He couldn’t stop staring at her, as was often the case. He squeezed out one more drag of the used cigarette he had found on the ground between numb fingertips; from the cold or something else he couldn’t be sure. He looked away from the rounded glass display case, absently portraying himself as disinterested, though the truth was anything but.
By typical standards, he supposed the dancer wasn’t that attractive, but really, beauty was subjective. To him, she had a healthy amount of meat on her bones; she wasn’t one of those waif thin monstrosities with implanted breasts and lips, ribs sticking out like some malnourished Matari slave. He liked his women plump and natural.
And the way she moved, oh the way she moved. Her full hips were hypnotic in their gyrations, the fluidity of her arm movements mesmerizing.
He spent most of each afternoon and evening on this corner, watching her, sometimes into the early hours of the morning.
He flicked away the cigarette butt, looking around in the dirty snow covered ground for another without success. It didn’t matter; he had wanted to quit smoking years ago, and he would, until he found his next discarded butt.
He reached down and picked up his worn wool hat, wiping off snow and slush, checking to see if anyone had dropped in some change while he wasn’t looking. No such luck today.
He put the upturned hat back on the ground, and adjusted his flimsy, weather wet sign that read “Homeless war veteran. Please help.”
He had never been in the war.
If he had been honest, his sign would’ve read “Blew my own leg off in an industrial accident that could’ve been prevented if I had been paying more attention. Please help”, but he realized that probably wouldn’t generate any sympathy.
And he knew people would care even less if he was to tell them he had opted out of insurance benefits at his old job in order to save a bit of money that he could use to come see the dancers.
Being a war veteran was the better choice.
Mostly people would just throw some coins into the hat, or the occasional smoke, but sometimes one would stop to ask him about his time in the war, how he was injured, and rant about the government not taking care of its soldiers.
Over the last few years, he had developed quite the story.
My unit was deep under enemy lines, far into hostile territory. Every inch we took felt like a victory, as we could never tell when the next movement we made might be our last. We had already lost half of our squad, including our commander, but still had mobile ops with command.
The night was pitch black, and we had stripped ourselves of most high tech equipment to move more easily, and with stealth.
My body was covered with dried blood, even under my fingernails. It had been a brutal engagement with no sign of ever letting up.
The thing about war is that nobody wins, despite the media and political hype. Everyone loses, especially the families of the ones that never come home.
So there we were, neck deep in shit, crawling into a small ghetto apartment block, our objective nearly in sight. There were a group of terrorists holed up on the third floor of a small building 500m away.
The cover fire was heavy, and we lost two more men crossing the exposed roadways, but finally made it inside. Every step of that bomb blasted place creaked; there was no quiet way of going about it.
We rushed up the stairs, kicking open the door to the designated apartment, ready to spray down weapons fire on anything that moved.
Except what we found was a screaming mother, clutching her children to her desperately, bawling her eyes out.
I couldn’t do it. I didn’t care what they had done or IF they had done anything. I wasn’t going to shoot an unarmed woman and her children.
Maybe someone had it wrong. This couldn’t be the right apartment; there was no way.
One of the men beside me lifted his weapon to fire. I hollered at him to stand down. He did, thankfully, but the resulting yelling match between us was one of my greatest shames.
Some of us wanted to follow our orders and get the hell out. Who cares if they died? They were the enemy. Me, and a few, argued that it wasn’t right, that orders just weren’t orders.
There was a bright flash, and a deafening ringing in my ears.
When I awoke, the doctors told me the apartment had been hit by an air strike. Only me and one other guy had survived, and he was in critical condition.
I had lost my leg. He ended up losing his life, due to complications.
I can never forget the look of that mother. I can never forget the inhuman things war can make us do.
On that cue, he would usually shed a tear, a skill he had refined after countless performances, and on those special occasions, enough money would fill his hat that he could actually eat a decent meal.
He used to hate his life. He used to hate what he had allowed himself to sink to. He gave up caring a long time ago.
Now, it simply was what it was. It might not be a glorious existence, but it was all he knew. And he had no complaints.
He had a decent little hole in the wall he slept in, a few meager blankets to keep him warm, though in the winter months he wished he had more, but a little liquor always helped to warm him up, and he managed to eat at least one morsel of food per day, to keep his strength up.
The dancer looked his way. He blushed, turning away. He didn’t’ like it when she looked at him; it made him uncomfortable. He wasn’t worth looking at. Please stop looking.
He didn’t actually know if the dancers could see out from inside the display cases. They were like store front attractions, displays setup to entice customers to come in and shop the merchandise, but it was more than enough for him to just watch from afar.
He wondered if the display cases were heated, as the dancers never wore much in the way of clothing.
When the joint closed, he sometimes would leave a note on the plexiglass for the dancer to see when she came in the next day. He was very subtle with his writing, like a secret admirer, and one day, when he got his life back on track, he would take her away from this hellish hole they both endured. One day.
He found a flattened cigarette on the ground, wiped it off, and lit it up. Still good.
There was a commotion at the front door. The dancer stopped to watch, mild fear etching itself onto her face.
He squinted his eyes to get a better look, his vision not being what it used to, and saw the bouncer to the place flat on his ass, snow and slush covering him. Was he bleeding? It looked like.
Then he heard the gunshots from inside, and the resulting screams and panic.
Everything he knew told him to pack up and leave; this wasn’t his problem, but he couldn’t move. He was rooted to the spot. The dancer was being yanked from the window.
He could see her shaking her head in the negative, pulling herself backwards against the arm firmly wrapped around her wrist, her back pushing against the street side of the glass.
He couldn’t leave her; he just couldn’t. But who was he? What would he do? He was just a piece of scum that pissed his life away; that’s what he was.
Most of the customers from inside had left by now, and he watched three gangster types walk non-nonchalantly out of the front door, not a care in the world, heard them cackling at the fallen bouncer.
They had weapons.
He grabbed his walking stick, some sickly split wooden branch he had found years back, and with great pain and effort, hobbled towards the strip club.
She was his dancer. He wasn’t going to let her die.
His hands hurt from the cold and a number of other physical ailments, his joints creaking, straining with the effort of his aggressive stride, but he was determined to make a difference.
For a brief moment he had mustered up a vision of himself as the soldier in his own story, almost believed it, confident that because he was doing the right thing, he would survive, just like he had the bomb on the apartment.
But the bomb wasn’t real. It had never happened. The story wasn’t real. His life wasn’t real.
The group pointed his way, laughing amongst themselves as he approached, grimace and malice etched across the deep lines of his face.
He didn’t know what he was going to say or do, but he knew he had to do something. He threw a sidelong glance towards the window; his dancer was gone.
The lead ruffian spoke first.
“What do you want, old man? Gods, what is that smell? Body odour, booze? Did you shit yourself, old man?” He waved his hand in front of his nose, rearing away in mock disgust, his cohorts laughing furiously.
The entire time their hands never left their weapons.
“Release her.” were the words that came out of his mouth. He hadn’t planned them, and was as surprised as they were at what was said.
“Say again? Are you a drug fuck, crazy as a kite? Release who?” the lead ruffian chuckled, creating more mirth for his friends.
The “old man” pointed his hand towards the glass display case.
“She was in there.” he said, his voice rising in pitch at the end. His nerve had left him, and he was starting to feel the fear overcome him.
His good knee began to tremble, his arms shook, making it hard to keep the walking stick steady.
The trio laughed some more.
“Do you have any idea who we are you crazy codger?” the lead ruffian asked, laughing.
He shook his head in the negative.
Their mood went serious suddenly, their body language becoming threatening, murderous intention in their eyes.
“And we don’t like being told what to do. Especially by some foul smelling, gimped old fuck who has a crush on a fat whore.”
Something snapped inside.
He lunged at the lead ruffian, catching all three by surprise, his walking stick repeatedly striking, him screaming at the top of his lungs.
He got in a lucky blow, and heard the resounding wet thwack of his stick breaking the nose of the lead Guristas thug. The other two still seemed dazed from the unexpected attack.
He was doing it. He was winning. He was going to have such a good story to tell after this, and it was real! He was really doing it. His dancer would see. She would know what he had done, and when she asked him, he would say he did it all for her.
He heard a loud bang, like the one from his story. His ears rang more than he had ever described in his spectacular tale.
Was he actually going crazy? Did his mind think he was actually in his war story?
Everything was still.
Snow fell on his face, and he could see the sky in front of him. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to move.
He pulled his hand away from his torso, and his eyes went wide with shock and terror as he saw it covered in his own blood. There was so much blood.
The three gangsters stood over him, the lead one squatting down, his nose bloodied and split.
“You fuck!” he spat on him.
His heart grew sad. He hadn’t saved her. She would never be his now. Maybe it was better that he died. Maybe this is how it was always meant to be. Who was he to dream anyway?
The Guristas pirate captain stood up, aiming a handgun down at the homeless bum that had broken his nose, and pulled the trigger, fulfilling the man’s unspoken wish.