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.
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 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.