This short story was produced by Alec Roisko at Frankfurt International School’s Writing & Art Symposium, where authors and artists worked with students on a bilingual interschool publishing project.
“Papa, tell me a story,” Isabelle whined to her father as she put up her usual resistance to going to bed on time.
She’d been too ill to go to school, coughing all day and complaining ceaselessly and while she’d been exceedingly difficult, Wyatt didn’t mind putting her to bed. Telling his daughter bedtime stories in her small, dimly-lit room, the personality of a sweet and creative girl apparent in every detail of the room’s decoration, from drawings of great adventures to the books stacked high in all available space was the type of moment that he treasured most.
“Sure honey, just settle in,” Wyatt told her, trying to come up with a story on the spot. She’d read through all the books in her room multiple times and the fresh batch of stories they collect on their weekend trips into town couldn’t come fast enough. As the seven-year-old girl snuggled into her bed, feeling nothing but the comfort of her cozily decorated room and her father’s presence, he looked down at her with unbridled affection.
“Hurry up,” she groaned, her characteristic impatience showing.
“Ok, how about this,” he said as she put on a faked pout. “Once upon a time, there was a little girl who went straight to bed when asked to,”
“Stop it!” she cried out, laughing at her father’s silliness. “Tell me a real story.”
“Alright, Isabelle, sorry,” Wyatt said, chuckling slightly. The idea of what to tell her finally dawned to him. “Here’s one my father told me as a child, I think you’ll like it. Listen closely.”
Isabelle’s father went on to tell her the story of a boy named Oliver who went to a school just like hers. One day, he and his classmates were shown a circle, roughly a meter in diameter, sketched in chalk on the asphalt of the school’s run-down playground. The teacher made it clear that the first person to cross into the circle would be punished severely. No reason was ever given and the punishment was never specified, but they knew they should obey their teacher.
The confusion was apparent on Isabelle’s face.
The story continued as a timid girl in Oliver’s class with a broken arm was minding her own business, playing with a doll when a mean-spirited older boy took the doll and threw it right into the middle of the circle. Isabelle’s horror only increased when she heard that the girl immediately burst into tears.
“Why wouldn’t she just go and get it?” Isabelle asked. “It’s just a chalk circle,” she insisted, “Nothing would actually happen to her.”
“No-one wanted to find out what the teacher’s punishment for entering the circle was, Isabelle. They were just following instructions.” her father explained.
Wyatt continued to explain that the girl was entirely helpless.
“Oliver knew at that moment that what was happening was wrong,” he said. “He knew that he should do something to help the little girl, who clearly couldn’t fend for herself.”
“So?” Isabelle urged. “Does he help her?” She’d clearly become very emotionally invested in the story and was getting a bit too fired up for right before bedtime.
“Well, no-one knows,” Wyatt answered calmly. “Sometimes when my father told the story, he said that he did, and sometimes he didn’t.”
“But of course he needs to help her, it would be rude not to,” she argued. Her innocence and good faith melted his heart. Although he wanted nothing more than to discuss this with her and commend her for her already unbudging moral compass they were interrupted by her mother insisting that it’s far past bedtime.
“That’s enough story time,” she called out, with the slightest edge of annoyance.
“Sorry Isabelle, captain’s orders,” he said begrudgingly as he tucked her in. “Goodnight sweetheart.”
“Goodnight, Papa,” she mumbled, clearly still bothered by the events of the story but nodding off to sleep regardless. As he was gently closing the door to her room, he heard her call out once more; “Papa, wait.”
“What is it, sweetheart?” he asked slightly hurriedly, not wanting to hear the next call from downstairs.
“What should I do if that happens at my school, Papa?” she asked, the concern on her voice clear.
“Well, I don’t think it would, Isabelle. The teachers at your school are much more reasonable, and besides, the children are much too kind to do something like that,” he explained, hoping to reassure her. Sensing her dissatisfaction with this answer, he added, “In the end, it’s your choice. It’s these choices that define the kind of people we are.”
“I’d help her, no matter what,” Isabelle insisted, more to herself than to her father.
“I’m happy to hear that Isabelle, I know you would. Goodnight now,” he said as he closed the door, unable to suppress a slight smile.
Wyatt was a soldier, stationed with his family to protect their town’s border fence, not the kind of military job that demanded any risk. It wasn’t particularly exciting and experiencing any sort of incident was incredibly rare for him. Despite this, Wyatt liked the thought of being part of keeping everyone in his town safe.
Some weeks later, Wyatt went to work. He left their lived-in apartment, located a short bus ride from the edge of the town, at an ungodly hour, when both his wife and daughter were still fast asleep and headed in the direction of the military complex. This was a walk that he had always hated. Initially, it was a very nice and scenic forest walk as birds chirped and fluorescent green light flooded down through the natural filter of the treetops. This pleasant image, however, was hastily stripped away as a corner was turned and the military complex revealed.
This concrete block of a building sat on the outskirts of a seemingly endless forest, making the area closest to the town inaccessible for the townsfolk, much to his daughter’s dismay as it became a usual topic of complaint. He retrieved his firearm as per usual, loading the weighty pistol with distaste and hastily shoving it into his holster. He headed to his boss’s office for the daily briefing, the most uncomfortable five minutes of his day.
From the very start of working this job, he had never liked his boss. He had no consideration for the needs of those working under him, treated them with little respect and was entirely self-interested, seemingly working only for his own personal gain.
He walked into an atmosphere somehow more tense than the usually grim and unpleasant morning meetings. His boss wasted no time breaking the silence with his low and growly voice that Wyatt had grown to resent.
“Listen up. We’ve had an incident,” he said unenthusiastically. It was clear this was just a chore for him. “Last night, Gregg fell asleep on the job. We’ve had to let him go which means a night shift has opened up. Let us know by tomorrow if you want to switch to it.”
Not a chance, Wyatt thought right away. Despite the shift paying slightly better, the night shift was notoriously miserable.
The day moved on as usual as Wyatt trecked through the forest to his post at the fence and started to patrol his two hundred meter stretch of the border. Once the military complex had disappeared from sight, the forest returned to its previously scenic state until you reached the fence, cutting through the forest like a gaping wound on pale skin. The day progressed uneventfully. No movement on either side of the fence. When his coworker taking over for the next shift approached Wyatt from behind, he jumped slightly, as tensions were always high. In his relief, he thought to himself that he was glad this wasn’t a night shift.
Wyatt returned home that evening to bad news. Isabelle’s coughing had increased drastically so her mother took her to the doctor in town to see what was wrong. After his examination, the doctor said Isabelle had pneumonia, handed them a small, yellow glass bottle with an illegible label filled with tiny white pills to be taken with meals and instructed Isabelle to stay in bed for at least the next week. His mind immediately leaped to his little girl lying in bed upstairs and he headed straight for the staircase.
“Let her rest,” his wife said, clearly worn out by a day of pampering a sick child. “The doctor said she should rest, and besides, we have something to discuss.”
“Alright, fine, I was just going to check up on her anyway,” Wyatt said, trying in vain to cover up his concern. “What do we need to talk about?”
“It’s the bills for Isabelle’s medication,” Wyatt’s wife told him remorsefully. “You know we’re already struggling with rent and with the medical bills on top of that, it’s going to be tough.”
“Keep your voice down, I don’t want Isabelle to hear about any of this,” he said.
Wyatt thought back to the night shift that had opened up earlier that day. It seemed like the ideal solution to their predicament. He told his wife about the shift, agreed to tell call his boss later that day, and went upstairs to check up on Isabelle.
Peaking through the slight opening in her doorway, Wyatt made eye contact with his daughter who’d heard him come back home but hadn’t had the energy to get out of bed. In her half-slumber state, she mumbled to him,
Any doubt that taking the night shift wasn’t the right thing to do evaporated at that moment as he saw what it was that he was working toward.
“Rest up sweetheart, you’ll be as good as new in no time,” he said and received little objection as the girl shut her eyes right away. Closing the door gently, he headed back downstairs.
Having contacted his boss about switching to the night shift, Wyatt had the entirety of the next day to rest and prepare. His wife had concluded that the night shift would be no different and if anything, it would be a good change as it would mean he could be at home during the day. Wyatt said that he agreed, but wasn’t so sure. The night shift was far riskier thanks to an increased likelihood of a dangerous incident, the cover of darkness being ideal border crossing time for those with bad intentions. He’d heard stories from coworkers and he hoped that his first night would be entirely incident-free.
Later that evening, Wyatt headed back to the military complex. The walk through the forest had been altered drastically by the spotlight which usually shone down on the forest by the daytime sun being replaced with the dimmer, gloomier moonlight. The chirp of songbirds had been replaced with the occasional hoot of an owl and nothing but Wyatt’s familiarity with the route kept him on the right path. Going through the same routine as always, just with his side of the earth facing away from the sun instead of towards it, felt entirely different after nightfall. The usually uncomfortable loading of his firearm felt almost sinister to Wyatt as he prepared to head out into the darkness, unknown threats awaiting.
The first hour or so of the shift passed by uneventfully. Wyatt paced back and forth, his flashlight and firearm swinging gently on each side of his waist as he patrolled back and forth. The border fence remained an ominous presence as the barbed wire running along it glistened menacingly in the moonlight. The initial nervousness had mostly passed but the increased sense of isolation remained jarring.
Wyatt had settled into the routine of patrolling the fence, finding it not too different to his regular day shift, knowing that each minute he spent out in the dreary darkness was going towards helping Isabelle. At that moment, he heard a rustling of branches far in the distance, on the other side of the fence. While it was too far to be any immediate danger, Wyatt’s attention was caught and he focused on the sound. It was probably just an animal, a raccoon scurrying to their den or maybe a deer, seeking out a safe area to rest. He was suddenly startled by the snap of a twig. At this point, Wyatt’s concern began to increase. He was sure that the snap sounded closer than the initial rustling.
Wyatt resented that his hand instantly gravitated toward the pistol sitting at his hip. He assured himself that it was probably nothing but pulled out his flashlight nonetheless.
The rustling of branches had become a bit too close for Wyatt’s comfort. He was peering through the barbed wire fencing, shining his flashlight around the forested area looking out for the source of the sound when he saw her emerge from the bushes, stumbling and falling to the ground right in front of the fence, right in the middle of the beam of Wyatt’s flashlight.
She was just a little girl, her dirt-smeared face expressing horror and utter confusion as she took in her new environment. Her dirty brown hair clung to the sides of her face and her clothes were muddy and tattered. Wyatt noticed her arm, which was coated in dried blood and her wrist which poked out at an unnatural angle and immediately knew that something was wrong.
Wyatt froze. Nothing could’ve prepared him for this moment, not even the extensive training he had undergone for these exact situations. Although he remembered exactly what protocol dictated they do in these situations, he couldn't force the words to ask her to back away from the fence to come out of his mouth. Moments passed and neither Wyatt nor the little girl moved an inch. Finally the silence was broken as the little girl burst into tears.
“Where am I?” she wailed. It was clear these tears had been building up for a while. Wyatt had dealt with a certain little girl’s meltdowns many times but he felt absolutely lost in this situation.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Wyatt told her, not sure what good this would do the already terrified little girl.
“Where’s my Papa?” the little girl asked Wyatt. If only he knew, he thought to himself. “Can you help me?” She sniffled and looked up at Wyatt, her eyes panicked.
Wyatt had dreaded this question. Though he wanted nothing more than to help the little girl over the fence and find her medical attention, this was not the kind of border with checkpoints, the kind of border that served as a welcome mat or exit sign. No one left and absolutely no one came in. Though he knew it would get him in trouble, he turned away from the girl and considered helping her over for a brief moment before dismissing the notion as foolish. He knew he couldn’t lose his job now. Isabelle needed medication and their family needed a roof to sleep under. He was instantly ashamed of his dismissal of the idea when he turned back to see the little girl sitting cross-legged next to the fence, moving her broken wrist around with her other hand and wincing in pain, letting out a short yelp when pushing the limits of her pain slightly too far.
Feeling his face turning red, Wyatt looked away from the little girl and mumbled,
“I’m sorry, I can’t help you,”
At this point, the girl started crying again. Wyatt couldn’t bear to leave her there, crying alone in the middle of the forest so he sat down cross-legged facing her. After a few silent moments passed, Wyatt turned off his flashlight, allowing them to just sit there, the usual forest sounds drowned out by the girl’s whimpers and shallow breaths. Wyatt didn’t attempt to make conversation. It seemed cruel to him to get to know someone who would undoubtedly be dead before sunrise.
Wyatt couldn’t estimate how much time passed. The hooting of owls had subsided and been replaced by the incessant chirping of crickets. He checked his watch to see that hours had passed and his shift was coming to an end. His knees trembled as he picked himself up off the ground, wishing he could stay with the girl or do anything to help her but knowing that his job was at stake.