2017 Second-Place Winning Story

We congratulate Leigh Saunders for winning Second Place in the 2017 Bethlehem Writers Roundtable Short Story Award competition! 
We hope you enjoy "The Last First Time."

Leigh Saunders grew up as a "military brat." And while she's long since settled in her Rocky Mountain home, her life-long wanderlust regularly inspires her to read and write about the people and places that spark her imagination – often from a speculative viewpoint. In her day job, Leigh works as a freelance technical writer – an endeavor which is often not all that far from writing fantasy and science fiction. You can find more of her work on her Amazon Author Central page or on her blog at:  www.leighsaunders.com






The Last First Time
Leigh Saunders



Sally scoots toward the back of the cozy booth, tossing her macramé purse onto the vinyl bench seat ahead of her, the jingle of her bangle bracelets echoing softly in the stillness of the bar. She has arrived early tonight, trying to beat the rush of after-hours drinkers so she could be sure to get this seat.

She smiles. Freddy had proposed to her right here, in this very booth, the day before his unit shipped out to Vietnam – she runs her fingers over the spot where he’d carved their initials into the edge of the wooden tabletop. It seems so long ago! But he is home now, and she can’t think of a better spot for their first meeting than in this very special place.

She’s ordered a Bloody Mary for herself – Freddy always teased her about pretending it was healthy, but the drink did have vegetables in it, which was more than she could say for his nasty-tasting gin and tonic – and she smiles up at the bartender as he carefully sets her drink on the small white paper napkin.

Then she looks back at the table and frowns. There is only one drink.

“Where’s Freddy’s gin and tonic?” she asks.

“He’s not coming, Sally,” the bartender says, his voice gentle.

“Don’t be mean,” she replies, tossing her long brown hair back over her shoulder. “Why on earth would you say something like that?”

The bartender looks down at her, a patient expression on his face, then speaks very calmly, deliberately. “We’ve had this conversation before, Sally. You’re dead. You’ve been dead for nearly forty years. It’s time for you to move on.”

“What nonsense,” Sally says, rolling her eyes. “I can’t be dead. I’m waiting for Freddy – he got back from the war today – he’s supposed to meet me here. I took the bus across town and everything. I couldn’t possibly leave without him.”

“Which war, sweetie?” A sultry-voiced blonde fades into view, perched on a glossy black upright piano glowing in the spotlight shining down at the center of the bar’s tiny stage. “I’ve sang boys off to more wars than I can count.” The blonde slides down off the piano, her clothing shifting from a tight-fitting pencil skirt to a blousy peasant top and tie-dyed bell-bottom pants. The piano keys move, although there is no one playing the instrument, and the blonde begins to sing.

“Moondance,” Sally says with a slight sigh, tears welling up in her eyes. “That’s our song!”

Around the room, other people fade into sight, seated at booths and tables, or standing around in small clusters, all with spotlights of their own shining down on them. Out on the dance floor, a couple sways to the music, the woman dressed in a glittery dress with long fringe hanging past her knees, the man in a blindingly white, wide-collared Navy uniform. As Sally looks around, she realizes that just about everyone is wearing very strange clothes, making her feel like she has accidentally wandered into some sort of costume party. She smooths the fringe on her brand-new leather vest self-consciously, then looks up at the bartender.

“Is it true?” she asks. “Am I really dead?”

Beyond, at the counter, two broad-shouldered, rough-looking men dressed in pinstripe suits and fedoras exchange a glance.

“We all are, sweetheart,” the first man says, getting up from his barstool and handing a wad of bills to the second. He indicated the bartender with a jerk of his chin, “He doesn’t serve the living.”

“Toldja so,” the second man says, pocketing the money. “It was a sure bet. She never remembers. ” Then he lifts the first and tosses him through the plate-glass window at the front of the bar. “That never gets old,” he says with a grin, dusting off his hands.

“For you, maybe,” says the first man, stepping back in through the broken window, dusting bits of glass off of his shoulders. The shards disappear into a swirling mist and the window re-forms as the man straightens his broken neck with a loud crack. “I stopped laughing the fourteenth or fifteenth time.”

“Wow!” Sally exclaims, clapping her hands in delight. “That was a neat trick!” She takes a sip of her drink, then stirs it with the celery stalk as she looks anxiously toward the front of the bar. “I wonder where Freddy is. He sure is taking his time about getting here. I couldn’t possibly leave without him.”

The bartender looks down at her sadly, then shakes his head and goes back behind the counter.

* * *

An old man enters the bar, leaning heavily on his cane as he takes a familiar path across the well-worn wooden floor. He’s a regular here, and he goes to his usual booth, easing himself onto the worn vinyl seat with care. He sits quietly for a moment, waiting.

Listening.

And then he hears it. A soft voice, little more than whisper of air, speaking his name. “Freddy?”

“Ah, Sally, I’ve missed you,” Freddy murmurs. “I am so glad to see you, my love.” He reaches out with a gnarled hand and gently caresses their initials, carved in the table.

A coolness settles on the back of his hand, slowly solidifying until he sees her pale hand and delicate fingers resting on his own. A woman’s voice, soft and low begins to sing "Moondance" in the background as Sally fades fully into view, sitting at the back of the booth.

Freddy thought he was imagining her presence, that first time, the product of too many drinks and too much grief. But she was there again when he returned to the bar.

She is always there, waiting for him. He suspects there are other spirits here – why wouldn’t there be? – but he has never seen them, though from time to time it seems that Sally is speaking to someone he cannot see, ordering a drink for him that never arrives.

None of that matters to him. He only has eyes for Sally.

She is as lovely tonight as she has been every night for the past forty years, dressed in a sundress whose large orange and yellow flowers contrast vividly with the dark brown of her fringed leather vest and the wooden booth at her back. A wide strip of fabric in the same flowered pattern holds her long brown hair away from her face, the long straight locks falling softly over her shoulders. Her blue eyes are wide and shining. If he thinks about it, he can just make out her perfume. Lilac. A soft, otherworldly glow radiates from her, casting the rest of the room into muted shadows.

“Freddy!” she says, her smile warming his old heart like a ray of sunshine

He turns his hand, feeling her soft fingers slip between his, her hand cool against his warm, calloused palm. Over the years, he has learned to hold her hand gently, lest her ephemeral form slip beyond his grasp.

And he has come to understand, that each time she sees him is, for her, the first time. She has no memory of the accident that took her from him, and he never speaks of it. It is as though her spirt took no notice of the bus that crushed her body, and simply continued the remaining steps to the corner bar – their bar – where they had planned to meet.

For Sally, he has just come home from Vietnam. He understands now, too, that her memory will fade along with her image in the small hours of the morning, and the next night it will be as though he had just come home once again. It almost destroyed him, once, and for a time he stopped coming to the bar. But she was his sweetheart, his angel, and he couldn’t stay away for long.

He is always afraid that she won’t recognize him, that one day he will have changed so much from the young man he once was that she won’t know him. But she knows him tonight. Tonight they will talk and laugh and if his knees are up to it, maybe even dance to music only she can hear.

Freddy lifts her hand to his lips and places a gentle kiss on her fingers. His dear, sweet Sally knows him tonight, and that is enough.

* * *

They have been talking for what seems like hours, and the bartender has finally brought over Freddy’s gin and tonic.

Sally wonders why she ever thought Freddy looked old. Staring at him with her loving gaze, he appears as young and handsome to her as she always remembered him.

Freddy smiles at her, then slides out of the booth, tugging gently at her hand.

With a laugh, Sally follows.

As she floats through the empty shell of the old man resting in the corner of the booth, she pauses, looking down at his peaceful face and then back up at Freddy’s young, smiling one, and she understands.

“You came for me,” she whispers, reaching down to gently caress the old man’s unmoving hand. Then she turns back to Freddy. “All those years. You always came for me.”

“And I always will.”

Slipping their arms around each other’s waists, Sally and Freddy float across the bar and out through the door together, the sweet notes of "Moondance" carrying them away.
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