Four is the number of gunmen who enter the library where she’s taken her son for story time. Four is the age of her son, who will soon be five, if he lives through this day. Four is the number of books she returned, and half the number she planned on checking out. Four is the amount of money she has in her wallet until she gets paid again.
Three is how many times the nearest gunman has to yell for her to get down on the floor before his meaning and the reality of the situation finally set it. She grabs her son and pushes him down, covering him with her trembling body. Beside her, a father does the same with his two girls. He murmurs reassuring words to them, telling them to pray. She wishes she had such faith in the trinity she grew up with, but she believes in nothing except for her hustle and the multiple jobs she works and the love she has for the little boy beneath her, so she tells him she loves him, that he is the most precious thing to her. He smells like little boy sweat, and like dirt and books, and the floor is musty, with a faded blue-green pattern that reminds her of the ocean she grew up with.
Two is the number of shots that ring out without warning. She jerks with each one, expecting a bullet to hit the soft flesh of her back. Her son cries out, and the others scream, or moan, or sob. The astringent smell of urine fills the air. She’s not sure if it’s hers or her son’s, or somebody else’s. The father beside her is safe, as are his girls. She and her son are alive, for now. But somebody isn’t. Somebody is dead. One of the gunmen yells, “You are all slaves to false knowledge.” She doesn’t even know what that means. People are dying around her, the least the gunman could do is tell her why in simple terms.
One is the number of outright lies she tells her son. “Everything is going to be fine.” She strokes his dark hair, the same shade as hers where deep fiery hues emerge in the full sun. The gunmen go around and take purses and wallets and phones. She has hardly anything for them, just a mostly-empty purse with a half-eaten bag of potato chips, a couple of pieces of gum, and a little toy car. She hands it over readily without looking at the gunman’s face. He might shoot her when he sees how little she has to offer.
So far as she knows, nobody inside had a chance to call the police when the gunmen entered, but sirens wail in the distance anyway, growing closer rapidly. The gunmen yell. The father beside her looks up. She knows that look. It’s the look of a man who thinks he’ll be a hero. Her husband had that look once, but he wore a military uniform, and he’d been halfway around the world, and all she’d had was a video of his last moments. This father thinks he’ll jump up and take a gun and save them all, but all he’ll do is die in front of his little girls.
She knows what it’s like to be an only parent, a one when she used to be part of two. She can’t allow this man’s partner to know the same. She reaches out a hand and takes his, squeezes it. She doesn’t have to feign the look of fear on her face. She begs him silently with her touch and her eyes. Stay down. Stay with me. Stay with your girls and my boy. And he does. He keeps his head down as the sirens grow louder and the shouts angrier and another shot rings out. He flinches, and she holds his hand tighter.
Zero is the sum of what she allows the gunmen to take from her. They have her purse and its contents, but they do not have her or her son, they cannot take this bit of comfort she shares with this stranger, they cannot take the totality of her. Zero is the number of warnings before the police enter the building, and the number of gunmen still alive when it all ends.
Rebecca Roland is the author of the Shards of History series, The Necromancer’s Inheritance series, and The King of Ash and Bones, and Other Stories. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Nature, Flash Fiction Online, Fantasy Scroll Magazine, New Myths, and Every Day Fiction, and she is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. You can find out more about her and her work at rebeccaroland.net or follow her on Twitter at @rebecca_roland.