This story is by Steven Stilwell and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
Well, that stain is either blood or tobacco spit… Rick opened the door and carefully stepped over the dark brown smudge and limped over to the counter to settle himself onto a bar stool.
The place was lit only by the neon beer signs hanging from the walls and a single lamp behind the bar. Its naked bulb shed a yellow light throughout the room.
The bartender raised an eyebrow at Rick when he sat down.
The bartender was new, as was the stain and just about everything else in the bar. It had been more than ten years since Rick had last been here. Back then it had been he and Joe’s favorite spot to play darts on Tuesday nights.
No darts tonight. There were less than half a dozen people spread throughout the quiet room.
Directly in front of Rick above the bar hung a metal sign with the bar’s name on it. The lettering glinted in the yellow light: Ulysses.
Ulysses, the valiant war hero who returns home and finds that his entire life has gone to shit.
Rick picked up his drink and downed it in one go. It burned all the way down. It was the beautiful burn that came before the lovely fog.
He signaled for another and continued starring at the sign. The bartender came over and placed a new glass in front of him. Rick emptied it just as fast as the first.
Rick made the motion again and shifted his weight on the bar stool. His blue jeans hid the mass of knotted and pitted scars that was all that was left of his right leg. His left hip pocket bulged with the old service pistol he still carried around.
The third bourbon stung just enough. The fog was starting to roll in.
When you see a grenade you take cover. Rick had been a Marine for twelve years and that had been one of the first things that he had learned. But when that dull metal sphere bounced into the ditch where his squad was positioned he dove for it. The math had seemed so simple to him at the time, his life traded for the life of his best friend and eight others. Something had happened though, he wasn’t quite sure what. All he knew was that he wasn’t supposed to be alive.
He was though. Alive with a mangled leg, and Joe was the one dead.
The worst part came months later, when Rick had limped up onto a stage and the president had hung a medal around his neck, shook his hand, and told him that he was a hero.
The first thing he did when he got home was find that medal a cozy resting place at the bottom of the river. He and Joe had fished together in that river when they were kids. Now there wasn’t enough left of him to feed a fish, much less catch one.
Jack Daniels was doing his job. Those memories, always so overwhelming, were much more manageable now.
A blonde sitting a few seats down tried to catch his eye with a coy grin and a wink. Rick didn’t smile back; he couldn’t remember the last time he had. Instead he reached for his refilled glass.
Rick had another and then a few more, while the people in the bar trickled out. When last call came around Rick settled his tab and limped outside to burn one out. He lit his cigarette and leaned against the front window, puffing, and enjoying the tangy combination of tobacco and liquor.
There was a junkie sitting on the bench next to the window.
“Bum a smoke?” The junkie spat his words as he talked.
He was rail thin and pale with black teeth and nails. The arm he reached out with was covered in track marks. The other arm didn’t have a single mark on it, only a tattoo: the eagle, globe and anchor of the Marine Corp.
Rick pulled out a cigarette and handed it to him.
He nodded but didn’t look Rick in the eye.
From the parking lot came the sound of tires peeling and the ex-Marine shot straight up and started to quiver, like a fawn who had scented wolves and has nowhere to run. Four SUV’s slammed to a stop in front of the bar. There was shouting coming from inside the cars and all that Rick could hear above the din was someone say, “You’re fucking dead!”
Rick looked down at the junkie ex-Marine’s spotless arm and the symbol tattooed there. He took the pistol out and fired it once at the glass window behind them and pushed the ex-Marine through into the bar. As soon as Rick’s gun fired, the shouting from the SUV’s halted and was replaced with the ping of bullets.
Pure adrenaline seemed to be the cure for Rick’s leg. He dove through the window right after the ex-Marine and together they crawled over broken glass to a bank of booths on the far wall. The bartender was already there, huddled down and terrified.
“Through the back.” Rick nodded at both of them and gestured towards the far wall with the pistol.
“Now!” Rick stood as he shouted and fired two shots. Red flowers bloomed in the air for an instant and then disappeared. The first two men to coming through the door screamed and fell.
Rick’s maimed leg finally gave out and he slumped back behind the booths. There were still more men outside, shouting again, trying to gather the courage to enter the bar. The back door slammed; Rick hoped that meant that the ex-Marine and bartender had both made it.
Rick’s right leg was quivering. He adjusted his grip on the pistol and smiled.