This story is by Dawn Van Beck and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
Was it all worth it?
The perpetual question traveled through Samuel Montgomery’s mind as he shuffled into The Crow’s Nest with an unsteady gait. It was a question interrupting his mundane routine by day, and delivering threats of nightmares by night. A sharp, spicy aroma of garlic wafted through the air, boasting the pub’s signature pizzas as he approached the bar and removed his wool beret.
“Good evening, Sam. You want your usual?”, the bartender asked, leaning on the pounded copper bar top.
“You bet, Nick. Thanks.”
Sam lowered his large frame, exhaling as he collapsed into a wood chair at a small table next to the bar. Arthritic hands beckoned him to flex his fingers. He surveyed his wrinkled skin as the poignant lyrics to “Calling All Angels” crooned overhead.
“Here you go.” Nick planted a tall mug before Sam and returned to the bar.
The touch of the frosted glass comforted Sam’s weary hands as he savored a long swallow of the malty, caramel-flavored liquid. As he set down his glass of Yuengling, his gaze locked onto the gold ring on his left hand, lodging a pronounced lump in his throat. The flashbacks began again.
Loyal to the end, she’d stood by him through his bouts of rage, his terrifying psychosis, unrealistic job demands, his surgeries; years of his deep depression. Was it worth putting her through all that? She didn’t deserve it . . . he didn’t deserve her. Nearly sixty years together, and after being reduced to janitorial work at the public school, she still loved him.
Cancer should’ve taken him instead of his sweet Clara.
Tracing the long scar on his right arm, more images attacked his mind. Sporadic sniper fire, flaming aircraft, the pungent odor of Agent Orange, booby-traps made of sharpened bamboo sticks, punctured eardrums from the blasts of bombers . . . the soldier he failed.
Sam pressed the heel of his hands against his eyes, trying to push away the images, but now–his glass eye served as a continual, haunting reminder of his past.
Was it all worth it?
A heavy sigh escaped Sam as he dropped his head into his hands, resting his elbows on the table. He sat, frozen in time, until a chill coursed through his spine at the sound of a familiar voice.
Sam’s heart thundered as he lifted his head to meet the gaze of the man standing before him. Tears prickled Sam’s eyes as the man stood in a salute.
“Well, I’ll be.” Sam swallowed hard. “At ease, soldier.”
Thomas Hutton pulled up a chair and sat down in front of Sam.
“Do you have any idea how hard it’s been to find you?” Thomas chuckled and reached to shake Sam’s hand. “You been hiding all these years?”
“Something like that,” Sam said as he fell back into his chair. “I don’t understand. I thought you were dead.”
“No, Sir. I would be if it weren’t for you.”
Sam rubbed his chin, narrowing his eyes. “No—no. When I came back, you weren’t there. I-I couldn’t find you. I failed you.”
“No, man.” Thomas leaned forward, placing his scarred hand on Sam’s shoulder. “You saved me. You drug me over to that hole and covered it with camouflage. I was well hidden. Sam . . . you saved me.”
Sam flashed Thomas a faint smile as he shook his head.
The wooden chair scraped across the floor as Thomas stood up and exuded a forceful whistle.
“Everyone, may I have your attention please?” Silence hung in the air.
“This man here is a hero.”
Nick dashed to the kitchen to turn off the music as Thomas continued.
“This man is my Army Colonel, wounded in combat. Shrapnel from an exploding mortar shell destroyed his right eye.” Thomas locked eyes with each of the patrons, leaving them hushed in silence. “Now —not only did this man receive a Purple Heart, but he also received a Medal of Honor for running through exploding mortar rounds, dragging several comrades to safety. I was one of those comrades.”
Tears anchored at the corners of Sam’s eyes as Thomas cleared his throat.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Thomas said in a cracked voice. “Colonel Samuel Montgomery saved my life.” He shifted his focus to Sam, raising his glass. “A round of drinks for everyone!”
The crowd erupted in waves of cheer before settling in to receive their free drinks. Thomas pulled up the chair directly next to Sam.
“I’m so glad I found you,” Thomas said.
Sam met Thomas’s gaze with twinkling eyes. “I thank God you’re indeed alive.”
For the next three hours, they reminisced, laughed, and shared the events of the last thirty years. A generous warmth filled Sam’s chest; something he hadn’t felt in a long time.
“Time to get these tired, old bones home, Tom.” Sam finally arose from his chair and held Thomas’s hand in a firm grasp. “Thank you.”
Sam turned and began a slow shuffle through the crowd. Just as he was about to approach the exit door, he stopped short at the sound of a solitary, steady clap. With his back to the customers, he heard scatterings of strong, even claps, multiplying in number. He made a slow turn to face the crowd and was met by a sea of patrons, standing and clapping in unison. His gaze wandered to the back of the room where Thomas stood in another salute.
Darkness hugged the sky as Samuel Montgomery walked out of the bar. Tears puddled between his eyes as he looked up to the blinking stars. An unannounced sob burst from his chest as he declared a new resolve.
Yes, it was definitely all worth it.