by A Elizabeth Herting

The Sentinel arrives at his post and arranges himself in a way that gives him the very best vantage point. He settles in and can see the entire perimeter unfold before him, from the farthest hill to the closest tree. He readjusts his stance once more, until he is completely satisfied that not an inch of his area is out of view. He stays watchful and silent, always vigilant, always ready at a moment’s notice. His is a very important post.

He can hear them before he sees them as they make their way out of the building and spill out onto the grassy field, running and laughing in their mad dash to get into the sun. It is a crisp autumn day, the Sentinel’s favorite time of year and he revels right along with them at the feel of the warm afternoon sun shining down upon his face. He cocks his head to the side — was that a real scream or one of play? He decides on the latter and refocuses his energy on a large group running halfway down the main hill of his perimeter. A flying ball catches his attention as it soars high up into the sky, landing in eager, outstretched arms. They all run past him, completely unaware of his presence, which is, of course, as it should be. It is a scene of pandemonium as they fan out in all directions, small groups breaking off and reforming into the collective. The Sentinel closely watches the stragglers, the ones that wander to the outskirts before being shooed back into place by the guard on duty. He hears more yelling, laughing, singing coming at him from every direction, but the Sentinel stands firm. They continue to run, jump, frolic and dance around him like a carnival of brightly colored lunatics, assaulting every one of his senses. Still he remains, unflinching, ever wary and alert. His is a very important post.

He catches a distinct odor of burning logs on a passing breeze along with a new, urgent smell that instantly raises his hackles, his body taut with alarm. He turns to his right and sees one of the group chasing what appears to be a brightly colored butterfly down the very farthest hill, almost to the end of his perimeter. Just out of his line of sight, the intruder lurks, the malice of his intentions hitting the Sentinel in sickening waves. The intruder is nervous, determined as the innocent one blindly wanders into the danger zone. He sizes up the stranger, sees him hold something out to the straggler, talking in brightly soothing tones that the Sentinel immediately knows to be a ruse. He sees a beat up old car with an open door waiting on the street, just mere steps behind them. The intruder opens his arms, beckoning and enticing as the innocent one slowly moves forward, unsure, but cautiously trusting. Too trusting.

Every part of the Sentinel is coiled, ready to spring as he watches the awful scene play out in real time before him. The intruder almost has his prize within reach as precious seconds tick by, the two moving closer and closer to each other in a horrific, tragic dance. A dance of disaster. Instantly the Sentinel begins his rescue maneuver, leaping out from his post and bearing down upon the target with deadly efficiency. Every fiber of his being is engaged as he attempts to extricate the innocent while taking out the interloper in a series of swift, decisive blows. The intruder screams, alerting the main group and guard as the Sentinel continues his frontal assault with practiced skill. The target is down in a defensive crouch, trying to take cover but it is no use. The Sentinel lets out a primal scream as the guard rushes over, relieving him of his prisoner and whisking the innocent away to safety. Satisfied that both the scene and the intruder are secured, the Sentinel returns to his duty, making sure that the rest of the group are all present and accounted for. With the satisfaction that only comes with a job well done, he resumes his vigil. After all, he is needed and extremely valuable here. His is a very important post.

Colleen Chatham shields her eyes from the bright afternoon sun and watches as her little charges run onto the playground with joyful abandon. It’s ‘Fun Friday’ at Trails Elementary School and this is her last class of the day. As she watches them at play, she feels a sudden burst of joy that she gets to do this every single day, having done so for over five years now. The field is large, the kids spreading out all over as Colleen makes a mental check of each one, counting and recounting as best she can in the ensuing chaos. Colleen frowns in concentration. Where did Caleb get off to? Trying to keep Caleb in one place was like nailing down a puddle of water, but she could usually track him to his favorite spots. She scans the playground equipment, by way of the swings, then looks out to the field where a group of boys are playing a pickup football game. Not finding him in any of those places, she grabs her walkie-talkie and calls in to ask the front office if Caleb had left to go home early, which of course she knew, he hadn’t. She begins to head over to the bottom of the hill, hoping that he has just moved temporarily out of view and will still be playing there. Caleb has a tendency to get easily distracted, even more than most first graders do and she is always careful to keep him in her sights. She looks down the length of the hill and is about to turn back, when she sees movement out of the corner of her eye. Her heart skips a beat as she sees a strange man holding out a candy bar, Caleb slowly making his way over to him. This is definitely not a parent she thinks in alarm, her hand instinctively going for the walkie-talkie before she can even formulate a coherent thought. The stranger radiates evil desperation and Colleen knows with a sickening dread that if Caleb gets to the man, it will already be too late. They will never see him again.

She calls in a Code Red and begins to run at full speed down the hill, waving her arms and yelling at Caleb to run away when she sees a sight that stops her dead in her tracks. A large crow, possibly the biggest one she has ever seen, swoops down from a pine tree on the outskirts of the playground. Seemingly out of nowhere, it makes a beeline straight for the man, gouging and pecking at him in pure, unadulterated fury. Blood spurts from the man’s eye as he desperately tries to ward off his attacker. The crow doubles back and comes at him again like a scene from Hitchcock’s “The Birds” movie. The crow screams at the man, a screeching, hellish sound that jolts Colleen out of her temporary shock and right back into action. She reaches Caleb and scoops him up in a protective hug just as the crow appears to have the man down, hands covering his head in abject terror. The first police sirens race down the street and into the parking lot before the crow, with one last defiant caw, reluctantly flies back to his perch in the tallest tree. Colleen watches in weak-kneed relief as the man is led away in handcuffs, Caleb safe and in the arms of his visibly shaken parents. An unspeakable tragedy has been averted here today, with an outcome that Colleen knows, could have been very, very different.

The next day, Colleen walks to the tree where she is convinced the crow had perched. She had tried to explain exactly what happened to the police, but they were reluctant to believe her—her story is just too outlandish. She was the only actual witness to the events of that day and she begins to think that maybe it didn’t happen after all, it really was all in her mind. She finds the tree and shields her eyes, looking far up into the distant branches. She isn’t expecting to find anything, actually feels kind of stupid when all of a sudden, she sees him there up on the highest branch. He is a fine looking specimen as far as crows go. Big and proud and black as ink, his intense, intelligent gaze looks her over, sizing her up. A sudden memory fills her mind, something her mother had told her about crows. Mom always said that whenever you look a crow in the eye, you should always salute, every single time. That never made any sense to her when she was a kid, but she definitely understands it now.

Colleen backs up a few paces from the tree, making sure she has the crow completely in sight. With great ceremony, she lifts her hand to her forehead attempting to salute in the crisp, proper way that her father had taught her. She and the Sentinel lock eyes as she slowly lowers her arm, both taking the measure of the other in mutual wariness and respect. She turns away, feeling immense gratitude that he is there right along with her. Keeping watch, keeping them safe. After all, theirs has always been and will always be a very important post.

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A. Elizabeth Herting is an aspiring freelance writer and busy mother of three living in colorful Colorado. She has had stories featured in Dark Fire Fiction, Bewildering Stories, Friday Fiction, Peacock Journal, 50-Word Stories, New Realm, Flash Fiction Magazine, Speculative 66 and Under the Bed. More at https://sites.google.com/site/aehertingwriter