Palo Alto Weekly 30th Annual Short Story Contest
Third Place Teen

The End of the Beginning

By Benjamin Stein

About Benjamin Stein

Benjamin Stein was born in Palo Alto 13 years ago. He recently finished seventh grade at Jordan Middle School. Benjamin's favorite classes are Spanish, video production and history. In his free time he plays soccer and tennis. He also enjoys co-writing a story with a friend that is three years in the making. He first heard about the Palo Alto Weekly short story competition when his neighbor won second place in the adult category two years ago. Benjamin finally got around to writing his own story this year. He got his inspiration for this story from looking at the hills around Palo Alto. During the previous years of drought, the plants were dead and the hills bland and lifeless. With the rain from this year, the plant life on the hills really began to recover, just as nature returned to the barren fields in Benjamin's story.


Judges' comments

This story's strength is its spare, evocative style. The beginning reads almost like a poem and, like a poem, conveys powerful imagery and emotion with few words. The use of paragraphs is very effective throughout, building drama. Images of nature interwoven with war give the reader hope.

Listen to the story read by the author, Benjamin Stein:

A field with no grass. Only dirt.

Dirt spotted with red. Splashes of blood.

A man and a woman walk through the field, laden with picks and shovels.

They stop at the edge of the field, then drop their tools.

"This must be the spot," says the man.

The woman mutters in response, "Command must be mad, ordering us to dig a trench so close to the front."

"We just captured this field two days ago. I don't know what they are thinking."

They dig into the ground, shoveling a five-foot hole through the dirt. They expand the hole over the course of a few hours, laboring until nightfall. Then they walk back to where they came from.

The trench, five feet deep and as wide as the field, stays put.

The sun rises over a dirt field five miles north of the trench.

Hundreds of men and women here are engaged in a deadly dance. They run up, hundreds of metal pellets spraying out from their guns at the men and women on the other side of the field. Then they stumble, a spurt of blood spraying from the place the metal pierced their skin, and fall onto the bloody dirt.

They dance for hours on end, the bodies piling up. Then an explosion.

A wave of fire rushes from the place where the rocket hit, silhouetting the hundreds of men and woman running away from it.

The sun sets over a field of dirt carved through with a five foot deep trench. It is packed with people, all clutching guns and leaning against the sides. Many of them have seen their friends and enemies die painful deaths, and all of them have dirt and blood streaked on their faces, skin and tan camouflage suits.

Then a crack of a rifle resonates across the field. The soldiers jump up, then dive to the ground. Among this noise, a single body falls to the dirt. A dull thud, heard by all, drifts through the cold night air.

Now tense and on guard, everyone braces themselves to meet the other side face to face. There is to be no sleep for the entrenched men and women during this brisk, dark night.

Tents. Maybe one hundred tents for one thousand soldiers. Some lie outside, wrapped up in as many thin blankets as they can find. They all have a gun nearby. To be more that two or three feet away from one is dangerous. Tense and nervous even in their uneasy sleep, they subconsciously brace themselves for the next day, whether it brings victory, loss or even death.

No one knows why this war is being fought. Oil, food, water and other resources are plentiful in both countries. Yet the young men and women keep getting taken from their homes and sent away to fight a seemingly unnecessary and useless war.

The newly recruited soldiers walk through endless miles of dust and dirt until they arrive at the front. They have never seen the horrors of war, and they try to remain strong when they are greeted by a few men covered in dirt and blood. They continue on to the command tent to get briefed.

Explosions. Gunfire. Moans. The fighting is reaching its climax all around the trench. The midday Sun sheds light on the soldiers waiting in the trench, listening to the sounds of war coming from all of the areas around them. They don't care which side the calls for help are coming from. All they want is for the pain to stop. And then they hear it.

Walking. Walking. Walking. The sound of the synchronized footsteps of thousands of troops drowns out most of the sound around them, but the occasional scream or shout for help can be heard over the continuous thumping of boots on dirt. Then the order to run. To charge.

They take off towards a trench full of soldiers with their gun sights on them. Running towards likely death.

Each soldier had already said their prayers. They knew it was not likely to make it out alive. In the eyes of each and every one of the soldiers on either side, there is only fear. And longing to be anywhere but here. There is no determination. No man or woman here wants to be a hero. All they want is to get away.

Then an act of courage and valor never seen before on this planet. A man climbs out of the trench. He stands tall, holding his rifle with one hand over his head. And then he drops it.

It falls to the dirt with a dull thud, the sound reminiscent of the sound of the poor young man's body hitting the dirt on the bottom of the trench the night before. Except that sound was the sound of death, despair and destruction. Yet this sound seems to usher in peace, unity and, most of all, relief.

A woman from the other side steps forward through the ranks of frozen attacking soldiers and embraces the man. Together, they cry tears of mourning. Together, they cry tears of hope. Together, they cry tears for the story of a brother and sister fighting on opposite sides in a horrible war. And together, with all of the rest of the men and women here, they set their arms down in the dirt.

Unseen by them, an emerald-green sprout pokes its way out of the dust and into the light.

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