“Vistula” Storylandia, Issue 27, Wapshott Press Journal of Fiction NOW ON SALE!

Vistula

Private Johnny Zewiski stands above a polluted river, his hands tied behind his back. It’s a cold afternoon in war-torn Warsaw, Poland. In front of him, beyond the river, smoldering ruins echo the sound of small arms fire. Behind him, a Nazi machine gun crew hastily assembles their weapon, anxious to finish the execution and get back to shelter.

Ex-private, actually. Johnny had deserted his post and fled his Army unit under wartime circumstances, thereby sealing his fate, no matter who took the trouble to capture and put him front of a firing squad. He fled with honorable intentions, he thought, but the war didn’t care about honor.

His only friend, Jakub, another displaced Polish-American, stands next to him, kvetching about unrequited miracles.

Johnny’s journey, from his boyhood home in Allentown, Pennsylvania to Warsaw, is a crazy ride of miraculous encounters. It begins in Tunisia, then across the North Sea, through the heart of Nazi-occupied Poland, and winds up in the arms of the embattled Polish resistance who are desperately trying to defend their capital until the Allied armies can save them from the Nazi onslaught.

He dreams of home while waiting for the bullets to fly; his mother and father who cried while their former homeland turned to rubble, his brothers who warned him not to go near the recruiting station and his girlfriend who followed him in his tortured dreams and begged him to come home.

When the machine gun fires, Johnny’s fate takes yet another turn and he begins a new journey that’s just as dangerous and ill-conceived as the last.

Where to buy: Amazon (eligible for free shipping) and Kindle.
The Wapshott Press, publisher of Storylandia, is now an Amazon Charity. Yay! So if you could please choose Wapshott Press as your charity when you’re shopping at Amazon, it will help us a lot. Here’s the link to make Wapshott Press your charity, and you only have to register once.


Sample pages

Where to buy: Amazon (eligible for free shipping) and Kindle.
The Wapshott Press, publisher of Storylandia, is now an Amazon Charity. Yay! So if you could please choose Wapshott Press as your charity when you’re shopping at Amazon, it will help us a lot. Here’s the link to make Wapshott Press your charity, and you only have to register once.

Help the Wapshott Press publish books that should be published! The Wapshott Press, publisher of Storylandia, is now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Tax deductible donations can be made here: Wapshott Press Donations and thank you so much for your support! (PS. Paypal takes zero commissions from your donation to the Wapshott Press.)

Very large excerpt:

VISTULA

On a river bank near Warsaw

THEY LINED US ALONG THE TOP OF A STEEP RIVER BANK, a long drop above the river. Thirty of us faced the water, hands tied behind our backs with wire. The men around me coughed, cried and prayed, making low murmuring noises, barely audible. It was cold, of course. It’s always cold in Poland. Even their pathetic summers are a joke compared to Pennsylvania’s hot sultry days.

Across the river, lights from the few buildings still standing in the Zoliborz district twinkled in the weak winter twilight. Shadows hid the bombed-out neighborhoods, the smoke, the smoldering ruins. The pop, pop, pop of small arms fire broke the stillness. I instinctively identified the weapon, a Strumgewehr 44. The sound was strangely comforting, knowing I wasn’t the target.

Blue chunks of ice bumped and grated against each other in the swift current below me. The river would be frozen solid by now if it weren’t for the tons of war waste and chemicals. When the sun reflected off the river just right, the water took on the green tint of anti-freeze.

Listening to the ice, I shut my eyes and composed myself, thinking about my last day at home.

My two brothers and I were skylarking and fooling around downtown Allentown. It was early December, Sunday, the seventh, 1941, and it was beginning to snow.

We’d said we were going Christmas shopping. Papa told us to watch out for pickpockets while mama cautioned us to behave. When we got off the trolley, we saw an Army recruiting office.

While we sat on benches outside Leopold’s Deli with greasy Polish dogs in our hands, everything changed. News about Pearl Harbor came from the deli’s radio. While my brothers argued about what to do next, I ran to that recruiting office and never looked back.

Allentown

“WHERE’D THAT COME FROM?” Me and my brothers were on our way to town and I’d gone ahead, mingling with a crowd of families on their way to church. I stopped to stare– a little kid bumped into me. Her mom apologized and gave the kid’s arm a jerk. I paid no attention, because my eyes were riveted on the Army recruiting office across the street from the courthouse on Hamilton Street.

It used to be Dominico’s Five and Dime. Now it was all lit up with soldiers inside and people milling around the door. A poster in the front window claimed, ‘Uncle Sam Wants YOU.’ Considering the season, Uncle Sam kinda looked like Santa Claus, but without the cheery smile.

Most of the shops in downtown Allentown were closed, on account of it being Sunday, but the main streets were all lit up and there was enough going on to keep us occupied.

It started to snow. I pulled down the brim of my cap and buttoned my argyle sweater. My girlfriend, Rosie, had given me the matching sweater and cap for my seventeenth birthday. They weren’t especially warm, but they meant a lot to me. Rosie kissed me when she gave me the package. Right in front of my parents and brothers. I got a lot of ribbing about that later, but I could tell both brothers were impressed. Impressed and jealous.

The aroma of grilled onions coming from down the street made my mouth water, even though it was still officially morning.

“Peanut! Where are you?” My brothers shouted from a block away. Albert and Theo Zewiski were both older and stronger than me. Al, the eldest, was nineteen. Six feet tall, he was the pride of the family. Theo, eighteen, was shorter, but he made up for his shrimpy, skinny frame with a mischievous mind and a flair for sadism.

We had planned to leave right after the eight a.m. Sunday Mass, but Mama made us come home first and have some breakfast. “Save you some money,” she said over a skillet popping with fried eggs and bacon. “Otherwise, you’ll be hungry as soon as you get there and waste your money on food instead of Christmas presents.”

I had to chuckle. That was the story all of us agreed on to keep the peace. Otherwise, our parents would never approve of us wasting our time and money on foolishness like arcade games and Polish sausages from Leopold’s, especially Papa.

The old man rocked in his chair, a cup of coffee in one hand, his pipe in the other, while we gobbled up our food. “Back in the old country, we didn’t have a town to go to, much less any money to waste,” he said, pointing his pipe at us.

‘Back in the old country’ was Papa’s favorite thing to say about anything we did that he disapproved of.

Theo never missed an opportunity to rebel. “Back in the blah, blah, blah,” he mumbled, crouched over his plate so Papa couldn’t hear.

Mama did, but she rolled her eyes and pretended not to notice.

The old country was a mysterious place to me. My brothers too, or so they said. We knew the name of the town where Mama and Papa grew up, we celebrated the big Catholic holidays with Polish embellishments and we’d learned a few Polish words, but that was it. Mama insisted we speak English in the house and ‘be American.’

We’d been talking more about Poland since the German invasion. Mama cried sometimes when she read letters from her sister in Warsaw. We knew Papa’s uncle had died while fighting the German army, but Mama said we should never to bring it up.

After breakfast, Albert and Theo had to promise they’d keep an eye on me.

“Keep little Johnny safe and don’t let him out of your sight,” Mama had shouted from the kitchen.

I cringed and avoided eye-contact with my brothers. We stood in the doorway, itching to take off. Theo jabbed me in the back and made a smirking noise.

“Yes, Mama,” Al said. “All we’re going to do is some Christmas shopping.”

Papa sucked on his pipe and scowled. He knew Christmas shopping was the last thing on our minds. “Stay out of the way of those cops,” he’d said. He cast a firm stare at Theo. “And you stay out of trouble.”

We promised to be home before dinner.

“Look out for pick-pockets!” was the last thing I heard Papa say as we raced around the corner toward the trolley stop.

“HEY PIPSQUEAK,” Al shouted a second time. “We can’t see you!”

I kept quiet and concentrated on the recruiting office. You gotta be eighteen. They’ll kick me out on my butt the minute I walk in the door. I sighed, then caught sight of Theo.

“There you are.” Theo dashed around a line of children holding hands, all dressed in their Sunday best, and grabbed my shoulder. He followed my stare and regarded the recruiting poster. “You gotta be kidding…”

Al grabbed my other shoulder. His grip tighter than Theo’s. “Whaddya think you’re doin’?” Al was breathing hard. I knew he was anxious. “You get yourself lost the moment we’re off the trolley?”

“I ain’t lost.” I shrugged the two hands off me.

Theo motioned toward the recruiting office. “He was lookin’ over there.”

Al studied the brightly lit storefront. “Where’d that come from?” he murmured.

“I know, right?” I said. “Just last week it was an abandoned shell. Those guys move fast.”

Theo laughed. “And it’ll probably be gone tomorrow.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Al replied and shook his head. He looked at me. “What are you doin’ lookin’ over there anyways? We’re supposed to be Christmas shopping.”

Theo let out with another of his heartless, mocking chuckles. He pulled my cap over my eyes. “I bet he wants to enlist. Be the hero of the family.”

Al’s eyes got big. “Are you crazy? You’re barely seventeen, in case you’ve forgotten. They’d kick you out on your butt before you got through the front door.”

I straightened my cap. “I look like I’m eighteen and I can lie as good as either of you.”

“Like hell,” Theo said. “With that stupid sweater? You look more like eight than eighteen.”

“Number Two.” I snarled back and punched Theo, but before I could break away, Al grabbed me around the waist and lifted me off my feet.

“Steady, little brother. You’re not getting out of my sight again. What are you so hot under the collar about anyways? The Army’s no place for shrimps.”

“I have my reasons, and I ain’t no shrimp.”

The bells at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church tolled through downtown. The jostling crowd began to hurry.

Al brushed snow off his trousers.

I glared at him and took out my handkerchief to wipe my face. I was perspiring in spite of the cold.

“It’s been two years now and I’ve been listening to Papa talk about nothin’ else besides Hitler ever since Poland was invaded. And I think it’s terrible what Hitler’s doing, and…”

“Wait a minute, buster.” Theo tried to pull my cap over my eyes again but I dodged his hand. “Don’t start dreaming about bein’ the family hero. If Papa wants you to save the world, he’ll tell you.”

We all shut up when a girl we knew passed us on the crowded sidewalk. She was wrapped in a warm winter coat with a fur collar.

“Why, if it isn’t the Zewiski brothers,” she said. Her eyes lingered on Al, ignoring Theo and me.

Al nodded and flashed his disarming smile.

“What’s it to ya?” Theo, growled. Eyes downcast, he turned his back on Al and the girl. “I’m hungry,” he said and walked away.

I stammered a lame holiday hello and hoped the snow hid my blushing face. Standing as tall and straight as I could, I wished I brought my winter coat to make me look bigger than I was.

After the girl left, Al gestured for me to follow. “We’re not having much fun standing around here.”

“Hold up,” I said. “I was talkin’ about Mama…”

Albert stopped and gave me an impatient look over his shoulder. “What?”

“Mama cries every night when they go to bed. I hear her through the wall.” I took a step back. “She told me some of her cousins were killed in the blitzkrieg. I don’t care about you, but I’m tired of doin’ nothing about it.”

Al stood silent. The snowfall was getting heavier. He rolled his eyes and smiled.

“Okay, Peanut, you win. We’ll talk it over with Mama and Papa tonight after dinner. Maybe it’s time we did something.”

“They’ll just say no.” I looked back at the recruiting office almost hidden behind falling snow and mist. “Let me just go in and ask what the deal is. I won’t take a second.”

“What’s the big hurry? I tell ya, those guys ain’t goin’ anywhere.” Al started walking again. “Like I said already, we’ll talk to Papa first. All right?”

He gave me one of his ‘end of discussion’ looks. I meekly nodded.

We caught up with Theo at Wanamaker’s. The shop windows were decked out with Christmas scenes and the sidewalk was crowded with gawkers. We jostled our way through the throng, glancing at a big display of tricycles, phonograph players, dolls, model trains and mannequins dressed in grown-up men’s and lady’s clothes. While Al and Theo argued about which electric train set was the best, I looked back down the street, but the recruiting office was out of sight.

Al shifted his attention toward the gray, snowy sky when an airplane passed overhead, blotting out the sounds of Christmas carols and tinkling bells. Hidden in the clouds, its engines made a powerful full-throated rumble. The vague outline of a multi-engine aircraft appeared briefly, illuminated by the street lights, heading southeast.

“I bet it’s one of those Boeing B-17s I been reading about. It’s probably headed for the airfield in Philly.” After it disappeared, Al took a deep breath and brushed snow off his face. “It has lots of guns and can carry tons of bombs and can fly in all kinds of weather ̶ ”

“So what?” Theo retorted.

“So, I’ve been thinking about maybe joining the Army Air Corps. I heard lots of guys are joining up to help the British. They need pilots.”

“Fly airplanes?” Theo looked at his brother, put his hand to his mouth and gave him a mock expression of surprise. “You never said anything.”

“Always wanted to,” Albert said. He turned away and continued looking in the window. I could tell he was a little embarrassed. Theo could embarrass anybody.

“You won’t find me in one of those death traps,” Theo shook his head. “No room for error, people shootin’ at ‘ya and the consequences of a mistake are fatal every time. No siree, not for me.”

“Can it,” Al said without looking at his brother. “They got parachutes. Lots of guys bail out of disabled planes. Happens all the time.”

Theo grunted. “Out of the frying pan into the fire, if you ask me. I bet a lot of those parachute guys wind up impaled on the end of a telephone pole.”

Al withdrew into a menacing silence.

I sensed trouble brewing, so I piped up. “I’m joining the Army. Stayin’ on good ol’ terra-firma. Maybe in a fox hole one night and in a captured chateau the next. I’m gonna help liberate Poland from the Nazis, just like Mama wants–”

“Will you shut up about the Army?” Theo cut me off. “Enough war stories. I’m hungry.”

I punched him. “Just ’cause you don’t have any plans, Number Two.”

Theo shoved a handful of snow down the back of my neck. I turned and kicked him.

“I do so have plans,” he answered. “They’re just not all about armies and bombardiers and war.” He pointed up the street at a grill set up on the sidewalk outside our favorite deli. Sausages popped and spit over red coals.

“You idiots can share your war dreams. I plan on having one of those. Maybe two.”

It was our favorite deli because it had a Polish name, Leopold’s, which happened to be Papa’s name. I bet Leopold’s food wasn’t any different than all the other delis in Allentown, but we wouldn’t eat anywhere else.

When we stood around the grill, we heard a radio announcer inside talking in a shrill voice about casualties and damage at an American Naval base called Pearl Harbor. The base was on an island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. There was a lot of static and he kept talking about Japan and a sneak attack. The customers in the deli were quiet. Even the Salvation Army guy on the sidewalk stopped ringing his bell and had his head in the deli’s front door.

“What’s happening, Peter?” Al said to the cook as he poked at the grill, full of kielbasa, bacon and buns warming along the sides.

Peter was a big guy. He stood impassively in a grimy tee-shirt, sweating over the coals and smoking a cigarette. The falling snowflakes melted immediately as they hit him. He shrugged his shoulders and never looked up. “Who cares. Not in my neighborhood. You want sauerkraut with that?”

We all nodded and glanced at each other, worried looks on our faces. Something dreadfully wrong was happening, but we didn’t know what it was all about.

We took our food to a bench in front of the hardware store, two stores down. The street sounds had changed. The Christmas atmosphere was missing. Half-way through our dogs, Al grunted and looked at Theo. “So where’s Pearl Harbor, mister know-it-all.”

“Hawaii,” Theo said, sauerkraut juice and mustard dribbling out the corner of his mouth. “It’s an island in the Pacific Ocean. They got volcanoes. I saw pictures in the National Geographic Magazine. The women do this dance called the hula-hula. They wear grass skirts with no tops.” Theo looked at me like he was sharing a sinister secret. “Didn’t Mister Larson teach you that in geography?”

“No tops?” Al scratched his head. “I think I’d remember that.” He looked back at the deli. “I guess it’s a big deal. That announcer sure is excited.”

I didn’t know what to think. Why were the Japanese bombing our Navy base? I thought they were fighting the Chinese. I wondered if any of the ladies in grass skirts got hurt. The thought of bombs exploding in the middle of a bunch of ladies dancing the hula-hula with no tops made me squirm.

People on the sidewalk had stopped strolling and were talking to each other in huddled clumps.

“We ought to think about going home,” Al said. “Find out what Papa knows.”

Theo shook his head. “Keep your shirt on. I’m still eating, damn it.”

“Don’t say damn it!” Al lashed back at Theo. I knew he was still smarting from Theo mocking his airplane pilot dreams.

“I’ll say whatever I want to say, flyboy. You can fly all the way to grandma’s house as far as I’m concerned.”

The two of them stood up and glared at each other.

I’d lost my appetite. The greasy wax paper, streaked with mustard and pieces of grilled onion, looked ugly and my stomach turned at the sight.

While my brothers postured and argued, I spotted a trashcan in front of the deli.

“I’m gonna toss this and pee,” I said. Not waiting for an answer, I jogged back to the deli. I didn’t dare look back.

That’s when I knew I had my chance. Something serious was happening, getting people all excited and doin’ stuff they wouldn’t ordinarily do. Time to make my move.

The deli customers were still frozen, engrossed in the announcer’s screechy voice. I took one last look back when I slipped in the front door.

Theo kept his face trained on his big brother. Al glanced in my direction. I thought I saw a hint of sadness in his eyes, like he understood what I had to do, but he didn’t say anything.

Quick as a cat, I ran through the deli and out the back door of the kitchen which led to the alley.

I smiled as I cut through the cars crawling along Hamilton Street in the heavy snow. I may never get this chance again. The feeling of freedom was intoxicating.

Safely on the other side, the memory of my brothers dissolved into ghosts like the silhouettes walking along the sidewalk, miles from me now. “Tell Mama and Papa I love them,” I murmured. “I’ll be right back.”

Where to buy: Amazon (eligible for free shipping) and Kindle.

The Wapshott Press, publisher of Storylandia, is now an Amazon Charity. Yay! So if you could please choose Wapshott Press as your charity when you’re shopping at Amazon, it will help us a lot. Here’s the link to make Wapshott Press your charity, and you only have to register once.

Help the Wapshott Press publish books that should be published! The Wapshott Press, publisher of Storylandia, is now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Tax deductible donations can be made here: Wapshott Press Donations and thank you so much for your support! (PS. Paypal takes zero commissions from your donation to the Wapshott Press.)

The Wapshott Press is now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Please donate to the Wapshott Press Thank you so much for your support. All donations are tax deductible. (We prefer to use PayPal for online donations because they give us all a break on their fees for charitable donations. And during the winter holidays, they match each donation dollar for dollar.)

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