This was the first story I ever had published. It was just in my college’s yearly art magazine, but it was still a pretty big deal for me. This story getting published is what made me think that I might actually be able to do some writing in my life. The story has some rough spots and won’t be the best story you’ll ever read, but it’s a quick and easy little short story and I hope you like it. So, without further ado, I present to you “The Sentry”.
As the sun began its slow climb over the distant shaggy hills, small pockets of fog still clung stubbornly to life in the dips and depressions of the valley in front of the sentry. The night had been a hard one: long, cold, and dark. Not much different than the many nights before this one, though. And most likely no different than many nights ahead. It often seemed to the sentry that his entire existence these days was little more than one dark night after another.
The sounds and smells of the camp coming to life began to dance around him. Already he could hear orders being barked and men shuffling around, still half asleep and wishing they were anywhere but here. He heard his relief trudging up behind him exactly on schedule, but the sentry didn’t turn to greet him. He didn’t even acknowledge the man. He kept his eyes on the field.
He was supposed to be keeping an eye out for the enemy, or really anything that seemed the least bit suspicious. But today, like most mornings, his eyes were locked onto the fog, trying to see if he could watch its final moments. He’d been playing this little game with himself for a while now. It started out as little more than something to do to pass the time but slowly began to take on a life of its own over the past few weeks. Just once he wanted to witness the fog completely disappear. He wanted to be able to watch it as it got smaller and smaller, slowly being eaten away by the light of the sun. Would he be able to see the final moments? Would he know the second that the last bits of mist floated away into the sky? Could he stay engaged long enough to witness the whole thing?
He’d considered asking his relief about the fog. Asking whether or not the other man watched it as he did. But for some odd reason, the sentry’s courage escaped him at the last second every time he’d tried discussing it. He would be on the verge of bringing it up when his chest would tighten up and his stomach would suddenly be full of knots. It was the same feeling he’d gotten talking to girls when he was young and foolish.
Why would he get the same feeling now asking about fog, though?
“Morning,” the relief said, taking his normal spot beside the sentry. The relief was a big man, stronger than most and braver (or crazier) than all. He’d shown incredible courage during their campaign, at times seeming to have almost no regard for his own life. Naturally, all the commanders loved him. This man took soldiering to a whole other level.
“Good morning,” the sentry replied, still looking out at the field. One of the fog pools seemed to him to have shrunk in the past couple minutes, and his heart increased its tempo by a couple beats.
“How was the night?”
“The usual,” the sentry said absently. Perhaps he’d only imagined the change in the fog and it was still the same size after all. Maybe it would never go away.
“Sorry.” The sentry snapped out of his daze and finally looked over. “It was all quiet. Nothing to report.”
“No signs at all of the enemy? Some of us thought they would send a scouting party our way.”
“Not even a whisper.”
The two men stood in silence for a time, each man momentarily lost in his own thoughts. The sentry watched the fog. The relief was probably imagining the joy he would feel from catching another enemy scout.
It wasn’t long before the weight of the silence began to bother the sentry. Had he perhaps missed some other question? He begrudgingly pulled his eyes away from the field and looked over at the big man, who was standing completely still, staring out everything and nothing.
What was the other man looking at, the sentry wondered? Perhaps the men were actually on the same page with no idea that the other was there. Could it be possible that this other person felt the same, but was scared to speak up? Heart pounding, the sentry spoke. “It’s, uh…” he stammered, feeling the teenage boy in him wanting to run away from the pretty girl again. “It’s pretty nice, actually, huh?”
Chickened out again…
He glanced up at the other soldier. The man was looking down at the sentry with a hint of contempt in an otherwise stony glare. “No,” he said coldly, before looking out at the field again. “No, I was actually thinking about how much I absolutely hate this place. I don’t understand why anybody would want to live in this disgusting country.”
“Are you telling me that you actually like it here?”
“No… not really. I think the mornings are kind of nice sometimes. There’s just… there’s just something about them.”
The relief simply made a non-committal grunt and looked back out at the world in front of them. The relief wasn’t wrong. It was a pretty harsh land. Freezing at night, sweltering during the day. Marching any distance was a nightmare even in the best of conditions.
“They got the prisoner to talk,” the relief said after another long silence.
“Did we get anything good out of him,” the sentry asked, struggling to keep his eyes forward and his excitement hidden.
“We did. It seems that they’ve decided to split their forces.”
“What?” the sentry asked, losing his internal battle and staring up at the other man wide-eyed. “But… Why? Why would they do that? That makes no sense. They’re already outnumbered. What the hell are they trying to do?”
The relief cast a curious glance at the sentry. “They have no chance against us in a head to head fight. Their commanders know this, no matter how much they want to try and deny it.” A small chuckle. “These savages might not be quite as dumb as I thought they were.”
“Perhaps.” the sentry said, once again looking back out at the field.
“The force that’s been left behind is meant to delay us as much as possible. The other half of their so-called army is racing out to the towns and villages ahead to gather up all the people, food, and supplies they can. They’re moving everyone up to the mountains. They think they have a better chance against us there…”
“They would,” the sentry interrupted.
“Or,” the man continued with a hint of annoyance in his voice. “that we won’t even bother attacking them there.”
“Will we attack them there?”
“How would I know? I don’t make decisions around here.”
“But do you think we should?”
Another cloud of silence surrounded them. The sentry decided that he had imagined the fog getting smaller after all. The patch of grass he’d seen was gone now, obscured again as the fog shifted and danced in its resting place.
“Why?” The sentry asked.
“What do you mean, ‘why’?”
“Why would we attack them in the mountains? We don’t need anything there?”
“Because they’re the bad guys. You do know that, right? Because you seem to be struggling with that fact today. They need to be dealt with.”
“But you said yourself that they are no match for us. What fear do we have of them?”
“It has nothing to do with fear. They need to be taken care of. They need to know who’s in charge.”
“It seems to me like they already do.”
The relief gave another grunt, much more dismissive in tone this time. He clearly didn’t want to talk about this anymore. “Why’re you still here, anyway?” He asked.
“I want to see the fog go away,” the sentry blurted out, much to his own surprise.
“Nothing.” The sentry pulled his eyes away from the field and gave a little shake of his head. “It doesn’t matter. Question, though,” He paused, unsure if he should continue. The other man looked over at him.
“Do you think those people are human?”
“No.” Not a second of hesitation. “They’re animals. Worse than animals. They serve no purpose in this world.”
“Because they are different?”
“Because they’re disgusting. What’s wrong with you today?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all. I was just curious.” The sentry turned and began to gather up his gear. He stood, glanced around to make sure he wasn’t leaving anything behind, gave a quick nod to his relief, and began to head off to try and find some hot food before getting a little sleep.
When he was a few steps away from the other man he stopped suddenly. Worse than animals, the other man had said. How many other people thought that way? Most of them, probably.
“What? What is it now?” the big man asked, now clearly annoyed and frustrated.
“Do you ever wonder…”
“Yeah? Wonder what?”
The sentry turned around to look at him. He stared at the man in front of him, wondering briefly about what the other man was like back home. Was he a loving father? Was he the town bully? Who would miss him if he never came home? Who would be happy to never see his face again?
“Do you ever wonder if we’re the bad guys? Do you ever wonder if we’ve been lied to and been sent here just to take what these people have?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I was just thinking about it last night. About why we’re really here. These people didn’t hurt us. Not really. A small group of them, maybe, but not all of them. I was just wondering what’s real and what isn’t.”
“You know what’s real,” the big man growled, “and you damn well know what they’ve done. They attacked us first. They need to be wiped out.”
“Those villagers fleeing their homes to hide in the mountains attacked us?”
“They’re all the same!”
The sentry nodded. “Do me a favor, huh? Let me know when that fog finally goes away.”
He turned and walked away without getting an answer.