My dad died a few years back. The doctors told me after his liver failure that it was pancreatic cancer. He was always a secretive type, prone to hold in his emotions and ailments to a fault. When he started getting sick he suffered in silence, and even though it was obvious to others, nobody wanted to tell him to visit the hospital because of his aggressive stubbornness. This attitude ultimately lead to his death; if he were to have started treatment early on, he could have survived. When he died, Mom came into a great deal of money from life insurance, and, ever since, my 26-year-old brother and I have been living with her. We didn’t stay for emotional attachment or to give emotional support to the new, grieving widow, but for her money.
The sun had set hours ago, which meant Mom had been asleep for a few hours, and I was lying in bed straining to read over my brother’s conversation. As he talked with his friend their volume increased, which caused the wall that the headboard of my bed rested on to vibrate gently with every word they said. I had read the same paragraph at least three times before I noticed I was getting distracted and instead opted to leaf through an old college pamphlet. Up until last year I was a psychology major at Arizona State University, where many of those from my hometown end up. It wasn’t so much the course load as the incessant meaninglessness of pursuing a degree that made me drop out. The life of debt common for college students and graduates, where those with master’s degrees even end up working in some cafe. I escaped that fate before I was overwhelmed by it.
I leafed through the pamphlet in a half-hearted attempt to avoid eavesdropping on my brother’s conversation. But when I gave in and started to listen, their voices had dropped to whispers. Overwhelmed by curiosity I placed my ear against the cold, thin, wall but the most I could hear was the word “casino.” My brother, Dave, who had been working at a convenience store since he graduated high school, never had gambling money and had never even been to one, a casino. I thought he wanted to have a good time at the Sonora Casino; it was Friday and would’ve been a perfect time to go. I didn’t want to be left behind on a night of certain debauchery, so I ran to the kitchen in hopes of catching them mid-planning and guilt them into inviting me. They must’ve been distracted because they didn’t even turn their heads to acknowledge me when I heard Dave’s friend Carlos whisper in his accented voice, “And I know where we can get the guns”.
My mind went blank and tried to find sense in his words at the same time while the gravity of their meaning crushed my heart. I was stunned. I wanted to say something but only thoughtless stutters came out of my mouth. Carlos twisted his head away from my brother and looked at me and past me simultaneously. They sat on opposite sides of the table wearing nearly identical clothes: hoodie and jeans. Dave had never been particularly fashionable and chose comfort over pleasing his aesthetic sense, but he still held an air of unmistakable attractiveness. The opposite was true for Carlos, who had surrendered himself in his war on acne and had no standards of hygiene. Not knowing what to do, I sat in a chair between the two conspirators and waited. The clock’s ticking seemed to grow into consecutive explosions before Carlos finally spoke.
“Dre, I want to let you in on a project.” He whispered as his eyes darted around. After a brief pause he continued, “Before I say anything I need you to promise you won’t snitch.” It was my turn to take a pause; I knew the plan would only be trouble and the recognizable danger that rested in my brother’s eyes seemed to prove what I felt. But despite my hesitations I promised I wouldn’t say a thing.
Carlos detailed the plan in a way that made him seem the mastermind. “You know that casino on the highway? Well, heard from some friends that the security is pretty loose there.” I looked at him as he spoke and I recalled then how his every sentence needed an intermission before he could begin again. He continued, “There’s a the cash exchange on the first floor that’s loaded. They even got a safe in the back. All we would need to do is hold the floor hostage. Take the money in the register and the safe and by the time the police come, we’ll be gone.”
I winced at “hold the floor hostage.” I’ve imagined many scenarios for life and the myriad ways they could unfold, and this was not one of those. A more deviant recess of my mind was seduced by the prospect of money. I depended on my mom for food, clothing and shelter, and my idea of freedom that I yearned for as a late-teen crashed around me when I had to move back in. My legs shook and my palms were sweaty; even the promise of wealth couldn’t rid me of my nerves.
“So…that’s it?” I said. Major portions of the plan seemed to be missing from the explanation and made me skeptical. The truth is the thought of an armed robbery made me uncomfortable to the point where any lack of detail would have turned me into a skeptic. If I tried to poke holes in the plan Carlos would postpone his scheme and ultimately forget about it, so I continued to emphasize the missing parts. “How would we even escape? There’s just a long stretch of freeway in both directions. The police would catch us by then.”
As if not hearing my plea, Carlos demanded, “You’re going with me. You both are. If you don’t go, I’ll make sure Jose knows. He’ll know if you snitch, too. He has ears everywhere, you know what I mean?” The bald-headed, muscular behemoth of a man that called himself Jose — even though his real name was Ernesto — was the right hand of Esteban de la Cruz, a prominent gang leader. Jose felt a certain pride in his position that he would tell anybody he had more than a minute-long conversation with. I assume he told people to instill fear, and, in fact, when I had first learned of his gang origins I was intimidated and had made sure not to cross him since. But for others his willingness to divulge the information brought about rumors of him working for the police. If everyone had known, the police, too, had to know. But still, the man had a brutal air about him and not only has he killed before but people who know Ernesto the most know that he has killed for as little as a spot in line.
With the threat of the savage man, I had no choice but to follow along. I accepted the demand with a little nod and headed back to my room. It was certainly cluttered. When I was younger I had plastered the walls with posters of my favorite bands, all of which were now “on hiatus” or disbanded. The only addition to the room since childhood was a small desk, and it happened to be the only thing I kept organized. I alphabetized each book on the shelf and always place my computer 6 inches from the ledge. At that time the computer was open and close to the back but my head was spinning and I was minutes from making my lasagna dinner reappear. So I shut off the three desk lamps that lit up the entirety of my room, kicked some dirty shirts into an increasing pile of laundry and tried to sleep. My rest was segmented by bad dreams and fits of sleeplessness, and by the time the sun rose, I had only slept two hours.
The whole world seemed to know it was Saturday morning — the birds tweeted songs of joy, children who were not at school were out playing in their yards, and even the sun was an uncaring, unwavering entity seemed to shine with a happy light. I woke up wanting only to forget about the day I was going to be forced to have. Possible scenarios ran through my head, still misty from the first minutes of being awake, and all of them ended in death or prison, places I never imagined myself being before. I looked into a mirror as I brushed my teeth. The purple baggage under both my eyes and the looseness of my skin made it seem I had aged ten years in a night. Disgusted by myself, I decided just to put on fresh clothes to meet Carlos and Dave for our morning heist and high-speed chase down the freeway.
The rest of my morning was going to be a series of yells, sirens, and gunshots, so to find even a brief moment of silence I went to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, but they were already seated, surrounded by cups of coffee and cans of energy drinks. I looked Carlos into his bloodshot eyes as I asked, “So, when are we going?” He didn’t respond but grabbed the keys to his early 2000s Nissan Versa, an efficient but ugly car, and signaled both me and Dave to follow. The car was filled with instant food packaging and wrappers and the papers that matted the floor smelled like they were decomposing. Being forced to the back seat, I had to move a mountain of clothes, a mix of clean and dirty. What I thought would be an endless onslaught of speaking our final words, the car ride ended up being the quiet moment I was looking for. The only noise, which kept me grounded in reality but didn’t detract from the peaceful moment, was a radio playing a pop station I tended to avoid. Carlos drove down the desolate highway, and both Dave and I looked out into the expanse of sun-hardened sand and the lonely trees, which grew despite the devastating heat. The desert was still, even in the wind, and it had an innate calmness that could soothe the mindful onlooker. A solitary bird flew overhead with slow beats of its wings and screeched. I shouldn’t have been able to hear it but the sound echoed within me. I stared into the desert hoping it would peer back and pass on its secret to endless tranquility.
The casino came into view. It was the sort that people built when they think a city is going to become popular. The type of place that is supposed to hold many guests who never come. A completely unnecessary building, the sole highrise tower amid a city of two-story buildings, a pillar of waste. I couldn’t imagine this place being “loaded” like Carlos said, but I was in no position to question him, not while the threat of Ernesto “Jose” Rodriguez lingered. The parking lot was half-filled and there was a noticeable lack of luxury cars, like the rich had no need for gambling. Carlos parked the car without problem close to the restaurant entrance and bothered to back the car into the parking spot to help our escape.
I stayed in the seat, paralyzed by fear of holding up the place, running from the police, and the ultimate exchange of gunfire that the day would end in. The red-eyed, irritated Carlos got out of his driver’s seat, originally grey but blackened through years of sweat, and walked toward the trunk. As Dave sat in an equal fit of paralysis, I found the strength to get out of my seat and meet Carlos, whose shaking hands prevented him from opening the trunk for a minute. He showed me a dull black duffle bag that rested on top of more compost paper and year-old food and opened it. Inside were rifles with names I could never remember or cared to know, gun magazines, rope, and black ski masks. My legs threatened to shake to relieve my nervousness but I didn’t waver in front of the mad burglar. I looked at the rifles with an awareness I haven’t had since: The hellbent mission would mean my death and the guns would be the catalyst. I struggled to think of a plan. My brother continued to look straight forward at the casino as if he were looking into an abyss of horrors. He would spend his only time in a casino being afraid for his life.
“You know what would be funny and sorta cool?” I asked with unnoticed shakiness in my voice. “If we were to go to the bar and drink a bit before we rob the place. You know, make sure Dave has a good time at a casino?” It must have been his ever-apparent exhaustion, or sympathy for his childhood friend, but he nodded and closed the trunk. “Let’s show him a good time,” he said with a faint voice. We walked into the building, hardly dressed for the occasion, and took the elevator to the top floor to “The Lucky 7.” The elevator, small and ill-decorated with multicolored tiles and movie posters of old-school movies, rose silently. Carlos continued to shake, but Dave was unchanged by the new plan with his eyes forever forward and slowly dying as their color faded. The vivid blueness had become dull and grey and I understood that as a sign of impending doom. The door opened to the brightly lit bar, which, aside from one other customer and the staff, was empty.
The room was equally plastered with old movie posters that worshiped the aesthetic of another era while blatantly ignoring its history, which was filled with racism and bigotry. The staff seemed unsatisfied and many of their eyes looked like the dreary grey ones I saw in the elevator. We sat at the bar on stools that were too high from the counter. On the other end was a man who winced at his whiskey every time he sipped, dressed in a suit obviously from the previous night. His presence made me uncomfortable, like he was an outsider to our world but looked like an ordinary man with disheveled hair and an unclean conscience. At this distance I could make out his deep brown eyes. Carlos ordered a Corona and lime. Dave, only a passenger in his body, ordered an IPA and a cup of water. That day would be the last one I would spend on Earth and I wanted what I drank to reflect that prophecy of my imagination: a shot of tequila, no salt or lime. A bitter testament to life and what I had achieved in it.
We drank for hours. Carlos consumed any type of alcohol he wanted and I stuck to the tequila. Carlos, drunk on rage and corona and vodka, started to shake aggressively, which alarmed no one but me and the man who sipped his third whiskey. The staff had come to ignore the crazed man because of his loud outbursts at nothing particular and perhaps at his own fate. Dave only became present enough to pick up his beer and drink before falling back into his waking coma. As if a bell tolling to mark a death, Carlos slammed down his glass and yelled, “That’s it! I’m fucking sick of this shit.” He pulled out the gun that he kept tucked away in the back of his pants and ordered the cashier to open the register. I yelled not only to show how dumbfounded I was but also to show my innocence in the situation. “What the fuck are you doing, Carlos?” He didn’t listen and instead looked directly into the eyes of the cashier, whose shaking made it take longer for him to open the register.
The man who sipped whiskey made eye contact with me and put his index finger to his mouth to hush me. With the empty bottle of whiskey in his hand he walked, keeping his head low and knees bent, and despite having finished off the bottle snuck around behind Carlos with meticulous steps. Quickly, the hero smashed the empty bottle over the head of the man who had become mad. While Carlos was dazed he took the gun away and removed the clip, but he had forgotten to remove the bullets. Carlos rushed his assailant, who had been backing up, and tackled him to the ground. When the would-be-hero hit the floor under the weight of Carlos he howled. The red-eyed man pinned the stranger’s arms under his knees and started furiously punching his face like he was driving it into the ground. After a moment, the man stopped moving and was barely breathing. Carlos yelled at the bar employees to get him some rope as he found his gun and put the clip back in. They found him three strands of rope and a belt, which he used to bind the brave but stupid man. His arms were forced behind him and his legs bent as if in prayer, and he was tied in that position.
I sat at the barstool helpless as Dave ignored the world of inevitabilities and stared into his IPA. I’m not sure what would become of Dave if we made it out of this alive, but something had broke in him even though there was no audible snap and no complaints of being a broken man; just indifference and slight sadness is all that seemed to remain of him. Carlos looked beyond the glass windows that overlooked the unmoving desert town and for a moment I thought I saw some humanity return to him. But instead he put the gun to the head of the man who fought to stay conscious and shook as he was about to pull the trigger but again stopped. He seemed dissatisfied as his eyes darted around the bar. Instead he aimed at a panes of glass in front of his victim. He fired five separate times causing the glass to shatter and fall. With his gun, he broke a bigger hole into the glass, enough to push a man out. Then both men, the devil and the hero, looked directly at me, one pleading and one demanding, but I was well aware of my own powerlessness. Carlos turned back to the the man who looked at me still and started nudging him off the ledge with his foot.
I started to get off the barstool, but everything I did felt slow, and meanwhile Carlos was quickly pushing the man off the edge. I finally stood up, the man mostly out of the building and tried to push Carlos out of the way but I had acted too slowly. The man began his descent to his concrete heaven below and I stood on the left of the corrupted man. A feather glided just in front of view. It was a magnificent red, pulsing with bright energy. I stared at the feather as it floated eye level with me, and then there was a bright light — it didn’t come from the feather, but rather from outside. The brightness expanded and I soon saw that it wasn’t just a light but a fire that was growing fast. The fire rose to the top floor of the casino where us three desolate men contemplated our fate and faith. But the fire didn’t burn. From the fire first emerged a shape that was as familiar as it was unfamiliar. It was a wing bright red and vibrating with darker energy. Another wing emerged opposite that, then a beak, and slowly the massive fire-bird emerged from the fireball.
The god-like figure was adorned in flames and had eyes I recognized. It slowly beat its wings and looked from Carlos to me, and at that moment I knew where I had seen the eyes. The light-brown ones with black craters in the iris, that were both distant and unmistakably kind. The bird let out a screech and let the fire envelop the floor. The flames felt cool as they lapped at my skin, leaving goosebumps on the back of my neck, but just next to me I heard Carlos yell. The yell was cut short, and when I looked over to my right, Carlos was gone and the window was repaired. I looked around the clean and ordered bar where everyone stood in equal disbelief. I looked to Dave and knew it had passed.
Carlos’ car wasn’t in the parking lot when we finally were able to go home after the police had questioned us about the fire and the gunshots, but we had no reason to lie. The police were incredulous but reluctantly let us go. When we got home we immediately slept. For the first time in five years I dreamt. The crimson bird followed me overhead with its wings that pulsated with unimaginable power as I drove away from the city oppressed by the sun. When the city was far enough behind, the burden of expectation vanished and I smiled to welcome the unknown.