Fiction · 09/21/2011

Veterans

Dean and the fat kid were coming. Brian looked at the door to the house, then back at Dean, then back at the house. Too far. He would make it, but they would see him and Dean would make things worse for him next time. They knew Brian’s mother wouldn’t get home for another hour. He looked anxiously at Dean’s hands. They were empty but his pockets were not, and one of them bore a terrible, familiar outline. Brian had decisions to make. What could be saved? He began to pick up the lucky ones in big, quivering handfuls. He had gotten most of them into the pit before the two boys arrived.

Dean was twelve, four years older than Brian. Nobody knew how old the fat kid was. Brian didn’t want to think of him as “the fat kid,” but he was afraid to ask him his name. He thought that the fat kid would tell him if they were ever alone, but he was always with Dean. When he was with Dean he tried to act like Dean, but he was not Dean.

“What are you doing, pussy-ass?”

“Yeah, pussy-ass.” Echoed the fat kid.

“Nothing. My mom just told me to clean up the sandbox, so I – “

“Your mom’s not here is she?”

Brian looked down. “No.”

“Why are you lying to me?”

“I don’t know.”

“You think I’m stupid?”

“No.”

“What?”

“No.”

While he was looking down he saw the one he had missed. It was the only one he had that did not crouch or lay flat; the only one that bore anything but a blank or confused expression; the only one that did anything but brandish a weapon. It stood confidently, grimly, telephone in hand, giving and receiving information, relating official assessments of situations. He couldn’t afford to lose it. It was a communications officer. It had responsibilities and a phone. He tried to move himself between Dean and his only officer, but the fat kid saw what he was doing.

“He was playing army men again.”

“Army men? I like army men. I thought I told you to come and get me the next time you wanted to play army men. First you lie to me, then you don’t come and get me.” Dean grabbed Brian’s chin and pushed it up. Brian tried not to cry, but he saw the red-ridged half-circles on Dean’s forearm, felt the rough hand on his smooth chin. Brian imagined that the half-circles were the tips of tightly-coiled little springs. They made the fat kid afraid, too. He was nervously rubbing his own unsullied arms, as if this would somehow smooth the scars on Dean’s.

“Maybe he just forgot,” said the fat kid.

“Yeah, maybe you just forgot.” Dean agreed. “That’s okay.” He let Brian go. “Where are the rest of them?”

“In the house.”

Dean put a hand into his pocket. “That’s okay. We can play army men with this one.” His hand came back out with the lighter and Brian knew he would have to do something.

+

Dean had started coming over after Brian’s father had called the police. Dean’s father had been drunk and laying in Brian’s yard. Brian had asked who he was and his father had told him that he was a customer from the bank. Brian’s dad was a loan officer at the bank. Brian asked why he was laying in the yard and his father told him that some people behaved as if everyone else owed them something. Then he had straightened his tie and told Brian not to tell anyone that he had said that last part.

The fat kid didn’t have a father. Brian knew this because Dean had said something once about how he had probably left because he didn’t want a kid at all, much less a fat one. Brian’s father felt sorry for the fat kid, but he didn’t know his name either. He would always say that the fat kid’s mother should do something, but he never said what.

“Where’s your mom? Your mom’s a whore, did you know that?” Dean flicked his ash emphatically. “She’s probably got the rest of the army men shoved up her twat.” He lit a cigarette, took a drag, and squatted down next to the sandbox. The lit end of his cigarette dangled just above the head of the officer.

Brian was trembling now and trying to think. He had to find some way to save the lone officer. “I can find us some more army men,” he said. How many would Dean burn if he brought them out? Not all of them, and he could get more. He had seven dollars and thirty-two cents in his sock drawer. Not every package had a communications officer. It was worth at least a dozen of his infantrymen. “I have lots. I forgot. I put them over here. I just forgot.” He moved a flat grey rock and revealed a shallow pit filled with plastic green figures. “I just forgot. Here, take whatever you want.” Brian surveyed the pile of rigid green bodies. He felt the sadness of sacrifice even as he suffered a sickening revulsion at the dumb mouths and cattle-stupid eyes.

Dean put the cigarette back in his mouth and peered into the pit. “What do you know. There are a lot of them. Not as many as in your mom’s cunt, but lots.”

Brian suddenly stopped shaking. His revulsion revolted. “Shut up,” he said.

The fat kid looked on, wide-eyed. “You’d better not — “

“What did you say to me?” Dean demanded. Brian imagined that he could see the ridges swelling, hear the creak of coiled springs. “What — ”

Then Brian was on top of him screaming, punching, spitting words, putting fists and words between him and the swelling, creaking threat. Words he had heard before the straightening of ties, beneath the hum of an electric razor. The fat kid didn’t know what to do. He turned to run but stopped when he saw Brian’s father walking across the lawn.

“Get off him, Brian. You alright, Dean? You’d better be getting home. You too…”

“Adam.”

“You too Adam.”

Adam went to help Dean up but Dean was already up, his eyes iced over. It could have been someone else who said “Yes, sir.” Then he turned to Adam with his frozen eyes and half-circle grin. “Let’s go.” Adam looked plaintively at the loan officer.

“You need a ride home… Adam?”

Adam didn’t answer for a moment, then he shook his head slowly. The two boys disappeared into the alley. A faint trace of cigarette smoke got fainter.

+

Brian’s father never asked him what happened. It was as if he knew. He just said that those kinds of people would always be around and that Brian should avoid them if he could. “Look at them,” he said, staring out the window at a street crew prying up a manhole cover. “All assholes and elbows.” He checked to make sure the window was shut tight.

In his fury-born fugue, Brian had forgotten his officer. He didn’t remember until the next morning. He ran outside hoping that a vengeful Dean hadn’t returned after dark. He smelled cigarette smoke as soon as he stepped out the door, along with something alarmingly acrid. Brian felt rage and disappointment, shame and disgust. None of these were discrete. All of them smelled of burnt plastic. He ran with his head down towards the pungency.

As he approached the pit, he looked up and saw Adam standing a few feet away, watching him from behind the garage without expression. Brian’s gaze reflexively probed the spaces around him, looking for Dean, but Dean was not there. Just Adam, with his cigarettes, his lighter, and an arm covered in fresh, red-ridged half-circles. His eyes were cold, like Dean’s had been yesterday. Brian’s were cold too. Brian followed his empty gaze to the flat grey rock. He looked at the rock and then back at Adam, who slowly exhaled smoke and, for a moment, looked out from behind the sad eyes of a fat kid with no name. He turned to go, and Brian let him. The smoke lingered.

Brian lifted up the rock and found a smoldering mass of green: arms, legs, rifles, heads, all fused together in an amorphous lump. The toxic smoke burned his eyes. He turned his head and through the stinging tears and smoke saw his officer, unscathed, resplendent, in the sandbox where he had left him. Brian imagined that he was dutifully reporting the losses to base, saying he was very sorry, and demanding that they send more.

+++

Damon Barta lives in Vancouver, British Columbia where he disingenuously romanticizes the prairie winters of his youth and pretends to loathe the rain. His work has appeared in Northern Eclecta, Leaf, Concisely, and is forthcoming in Foundling Review.