"What did you do? What the fuck did you do?"
The sound of a voice, even an angry one, comforts me. The room around me slowly comes to light, the way a movie begins sometimes, slowly coughing up the picture to match the sound. I'm beginning to feel strange, lighter. My head and shoulders seem to rise, my hips and legs, I keep going up until my feet no longer touch the floor. When the lights come all the way on, I can see that I'm floating, up near the ceiling of the store.
Someone, a girl, is lying face down behind the cash register. A small puddle of blood forms next to her, coming from her side. Something connects me to this person on the floor, some sort of rope or line. I can't see it, but I can feel the resistance pulling at me, holding me in place. I test it a couple of times, bouncing down and away, down and away. The line has an elastic quality. The farther I move off, the more the string tightens its grip on me, but it doesn't break. I stop testing it. I don't want to break it.
"Say something, goddammit!"
I look away from the girl on the floor. Two men, boys really, not much older than I am, stand across from the cash register, near the small chip bags. They're both wearing dark sweatshirts with the hoods pulled up and dark gloves. One is pale, tall and angular with dark black eyebrows and eyes. He's yelling at the other one, who is shorter and sturdier. His complexion is ruddy, and he has a thick blond mustache.
"It just went off." The blond guy is holding a small pistol in his hand.
"It can't just go off! You had to pull the trigger!"
"It went off." The blond man looks away from his companion's accusing finger.
"She wasn't even looking at us! What did you have to shoot her for?"
The blond man isn't listening. He's staring at the cigarette rack, half tipped over and in disarray. "The way she fell, grabbing at things . . . I thought she'd just go right down."
"You were just supposed to scare her into opening the cash drawer! You told me it wasn't even loaded!" The dark man stops shouting, too frustrated to think of anything else to say.
The blond man looks at the girl on the floor.
The dark man gets in his partner's face. "You meant to do this, didn't you? You planned it!"
The blond man waves the pistol in the air, backing the dark man off. "It just happened!" He looks scared, and he stares at the gun. A moment later, his expression changes, grows hard. He looks back up to the dark man and shrugs. "It's not my fault."
I feel a chill. Instinctively, I pull away, but the thread pulls me back. The men don't seem to see me up here, even when I move.
"We have to call somebody. An ambulance."
"Sure! Call and tell 'em a girl's been shot at the Stop and Go. They'll never call the cops."
"We can't just leave her!"
The blond man hesitates. "Get the money first. Open the drawer. I'll check on her."
They move around the ice-cream freezer, and step up on the raised platform behind the cash register. I hover over them, passing over the counter, where the overhead shelf blocks my vision for a second. Once I glide past it, I see the blond man reach with his foot and roll the body over with the toe of his running shoe. The girl's hair falls over part of her--my--face. I'm surprised at first, seeing myself lying on the floor in a pool of blood. I glide down a little to join the men and gawk at my unconscious face, amazed at how much I look like a victim on a TV detective show.
"She's losing a lot of blood. We have to call somebody!"
"Shut up and get the money."
The dark man tears his eyes away, then reaches under his jacket and yanks half of a crow bar from the back of his jeans. He turns to the register, stepping over the blood on the floor, and pries on the cash drawer, first jerking up and down, then wrenching at each side. The blond man kneels down and brushes the hair from my face. He leans closer, his ear over my nose and mouth, listening for breathing. He touches me, a light press my neck to check for a pulse. He cradles my head with one hand, searching for something in my half-closed eyes. The string jerks me down, closer.
The cash drawer springs open. The dark-haired man reaches for the tray inside, and then stops himself. He's shaking. He bites his lip, lunges forward and grabs the four fives, two tens, and five singles out of the cash drawer. He hauls up the tray looking for bigger bills. His mouth drops. He freezes.
"There's only forty-five bucks in here!" He drops the metal tray on the floor, closes his eyes and sinks back into the rear counter, moaning. "Oh fuck! You shot a girl for forty-five fucking bucks."
"What do you mean, me?" The blond man is cool. "The judge'll see it as we." He doesn't look up, still engrossed in my limp body. He lowers the head back to the floor. I feel a soft tap on the back of my head.
A hot pain crashes into my side. The thread tightens, tugging me down, downward until I'm hovering just above my head.
"She's not dead." The blond man has a sickish smile on his face. "She's kinda pretty, isn't she?"
"Let's get out of here!"
"In a minute. Go get the tape." He sets the gun down and brushes my cheek.
The picture snaps off. Everything goes black again. I feel myself being sucked down, a free-fall on a roller coaster. Pain tumbles in like a rockslide, making it hard to breathe, coming from everywhere at once, dragging me downward faster and faster, down until I hit bottom with a thud.
When I force my eyes open I'm looking up at a blond man with blue eyes gazing at me. I try to scream. All I can manage is a whimper.
"That's it! We're outta here!" An enraged voice comes from behind my head. Metal scrapes against the floor tile. "Move your ass."
The blond man stands, shaking his head, and holds out his hand for the gun. His arm is stretched right over me. I'm afraid to look anywhere but in his eyes. I can't stop. They're my hope. I'm begging him, pleading with my eyes, hoping that he will look at my face and see that I'm here, I'm in here.
"She's seen us. She's looking at me right now."
"It doesn't matter! She's too hurt to remember anything." The anger is gone from the dark man's voice. He's whimpering for me. "We can't kill her. I can't," he whines, then starts to cry. "We just came here for the fuckin' money, man."
The blond man stands still, holding out his hand. I hear the dark man start to sob. Over me, I see his hand give the gun back to the blond man, who's looking down at me.
He's going to kill me. I'm terrified. I don't want to die, whatever that is. And I'm afraid of what my parents will say. My mother will be furious with me. What's happening is exactly what she's tried to prevent all of my life by teaching me to stay away from cities, downtowns, crowds, deserted alleys, drinking parties, old men with candy, boys in cars, boys and girls with bad reputations, strangers. But I couldn't avoid it. It came to me.
He smiles at me. Then he points the gun.
There's another loud crack. Darkness. The pain melts away.
This time, when I float up, up to the other side again, I'm already over the roof of the store, drifting into the cool, clear sky. Below, the two men head down the sidewalk. The blond man struts along carrying two bags of chips and a two-liter Coke, nonchalant, as if it were any other trip for late-night munchies. The dark man carries a video tucked under his arm. He keeps glancing over his shoulder, but there's nobody there. As he straggles along, stumbling once on the storm drain, he wipes his eyes with the back of his hand every few steps. The houses they pass are all dark, locked up for the night. No one heard a thing.
The men pass a grey two-story frame house. Inside, my parents have been asleep in front of the TV since nine-thirty. My mother is dozing, waiting for me to come into their bedroom and touch her foot to rouse her, to let her know that I am home. The men walk past one more house, up to a dented blue car with red doors and one rear fender missing. They get in, and the engine cranks a couple of times before it turns over. They drive away to the south, out of the tiny, two-block crossroads where I've lived my whole life.
I soar higher, watching them drive off into the dark countryside, passing deserted winter fields and hibernating farms, all dusted by a light November snow.
From the west, down the two-lane highway, comes another car, a familiar red Mustang. It pulls into the parking lot in front of the store. It stops. The lights and engine shut down, and out steps my next-door neighbor, Gregory. He's big and quiet and strong, the kind of person that makes you feel safe in his presence, the ripple of his muscles visible even under the shapeless uniform jacket. He played defense on our high school football team. He gets out of the car and stops, bending to tie his shoe. This year, we're both attending the community college, and both working at the store. On Wednesdays, we carpool. Tonight, it was his turn to take the cash from the drawer into the bank in town. He's been gone about twenty minutes, twenty-five if he stopped to call Sharon, his girlfriend, and now he's come back to help me close up by ten. He stands again, walks up the cement ramp and puts his hand on the flat metal door handle.
The thread holding me breaks, and I shoot up, until I am so far away I can't make out the store, or my house, or even the town anymore. All I see are dark patches in a regular pattern, the ploughed-under fields, waiting for spring, divided by the straight north-south and east-west roads. All around me are delicate, windblown flakes of falling snow. I see them with amazing clarity, marveling at each intricate design, millions of breathtaking patterns, each one gliding, gliding on its own slow path to the ground. They're so beautiful up here, playing on the breeze. I imagine them falling and settling, blanketing the frozen, bare earth, only to be crushed into icy, hard drifts or to melt, first into an indistinct grey slush, then finally to nothingness. The thought saddens me, and I start to slip downward.
But I don't want to go back. For the first time I can remember, I'm not afraid. Of anything. I realize that it's not gravity that binds you to the earth, but fear, just as it's not love that keeps people together. Without the weight and pull of it, you become buoyant, strangely emancipated. Happy.
The air itself seems weighted now. I'm so full of pure joy that I throw my arms open and spin on an updraft like one of the snowflakes. I reach out for one of the twinkling lights calling me to them.
I'm free. So free . . . I laugh out loud, and the echo rings, a crisp, tinkling sound. I'm floating, free and floating in the night. I am bright and glowing, forever. I'm one of the stars.
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