Getting back on a roll with my short story challenge, as we wind into the 32nd story.
You probably know the score. Or maybe you don’t. I’ve challenged myself to write a short story every week for a year. Like the title suggests, this is week 32’s story, so I’m more than half way now.
If you want to catch up, you can read every short story here.
In itself, this is a repeat of a challenge I did a few years back which led to an entire collection of short stories, which you can buy as an eBook, if you would be so kind:
Want something notably different and considerably longer? There’s also my B-movie novel, Sharksplosion. It’s pretty much exactly what you’d think a book with that title might be like.
Enough of the eBook plugging, Alex.
The Small Village
It was meant to be an easy patrol. Nothing particularly special. The early reports said that the small village to the north had been abandoned months ago, and who can blame them?
Just patrol a couple of miles north, head back to base and be done with it for the night. An easy job for the six of us, but you’ve always got to be careful and have your wits around you, even this far from the front line.
So the six of us set out, walking down the dried out riverbed that wound its way up the hill to the outskirts of the village. Keeping low, keeping quiet, using the shadows and the fading light to our advantage.
In formation, like we’d done so many times before, keeping tight and alert for any movement.
But it was quiet, no sounds of vehicles, people… not even the call of birds in the mostly burnt out valley.
The shelling here must have been pretty intense, because I could make out where the road would have been, largely from the chunks of concrete and asphalt that had tumbled down the hill before blocking up the river entirely.
The village probably dated from medieval times, and back then it would have given security to be built on a hill.
These days, it just made you an easier target for the mortars to hit. Then again, like then and like now, you’d struggle to get a cart or any vehicle up this way.
As the last of the sunlight started to drop away, we approached the very edge of the village and its ruined stone walls.
It was astonishing that any of them were still standing, because the ground around them was totally churned up and broken. To the east, the entire wall had crumbled down and burnt out. That would be easier to get through, but also quite noisy, and entirely exposed.
The sergeant gestured to me to take point, gesturing towards a small hole in the still standing section of the outer wall.
An almost perfectly round hole through the thick wall.
You know when you’re a kid, and you’re watching a cartoon, and the wacky animal hero blows a hole clean through the bad animal in a perfect circle?
Like that. Eerily like that, because it looked like it could collapse at any moment.
Standard protocol suggests that I should have slowly inched through that hole, but sometimes you’ve got to go with your gut feel.
Mine was telling me that it didn’t fancy getting crushed by several tonnes of broken medieval wall, so I dived straight through and rolled up to my feet, weapon ready and scanning the interior.
Nothing much to see, even in the dim early evening light. I gestured to the others to come through, which they did, quietly and much more slowly than I did.
The sergeant glared at me. He’d never much liked me since I’d ended up in his patrol, and I could tell he thought I was showboating by diving through.
Silence was the protocol, so all he could do was glare… and tell me to take point again, heading past the smaller broken farmhouses towards the centre of the village.
Like I said, the sergeant never much liked me. I moved forward slowly, scanning the horizon. There was no noise but for the light crunch of the gravel underneath my boots as I made my way deeper into the village, the troop following behind me.
Suddenly, in the distance, I spotted something moving. Something small — maybe a dog or cat, I couldn’t be sure in the dim evening light. I pointed it out to the sergeant, but he indicated to ignore it.
So we trudged on, slowly and cautiously.
After a while, we came to what must have been the town square. Nearly all ruined now, with burnt out shells of buildings and the remnants of a well with most of its sides collapsed inwards.
To the side of one building a defiant flagpole stood at an angle with ribbons of shredded flag still somehow fluttering in the breeze. Just underneath it, the burned out remains of… somebody.
Definitely a body, but too badly burnt to tell if it was one of ours, one of theirs or just a villager in the wrong place at the wrong time when the artillery had started flying.
I looked back at the sergeant, gesturing towards the body to see if he wanted me to check it out. If it was one of our boys, I should try to get the dog tags for the family.
I’ll never forget what happened next.
First the sound, in a village where it had been nearly entirely quiet the whole time we were there. A thwip through the village square as the bullet cut through the air.
Then the sergeant’s head exploded from the force of the bullet, and he fell to his knees, dead on the spot.
Each of us scrambled for cover, unsure where the shot had truly come from. I huddled down next to the body, silently hoping it hadn’t been booby trapped, waiting for the next shot to ring out. The others ducked under burnt out cars or behind walls as the sergeant’s body dropped flat to the ground.
I could make out Jenkins to my right, looking up over where I was lying towards the old burnt out church steeple. A likely place for a sniper to hide, and with a further thwip, it was confirmed, as Jenkins went down too.
That left me and three others; Smythe, Hollins and Baker.
Baker gestured to me to try to get a bead on the church tower.I cautiously looked up, trying not to move and fully give my position away, before realising I was lying flat in the middle of the square. If he could see me, he could probably see all of me all of the time, and it was just a question of how fast he could reload.
So I opened fire on the tower, spraying and praying that I’d either hit someone or at least stop him easily aiming while I scrambled away from the square and into the remnants of one of the old stores that circled it.
Baker, Smythe and Hollins also opened fire, all pretense of stealth gone as we fought to survive.
Then it went quiet. Had we got him with a stray bullet, or was he waiting?
There was only one way to be sure, but we would have to be quick to stop the sniper moving into a fresh position.
I looked out of the shattered doorway towards Baker, gesturing to him to take point and head up towards the base of the tower while I readied a grenade.
Baker complied, moving forwards a few steps… and then being stopped dead in his tracks as another bullet found its mark.
That’s when Smythe broke cover, running back the way we came only to be hit in the leg. Must have been a lucky fast shot from the sniper, but it stopped him down, screaming and frothing on the cold ground.
Basic training teaches you about this, and it isn’t pretty. As much as I wanted to drag Smythe to safety, with only Hollins to provide covering fire, there was no way to make that happen. If either of us moved towards him, we’d be next.
Hollins looked at me, fear in his eyes for just a second… and that’s when the building he was in collapsed on top of him, crushing him entirely.
It was down to me, and I had an idea. Hollins had been unlucky to go out that way, but the buildings in the village were clearly badly damaged. I didn’t have to take the sniper down if I could take down the building they were in.
So I grabbed the grenade and hurled it down the centre of the square towards the church. It exploded, throwing dust, smoke and rubble everywhere.
Then with a resounding crash, I heard the church tower collapse, the bells clattering and clanging as they crashed through the falling tower.
I waited for the dust to settle, and quietly made my way out towards where Smythe lay. He was still, quiet and cold. That leg wound must have been worse than I thought.
I looked out towards the ruined square and rubble where the church tower had once stood.
I heard voices. Lots of voices and what were clearly orders in a language I did not understand.
Clearly the sniper had not been alone.
That’s when I made my decision.
To get the hell out of there. Yeah, I ran. Fast as I could, back through the village, dive through the hole and as far away as fast as I could.
It’s the only reason I’m here today.
And you want to court martial me for that?