This story is by Valorie Clark and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
The bartender stopped cold when I entered. “Ronald Marckey, what the fuck are you doing back in town?”
“Stan. I can’t believe you’re still running this shithole.”
“You watch your mouth, this bar got you through your first divorce—”
“And caused my second!”
Stan held up his end of the bluff another moment, then his chestnut of a face cracked into a smile. He’d added another pound to his beer gut since I’d last seen him, but everything else was the same, down to the light filtering through the dirty windows and the grime on the ancient unopened bottle of champagne—destined for the first to make it through Christmas Eve at The Channel still standing—and the fact that I still, for the fuckin’ life of me, couldn’t remember his last name.
“Whiskey and soda,” Stan suggested, already reaching for a tumbler.
“Hold the soda.” I seated myself at the bar with my back to the front door, and clenched my hand into a fist under the counter.
“Well, what’s the occasion?” He stretched out every syllable as he poured; by the time he finished the tumbler was almost full.
“Jesus, Stan.” I held it, tested the weight.
“Last time you was in here you started hollerin’ that I wasn’t givin’ you enough.”
“You were pouring like you were running out.” I gulped some down—it hardly burned anymore—and set the tumbler down with a satisfying thunk. He eyed me, assessing. I’d seen that look before.
“You doin’ okay? I mean, did they help, ya know…there?”
“Jeez, Stan, I haven’t even seen you in a year.” I gulped down the rest of the whiskey, hoping he’d drop it.
“Well, last time—“
“Yeah!” I winced even as I interrupted him—Dr. Connelly would not be impressed. I tried to smile. “I mean, yeah, ‘course. They don’t let you out if you’re not doing better.” I didn’t mention I had only been given a day pass and had used it to get a day’s head start hitchhiking home.
“Right, yeah.” He smiled, trying to be reassuring. I’d seen that look on Dr. Connelly’s face too. “Well, welcome back. How long you in town?”
I shrugged. “Don’t know. Gotta find a job.”
“Well don’t go by Christy’s house.”
“Jesus Christ, Stan, I—“
“I’m just sayin’!” He scrubbed a hand through his hair. He grabbed a pint glass and began filling a beer that hadn’t been ordered. As he stared intensely at the gold liquid, he began to mumble so I had to lean in to hear, “…so damn proud to have you from here, considerin’ what you did. We just want what’s best for you. Christy ain’t that.”
“Thanks Stan. I’m doing better, really. They got me on these pills, I go to sessions. Things are getting easier.” I hoped he believed that. I hadn’t taken my pills in weeks. I couldn’t afford them, and anyway I hated the way they made me coast, how they slowed down my instincts.
“Good,” he grunted.
We changed the topic to him, his wife and kids, how one had gone to college and the other to jail. He waved goodbye to a regular, Josh, while saying, “One got all the brains and the other all the balls. I mean, for fuck’s sake—“
An explosion went off outside. I blinked, and the stool was gone, my gun was back. Ears ringing, I jumped out of the humvee, peering through the smoke and dust thrown up into the harsh desert sunlight. I wiped sweat out of my eyes and took the safety off my gun, jumping behind a concrete blockade for cover. The humvee in front of mine was smoking, the front right corner twisted and blackened. Through the ringing I could hear shouting in Arabic and English, the screaming of women and children. A machine gun rang out shots until I lost count.
I looked over the blockade and began shooting at anyone with a gun and without an American uniform. My platoon scattered, most already down, some ducking for cover or a better shot. Out of the driver’s side window hung Lieutenant Ko, blood coating the door. I grabbed a grenade from my belt and tossed it toward the house I thought the enemy was coming from. The explosion rocked the street. I threw another. The ringing in my ears became unbearable. I peeked over the blockade but was pulled down by Private Fisher.
“Marckey, help.” His voice sounded weak. I turned to him, the metallic tang of blood already in my nose.
“Ronald, Ronald!” Lieutenant Ko yelled. I looked up at him, there was blood running down his face. “RONALD,” he shouted again, shaking me. I blinked and the blood was gone. Ko smiled. I blinked again: Stan looked down at me, wide-eyed and panting.
“RONALD.” Each time I blinked Ko’s face and Stan’s traded back and forth, a slideshow of horror. The show settled on Stan’s face and the red dust disappeared—just the bar, the same old bar. But behind it, on the floor, with Stan leaning over me (not me over Fisher, not Fisher).
The ringing subsided and I felt my hands tremble even as they were wrapped around the leg of a stool. Stan held my head and shoulders and rocked me back and forth, tears on his face. “Jesus Christ, Ronald, we gotta get you help. It was just Josh’s old Harley, you know the damn thing sputters when it starts.”
“Right,” I swallowed back bile. “Just Josh’s old Harley.”
I slid up to lean against the shelves behind the bar. I inhaled, counted to twenty, exhaled.
“My name is Ronald Marckey. I’m a discharged Army sergeant. I’m in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma,” I whispered to myself. I felt Stan sit next to me, solid and very much alive.
“You might want to add, ‘I owe Stan a couple new tumblers,’ to that list.”
I tried to laugh, but it sounded like choking.