This story is by D.L. Hiunter and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
It had been nagging him all day, an uncanny unease that strained the back of his eyes and made his head ache. It was there when he woke up, there on his drive in to work, there as he hung up his jacket in the break room, there when he slid the ice into his latest patron’s request for a “vodka tonic, easy on the rocks.”
And when the door opened, sending a jingle of bells through the bar, he knew exactly why his blood pressure had been raised, why his chest had been tight….he felt her without even looking up.
This is how it’d always been with them, from the moment he’d first passed by her during basic training to the last time he’d seen her, seven years ago. Whenever he was in her vicinity the air crackled with electricity and the hair on his arms stood up. His breath caught as the memories came flooding back along with the fear and realization that this day had finally arrived. Pay day.
Claressa wasn’t supposed to make it. Wasn’t supposed to excel. Wasn’t supposed to be the kind of success story or American hero that would grace the covers of Time and Newsweek or garner segments on the Today Show and Good Morning America.
But she had made it. Fighting her way over obstacles both physical and figurative and using the word “no” as a springboard instead of a roadblock. She worked hard for every single accolade she’d achieved and every stripe and medal that had been bestowed upon her, including The One, the medal for the story that brought her face-to-face with the President of the United States and made her a household name. The Medal of Honor…..the one they eventually took away.
Now she stood with her eyes trained on the man who’d been the source of so much of her pain and marveled at how the same person could have once brought her so much joy. The one for whom her love had festered into a foul state of bitterness and rage….her lover, her liar, her personal Benedict.
She reached her hand deep into her pocket, past the mini-bottles of Jack Daniels she’d drank from earlier when her nerves threatened to abandon her. Yes, it was still there. She walked forward.
The memories were flying faster and faster through James’ mind now, like a kaleidoscope of disturbed butterflies all taking flight at once. There was Claressa doing pull-ups in the yard, her onyx skin seemingly gathering up the sun then radiating the rays back at him, mesmerizing him with its beauty. And there she was up against the pantry wall one night years later when they’d crossed paths by chance at a base in Germany. He was on his way to Afghanistan; she was on her way back. He’d remembered his surprise as he pulled up her long maxi dress, reached down to grab her calf and felt the shock of cold metal instead of the skin that had so captivated him. Her cool eyes had casually passed over his face and an eyebrow raised as if to say, “And? Is there a problem?” He answered by burrowing his face into her neck as his hand reached higher and higher……her lips enveloped his and he recalled thinking he’d never feel anything else that was quite so exquisite long as he lived.
“Long time,” those lips said now, inches away from his ear and the electricity that had always been there sizzled. All of a sudden he was hot. Way, way too hot in far too many ways.
“Yeah, real long time…..” he choked. “Claressa, I’m so sorr-“
It came out in a hiss and sounded a lot more wounded than she wanted.
“Don’t. You. Dare.” This wasn’t how she’d rehearsed it in her mind, what she’d say when she finally saw him after all these years but the hurt she thought she’d buried way down deep bubbled its way past the hatred and up to the surface.
“We had a deal.”
James still refused to look up at her.
“All you had to do is go along with what I said happened. After all I had done for you. After everything I gave up for you…..for this country……and you couldn’t let me have this one thing?”
He looked up just in time to catch a wave of anguish flicker over her face.
“Do you even know what I’ve been through? Do you even care?”
He did know and he did care. He’d followed the investigation in the papers, from her being court martialed to her medal being stripped. Still he was silent, even when she’d reached out while in federal prison, even when he saw she’d been released.
And finally, even now, he was silent as she stood before him, a lover he’d let down to save his own skin, giving up dirt on her to deflect attention from his own misdeeds.
It seemed they stood staring at each other for an eternity and when Claressa finally did move it was in slow motion.
She brought some sort of vial from her pocket.
She ran some sort of powder over her lips.
She kissed him.
And just like before his heart and chest burned at her touch but this time he was left breathless in a different way. It was, however, still ever so Exquisite.