50 SECONDS • by Bob Krotz

My world is a gun pressed against my forehead. The pressure is committed, lethal. My reality is details: Nickel plated precision cocooned by knuckles tattooed with H A T E. A bare arm with ropey muscles writhing under tattoos and open sores, connected to a tattered body wearing a Sponge Bob tank top. An indistinct face, manic with dope fueled rage. Rubbery lips skittering over meth-rotted teeth. My mortal countdown is measured by the Marlboro digital clock behind the counter. It shows 9:20:10 pm.

Behind my armed robber, crumpled behind the counter in a surprisingly large pool of blood, is Jerry, formerly of Jerry’s Liquor & Deli. He’s proof that a gun under the counter rarely beats a gun in the hand. Jerry’s surprised expression bears witness to it. Two convex mirrors in the corners offer no relief from the crime. His murder is in every view.

My imminent death frees my mind to trip where it will. My breath hitches for my two daughters who will have to live through the emotional tornado of my murder. I think of my ex-wife who will get them through it. Our marriage was calamitous, but she has strength the girls will need.

My robber is jitterbugging, a human live-wire, barely contained by his skin. My own rage is building. My shoulders tense in anticipation. Impatient, he pushes the pistol harder against my head. My mind takes off again.

I should have quit smoking. I smoke when I write, and the novel is going so well that I’m puffing like a freight train struggling up a mountain pass. My book, a tale of brotherhood, loss and redemption set in the Syrian civil war, is almost writing itself. I’ve never felt so creative and empowered. Now this asshole, two-legged crime spree is going to end my story. If I had quit smoking, I wouldn’t be in Jerry’s Liquor looking for cigarettes, looking at Jerry lying on the floor. Shit.

I feel my wallet in my hand. I don’t recall how it got there. Everything that will tell a stranger who I am is tucked protectively in the leather square that vanishes into my robber’s back pocket. His lips squirm over the crumbled tombstones of his smile. My body is screaming at me to Ranger Up, to kill this prick. The clock shows 09:20:20 pm.

I’m saying goodbye to my sisters. Three good women living solid lives. Though separated by hundreds of miles we are close in the ways that friendly family is. They all read my last book, the one that put me on the charts and landed me my current publisher. They all liked it. Amazing.

I see my nieces and nephews. They think I’m cool, probably because they aren’t my kids. They think I’m a human encyclopedia. It’s the result of being a writer. I tell them to read everything. Some of them do. It pleases me.

I know that someone will take care of my two dogs: Rocky and Gracie, brother and sister Shih Tzus. We’ve had seven years of unconditional love and laughter. One of my sisters will keep them. I think that this human wrecking ball in front of me doesn’t deserve the love of a good dog. It seems like the most damning statement I can make about another human being. The clock shows 09:20:32 pm.

My thoughts skip across the landscape of my lifetime. I’m four years old learning to ride a bike. It’s liberating and terrifying. I’m twelve and my two best friends are racing me on flattened cardboard boxes down the grassy hills at Two Strike park. I will never be freer or have better friends. I’m 25, graduating from Army Ranger school. The world beckons, but Afghanistan has plans for me. My daughters are helping me celebrate my fortieth birthday. They haven’t sided with their Mother yet. On my fiftieth birthday I receive my first royalty check. My debut novel is a bona fide hit. I’m finally a writer. Now I’m 53 and in Jerry’s Liquor looking past the cavernous barrel of a .45 caliber pistol at the pathetic asshole that is calling in my chit. The clock shows 09:20:41.

His lips disappear in a thin line. His eyes go flat, like dolls eyes. I see his forearm tendons coil, bringing the tattoos to life. We are very close now. He inhales through his nose deeply. I don’t know if I’m quick enough to beat his trigger pull.

An electronic bonging announces a new arrival. His eyes shift away from me. I rise onto the balls of my feet. A forty caliber bullet slams into the left side of his head. The impact pressure wave causes his eyes to bulge out comically. The mortal presence of his gun barrel vanishes as he’s snatched from view by six more body blows from the Glock pistol in the hand of a stranger. After the roar of the gun, the silence is shocking.

I drop to my knees, nauseous with adrenaline. I focus on blood spattered linoleum. Polished black shoes under crisply cuffed pants appear next to me. They are blood spattered as well. A strong hand helps me stand up. As I rise my gaze pauses on a police badge clipped on a belt. Knowing eyes study my face. Neither of us look at the body on the floor. He instinctively turns me away from the carnage. He’s speaking to me, but I can’t make it out. I smell cordite and blood and body odor. I feel myself grinning as I dump adrenaline. The cop smiles with me and puts his bear-like arm protectively around my shoulders. I can finally hear him.

“It’s a good thing I needed smokes.”

I know I’ll never have another cigarette. I look at the clock. It’s 9:21 pm. Exactly.

Bob Krotz lives in Southern California with his wife and two Shih Tzus.

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