*Note: I’m very pleased to announce that the story below was a finalist in Compass Rose’s flash fiction contest!
Johnny wasn’t entirely sure how he’d ended up at the gas station that night, gun in hand, ski mask on. The cashier – young, naïve, sweaty – had pissed himself when he saw Johnny and Sean, the urine dribbling down his pant leg to form a yellow puddle on the floor. Johnny felt sorry the guy; he wasn’t going to shoot him, he just needed the money. All the guy had to do was open the register and give him the cash. But the guy panicked, holding up his arms, waving them back and forth like some kind of windmill caught in a hurricane. And then Sean shot him, and it all went to hell.
Johnny’d only meant to get a few bucks, enough to help pay this month’s rent. He’d seen the red-stamped envelopes, the late notices, the eviction letter. He’d heard his mother’s weeping at night, saw his baby sister’s face puckered with worry, asking why Mama was crying. He just wanted to relieve his mother’s worry, lift that burden from her shoulders long enough so that she would smile again. Be like that guy Atlas he’d seen in a book. Balancing the weight of the world, his mother’s world, on his shoulders. And so he’d let Sean talk him into this robbery, quick cash he’d said.
But he’d never seen blood like that, heard screams like that; the poor guy’s shrieking had reverberated throughout the store. Johnny’s ears had rung, traumatized by the deafening gunshot, the inhuman keening of the cashier. He had dropped the gun, barely registering its muffled metallic clunk as it hit the linoleum floor, and covered his ears.
“Sean, what did you do?”
Sean looked at him, stunned, like he didn’t realize it had been he who’d pulled the trigger. He stared down at the black weapon in his hand, his finger still hovering over the trigger.
“I didn’t mean to,” he told Johnny, his eyes widening with shock, “I really didn’t mean to.”
Both boys eyed the dying cashier, the blood, crimson and thick, oozing out of his gut to pool on the floor. The kid was wheezing, the sound harsh and rasping. His eyes were watery and bloodshot, his gaze unfocused, and his skin had taken on a sallow, waxy texture.
“We gotta do something, man, we can’t just leave him like this,” Johnny said as he began to pace back and forth in front of the counter. “We can’t let him die.”
“Shit, shit!” Sean scrubbed his hands over his face, pulling up his soft cotton ski mask. “Let’s just grab the cash, then call 911 from a payphone.”
Johnny turned and bellied onto the counter, stretching to snag the bills clasped in the register drawer. As he straightened to put the money in his pocket, he glanced up to the corner, caught the eye of the security camera.
“Sean, pull your mask down!” Johnny gestured toward the camera, his movements jerky.
“Oh no,” Sean whispered as he adjusted the black cloth to re-cover his nose and his mouth. “Let’s just get outta here, man.”
They pushed through the glass doors and ran from the store. Johnny ran, and he ran, and he ran, until his lungs were burning, his face dripping with sweat, his legs sore from pounding the hard pavement. He’d lost his mask at some point; the wind had pushed it up his face, over his head, into the street where careless drivers passed over it again and again, whipping it through their dirty tires. He didn’t know where Sean was. But he ran until he reached his home, and there he ran through the door, up the stairs, into his family’s apartment.
He ran past his mother’s room, past his baby sister sleeping on the couch, into his bedroom. And then he stopped.
He sat down on his sagging bed, leaned back until his head bumped the thin wall behind him. His chest heaved, up and down and up and down. As his breath slowed, Johnny reached into his pocket to pull out the cash he’d stolen, the cash that had cost someone his life. He fingered the soft paper, his thumb tracing presidents’ faded green faces.
He let out a long breath, then stood. He crept into his mother’s bedroom and slowly slid the cash under her pillow before leaning down to give her a light kiss on the cheek.
“I love you, Mama,” he whispered.
Then he walked slowly out of the apartment, walked out of the building, walked down the street, walked the blocks and blocks to a squat cement building marked with stark black letters, “Police.” And Johnny, a 14-year-old boy, a criminal, turned himself in.