“Look out, Pusswood,” Martin Burkhard yells as Frederick crosses the quad. “I’m coming for you tonight!” He convulses his pelvis maniacally.
Someone defecates on Frederick’s bunk. Werner hears Volkheimer’s voice: Decency does not matter to them.
“Bed-shitter,” spits a boy, “bring me my boots.” Frederick pretends not to hear.
Night after night Werner retreats into Hauptmann’s laboratory. Three times now they have gone out into the snow to track down Volkheimer’s transmitter, and each time they have found him more directly. During the most recent field test, Werner managed to set up the transceivers, find the transmission, and plot Volkheimer’s location on the map in under five minutes. Hauptmann promises trips to Berlin; he unrolls schematics from an electronics factory in Austria and says, “Several ministries have demonstrated enthusiasm for our project.”
Werner is succeeding. He is being loyal. He is being what everybody agrees is good. And yet every time he wakes and buttons his tunic, he feels he is betraying something.
One night he and Volkheimer trudge back through the slush, Volkheimer carrying the transmitter, both receivers, and the folded antenna under one arm. Werner walks behind, content to be in his shadow. The trees drip; their branches seem moments away from erupting into bloom. Spring. In two more months Volkheimer will be given his commission and go to war.
They stop a moment so Volkheimer can rest, and Werner bends to examine one of the transceivers, draws a little screwdriver from his pocket, and tightens a loose hinge plate. Volkheimer looks down at him with great tenderness. “What you could be,” he says.
That night Werner climbs into bed and stares up at the underside of Frederick’s mattress. A warm wind blows against the castle, and somewhere a shutter bangs and snowmelt trickles down the long downspouts. As quietly as he can manage, he whispers, “Are you awake?”
Frederick leans over the side of his bunk, and for a moment in the nearly complete darkness Werner believes they will finally say to each other what they have not been able to say.
“You could go home, you know, to Berlin. Leave this place.” Frederick only blinks.
“Your mother wouldn’t mind. She’d probably like to have you around. Franny too. Just for a month. Even a week. As soon as you leave, the cadets will let up, and by the time you return, they’ll have moved on to someone else. Your father wouldn’t even have to know.”
But Frederick tips back into his bed and Werner can no longer see him. His voice comes reflecting down from the ceiling.
“Maybe it’d be better if we aren’t friends anymore, Werner.” Too loud, dangerously loud. “I know it’s a liability, walking with me, eating with me, always folding my clothes and shining my boots and tutoring me. You have your studies to think of.”
Werner clenches his eyes. A memory of his attic bedroom swamps him: clicking of mouse feet in the walls, sleet tapping the window. The ceiling so sloped he could stand only in the spot closest to the door. And the feeling that somewhere just behind his vision, ranged like spectators in a gallery, his mother and father and the Frenchman from the radio were all watching him through the rattling window to see what he would do.
He sees Jutta’s crestfallen face, bent over the pieces of their broken radio. He has the sensation that something huge and empty is about to devour them all.
“That’s not what I meant,” Werner says into his blanket. But Frederick says nothing more, and both boys lie motionless a long time, watching the blue spokes of moonlight rotate through the room.