This story is by Eric Holdorf and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The Seventh of July
Curt saw a bearded man walking along the dirt road. He slowed his pickup as he drove past to get a good look at the man. Something felt off about the stranger, yet familiar, so he turned around to get a better look. Driving slowly alongside the man Curt leaned out the window. “Hello, do you need a ride?”
The man carried on walking. “No thanks.”
“Okay, but you look familiar. Have I seen you before?”
The man looked up, hesitated. “No.”
“Where are you headed?”
“I’m out for a walk.” The man crossed behind the pickup to the passenger side of Curt and kept walking along the road.
Curt stopped and watched the man. Curt shook his head. Like most folks around here, he got tired of down-staters coming up for the Fourth of July. After graduating from high school, he and his friends would party with some guys from the city. The problem was they never brought any girls to a party. Curt’s girlfriend hooked up with one guy while Curt was working. He got even though after he and his friends knocked some sense into and some teeth out of the guy. In hindsight, Curt couldn’t believe he missed that flashing yellow sign not to marry her.
The stranger disappeared behind the trees when the road dipped into the woods. Curt was irked by the man, and wanted to confront him, but he decided to let it go. He was almost home. If Curt saw that man by his fields again, he would challenge him.
Curt turned around for home and thought about how the Fourth used to be his favorite holiday. It was fun horsing with your buddies, talking and laughing, as they waited for the fireworks. Now the Fourth was a hassle. There were people he didn’t know. When he got home he called his ex to see if she needed help with the kids. No, she and the guy she was seeing were taking all the kids to the show. Curt didn’t like this new guy, but he never liked anybody near his ex.
He took a beer from the fridge, and sipping the beer, he gazed out the kitchen window. He was convinced he had seen the man before, but he couldn’t recall how or why they met. The memory was like a word on the tip of his tongue, annoying him because he couldn’t connect it. Placing the beer on the counter, he went out to his pickup and took his pistol out of the glove box. He flipped the safety off, and flipped it back on. The clip was full. Back inside, he put the pistol in the top drawer of the nightstand.
* * *
The fields, the woods, and the town were quieter after the Fourth and the meandering pace of summer returned for most people. Thunderstorms came through on Monday, July fifth, pulling humidity out of the air, and afterwards the dark clouds wandered above. The man stood at a smeared mirror in the campground bathroom, pulling at his beard with shaking hands. The cement floor was cold and slimy, but all he wanted to do was slink down into the slime and curl up beneath the aluminum sink. When he got like this, he had to do something big to stop the slide into fear and depression. If he didn’t, he’d stay flat on his back in the tent. He took the scissors out of his toiletry bag and pulled at his beard, his right hand opening the scissors near his throat. He hesitated.
A guy came out of one of the stalls. “Man, do I feel better.” The man at the sink closed his eyes, felt the scissors come up to his left hand, and then clipped a handful of his beard.
The guy who came out of the stall walked by, and their eyes met in the mirror. “Clip it off,” the guy said to man in front of the mirror
He cut another clump of beard from his face. The talker left without washing his hands. Looking in the mirror, the man estimated how much he’d have to cut before using his razor.
* * *
On Tuesday morning there were still layers of grey in the sky, a cool freshness stayed in the air, but Curt had a sense of worry. He thought he saw the stranger walk by while eating lunch in the cafe. He waited, stuck between wanting to see who passed by, and belittling himself for his fear of someone he didn’t know. Finally, he walked outside and looked down the street. He didn’t see anyone who could pass as a stranger.
“Are you alright?” Darlene the waitress said when Curt returned.
“Yeah, I thought.” Curt stopped when he realized the stranger didn’t have a beard, so it couldn’t have been the same man. Curt was annoyed for missing that. He looked down the row of tables. The only other patron in the café was Old Jack, his head tilting towards his plate. Jack was at the café every day since his kids took the car away. Curt loved and hated how small this town felt on cloudy days.
“Thought what?” Darlene motioned to the cash register.
“That I recognized someone.” Curt handed Darlene the receipt and a ten dollar bill.
“Did you recognize him?”
“No. Of course not.” Curt left, and the string of small bells clattered against the door. Darlene looked at the cook and shook her head.
* * *
The stranger was on his way to the bank when he saw Curt in the cafe. He spun around, and when he was out of sight of the café, he ran down the sidewalk, turned up the side street to his car and drove away. At the stop sign, he looked down the street in his rear view mirror. There was nobody following him. Curt hadn’t recognized him.
* * *
By the end of work on Wednesday, Curt concluded no one was out to get him. The sun was out, the heat had returned, and the work week was half over. When Curt pulled into his driveway he was whistling and tapping along to the radio. After he came over the hill and pulled around the trees, he stopped whistling and tapping.
Two men with sunglasses were sitting in the sun on his deck. Curt parked between the two guys and the front door, and keeping his eyes on them, he slid over and opened the glove box. He reached inside for a moment before he realized where the pistol was. He could drive away, but this was probably nothing. Curt was closer to the front door than the two guys on the deck, and if needed, he’d win a foot race to the door. Play it cool he thought.
“Hello Curt,” one guy said.
“Who are you?” Curt said as he walked towards the door.
“You almost recognized me on the road a few days ago. I shaved so you can see me.”
Curt looked closely.
“Oh.” The man took off his sunglasses. “How about now?”
Panic surged through Curt, yet he felt faint. He knew how and why they met. Curt started up his steps, but another man appeared behind the screen door twirling Curt’s pistol around his finger.
“Don’t worry Curt,” the voice said. “It’s unloaded.”
“What do you want?” Curt turned to face the man talking.
“You know what day it is?” The man rubbed his jaw.
“That’s cute, Curt, but I was looking for details. Like, July seventh?”
Curt wondered if he could out run them to the woods. The guy behind the door looked fit.
“July seventh,” the man said. “I can’t get away from July seventh. It’s the day you and your chicken friends jumped me, broke my jaw and a few teeth. Left me bleeding in a ditch. You remember now?”
“You slept with my girlfriend.”
“She wanted it, but that’s not the point. The point is every freaking summer, I get nasty, and it keeps building until the seventh. The seventh is an outright disaster. Then on the eighth it slips away. My wife couldn’t take it. She split, so I started seeing a therapist. Guess what he said?”
The two men on the deck stood up. The stranger was about the size of Curt. The one who wasn’t talking was at least six five.
“He says its PTSD,” the stranger nodded to the man in the doorway behind Curt. “I thought that only happened in Iraq. But the shrink, he’s good. He convinced me you don’t have to go to war to feel like you’re going to get killed.”
Curt looked to the woods again. Behind him, the screen door tapped shut. The trees were far away.
”C’mon, fight fair.”
“Curt, buddy. I’m returning the favor.”