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The Participants – Chapter 1

Chapter 1 – Zack / Iteration 144

    Only a few customers dotted the convenience store after the morning rush.  From behind the deli counter, Zack observed them.  Two men in neon yellow t-shirts and old jeans perused the not-so-fresh meats on display; the first chewed the dirt-encrusted nails of one hand while the second debated whether he preferred greasy ham or dry turkey.  Based on their clothing, Zack decided they must work for an excavation company.
    The nail-biting first man had dull eyes and a verbal tic that caused him to mumble an affirmation to everything the second man said.  The second man had the rugged looks women found attractive and held himself as if he were well aware of the fact.
    “It’s grease versus saw-dust,” the handsome one said.
    “Yep,” said the nail-biter.
    “Either way it’ll be on stale-ass bread.”
    “Gotta love gas station food.”
    The handsome man rolled his eyes at the continued agreement of the nail-biter.  He doesn’t like the guy, thought Zack, so why is he putting up with him?  He had a theory, but there was no way to be certain without asking a question.
    “Does your father own the company?” Zack asked the nail-biter.
    “Yep.  Err, no.  I mean no.  I work with my brother.”
    “Works for his brother,” the handsome man said.  “Handles a shovel while I run the equipment.   I’ll take the ham.  Put it on the least stale bread you got.”
    Zack fulfilled the order while he turned his attention to a kid buying a carton of smokes from Maggie at the register.  The leather jacket, name-brand sneakers, and self-satisfied smirk provided Zack everything he needed to make his call:  a high-school student skipping school.  Maggie rang up the order without asking to see his identification.
    A woman who looked about fifty entered the store sporting purse, shoes, and clothing worth more than Zack made in a month.  The proud manner with which she displayed her articles suggested she was far less affluent than she appeared.  Zack doubted she could afford her shopping habit.
    In the back of the store, a young couple pawed at each other in a public display.  Both were less than average in appearance.  Zack imagined that fact contributed to the ardor in their display of affection.  For some, the only thing better than being desired was having witnesses to the fact.
    As Zack’s gaze roved to the wall of windows facing the parking lot and gas pumps, he noticed a rusted Fiat with a missing license plate back into the handicap parking spot by the doors.  Inside the car, two occupants pulled masks over their faces.  His heart began to beat faster.
    Maggie looked at him when he approached the register.  She was a nineteen-year-old high-school dropout and still thought she was going places in life.  For some reason, Zack liked her irrational optimism.  “Kelly wants to see you in back.  Said it was serious.”
    Maggie threw her head like a stallion.  “What now?  So help me God if she says I’m stealing again.  I will flip on her.  Seriously, I’m gonna flip.”  She stalked to Kelly’s small office at the rear of the store.
    Zack stepped up to the register and smiled at the fifty-year-old woman decked out in clothes she couldn’t afford.  “Kids these days,” he said.
    “I can’t even remember that age.”  She handed him cash.  “Pump two.”
    “The two of you might be closer in age than you think.”
    The woman laughed.  “How old do you think I am, kid?”
    Two men entered the store behind the woman, ski masks concealing their faces and hands deep inside pockets.  They looked at one another before stepping into line behind the old woman.  These two are awful polite for robbers.  They must be new to their profession, he thought.
    “I think you’re five years old,” Zack said as he returned the old woman’s change.
    She frowned at him, obviously unsure how to take him.  “Funny,” she finally deadpanned before turning to leave the store.
    The men in ski masks pressed forward to lean ominously over the counter.  “Give us all your money,” the one wearing a camouflage hunting jacket growled.
    The past five years had been an eternity to Zack.  Five years observing creatures too simple to grasp the pointlessness of their lives.  Five years wishing he had never been created.  Five years waiting for the sky to open.
    Zack smiled.  “Are you trying to rob a gas station?”
    The one in camo leaned closer, giving Zack a clear look into wild, bloodshot eyes.  Drugs, Zack thought.  The second robber leaned in, looked at Zack with tilted head, and smiled with feral intent.  The second robber looked like he wanted to shoot someone.
    “Hey, idiots, there’s this thing called a cash drop box.  We put large bills into a slot and the only way to get the money out is for the owner to use his key.  At most you can get a few hundred dollars from a gas station.  Hell, there’s probably less than that in this drawer because it’s been a light morning and we’ve had a lot of people use credit cards.”
    “Open the register or I’ll blow your brains out,” camo growled at him.
    “All I have to do is push the silent alarm and the police will be here in minutes.  You might as well start running now, cause I’m not giving you deadbeats a single dime.  Got it?”
    The second robber pulled a gun from his jacket pocket and pointed it at Zack’s face.  Obscenities began to pour from camo.  Zack stared into the eyes of the man with the gun, ignoring the barrel six inches from his nose.  “You don’t have the balls.”
    “Last chance, shithead.”  The man pulled back on the slide action, cocking the pistol.  “Open the register or die.”
    Zack couldn’t force a laugh, but he managed to bring his smile back.  “You didn’t even have a round in the chamber when you put that in my face?  Do you think this is a movie where people crap their pants whenever they hear someone load a round?  I’m not impressed.  If you and your boyfriend run now, you might have time for one last circle-jerk before the cops bust you.”
    The decision to kill registered in the gunman’s eyes.  Zack just had time to notice the shift of intent before a tidal wave of thunder hit him.  He felt himself hit the floor.  His vision was gone, leaving a claustrophobic darkness in its place.  Fear and confusion struggled in vain against the encroaching tide of oblivion.  Thoughts dimmed and Zack was free.