The thin man sat at the end of the bench, his large hands twisting around one another nervously. The sharp brown eyes sunk over his bony cheeks shifted around the dark room. He scrutinized the figures dressed in gray and black uniforms sitting in the shadows on the other benches that lined the walls. They frightened him, and it made absolutely no sense that he would be there with them. He glanced at the long stretch of empty bench beside him. It gave him comfort, a tiny bit, to be alone on his bench while the rest were grouped together like crows on a wire. Maybe that meant something.
A low-pitched shout of derision shot out over the silence. Scoffs echoed along the benches. The man stiffened, terrified when he heard his name inside their insults. Terrified because they knew who he was.
One of them though, who sat apart from the rest, watched him sanguinely from a few feet away. A nod came.
The thin man blinked, trying to remember who this was. The angular face and thoughtful eyes seemed familiar. The man who’d nodded was dressed in a gray uniform, but he’d discarded the jacket and his rank was impossible to discern. He said his name in a calm voice, “Erwin Rommel.”
Catcalls came from the shadows. A dark-haired man wearing a black coat growled his frustration from a corner. They all hated Rommel and this man most of all.
Ignoring them, Rommel asked, “Have you spoken with anyone?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you know where you are?” Rommel said.
“I’m dead, aren’t I? I know.” The hollow voice hung in the air. “It’s true, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” After a moment Rommel took a package of cigarettes from his shirt pocket and lit one. “Do you smoke?”
“Not anymore.” A half-smile rippled over the thin face. “I mean I quit some while ago.”
Rommel gestured the hand with the cigarette to the rest of the room. “They are correct? You are the American Jew?”
“There are many Jews in America.”
Rommel smiled slightly at this. “And you are named after a Caesar. I find this interesting.”
“Are you like them? That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
A small cloud of smoke drifted toward the low ceiling. “I want you to know where you are, Emperor Julius. No, I do not like you, but I am absolutely nothing like them in this. You are in Purgatory and I hate you because of why you are here. Not because you are a Jew.”
Julius’ mouth was dry. “Why am I here?” He glared around the room frenetically. “With these—?”
Rommel laughed quietly. Dropping the half-finished cigarette, he crushed the sparks beneath his boot.
“Why do you laugh? What?” Julius asked.
“You think that you are cut from finer cloth than the rest of us. This amuses me, yes.”
“I am! We are, you and I. You’re not like them.”
“But still—” Rommel gestured a delicate hand. “I am here.”
“You were a soldier. Nothing like these animals.” Julius glowered at the other men in the room.
Rommel took out the cigarettes again and stared at the package. “Still, they are my comrades. Which is a strange reflection when you consider that they are also my destruction. It is because I let them commit their atrocities for so long that I have been relegated to this place. But here and wherever else we go, I am certain that comfort of any sort will be a rarity.” Rommel pulled one cigarette then tossed the pack to the man in the far corner of the room. The man scowled and let them fall. He kicked them away and someone else picked them up.
“You’re saying you’re like them, but you are not.”
“Perhaps my absolution will be easier. I think that you are correct. But you are very mistaken to believe that we have this in common.”
“I’m not even a soldier.”
Bowing his head, Rommel scanned the room furtively. “Even the worst of these, yes him, will receive better than you here. Their butchery is ended but the seed of destruction that you unleashed will never stop. Verstanden?”
“Yes. But-” Julius struggled to control the tremor in his voice. “I never hurt anyone.”
Rommel’s cigarette came up to his lips and he lit it. “These men.” He pointed with the cigarette. “None of them, even him, ever made the choice that you made.” Rommel’s voice grew grim. “The knowledge that you have given mankind was not to be known by men. You knew this, did you not?”
“But it’s not the same thing. We were trying to save the world. And no one even knew it was going to work. Later I hated myself for what we’d done. I almost killed myself, dammit!” Julius was nearly sobbing.
“I apologize.” Smoking methodically, Rommel looked at Julius. “Maybe you are in all ways but one a good man. Better than this old soldier.” He shook his head with regret. “But in that one way you have damned yourself.”
Julius tried to reason with him. “You say I am a good man. I’m a good man!”
“But can you say that you are innocent? You have taken away the innocence of man; would you replace it with your own?”
“I regret all of it. I said that.”
“But are you innocent? In this world that you have created mankind will exist at the brink of destruction for all time. The forbidden knowledge will not be forgotten and you have cast Man out of Eden.” Rommel looked at the wall. “Tell me, is there a greater sin?”
“It was a mistake! I’m not like those butchers!” Julius flung an arm out. “I am a good man. What have I done? What am I that I belong in this place?”
Rommel stared for a few moments, dropping the cigarette on the stone floor. It crushed beneath his boot heel. “You? You are the serpent, Herr Oppenheimer.”
Traveling throughout the American west, Chris Dean has worked as a delivery driver and a concert promoter. This writer’s work has appeared in Bards and Sages. Currently Chris resides in the Des Moines area.