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Only the Dead

David G. Blake lives in an undisclosed location and spends his time trying to hack NASA's control systems so he can take Curiosity for a spin around Mars. In addition to Daily Science Fiction, his work is forthcoming or has appeared in Galaxy's Edge, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Nature, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and many other publications. For more info, please visit facebook.com/dgblake.
The man shuffled in around closing time before I had a chance to bolt the door or turn off the sign. A dark blue suit drooped from his drawn frame, and his black shoes reflected the dim floor lights. Neither suit nor shoe had been in style since the mid-seventies.
I nodded hello and wiped down a spot for him at the bar with my lucky rag. "What'll it be?"
"Surprise me."
He clutched my arm, his grip a tight pale that made my skin throb. The ache faded slower than the rosy handprint above my wrist.
"Whatever you decide," he added, ignoring my reaction, "make it a double."
I grabbed a bottle of 1800--my poison of choice before going cold turkey--and poured him a slug. "On the house." It seemed he needed it more than most.
"Kind of you."
"Yep. My pleasure. Should help warm you up some."
He met my gaze--eyes a feverish shade of blue that matched his suit--and gulped the shot down. Quick, as if worried I might snatch it back. "I've waited thirty-five long years for that drink."
In a familiar way, it explained a lot. "Staying on the wagon is tougher than it has any right to be. You have to wake day after day ready to wage war, knowing damn well just how ruthless the enemy is."
Silence.
Absolute.
Not even the late-night murmur of the city dared to intrude.
"George Santayana once wrote, 'Only the dead have seen the end of war.' He had other circumstances in mind, but those words hold a truth that spans many battlefields."
His lips tightened. Or perhaps not. The wink of the overhead lights made certainty difficult. "I've been in hell," he said.
"Heard that, brother." I tried to pour him another double but he placed his hand over the glass, palm flat against the rim.
"Afraid I only have time for one." He glanced around the empty bar; in spite of his almost-smile, he seemed saddened. "I just get the one."
Losing a battle or three proved precisely what some people needed to win the war. Years ago, I had trouble accepting such a perverse truth. Failure leaves scars... scars that help teach the damnedest things, things you cannot learn any other way.
I gestured toward the phone on the wall behind the bar. "Do you want to call someone?"
"No calls." He shook his head. "I want to surprise them."
The battered jukebox in the corner kicked on and started playing a song I remembered hearing my father listen to long ago. Another time; another place. A look of ache and hunger flickered across the man's face, inducing a shiver that skittered along the nape of my neck and coiled around my throat.
He walked out, not saying another word.
The song kept right on playing.
Once I caught my breath, I spotted an unusual scorch mark on the rim of the glass where his lips had touched. Not even my lucky rag could scrub it clean.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, November 23rd, 2015

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