by Damien Galeone
As Bert Jackson stormed the beach he couldn’t get the thought of his mother’s kitchen windows out of his head. The windows were so real that it was as if they were directly in front of him. They had blue wooden trim and the latch on the inside that had been turned to the left before mom had gone to bed. Behind the windows the tips of the spider and parsley plants spread above the kitchen sink. The stone wall around the windows was well-worn, in some places covered with small white circles, marking where he and his brother, Maurice, had pelted it with their baseball. The windows glimmered in the sunlight; his mother was behind the glare, calling them into lunch. A lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches and chicken broth. Maybe an apple or, if they were lucky, chocolate pudding.
And now Maurice was in the Solomon Islands and things were exploding all around Bert. Men were sent into the air and rained down in pieces. But for some reason he couldn’t get his mother’s kitchen windows out of his mind’s eye. Specifically, he realized, it was the left window he was now drawn to; the one that remained unopened most of the year. In its corner was perched a robin’s nest and his mother wouldn’t dare disturb the little guys and their eggs. So the nest sat there and Bert had become so used to them that he said hello to them when he poured a drink of water at the kitchen sink. Sometimes, he was sure, they chirped hello back. Presently, he pulled himself out of the water, reached a beach barrier and peered from below his helmet at the bluffs and the steady stream of fire coming from them. Then he wet himself.
Hans Schmidt had been waiting all night for the invasion. His superior officers had roused them from their bunks and told them early that morning that the expected invasion had begun with paratroopers inland and that all the shit in the world was coming their way. Man, he thought, here it comes. He had written five letters: one to his mother; two to his sisters, Greta and Anja; to his grandmother; and one to his closest childhood friend Jakub, who was on the Eastern front and therefore probably dead or wishing he was so, but no matter. After writing the letters he ate some bread and sausages, which only crept down his dry throat with the help of large gulps from his canteen. Then, around 2 a.m., he joined his crew on the MG42 on the cliff and awaited his certain death.
Things on the beach were terribly hectic. Bert was shuffling forward in the sand towards the bluffs at the behest of a captain who was bravely squatting behind the relative safety of a large rock. Around him bad things were going down. Men were screaming, blown apart, staring around them at body parts that had moments before been attached to them. The screaming was unendurable; Bert stuffed a finger in his ear and shook all over. The constant barrage of mortar grenades jolted his body endlessly and sometimes threw him to one side or the other. After each time he was thrown, he’d check his body hesitantly, terrified that one time a part of him would be missing. But each time, as if by some miracle, he’d find himself whole and once again inch forward to the bluffs.
Hans was the number three man on the MG42, which meant that he was the spotter. He watched through binoculars, though they weren’t really needed, at the waves of men piling up or scattering on the beach. The men twisted and crawled on the sand beneath them. Through the binoculars he could see some of their mouths moving and he wondered in horror if they were calling for their mothers. The gunner and loader were working frantically, picking off soldiers and passing ammunition through the weapon, respectively. Hans muttered aloud, though it was drowned out by the screech of the MG42 and all the other weaponized mayhem, when his job had gone from watching birds to aiding in the destruction of other human beings. Three years before, when the German army was not yet desperate for men, he’d been the head ornithologist at the München Zoo; the binoculars he used disturbingly reminded him of that. He frowned at the misfortune of his time.
Hans would have to find another time for such morose reflection, since in the fever pitch of the firefight, the gunner and loader disappeared from his nest. Hans stared. The men’s uniforms were still present, but the men were no longer in them. Hmm, he thought. Nobody told us this was possible during our combat training. But something didn’t seem right and, working on his ornithologist instinct, he brought his binoculars back up to his eyes and watched his stunned and naked colleagues standing on the beach with the Americans. Hans watched a burly American sergeant drop his jaw and his rifle momentarily before throwing his helmet at his loader, Franz, who, for his part, deftly covered his genitalia with his palms.
Moments later, Hans’ bunker was wriggling with two nude Americans, as if there had been some sort of an arranged prisoner exchange. The Americans weren’t quite sure what to do, but one of them kept his head, pushed Hans down, and manned the turret. He aimed it towards the German ranks and pulled the trigger, an action which would have caused a splendid level of destruction, had bullets poured from the muzzle and not a rather beautiful arc of dandelions. The American stared on in absolute wonder and the guy behind him screamed “Oh crap!”
Hans said “Was ist…” but was cut off by a series of explosions from bombs hitting the flats behind the cliffs. He pulled his helmet as close to his head as his skull would allow and curled himself into the fetal position. The naked Americans did the same.
In the next short while, artillery shells became ping pong balls, chewing gum and confetti, several M1s miraculously became batons, and helmets turned into floppy pepperoni pizzas. Men on both sides of the beach marveled at this new realm of battle trauma.
Bert had not pulled his trigger once and had spent most of the battle curled into a ball after sprinting from hiding spot to hiding spot, so nobody really missed him or his performance when he disappeared from the beach altogether. When he pulled himself out of the fetal position, he smelled German sausages and shivered on a cold metal floor. He then looked up to regard two enormous creatures who had several mouths, cat-slit eyes, and lots and lots of nipples. One stood above him; the other sat at a high-tech console. On the giant display facing the console, Bert could see the battle raging in all of its nouveau weirdness. He was on the bridge of some strange craft. He breathed once and addressed his maker.
“So, I guess this is Heaven, huh?” Bert said and looking down, became very aware of his retracted member. Unable to think of anything else to say he stood with his back straight, as his mother had always told him to, and spoke. “It’s usually bigger than this.”
The creature turned from the console and interrupted the other creature who had taken in a deep breath, puffed out its massive orange chest with its 24 nipples and scanned the tiny human’s skinny, shivering form.
The puffed-out creature looked irritated. This wasn’t bad in Bert’s view, as it had lost its look of extreme anger. In any event, seconds later, Hans Schmidt was standing next to Bert. The two creatures then engaged in a heated argument, which is identifiable in many languages and cultures, whatever their galactic origins.
The German and American stared at each other quietly. Hans shot a concerned look at Bert, who replied with a shrug and a shake of his head, self-consciously covering his privates with a hand.
Bert’s jaw hung open. “Was ist das?” Hans asked, terrified. The creature, whose annoyance was clearly becoming exacerbated, pointed a gelatinous finger at them and spoke in its deepest, most serious voice, “Do not move.” It then turned and joined the other one at the console, leaning in conspiratorially and, to the great consternation of the frozen soldiers, casting the occasional glance back at them. It doesn’t look happy, Bert thought. After what seemed an eternity to the frightened soldiers, it returned and was holding one of its chins contemplatively. It cleared its throat and spoke.
“We have made a decision, earth creatures. You shall compete with each other in an Earth game of our choice and whoever wins that competition we shall name their team to be the winner of this, um, contest here on this beach. Understood?”
Hans and Bert stared like terrified animals. One of the creatures let out what sounded to the soldiers to be a sharp giggle. The creature who had giggled spoke into its own machine. “I knew you wouldn’t explain it well,” it said.
The annoyed creature stuck a finger into the air once again at the soldiers and did its best to smile, exposing hundreds of jagged teeth and an inner-tentacle. “Please excuse me for a moment.” It stepped over to the console again. Hans turned to Bert, collecting his composure enough to remember his university English. “Do you know what happens here?”
“I have no idea,” Bert said, “but I think we’re in trouble.”
“Me also.” Hans shivered and goose bumps crawled down his spine. Other than the sounds of arguing, the vessel was totally quiet. Though they could see the mayhem on the beach, they couldn’t hear a sound of it.
The annoyed one returned; slobber dripped from its lower lips. It smiled again, and again the soldiers’ stomachs turned at the sight of the rows of sharp and twisted shark’s teeth. “Hello again, Earth creatures.” It waited expectantly.
Hans glanced at Bert and then said, “Hallo.” The creature nodded and turned to Bert.
“Oh, hello,” Bert said.
“Greetings.” From behind it the other creature snorted quietly as its face twisted into an enraged grimace. It drew a breath and continued. “Greetings. We see that there is a contest of battle on this beach. We have decided to stop it. So you two shall compete in a contest on our ship and the winner’s team shall be the victor of this battle. Do you understand?”
Hans nodded tentatively; Bert nodded.
“What shall their contest be?” the creature asked its colleague at the console.
“Let’s see.” It was scanning a list. “How about this one. Yes, it looks good.” It squinted at the screen. “Mother May I?”
Bert said. “Mother may I?”
“Yes,” said the creature with the list. “It has been decided.”
The rules were laid out and Hans followed as carefully as possible and then stuck his hand into the air.
“What is it?” the creature in front of them asked.
“This game is not okay,” Hans said.
“Because I do not speak English very good and this is a game of English language.”
The creature scratched its sloped dome. “So it is.” It retreated to the console. It returned a few moments later. “Then the game shall be rock, paper, scissors.”
“Wait a sec,” Bert said. “That’s not a real game; it’s just a game of chance.”
“Fine!” it roared, seemingly shaking the vessel. This time the soldiers heard hushed whispers and grunts from the console. It returned.
“This is it. We have decided on a thumb war.”
The rules of play were explained to Bert and to Hans, who was grateful that the creature could use its machine to speak German. The two soldiers were given a few moments to gain their composure and then they were led to a flat metal disk that stuck out from the wall. A table. They sat on bitterly cold plates positioned on either side and placed their elbows on the table. They stared across at each other, neither really believing what was happening to him.
“Good luck,” said Bert and then felt stupid about it. The whole war was firmly placed on his thumb and not General Eisenhower nor Hitler had anything to say about it. Hans laughed at the whole concept and grinned at the naked American sitting across from him. “I only wanted to watch birds,” he said.
Bert, not quite picking up the reference but fully understanding the meaning behind it, grinned. “There’s a robin’s nest in our kitchen window.”
“That’s right; how’d you know?”
“I am seeing them all morning,” Hans said. “Where do you from?”
The creature watched them closely, but allowed them to continue.
“The Turdus migratorius. I hope to one day see them in their natural habitat.”
Bert smiled at Hans. “I’d give anything to see them again.”
The monster above them cleared his throat and the men latched hands as if comrades and began. “One, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war….” The Battle above Normandy began.
Hans’ elbow was twisted to the right and Bert’s face was red and contorted into a twisted grin. His tongue jutted from between his lips. The creature watching the two was transfixed on the action; its column of eyes had grown large. It was so entranced that when the one at the console called, it didn’t notice. But finally, when it did hear, it spoke in such haste that it forgot about the translation machine, which said:
“Not now! Can’t you see what is happening here? This is great!”
The other one barked.
The creature stopped refereeing and turned to its colleague, who now wore an expression of terror. Before the machine dropped from the creature’s hands it said weakly, “Dad?”
The bellow from an unseen third party shook the ship and knocked Bert and Hans clear off their plates. The referee creature excreted something that smelled alarmingly like pineapple juice and the other screeched in such a high-pitched tone that it rang in the ears of Hans and Bert for minutes afterward. In the center of the main deck appeared a magnificent creature of such monstrous proportions that it seemed to take up the whole vessel. The creature began a tirade that shrank the two creatures and the humans could only shield themselves with their arms on the freezing metal floor. Bert wanted to but couldn’t cry; it was such an unusual situation that there was no point of reference with which to compare. When the tirade was over, the large creature disappeared and the children were left sobbing at the console. One pressed buttons and pulled levers. The referee creature slinked over to the humans, once again picked up the translator machine and, after a moment of quiet reflection, spoke into it. “There has been a change of plans.”
“What?” Bert asked through the nook of his elbow.
“You have to go back now,” it said.
“What,” Hans asked as he sat up in small increments, “what will we tell another people?”
“There will be no need.”
As Bert Jackson stormed the beach, with his underwear inexplicably turned inside out, he couldn’t help but think of his mother’s kitchen windows and the faint yet piercing chirps coming from the nest in the corner. The faint whiff of pepperoni pizza hung in the air and other men would say later that they’d had the oddest sensation of déjà vu; other survivors would go on to say that for some unknown reason they had gotten the urge to play a game of ping pong. Others had felt cold and naked in the June air. Hans Schmidt was found later among a cluster of dead and bullet-ridden Germans. He was frozen in a curled-up ball behind some sandbags, a half-loaded machine gun resting to his right and pointing to the sky. His stiff right thumb was perched in the attack position, his blue eyes pale against the afternoon light that tumbled in over the water.
About the Creator
Damien Galeone lives in Prague where he teaches at Metropolitan University Prague and writes ESL coursebooks and articles. His work has appeared in Sparknotes blog, Defenestration Magazine, Hippocampus, and Mental Floss. He writes a substack called Hammered History and a blog that gets almost 8 visitors daily, many of whom are not his mother. He currently spends a lot of time in his kitchen, where he marvels daily at the miracle of the elastic waistband.
World's Shortest Creator Interview
What's your favorite imaginary sound, and why?
My favorite imaginary sound is the one supposedly made when two hamsters are said to connect on Hamster Tinder. It would go like this: scroomdoomdoom SCROOMDOOMDOOOOOM!! in the mythological Standard Western Hamsterian. The closest approximate sound we have in the known acoustic universe is a conglomeration of Skype’s sign-off whine, at the pitch an English major makes when he realizes he’ll never get a job, at the resonance heard at 6:30 in Meatloaf’s "Paradise by the Dashboard Light." As hamsters are notoriously picky when choosing mates (and, oddly, sunglasses), this imaginary sound is one of the most hypothetically rare in all of the fictive universes.
Which word do you think is most overused in the language right now, and which word is least appreciated?
Least appreciated: Jerry
About the Artists
Our very own D Chang is a designer and game writer from Austin, Texas. His short fiction has appeared in Avast, Ye Airships! and the Cryptopolis science fiction anthology, and you can get a free demo of his janky retro JRPG, which was formerly on Steam. He does the Space Squid illustrations, editing, and other squid stuff.