Not A Step Back

By James M

A rush of thoughts flowed through Nikolai’s head as he regained consciousness. It took him a second, but his memories started coming back, albeit slowly. It was 1942, October he thought, but time had gone by so fast lately he wasn’t sure. He and his battalion were one of the many tasked with protecting his hometown of Stalingrad from Hitler’s invading German army–for its citizens and for the glorious leader’s honor, but when they arrived everything went to hell. Death and destruction had brought the city to its knees. The once familiar streets, now unrecognizable, were scorched by explosions and scattered with corpses and rubble. If even the great Stalingrad could fall, everything else would soon follow. All of this raced through his head in what simultaneously felt like a millisecond and an eternity. 

Nikolai’s head was pounding, everything was spinning. It felt like he had been hit by a supply train or something. With a lot of effort, he stood up, instinctively running his hands through his hair, only to remember he had shaved it when he joined the army. For some reason he saw it as a display of his honor at the time, but now he just missed his locks. He stood there for a few moments, only to realize: “Good god, I just got blasted through a bloody window!” 

He was standing inside of a store, the blast had knocked him into a shop’s window from where he was standing outside with the rest of his battalion. Inside, he had seemed to have crashed into the small amount of paint and glue left for sale. He was lucky none of the wares had  spilled on him and sullied his uniform. He felt his back to make sure no glass shards had pierced his now-dusty uniform, and scanned his surroundings with his hazel eyes. “Damn” he mumbled, he did not see his battalion anywhere. He theorized that he had been hit by a German bomb and knocked out for god knows how long, separating him from his allies. Suddenly he felt a sudden pain on his right arm. The pale skin on his right arm was covered in scrapes that the adrenaline must have prevented him from feeling at first, probably from the glass that had slashed his whole body. Seeing this made him feel ill, and he felt a sudden wave of fear. He wanted to hide, but he decided he should start looking for his comrades. It didn’t take long too find them.

Most of his battalion was scattered along the street; now corpses, they rested in the graveyard of a city that was once Stalingrad. Nikolai didn’t know what to feel. They didn’t share the same loyalty to Russia that he did, so to a certain degree he wondered if their death was deserved. Their cynicism and reluctance to protect the motherland showed great cowardice. A group of them had even tried to desert their duties–albeit to no avail. Even so, they were still his comrades, and it was their duty to protect each other. He quickly snapped out of his internal debate: after counting the corpses, he realized  not all were present. Maybe some had survived and fled to the rendez-vous point! His suspicions were confirmed when he saw a faint trail of blood leading away from the rest of the fallen group, in the direction of the point. It was faint, and only went on a short distance, but it told him what to do. And so he set out to find them.

Nikolai wandered through the ruined streets. They were eerily empty, he thought to himself. The destruction that made what was once his home unidentifiable saddened him; however, if this is what it took to defeat the Germans, it was but a small cost. Only what was probably the distant screaming of civilians was audible. He still felt dizzy after that blast earlier, but he knew he could push through the pain. He walked and walked until he heard something different. Screaming, but this time closer

He crept around the street corner to see two German soldiers violently kicking one of his comrades on the ground. Without a second thought, he pulled out his pistol that had miraculously stayed in its holster throughout the earlier ordeal, and fired three shots. The first missed, but the other two were perfectly on target. 

Gav-no,” he cursed under his breath in surprise, he had just shot and killed two German soldiers! He ran over to his ally on the ground and helped him up. 

“Thank you,” the poor soul muttered as he blankly stared at Nikolai with his green eyes. “Those German blyats had me good for a moment there. I am Alek.” He said as he tipped his helmet like a top hat to his savior.

“I’m… Nikolai,” he said back. “You didn’t happen to see the remnants of a wounded battalion wander by, did you?” 

“No, I was knocked out by… something, and when I woke up those two… ruffians were standing over me!”

“Well, I have a feeling they won’t be doing that again anytime soon.” Nikolai quipped. “I should start looking for my battalion now, I think.” 

“Let me join you, comrade, you saved me. I am now in your debt, whether you like it or not,” Alek replied, as he gathered his supplies scattered on the ground.

Nikolai hesitated for a moment, but reluctantly agreed to let him tag along.

The two wandered through the streets. They were headed towards what should be the rendezvous point, but they still had a long way to go. They walked in silence through the defiled streets, occasionally ducking into alleys to avoid the German patrols. 

After a while the duo decided to enter the industrial district. They figured it would be the quickest way to the rendezvous point, but they didn’t account for what they would find there. Rampant bombing and shelling plagued the area. Weapons and war machines were once produced here, so it was a prime target for German artillery–even if production had ceased at the start of the invasion. 

Throughout their journey the duo constantly had to take shelter from the bombs and the massive amounts of Germans patrolling the area. They could still hear the everpresent screams of the civilians in the distance – they always could, and they had a feeling they always would. The wailing was incessant. Unending. It hurt to hear, and it hurt more to imagine what caused it. They traversed the defiled factories, blown to bits, they were nothing but rusted metal now, carefully climbing over the wreckage while avoiding getting cut by jagged pieces of scrap sticking out of the debris, and trying to make it through the district. The river and the rendezvous point were waiting on the other side…

Even while walking Nikolai’s head still hurt, but it was also filled with thought: how long had he been knocked out? Would his comrades actually be at the blasted rendezvous point, or would they have retreated further? His thought spiral kept expanding, until suddenly:


The factory next to them violently exploded, and sharp debris came tumbling down upon the two horrified soldiers, crushing them. Or so they thought, at first. In reality, the building’s ceiling had been caught by a fallen metal beam that had fallen vertically on the ground in some ludicrous stroke of luck. The two ducked down in an attempt to save themselves, cowering in fear. 

After a minute like this Nikolai marveled, “Wait, we aren’t dead!” But this burst of excitement was short lived, as he realized that they were now trapped. 

Alek slowly looked up from his current position, his pupils widened. “Oh god, we’re going to die here aren’t we?” Alek descended into a spiral of these thoughts, increasing in volume more and more until his words became almost unbearable for Nikolai. 

“Will you shut up?!” Nikolai yelled, but to no avail. He was desperately trying to figure out how to escape this rusted metal prison, whilst Alek continued to panic.

Nikolai ran his hand around the edges of debris, gently hitting the sheet of metal that penned them down to create a metallic knocking sound.

“Is your plan to make music? Seriously?” Alek asked in a sarcastic manner.

Nikolai ignored him and continued, until he found a spot that sounded different. A weak spot. He paused in relief, then punched it at full force. The whole amalgamation of metal trembled.

“What on earth are you doing?!” Alek screamed, the sudden noise broke him out of his spiral, but only briefly.

“I think I found a way out, get over here.” he replied

“You think?! No bloody way in hell am I going along with this, you’re going to get us killed even faster!”

“Well, my plan involves this entire trap we have found ourselves in collapsing, so staying is certain death. I saved you once, I can do it again.”

Alek stayed silent and looked away from his companion. That is until Nikolai suddenly grabbed his arm and charged at the weak spot at full speed, dragging Alek behind him. He crashed into the wreckage with his shoulder, breaking a hole in the metal trap, and possibly his own shoulder too. He swiftly flung himself and Alek out of the rusted encasement just before it collapsed. His ears were ringing from the sound of the crashing metal, but after a few moments he heard something else. 

“My foot! My foot! Oh god!” Nikolai exhaustedly turned to his friend, only to find that Alek’s foot had been cut clean off by the sharp debris that had just crashed down behind them. 

“Oh ****” Nikolai mumbled as he rushed to Alek’s aid. He quickly tore off a sleeve from his uniform and wrapped it around Alek’s leg as a bandage. Alek cried out in pain as Nikolai tried his best to help the situation. He saw a piece of metal on the floor that somewhat resembled a cane and tried to hand it to Alek, who was still wailing in pain.

After a very rough few minutes the two were on their way again. Nikolai knew they were approaching the riverbank with the rendezvous point; he could see it in the distance. But, just when he saw it, a German patrol appeared from around the corner. They saw the duo and immediately pointed their guns at the two. 

Alek, knowing he wouldn’t be able to run, held his hands up in the air and yelled, “Nicht schießen! Nicht schießen!” This confused Nikolai, but didn’t stop him from drawing his pistol and firing a few shots before running into an alleyway. He dragged Alek with him. The two ran, or at least they tried. Alek limped along with the piece of scrap he was forced to use as a cane whilst Nikolai impatiently looked behind him. Miraculously they managed to escape – maybe Nikolai had hit more shots than he had thought. 

Nikolai immediately went to Alek and screamed at him, “What were you thinking?!”

“I didn’t think we would be able to escape.”

“You would bring shame to the motherland like that?”

“They had guns! I panicked! I thought we didn’t stand a chance!”

Nikolai stormed off, with Alek limping behind him as fast as he could. They arrived at the riverbank.

“There they are!” Alek yelled, and there they were. The allies that they had been searching for all this time. They were at the riverbank trying to wave down a supply boat to evacuate them, but none came to their rescue. Nikolai remembered those orders, “Not a step back,” he mumbled in horror and realization.

They approached the group waiting by the river, only to have them point their guns at the unsuspecting duo. After a few awkward seconds the two realized that the soldiers weren’t aiming at them, but rather the German patrol who had just turned the corner onto the street the duo had traversed, charging towards them with tanks as reinforcements.

They ducked for cover behind a piece of wreckage as the Russians on the banks desperately tried to destroy the tanks. They fired everything they had at them, with one poor soul even jumping in front of it in a fruitless attempt to save his friends, but it was all to no avail. The tanks advanced, crushing everything in their wake. 

The two hid away from the unrelenting tanks at first, but then they saw it. In the distance, an anti-tank grenade, tightly grasped by the severed arm of what was once one of their comrades. The two looked at each other, then the grenade, and then back at each other. They knew what they had to do. Nikolai picked up a metal piece of debris and held it up like a shield.

“Behind me, now,” he said.

Nikolai ran in front of Alek, shielding him from the incoming gunfire as he stumbled towards the grenade. Hobbling awkwardly, Alek reached it and picked it up. He ripped the severed arm off of the grenade and turned around, but when he did, he was horrified…

 Nikolai was laying on the ground, dead, struck by the gunfire headed their way. The tanks were almost right in front of him. Alek knew he wouldn’t be able to create distance, not with that foot, or lack thereof. His hand was shaking, he pulled the pin on the grenade, and held it up. 

“For the motherland!” he yelled, as the grenade exploded in his hand, destroying the tanks that had slaughtered his comrades.

About the Author

James M is an up-and-coming writer born in LA. He lived in Amsterdam before moving to Merced, where he currently resides.

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