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The bronze soldier looked like a mythical giant from a fairytale. He even had a sword clutched in his hand. In his other hand he held a little girl five or maybe six years old. The soldier's face was youthful and clean, his uniform in stark contrast to the ancient weapon he carried. But the beast lying in pieces at soldier's feet wasn't a dragon. It was a Nazi swastika, a symbol of ultimate evil. Seventy five years ago it ignited the flames of the worst conflict in human history. And more than fifty million people had paid the ultimate price.
Lydia placed a bouquet of fresh red flowers near a large bronze wreath decorating the bronze pedestal on which the soldier stood looking down at the sprawling city of Berlin. Lydia's bouquet was among many others lying at bronze soldier's feet. People came to lay flowers at the feet of the unknown Russian soldier. Lydia could see in his face many young faces of others, men and women who fought and died on the bloody fields of the Great Patriotic War. Lydia was a soldier once. But she came here on a fine spring day in civilian clothes and without her medals. The country she had fought to protect in her youth was no longer existed on the map. She was now a citizen of the world, a person without a country.
And there was something else about her that people did not know. Those who knew were either dead or too old to remember. Time had failed to weaken her flesh. Former Soviet medical field nurse and army Lieutenant Lydia Meshkova hasn't aged a day since her 20th birthday. Standing near the monument in her faded blue jeans, sneakers and light brown leather jacket, she looked no different from any college kid. But if one looked closer, he would see the pain, wisdom and intelligence in her eyes. They were old eyes on a face of eternal youth blessed or cursed by unknown forces of nature. With her blue eyes, high cheekbones and blond hair, Lydia looked like a German or an Austrian country girl.
A Bundeswehr military band marched by with pomp and circumstance playing an Old Prussian March. Many stopped to stare, but the rest of the tourists and citizens of Berlin went about their business. The country had long ago stopped admiring their military due to the dark legacy of the Nazi regime. Much had changed since then. Now, souvenirs of all kind were being sold near the Brandenburg Gates and the young people were hunting for the latest in fashion and music. Only Lydia hadn't changed. She was immortal like a vampire from a horror movie. Only she didn't have to drink blood to survive and the sun on her face only made her feel better. On June 20th, just about two months from today, she would be celebrating her 95th birthday. But seventy five years ago she wasn't certain that she could live to celebrate her 20th. An old man came by and placed the flowers near the monument. His old rheumy eyes briefly focused on Lydia before he turned and walked away. And time had stopped for Lydia again ...
The train shuddered after a loud explosion ahead. Crammed into the cattle car with dozens of scared men, women and children, Lydia was pressed against the car's door. She could smell the fear of these poor people. Everything was thrown into panic and confusion. All everyone knew was that Hitler attacked, breaking the non aggression pact with Soviet Union. The train was carrying the refugees trying to escape the war zone. All kinds of rumors were circulating. One young man sitting on the wooden box was trying to calm everyone down, telling everyone who would listen that the Red Army was attacking instead and that relocation would be temporary until the enemy was thrown back across the border.
"You'll see, comrades, we will throw them back where they came from," he declared. "We will chase them back all the way to Berlin!"
"Oh, what the hell do you know?" an angry old woman countered.
The young man's reply was drowned by another explosion and the train began to slow down. An angry whine sounded from above and the roof of the cattle car was suddenly perforated by bullets. Lydia heard screams of pain and shielded her eyes from the blood spraying into her face.
"Get out!" someone shouted. "Everyone get out, now!" Sunlight broke into the cattle car as the sliding door was thrown open and the terrified people began jumping out before the train stopped. Lydia was the first to be thrown out by the terrified avalanche of humanity. She hit the ground and rolled into the grass, scraping her hands and elbows against the gravel. Fear drove her and forgetting the pain she jumped to her feet and ran away from the train. There was a sound of explosion followed by another. The train's locomotive exploded and one of the cattle cars caught fire.
Lydia ran like hell and then suddenly slipped, twisting her ankle. Pain shot up her leg and she fell into the grass. Above her, descending from the clear blue sky and bathed in bright sunlight angels of death dove down to claim their prize. The gull winged German dive bombers screamed above, their sirens, attached to the wings for maximum psychological effect, were splitting the air like a devil's whistle. Lydia covered her ears just as one of the metal furies roared above her, the black crosses outlined in white clearly visible on the underside of its gray wings. The planes were mercilessly strafing the terrified men, women and children. Lydia rose on her knee from the grass to witness a horrifying carnage. People were torn apart by high velocity shells or struck down by shell and bomb fragments. Something came over Lydia as she stood on one knee, wishing she had something to shoot back with. Fury boiled in her veins like hot volcanic lava. "Why?" she roared at the planes. "Why, you sons of bitches?"
A nearby explosion blew to pieces one escaping family and before the shockwave hit her, Lydia felt something hot pierce her chest. She hit the grass hard but barely felt the impact. The ground felt soft the grass thick like fine bed sheets. Strangely, there was no pain and no sound. Overhead, a winged monster approached, its claws aiming straight at her and then blackness ...
She came back to her senses the following morning. The first thing she noticed was the shell fragment in her hand. It was covered with dried blood and there was numbness in her chest where it struck. Unbuttoning her shirt, Lydia saw a pink scar between her breasts. The wound has closed and was healing itself! She looked at the shell fragment in her palm. She knew it was inside her body. Who could have removed it? She looked around but there was no one. She was alone in the grass. The sky was just as clear and blue, the air smelled fresh and even the birds were singing. Was this heaven and she was dead?
Lydia heard a buzzing sound in the air and looked up. A pair of German fighter planes passed overhead like green hornets. Lydia's heart skipped a beat. Definitely not heaven, she thought grimly. She remembered her ankle and carefully touched her foot. There was no pain. Mystified by this development, Lydia came back to her feet and took a few experimental steps. No, she wasn't dreaming. Her leg and her wound that should have been mortal have healed. Lydia frowned and recalled that she was dreaming of something when she was suspended between life and death. What was that dream? Oh yes, I remember ...
She dreamed of the past. Back then she was ten and Uncle Ivan, an old Tsarist officer and one hell of a cavalryman in his day, put her on a horse and walked the beast around the stable. Lydia was delighted to be sitting so high, to feel so important. The mare was big but trotted steadily under Uncle Ivan's watchful eye. In the afternoon, the sky had clouded and then rain came, turning the dirt roads into impassable quagmire. Lydia and her uncle sat at the table drinking tea and eating bread, cheese and apples. Later, when their meal was done, Uncle Ivan lit his famous pipe, filling the house with aromatic smoke.
"Uncle Ivan," Lydia said as she sat near his rocking chair. "Is it true that my Mom and Dad died fighting during the Revolution?"
"Officially," Uncle Ivan replied puffing at his pipe. "Unofficially, I don't know if you want to know the truth."
"So they're still alive?" Lydia asked her eyes sparkling. "Where are they, Uncle Ivan?"
The old man brushed at his graying mustache and said, "All right, little one. I will tell you. But you must not speak of it to anyone."
"Is this a big secret?" Lydia whispered conspiratorially.
"More like a legend if you ask me," Uncle Ivan replied. "And the legend says that people saw a comet in the sky and then you were found the next day in a straw basket right at my door. You were crying because you were hungry. My wife and I took you in, gave you milk. You fell asleep. We had no children and my wife saw it as an omen. No one knows who your parents are, Lydia. No one knows who you are and where you come from. And that's the truth."
Before Lydia crossed the ever changing frontline, she had seen more horrors that followed under the German occupation. But, as was her nature, she kept it to herself simply to stay sane in a world that gone insane with grief. A kind family on the occupied territory took her in, gave her some food and Lydia slipped through one of the gaps in the chaos of fighting and into the Soviet controlled territory. This was late summer of 1941, and the Red Army, reeling and bleeding from the blows of the advancing Wehrmacht was on the ropes. Every man was needed to fill the thinning ranks. Lydia ended up in training as a battlefield nurse. A general in command of the army group where she was staying was a rising star and one of Stalin's favorites. The Germans were preparing to advance on Moscow from a bulge aimed straight at the capital. Stalin wanted it eliminated and the fresh reserve troops from the military schools were brought in for the big offensive.
Lydia didn't like the general. Granite jawed and broad shouldered he had a reputation for ruthlessness that Lydia at first interpreted as necessary, only to find out the hard way. And the boys, generously given for the upcoming offensive were young, barely out of their 20's. Many were scared, but most were excited at the prospect of finally going on the offensive after two months of constant retreat. Lydia herself found it hard to believe the official radio broadcasts from Moscow about the terrible losses the Red Army was inflicting on the Germans. Even if they were lies, those lies were necessary to keep up the morale.
"Hey, pretty one, got a cigarette?"
Lydia turned around and saw a young soldier smiling down on her. He was a big guy with broad shoulders, big hands of a farmer, open face, gray eyes and buzz haircut typical of the young cadets fresh out of the military school. Lydia looked him over and smiled in return.
"Don't have one because I don't smoke," she replied. "Sorry."
"Nervous?" the soldier asked. "Don't be. We are going to beat these Nazi bastards this time. General Zhukov was sent here personally by comrade Stalin. We outnumber the enemy and we will show them what the Russian soldier is made of. What's your name, beautiful?"
"My name is Lydia."
"I am Sergeant Vasili Trunin." He smiled broadly and turned just as another soldier ran up to him. This one was short and dark haired and gave Lydia only a brief glance. "Comrade Sergeant," he said catching his breath, "Commissar Chernov is gathering the men for the Party meeting before the offensive. He sent me here to get you."
"Duty calls," Trunin winked at Lydia. "See you later, pretty one."
Lydia watched him go and sighed. I hope he didn't fall in love with me she thought.
Her hands, face and uniform covered with blood, dirt and soot, Lydia crawled in the sea of corpses, tears of rage streaming down her cheeks. There was only so much one person could do. She had forgotten how many wounded and unconscious men she and the other field nurses managed to drag off the battlefield under the constant German fire. The scope of the disaster hadn't yet sunk in. And the offensive started so well. Too well as she later learned. Ten Soviet rifle divisions were thrown against the fortified German line in a classic bayonet charge reminiscent of World War I. Employing vastly superior numbers, the Soviet soldiers charged. Lydia watched from the trench as lines upon lines of Soviet infantry advanced and were pulverized by the German machinegun and mortar fire. Waves upon waves of green uniformed Soviet soldiers crashed against the unyielding enemy line.
Lydia's eyes were soon blurred by tears of pain and rage. It was a senseless slaughter even a non military person could see it! The senior field nurse, Lieutenant Galina Sharova, a big woman with a dark braid tied into a bun at the back of her head barked, "Evacuate the wounded! Move! Move! Move!"
And into the storm of lead they followed her. Only half of them made it through. Lydia crawled toward the nearest wounded soldier and he clung to her like a drowning man to a life raft. "Hold on, dear," she said to him. "Just hold on." She bandaged his head and wounded leg and threw his hand over her right shoulder. "We are going home," she said. "Hold on tight."
"Sister," carried a pitiful cry from her left. "God, somebody help me!" yelled another wounded soldier to her right. Lydia turned and saw a young soldier without both legs moaning on the ground. Life was leaving him fast. His face was pale and he was crying. "Mom, mama, please help me!" The wounded soldier Lydia was carrying abruptly stiffened and his head came apart in a shower of gore. Lydia felt his dead weight come off her and crawled toward the dying soldier. "I am here," she said. "I am here."
"Mom," the soldier smiled and his eyes closed. Lydia did not have the time to feel anything except her duty. Death and destruction around her numbed her senses. Body and mind became one, clicking into a survival mode. She dragged the wounded soldiers from the battlefield, bringing them back to the trenches and coming back to face the wrath of the god of war. Eventually she could do no more. She passed out from exhaustion in the arms of the wounded soldier with broad shoulders, big hands of a farmer, gray eyes and military short buzz cut.
Lydia emerged from the field tent where she had an interesting conversation with the surgeon Dr. Gromov. The doctor was puzzled by the amount of survivors brought back by Lydia. Ninety percent of the wounded men not only survived but were healing better than expected. Most of the men brought by other nurses had died. Lydia had no explanation for that, but the doctor looked at her with a newfound respect.
"You have a special touch," he told her. "You have good hands, magical hands."
"I don't believe in magic," Lydia replied tiredly. "I think it is pure luck."
"Luck has nothing to do with it," Gromov said adjusting his spectacles. "Take Private Petrenko, for example. He got a nasty chest wound. It's healing better than we expected. And this big guy, Sergeant Trunin? He got two bullets in the stomach. I know from experience it was a mortal wound. No one survives this. He pulled through. How do you explain that?"
Lydia looked at her hands, freshly scrubbed from blood and dirt with soap, water and alcohol. They looked like ordinary hands, long, slender fingers, nothing special. Magical hands, she thought. Could it be possible that I could heal people by touch? She found the thought both exciting and disturbing. Another thought came to mind and she said, "Dr. Gromov, where's General Zhukov?"
"Flew back to Moscow," Gromov said with disgust. "We lost seven rifle divisions out of ten storming that stupid bulge. Commissar Chernov and one of the colonels had a nasty argument over this, even pulled guns on one another." He paused to take off his spectacles and cleaned them with a handkerchief. "I don't blame the colonel," he said. "Do you know how many young boys died in this stupid offensive? There will be more days like this, more blood." He put his spectacles back on and looked at Lydia with intensity. "Just stay alive," he said softly. "We need your hands, Lydia. Stay alive, promise me."
"I will try," Lydia said.
Excerpted from ESCAPE FROM REALITY by David Crane Copyright © 2010 by David Crane. Excerpted by permission.
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