“Empty the register!”
A handful of customers scattered among the aisles of canned spam and dusty boxes of instant meals. A non-English speaking woman in an ill-fitting Molly Maid® uniform shrieked in fear as she side-swiped a display of pork rinds, launching the dried pig fat high into the air. A ruddy-faced, thin-lipped drunk thrust his fat-bellied torso against the beer cooler. Two more customers skittered like roaches into the detritus of the stock room.
Outside, the faulty neon OPEN sign flickered in the front window. The worn-out shopkeeper’s bell hung still beneath a faded red and white awning which sagged above the front door from forty years of the unyielding sun. This wasn’t the first robbery at the 24-hour convenience store. It sat just beyond the manicured lawns and high wooden fences of suburbia where parents still let their kids play unsupervised, on the edge of the haves and have-nots. Beyond the storefront, stray garbage and a gathering of homeless littered the gutters.
The young man holding the gun raised one hand to stabilize the other as the weight of the revolver tested the weak point in his wrist. He was sweating profusely. The heat, trapped within the shallow layer of the atmosphere, settled street-level, causing the temperate air to search for an escape from under the low-slung clouds and saturating everything in a dank layer of humidity in the process.
The store’s regulars were the type who avoided the overpriced establishments just off the highway and seldom had access to a car. They were women who sent their protesting husbands out for milk and condoms or tampons and aspirin no matter the hour. There were the regular drunks and stoners who rummaged the shelves for snacks. They mixed with the shift workers, the mischief-makers and the broken, all passing each other in the cramped aisles.
A young soon-to-be mother had just placed a quart of milk on the counter when the disturbance rippled through the store like an unchecked rumor.
In this part of town it was best to mind your own business. Those unpinned by fear snuck out the back with handfuls of unpaid merchandise. But at the beer cooler, the tension grew thanks to the sloshy, loud-mouthed words of the drunk.
“We are being robbed!” he yelled.
The gunman paced in a tight circle. A knotted scowl and a thin smear of street grunge made him appear older. His eyes were dark and deep set, buried beneath a mop of jet-black hair and a shrouded by a gray hoodie. He had a grown man’s build, but a voice that faltered between defiance and defeat.
After stepping over the spilled Pork Cracklins® and side-eyeing the loud-mouth drunk man flush with the beer cooler, he sharpened his gaze on the cash register, where the unbroken twitch of his left eye caught the attention of an older man standing to his right.
“Do I know you?”
“Soccer,” the man said. “I was your soccer coach.”
Opening day of spring soccer was usually one of his favorite days, but today was full of small catastrophes. In less than an hour, hundreds of kids would descend on the two dozen soccer fields, their helicopter parents hovering.
He’d meant to leave the house fifteen minutes earlier, but he’d misplaced his coaches’ jersey. Then halfway down the driveway, he realized he’d forgotten his roster. By the time he left the house, he was a solid thirty minutes late. In the car, his blood pressure climbed, and his right foot stiffened on the gas. Responding to his demands, the car sputtered.
He finally approached the entrance to the soccer park, merging his car into the twisting stream of traffic as tiny soccer players birthed themselves from minivans and their siblings—wearing oversized Messi jerseys—darted into traffic only to be chased down by fleeted-footed, sandal-wearing soccer moms. In rebellion, an occasional soccer ball skirted across the parking lot, slipping past both soccer mom and soccer player.
“What happened to you? You were my best defender.”
The young gunman steadied the barrel of the revolver at chest level, alternating between the house cleaner, the drunk and the store clerk in a slow-moving sweep that pulsed under the single row of faulty fluorescent lighting.
“You quit soccer.”
The corner of the gunman’s mouth creased into the faint hint of a smile, but stiffened before materializing into something real.
“My parents pulled me out.”
“The last time I saw you was opening day six years ago. I thought you loved soccer?”
“I did. But then someone knifed my parents’ car in the parking lot. A racial thing. Said soccer was for rich white people. After that they never let me come back.”
By the time he arrived at the soccer park, the players were already gathering into small color-coded clusters for team photos. He spun his twenty-year-old Honda into the first parking lot and, with one hand on the wheel, used his other hand to stabilize the box filled with soccer uniforms. It slipped from his grasp and hit the passenger’s door with a whoomph, sending his clipboard, a few soccer uniforms and his water bottle flying.
He up-righted the box with a tug and raced through the full lot, wheeling his car down a gravel access road into a remote parking lot several hundred yards from the front gate. Another ten minutes behind.
After wedging his car into the last too-small spot, he grabbed his clipboard, coach’s jersey, and the box of uniforms and ran.
“What’s the plan?”
The gunman inhaled sharply.
“I’m getting the fuck out of here. That’s the plan.”
“Cops will be here soon. You’ve got a gun, a handful of scared people in the store. Just leave now. Go while you can.”
He was halfway across the parking lot when the bottom of the box gave way, spilling its contents out onto the gravel.
As he bent to snatch the uniforms off the ground, his sunglasses slipped from his head and shattered on the pavement. With his shoe, he crunched the shattered glass.
Once he collected himself, he noticed that in the front parking lot, twenty feet from the front gate, someone had parked a bright gold Chrysler 300 between two spots on purpose.
The gunman grew restless as the nervous clerk jerked cash from the register. The glass coolers half-filled with beer, nearly bare shelves with canned goods, the out-of-date packages of peanuts, the two-for-a-dollar Raman noodles and stale cookies were closing in. A large barrel intended for cola—and beer, maybe—was empty and dry, covered in a thin layer of dust where someone had sketched a smiley face. In the background, the air conditioner struggled, marking the tension with a rhythmic pang.
“It’s not your fault, coach,” he said. “I just fell in with the wrong crowd.”
“Give me the gun and go home.”
“Can’t do that.”
“Because I have nothing at home.”
The clerk wrestled the last twenty dollar bill from the register.
“You think robbing this shitty convenience store for a few hundred dollars is going to give you anything? Give me the gun, and I’ll tell the police you got away.”
The gunman hesitated.
“Give me the gun. I can make this right.”
A police car screeched to a halt just outside the store, shifting the attention of everyone inside.
Between the older and the younger, player and coach, amidst unreached potential on both sides of the equation, a struggle erupted as two officers breached the front door.
The shopkeeper’s bell sang a split second before a single bullet tore into his skull, leaving an expanding, but temporary cavity. The round came from a Glock 22 fired by a rookie white officer fresh off his mandatory cultural awareness and communication training. The force of the shot propelled brain matter onto the slushy machine, the wall, and the face of the store clerk, who collapsed in horror.
The bullet tumbled amongst his gray matter, undressing from its metal jacket, before finding the back of his skull and blasting a large exit hole.
His body recoiled, caused by an involuntary neuromuscular stiffening of the back muscles, which straightened him momentarily, before propelling him backward. His arms fanned out to the side before he met the floor with a weighty, lifeless thud.
On a humid evening in the small store on the corner that bordered poverty and prosperity, the consequences of keying a bright gold Chrysler 300 six years ago had finally come to their tragic end.
R.E. Hengsterman is a writer and photographer. Born helpless and nude he now wanders under the Carolina blue sky.