The ringing of the phone by the bed ripped him out of sleep.
“Ow, shit!” Still asleep, he’d tried to pick it up with his bandaged right hand. The hand he’d burned earlier that day at work, which was now throbbing. “Yes?” he mumbled blearily into the receiver.
“Get down here now! Number 4 won’t start, and the train’s due in at 6:28!”
“What time is it no-, wait, Richard’s funeral…”
There was a pause, and his boss’s voice softened. “I’m sorry, Kurt, your brother was a hero, and you still have tomorrow and the weekend off, but you’re our chief engineer. Duty calls. We’ve got to keep on schedule.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll be in soon.” Hanging up the phone, he noticed the lines of grease and soot under his nails. The stink of the job never seemed to come out of his hair and skin, and his coveralls were hopeless; his wife made him hang them outside every night. 1:14 a.m. Shit. He’d had Number 4 shut down for maintenance yesterday, and, assuming that the night shift would be able to get it running again, had finally headed home at eleven. Bad assumption.
From the other side of the bed, he heard his wife grumble, “Again? Why do you put up with this? Can’t it wait?”
“Go back to sleep, Gretchen. I know you hate to hear it, but I have a…”
“…schedule? Or is it a duty today? Duty and schedules, schedules and duty, all you ever talk about!” She made a disgusted noise and rolled over, pulling the covers off of him. Beats the silent treatment I usually get, I guess, he thought.
Getting up, he looked outside and groaned. In the scant two hours he’d been home, it had started to snow, and his coveralls, hung out over the line, had nearly disappeared beneath a thick blanket of heavy, and, he soon discovered, wet snow. Just what I need. Things got even worse when he clumsily pulled his boots on, his injured right hand aching. One of the frayed laces snapped, sending his hand flying towards his face and knocking off his already fogged glasses. “Damn damn damn damn!” Now bent, they left his whole face feeling off-kilter. As he trudged through the snow, he sighed heavily. Some days he wanted to just quit, but like he’d tried to tell Gretchen, he had a duty. Everyone did. And who am I to complain? he thought, My little brother has just given his life; a little overtime never killed anyone.
At the gate, he was greeted by the same young guard who had seen him out a few hours earlier. “Back again, Kurt?” the youth greeted him, his blue eyes sparkling cheerfully. “Thought you were free now,” he laughed.
“Yeah, yeah, I should be the freest man here by now, right? More problems, and they’ve got to be fixed before I go home tomorrow.”
The gate guard’s mood sobered. “Hey, I’m sorry to hear about your brother. He was a hero, you know?”
“Thanks” said Kurt. Actually, Richard would have laughed at being called a hero. He’d loathed the military, had even argued that the wars were making the country less safe.
“Kurt, come on! A second war? We’re barely coping with the first one! And now everybody hates us!”
But he’d gone to fight nonetheless, done his duty for his country, and it had earned him the medal that cost him his life.
Putting aside his troubles, Kurt hoisted his tool bag back up to his shoulder and headed in through the gate. The train was due to arrive in…he checked his watch, four hours and nineteen minutes, and he had a duty to make sure that all five crematoria at Auschwitz were operating at full capacity when it did.