No Place For Heroes

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Sean Quinn has been in the Derry division of the IRA for ten years. Now he wants out. (PG for mild language--it's mostly in Irish slang terms.)

Submitted: April 08, 2008

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Submitted: April 08, 2008

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NO PLACE FOR HEROES

Looking out of his car window, Sean Quinn could almost fool himself into thinking that all was well and that nothing could possibly go wrong. It was mid autumn and the air was chilly, but the night was beautiful. Peaceful, even. The trees he could see from his vantage point were ablaze in the full, vibrant glory of fall, though some had lost the majority of their leaves and stood shaking their bare branches in the wind like skeletons rattling their bones. The moon rested, calmly, high above in the star-strewn sky, her round face looking down upon the world she kept watch over during the dark hours, cold fingers of silvery light creeping down to earth and casting ethereal shadows. It would not be long before the luminescent globe would be disfigured by the dark clouds slithering villainously across the sky, confirming the ever-present threat of rain. Sean found it an odd contrast to the turmoil that was causing the mess of knots his stomach was tangling itself into.

Large hands reached upwards to rub across craggy, blunted features. Sean was not a handsome man. He was clinging to the farther reaches of twenty-six years of age, though in truth he appeared piteously closer to forty. Crookedness to his nose betrayed the fact that it had been broken more than once. His pale skin was chapped from exposure, and his dark hair was cropped short to draw attention away from its gradual thinning. He was far too skinny, and his shoulders were constantly stooped as though under a heavy burden. His only redeeming feature was his eyes: great green orbs that, in better times, had been like open windows into a jovial soul. Not this night, though. This night they were blank, glazed with trepidation and worry. This night they were no more alive than those of some unfortunate animal caught out in the high beams of a car on the highway. Something was coming, and he knew as much, but he could not seem to do anything to get out of its way. Times were changing and he with them. He could remain in Derry no longer.

The hands lowered, giving a thorough scrubbing to his stubbly chin before dropping unceremoniously into his lap. This was his last mission for the IRA, his parting gift to the boys. Two men, father and son, lay dead in the house he had parked in front of, all in the name of a free and united Ireland—an ideal Ireland, free from the tyranny of British rule. An Ireland that everyone preached about, but no one seemed willing to do more than kill or die for in the name of her release. Dying was easy, after all; it was living and trying to right your messes that was the difficult part of life. He was not even sure what they had done, those two men. All he knew was that they were Protestants, which was enough to convict them in the eyes of those who made the decisions. Well, he had had more than enough of the mindless, repetitive cycle of Northern Irish violence. It was always a murder, retaliation—that always seemed to involve another murder, frequently in the form of explosives. God, how many car bombs had he set up in the vehicles of Loyalists? He did not much care to tally them up, and it did not matter anymore. It was time to gather up Molly and little Siobhan and disappear. The ‘RA could carry on their bloody campaign without Sean Quinn.

Distracted as he was by his brooding, Sean nearly jumped out of his skin at an abrupt, curt rapping upon his window. He thought his heart would burst, so suddenly had it sped up, and he glared out of his window into the darkening night, expecting the suspicious sneer of a RUC officer. Instead, he was met with the grinning face of one Liam Donnelly, a friend. Scrambling, Sean rolled down his window, sucking in a deep, calming breath in preparation for venting his exact sentiments on the matter of being frightened half to death.

“For feck’s sake, Liam,” he hissed angrily at the man just beyond his door. “What’re you doing all the way out here? If you say you were in the neighbourhood, I swear by all that’s good and holy I’ll bash your face right in for telling such a bold lie!”

Liam seemed neither concerned nor surprised by his comrade’s foul temper, which was to be expected given that he was quite used to it after all this time. They’d spent time together in Long Kesh some years back—neither seemed able or willing to recall precisely how many years ago it was—and had become close as a result. His grin was easy, batting aside Sean’s unpleasant greeting as though it hadn’t even been spoken.

“And how’re you, you great shinner? And here I thought I’d be witness to you and Molly snogging away in the front seats, with poor baby Siobhan in the back! Have to say I’m disappointed, boy-o. Mind if I step in?”

Sean nodded grudgingly, rolling his window back up and then lunging across to unlock the passenger door. Liam entered, falling into the seat with effortless, boneless grace, and stretched his long limbs. A giant of a man, Liam was blond and almost painfully attractive—nearly Sean’s polar opposite. Close to being ten years Sean’s senior, his friend’s appearance ignited bitter jealousy within the all too human heart of Sean, while at the same time making him love the man all the more. He looked like the popular image of the legendary Fionn MacCumhail, and the lads adored him for it. His crude good nature was beyond reproach. He was a good man. The fact that he’d tramped all the way out to this Protestant locality—on foot, no less—spoke of the urgency that lay hidden behind his casual behaviour.

There was a snappy, popping sound of a match being lit, and the sulphurous smell that accompanied said act drifted in insidious tendrils to Sean’s nostrils, making him cringe in disgust. This was dismissed as the more obvious implications struck him; Liam did not smoke, not often. He did so only when something was bothering him, something big. The last time Sean had seen Liam smoke was when they had come across a young boy in an alley in a mixed neighbourhood. Local squabbling had claimed the youth’s abbreviated life. It had disturbed both of the men, and had driven Liam to light up the hated cigarette. He cleared his throat, fighting down useless panic and trying desperately to sound nonchalant. “Something up?”

His voice sounded strained and unnatural to his own ears. He awaited the trivializing chuckle, the assurances of mere paranoia. Liam took a long drag on his cigarette, then released a cloud of stinking smoke into the cramped confines of the vehicle, and said nothing. The silence that followed was oppressive in its entirety. Sean clenched his jaw, expecting the kind of bad news that seemed to come in an unending supply to IRA gunmen.

“You hear ‘bout Bobby Sands?”

“Christ, Liam.” Sean exhaled the words, low, like a breath. “That was months ago, back in May, after sixty-six days on hunger strike. It was all over the news, don’t you remember?”

Liam nodded absently, relapsing briefly into that uncomfortable hush. He resurfaced shortly afterwards, stealing a sidelong glance at his companion. “The days seem to bleed together sometimes. I almost forgot it was nearly Halloween.” He took another drag on his cigarette before butting it out on the car door.

Another moment of silence claimed the two men. Sean shifted uncomfortably, not liking how this conversation was turning out. Liam was not his usual jubilant self. Just when he thought that would be all he got out of the big fellow, Liam turned unexpectedly to face him, large hand rushing forward to grip Sean’s wrist harshly.

“I hear you’re leaving the IRA,” he stated, voice soft and low and dangerous. “Dare I ask if you’re defecting to the other side? Going to start waving a banner in bloody triumph in the Orange Parade come July?”

“What the hell are you talking about? No! No,” Sean cried in horrified denial, trying with no success to wrench his arm away from Liam’s punishing grasp. “Oh, for the love of God..! Who’s been filling your head with shite like that?”

“So you’re not leaving.” It was not a question. His tone was flat, leaving unsaid words to become stuck between them as though to a spider’s web, the unspoken somethings and nothings growing to monstrous volume with their mere existence. Liam’s grip did not loosen in the slightest.

Panic was bubbling to the surface, making Sean sweat despite the chill. He began to struggle in earnest now, not liking what he was seeing in his friend’s face. He’d never seen that expression plastered across Liam’s features before, though the calm, detached minority of his mind told him it was the same look a cat would give a mouse: hungry, predatory. Had he given the two men in the house the same look?

“Liam,” he pleaded, “Liam, please—“

He hated himself for begging, hated Liam in that moment for making him beg, hated that someone he’d long considered a close friend was looking at him as though he meant nothing. He hated that he hated everything just then. He wanted to recoil away from himself, away from Liam, away from everything. He no longer wanted to be part of this; he’d never really wanted it at all. He wanted glory and adoration. He wanted to be a hero, to be loved by the Irish and hated by the English. But things rarely work out like they are planned, and the Irish simply were not all that united in their opinions. So he was running away, he was a coward. There was simply no place for heroes in an undeclared war against a nation much stronger than your own.

“Liam,” he repeated, pulling in a shuddering breath. “I don’t know what you’re on about, I honestly—“

He was cut off as Liam drew his clenched fist back and then slammed it into Sean’s face without so much as blinking. Releasing the smaller man—who, for the moment, could utter nothing more than an unintelligible gurgle—, Liam leaned back and away. Casting an almost indifferent glance over his supposed friend, he seemed to survey his handiwork in an almost detached way.

Colourful stars were blooming behind Sean’s eyes as he slumped in his seat. He felt as though he were submerged in molasses as he lifted his newly freed hand to cover his nose. Blood streamed through his fingers and down his face, dribbling onto his shirt. It slid sluggishly down his throat, forcing him to taste the coppery tang of it. He wanted to gag.

“I didn’t want to have to do that, Sean,” Liam commented gravely. “You’re like a feckin’ brother to me. But, you see, I’d hit my brother if it meant stopping him from doing something stupid. Now, you know I don’t like it when people lie to me, and I know that you know precisely what I’m talking about.”

“Yeh broke me fecking nose,” Sean bemoaned, voice slurred as he struggled to rise above the pain. He realized he’d reverted to the backstreets talk of his youth, a symbol of what he’d came from, and he added that to the swiftly growing list of things he hated. But he couldn’t be bothered to correct himself; he could scarcely concentrate on what was happening. “Yeh broke me goddamned nose.”

“Don’t exaggerate,” Liam warned lightly. “I know I didn’t, and you’ve broken it enough times to know the difference.”

“Yeh broke it,” Sean said again, naturally stubborn and simply too dazed to know when to stop arguing.

Liam ignored him this time. “The truth, if you please.”

“For Christ’s sake, Liam, I told—”

“The truth,” Liam insisted, pulling a cotton handkerchief from his pocket and dropping it carelessly into Sean’s lap. “And try to keep the slang from overwhelming everything you say. You’re not some Cockney inbred moron.”

Sean held the handkerchief up to his crooked nose, which he discovered was in fact not broken, and applied some pressure to stem the steady outward flow of blood. He’d never seen Liam like this before. He tried to tell himself that that was it, that this would be the end of his friend’s strange behaviour. He was not really convinced, however, which further unsettled him.

He had thought the world of Liam. Now he was just something else that had let him down. Perhaps this was for the best; perhaps it would be easier to leave now that the one thing still tethering him to the IRA had started pulling away.

“I need out,” he said finally, voice low as though he were suspicious of possible eavesdroppers. “And I don’t just mean out of the ‘RA, Liam, or out of the North. I need out of Ireland. I need to get away. Molly has a cousin in America; we’re moving to Chicago. I’ve had enough.”

“America?” Liam repeated, quite clearly disgusted. “Land of No-Paddies-Need-Apply? Settled by the very same bastards causing the mess here?”

“That’s not fair, Liam. You know it’s not. Don’t try to make me feel guilty; I’m trying to do what’s best for Siobhan. I don’t want her to grow up amongst this. I don’t want her to know what a monster her daddy is.”

“You’re not a monster.” Liam’s tone was impatient now. Perhaps he was beginning to see that Sean was not likely to be cajoled into staying through shame. “You’re a patriot, a martyr… a goddamned hero. You’re just going to turn your back on your country?”

“If what I am is a hero,” Sean began, despairingly, “then there is even less difference between a hero and a monster than I’d ever anticipated. I’m willing to bet that those in the British Army and RUC are thought of as heroes by their fellows.”

“That’s different.”

“Is it, now?” Sean challenged mildly, not willing to get into a serious argument right now. All he wanted was for Liam to get the hell out so he could drive home. “I don’t see how, and I won’t. I refuse to be a part of this any longer. You can accept it or not, but I’m leaving tomorrow. You won’t see me again.”

Sean inched away from Liam, as far as his seat would allow. Liam had that look again, and it distorted his handsome face into a mask of ugly rage. “Look, Liam,” he continued, trying to end it peacefully, “I’ve done my bit for Ireland. I’ve been doing my bit for ten years. But I’m married now, and my life belongs to Molly and to my little girl. You’re not married, so I don’t know if you can fully understand my situation, but try to realize that I’m not just living for myself anymore. I have to leave.”

Liam slipped into silence for a few moments that seemed to stretch into eternity, as his facial expression smoothed over and gradually became one of grudging understanding. Sean grinned in relief, though he noticed that the look had not quite reached Liam’s eyes. Flinty chips of blue ice stared out at him, as angry and unsettling as his faded facial expression. The smile wavered, but Sean managed to keep it in place.

“Very well, mate,” Liam replied, voice a bit too cheerful. “I suppose I shall be off, then. I expect you’ll see me on the news sometime a few years from now, having done something daring and important.”

“Yes, I expect so.”

Liam nodded, then turned and opened his door. He was stopped by Sean, who frowned. “You don’t want a lift back to your flat? It’s a long way to walk.”

Liam shook his head as he got out of the vehicle. “No, it’s best I leave. Don’t want to lose my temper again and do something I’ll regret.”

“You mean you don’t regret punching me in the face?”

His only answer was a mockingly dignified salute and the sound of the car door slamming shut as Liam disappeared into the gathering shadows. The moon should have been at its peak by now, but it somehow seemed darker than it had a few moments before. Glancing skywards to ascertain why this was so, he shook his head when he saw that his earlier prediction had come true. The moon was hidden behind the clouds, their captive. The quiet rumble of distant thunder announced a coming storm. It was best to get home.

He turned the key in the ignition, and that was all. The explosion was loud, sending an ear-splitting “BOOM” into the still night and shattering the windows of the nearby houses. As the flame and heat swept through the tiny car, Sean had no time to realize what exactly it was that had happened. There was pain, intense pain, but Sean did not have to endure it for longer than the space of time it takes to blink.

He was dead long before the sirens of approaching fire trucks and ambulances were heard by the small crowd assembling around the bombed-out car. Behind this crowd—carefully staying in the gloom—stood Liam. He was smoking a cigarette and surveying his handiwork. He slipped away before the authorities could arrive, knowing no one would come searching for him. Car bombs were common enough occurrences in Derry and the RUC would pay even less mind to the incident when they discovered that the victim was a Catholic.

As Sean had wanted, he was free.


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