For a moment longer he smiles; then he stands up and walks toward me. “Your friend told me you are fluent in German. Is that right?” With his hooked nose, small eyes, and thin lips he reminds me of a falcon. Hitler’s falcon.

Every nerve in my body seems to shrink but I refuse to believe that someone sold me out. When I don’t answer, he leans towards me and runs his hand through my hair. “Little blonde with the most beautiful sapphire eyes.” His voice is quiet and tense, and his breath smells of coffee and cigarettes. “So precious.”

I swallow hard and pinche my lips shut to suppress the need to spit in his face. I wish I were somewhere else, far away from this evil man.

The sound of blows followed by a shriek comes from the other room, tearing at my heart.

He steps away. “We want to save you, Krystyna.” He pauses and motions to the other room with the open door. “I want to spare you this agony. If this man doesn’t talk soon, they will crush his genitals, knock out his teeth, gouge his eyes out.”

I hear curt questions and the murmur of low answers coming from the next room, but then the crack of the whip and a man’s sob. I grip the sides of the chair, unable to breathe.

“Let us save you, Krystyna. Tell me to what location you were bringing the pistols: the names and meeting points,” he says, a meaningful look in his eyes. “If you do just that, I promise to let you go home to your family for Christmas.”

When I left my home yesterday, everything seemed fine, but only until I noticed the two men in black suits following me. And just when I was sure I had lost them, they swarmed around me like an undeserved curse.

“The bag is not mine.” I pause and glance at my white apron. “I work as a nurse in the hospital in Mokotow, and I found the bag on the way there. I had no idea it was filled with guns.”

His expression hardens, and his eyes glitter with anger. “Give us just those few details we need, and you will be spared.”

I hear a splash of water in the other room, but there are no more groans or yelps of pain. Hot tears well up in my eyes, but I avoid his gaze. “I’m telling you the truth.”

He turns to his secretary and says in a cold voice, “Inga, please walk her to the next room. It looks like she needs some encouragement.”

The round-faced woman gives a satisfied smirk before rising.

My spine stiffens at his words. My last spark of hope vanishes. Tomorrow will be Christmas Eve. Mama will make pierogi with mushroom and kraut. My little brother, Jakub, will stare into the sky and yelp with excitement when he spots the first star. After dinner, my family will sing Christmas carols and open simple gifts. I got a wooden airplane toy for Jakub, the exact one he has been dreaming about, a cozy sweater for my mother, and a soft scarf for my father. But I will not be there. The evil woman pushes me into the butcher’s clutches.

Gosia Nealon lives in Lake Ronkonkoma, New York, with her husband and two sons. Her work was recently awarded Fourth Place in the Genre Short Story category in the 89th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. Her previous work had appeared in (mac)ro(mic), CafeLit and The Fiction Pool.