COLLATERAL DAMAGE • by J. Chris Lawrence

The red lights flashing through the windows reflect in my drink. The stories those shattered billboards tell are misleading relics of a dead time. It’s a shallow message, lost to the war that took my daughter, Sarah, and left of our world this depredated husk. But those stories mean nothing to my turned back, the light little more than a subtle reminder of where I am and what I came to do.

I lay my hat on the bar.

There’s a little girl sitting with a haggard man at the other end of the room. Apropos of nothing, she looks at me with a smudged grin, wriggling greeting fingers my way. I turn from those soft eyes, staring hard at my glass.

The woman’s hand is soft, inviting in its caress, pulling me back to the moment. It drags across my back and lingers briefly on my arm before she settles on the stool beside me. With a broad, crimson smile, her eyes tell me that she knows me, knows my every fantasy. But I know she’s trained to lie.

“Well,” she says, “what’s a stallion like you doin’ here all alone?”

“I’m not alone.” I say, wincing with a nip of my drink.

The woman gives a coy glance to and fro. “So where is she?” she asks, pulling a cigarette from a tin case. She puts it to her lips, waiting for the light. I oblige her with a flick of my lighter. After two sparks, her smoke is blazing, and she grins. She thinks she’s gained ground, I can see it in her eyes.

I pull out one of my own and light it up. It tastes good with what passes for liquor in these dour times. “That’s not what I mean,” I say. “There’s no woman with me.”

“Oh?” She feigns surprise — her hungry eyes shining with the pleasure of a snake come to feast. “Such a shame.”

I drag, swallow my drink, and exhale smoke with a nod. “Shame, sure.”

“Aw… pobrecito.” She makes pouty lips. I take another drag. She adds, “Maybe you need a friend.”

“Mmmm…” It’s an uncertain sound, full of implication. Then, with a gesture to my drink with my smoke hand: “But I have friends.”

She chuckles. “Honey, those friends can’t do what I can.”

I nod. I know it’s true.

“What’s your name, cowboy?” she asks, impatience ticking at her eye.

“A name means nothing,” I say. “I’m just a delivery boy.”

She’s not amused. “Okay, whatever. Look, honey, I don’t have all night. Do you want it or not?”

I glance over her shoulder at the little girl again. She has her back to me, our earlier moment as lost now as the world around us. Something stirs in my chest, and I turn back to the woman. She was a child once, but like me, she’s old enough to have seen a time before war; old enough to know there’s no such thing as innocence anymore.

I give her a thin smile. “Sorry, toots. You’re not my type.”

With that, I finish my drink and stand up. I ignore her slurs, her insults. I ignore the way her tits move as she convulses with indignant rage — her clever devices and clear expectations thrown back at her. Turning from the counter, I toss a single coin to the barkeep and make my way to the door.

The light of the sign dances on my face, bathing me in colors as I step out into the chill, desolate street. Pulling out another cigarette, I pass the huddled homeless surrounding their burning barrels. It takes three flicks to get it to light, but once it’s going, I drag deep a refreshing mixture of hand-rolled tobacco and crisp night air. About a block down I stop and look up at the sliver of moon visible between the abandoned buildings. My face grim, I pull a hand from my pocket, my thumb over a little red switch.

Click.

I imagine it all: the woman is curious; she tries on what she thinks is her new hat and feels the lump. She looks just in time to see the explosive taped within detonate. The force bursts throughout the bar — the coin I left behind flying from the bartender’s briskly charred hand and melting midair as flames engulf a half-empty shelf of liquor. The people sitting, drinking, lost in a moment of shock, are dead before the realization even hits them.

The girl…

The shockwave slams me with a jolt and I stagger, instinctively wrapping arms over my head as rocks pelt my flapping coat. Dust plumes by and pebbles roll, while behind, the roar of collapsing buildings quakes the earth. After it settles, a few decrepit stragglers flow against me like a feeble tide. I ignore them as I go, my next explosive already primed for their final bastion.

Slapping debris from my shoulder, I think of the woman and my stomach warms. It would’ve been nice, but there’s no place for such things anymore. There’s only the war: resonating my call for vengeance from so long ago, when I gazed into the glassy vacuum of Sarah’s eyes. Such memories turn that warmth sour.

That little girl…

“Just collateral damage,” I growl through smoke, trying not to think of her.

But something is wrong. I feel cold as I drag hard the last of my cigarette and throw it in a gutter. I still see that smudged face, those wriggling fingers. Yet in my discordant memory, it’s Sarah grinning back at me; it’s Sarah melting away with a press of a button. And I stop, deluged by the memory of her death. I see myself, holding her like a limp marionette, brushing blood from her lips. Bathed in the cacophony of gunfire, I look to the soldier that pulled the trigger. A pain grips my chest as he stares down on me, his cold eyes empty, familiar.

They are my own.


Born in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia, J. Chris Lawrence spent much of his life traveling. With a love for fiction, he fancies himself a writer, and hopes to convince others of the same. He currently lives in Georgia with his wife and two sons.


This story is sponsored by
Jesse Pohlman — author of the Physics Incarnate series, blending sci-fi and suspense as past secrets catch up with physics professor Emmett Eisenberg.


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Every Day Fiction

  • Sheila Cornelius

    The first paragraph was confusing – the second sentence in particular. Maybe it should be billboards. The atmosphere of the bar and the encounter with the woman was well done but the events are confusing and the explosion lacks motivation, unless it’s some kind of twisted revenge. I didn’t like main character’s gratuitous misogyny and I didn’t understand the last line.

  • I can only mirror Sheila’s comments, though I did feel the MC’s mysogyny was necessary to the story.

  • Elle Marie Gray

    The first paragraph should set up the storyline, but I couldn’t make sense of it no matter how many times I read it–it wasn’t clear what the narrator was referring to when he spoke of billboards, and what I could come up with was weak.

    However, the encounter and dialogue between the man and woman in the bar was very well done and realistic. I don’t think the guy was misogynistic–he simply didn’t like anyone, including whores.

    But the reason for blowing up a bar full of innocent people, including a child, to avenge his daughter’s death, and the hint that he was going to blow up other places, was never clearly articulated. I know it’s buried in the first paragraph and the end but it remained vague and confusing and did nothing to help me understand why the bar had the significance that it did.

    @Sheila–The last line refers to the cold eyes of the soldier who killed his daughter, and how his eyes reflect the same disregard for life when he kills. “They [the eyes] are my own.”

    @EDF–I’d like to think it was chance that a story about bombs, war, and killing innocents was slotted for 9/11, but the cynic in me knows better. I think it was insensitive to use a story today describing “dust plumes and pebbles” and the “roar of collapsing buildings.” Just my opinion for what it’s worth.

  • ajcap

    I wasn’t confused by any of it (unusual), the world was at war and he was a participant.
    Though the one line “I took a hand out of my pocket…” threw me for a slight loop because I pictured a severed hand, but other than that I liked the voice, the imagry, the last line and the dialogue. Didn’t like the narrator or what he was doing but I don’t think I was supposed to, except for maybe I slight sliver of sympathy because of his daughter.

    As for any inference to 9/11, I have no problem with this story, I did not think it insenstive in any way. It’s all over the news, we’ve been reliving it by way of tv for days, as we should. We have such short memories. So this story of collapsing buildings and dust plumes is just another way of remembering how horribly wrong war can be. My opinion, for what’s it’s worth.

  • Linda

    I tend to agree with ajcap. I wasn’t confused at all.

    @Sheila – I think the whole point is just how pointless his terrorism is. It’s a world torn apart by war and the only justification the main character has is a previous death of someone that was important to him. Though he has no particular reason for killing these “innocents” other than that they are the remnants of his “enemy” and he doesn’t believe innocence can exist anymore.

    I enjoyed the dislike I had for the main character; the slight pang of sympathy for his daughter, but not for him. Its release on 9/11 only exemplifies the atrocities of war that much more intensely. Just my take on it…

  • A look inside the mind of a terrorist, whose motivation is revenge. I think the story (except for the billboard line) well-written and delivered, except for the ending where his sudden show of compassion for the little girl plays out.

    He saw the girl in the bar, he had plenty of time (he spent enough time on the hooker) to make any number of choices to proceed or not for his own reasons, but he dismissed the child’s presence until the end. That rang a bit hollow in my ear. Felt like a grab at redemption that just didn’t line up with events.

    Well told tale however, especially apropos on this day. Three plus stars…+

  • Excellent anti-war story. His vengeance for the death of his beloved Sarah reveals to the protaganist his own bloodthirstiness as a mirror image of that of her bloodthirsty killer.

    Very fine descriptions of flaming lights in the lines “The red lights flashing through the windows reflect in my drink. The stories that shattered billboard tell are misleading relics of a dead time.” and “I pass the huddled homeless surrounding their burning barrels.” and “After two sparks, her smoke is blazing, and she grins.”

  • Sepher Sepheroth

    I believe this shows how a terrorist may think pretty well. Lucid and Discriptive prose. I think that the author had in no way control of when this was published. Apropos indeed. Three and a half stars. Very Excited to read more from him.

  • A dramatic ending that I couldn’t have guessed, but I knew something was going to happen!

    However, I had some problems with how it was written. “Depredated” is an unfamiliar word for me, and sent me to the dictionary.

    I couldn’t follow the second sentence in the piece.

    “Apropos of nothing” means “without purpose”, but the girl had purpose in her behaviour.
    The long description of non-verbals after “So where is she?” interfered with the sense of the conversation, so I had difficulty following what each character meant.I had to re-read this section.

    apart from that

    very entertaining

    thank you

  • Nick Lewandowski

    I liked the noirish tone of this. Regarding publishing this on 9/11 I would only echo aj, Linda and others’ comments.

  • This story left me cold–especially on this day–a little humanity would have been far more approriate.

  • My apologies to anyone who felt uncomfortable with the subject matter of this story on such a difficult day. It was selected to recognize the horror of terrorism and war, and was not intended to be insensitive in any way.

    Any further discussion regarding our editorial choices can be directed to our Letters to the Editor and Site Suggestions forum.

  • Thank you all for reading, and for your comments and critiques. Your feedback is invaluable, and greatly appreciated!

  • Stephen Rosenthal

    To K.J. The story was apropos less we forget the horror is still out there. 4 stars.

  • Brian

    T he first sentence was a little awkward with “that billboard” but in re-reading, one has to understand that the character is referring to a particular billboard – “that billboard”. A minor glitch in thinking that caused me to re-read and understand. As for the rest of the story – it was quite masterful. Lines of prose placed so that they both describe surroundings and actions and synchronously build character depth helped deepen the story within its understandably short length.
    I was left a little betrayed that the character I had been following, while honorable enough to turn down a prostitute, revealed the standard “terrorist” cowardice of attacking people so indiscriminately and anonymously. It was easy to slide into his shoes and feel his pain as a parent myself, but to feel it, and understand it, and let it tear you apart, and feel such hatred that you’d be willing to inflict it on total strangers, whom you’ve never met, makes me instantly vilify the main character and pull a full 180 on my perspective of him.
    But, such horrible decisions are made by cowards every day, we’ve seen it, we’ve felt it, we’ve mourned. From honorable to extreme villain in such a short time.
    I felt both entertained, and quickly emotionally invested while reading the story.
    Well done!

  • Mario

    Fantastic read. The story captivated me, after having to re-read the second sentence. It took me a few seconds to understand it, but once I was able to frame the wording correctly, it fit like a glove.

    The story makes 2 quotes jump to mind. “When you stare into the abyss the abyss stares back at you.” and “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”

    I feel that it’s a great story on how terrible acts against people can result in “monsters” being created.

  • BANNED4LIFE

    I have to agree with stu1. It was a great story but the use of at least one overly ‘intelligent’ word and a difficult sentence, might have put off the great unwashed before they got into it. However, if they managed to get past the first paragraph, they would have found themselves lost in an incredibly entertaining and thought provoking story.

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