This story is by Joslyn Chase and won Third Place in our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
Joslyn writes suspense fiction and is releasing her first novel, a thriller titled Nocturne in Ashes, July 2017. She is also a classical pianist, music teacher, public speaker, and storyteller. She loves American History and holds a degree in American Studies. Sign up for Joslyn’s email list to receive bonus material and stay up-to-date at joslynchase.com. Or connect with Joslyn on Facebook.
Nobody ever walks into a dive like this. It’s the kind of hole to steer clear of, unless it’s the only beacon in your stretch of inky night, a slice of flotsam, a quivering straw.
Unless you’ve got nothing left to lose.
Mark Crandall felt the sawdust underfoot, damp with spilled beer, matted and caking the treads of his combat sneakers, his fighting shoes. Their cracked leather tops sported crusty brown splotches from bloodied noses and split lips. The buzz of impact still echoed in his bones, but it hadn’t been enough. Nothing was ever enough.
He straddled a barstool, swiping a jacket sleeve over the pitted surface in front of him, sweeping away peanut shells, obliterating the oily, wet circles overlapping like an Olympic icon. Clearing the slate.
“What’ll it be?”
The barkeep cocked half an ear in Mark’s direction, the rest of his attention riveted to a crooked rectangle in a corner above the bar, filled with running men chasing a black-and-white ball. A rockabilly ruckus droned out from a beat-up jukebox outside the men’s room, drowning the muted roar of the tiny fans on the flat screen.
Mark pulled the wallet from his hip pocket and placed it on the bar.
“Whatever’s on tap.”
The man filled a glass, running the amber liquid along the inside, gauging the level by ear, never taking his eyes off the game. Mark glimpsed the ID pinned against the red polo. Jerry. He nodded and downed a long swallow, the sour tang stabbing his tongue. He wiped his mouth, and tapped a knuckle against the barkeep’s elbow.
“Man walks into a bar.”
Jerry snorted. “Heard it.”
Two stools to the left, a tattered patron rested face-down on the scarred wood, a greasy hank of hair falling over his crossed wrists. He stirred, a buzz-saw snore rising into the yeast-stained air. Jerry spared him a glance and a shove, dropping the snore into low gear.
Mark needed Jerry’s attention. It was the only thing left in the world that he needed, beyond the contents of his jacket pocket.
“I don’t think you’ve heard this one, Jerry. The guy’s got a dead wife. Suicide.”
Jerry dropped his gaze to the bar, wiping a yellowed cloth down the length of it.
“Doesn’t sound very amusing.”
“No? Let me tell you the rest of it. See, the guy shipped out. Afghanistan. World’s largest sand trap. He’s doing his thing, clearing desert villages of bad guys, and his unit comes under fire. A couple of his buddies go down. Still breathing, but unable to move under their own steam.”
The bartender’s rag stopped moving. “When’s the funny part coming?”
“Hang in there, Jerry. A crapload of bullets rain down on this guy and somehow he dodges them all. But then, a grenade comes in through the window and he wants to split out the back door. Problem is, there are three men alongside him that can’t move. And there it is, the moment every combat soldier thinks about and hopes they’ll never have to face. Am I willing to eat a grenade to save my brothers in arms?”
Jerry stood face-forward, both arms braced against the brass rim of the bar, TV screen forgotten. “Was he?”
“Willing? He thought he was. He ran toward the grenade, but instead of throwing himself on it, he scooped it up and lobbed it back where it came from. He scored a hit and won the day. All four soldiers lived to tell the story.”
Jerry’s eyebrows rose an inch up his forehead. “That’s nice, but I expected a stronger punchline.”
Mark gave an approving nod.
“As you should, Jerry. There’s more. The guy got a Medal of Honor for his act of valor, but he never felt like he deserved it. He doesn’t remember a conscious act of courage, just mindless instinct and a huge stroke of luck. But he accepted the thanks of a grateful nation. His hometown newspaper ran a front-page article, made a big deal. His wife sent him a letter, said she was real proud. Life seemed pretty great.”
Overhead lighting picked up a sheen of perspiration on Jerry’s upper lip. He swiped at it.
“Why’d she kill herself?”
“Now we’re getting close to the funny part. See, while hubby sweated overseas, the wife got a job tending bar. She could make a little money, pass the time until her husband returned so they could start the family they’d always talked about. Her boss kept her on the late shift with him. He kept touching her, pressing her for ‘favors’ and one night, when she told him to back off, he raped her.”
The soccer game went into overtime, but Jerry was oblivious, his pale face glowing like a dim bulb.
“She never told anyone what happened. She quit and stayed home. All the time. Doused in shame, blaming herself. When she got word about her husband’s act of valor, she knew she couldn’t face him, didn’t deserve him. She left him a note and an empty pill bottle.”
Jerry looked like he was using the bar to hold himself up.
“Ready for the punchline, Jerry?”
Mark’s hand wandered to his jacket pocket, crinkling the single sheet of scrap paper, coffee-stained and covered with his shaky penmanship. His own farewell apology. It shared space with another object, and he gripped cold metal. The solid shape felt good in his hand.
These, the last things in this world he had need of—the note, the gun, and Jerry’s attention. Nothing else mattered now.
The drunk stirred, the game ended. Jerry trembled like a sheet in the wind, eyes wide and unfocused with shock.
Mark meant to pull the trigger, like he’d meant to die on that grenade. But again he surprised himself with a diversion tactic, tipping the balance toward life.
He left Jerry standing, and walked out of the bar, hand-in-hand with the better part of valor.