Jackson lived by himself in a single bedroom apartment where there was more liquor in his refrigerator than food. The building itself was near-condemned. The outer walls surrendered to the damage of the cumulative decades and had mostly crumbled. With no other support, the inner-walls and weakening foundation bore the load. There was no main door as the door frame withered years ago. Jackson’s apartment was as decayed the building. He had nowhere else to live though, because he was a laborer. He made enough to survive until the next paycheck if he fasted five or six days out of the fourteen. He didn’t decide to be a laborer — even though many don’t choose to be. Common advice family and friends gave Jackson was “follow your dreams”, so he majored in English. His parents, who believed in fostering their child’s dream, floated Jackson money so he could carve out his novel. Life’s bifurcating roads led him another way. In the days preceding his writing the climax of his novel, Jackson’s fiance, Daphne, died. Working as a laborer kept him away from his manifold dreads and far away from a pen.
Jackson left home for the bank. Paycheck in back pocket and Chase bank fifteen minutes ahead was his biweekly ritual. Jackson walked exclusively. He walked to work, home, the bar, the pharmacy and even to the next city. Cars stressed him growing up. He didn’t dare drive until he was twenty-three and then it was out of necessity. Cars were nothing more than hunks of metal — and often times plastic — propelled forward by manifold micro-combustions. They were inherently dangerous. Their inherent danger was disguised from the general public through “advanced safety features”, but Jackson knew better. A year and seven months ago Daphne died in a car wreck. She was the safest driver Jackson knew and the day of the accident was no exception. The Hummer next to her wasn’t as skilled. The tank-of-a-truck merged left but swiped the sedan’s rear bumper. She swerved into a small pick-up where she was likely killed on impact. If that didn’t kill her, the subsequent twelve cars that piled onto the crash would have. A pool of blood united the dead. The pool of one mixed seamlessly with the pool of another’s and only thorough DNA analyses could differentiate the former owners of the spilled blood.
The bank was the most exquisite place Jackson had ever been. This was a portion of the main reason he trekked in the severe heat and bitter cold. Grey stone tile sprawled the floor. It was vastly different than the one his mom used to take him to — the linoleum tile knockoff was an eyesore. Thick bulletproof glass windows encompassed three of the four walls. The back wall, in which the safe was nestled, was protected by several layers of concrete and wall. Jackson recognized some, but unknown faces composed of a majority of the crowd. There was, like there was every pay period: Ms. Comer, the maid from across the street, the babysitter who used to come in with his dad, and the preacher from one of the non-denominational churches.
All waited to cash a check. Waiting was the worst part. Jackson never liked standing idly. He always had to be doing something, otherwise he had to dedicate time to doing nothing. Waiting in line was purgatory. It was the odd in-between of being active and having to be idle. A time when his vivid nightmares of Daphne’s death returned. There was always so much blood. He tapped his foot subconsciously and distracted himself with his phone. The line inched forward.
In front of him was a mother and her child. He noticed the daughter first because she stood proud with her natural curly hair. Not one ounce of her was embarrassed for who she was. She was a brown-skinned girl who was not sorry for being black. Jackson was astounded to such natural and unforced confidence. Then he looked at the child’s mother and realized how she grew up that way. The mother stood tall. Not in height but within herself. She seemed to tower over the others despite being no taller than 5 feet.
The preacher was towards the front of the line. He had a similar confidence of the mother and child. The Preacher’s found his calling, Jackson guessed. He knew the stories of the Army tank mechanic-turned preacher. He served twenty years active duty in the Army. He deployed to Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom multiple times and lost friends every deployment. After retiring, he promised his wife he’d devote his life to peace. Jackson was impressed with the man. People said the preacher exaggerated his stories but the innate darkness in his eyes — a darkness not even perfect commitment to God for an eternity couldn’t dispel — spoke all the truths necessary to be credible.
Men in ski masks recklessly wielding handguns broke the tedium. One of them had his masked rolled up which revealed the flesh around his mouth and he fired two rounds at the ceiling above, taking out a light. Silence followed. Those wise enough went prone immediately but there were a few who stood completely still. The gunfire locked them in their place and rendered them incapable of movement. He threatened to shoot anybody who remained standing and all but one sat down. There is a mindless power to self-preservation. It lingers one long after the mind shuts down. The man who remained standing wasn’t frozen in place but rather he was trying to be the hero in this story. By all means he looked the part with broad shoulders and certain eyes but a quick pistol whip brought him to the floor in complete submission. Two thugs guarded the door, one kept the patrons quiet and the leader demanded money. Even at gun point the clerks were safe. They stood behind a bulletproof glass security system meant for the occasion. They looked panicked but knew they couldn’t be harmed.
The man with the rolled-up mask, the leader, rubbed the back of his head. If he wound up empty handed his effort would be for nothing. He grabbed the collar of first person he saw. The barrel rested cold on the hostage’s head. The weight seemed funny to the hostage. Something with the power to stop life shouldn’t be so light. It wasn’t an equal exchange. The man was in his 70’s. Jackson had never seen the man before but he pitied him. He knew what came next. “If we don’t start getting money, I’m going to start killing people. I’ll start with this old fuck and for every minute after, I’ll kill someone else.”
The first gunshot narrowed Jackson’s view. The 70 year old was dead in a pool of his crimson matter. The leader of the thieves moved to the next hostage, a thirty year-old woman in business casual. She didn’t cry but her fear was palpable. “Thirty seconds or she gets it,” the man said. Then there were police sirens. He diverted his attention from the woman to his men. “Make sure the police knows we have hostages. We’ll have to keep the rest of them alive if we want to negotiate our way out.” Jackson stared at the deceased that was a few feet away. The old man’s blood crept slowly along the grey tile, filling in the cracks and venturing further out still. Bits of brain matter littered the floor near this filth. This was death. It’s not a beautiful passing but a rapid and gore-filled shift from life to death. Jackson shuddered.
The leader addressed his hostages, “Listen up. Empty your pockets and toss what ever shit you have into this bag,” He spoke and held up a black trash bag. “Phones, wallets, keys, I want all of it. After go sit in that corner over there. One misstep and I’ll fucking shoot you.” One by one the patrons emptied their lives into the bag. Most were stoic but some cried. Jackson wasn’t unemotional but rather he was numb. He dumped his phone and wallet in the bag and sat with the others. Next to him was the preacher. He had his head bowed in a silent prayer. The little girl with the curly hair had begun to cry. The mother consoled her child as if her life weren’t at stake, as if the only thing that mattered in the world was her daughter’s well-being. She was strong even in the aura of death.
There was one sentry posted near the guard but he made his way between the men at the front and his boss towards the back. After a single time the preacher understood the sentry’s pattern and after he left his spot in front of the hostages he whispered to Jackson, “Do you believe in God?” He clutched a wooden cross as he asked. He looked directly into Jackson’s eyes. Jackson tried to maintain eye contact as he spoke but he shied away at the strength of the preachers resolve.
He wished he wasn’t going to tell a preacher of his Atheism in a time of probable death. Times like these were meant for reminiscing on good times or finding a way out of the situation. They were certainly not made for conversations about God. He answered anyway, “No, I can’t say I do,” Jackson whispered.
“Will you pray with me anyway,” he asked. “Not for you, but for me.” Jackson was dumbfounded. A devout Man-of-God was asking an Atheist to pray with him, not for Jackson’s damned soul but because the preacher was seeking comfort. Jackson nodded. He bowed his head with the preacher who whispered another prayer. The words didn’t matter, they hardly ever do. The raw emotion and truest display of mature character made Jackson realize his still embryonic character. There were only a few people who could have heard the words but everyone felt it. His sincerity and piety at a moment where death seemed certain seemed to give the hostages a sliver of hope. Instead of looking down at the floor, many of them were starting to look up “Amen.” The priest lifted his head but before he could whisper his thanks to Jackson, the sentry came back around.
One of the clerks lost control of his knees at last and fainted. He had succumbed anxiety and could not bear it any longer. On his short trip to the floor he smashed his head on the black granite counter top. Blood sprayed on the other clerks. The thieves had their lucky break. The tellers were willing to deal with the leader since one of their own was injured. The exchange was simple: their safety to get their coworker to an ambulance for entrance to the safe, but no safe combo. He had plenty of other hostages to barter with anyway. They walked free carrying their unconscious friend. The fallen man’s blood leaked spotted the bank’s floor as they carried him. A few drops mixed with the blood of the old man. The leader propped open the door and called one of his men using the codename “Rex”. Rex was the sentry going back between the hostages, the front and his boss. Rex was supposed to crack the safe.
With Rex gone, there were only two sentries making sure the police couldn’t enter the building, and one of those still had to watch the hostages. The leader did as he pleased walking from the hostages, to the front with his men, to the back where Rex was working on the safe.
As soon as the leader left his post with the hostages to check on things out front, the preacher started talking again. “My name’s Don.” He held up his hand to shake.
“My name is Carlos Jackson, most people call me Jackson though.” Jackson took the preacher’s hand in a firm shake. Eye contact was still quite difficult.
“Why don’t you believe in God, Jackson.”
“Don’t think this is the time for this.”
“You’re not wrong, but I’m curious. Curiosity usually gets the best of me. You seem like a stand up man, a bit shy and lacking some confidence, but a genuinely good person. So I’d like to know your story.”
Jackson sighed and resigned to tell a fragment of his story. He whispered, “I never had a religion to begin with. God wasn’t something brought up in my family. By the time I could understand it I thought it was silly.” There was no mention of his wife. How when she died the part of him that was still desperate to reach out to a god died to. What kind of God would allow her death?
The preacher’s eyebrows raised. “So you discount the idea of God altogether?”
“Yeah, I guess I do.”
“Based on what?”
Jackson paused for a moment. “A lot of evidence points to him not existing.”
“Don’t you mean a lot of evidence discounts my Christian God?”
“Well, yeah. Each bit of evidence brought up on the Christian side has fallen short next to science.”
“You’re not wrong,” The preacher had to pause his thought, the leader made his way back to the hostages. The thugs were growing irritated. Rex hadn’t cracked the safe, the police despite a complete breakdown of communications, were poised to react. They paced faster and were excitable. Even the noise from a hostage clearing their throat caused them all to look around nervously. Before long, the leader returned to his partner towards the front of the bank.
“You’re not wrong,” He said clinging to the last words he uttered, “Us Christians have tried, in vain, to stand against the rationality of science. But this doesn’t discount God as an entity, but just as we have come to understand it. You can deny my God, but I find it irrational for you to deny any God based on the evidence that refutes our childish attempts. A rational person looks at the evidence. They’d look at the evidence and realize nothing’s been proved for or against. I’m not asking you to believe in God but isn’t not believing in Him based on no real evidence just as silly as my believing in it?”
There was gunfire. The man with the rolled-up mask heard the SWAT team enter the building from the roof via A/C ducts. He panicked and fired his weapon towards the hostages. The hostages screamed. Then there were more gunshots. The leader’s goons fired in the same direction. Within a second of the gunshots firing, the SWAT team arrived with a flashbang. In a display of ability and training, the SWAT team disposed of their hostiles. The hostages were laying in a pool of blood massed from the firing squad. The number of fatalities wasn’t exactly clear, everyone was prone on the floor and completely immobile. The soup of blood was the American melting pot. Those who were forced to bleed had bleed together. Together they formed a thick red plasma. Some ex-hostages rose from the bath. First the confident mother and her child. The child’s eyes had gone blank. In her gorgeous curly hair were bist of brain matter. Her face and clothes were soaked in blood. The man in front of her had been shot in the head and bled onto her. Soon a few others followed. Medics rushed in. Both the preacher and Jackson were shot. The first responders announced Don the Preacher dead at the scene. Jackson coughed up blood. His lungs collapsed. Then it all went black for Carlos Jackson, too.
“I’m not asking you to believe in God but isn’t not believing in him based on no real evidence just as silly as my believing in it?” was the first thing he heard after being resurrected by the trauma surgeon. He expected to see the preacher but no one was there. No one waited by his bedside waiting for him to recover. He remembered what happened. Maybe time slowed down, maybe his perception sped up, but Jackson saw the bullet enter Don’s forehead. It didn’t pierce right through. It took it’s time shredding the flesh, shattering the cranium and turning it to mush. He saw it all before he felt a bullet hit him. It was a dull pain at first thanks to the adrenaline. Then there was a cataclysmic pain and he fell to the floor.He felt his face on the preacher’s warm blood. He was bleeding too. He pictured their blood becoming one forming a new being. Then he surrendered completely to the void.
He thought of Don’s last words. A man who spent 20 years killing people to protect others had died at the hands of an unskilled bank robber. He pictured Don’s military veteran burial. He pictured his wife crying, the men in military garb, the American flag folded carefully on the casket. It wasn’t fair for Don the preacher to have died.
He mulled over Don’s words like one would a holy text. He knew its meaning but tried to look deeper. He hoped to find something within himself or without himself that would give him the resolve to answer the question. He was out of the hospital in after two weeks due to complications with an infection. Through all that time the only answer Jackson could master for the kind preacher was, “Maybe you’re right.”