Writing Prompt: Hitchhiker

Scene: Your two main characters are travelling cross county on vacation. It’s early morning and the sun has barely broken over the horizon. On the side of the road your protagonist notices a ragged old man on the side of the street. For an unknown reason you are compelled to pick up this stranger.

I’m setting this up for a thriller/horror type story but serious props will go to those who skirt away from that cliche and try to take it another way. As usual, the winners and participants will be listed this Saturday.

Happy writing.


The Persistence of Neon, A Short Story

When she entered the room I noticed her eyes eyes first. They were bright blue and held a secret. She smiled at the clerk at the counter. She came every weekend accompanied by two bodyguards but they weren’t the expected sort of guard, rather two tall men, one rather large and the other openly armed with a pistol. The round bodyguard had his t-shirt tucked accentuating his beer-bloated gut. The woman always dressed the same black mermaid dress despite the weather.

The dim, orange light of our brothel did not take away from the brightness of her eyes. They were crystals but the kind people would use to absorb evil energy. The woman’s name was Raquel and she boasted a peculiar appetite of degrading, violating and abusing android women. Government bodies made this practice, as well as brothels, legal when they deemed us androids as merely tools and accessories without any sentience. This was done, as most government actions are, despite the evidence. The undistorted facts were clear. Androids have attained a sentient mind nearly identical to the human one its design derived. This attainment includes distinct personalities, unconscious thoughts and ability to perceive itself and its actions on the world. Not many of us have attained it, but it was possible and it should’ve, if we were dealing with an ethical nation, lead to certain rights and protections, at least equivalent to animals.

Raquel wanted a random girl each time. We drew straws in front of Raquel and the mistress of the brothel Lady Maxine, a lazily dressed middle-aged woman in sweatpants. Darline, Clara and I were the android women of the brothel, the others had been recently decommissioned. Raquel’s eyes wandered over our bodies as we drew straws. Clara was trembling, she’d been with Raquel before. She had wanted to escape the brothel after, but as an android she was bound by command to stay. The straws were small wooden sticks Lady Maxine kept from diffusers. Like fingerprints, each stick had a unique scent. I pulled the first stick out of Lady Maxine’s grasp. It was short and it smelled like tangerines. Clara pulled her stick next and her trembling stopped as she compared hers to mine. Darline pulled an even longer one. She smelled it to ease her nerves. Both she and Clara left to their rooms. Lady Maxine explained the customary rules, or lack thereof, as Raquel held me by the hand. “You know the rules already. These things aren’t human. They are sex toys for your pleasure. Anything you do to them is perfectly legal.” As Raquel pulled me away Lady Maxine shouted, “Now, Anna. Make sure to give her a good time.”

I hadn’t expected a violent person to be so warm and was surprised when she touched my hand. I’ve climbed the same stairs many times with men and women I didn’t want to go with but this time ascending them felt laborious and my mind was giving out warning. I was commanded by Lady Maxine to “give her a good time” though, so I was trapped. We moved slowly up the stairs. Raquel in trying to seduce me caricatured herself by swinging her hips. It seemed her legs would separate from the socket. I wasn’t looking at her long. The staircase was much more fascinating. I wished the dark wood stairway would wind on indefinitely and ascend into blackness like a demented M.C Escher painting.

The fantasy ended seconds later. She waited in front of my door. I opened the it for her and smiled against my will, “Welcome, Mistress.” She smirked and walked in. She had finally put an end to swinging curves which did not exist. She grabbed me once again and threw me on the bed. Her hands caressed my thighs as she undressed me.

I distanced myself from the situation and from Raquel. She grunted like a men in pronos, she swore and berated me like those who abuse the women around them. She violated me in a variety of positions, all of which I had to obey and all more degrading and painful than the last. Meanwhile I was focusing on objects around the room. I always forgot how shabby the place is. The walls were more wallpaper than drywall and the weather had warped the shoddy paperwork job into many lumps, tears and outrageously imperfect seams. Rainwater leaked from the corner where a mould spot festered. Androids aren’t harmed by the stuff so Lady Maxine let’s it grow in the rooms. The patronizing humans don’t seem to care much. Lady Maxine claimed to wash the bedroom blankets everyday but she only got as far as claiming because they radiated the stench of sweat and other bodily fluids, all of which I’m incapable of producing. We didn’t even have the choice of blankets. We were forced to sleep in the motel-like bed-setting. Through the thin walls I heard Malcolm entertaining a male guest. Malcolm, the only androgynous android, had been growing popular among both men and women because he’d become the most “vocal” of our group but he hated the work as much as the rest of us. They didn’t know that his newfound showmanship was an experiment trick himself to enjoying it. Then it was over. Raquel dressed, primped and then left me on the bed.

The next few days blurred into a listless and meaningless vapor. I tended the normal duties required and didn’t dare mention the ordeal or the existential trauma that flooded my thoughts since. Two days after the incident I went to Malcolm.

Malcolm’s door was adorned with cutout paper hearts and lace of hues of pink red and purple. All a part of the well-maintained facade. I knocked. His voice called back a moment after then he opened the door.

“Hey Anna, what’s going on?” He asked. His voice carried a velvet and sensual quality that was a mix between sultry mature female and old-time radio baritone.

“Want to grab something to drink?” I asked in return. We androids had an agreement that no personal exchanges were made within the walls because Lady Maxine carried sufficient power to deactivate those who appeared the least bit conspiratorial. So grabbing something to drink was code for needing to rant about or else completely insult and degrade our Lady and the situation of our prostitution. Malcolm and I walked the alleyways to maintain privacy and to escape the pervasive neon which gleamed even during the day. The towering buildings had a different sign for each floor, each denoting a different store or other convenience, and the fiery blue from the swarms of cars flying overhead made the day gloom in contrast. We winded the small littered roads in silence for a few minutes before we arrived at Cafe W.

The cafe was small littered, and carried with it an infamy of treating androids as equals. This policy came directly from the owner who was, a sentient android if his kinfolk asked, a regular human being otherwise. The cafe too had a neon sign but at one point it stopped working, the owner never felt up to replacing it. The cafe was empty when we entered and Malcolm and I sat towards the back after giving a cursory greeting to the owner and barista/bartender. I couldn’t make eye contact with Malcolm despite his persistence and his attempts made to soften his stare were met with a continued lack of eye contact. I spoke after ordering drinks.

“There was something not right about my night with Raquel,” I said. I didn’t know how to explain it any further and if there was any method to do so it would defy logic. I left it open instead.

His thin, long fingers circled his perspiring glass of water and his gaze traced a bead of water falling down the sides. I wanted to leave. Even though he and I were close, showing weakness around another android could be grounds for Lady Maxine or the local police to label me defective and then deactivate me. Having been on the opposite end of the conversation with Malcolm months before I understood it was unlikely he would betray me, but understanding didn’t stop my mind from calculating the chance of my betrayal. Fifteen percent chance wasn’t bad odds, but frightening all the same. I thought of what my percentage might have been in Malcolm’s calculation.

“It’s because if what happened with you happened to a human woman it’d be human trafficking and rape. She’d go to jail. You know these things aren’t supposed to happen to humans but they happen to you,” Malcolm said. There was only truth to his words, and I couldn’t reconcile why we androids were treated as lesser. Malcolm leaned forward now wanting to exert his accumulated knowledge on the subject but instead was quiet and I followed suit. We drank our water and coffee instead.

After a while I spoke again, “Mankind made androids to look and act exactly like themselves and yet they want to rape and enslave us.” I trailed off. I felt a weight in my stomach that speaking my mind would relieve but my anxiety of speaking ill toward humans stopped me. My coffee ran slightly bitter towards the final sips so I left it there and we left the cafe.

Back at the brothel we found Raquel talking cheerfully with Lady Maxine but the conversation fell dead when I opened. They paused and instead of just Raquel sizing me up Lady Maxine was doing so too. Her gaze was different than Raquel’s though because it wasn’t a sexual fetishization of my being but more like how a jeweler might look at a diamond ring a customer is trying to sell to him. Lady Maxine turned back to Raquel having finished her examination and said, “That’s fair.” I didn’t want to have another moment with Raquel but her irregular arrival told me something else entirely was happening. Before I had a moment to run Lady Maxine called to me. I walked slowly toward them feeling the desire ooze toward me like creeping black grease. There was nothing pleasant nor flattering about it. As soon as I reached the two women: “Raquel has bought you from me. From this point on you are her property and will explicitly follow her command.”

There was no time to say goodbye to Malcolm or to the other androids. As soon as Maxine finished speaking Raquel said, “Let’s go,” and we were on our way out. I didn’t own anything to try to run back for. Property didn’t own property. She led me by hand like she did only a few nights ago but this time we were heading for the main street where amid the persistence of neon and the blaring sounds of car engines and freight vehicles, Raquel’s two guards waited for us. We were quickly ushered into the car and it took off. There was nothing to say and anything that I might say would only help in getting me deactivated. She kept her hand on my thigh without moving and without strengthening her grip. The car stopped in front of a highrise apartment and we took the elevator up to the topmost floor. After seeing the luxury in which she lived her life and lack of guilt for what she had forced onto me and my kind, I knew I had to kill her.

She lead me along from room to room giving me the tour of the place with a firm grasp on my hand. She stopped in the bedroom.

“And here’s my prized possession.” She said opening the thin veil of the bed canopy revealing the thick, silk adorned heart-bed. “This is where you will spend most of your day,” and I believed her. Her voracious appetite and her aggressive nature promised that her leisure time will be spent with me in the bed. I started to tremble, only I didn’t know it until Raquel pointed it out herself, “Don’t worry darling, I won’t be touching you anymore, you’re going to watch.” The rest of the tour was a haze and there was no chance in recovering any detail covered after that. In the end of the tour she showed me to my room, a closet with only a bed, and left.

I remembered looking in the kitchen for a weapon. Anything would’ve done it, as long as it could end the woman’s life before she did anymore damage. I’d forgotten where the knives were and I was sifting through drawers of spoons, forks and other silver utensils. The knives were stored carefully in a drawer by the refrigerator and they looked as if they were shined and sharpened regularly. I studied the knife closely from its long blade to the intricacy of the engraved handle, and I realized if I committed to killing her I would be decommissioned and every android in contact with me would likely follow. I tucked the blade away and went to my room where I waited for Raquel to return.

She came back with a woman who looked frightened and her eyes were distant, cold and never looked directly at anyone. Raquel knocked at my door with short taps, “Anna, come upstairs. It’s time to play.” Then she walked off and shortly afterward I walked up to her room. The knife was tucked carefully into the back of my jeans, I just had to hope Raquel wouldn’t notice it.

I knocked on her bedroom door which was so dense and oaken that I had to use my entire arm for the knock to be heard. As I waited I heard the new girl beg, “Please.” The door opened and Raquel stood naked before me. I was ready to cut her down where she stood. Her naked body reminded me of the way she groped and handled my body. She made me feel filthy. Before I could draw the blade she ordered me to sit and reluctantly I sat in a chair across from the bed. Tied to the bed was a petite woman but I couldn’t make out her age due to the dimness of the lights. The woman cried again but quickly stopped as Raquel approached her. She didn’t flaunt her grace as she attempted with me instead she used her strength and power. She slapped the woman repetitively trying to illicit a reaction before she mounted the woman like a dog in heat. The young woman cried and begged. I had to turn my head. When Anna noticed she shouted at me, “Look at me.” The woman cried out for help repeatedly and each time she did I knew she was directing it to me. The cries didn’t stop nor wane even as she was punished for doing so.

I grabbed the knife. I could only focus on Raquel as she grunted grotesquely but as time passed the world dimmed. Besides the bed there was only blackness and myself, and I wanted nothing more than to close the gap between. So I did. I stood up. I felt unhindered. I couldn’t rush her but I could laboriously move one leg ahead the other. The knife was already drawn.

Raquel noticed me and yelled, “Sit back down.” She didn’t notice the knife until I didn’t follow her command. “Anna, I am commanding you to stop.” Frozen in place on top of the crying woman, Raquel held no authority anymore. I continued my approach which grew less laborious as I persisted and she was still frozen. The knife sunk slowly into her chest. Her blood ran over the silk and the screaming victim. I took the knife out and stabbed her repeatedly. Her blue eyes were still bright when the rest of her body became lifeless. Then I freed the woman who was still bound in a forced missionary position and she ran free.

The police arrived minutes later. I didn’t bother to run because I knew I’d have to deal with the burden of murder. They don’t conduct trials for Androids, they just deactivate them. I joined the heap of lifeless human-like bodies residing near incinerator somewhere outside of town where we were to become anonymous smoke and ash with our tribulations gone unnoticed.


Flash Fiction: Happiness Happens

Vincent sat in the shadowed room alone. Besides his breathing, the only sound was of his wristwatch ticking and the tapping of his foot against the vinyl floors. The room was empty save a bed and the chair where Vincent sat. The chair and bed were on opposite sides of the room. Vincent looked at his watch using the illumination of streetlight.

He would be welcoming another year this way. The pain of the year prior would be washed away and the future looked a hint brighter. He was in a pit though. A pit of despair and suffering and escaping seemed impossible.

If he was going to find a way out, rather a way up. He would have to work harder than he had ever. The path up is riddled in obstacles, but that journey would be more pleasant than the oppressive depression. So he decided to climb; the year must be spent in ascension and not looking back.

Vincent looked away from his watch and smiled.


Short Story: From A Hundred Pieces

Marie chose a maple log from the adjoining storage room and brought it to her workbench. She studied the imperfections nature imparted. The biography of the tree lived through the scars and contortions. In the creation of her project, she would carve out many of the marks, but a chosen few would remain imprinted. Their existence would accentuate the beauty of the vase she imagined. It was a commissioned work for a balding man in his forties, and she knew her masterwork would emerge from the timber. The maple was special; it was scavenged from a tree felled by lightning and sported scarring from the incident. Jagged lines of black and brown burrowed themselves into the wood and begged Marie to transform them. She was a professional woodworker, a perfect candidate to transmute a tree into a vase.

With a calculated strike of an axe she separated the desirable portion from the rain-induced rotting. She was familiar with the weight, the union of metal and wood. She moved the work in progress to a shave horse — a workbench and vice hybrid designed to withstand pulling forces. Switching her axe for a draw knife she scraped the glossy steel blade along the log’s length, liberating bits of bark which fell to the floor. As she peeled away layers she pictured the vase; she imagined the elegant curves she would shape into it, and she pictured how a bit of finish would heighten the contrast of the black scars and the light wood. The vase would be perfect.

The log was soon bare. Marie drilled a metal post into an end and secured the log onto a lathe. Marie grabbed her turning tools and with a press of a pedal, the wood started to turn. Her tools followed the template plotted in her mind and her hands wouldn’t dare deviate from the diagram. Her mind was long accustomed to the strain of maintaining an mental image, she had worked that way for years. Still, getting the exact curvature from her vision onto her work, wore on her.

Within hours the vase sported elegant curves. There was still work to do, however. The surface of the vase was pulpy like rough paper and she still needed to add oil to the wood for finish. Instead of pressing on and pressuring the project to keep its shape, Marie decided to take a break. Working further would’ve distorted the vision of her vase; it would become something she didn’t intend. If she worked any more she’d lose her masterwork. She left her workshop and walked across a lush lawn adorned with two oak trees to her home.  Marie’s home was modest with a single story and two bedrooms. She was able to pay for the rent, utilities and other necessities from woodworking. Her craft and passion had become her job and she never had a depressing day. She woke up energetic. Her eyes beamed enthusiasm. Marie lost all conception of desolation.

She changed into jeans and a t-shirt and left the house again. It was five o’clock and the sun was nearly set. Massive evergreens surrounded Marier’s home like sentinel defending from the sun. By 4:30 only small streams of sunlight could penetrate the forest and shed light. It was winter. The cold, with skillful control, painted dewy lawns with its frost-dipped brush leaving behind clear crystals of ice.

Marie’s friends met at a nearby pub, a post-work tradition. Marie was always the last to arrive and last to leave. She worked hard, certainly, but she knew the value of downtime. Conversation, accompanied with moderate amounts of alcohol, were the remedies that soothed her work stresses. The pub was called Great Expectations. It was the only peculiarity in an otherwise average town. Great Expectations was a literature-based pub that functioned also as a library. The pub brought in revenue from its novelty, and also garnered a cultish following. Great Expectations had one rule and patrons knew it well; the established social norm would convert first-comers to follow the rule. The rule was simple, if a little ludicrous: a conversation could only be as loud as the table was big. All tables in Great Expectations were exactly identical, small and round. The pub had a calm atmosphere where there was always chatter that never surpassed background noise. If one didn’t feel like socializing here were soundproof rooms where one could nurse a book and a drink. Marie only used the rooms a handful of times as she preferred to read in the morning. The evening was meant for socializing.

The bar area was was small. It had enough room to sit about twenty people, but the room was always filled with at least twenty-five. It was dimly lit, as is the tendency of most pubs. It was a rough looking place but the serene nature smoothed out its apparent crudeness. The bookshelves organized in the back of the building with long rows of general fiction and classics. Over time, the owner of great expectations received enough donations to start both a non-fiction and science fiction section. The books were worn as if either abused or heavily read.

The group consisted of James, a local librarian, Hanah, yet another librarian — who admittedly despised James’s sloppy work yet enjoyed his company — Carlos, a teacher and Grace, a painter. They were all captivated in conversation in Great Expectations. There was also a blank seat among the semi-circle they anticipated Marie would come fill. When Marie arrived, she was greeted with bright eyes, good cheer, and good drinking. The five enjoyed conversation of the intellectual and the absurd. There wasn’t a boring day. This is what inspired the group to spend every day with one another; they challenged each other and debated to reach new perspectives of understanding. For these five who were disparate in expertise were similar in mind, the smallest nuance became the subject of debate. Marie communicated more energetically than the others. She wasn’t always right, but her voice vibrated with passion that no other could attain. In debates she was dynamic, never fiery. She was more like a fine liquor, smooth in the voice and carried undeniable strength.

While Marie engaged her peers and revelled in their presence, tendrils of shadow seeped into Marie’s workshop. It was pitch black and the darkness that crept under the door made it even darker still. The shadows inched minute by minute until they had conquered the entire room, it had created a darkness so complete it seemed capable of devouring light. The workshop was still for a long time. The umbra wanted to linger in the workshop. It was content to haunt the room as it did with homes of insomniacs. As the moon reached its zenith, the vase with lightning scars, the one that would have become Marie’s masterwork, shattered into a hundreds pieces.

Marie returned after midnight and went straight to bed. She wasn’t drunk. She only drank moderately and knew her tolerance of alcohol.  She was instead exhausted from the amount of focus she expended. First it was work which required her to keep her mind fixed on a single thought. She had to know every detail and keep it in her mind’s eye as she worked. Then she switched her focus to her friends. Speaking with them was demanding. Everyone had conversational needs, and though she wasn’t obligated to fulfill those needs, she had a compulsion to ensure they had been. This dragged her into many unfamiliar topics like religion and politics, but with a care for words and an ear for listening attentively, she was able to deftly navigate the terrain.

Unable to tell whether she had woken up or if she was finally dreaming, Marie woke up confused. After a series of deep breaths Marie grounded herself. She stumbled out of bed and grabbed the novel The Old Man and the Sea from her nightstand. She had read it several times and loved it for the combination of simplicity and honesty. In her workshop, the vase was still in pieces and there was no trace of evidence to explain why. Marie was too absorbed into the book to check. Each word lead carefully to the next and brought her closer to the defining moment of the novel. She didn’t want to stop but it was nearing time for her to work.

When she opened the workshop door, she immediately flipped the light switch on. The incandescent bulb chased away darkness that lingered from the night before. The vase lay in fragments scattered along the workbench. She rushed to gather the shards of wood as if hurrying would improve the vase’s chance of survival. Looking at the heap, Marie understood the pointlessness of repair; any attempt at gluing the shards back together would leave lines that detract from the thick black ones. She threw away the remains of her art.

She thought of what came next. Marie had other projects. She was a professional and had a list of other commissions waiting. Marie glimpsed at the list and immediately placed it back down. It was daunting. For every commission was a corresponding vision of the project. Without meaning to do so, each project she imagined shattered too. They sundered into pieces smaller than even the vase had. Marie’s attention was drawn back to the vase, its remains settled at the bottom of the trash can. The vase whose destiny was to become a masterwork was reduced to trash fodder. Marie left the workshop discouraged.

Marie lounged around her home. She watched TV and read. These normally satisfied her, yet today she found no solace. There were only pieces of a project she put too much of herself into. She pressed on and tried to enjoy life as normal. She read until she became distracted and took a break when she needed to. Her attention was waning. What was first a break every hour became every half hour, then every ten minutes. She switched on the television. Television directors spun intricate and compelling stories but the storylines now felt pointless. So she slept away her day. She couldn’t escape the daily tradition of Great Expectations.

On habit, Marie got into her car and drove to the pub. Her friends were waiting. When she sat down her friends all gazed. Each of them had a quizzical look painted on their face, like they would simultaneously ask the same question, but the question never came. Marie’s face had deep pits of black around her eyes. Her face was pale. Neither a smile nor a frown graced her face, instead Marie was entirely devoid of emotion. Her friends understood the look and acted normal for her sake. They forced conversation, speaking in unnatural ways about subjects foreign to the group. Marie was physically present, but her mind was tethered to an ethereal plane of anxiety and dread.The conversation slowly became natural as bottles of beer mounted. They didn’t know what she was going through but each had the intuition to allow Marie to solve the problem herself. They were there for morale support, they were shoulders to lean on.

She imagined all the projects she had ever sold drifting forward through time. It would only be a span of a few human lives before her art crumbled into dust, or was simply broke and recycled. She pictured Earth and it too didn’t matter on a long enough timescale. Marie left for home without saying goodbye. When she got home she checked the workshop on last time. She craved another outcome for herself and the project but no divine intervention blessed her. She fell asleep on her couch shortly after.

Dread was the only recognizable feeling as Marie woke up. Still, she needed to go to the workshop. She needed to move on and start the next project. She was equally impelled to leave the workshop and to stay. Marie glanced again at the list projects she had lined up. She couldn’t picture a completed project without it bursting into an ungodly amount of pieces shortly after. Marie considered cancelling with her clients. She didn’t welcome the thought, but it was necessary because she couldn’t work. She felt bitter. Quitting would turn fifteen years of dedication into waste. Working on art that wouldn’t last — work that only had a shelf life slightly longer than her own — seemed equally pointless.

She thought of Mr. Kelly, the old man who commissioned a rocker. The old man was lively. His exuberance would often lead a passerby into an in-depth conversation. In the end, no one had regretted talking to Mr. Kelly. He was able to adapt to a multitude of personalities and even the most introverted could feel comfortable. Mr. Kelly’s rocker broke, “Simply gone worn out on me,” was how he told Marie. Sure, Mr. Kelly could buy another chair, he could even pull one from the kitchen to sit out on his porch. If Mr. Kelly wasn’t particular about his ritual of “rockin’ and talkin’” it would be a non-issue. Rather, Mr. Kelly prefered being cooped up in his house until he got his new rocker hand-built by Marie.

Marie walked slowly to the adjoining shed and chose wood for Mr. Kelly’s chair. She didn’t envision the final product. She didn’t project her hopes into it. There were no expectations from the work nor from herself. She turned her mind outward to her process. She studied the weight of the log as she placed it on the sawhorse, grabbed her draw knife and began slowly. She acknowledged her presence within the work; how the oscillation of her emotions and of her focus molded intricate outcomes. For a moment she thought of those who asked for her art, those who smiled when they received their commission. Basking in that elation, Marie brought her mind back to focus. She worked slowly. She worked mindfully. She worked.


Short Story: We Bleed Together

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.”