This story is by S.J. Siedenburg and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
A man in a tan coat entered through the well-worn door into the old bar. The smoke stung his eyes as he squinted through the haze, his stomach turning from the sweat and stale liquor permeating the air. He trudged to a ripped vinyl stool by the counter, and rested his cracked black shoes on the bar rail.
“Whiskey neat,” he said to the bartender underneath his straggling beard.
“Sure thing. Opening a tab?”
The bartender nodded and poured the drink for him.
He wrapped his dirt-creased fingers around the smooth glass and took a drink. He came there whenever he scored enough money on the streets. He finished it off with a long gulp.
The bartender obliged.
Laughter rose from the table behind him. Across the room an argument had started which soon turned violent. He remained still, looking ahead at the glass bottles across the counter, and then into his glass at the amber liquor.
Someone took the stool next to him. “I’ll have an old-fashioned.” The man paid with his card and the bartender gave him his drink.
He looked at the homeless man next to him. “Nice place.” He wore a black leather jacket, more expensive than anything the other customers could afford. He was clean shaven, his hair blond and styled with a swoosh in front as a modern pompadour.
The homeless man ignored the newcomer and took another drink.
“I’ve been looking for you, Richard Myers.”
The man in the tan jacket hesitated a moment, then felt his glass. “Get lost.”
“You’ve got an impressive history. Three tours in Afghanistan, one in Iraq. Medal of Honor for saving eight soldiers in enemy territory.”
Myers gulped the rest of his drink and slammed the glass down.
“I’ll close my tab now.” He payed the bartender with cash and walked away, leaving the stranger at the counter. He pushed back the wood door, the rusted hinges squeaking, and let it fall back with a thud. The slicing autumn wind hit his face as he descended the steps from the bar’s entrance into an alley.
Myers pulled his jacket around him and walked toward the flickering yellow lamp near the street. A bottle fell and shattered behind him. A bundle of blankets by the wall groaned. The bar door creaked open.
“Hey, Myers!” The stranger in the bar called from the doorway.
The door thudded closed again, and Myers kept walking.
He followed. “It was difficult to track you down. You dropped out of sight after your divorce. Four tours of fighting really breaks you.”
Myers turned and leant into the man’s face. “You know nothing!”
The stranger coughed from his breath, then laughed. “I kind of do. I know you have problems. For one, you need a place to stay. If you listen to me I can fix some.”
Heat burned Myers’s throat. He swung back his arm and punched the man in the face. “No one can fix my problems!”
The stranger stumbled back to the grime-covered brick wall, his perfect hair now disheveled. He felt the side of his mouth and brought back blood. He smiled from the corner of his mouth.
Myers turned out of the alley, adrenaline boiling his blood, and the stranger’s laugh echoing behind him.
Myers walked down the alley to the bar to finish last night’s drinking. The same bundle of blankets was groaning against the wall by the garbage containers, and the yellow light still flickered off the brick walls.
Myers approached the bar’s steps, and a figure appeared from the shadows.
“You got me good.” The stranger pointed to the bruise by his mouth and laughed.
Myers stopped. “Apparently wasn’t strong enough.”
“I don’t give up easily. I’ve got a proposition for you, Myers. You might want to listen.”
Myers walked up the steps and grabbed the handle.
“You want to see your daughter again, don’t you?”
“I can make that happen.”
The stranger reached in his jacket and pulled out a rectangular piece of white paper. He flipped it over and held up a photograph of a smiling seven-year-old girl with brown hair and blue eyes.
Myers walked down the steps and took the photo, searching it closely under the dull light. “How do you know about her?”
He smiled from the corner of his mouth. “I did my homework. I know about your family, the lost jobs, the PTSD—congratulations on your recovery, by the way. Though a little too late, wasn’t it? Cruel thing to lose everything after all you did in the army.”
Anger welled up in his chest, and heat pressed against his eyes. “What do you want?”
“I have a job for you, one that requires your ex-military skills.”
The stranger paused, his smile disappearing, his eyes wandering. “I remember the blood, and the death…explosions going off all around…thinking that I was going to die in that hell. But then a man came back into the fire, and he got us out.” He looked into Myers’s eyes. ”I’m trying to return the favor.”
Myers remembered the fire, the death, the fear. This man lived with the same horrors.
“What’s the job?”
He glanced around. “It’s what we know how to do in government, just a little more clandestine.”
Myers looked into the eyes of his smiling daughter.
“I can’t give you the four years you lost with her, but I can give you a future with her.” He held out his hand. “The name’s Sellars.”
Myers looked up, and gave his hand in a firm shake.
“Let’s get out of here.”
Myers followed Sellars out of the alley, tucking the photo inside the pocket of his coat. He looked at the back of the blond head. Could this soldier really be the key to his daughter?