Dylan spit on the toe of the black shoe and polished it to a mirror-like shine. His high top sneakers had been thrown into the closet and he’d retrieved the leather dress shoes that he’d owned for over a year and had worn exactly—never. They felt stiff and a little tight but he liked the look and the feel of them. In fact, he thought, they looked like shoes a soldier would wear. With his dress uniform, of course.
He glanced at the worn leather jacket hanging in his closet. That jacket used to be his favorite, but after seeing Eloy’s immaculately pressed uniform with all the colorful medals, Dylan longed to wear such a fine article of clothing. It had not been the uniform itself, he realized, rather what the uniform stood for.
His mother had always raged against the military saying that she wished the old, rich politicos would be sent to fight the wars instead of the young, handsome men. “If those old hypocrites had to lose their lives on the battlefield there would be NO wars,” she used to tell him.
“But what about the commies?” Dylan had asked after hearing his dad talk about the communists trying to take over the country. “Wouldn’t they destroy America?”
“Don’t listen to what your dad says,” she’d told him. “The only reason there are wars is because of money and power. That’s it. Every time our lame brained elected officials run the country into too much debt they declare a war. Actually, wars stimulate the economy and keep the big wigs in their fancy cars and mansions. What a bunch of lowlife scumbags! And that’s another good reason to leave this country!”
Dylan was beginning to question his mother’s ideas. He’d seen the pride in Eloy’s face when he’d looked at those old photos of himself. Dylan knew the old man could probably tell him lots of stories of sacrifice and bravery. Just the thought of wearing a uniform like that made him feel somehow stronger and more capable. People respected the uniform. Even his mother never said anything nasty about soldiers. She’d told him to respect the young men who fought, but not the politicians who sent them to their deaths.
Maybe next time he visited the old man he would show Dylan his dress uniform and medals. He imagined Eloy had tons of cool stuff in that big, rambling house. He could probably break in there with no sweat and take whatever he wanted.
He frowned at himself in the mirror.
A soldier would not dishonor himself by being a thief. A soldier takes pride in being brave, honest and kind.
Dylan liked thinking of himself as a soldier. He’d been surprised at the pride he’d felt when the old man had called him soldier. And he’d been even more surprised that he’d wanted Eloy to like him. And that had been the first time an adult male had taken any interest in him at all. His dad never called him anything but a loser and never had anything to say to him except to order him around and tell him to fetch him a whisky or a beer.
If Dylan had been a soldier his father would even be proud of him. Or maybe not. It seemed his dad would not be happy with him no matter what he did. He realized he’d spent too much time wanting his dad to take an interest in him. Eloy had opened his eyes to that much. That old man did not even know him, yet he treated him as though he had worth just by being alive.
A wave of guilt washed over him when he felt the gold bracelet in his pocket. It was heavy and seemed to be weighing down the side of his pants. He’d almost panicked as Eloy’s prying eyes took him in. He feared Eloy could see the outline of the thick piece of jewelry that almost overflowed the skinny pocket of his jeans. He’d kept his hand against the pocket as with each step the gold chains seemed to be trying to jump from their confines and shout to the world that he was a thief.
He knew deep down inside he could be a good person, could even be a soldier like Eloy and could even earn medals and wear one of those dress uniforms that Eloy had been wearing in that photo. These were just trying times and he needed to be able to survive and get to his mom, otherwise he wouldn’t have stolen that bracelet. And then he remembered how powerful it had made him feel to take it.
He felt a stomach ache coming on. It was too bad that Eloy and his mother were at such opposite ends of the spectrum. SHE would be proud of him taking that bracelet. SHE would see how smart he’d been and SHE would encourage his criminal behavior.
Eloy on the other hand would probably whip him within an inch of his life.
Dylan laughed out loud as he envisioned the old man trying to catch him. He might not be able to fight him off, but he could sure run away from him. And Dylan admitted, he had been pretty smart in getting that bracelet. He tried to recall the powerful feeling he’d had when he took the bracelet, but it was useless.
He didn’t feel powerful now. Dylan had no idea how to turn that bracelet into cold hard cash. He couldn’t ask Eloy. That old man was too sharp, he’d get the truth out of him in a nanosecond and he couldn’t let that happen. But he needed money so he could leave this community and get to his mom.
If he took the bracelet to a pawnshop, they’d want to see his ID and he knew the pawn shops regularly received photos of stolen jewelry and were required by law to alert the police. His mom had taught him that much. So what to do? Think, Dylan, figure it out. There had to be some way.
He admired the shiny patent leather shoes on his feet. After he’d left Eloy’s he’d returned home for these shoes. They were the only thing he owned that could be considered soldierly. Once he got some money for the bracelet maybe he could find a uniform jacket at the surplus store. That thought cheered him and he headed for downtown.
March, Soldier! Get the job done! You got smarts and with a little luck you’ll get rid of the booty and be on your way!
His hand wrapped tightly around the gold chains in his pocket and when the violent shove against his back propelled him into the block wall he’d reached out with his hand whipping the chains through the air. His shoulder banged hard against the unyielding brick and he turned just as the man wearing the ski mask rushed him.
Out of pure instinct Dylan raised his hand and flailed the gold chains across his attacker’s face. The man screamed and a cold shiver ran down Dylan’s spine at the sound. The attacker kicked Dylan’s knee and a sharp, sickening pain brought him to a fetal position, his arms wrapping around his knees, his head tucked into his chest. The hard construction boot of the attacker plowed into his back and Dylan fell forward like a rag doll.
A soldier fights with no regard to pain or injury. A soldier is a machine, a lethal, fighting machine.
With tears streaming down his face Dylan pushed himself to his knee ignoring the loud pop from the joint and the razor sharp ache shooting through his leg. He held the bracelet like brass knuckles and slugged the surprised man square in the jaw. The man’s head flew back and now he was the one on the concrete sidewalk. Dylan kicked at the man’s head and the attacker grabbed his shoe and pulled Dylan off balance.
He fell on the sidewalk and curled into a ball to deflect another attack. But to his surprise all he heard was the sound of running footsteps. He raised his head and saw the man limping hurriedly around the corner.
Only fools mess with soldiers! Next time he’d not let the man get away so easy!
He brushed the dirt from his clothes and took a careful step slowly placing his full weight on his injured knee. It wobbled a little, but Dylan felt sure it had not been broken. The chains of the bracelet were still wrapped around his knuckles and he kept them looped around his fingers as he made the slow walk home. He wished he could tell Eloy about the attack and how he’d beaten the man. He felt proud of himself for fighting back and knew at that moment his heart’s desire was to be a decorated soldier like Eloy.
The lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “Hero Blues” played through his mind. Never before had he wanted to fight another human being: at least not when he’d been in nerd mode. Sure, when he wore his leathers and took on the other persona he would not run from a fight. But Dylan felt so energized, so alive and strong after warding off his attacker that he could see why people wanted to go to war.
And whole cities threw parades and parties for their returning war heroes. He could imagine the look on his dad’s face if a whole town had a parade for him. And his mom would be so proud. Yes, Dylan could fight, in fact, wanted to fight. He imagined himself in a foxhole shooting at his enemies.
And then he remembered the saber the old guy kept by his side and wondered how it would feel to stab someone with it. His video games showed plenty of gore and spurting blood when someone got stabbed. He used to laugh at the electronic sounding screams as the stricken ones fell down dead. His games were animations, nothing else, they weren’t real, and Dylan thought, a poor substitute for the real thing. In fact, they’d become boring and he hardly ever played them anymore.
Just the thought of ramming that saber through that putz gave him a feeling in the pit of his stomach like he’d gotten when he’d ridden the Canyon Blaster Roller Coaster at Circus Circus in Vegas. That had only been two years ago, but to Dylan it felt like an eternity. His mom had left his dad after that trip and Dylan knew there would be no more vacations in the future.
He entered his empty house and his stomach rumbled. He couldn’t believe he felt hungry again. But he must’ve burnt off the food Eloy had given him. He threw imaginary punches into the air and savored the remembrance of the feel of his fist smashing into that guy’s jaw. He fixed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich leaving a mess in the kitchen and hoping his dad would get mad about it.
Let him come at me, now.
After today Dylan would not back down from his dad anymore. The thought both excited and frightened him. Stuffing the last of the sandwich in his mouth Dylan sat at the desk in his room. He drew a stick figure with its arms outstretched, its mouth open wide and a huge saber sticking through the middle section.
Rummaging around in his drawer he found a red pen and carefully drew drops of blood on the end of the saber and dripping to the ground. He wished he’d been a better artist so he could draw his dad’s face on the stick figure, and then decided he could cut his dad’s face out of an old photo. It would be cool to cut a photo of himself out and draw a mask over his face like the one that guy who’d attacked him had worn. Only Dylan’s would have lightning bolts on the sides and he’d wear red contact lenses.
He stopped drawing as the attacker’s ski mask covered face solidified in his memory. He recalled the blue, blood shot eyes glaring through the eyeholes, and the smell of beery sweat. That smell had been oh so familiar. He stood up and paced the length of his room. There’d been something tight around the attackers middle, he’d felt it when the attacker had pushed against him. Could it have been a type of girdle holding in a beer belly? A beer belly like his dad sported?
No way! He couldn’t believe that had been his dad. Why would he attack him like that? He knew his dad hated Lieutenant Frio and he would most certainly have been angry if he’d seen him talking with her that day at the drugstore. After all, the attacker had asked him why he’d been talking to that cop. Things were starting to make sense.
That scream the attacker had made came back to him and he realized he’d recognized his dad’s nasally voice. His breath began to come in short spurts and the familiar hiccup at the base of his throat warned him of an oncoming panic attack. He threw a Xanax in his mouth and swallowed quickly willing himself to breathe deeply.
He stood at his bedroom door and listened for any sound from his dad. As far as he could tell the house was empty. Was he safe here? Should he leave before his dad got home? Should he tell Eloy what he suspected?
Dylan’s shoulders slumped and he returned to his bed. No one would believe him. No one that is, except his mom. For the first time in his life he felt real anger toward her. Where was she? Why couldn’t she be here when he needed her? What was she doing so far away and why hadn’t she taken him with her when she’d left his dad?
On the heels of that he remembered Riley’s mom and how protective she’d always been. It hadn’t seemed to help Riley any, though. He realized he missed that goofy little kid and he missed visiting her. She’d always made sure to save him a big piece of cake, or some of the pastry her parents loved to buy. She’d been a good kid and he felt sorry that she’d died. He hoped with all his heart that he hadn’t been the one that had killed her. He just couldn’t remember much of that last night that they’d been together.
A wave of guilt riffled through his stomach and he pressed his face into his hands. Tears streamed down his cheeks and he cried for the first time in years. Dylan cried for Riley, for his mom and for himself.
Buck up, Soldier! Stop all that blubberin’. Face this problem head on!
He wiped the tears from his face and with his arms behind his head Dylan lay on the bed feeling his heart beating a fast tattoo against his chest. Lieutenant Frio came to mind and Dylan opened his eyes and stared into space. She might believe him, but then what? She’d question his dad and that would only cause Dylan more problems. Next time his dad might bring a knife or a gun. Despair overtook him as he stared at his shiny shoes and at first the smudges on the toe did not register in his mind. He turned the shoe causing the light to reflect off the marred surface and then his heart almost leapt into his throat.
There, on the toe of the mirror-like surface was what looked to be a perfect finger print. The attacker grabbing his shoe came back to him and Dylan almost shouted with joy.
“Gotcha!” he whispered and carefully removed the shoe.
The clock said twelve straight up and Dylan knew where he could find the good Lieutenant.
He’d just finished lacing up his high top sneakers when he heard the front door open and close. The patent leather shoe with the fingerprint was in a plastic bag from Home Depot and Dylan shoved it under his bed.
“Where are ya, ya little shit?” his dad’s nasally voice called out.
His knee throbbed in a seemingly primal response to the sound of his dad’s voice. Dylan had no doubt his dad had been the attacker. He wanted to fight him again, but caution took over. He silently slid into his closet and opened the door a crack in order to peer out.
The knob rattled on his bedroom door and then the jam exploded and the door flew inward from the solid kick from the construction boot. Dylan noticed the bruised cheek and the bloody lip first. The nine-inch knife clenched in his dad’s fist reflected the light and Dylan’s breathing picked up. He had to stay calm. The Xanax he’d just taken should be kicking in. Please, he begged silently. Don’t let him find me. And don’t let me pass out.
He almost gasped when his dad got on his knees and looked under the bed. He pulled out the Home Depot bag and flung it across the floor.
“Where are ya, sissy boy? Ya think ya can beat me up again?” his dad bellowed. “Come out, come out, wherever you are,” he looked toward the closet.
Dylan burrowed back into his clothes and held his breath. His dad’s big paw rummaged through the clothes and suddenly he was staring into the blood shot blue eyes.
This time Dylan’s fist smacked so hard into his dad’s nose that Dylan feared he’d broken his knuckles. Like a fat, squat tree his dad fell backward and landed flat on his back, his eyes open and dazed.
Dylan rubbed the pain from his hand and stared at his dad who was gasping and writhing on the floor.
“I’ll kill ya,” he managed to snarl through his bleeding lip. His nose spurted blood onto the carpeting when he rolled over on his side. Dylan grabbed the Home Depot bag and ran from the room resisting the urge to give his dad a swift kick in the ribs.