Short Story

Redemption

He shouldn’t have moved. If he hadn’t have moved, he wouldn’t have died.

I told him not to move.

I’ve never fired a gun before. It kicked in my hands when I pulled the trigger. Now, it’s so heavy. My hands are shaking. The hostages stare at the body, their mouths open like broken hinges, eyes frozen wide. Through the window, the red and blue lights flash on their haunted faces. The only sound in the bank in the shrill scream of a woman.

The kid’s blood is on her hands. She holds him, her head tilted back, tears cutting trails down her cheeks, eyes squeezed shut. Her wail will haunt me forever. I’ve never heard such a manifestation of sorrow before, like her soul is being ripped into pieces, and she’s shattering me, too.

Shut up, shut up, shut up!

I pull the trigger again—cut the scream—though its echoes still reverberate through my bones. Another shot cracks the air before she’s even hit the floor, but I didn’t fire it. The guard, he’d waited until I was distracted, until my back turned just enough for him to crawl to the gun I’d instructed him to throw onto the floor and kick away three minutes ago.

The last thing I see is the clock. It’s 11:32 a.m, just twenty-eight minutes before the bank closes on Saturday. Dying is not as fast as you’d think. The bullet rips through me cell by cell, and I feel every one of them rupture. Every nerve. My skull has the resistance of wet toilet paper to stop the bullet from reaching my brain, which is screaming. But I’m not. My throat doesn’t make a sound as I fall.

Unlike the woman, I die in silence.

*          *          *

My eyes flutter open. Sun rays stream through a window beside the bed. I keep perfectly still, too afraid to move. I don’t know this place. There’s a poster of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the wall. A bookshelf filled with thin books, board games, and an autographed baseball. A chest in the corner overflowing with toy cars and dinosaurs. If this is Heaven or Hell, it’s definitely not what I imagined.

I stir. My body feels real enough beneath the sheets. I pull my hand free and stare at it. Too small. The nails are clean and trim, the skin smooth, never calloused, the scar from when I fell out of a tree at the age of eleven missing from my thumb.

I can’t breathe. I tumble out of the bed and stagger to the dresser mirror. A boy, maybe seven or eight, stares back at me with wide green eyes. Horrified, I bring my shaking hand up to my cheek. The reflection does the same. I tug on a lock of curly brown hair hard enough to feel pinpricks of pain on my scalp.

I never held much stock in reincarnation, but I’m pretty sure this is wrong. Didn’t reincarnation mean starting over? Being born again with no memory of your past life? Somebody, or something, fucked up big time.

A woman is humming a distantly familiar tune downstairs. I tiptoe to the door and peer down a hallway lined with paintings of landscapes. This house is huge, at least from my newly lowered perspective. She has a pleasant voice, whoever she is, I think as I descend the staircase, my hand trailing down the smooth railing. I find her washing dishes in the kitchen. She’s pretty, with high cheekbones and long, dark hair — somebody who wouldn’t give my pock-marked face a passing glance on the street. She’s humming “Let It Be” by the Beatles.

Noticing me watching, she turns. “Good morning, Sam. I made you scrambled eggs for breakfast.”

I don’t move from the doorway. “I’m not Sam. My name is Danny. I’m Danny Sommers.” My voice . . . it’s about an octave too high. The shock of the sound that just came out of my mouth silences all the potential rambling explanations tumbling in my half-sized head.

The woman pauses. She bends at the waist, sets her hands on her knees, and smiles playfully at me. “Okay, Mr. Sommers. Then who am I today?”

Is she mocking me? “How the fuck should I know?”

Immediately, her face hardens. “Samuel Arnett Swanson, that’s a very bad word, and I don’t ever want to hear you say that again, or you’ll be grounded. Are we clear?”

I gape at her. I haven’t been scolded like that in . . . shit, forever. Not since I was a kid, anyway. Too stunned to conjure a smart retort, all I can do is nod. She exhales and turns back to the dishes. “I was going to take you to the park today, but now I’m not sure you deserve to go.”

Before I even realize what I’m doing, I say, “I’m sorry.”

The woman scrubs at a skillet. I sit at the table and eat my breakfast in silence. I want to ask her questions, but I don’t know what to say, and I doubt she has any answers. Not like she’d believe me, anyway. I don’t believe it myself.

She forgives me and takes me to the park, but I just sit on a swing and contemplate. My cheek presses against the cold chain as I rock gently back and forth. The motion is soothing, a memory of childhood. My childhood, I guess I should specify.

Okay, so I’ve been reincarnated as a kid named Sam. All things considered, that’s not so bad. Sam’s mom seems nice enough. Maybe I could get used to this. A new life. No need to worry about money, or the people I owed when I was still Daniel. No police record, no debt. Maybe I can actually go to college, get a degree, learn how to be smarter with my money so I avoid the mistakes I already made once. Oh, and avoid alcohol. I know where that road leads. If this is my second chance, I’ll take it.

After the park, the woman takes me to the grocery store. She seems to have forgotten all about my transgression from this morning. I tag along at her side while she puts cereal, bread, milk, eggs, butter, soap, and dishwasher detergent in the cart. My insistent silence convinces her something is wrong, so she also buys ice cream to cheer me up. In the checkout line, a stupid toddler knocks down a display. I stand by the cart and watch the woman help the toddler’s mother clean up the mess, smiling and chatting the whole time while the stranger thanks her profusely and apologizes to the cashier.

“Sam,” his (or my?) mother tells me in the car, “the bank closes at noon today. I need to pop in there, real quick so the ice cream doesn’t melt. Okay?”

“Uh-huh.” I rest my forehead against the window and watch the suburbs drift by.

“What’s the matter, sweetheart?” I jump when her warm fingers reach behind the seat to clasp my hand.

“Nothing.” I pull my hand away. I’m not Sam! I want to scream. I don’t know who I am.

She holds my hand while we wait in line for the teller. It’s supposed to be a comforting gesture, but it’s awkward for me, especially when she strokes circles into the back of my hand with her thumb in a display of affection my real mother never showed me.

I want to leave. This bank is haunting because this is where I died . . . at least, I think I died. Right there, yesterday. They’ve already cleaned up the blood. But . . . wait a minute . . . if I died yesterday, that makes today Sunday. Right?

I scope the people around me. Nothing out of the ordinary. The people standing in line don’t talk, obeying that weird unspoken rule of silence in a bank that makes you abhor even whispering because your voice carries across the whole stifling room. A teller’s forcibly cheery voice calls, “Next,” and at normal volume, she sounds like she’s yelling at us by the way that one word cuts through the blanket of silence. The security guard by the door is gazing at the clock with glazed eyes. The next person in line breaks formation, and we shuffle half a step forward. Nobody seems to be even slightly concerned that today is Sunday and the bank isn’t supposed to be open.

The man in front of us shifts, catching my attention. Rather, it’s not the man so much as the snake ring on his finger. It looks like gold, but his green skin tells me it’s fake. I used to have a ring just like that. And a coat, same dingy blue-gray, with the torn left sleeve. Just like his.

My eyes travel up to his face. Scruffy beard, bedraggled hair, pock-marked skin, bags under his darting eyes . . . that’s me. I think. I mean, not me, because I’m right here, but that’s my body. Daniel Sommers. Wait, how is that possible? I, or Danny, or whoever this man is, died. Unless . . . am I not really dead?

I open my mouth and reach out to tug on his sleeve, but the next available teller calls him forward. My fingers close around air. I look up and pull on my guardian’s arm. “Mom,” I breathe.

“Shh, hold on, Sam. We’re next.”

“Yeah, but —”

We’re moving forward. Daniel — I don’t know what else to call him — is speaking in a low voice to his teller. He’s agitated and sweaty. It’s then I notice one hand inside his jacket. Oh, fuck. Today isn’t Sunday. It’s Saturday, and I know what’s about to happen.

Our teller says, “Good morning. How can I help you today?”

“Everybody get down!” Daniel screams. I instinctively grip Sam’s mom as Daniel sweeps the gun over the startled faces of the crowd. She pulls me down to the floor. I gaze at my other self. No, no, no, you idiot! Don’t you realize how this is going to end?

His hand is shaking so hard that he needs the other to steady the gun, which he aims at the security guard by the door. “Drop it. D-drop the gun.” Daniel jerks his weapon down and to the side so it’s now pointing at Sam’s mom. “Or her blood is on your hands.”

She grips my hand so tightly I expect the little bones to shatter like breaking a sparrow’s wings. I clench my jaw and bare my teeth to keep the building moan from escaping. The guard, a short guy with a beer belly who looks like a police academy drop-out, glances between Daniel and the woman. He’s sweating behind his big mustache, but he does as Daniel ordered. “Now, n-now kick it away.” He does. Daniel redirects his attention to the teller. “Okay, just . . . just g-give me the money, please.”

She starts to plead, “I have a family —”

“I don’t care! I don’t want to hurt anybody, you understand? I just, I need, I need the money. I need it. Hurry up, and you’ll see your family today. Got it?”

The teller nods and rushes to comply. “Okay, I’m going. Please don’t shoot. I’m going as fast as I can,” she mutters, flustered. Daniel drags his fingers through his hair and surveys his hostages again to make sure nobody has moved. From an outsider’s perspective, I realize just how poorly this spontaneous robbery was planned. No mask to hide my face from the security cameras. Nothing but a single Glock borrowed from a friend who owed me a favor. It’s a small bank in a small town; there’s no way they could have the amount of money I needed on hand.

I don’t think I believed this would even work. It was a final act of desperation. Maybe I expected to be arrested. Maybe I thought I’d be safer in prison where Coleson and his cronies couldn’t reach me. Watching as an outsider, I can’t fathom what kind of clarity in my mind had possessed me to choose this path. I was stupid.

But this could be a chance to change everything. If I can convince my other self to surrender before anyone dies, maybe I can prevent him from being shot. And maybe, just maybe, if I succeed, that will undo whatever happened to me. I’ll be myself again.

Sirens. Red and blue lights beyond the windows make Daniel jittery, not that he was particularly composed before. He starts pacing. “Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up,” he mutters.

I’m running out of time. I crawl forward. “Danny,” I call as I start to rise against the strong pull of Sam’s mom silently trying to keep me down.

He senses my movement and whirls. It’s a reaction. He didn’t even have time to think through the consequences. One twitch of his finger, that’s all it takes.

Crack!

*          *          *

I jolt awake. A hoarse gasp scrapes down my throat as my hands fly to my chest to feel the bullet wound. Instead, I grab a handful of . . . flesh. More than there should have been. Stunned, I stare down at my chest. Okay, those are new. I feel my crotch to confirm. Holy shit.

The room I’m in is feminine. Flower print valances, peach or salmon or whatever-the-fuck-color-it-is walls, a quilted bedspread draped over my new body. I sit up slowly, taking it all in. A mirror above the dresser lures me out of bed to stare at myself. This face may not be mine, but it’s familiar. High cheek bones, small brown eyes, a slender face framed by long dark hair. I stare at her — me — for several long minutes. I touch my breasts, my hair, turn in a circle. My nightgown swishes and tickles my ankles when it settles after the spin.

“Mommy?”

I jump and turn to the doorway where a little boy gazes back at me. I quickly sweep the curtain of long hair out of my face — what a mess! Sure, I always thought long hair looked sexy on the ladies, but I didn’t realize how annoying it was until experiencing firsthand how it falls into my eyes and makes my nose itch — so I can see the kid. He rubs sleep from his eye and yawns. I recognize him, because yesterday, I was him.

“Mommy, I’m hungry.”

“Um . . . yeah. Okay. Sam?” He blinks, no dispute to that name. But, now who am I? Sam is still watching me, so I force a smile and ask, “Want scrambled eggs for breakfast?”

His face brightens. “Yes!” He races me down the stairs while I awkwardly tie a robe over my nightgown. I trot after him, but make it down only three steps before I slow and grab my breasts. Are women’s breasts always this tender when they bounce around? I mean, I never really understood why they needed bras — some men have a little extra fat there too, but you don’t see them cinching up their boobs, now do you? — so I cross my arms over my chest and take slower, smoother steps down to the living room.

I pause beside the mantle. This house looks so different from the higher perspective. When I was Sam, I never got a good look on top of the mantle. Staring back at me from within a picture frame is a somber Marine dressed in full uniform with the red flag draped behind him. My hand floats until I’m touching the glass. Suddenly my heart clenches with a longing ache. Horrified by the sudden surge of sentiment I feel toward this absolute stranger, I back away from the photo and wander into the kitchen, where Sam is already setting the table for two. I open and close cupboards until I find a skillet. “Hey Sam,” I ask as I set it on top of the stove and pull the carton of eggs from the fridge, “what day is today?”

“Saturday!” he sings, like it’s the best day in the world. Actually, it probably is for him. I remember spending Saturday mornings with a bowl of cereal on the couch to watch cartoons, at least before Mom couldn’t afford the cable bill anymore.

Saturday. How can that be? I robbed the bank on Saturday, which, by my count, was two days ago. My heart is flying. In my anxiety, I break an egg too hard and ruin the first batch with eggshells, so I have to start over. Today is yesterday, I remind myself. Today, Daniel Sommers is going rob a bank. If the day unfolds as it’s supposed to, he’s going to shoot me at 11:32.

But he can’t kill me if I’m not there.

I set the plate in front of Sam. Mouth full, he chatters about being a doctor when he grows up. I’m too busy inspecting my hands to listen to him. My fingers are so slim and dainty, but at least now they’re adult-sized. I tap my long nails against the tabletop, intrigued by the sound they make. The diamond set in the silver ring on my left hand is real. Shit, I’ve never owned a real diamond before.

I notice a purse hanging on a hook by the door, so while Sam’s busy stuffing eggs into his cheeks like a humanoid chipmunk, I rifle through it until I find a wallet. I toss credit cards, discount cards, rewards cards, gift cards — damn, how many cards do women keep in their wallets? — and finally find a driver’s license that tells me my new name is Emily Swanson. Slowly, I sink back into my chair while I stare at my new identity.

“I’m going to be the best doctor in the whole world,” Sam proclaims. “I’ll be famous.” He pauses to gulp orange juice.

“Why do you want to be a doctor?” I ask absently as I shove the cards back into the wallet in no specific order.

He sets the glass on the table and tilts his chin down to give me the most serious look a little kid can muster. “Because I want to save people. Like Daddy, except I don’t want to ever hurt anybody.”

My eyes lift to study him across the table. I force a smile and ask, “Do you want to go to the park today?” Of course he does. I knew he would, because that’s what we did yesterday. I know what the routine is supposed to be. The park, the grocery store, the bank. Except today, we’re going to skip that last part.

Sam is impatient to leave, but (I’m ashamed to admit this) it takes me a solid twenty minutes to figure out how a bra works. I’m serious. I’ve mastered the art of removing it from a lady in under ten seconds, but putting one on myself? First I had it inside-out, then after I fixed that, the straps were twisted, and I could not for the life of me get everything situated right. Then I lifted the toilet seat to pee when I remembered I actually had to turn around and sit down on the toilet. That was when I realized Emily was on her period. Did you know they actually put instructions in a box of tampons? With pictures. The concept of inserting a tampon was simple enough — just plugging a hole, right? Actually inserting one was weird, uncomfortable, embarrassing, and I didn’t get it on the first try. Or the second. And apparently the chance of getting Toxic Shock Syndrome is estimated between 1 and 17 cases per 100,000 menstruating women and girls per year, according to that helpful instruction sheet, which naturally made me paranoid that I’d be one of those rare cases.

The clothes were easier. Emily, as far as I could tell after a pass through her closet, had some kind of office job that required business attire, but I figured blue jeans and a camisole-jacket combination was simple enough. Then the make-up — I took one look at all the products and gave up on the spot. I probably look like shit, but at least I don’t look like a clown, which would have been the most likely result if I’d tried to paint my face with all this crap. Okay, yes, I’ll admit it; being a woman isn’t so easy. There are a lot of steps.

I sit on a bench at Kiwanis Park, constantly turning, resituating, and batting at my face to combat the effects of the breeze blowing my hair into my eyes like a veil while I try to watch Sam compete with another boy to see who can swing higher. When he laughs, his joy seems to radiate outward and affect everyone near enough to hear it. I never had any kids. It wasn’t something I’d ever given much thought about before. Kids cost money and time I didn’t have. Now, I almost wish I could have experienced fatherhood. If Rachel had ever settled down . . . shit, why am I wasting my time thinking about her? She never really loved me, at least not in the way I loved her.

Next stop: the grocery store. I buy cereal, bread, milk, eggs, butter, soap, and dishwasher detergent — exactly what Emily bought yesterday when I was with her. I also buy ice cream as an extra treat for Sam after dinner. We stand in the checkout line in front of a woman and toddler. The little girl giggles and crouches down to poke the wheels of the shopping cart, then starts grabbing candy bars from the display. The mother wearily seizes her wrist and pulls the girl away. I roll my eyes. Now I remember why I didn’t want kids. That poor mother looks like she’s gone weeks without sleep.

The toddler slips free and dashes away, waving her arms like pinwheels and laughing while her mother half-heartedly calls her back. I’m not surprised at all when the crazy kid pauses to snatch a box of macaroni and cheese. Unfortunately, that box was on the bottom of a tower, which sways precariously for just a heartbeat before toppling. The mother heaves a deep sigh and falls to her knees to start gathering boxes. Sam picks one up, but the couple in front of us is wheeling their cart away, and I say, “Sam, help me get our stuff out of the cart,” and he obediently returns to set the goods I hand him onto the belt. A glance over my shoulder after the cashier rings us up reveals the woman shooing her toddler away from the half-constructed macaroni and cheese tower. I hold Sam’s hand and push our cart away.

We go to McDonald’s for lunch. My palms moisten with nerves, my heart flying fast enough to make a cardiologist deem me at a serious risk — wait, is that one of the symptoms of TSS? I keep glancing at my watch. 11:29. Right about now, I — Daniel — am approaching the teller with a gun under my jacket. Sam plays with his happy meal toy while I watch the second hand. Thirty . . . thirty-one . . . I brace myself, halfway expecting a heart attack to kill me, since I’m supposed to die in three . . . two . . . one . . . .

11:32.

That single minute lasts a thousand lifetimes. And when I live to see the watch hand tick to 11:33, a shaky breath hisses through my teeth. I smile at Sam. My other self is dead by now, but I’m still here. Somehow, though I have no idea what the rules are, I cheated the system.

My spirits are soaring. Sam and I sing “Let It Be” on the radio all the way home. We play hide-and-seek in the backyard, and then I cook pigs-in-a-blanket for dinner before we watch the Lion King while splurging on ice cream because, why not? I’m still alive, and that’s cause to celebrate, although at the back of my mind, I wonder what happened to Emily if I’m in her body. Does that mean she took my place in death? I push the thought away. I’m here, so there’s no need to stress over it. I tuck Sam into the same bed I woke up in yesterday. “Good night, Mommy. I love you.”

I kiss him on the forehead, and it feels so right, so natural. Biologically, he is my son, even if I only just met him this morning. “Love you too, Sammy. Sweet dreams.” I turn off the light. As I close his door, I smile. I could get used to this. I can be Emily.

The newspaper on our front step the next morning claims it’s Saturday, May 12, 2012. Yesterday was Saturday. Tomorrow, I assume, will still be Saturday. Sam and I are stuck in a time-loop, and if that means I get to keep living, that’s fine by me. He wakes me by standing in my bedroom doorway and calling, “Mommy?”

I warmly greet, “Good morning, Sam. Want scrambled eggs for breakfast?”

“Yes!”

He races me down the stairs. I tie my unruly hair back into a ponytail before I follow him downstairs to make scrambled eggs. Even though I just bought what I needed at the store yesterday, today is the same day, so it’s like yesterday never happened. We go to the park, then the grocery store. Again, the little girl behind us in line knocks down the display. This time, when Sam bends down to pick up a box, so do I, and together the three of us (amidst repeated sentiments of “thank you so much!”) rebuild the tower of macaroni and cheese. I pay for the cereal, bread, milk, eggs, butter, soap, dishwasher detergent, and ice cream. McDonald’s for lunch while I count down the seconds until Daniel’s death. Hide-and-seek, dinner, the Lion King, bed.

“Mommy?”

“Good morning, Sam.” Scrambled eggs, Kiwanis Park, the grocery store — cereal, bread, milk, eggs, butter, soap, dishwasher detergent, ice cream — preventing a toddler-related disaster in the checkout line by catching the first box before the tower can fall, McDonald’s, home, hide-and-seek, dinner, movie, bed. By the fourth day, I’m bored of the routine, so I deviate. Instead of scrambled eggs, I make French toast, but Sam complains that he wants eggs. I take him to a different park on the other side of town; he falls, cuts his knees, and cries. I skip the grocery store and order pizza for dinner. Sam wants ice cream. I have to take him to Tasty Cream to ease his tantrum, and while we’re enjoying the cold treat, someone steals my purse from the booth. To top off the night, my car won’t start when we’re ready to leave.

Each day, whenever I try to change what’s supposed to happen, something goes wrong. A flat tire. Sam throws up. I lock myself out of the house. On the sixth day, a pickup truck smashes into our car on the way to the movie theater. I fell asleep in the hospital, only to wake up the next morning back in Emily’s bed, injury-free with Sam cheerfully requesting scrambled eggs.

I can’t take it anymore. What’s the point of living if every day is either the exact same routine or a nightmare of misfortune? I make Sam his scrambled eggs, and while he’s eating, I go to the backyard. I’ve never been a very religious man. I was the kind of person who blamed God when things went wrong but never remembered to thank Him in the rare instance something good happened. Where was He when Rachel emptied my bank account and ran off with another man? Where was He when I lost my job, then my house, and had to crash at Owen’s place? Okay, it was my own fault for turning to booze and gambling myself into a deeper hole of debt, but God sure as hell wasn’t with me when Coleson’s thugs beat me half to death in that filthy ally and promised to return if I didn’t pay back the loan within the month.

I plop my ass down in the dewy grass. What am I supposed to do, pray? Apologize? I don’t deny that at the end of my life I hit a low point, so low that I was willing to rob a bank and kill Sam and Emily Swanson. Is this my eternal punishment? “What do you want me to do?” I scream at the sky, earning an odd look from Mrs. Johannson watering her petunias across the street. I bury my face in my hands.

This will never end. Either I do the same shit every single day, or everything goes horribly wrong, or . . . or this plays out the way it’s supposed to. My fingers drag down my face and then fall into my lap. I’ve been cheating the cycle. On Saturday, May 12th, I’m supposed to die. I don’t know what will happen when I die in Emily’s body. Maybe I’ll finally move on. It’s terrifying not knowing, but I guess nobody knows for sure. Why should I be any different? I lived out Sam’s last day; I have to live out Emily’s last day, too, in the order it actually happened. And then I have to die on schedule. That’s the only way time can move forward for me again.

I look at my watch. 8:36.

The bank! My other self is going to die at 11:32 today. I have to be there when that happens. I have to die thirteen seconds before he does. “Sam?” I call as I open the door. “Get dressed. We need to go to the bank.”

“Can we go to the park first?” he requests. I pause. Actually, that’s a good idea. What were we going to do, wait at the bank for three hours?

As soon as we reach the park, Sam lets go of my hand and takes off running across the playground. Tears scorch my eyes (I blame the hormones) as I watch him compete with another boy to swing the highest. At 10:03, I call Sam over. “We need to go to the grocery store.” He groans and waves goodbye to his new friend with the promise that next time, he’ll win.

Next time. He must have said that the day I murdered him. I wonder, when time resumes, if that boy will sit on his swing, waiting, staring at the empty swing next to him, wondering if Sam will ever come back.

Cereal, bread, milk, eggs, butter, soap, and dishwasher detergent. I buy Sam ice cream, knowing we won’t be able to eat it. At the checkout, I don’t stop the toddler from knocking over the tower of boxes. Sam cheerily bends down to help her, positively beaming when the woman praises him for being such a noble man. I just stand there and watch. He could be a noble man. Could have been. If I hadn’t stolen his chance to grow up.

Sam helps me load the car. He hops in the back seat and buckles his seat belt while I sit still, hands gripping the wheel, staring out the windshield. I feel the need to tell Sam goodbye, but that would only worry him. “Sam,” I choke instead, “the bank closes at noon today. I need to pop in there, real quick so the ice cream doesn’t melt. Okay?”

“Okay.”

I close my eyes, roll my lips together, and exhale. It’s 11:15. I’m going to die in seventeen minutes. There’s something about knowing exactly when you’re going to die that makes your heart stall. I reach behind the seat and hold Sam’s hand all the way to the bank. In line, I don’t let go. Daniel is in front of us. Seeing him — me — I don’t even identify with the stranger standing a foot away anymore — turns my blood cold and makes me hold Sam tighter, as if I could protect him from the man I used to be. I want to speak to Daniel, to take his gun, to prevent any of this from happening, but it’s pointless. If I interfere, I’m going to wake up on Saturday morning in Emily’s bed again, and again, and again, for the rest of my life while she waits in limbo or wherever it is her soul went.

I deserve this, I tell myself. I trace circles on the back of Sam’s hand like I remember Emily doing the day I was Sam. I pulled the trigger. Now I have to stand in front of my gun and receive the bullet.

We approach the teller. “Good morning. How can I help you today?” I blink at her and don’t answer. There’s no point.

“Everybody get down!” I gaze mournfully at Daniel . . . at myself. 11:29. Slowly, I sink to the floor, pulling Sam down with me. Daniel whirls to face the guard. “Drop it. D-drop the gun, or her blood is on your hands.” I swallow hard when the end of the Glock is staring me in the face like Death’s sightless pupil. The bullet in the chamber is going to kill me. Less than two minutes, now. I almost wish it would just happen already so I don’t have to agonize any longer.

The guard’s gun clatters on the floor. “Now, n-now kick it away.” He does. Daniel bears down on the teller again. “Okay, just . . . just g-give me the money, please.”

“I have a family —”

‘I don’t care! I don’t want to hurt anybody, you understand? I just, I need, I need the money. I need it. Hurry up, and you’ll see your family today. Got it?”

She sobs and answers, “Okay, I’m going. Please don’t shoot. I’m going as fast as I can.”

“Mommy,” Sam whispers.

I don’t look at him; I don’t want to see the terror in his green eyes. “It’s okay, Sam. Just be quiet. Everything’s going to be okay.” I squeeze his hand.

The teller must have hit a hidden panic button because the police are pulling up outside. Daniel paces, swears under his breath, his eyes constantly darting to the flashing lights. Sam shifts beside me. “Mommy, I’m scared. We need some luck right now, right?”

“Yeah,” I mutter. “Luck. Right.”

“I’ll get it.” Before I can even process, he’s crawling away from me, his eyes on a penny a yard away. Realization strikes me like lighting on a clear day. I remember. I thought I came here to die, but I remember. I’m not the first one. Sam is going to be shot first, but maybe I can change it. He doesn’t have to die.

I reach out to pull him back. The moment my fingers touch his tennis shoe, a sharp crack! cuts through the stillness.

No! Dying was bad enough; seeing Sam shot is so much worse. Me, why didn’t he shoot me instead? Sam doesn’t make a sound. He just collapses. Daniel is facing us, his legs braced, both hands holding the gun, finger still curled over the trigger. Sam’s blood, it’s warm, it’s his life, and it’s seeping from his body, through my fingers, even as I try to stop it. He exhales one last time, and the light fades from his emerald eyes.

The sound I make is an animalistic howl no human being should be capable of producing. I’d grown to love Sam. He wasn’t my son, and this wasn’t my life, but I still loved him. I’d forgotten what innocence was, and he was the embodiment of it. He laughed, and played, and he was going to grow up to be a doctor so he could save people, and why, why, just because I lost everything, why did that justify taking this little boy down with me? The pain that rips me apart feels like the bullet that killed me the first time. Fiber by fiber, the agony of loss shatters my soul, just like the real bullet Daniel fires in panic to silence my scream. I don’t even feel it enter my already broken heart.

I don’t wake up again. My eyes are already open, and the pieces come together slowly, the colors first, like watercolor blotches sharpening into a scene. Red. Blue. Red. Flashes, rhythmic, blue, on the pale faces of people crouched on the ground. Red. A little boy is smothered by the body of his mother, her arms cocooning him, determined to die together as their blood mixes on the floor. The man looming over them is someone I should recognize. His name is Daniel Sommers. The gun in his hands has taken two lives today. His dark eyes are locked on the boy and woman, his brow wrinkled with a bewildering expression of horror and relief that his last shot silenced the haunting wail.

I think I’m going to puke. That stranger used to be me, but it’s like I’m looking in a mirror, and no matter how many times in my thirty-seven years of life I saw my reflection, I can’t recognize the person staring back. I am not Daniel. I’ve lived two lifetimes since I last claimed that name.

I don’t know who I am. I’m dressed in a uniform and holding a gun. My finger, pudgier than I remember, knows how to release the safety. Curl over the trigger. Raise the weight. Aim. I don’t know if this will finally end the nightmare. I don’t know what will happen next. All I know is that I can never move on until I destroy this vile creature looming over two pure souls that deserved life more than I ever did.

The last sound I hear is a single, bone-jarring crack!

 

 

I don’t wake up again.

 

 

Written for ENG 509, January 2015

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