Brian

Brian sat alone at a table in the far end of the food court, checking imaginary texts. His buddy still hadn’t shown. Should he get something to eat? No, he wasn’t hungry. A drink? Not thirsty, either. What, then? Wait? By himself? For how long? Just moments after dialing his voice mailbox and starting up a conversation with the computerized reminder that he had no new messages, Brian was startled by an incoming call.  He nearly dropped his phone before recovering: “What happened, bro? Did we get disconnected?”

          “Uh . . . no,” said the voice on the other end, “I called you. Just now. Like, right this moment. Remember?”

          “Yeah, so where you at?”

          “Can’t be there for another twenty minutes, dude. My mom’s nagging me again. Found my stash.”

           “What the fuck? You can’t just blow her off?” Brian’s right knee bobbed up and down. “Well, fine. I’ll be here.”

          What was a guy supposed to do by himself at the mall for twenty minutes? Browse through Abercrombie and Fitch all alone? How pathetic that would be. To make matters worse, Brian was no longer the only person in the food court. There to witness his solitude were a couple of guys who’d parked their Sbarro pizza slices just two tables down. Why’d they have to sit so close? They’d certainly be engaging in some socialization together within a matter of minutes, just to rub it in.

          Brian fumbled with his phone some more before glancing at Sbarro, where the two assholes were filling their cups. He was relieved to identify one of them as Abdul—another senior, but older than the other seniors. Abdul didn’t play any sports, and was always quiet in class, when he bothered to show. His hair was too long and he wore raggy clothes and smelled of cigarette smoke. Brian felt some relief in knowing that he didn’t have to care about what Abdul thought of him.

          Abdul and friend took their places at the table they’d chosen and struck up a conversation that Brian pretended not to listen to.

          “So, the moment of truth has arrived!” Abdul rocked back and forth in his chair with the air of a child waiting to open a birthday gift. “Hand it over!”

          “Down, boy! It’s right here,” his friend said, placing a small package in Abdul’s outstretched hand. “Damn, it was hard to find exactly what you wanted. But my guy’s resourceful—always knows where to get whatever I ask him for, and for a killing.”

          “Well, Dan the Man, you really came through for me. Not sure I’d have been able to pull this off without you. Old Gus is shorting me on my hours at the garage again.”

          There was a pause, then, in the conversation—a heavy pause, like that between two confidantes facing a grave concern. Dan continued, “So, where is this going down?”

          “World Famous Hot Dogs. I’m going to hide it in a belly buster. How fitting is that?” Abdul laughed with satisfaction.

          “Oh, no you’re not! That’s so wrong!”

          “Yeah . . . so wrong it’s right.”

          “I don’t know.  It could really backfire.”

          “Shit, it either works or it doesn’t. At least I’ll know I tried. It’s about time I stand for something, and this is my something. So, wish me luck. We’ll know in an hour whether I’ll be celebrating in Mexico with my curvy senorita, or going down in flames.”

          Dan’s face flattened in seriousness, his eyes blackening. “I understand why you’re doing this, but you’re so young, and . . . goddammit, I can’t believe I’m saying this . . . it feels like I’m never going to see you again . . . and, man, I’m going to miss you.” Dan clutched his hands over his heart for dramatic effect. “I mourn, my friend! I mourn!”

          “Oh, stop it already!,” Abdul seemed genuinely humbled, “Everyone bites the bullet eventually. Your time will be up before you know it.”

          Just ten feet away, Brian sat at his table, curling and uncurling a straw, both knees convulsing. How could these guys? And, so casual about it? A maroon flush worked its way up his face, like vines on the façade of a barren home.

When his friend, approaching from across the food court, called, “Dude!” Brian couldn’t help but be agitated to see him. He could only offer a limp, “Yah, bro,” as he was affixed on the fact that Abdul and partner had risen from their table to leave. Brian jerked from his seat and stood with a wide stance, effectively blocking Abdul’s passage. He wasn’t sure of what he was doing; under the influence of adrenaline, his body moved independently of his befuddled mind. Abdul stopped just three feet from Brian, studying him quizzically. After an uncomfortable period of silence, Abdul turned to his friend and said, “This is my friend Dan,” before pointing to both Brian and his friend and saying, “Dan, this is Dude and this is Bro.”

          Silence.

          Abdul flashed an impish grin before prompting his and Dan’s exit from the food court.

          “What a loser,” said Brian’s friend.

          “Yeah,” said Brian, “What do you know about him, anyway?”

          “Not much. I just said he’s a loser.”

          “Bro, come on. It’s time to be serious.”

          This made Brian’s friend uncomfortable, so that his voice raised an octave. “What’s up with you? I barely know that guy. He’s hardly ever in class. Seems like a real smart-ass, though.”

          “What do you mean?”

          “Chill out! Nothing, really. Like, okay, the other day when the teacher said, ‘Nice of you to show up today,’ he said something about having to miss class for his religion.”

          “What, he’s an Islamic or something?”

          “Dude, what are you talking about? I think he’s from California. Calm down!”

          “You’re so clueless. Do you even pay attention to world events?”

          “Uh, sure I do. Why don’t we go blaze and I’ll tell you about the world event that took place in my car last night with the hot Asian chick from science lab.”

           Brian grimaced. In light of his newfound purpose, he was suddenly aware of a chasm between him and his friend—too big to fully understand, much less explain. “Go on without me, bro. I’m going to hang out here for a while. Got something to take care of. I’ll call you later, if I need a ride.”

#

           What to do? Something serious was going down, and Brian had only one hour to stop it. An hour is a long time to sit by yourself, but very little time when you have a mall full of people to save. As his new reality set in, it occurred to Brian that his father would have been very proud of him. He had to clench his jaw to ward off the sting of tears that hung in the sidelines, threatening occupation. 

           Brian missed his father.

           His vision tunneled until everything around him disappeared and he was viewing, in his mind’s eye, his dad’s funeral procession: a casket concealed in red-white-and-blue; a row of empty-saddled horses; a flock of tear-streaked, Vietnam-worn faces; an enormity of pride, outweighing even the national debt. It didn’t matter that he had dead-ended in an alcoholic stalemate, Brian’s father was a hero.

          Offering a silent prayer to the man he was counting on to guide his actions, Brian wondered what his next step should be. As he was already in the food court, it seemed only obvious that he first attempt to intersect Abdul’s strategy by way of the cashier at World Famous Hot Dogs. It wouldn’t be easy, he could tell by the look of the cashier, who, while nibbling on bitten-to-the-quick fingernails, stared right through him.

          He approached slowly, forcing an uneasy smile. “Listen, in about an hour, a tall guy is going to order a belly buster. Don’t give it to him.”

           The cashier said nothing, but swatted her bangs out of her eyes, catching a stray wisp in the jewelry puncturing her brow. This distracted Brian, and he became fixated on that snagged hair to the point of almost giving up on the cashier. She responded before he could reach the conclusion to walk away: “Are you going to order something?”

          “I am serious,” said Brian, “This. Is serious. Do not serve a belly buster to the guy in the long black coat.”

          “Hey, genius, it’s 30 degrees outside. Most people are wearing coats. You’re wearing a coat. Should I deny you a belly buster?”

          “Listen to me! He’s tall and lanky. He’s got dark hair. Long hair. Scrubby face. He looks like, you know –“

The cashier giggled—a giggle of ridicule—her voice tinged with sarcasm. “No, I don’t know. Please fill me in.”

          “What is wrong with you . . . people?” Brian sputtered his words as his temper began to flail about. Talking to the cashier would be of no use, and he couldn’t afford to lose his cool. He obviously needed a new plan.

          Commanded by an outside force, Brian marched through the mall robotically, his mind taking rapid-fire inventory of his options. Should he try to find Abdul, or should he head to the security station? Would anyone believe him, or would he just find more apathy? It wasn’t like he had a whole lot of proof—or, any. What he needed was to know more about Abdul’s plan.

          Fortunately the mall was small and Abdul was easy to find, standing by a water fountain near exit B and talking to a man Brian had never seen—a man who could’ve easily passed for an older version of Abdul. Brian positioned himself against the wall, close enough to his two suspects to monitor their actions, but far enough away to be inconspicuous as he navigated his phone through another round of phony correspondence.

          Abdul pulled a set of keys out, handed them to the older man. “Park right outside this entrance, along the curb—ya know, in the fire lane—and be ready to step on it. If this goes as planned, we’ll have to escape a swarm and then race the clock to make the flight on time.”

The man eyed Abdul, mouth pursed in hesitation, before saying, “You sure you want to do this?”

          “I’m sure.” Abdul did not hesitate.

          But the other was not letting up. “I hope you’re taking this real, real serious. Like, no turning back. Get it?”

          “Come on! You think I don’t know what I’m doing? Do you even know how long I’ve been planning this? I swear, sometimes you still see me as a little kid.”

          The mystery man seemed to loosen up, then, patting his compatriot on the back and grinning. “Alright, kid.”

          Abdul reached into his coat and lowered his voice. “Hey, wanna see it?”

          The other man exaggerated a flinch. “I better not! That’s guilt by association, know what I mean?”

          Abdul’s empty hand collapsed to his side. “Ha! And I’m the kid?”

          “I’m sure I’ll see it soon enough. I’ll be waiting right here, remember? Just know that however this goes, I love ya.”

          When the two embraced, Brian could no longer stand to watch. He dizzied in a maelstrom of rage as the reality of what he was facing unwound before him, growing even uglier and more sinister by the moment. How was it possible that Abdul had such support? What power did he have over his friends, who seemed not to care at all about what he was about to do? How was it possible that people could be so blinded by misguided loyalty?

#

            Brian made his way out to the parking lot to get some fresh air. He had all the information he needed, including Abdul’s exit plan. It was time to call the authorities.

           “9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”

          “Listen, I’m at the Four Corners Mall, and in about an hour,” glancing his watch, “I mean, in less than 30 minutes, there’s going to be an explosion. In the food court. You guys have to get here quick. I’m talking about a bomb! In the food court! In a hot dog! Hurry! Quick!”

          “Sir, slow down. What does the bomb look like? Who has the bomb?”

          Just the feeling of the b-word in his mouth ignited an upsurge of panic. What if the call was traced to his phone? Would he become a suspect? The adrenaline that had forced him to stand up to Abdul in the food court also forced him to hang up the phone. There was nothing else he could do but hide out in wait.

 

Abdul

          Abdul scanned the food court. It was time. He’d hoped for more of a crowd, but he was one of only two. His eyes rested on his unwitting accomplice. She was soft and sweet, pregnant like a doughnut peach. For a brief moment, he wondered if she spoke to her stomach at night, the way he imagined most expectant mothers did. He studied her with unblinking eyes until his vision clouded and her golden hair expanded to encircle her head like a halo.

          His thoughts were then compelled to the tiny package in his coat. How could he be sure he was doing the right thing? As much as he wanted to wait to be completely sure, urgency struck at his temples with the determination of a hall-clock pendulum: tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock. There was no time for cold feet. He’d already planned this out, and everything was as it should be—as it was meant to be. His hands shook as he pulled the package out of his inner pocket. Stealing just one more moment to observe the pregnant girl’s curious sort of quiet beauty, he resolved that he was, in fact, doing the right thing.  He couldn’t open the package fast enough.

          He had trouble shoving the piece in its entirety into the Belly Buster hotdog. It was too large to be fully concealed. He wondered if this small detail would give him away before he had a chance to deliver the simple speech he’d spent over a week revising: It’s hard to find meaning in life. Things aren’t always what they seem, and they don’t always go as planned. I know I’m far from perfect, but I could die today—happy—knowing that at least I found my meaning.

          Was the speech enough? Was it cheesy? Did he really want to go out like that—in those words? He was never too good at expressing himself, and he knew he had only one chance to get a speech like this right. At the bare minimum, he hoped it was good enough to get the message across. “Your nerves are playing tricks on you,” he thought, “You can do this, and in a minute it’ll all be over and none of this shit will matter.”

          Abdul was torn from his reverie by a very loud, male voice: “Don’t do what you’re about to do!”

          Abdul looked up to see a vaguely familiar face. Retracing his steps in a whirlwind, he strained to identify his opponent, before realizing it was the same guy he’d run into earlier that day in the food court—the guy from algebra class, who told fat jokes and picked on the kid in the corner with the skin problem. Brian, was his name. It was guys like Brian who made Abdul want to end it all.

But there was no way Abdul was going to let Brian end this. He figured he’d best play it cool: “Hey dude. Or is it bro? What’s up?”

          Brian was in a fit of trembles, his face patchy-red and oddly damp. Abdul thought the guy looked insane—possessed, even. It was impossible to know what he was thinking as he seemed to recite his words from memory: “I know what you’re doing! You’re not going to get away with this! Disengage the hot dog!”

          Abdul approached Brian slowly, drawing in a deep breath to pace his confusion and stifle his mounting anger.

          “I said, disengage the hot dog!” Brian shrieked.

          Like a self-conscious parent reprimanding a child in a public place, Abdul delivered his verbal lashing as inconspicuously as possible: “Listen, I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but you’re blowing something pretty big-time here. You need to back off—like, right now. This has nothing to do with you, and if you leave right this moment, I promise I’ll forget how much I want to knock your ass out.”

          The small ring of silver protruding from Abdul’s foot-long belly buster hot dog caught the light, then, projecting into Brian’s eyes. This seemed to confirm something for Brian, who lost his composure completely. He screamed, “It’s a bomb! It’s a bomb! It’s a bomb!” As his voice cracked, his legs gave out on him and he collapsed onto the floor, right at Abdul’s feet.

          The pregnant girl stood from her seat, shielding her belly. Abdul looked from her to Brian, and then back to her again. A flood of nausea drowned his sensibilities. He wanted to explain, but words had ceased to exist for him. All he could do was extend his arms, holding the hot dog tray, in helplessness. For a millisecond, he knew exactly what was going to happen. First, there was shock at this realization, and then the most painful sort of fear. But lastly, there was relief—an eternity of relief—and Abdul was thankful for that. Then the millisecond was over, and there was nothing.

#

          It was an easy shot for Lieutenant Brown, given the mall that time of day was sparsely populated. That, and he’d been spending his weekends at the firing range ever since the Newtown massacre. The police were quick to move in and escort Brian to a paramedic, as he had gone into medical distress. Of course, the police were even quicker to confiscate the hot dog bomb, which they soon found out was not a bomb, after all.

          In spite of the excitement, the food court remained empty. The few people who had gathered around the scene scattered the moment they heard gunshots—everyone scattered, that is, except for the pregnant girl, who lay like a spent rag-mop on Abdul’s crimson chest, holding a silver engagement band in her hand and wailing, “Why? Why? Why?”

The Good American

Fiction