"Which horse do you want to take out today, Nicklaus?" Adam asked as he walked his son into the stables.
"Sturm is the best with the cart," Nicklaus said. "I think we should take him." Sturm was Nicklaus's favorite horse a gentle giant. He was , in the boy's esteem, the best horse on the farm.
His father hummed thoughtfully. "I'm afraid we can't take Sturm," he said. "He threw a shoe yesterday, and he hasn't had a new one put on, yet."
"Oh," Nicklaus said, feeling a little deflated. Still, the farm certainly didn't have any 'bad' horses. His papa and opa were very careful about breeding and raising them. "Maybe Sonnig?"
"I think Sonnig will do just fine," Adam said as he opened the mare's stall. She didn't protest in the slightest at being led out.
Nicklaus helped his father get Sonnig hooked to the cart. She was nearly as big as Sturm. She would have no problems pulling a cart full of hops and a featherweight twelve-year-old.
"Let me help you up there," Oswald said, lifting Nicklaus up onto the cart. He gave the boy a smile as he settled into the driver's bench. Nicklaus looked downright tiny in the driver's spot. The cart was far larger and heavier than some dainty carriage, after all. "Your father and I will walk with you and load the cart. Some of the rows are narrow, so we might have to walk behind you a little bit. Just go nice and slow, and everything will be just fine."
"All right, Opa," Nicklaus said, taking the reins in his hands. He clucked his tongue to get Sonnig walking and slowly led her and the cart out of the stables. Driving the cart had always come easily to Nicklaus, but he had never done so during the harvest, before. He was excited, in truth, and happy to be able to help. If nothing else, his grandfather had never told him he was too little to do anything, farm work included.
It was nice to be of some help. The farm, with all its hops and horses, was the reason that the Fleischer family remained prosperous. Nicklaus was glad for that, as much as he wished that there weren't other people going hungry. People in the city, he had heard, were worse off than others were.
"Are things bad in Munich right now, Papa?" Nicklaus asked. He waited for his father and grandfather to get on the cart before starting towards the field.
"Things in Munich certainly aren't good, no." Adam stood up in the back of the cart to move a little closer to Nicklaus. "Things haven't been good in Munich since the war."
Nicklaus was silent for a moment. He barely remembered Munich. It had been so long since he'd been there. "How old was I when Mama died?"
There was silence from the back of the cart. The question had probably surprised Nicklaus's father. "You were only just three years old," Adam finally said.
Nicklaus had been visiting the farmstead when the bombs had fallen. He couldn't remember his mother's face, but there was a sort of familiar comfort when he thought of her. He could see himself trying to help her in the kitchen. He could remember her indulging him. "Why didn't you and Mama live together, here on the farm?"
"Now, Nicklaus, keep an eye out ahead of you," Oswald said, quickly derailing the line of questioning. "We're nearly to the fields. You'll have to pay attention when we start going down the rows."
Nicklaus noticed that his father had gone silent. It seemed as though no answer was forthcoming. Perhaps his father found the question uncomfortable. Nicklaus didn't want to make his papa uncomfortable. As curious as Nicklaus was, he let the subject drop. It raised a million other questions, though. Had his father and mother loved each other? Why didn't they live together on the farm? Nicklaus wished he could remember her face.
"All right, we're here," Adam said. Nicklaus brought the cart to a halt to let his papa and opa off. The two men quickly started pulling the hop vines down, and loading them into the cart. Nicklaus moved slowly, only urging Sonnig forward a step at a time.
It didn't take long to fill the cart. There was soon a veritable mountain of hop vines heaped up inside of it.
"Well, I think that's a few hundred kilos," Adam said, admiring their handiwork. "All right, son, let's head to the storage barn."
Nicklaus gave a nod, and gave a light crack of the whip to get Sonnig walking, again, ever careful to not hit the horse. Soon the farmhands would be picking the hops from the vines and laying them out to dry. Then, they would be ready to sell to the brewer. Nicklaus liked the owner of the brewery; their two families had been working together for over five generations. They had developed a rather friendly business partnership.
"The vines look really good this year," Nicklaus said. He turned in his seat to glance back at his papa and opa. Oswald smiled at him. Nicklaus quickly returned the gesture before looking ahead once more.
"The vines are very good this year," Adam said. "They're absolutely loaded. The Konigs are going to be thrilled, I'm sure. They'll be making loads of beer and ale." Even in hard economic times, beer was always a big seller.
Nicklaus wasn't particularly fond of beer. He wasn't particularly fond of alcohol in general, really. His uncle Gunar was grumpy most of the time, but after a bit of scotch or whiskey the man could be downright mean. Still, the hops allowed their family to make money, feed themselves, and afford luxuries that others could not.
Nicklaus was so lost in thought that he only barely caught sight of something shooting past in front of them. Perhaps it was a fox darting between the rows of vines. Even worse, it might have been a badger. Whatever it was, it practically ran right between Sonnig's hooves.
The horse let out a startled scream, and took several steps back. Nicklaus held tight to the reins, and tried to calm the animal down. Sonnig kicked the front of the cart and reared back, nearly throwing Nicklaus from his seat. The horse was soon still again, apparently satisfied that whatever had startled it was gone.
Nicklaus stole a glance behind the cart. He couldn't see his papa and opa, and at least half of the hop vines had been dumped from back of the cart. He scrambled down from the driver's bench. His heart raced as he began trying to pull the tangle of vines away. "Papa! Opa!" Nicklaus looked around, hoping to see one of the farmhands. It was hopeless to see anything through the hanging rows of vines, though. "Someone help!"
He could feel his heart pounding in his chest as he continued to tear away the vines. A pair of farmhands, Konrad and Marcel, had abandoned their own picking duties upon hearing the cry for help. They quickly pushed the boy aside as they began yanking the vines away. After all, they were much larger and stronger than Nicklaus was.
He tried to see around the two men, but they were moving so fast that he couldn't get a look. Nicklaus started wringing his hands, waiting anxiously for the farmhands to move the vines away. When he finally got a look at his papa and opa, they weren't moving. Nicklaus's opa was closest, and he quickly ran to him, putting an ear to his chest and hoping to hear something.
There was nothing; no heartbeat, no inhale, no exhale. Tears began to stream down Nicklaus's face, and he looked up to see Konrad checking his father for a pulse. Nothing.
"Take him back up to the estate house," Konrad said, glancing between Marcel and Nicklaus. "Call Doctor Schmidt."
"No!" Nicklaus cried out, clinging to his opa as Marcel took him by the arms. It took some doing to pry him away from Oswald. Nicklaus's small size made him easy enough to pick up, though. He kicked, and screamed, and begged to be let go as Marcel half-walked, half-ran back to the estate house.
Once they were inside, Nicklaus was left in the living room while Marcel dialed Doctor Schmidt on the phone. Nicklaus hoped, no matter how illogical, that Schmidt would not say what he already knew was true.
He listened as Marcel called the doctor. The farmhand somehow managed to keep his cool as he told Schmidt what had happened. "The cart backed over them and dumped almost its entire load of hops," he said. "At least two hundred kilos. No, there's no pulse."
Nicklaus sat in his opa's rocking chair in the living room. Tears were still streaming down his face, but he felt oddly numb. He wasn't sure what he felt. He wasn't sure what he was supposed to feel. He wasn't even sure that what was happening was real. The world seemed to move by in a blur. Sounds and colors were muted, and Nicklaus started when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
"Doctor Schmidt and Gunar are on their way," Marcel said. Nicklaus gave a small, silent nod in reply. Marcel rushed back outside.
Nicklaus stared down at the floor, still trying to process what had happened. His mind didn't seem to want to wrap around the truth of what had happened. He didn't want to admit to himself that he might be alone, even when Doctor Schmidt walked into the room with a grim expression on his face.
" Schmidt started, kneeling in front of the chair where the boy was sitting. "I'm so sorry. There's nothing anyone could have done." He placed a hand on Nicklaus's shoulder, and gave it a gentle squeeze. "It was quick."
That was of little consolation to Nicklaus, who sniffled and continued to stare down at the floor. It still seemed so unreal. His papa and opa couldn't be dead. They just couldn't. They were safe out in the field somewhere, Nicklaus told himself.
He couldn't make his mind believe that lie, though. He had spent the previous two days holed up in his room, and trying to hide the fact that he was crying from his uncle. His uncle hated it when he cried. His uncle also insisted, against Nicklaus's wishes, that he go to the funeral. The funeral finally forced Nicklaus to face reality. Two polished oak caskets were lowered into the Fleischer family plot. There was a priest reciting burial rites, and everyone was dressed in black. There were names carved into the headstones.
Nicklaus didn't cry. He stared wordlessly at the headstones, ignoring everyone and everything else. He didn't know most of the people there, anyway, aside from Gunar, the farmhands, and Doctor Schmidt. The others were far-flung cousins, or old classmates and colleagues. They were strangers.
They were strangers whose words of consolation brought Nicklaus no relief or joy. He thanked them, nonetheless. That was the polite thing to do.
Soon Nicklaus and his uncle were the only two people that remained. As Adam's older brother, Gunar had inherited the Fleischer estate, along with the care of his nephew.
Nicklaus wanted to cling to his opa or his papa, but they had been buried beneath two meters of dirt. He was even tempted to cling to Gunar, until he saw the look on his face. His uncle looked tense, and upset, and almost downright angry.
Gunar said something, but the only thing Nicklaus heard was a low, distorted drone. The feeling of his uncle giving his sleeve a sharp yank quickly got his attention.
"Get in the car," Gunar said tersely. There was a scowl on his face. Nicklaus knew that scowl was directed at him.
Nicklaus was in a daze, and continued to stand there. He stared up at his uncle with a puzzled look on his face.
"I said 'get in the car'!" Gunar snapped. He took Nicklaus by the back of his collar and all but dragged him away from the fresh plots. Nicklaus tried to walk alongside his uncle, but the man was going too fast, and he kept stumbling. At least his uncle released him when they reached the car.
"Get in." Gunar opened the back door. Nicklaus didn't hesitate in following his command, hopping up into the back seat. They were both silent during the short ride to the estate house. Gunar left Nicklaus to get out of the car on his own. Nicklaus didn't follow his uncle into the house right away. He stood and stared at the door. He wanted his papa and opa to be waiting for him on the other side. He wanted them to be there to comfort him, and let him know everything was going to be all right.
When Nicklaus opened the door he was greeted by no one. He could hear the sound of Gunar rifling through the liquor cabinet, and decided it would be best to retreat upstairs. He took his bath and crawled into bed. Nobody came to tuck him in.
Nicklaus couldn't sleep. He wound up staring at the watch that Opa had given him, watching the seconds tick by; then the minutes, then an hour. He finally, reverently, closed the watch and placed it safely in his nightstand. He was still wide awake when he heard the sound of Gunar walking up the stairs.
Nicklaus thought nothing of it. He started when the door to his room flung open. Gunar stood there. He wore the same scowl on his face as he had after the funeral. "You are responsible for this," he stated, jabbing a finger in Nicklaus's direction. "You're a careless, stupid boy, and you are the reason my father and brother are dead." Gunar slammed the door shut, and continued down the hall towards the master bedroom.
Nicklaus sat for a long moment in shock. Had it been his fault? He had picked Sonnig to hook to the cart. Perhaps a different horse wouldn't have startled. Maybe he could have done something to calm the animal down a little faster. What if he had accidentally hit Sonnig with the end of the whip?
He finally collapsed into bed, holding his pillow tight as he sobbed. Everything he had blanked out for the past two days the pain, the anger, the uncertainty, the sadness all came roaring through him. He sobbed, and begged, and prayed to God to have his papa and opa back. He prayed for the whole mess to be some nightmare from which he would soon wake. It was from that exhausting, waking nightmare that he finally passed out.
This is Chapter 2 of a sample of the revised story 'Bedside Manner'. The story has been expanded upon considerably, and is on sale for the Amazon Kindle! It will soon be out on paperback as well. If you do decide to buy or borrow the full version on Kindle, please leave a review on Amazon!