Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes!
This week, we’re going back to A Time to Rise, which, if you haven’t read, that’s okay! I am getting ready to re-release A Time to Rise very soon, and to celebrate, I wanted to share an expanded scene from the novel.
Alain Autenburg, a Swiss Guard with dark secrets of his own, has been assigned to mentor Cristoph Haase, a young first year Swiss Guard with a chip on his shoulder. Cristoph and his commander, Major Bader, have gotten off on the wrong foot, and Cristoph’s attitude lands him on punishment detail. Alain, as his mentor, tries to reach the younger man…
“How’s football going?” Alain sat on his usual stoop, the cold of the ancient stones seeping in through his black suit pants. Overhead, the single lightbulb droned in the Swiss Guard’s ancient punishment closet. For hundreds of years, deviant guardsmen had pulled punishment duties in the stone cell, a hollow of bitten-off curses and sweat-stained stones scarred from centuries of manual labor.
Cristoph, as always, was hunched over the wooden block, carving up old uniforms into scraps with his hand axe.
Cristoph shrugged. A scowl marred his features, making him look even more Germanic in the play of shadow and light. “S’alright,” he mumbled.
Alain reached inside the plastic shopping bag he’d dropped at his feet, from the Annona, Vatican City’s supermarket. He usually made his rounds there when he was reduced to ketchup and stale bread, his milk long past its due date, and his fridge and cupboards bare. He would circuit the market once, throwing odds and ends in his basket as the nuns stared and the other priests doing their shopping crossed themselves before moving away.
Today, he’d gone inside in the sunlight, not skulking in the dark just before it closed. He heard three Hail Marys as he walked the aisles.
Alain tossed Cristoph a bottle of Fanta. “Heads up.”
Cristoph fumbled, but caught the cold soda and managed not to slice himself with his hatchet, either. He stared, first at the bottle, then at Alain. “Aren’t I supposed to be suffering on bread and water alone?”
“That’s the Navy. Here, you’re supposed to meditate on your failings before God in fast, before you accept the Eucharist in contrition.”
Cristoph continued to stare.
Alain unscrewed the top of his own soda. “Breaking down old uniforms is hard work. I know.”
Finally, a flicker of interest in Christoph’s eyes. Alain grinned. “I’ve been in your shoes. The trials of youth are the same for any young man, aren’t they? Inside these walls, the Vatican is a world removed from everywhere else. The air is different. Even time moves slower. But just over the gate… Rome.” Alain winked.
“‘There’s sin in Rome’,” Cristoph droned, repeating an old line given to the recruits from the Swiss Guard chaplains through the years. “‘Enough to bury your soul.’”
“There was a good wine bar in the Campo Dei Fiori. Lunch spot and café by day…” Alain shrugged, winking. “Thrilling place after the sun goes down. I may have enjoyed myself there a night or two.” He grinned, even as the old pain sliced through him, right up his gut.
Him, and his lover, sneaking out of the Holy See to blow off steam, to shake off the darkness and try to recapture a bit of normalcy. Father Lotario helping them sneak out of the Vatican, winking at them both to have fun, and if they were going to sin, to sin boldly, to sin well.
They always staggered their return to the Vatican, to try to avoid being caught together. His lover had made it back one night, was waiting at the barrack’s door for Alain to sneak back to their shared quarters. But the guards had caught Alain, and he’d been marched to the major’s office, to Best’s office, then. Thirty days of punishment detail fell around his shoulders.
His lover had sneaked in to see him every day, bringing sodas and company and his smiles, his laughs. His share of the punishment. They had been together in everything, had thought they’d be together for all time.
That old pain was dulled, now. Dead, Alain whispered in his mind. He’s dead. Everything we had. It’s dead. Every time he repeated the truth, the rip in his soul seemed to wither, the tears frayed almost to the point where the cut was no longer distinguishable. It was just a wind-worn flap of decay and ruin inside of him, roughened edges where something had once been, but was no more.
“We were specifically told not to go to the Campo.” Cristoph arched an eyebrow at Alain as he down a chug of his Fanta. “Very specifically.”
Alain shrugged, snapping back to the present as he smoothed his trousers, the wrinkles formed from his long days and nights. “I’m certain that has nothing at all to do with me.” He winked.
Was this history repeating itself? Was he playing the part of the friend—the lover—in coming to ease the burden? No. Cristoph was too young. He was too angry. There was too much fight in him, and he’d break Alain, split him in two. Cristoph was a force Alain couldn’t fight.
He couldn’t fight the living.
Besides, he was Cristoph’s mentor. He was just trying to show him some grace. Some compassion, in a world that seemed to have desiccated and fractured under the weight of history and time.
“So, tell me about this football team. I hear we’re somewhat decent.”
“The Vatican fire brigade has won the state championships for four years in a row.” Cristoph went back to hacking away at the uniforms. “That’s an embarrassment.”
Alain smothered his smile. The Vatican state championship was the ragtag competition between the various football teams in the Holy See. Firefighters, gendarmes, Swiss Guards, seminarians, a few teams made up of the younger members of brothers from the dozens of religious orders scattered throughout the Vatican. The World Cup, it was not. Skinny priests’ legs, blindingly white from never having seen the sun beneath a cassock or a suit, raced pell-mell across a pitch tucked into the Vatican Gardens, beneath the topiaries and the flowers tenderly arranged in the Papal coat of arms, and beyond the pope’s private vegetable garden.
That the pope’s soldiers, the Vatican military might, weren’t number one was an embarrassment. The firefighters were burly Italians, generations of Romans whose fathers had been Vatican firefighters, and whose fathers before them were as well. A few Greeks were thrown in, Eastern Catholics, strong as bulls, built for barreling through the opposing team.
Shame rang like a bell in the Swiss Guard barracks and the canteen whenever football was brought up.
“Tell me. Who is playing this year?”
“Zeigler and Muller are the strikers.” Cristoph shrugged. “New recruits I met during training.”
“Where have they put you?”
“On the bench. I’m on punishment. I’m not allowed to play.”
“Do they have any idea how good you actually are?”
“How do you know how I play?”
Alain demurred. He pursed his lips, smoothing out another wrinkle from his knee. His suit was starting to wear thin. He’d need a new one. “I can tell.” His eyes flicked up. Met Cristoph’s.
Corded muscles clung to Cristoph’s frame, long, lean lines of legs and arms, the hint of abs when his white undershirt rode up. A body carved in the gym, yes, but honed to perfection through physical action. Running. Fighting. Football. Fucking, even. How would Cristoph look, spread out on his sheets—
Alain swallowed, shifting. “I looked up your military record. You were on the pickup league in your spare time on your humanitarian deployment in Africa.”
Cristoph flinched and turned away. He hammered at the old uniforms again, shredding them to pieces with brute force instead of slicing them with the hatchet.
Alain stared. “The football? Or Africa?”
“I don’t wanna talk about it.”
Alain stared at the stones on the far wall, covered in darkness. “Captain Ewe is the captain of the team, yes?”
Cristoph grunted again. His axe slammed into the wooden block, shredding a uniform to ribbons, red, yellow, and blue fabric tumbling to the dust around his feet. He was ruining the perfect squares he was supposed to make. Major Bader would be furious.
“You’ll get your chance to play at the next practice. Show them who you really are.”
Cristoph paused. His arm, mid-swing, sagged, and the axe blade embedded in the edge of the chopping block. He exhaled, his shoulders slumping, his fingers rolling over the threads ripped free from the shredded uniforms. “Is… it worth it?”
Alain looked down. He scraped his sole against the dust-covered rocky floor of the ancient closet. They were in a corner of the barracks untouched by time, save for the droning lightbulb piped in during World War II. Other than that light, they could be anywhere, anytime. History stretched forward and backward, waves of time riding up around Alain, cresting higher and higher on Cristoph’s barely uttered words.
Is it worth it?
Nights spent wading through blood, hip deep in it, the stain impossible to erase. Nights facing down dark creatures, ghouls and wraiths and revenants, dead things that didn’t stay dead. That came back from beyond, that crawled out of nightmares. Creatures of darkness that stained his soul with doubt.
Nights alone, standing on the edge of nothingness and forever, like a gargoyle perched on the very edge of a cathedral. No, clinging to the tiniest edge. But did he want to let go, or did he want to hang on?
Is it worth it?
He’d been Cristoph, once. On the cusp of being a man, on the cusp of the rest of his life, certain that an assignment in the Vatican, in the heart of Rome, was the grand adventure he’d been waiting his whole life for.
He would have been a good Halberdier. He would have served with distinction, moved up the ranks. He would have made major, he knew it. All he wanted was to serve, to do the right thing.
If only everything had been different.
Is it worth it?
What would he have become had he turned his back on it all? Had he left the morning after his world had ended, the morning after everything had shattered, and he’d been drenched in every drop of blood that had once pumped through his lover’s veins. After he’d held his dead love in his arms and watched the life fade from his eyes. He’d have gone back to Switzerland a disgrace, a failure from the Swiss Guard, dismissed from the most prestigious posting in the Swiss military. Sworn to secrecy by the Pope himself, and yet quietly excommunicated as well. He’d have been no more than a shade, a shadow like the ones he hunted. Would he have even lived through the rest of the year? Without Lotario, without their duties. Would he have held on to life at all?
But what life was he living now?
Is it worth it?
The weight of a sword falling on his shoulders, an invocation in Latin. A sacrament. A blessing, and a curse. His memories intruded into the present, warm and full of grace. He’d only wanted to serve, always and only to serve. To save. To do the right thing.
Alain licked his lips. Dust, from centuries past, ground over his skin. “It is worth it. Don’t turn your back. Don’t welcome the darkness into your life, Cristoph.” He cleared his throat. “You can have friends here. You can make a life. If you want to.”
Cristoph peered at him from under his eyelashes, across the shadows and the buzzing lightbulb covered in grime. Hesitation shimmered the air around him, questions pouring from him. What had he gotten himself into? Alain could see, suddenly, as if he’d laid out a deck of cards, how Cristoph’s life had unfolded. Always being slightly at odds from the world, never quite fitting in. Trying to hide all the wrong parts of himself. Trying to make an impact, make a difference. Do something good. Trying to apologize for his existence through the brashness of his fists, the boldness of his attitude. Fuck the world, and everyone in it, his spread would say. Crossed with, I’m so alone. I don’t know what to do.
What would Alain’s say if he read his own cards? Would they look the same as Cristoph’s? Aching loneliness? Heartbreak at the center of his soul? His would undoubtedly reveal the hermit’s cross, the recluse’s turn away from the world. Let the world pass me by. Let me turn into a stone gargoyle as the years roll on and on.
What did Commandant Best see in putting them together? What in all of the earth, all of the heavenly glories, did he possibly see?
They were two broken men, outcasts from the world, from the Vatican. If Cristoph was looking to him for advice, he was asking the wrong man about what choices to make for a good life.
How had Cristoph ended up in the Vatican? From the bloody streets of West Africa and his humanitarian deployment during the Ebola outbreak to the Holy See? Who had put the thought in his head—the Swiss Guards? What was he searching for here? Why not London, or Paris, or New York? Why had he thought he’d find his answers here?
“Do you play?” Cristoph finally asked, breaking the silence. His hatchet slammed down on the block again, shredding red, blue, and yellow fabric again. “Football?”
“Not for many years.”
“Do you ever watch the games?”
“I haven’t.” Alain shrugged. “I’ve been busy. There’s always something going on,” he said, stretching, trying to work out the kinks in his back, his neck. He saw Cristoph, saw his expression shutter, close down, the heavy frown curl back over his forehead. “When you play,” he said softly. “I’ll come.”
Finally, Cristoph smiled.
Timestamp: Missing Scene from A Time to Rise, soon to be re-released.