Pause – A short story
I paused before taking my well-aimed shot, dropping my enemy with minimal effort. A direct hit to the left eye. Killing became as easy as eating breakfast if you could call what they served in the barracks breakfast. At this point in the war, we were down to potatoes and canned vegetables of various sorts. The enemy bunkered down and occupied the nearby town of Westbrook for two years now. I expected the fighting would at least allow me to see more of the country, but that was not the case. Just Westbrook, which looked like any other town in the region.
My kill count was at about 86 since the start of the war, although I am almost certain this number has been padded to make me look better in the papers. The men liked to talk about kill counts as if it were all a big game, racking up the best possible high score. Without wanting to be the focus of the soldier’s stories, I was in direct competition with the enemy sniper who went by the name of Slow Death, if you translate it from Russian. It sounds even more terrifying in Russian, I’m sure of it. He was up to 93 kills now and nobody knew anything else about him, just that he was extremely dangerous and could kill you in any situation and from any distance. Rumors spread that he once killed a man by shooting him in the penis just before putting it back in his pants after visiting the latrine. That particular soldier bled to death while frantically crawling around trying to find his dismembered penis in the dark. He also killed a man from a mile away while he was riding off on his motorcycle, an impossible shot. I don’t know how I felt about our little sniper competition. It felt like I was just out hunting game instead of real human beings, who had families and stories of their own. This wasn’t the time or place to be doubting my mission in life, not during the war. I needed to stay strong and be who the rest of the soldiers had dreamed me up to be.
The following weeks rolled by and they kept sending me more bodies. The town we were fighting over had this large church, with a bell tower which had a large golden bell. The tower was barely holding itself up and was partially destroyed by artillery. I supposed both parties wanted to keep it standing for its strategic significance. On occasion, they sent some poor schmuck up there to try to get vital information of our whereabouts. The only thing they knew is that I kept killing them. I realized quickly that if I shot every single scout they sent up there, they would become discouraged and stop. Instead, I mixed it up, sometimes waiting three to four days to take him out. We never moved from our camps so to them nothing was happening anyway.
These long and cold days made me think about the morality of it all, of this war. At some point, some important people were going to decide it was enough and then we all packed up and left, almost like nothing happened. Men who were once your sworn enemies could greet you in the tobacco shop just months later. Imagine starting a conversation with a stranger that potentially killed some of your best friends. I just hope the emotional baggage we take with us won’t weigh us down too heavily. My thoughts increasingly switched to the stories of the enemy sniper as the rumors increased in both quantity and absurdity. I swear that at some point our soldiers were making them up, just to pass the time or to see who tell the most unbelievable story.
Weeks went by and I kept my eyes and ears open for any news of our mystery sniper. It wasn’t that I was obsessed but rather terrified of him coming closer to our position. I knew if that happened it would be the end of me. Hopefully, there were more strategic and important areas to fight over. I headed back from another hard day’s work, through the wheat fields, along the riverbank, which led directly to our camp. I operated alone, which meant I had too much time to think as I walked back from my vantage point. Too much time to think about the fathers I had killed, the families I left devastated.
“There he is, our favorite hero, the man, the legend himself.”
“Stop using that word,” I said. “What does it even mean at this point?”
“Ohh lighten up Billy,” my best friend, Danny yelled out.
Danny was from Arkansas and had a wife and child and a golden voice. I didn’t understand what he was doing here, out of all people. He belonged in Hollywood singing about love and fame and heartbreak. He did not even get the chance to hold his child yet and had to make due with pictures his girlfriend sent him. The men often teased him about not being married and his girlfriend running around screwing everyone back home. I don’t think it fazed him though and I couldn’t imagine her doing such a thing.
“Any news from the frontier,” I asked the group.
We chatted about the news we had heard from command and read in the local papers. We had to rely on Zack because he was the only one who could translate the local French papers. Apparently, the Germans decided to launch a full-scale attack into Russia. I was glad I wasn’t fighting in Russia, what a cold and deadly place to be. The men talked about this game Russian soldiers played. It consisted of playing chess for five minutes at a time and then switching to boxing. The goal of the boxing portion of the game was to concuss your opponent so that he would not be able to make his next moves in chess. You could win by either knocking your opponent out or getting a checkmate. It sounded like a great game though, but we didn’t dare try it out. A country that invented that kind of game had to be unbeatable in war.
“Ohh by the way, your best friend has been sighted in the town next to us, just six miles up the road to the East,” one of the machine gunners called out.
“When did you hear this,” I asked while I felt my heart sinking.
I spent the next few days preparing for our showdown, I had no chance if it were to be a fair one on one fight. I needed to use the land and my knowledge of it to outsmart him, that was my only chance. I needed him to be concussed after a round of boxing so that I could checkmate him in chess. After hours of laying awake at night staring up at the stars, I came to the realization that I would use a decoy, a grunt, to draw him out into the open. As morally wrong as this approach was, my life was on the line. It was also hard to behing thinking about morals in a place like this. I only cared about my own life at this point, the impact of this win did not occur to me. Three days later, after practicing our routine to trap him to perfection, we decided to head back towards Westbrook, just two miles north of our camp.
“Do you promise you’ll shoot him before he is able to blow my head off,” Charles asked, his look couldn’t hide his fear and doubt in the mission.
“I promise,” I said.
I lied to keep him at ease. If these stories were anywhere near true, Charles was going to have to die just so I would have the time to get a clear shot. It was just another body to add to the total of this ridiculous war. I avoided making more small talk with Charles, I didn’t want to know anything about him, he was a piece of meat at this point. A piece of meat that probably had a wife and kid at home, if he was even old enough to have experienced that in his life. I sure hope he had that experience, of a woman. A woman’s love, a woman’s touch, a woman’s jealousy. I decided to set up my shot just 900 meters away from the town, in a nearby shrub, covering nearly all of my presence. It was a good spot. We had given Charles a standard issue Lee-Enfield so that our enemy sniper would mistake him for me. I’m sure the Russians were somewhat aware of me at this point. The impact on this war this one shot could have was tremendous. It meant taking the town and advancing forward, towards Berlin. I would be commended, given medals, probably some kind of speech in my honor. I cared very little for such things.
Two days later, a squad of German soldiers arrived in the town, it appeared to be a grenadier unit of about fifteen soldiers. They must have been there as some kind of distraction, but I kept my focus on the prize. That night, Charles fired his first shot, killing one of their men. It was a clean kill, it appeared that he was a natural. He moved East of his old location as soon as he fired the shot. The training we gave him proved to be paying off and I kept my eyes open for Slow Death. Time passed and a few more enemies showed their faces, but we stuck to the plan and kept moving around, focusing on making sure Charles acted as naturally as possible. We updated each other each day as we walked back to camp, alongside those fields, once used to harvest crops, now a backdrop for killing. My confidence in the mission grew each day, but the lack of retaliation from the enemy was slightly worrying.
As we set up in our usual spots on the 8th day, I spotted him while I was scanning the windows of the few houses in the town. The crafty bastard had set up his gun just inside a small house just west of the bell tower, mannequins were covering up the barrel but the tip still stuck out slightly. My hands began trembling as I felt the moment approaching, the moment to end the doubt I had built up in my mind, maybe I could end this without sacrificing Charlie. I was starting to like the guy, his optimism and the way he was proud of his 4 kills so far, it showed me glimpses of myself at the start of this war. To think that I probably killed 80 more men that he had was bizarre and surreal. It was impossible for me to be proud of what I had done.
I laid down and got my breathing under control, waiting for that inevitable shot to arrive. It never came so I waited for Slow Death to move positions, hoping to catch him as he moved between buildings after a long day. Miraculously, I spotted him leaving the small house and heading towards the bell tower, perhaps they had set up a base in there. I aimed down my sights and what I saw was long, luscious, beautiful blond hair that blew in the wind as she took off her helmet. In that instant, she turned and looked straight into my direction, completely aware of my position. I felt a chill run down my spine. Not only was she a woman, but she was gorgeous and reminded me of how my grandmother used to look when she was young. Instead of taking the shot, I laid there in contemplation. I couldn’t bring myself to kill her. I did not want to believe that she, of all people, was this ruthless Russian killer. My hatred turned into admiration, I hoped it was not true. I laid down on my back and stayed in the position for hours, alone with my thoughts. I hoped Charles went back to camp without me, I couldn’t face him or the rest of the company, not right now.
Hours later, as I was waking up from a restless dream, a cold sharp object poked into my back.
“You did not kill me, why not,” she asked.
“You are a woman, I cannot kill you.”
“You are a fool,” she responded.
“You knew I wouldn’t shoot you, why,” I asked, hoping for some answers. I needed answers.
“There are no more men to fight in this war, so I took up arms. You are a man and men are weak, easily manipulated,” she responded.
“Did you really kill over one hundred men,” I asked.
“Not yet, you are actually my 100th, I spared the boy, he has not experienced enough and I told myself 100 was enough.”
Before I could respond, she drove her knife straight through my back, coming out through my chest, right through the heart. The life was sucked out of me and I found myself floating in space, in the darkness. Floating away from this wretched war, onto my next unearthly adventure.