by Andrew Vachss
When I first fell in love with Connie, I was ashamed to tell her. But I knew it, right when it happened. She was eleven then, and I was twelve, almost thirteen. We were both in the sixth grade.
The day it happened, it was after school, Raj found a butterfly on the sidewalk. I guess it was hurt or something, 'cause it couldn't fly away. Raj started to torture it, pulling off the bright orange wings one by one, holding it up so everybody could see. Connie screamed at him to stop, but he just laughed and kept on doing it.
I said "Only a faggot would play with bugs like that." Loud, so Raj would hear. I knew what would happen next. There's magic words you can say to make people fight you. He had to do it. And he was bigger than me, so maybe he thought he could win. I busted his face all up. He couldn't take it and he ran.
One of the other guys said, yeah, Raj was a faggot—that proved it. The guy who said it—he never would have tried to fight me himself, no matter what I said to him. I just looked at him until he walked away.
Then only me and Connie was left on the sidewalk. But when she thanked me, for, like, rescuing her, I was so ashamed that I hadn't done nothing until after she made her move that I just told her to get lost.
Maybe you think that's stupid. How could a twelve year-old boy know what love was, right?
Yeah, well, love's supposed to be the other side of hate, isn't it? By the time I was twelve, I knew what hate was. For years, I knew. So I figured I should know the opposite when I felt it too.
Connie was always sticking up for other people. When the kids made fun of Peggy because she was so fat, Connie walked home with her, just to show everyone.
She hated bullies, Connie. I figured out later, that's why she hated Raj. And that's what made me stop being one, although I never told her she was the reason.
Before Connie, I thought I got it. I mean, I thought I understood the way things worked. The guy who taught me was Sammy, my mother's boyfriend. He always beat on me, and I could never stop him—he was bigger than me, and a lot stronger. He's the one who taught me to take it. After a while, I could take a lot. But I knew that one day, I'd be stronger than he was—I could feel it happening.
When it happened, then he'd stop.
I didn't know if I would, though.
In the meantime, I saw how it worked. If you were pushing people around, they weren't pushing you around. So I did that. Not with my mouth—I mean, I never made fun of anyone, not even William, with his twisted, gimpy leg that dragged behind him when he walked. But I'd fight over a seat in the cafeteria, or a turn on the basketball court. Or anything, I guess. Most of the time, I started it.
I liked to fight.
So I wasn't afraid of Raj that day, when he was hurting the butterfly. It wasn't that. I knew I could take him. It's just that I wasn't going to do anything about it—I was just going to let him go on doing it. But when Connie tried to stop him, I knew I should have done that myself, first.
I didn't care about the stupid butterfly. I was afraid Raj was going to hurt Connie. But I didn't know that. Or, anyway, I guess I didn't. But when I figured out that I had to keep Raj from hurting her, I knew I loved her.
Because if my mother had loved me, she would have kept Sammy from hurting me.
A couple of weeks after the day I backed Raj down, Connie stopped me from hurting a kid. Without saying nothing, she did it. I had Bobby against the wall in the schoolyard. I wanted to fight. He didn't, but he didn't know how to get out of it—I'd said some of the magic words to him. A crowd of kids was standing around. They always like to watch. I didn't care. But then I saw Connie. And when I saw the way she was looking at me, I couldn't stand it. So I just called Bobby a punk and I walked away.
Connie's father was a very brave guy. A fireman. He went into burning buildings and he pulled people out. He even got his picture in the paper once, after he did that. Connie was so proud of him—she was always bragging about how brave he was.
I thought about how, if Connie's building was on fire, I could rescue her for real. And then she would love me too.
It's easy to burn things. I knew a kid who did it all the time. Lawrence. But Lawrence, he—I don't know—I couldn't stand to be around him. I didn't like the way he laughed when he struck a match. Giggling like a girl. I didn't care about no building burning down, but Lawrence made me ... all nervous-like.
So I never rescued Connie. But one day I told her I was going to be a fireman when I grew up.
Oh man, she was so excited. She made me walk home with her that day. I was fifteen by then, so she couldn't really make me do nothing, I guess. By then, Sammy knew he couldn't make me do nothing no more.
I got arrested for that, the thing with Sammy that changed his mind about me. But the cops—I don't know—they talked to him. In another room from where they were holding me. And Sammy dropped the charges. It never went to court. I didn't have a record.
So I could still be a fireman.
I didn't know why I had to walk Connie home that day until we got to her stoop. She told me to wait there. In a few minutes, her father came out. He wasn't as big as I thought he would be, from the way Connie talked about him. He was kind of short and ... even fat, maybe. But he was real nice. Connie said he was "on nights" that whole month. I guess that meant he was home in the daytime, that's why she made me come with her. To meet him.
He asked me, was it true that I wanted to be a fireman? I told him yes, it was. He asked me why. I didn't know what to tell him—just I liked the idea of rescuing people and all. I never said nothing about Connie to him, and I don't think he knew.
But he listened to me, anyway. He told me about the tests and all. How you had to be in good shape. I told him I was in good shape. He said there was a bunch of tests besides the stuff you had to be in good shape for. Mental tests, like. Anyway, he said I had to wait until I graduated from high school before I could take the tests.
After you passed the tests, they put you on a list. In the same order that you scored. So, like, if you was number twenty-five, then after the first twenty-four guys got appointed, you got called.
I told him that was fair, and he said, yes, it was. He had to wait to get appointed himself, he told me, but his turn came. He said my turn would come too.
It wasn't until late that night, when I couldn't sleep, that I realized what he was saying. He knew I was going to pass the tests. Like it was a sure thing.
But I never graduated from high school. When I was seventeen, I enlisted in the Marines. Your parents have to sign for you when you're that age. My mother did it. She said it would be best. I couldn't live in that apartment with her and Sammy anymore—and she wasn't going to make Sammy leave.
I went over to Connie's house to say goodbye. We sat at the kitchen table. I told her I was going in. But I was going to get a GED in there, and I could still be a fireman when I got out. Connie was mad. She wanted me to stay in school, so we could graduate together.
Her father came into the kitchen. He said a lot of guys got their GED in the service, and they got to be firemen just the same as if they'd stayed in school. I could still take the tests, he said. And you got extra points if you had been in, too. Veteran's points. He shook my hand.
Connie was mad at him, I could tell. I could always tell when she was mad, but that time, I wasn't sure why.
I didn't say anything to her then, but it was like she knew. When I got out, I was going to marry her and be a fireman. She said she'd write to me, and I knew it was true when she said it.
So I went in the Marines. The basic training was nothing—I was in good shape from practicing to be a fireman all those years.
I didn't even know there was a war going on until I was in it.
It changed everything.
Connie wrote, just like she promised. At first, I wrote back. After a while, I just stopped. I didn't know how to tell her I finally got to be a fireman. In those crazy, scary tunnels. But I wasn't there to rescue nobody. That's not what we did.
She must have known I was in country, because she just kept on writing, figuring I would read everything when I got back across the line.
But as soon as I got back across that line, I went over some others.
It was almost nine months by the time I wrote to Connie. I knew it was too late. I tried to explain it to her, but I know I didn't do a good job.
I know that because she kept on writing.
So I told her what was really happening over there. What had happened to me. What people did over there. What I did.
Then she stopped.
I went back into the tunnels. Stoned most of the time, like everyone else. It was the only way to do that.
I was in a lot of stuff, but I never got hit. Never took a bullet. Never hit a tripwire. Never fell into one of those punji stick traps Charlie had everywhere either.
Some of the guys started to call me Lucky. They always wanted to go out with me. They said I was charmed. But some of the other guys, they never wanted to go out with me—they said my number hadn't come up yet, and they didn't want to be around me when it did.
I just kept doing it, walking through the tunnels, carrying the fire. One day they told me I was done. I was so wrecked on H and ganja I didn't even understand them for a while. They shipped me out.
When I came home, nothing was the same.
I didn't want to be a fireman anymore. I didn't want to be anything. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw dead people. Broken, burned, torn to pieces.
I got high a lot. I stole too—the dope was expensive, not like over there.
My head hurt. I went to the VA. The shrink there said I was having flashbacks. He said they'd go away after a while.
He was a liar. But that didn't surprise me—he was just another officer, right?
I heard Connie had gone away. To college, I guess. She was already gone by the time I got back.
Her building was still there. The stoop, anyway—I never looked inside. I walked past it a few times, but I never saw nobody sitting there. Nobody that I knew, anyway.
All I think about now is being a fireman. The kind I wanted to be, and the kind I got to be.
And the kind I know I'm going to be someday.
© 1999 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.
This story appears in Everybody Pays by Andrew Vachss.