The Veterans

Matthew Del Fiacco

           

Where I am from, you are born into sin. From the moment you leave the womb, you carry the taint that is your only inheritance. The worst part is that you don't know it, you live as if the constant degradation of your soul is normal. Sometimes you even enjoy it. But there is never a peaceful moment. The fleeting joy you feel is false, a filler for the gaping hole in your life. I lived that way for seventeen years, blind, ignorant, a deviant worthy of being a Veteran. I try to comfort myself by thinking I had no choice, but I did. I didn't have to listen to Major, or my dad, or my were-then-but-not-anymore friends, but I did. Worst of all, I never questioned any of it. I never asked why. As people, isn't that what we're supposed to do? To give meaning to the world around us? I think so, but I'm just a punk kid. Being in a gang isn't all bad, to be honest. You are with friends, who treat you like family. Most of the time you don't have to do things that are to bad. Plus, you get respect on the streets which is way safer than carrying mace like most people. You learn to take care of yourself, and you get a sense of brotherhood. So like everything else there are good and bad sides, but that life just wasn't for me. It was for a long time, but I learned that it wasn't what I wanted, not what I was meant to do.
           

It was a Monday. I was doing a job with with J.R. We had to drive out to this remote town, find the bank there, grab the cash, and split. Vets usually don't rob banks, not our thing. For one, that kind of thing is high profile. Vets try to stay unseen and unheard when possible. Also, you gotta have skills to pull off something like that. At least, you usually do. We were assured that there was no security at this bank, aside from a teller with a shotgun underneath the desk. Major needed some funding for a pet project, so here we are, in a beat up 98' jeep heading to nowhere. It was blazing hot out, and the air in the jeep was broken, so we had to have the windows open the whole ride. The only problem with that  was the dust was finding its way into the car. I never complained, though. Honestly, dust wasn't the first thing on my mind, with the soon-to-be bank robbery sort of in progress. I was tense, I knew I was tense, J.R. knew I was tense but he didn't say anything, he just let it slide. J.R. was good like that, he knew when to ask you what was wrong, and when to let you deal with it yourself. I must have zoned out at some point during the ride, because I snapped back to consciousness when the cars front left wheel momentarily dipped into a pothole. I saw the town, but couldn't comprehend that people actually choose to live there. I was born and raised in the city, this place seemed too quiet. As we approached, I started to feel a knot of fear in the pit of my stomach. Not about the robbery, even though that was definetly one of my concerns. No, the town terrified me. Every small town horror movie I had ever seen suddenly came to life. There was a little kid playing in the front yard of a house with a white picket fence, cliche I know, and that's why it was scary. Men were outside washing their cars, I saw a few women walking, and honestly I could only imagine that the rest were inside baking apple pies for the family. That's the kind of vibe this place gave off.
         

J.R. stopped the car about a block away, and turned to the backseat of the car.
“Be ready when we come out.” I thought this place had gotten to J.R. too and driven him insane, until I turned around and almost wet myself. Fade was sitting in the back seat grinning like an idiot, he must have seen me jump. Thinking back I shouldn't have been so surprised. If Fade didn't want you to notice him, you didn't, just the way he was. Also, he seemed to find his way into every bit of trouble he could find.

 

“Nice to see you too Skip.” That stupid smile never left his face.

 

“S-screw off-f, Fade.” Skip, now you know my name. At least, I've been told that is my name, I don't think my parents ever actually named me, and if they did, I forgot it a long time ago. Skip would have to do, even if it did mean being reminded of my stutter whenever someone addressed me.

 

“Skip, get out of the car now.” J.R. was always commanding. Don't get me wrong, he was a nice guy when he wanted to be, but the rest of the time, he was all business.  I got out of the car, double checked my gun in my coat pocket, and watched as J.R. passed the keys to Fade and stepped out next to me. We walked casually, as if we were just walking the city streets, which really made us stand out here. As we were walking, a younger woman bumped into me and dropped her grocery bags. I turned to her angry, she had to have seen me.

 

“Oh I'm so sorry!” she said as she knelt down to pick up her stuff. Sorry, not something I was used to hearing. Not because I was in a gang, we were actually pretty polite to each other most of the time. I wasn't used to hearing sorry because I lived in the city, where if something goes wrong, it is always someone else's fault and never yours.

 

“It's fine.” I muttered, and kept on walking. J.R. and I turned the corner, the bank was less then a hundred feet away. He looked at me, his dark eyes set into that burning stare. I used to think that if J.R. looked at you long enough, you would set on fire. Actually, I still think that. I just rose my eyebrows to him. He seemed satisfied, and took his mask out of his pocket. I grabbed mine also, a thick black material that covered your whole head, you could see out alright, but not in.
             

We walked into the bank, the first thing I noticed was the amount of people. More than we thought, less than a problem. By the time I finished this observation, J.R. already had his gun drawn, telling people to raise their hands and kneel. I scrambled to grab my own gun, to reinforce the threat, and to not look pathetic next to the towering hulk of a beast I was with. Everyone did, a few screamed but were quickly silenced by looks from J.R. I say looks, because even though no one could see his face, I swear that you could feel him staring you down. J.R. walked to the clerk while I kept the people in check, trying to look as intimidating as J.R. After the demand for money, the exchange of money, and the attempted retreat, we noticed a small problem.
           

A cop car was sitting right outside, with an officer hiding behind it. He looked scared, like he had never done this before. Now that I think about it, he probably hadn't. Either way, he had a cover, and gun, and experience with said gun. Considering the metal in my hand, and the surrounding brick walls of the bank, I lacked one of the things he had. Guess what it was. J.R., ever the leader, aimed his gun at the victim nearest him, the man cringed. The cop pulled his gun away, J.R. nodded to me, then to the doors. Remember that sense of brotherhood I talked about? Well, with that comes a sort of telepathy, I ran to the doors and secured them with whatever was around, as I was told.
           

The cop waited, making no move, J.R. silently told me to aim my gun at the hostage while he  gathered the others. Yes, he silently used the word hostage, and it terrified me. J.R. looked calm, but I knew that this had just been taken to a whole new level. We had threatened a man's life, this wasn't ending well.
             

As the rest of the hostages were gathered together, more cops were arriving. J.R. decided it would be a good idea to put everyone behind the counter, so we herded them over and made sure none of them were doing anything crazy. I taped all their hands with duck tape I found, J.R. watched the police. The crazy thing is they watched him back, as if they could see through his mask. A woman started crying, J.R. tilted his head at me, as if to say “You, shut her up.” I followed the order, I pointed my gun at her, and I was trembling. She stayed quite, but an older gentleman, he noticed. He saw my quivering weapon, and he knew it was not in the hands of someone who knew what they were doing. Piece of advice number one for would-be criminals: “Even if you have no clue how to use whatever weapon you're holding, at least look like you do.”
           

We sat there at a stalemate for hours, possibly years, but probably not. J.R. He had moved to the front of the bank, behind a desk, trying to decide what to do. I could hear the distant sound of a man with a megaphone, giving us conditions which we knew were bull. That's the thing about being a Veteran, we tend to be very distrustful of police, or any government figure. Not because we do illegal things, although that certainly didn't help, but “Veterans” was not just a name that someone thought would sound cool. We were literally founded by veterans. After the war, a lot of soldiers didn't have a place to go, and the government didn't help. A few of them banded up in a city and started looking after each other. One thing led to another, and here we are. Major was the last of the founders alive, and no one was ever sure if he actually attained the rank of Major in the army, but he said he did. Well, we were all taught that the government was out to get you, so naturally we believed it. Hence, the distrust of authority.
           

“Kid, light me a cigarette?” I jumped at the sound of his voice, silence and the occasional whimpering were about all I could handle right now.
           

“Shut up.” I said, trying to sound as authoritative as possible.
           

“Come on, they are in my coat pocket, you can have one yourself.” He tried to look friendly, and he did a pretty good job.  I had never really known what the phrase “a face you can trust” meant until then. I silently pointed my gun at him, hoping J.R. wouldn't come over and think I couldn't handle it. The man shook his head, and when he spoke, it was the closest I have ever come to hearing a father's voice.
           

“Son, is that really what you want to be doing?” I lowered my gun a little bit, on accident. When I realized my mistake though, I didn't fix it. I looked at the man, studying him. What was he trying to gain? He had seen J.R. Even if I wasn't the sort to resort to violence, J.R. clearly was.
           

“Listen.” Why was this guy still talking? It was even stranger that I wanted him to, “I know right now is bad, but think about what it is exactly you're doing. All for what, for money? That's really all you want? I would empty my account for you if it means this much to you, but where is this going to take you? Bigger banks? No, kid, I have been in a bad place before, I know how it feels to be helpless, think about what you want here, do you want to live your whole life like this?” The answer was no, I didn't want to. I hated myself for letting this guy say so much. It hurts hearing someone with a voice like his point out the bad things about you. Especially when you barely knew those bad things existed. He sighed, and asked what I wanted out of my life. This man's face pulled me in, his voice intoxicated me, he really was a unique individual. So I told him, I wanted to be a writer. Don't laugh. I know, I am in the middle of robbing a bank and just said I wanted to be a writer, but if you were given shit your entire life for not being able to speak well, you would want to be able to write out your thoughts too.
           

“Son,” he loved that word for some reason, “you are here for one glorious moment, where you will change the world. Everyone has that opportunity, we are all presented with the chance to change our lives. Almost everyone is to afraid to take it, think about who you want to be.” The only time I had ever experienced something like this before was in the park, where people commonly gave out pamphlets saying I will go to Hell for drinking. The difference was this guy seemed so sure. He didn't seem brainwashed, and at the time I didn't know it but I could definitely have told the difference between sincere and brainwashed. I found the words leaving my lips before I had a chance to pull them back, curiosity got the best of me. If everyone had a moment, I had to know.
           

“What was yours.” The man smiled, a wonderful smile that made me feel as if I he forgave me for everything I was doing, everything including and up to not giving him a cigarette, which I still hadn't done.
           

“This is.” J.R. Entered the conversation at this point, gun aimed, he must have heard the man talking. Maybe he had heard me, but the gun was aimed at the hostage.
           

“Shut up.” The words were harsh, and fast, but with a deadly calm. I tried to say something, but got the telepathic message from the man not to. The man stood, and looked at J.R. dead on, something no one would ever do during a bank robbery, so I had thought at least.
           

“Put your gun down, let's end this whole thing.”
           

“Sit down, shut up.”
           

“Or?” J.R. cocked his gun. I stood helpless, terrified and torn between these two supreme forces. The gave the look, that all knowing look that hinted at a life of sacrifices and loss that we couldn't understand.
           

“No, you won't. I deal with people everyday, and I specialize in kids like you. Think to your self...” he got cut off. In the worst possible way. I saw it coming, J.R. would never  tolerate someone talking to him like that. J.R. had no emotions, he was ruthless. I stood silent, and for the first time, I felt an overwhelming urge to cry. I had known this man for a few hours, talked for a few minutes, but his loss pained me more than when my own father died. I wish I could say that there was a timeless moment where the man looked at me, told me everything was going to be fine, and that he was ready to go. That didn't happen, but I have seen in many times in my sleep. No, the whole moment was fast, faster than a second, the man speaking, the criminal pulling the trigger, the blood splatter, all begun and finished as if it had already happened. The criminal stood over the corpse like nothing had happened, and used the intimidation he carried to silence the people screaming. After that, I had a moment. The man was right, we are here for moment, not just one though. We are each given many moments to make the world better, to try and live our lives so that we are truly happy, and the hardest choices are typically the best one. Which is strange, because what I did was not a decision, but an instinct. My quivering gun steadied, and found its way to J.R.'s head, knocking his head into the desk, rendering him unconscious. I took his gun, and walked to the front glass doors, arms raised. Men rushed in, putting me down, securing everyone, and trying to resolve the situation. Fade must have seen them rush in, because he crashed the car into the police car, unnoticed as always until it was to late. He died in the crash, but I try to think that he died smiling, which is extremely probable.
           

I told the police everything, locations, names, and within months the veterans were dismantled. You never quit being a veteran, so after what I did death was the only thing that could have happened. So I did my best to stop the veterans from existing at all. Since then, two attempts have been made on my life, one almost succeeded, I was in the ICU for a week. J.R. was killed when the bank was secured. Apparently he woke up and tried to resist. Tried isn't right word though, he did resist. Seeing a figure like that charging at you is terrifying, I thank God every day that he never got to me. The officer who later put me in cuffs put him down.
          

I'm thirty-two now. I visit the man's grave once a month. I try to remember what he did, he died so I could live. So others could live. Sometimes taking advantage of moments is dangerous, but if you don’t, you will end up living a shell of a life. I'm a writer now, trying to spread the message that changed my life. I realize now why I was actually afraid of the town at first, because it showed me part of myself that I forced out. It brought to life all of the dreams that I killed. Dreams are small, but numerous, they are a revolution in your body waiting to happen. When it tries, let it.  I'm married to a girl you don't know, have a five year old son, and live in a house with a white picket fence.

Euphemism Campus Box 5555 Illinois State University Normal, IL 61790