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The Collective Solution

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Burning from the inside out. There was no other way she could describe it. An instant fire that raged through her whole body, receding quickly, leaving the chill of death in its place. The gun clattered to the floor moments before she collapsed. Screams reverberated in her head, a jumbled cacophony of internal and external stimuli. Her limbs were limp, legs contorted under her, cervical vertebrae crunched as her head met the marble floor and she sensed loss and abandonment. They were gone, she knew she would be too.

Singular. Alone. Panic and anguish manifest as restricted bronchioles and hypoxia. The hushed and hurried whispers around her fade as her nervous system shuts down. She barely registers the rhythmic pressure on her chest, even as her sternum cracked in protest. 

Weeks of planning, every meticulously dissected variable, every well intended hope slipped away with her consciousness. 

One to collect the till, two to look out, one to drive the car. The plan was flawless.

Sarah’s fingers picked at a tear near the seam of her sleeve. It wasn’t nerves, per say. They’d done this sort of thing before. But the stakes had never been this high. A sudden violent fit of coughing from the driver's seat reminded her of that. Losing Nicole wasn’t an option. This was the take that would save them all. 

I wonder how it’d feel to die. Her finger slipped, the sound of split fabric pulled her from her somber musings in time to hear a whimper from Nicole and to meet Ian’s stern eye.

“Sorry.” The apology was hushed, and it was the first word spoken aloud since they’d left their apartment. It filled the air inside the car with such a weight, sobering them for the task at hand.

It had all gone according to plan. Ian entered first, strode directly for the first teller, gun drawn. 

“Everybody down!” He’d yelled, boldly, his voice echoing abusively in the small, but busy lobby. She and Greg had taken up their positions at the front and back of the queue, producing matching Glocks; directing all of the customers to the floor with wordless threats.

There was a snap of a current between the three of them, a perfect marriage of adrenaline, excitement, and fear. Ian had directed each teller away from their station and then brought them back to their tills one by one, instructing them that no one would get hurt as long as they complied with his orders and stayed quiet.    

Ian was sure. Steady. Even when they were kids, before, he had always set the tone. In the last decade, however, she’d learned about his internal turmoil. She’d watched him put the good of the group ahead of himself time and again, as he battled his own demons and compartmentalized everyone and everything else. He was their anchor, their port--grounding and centering them when the money ran out, when the sickness was debilitating, when they missed home or wanted to run.

Ian was the most level-headed of their collective, a born leader. 

“I promise, we don’t want to hurt anyone.”

“Please, no dye packs.”

“We’ll do what we need to do.”

“Last one. Get ready. ” Sarah and Greg looked up at this and watched as Ian guided the final teller to her drawer.  Sarah’s eye was suddenly drawn to a movement behind Greg. An elderly gentleman in a rain slicker caught her eye. He vibrated with fear and appeared to be reaching up for the middle of his coat.

5 o’clock, Greg.”  Her message prompted Greg to take two large steps backward, clear his throat loudly, and aim his gun. 

The old man rolled over onto his side, bringing one of his hands up in surrender, as the other pulled a small object from his pocket.  The bubble of tension burst, eliciting a collective hushed gasp and a tightened grip.

“Inhaler,” the man wheezed, as he popped the cap and breathed in the medicated shhhft of albuterol and steroids. A silent tide of relief washed over the lobby, mirroring the chemical reaction in his lungs.

Across the large room and behind the desk, Ian was putting the last pack of 20s in his bag and directing the teller back to the group behind him. A quick exit and they were home free. Nervous anticipation flowed through him and he hazarded a brief half smile in the direction of his friends.

POP!

The piercing sound echoed off the marble and glass and had barely registered with Ian before flesh and tissue tore, heat and pain radiating in equal measure. The rush of trauma in his body muted out the screams and shouts around him, his nervous system unable to inform his brain while his knees buckled. He didn’t remember how to breathe, or maybe it was that he didn’t remember how to remember to breathe, and the pressure on his chest overtook every other sensation. His lungs were wet, his heart couldn’t keep up with demands of adrenaline. His eyes opened reflexively when his head bounced on landing, just in time to register the simultaneous collapse of both Sarah and Greg. He couldn’t see her, but he knew Nicole had met the same fate outside. He recalled Sarah’s errant thoughts in the car.

Ian wondered if death was this agonizingly painful for everyone.  If watching someone you love die causes the same pain as actually dying; or physically feeling them dying. His brain felt heavy, full of final thoughts. The pain swirled around fleeting, disjointed images of Greg’s parents, memories of their shared childhood.  He saw Sarah’s mom, and felt Nicole’s relief.  He experienced the searing guilt from knowing he failed to keep his word to protect them, and the ultimate betrayal of being the reason they were all going to die.

A shoe sole struck Ian’s hand, kicking the gun out of his grip.  An armed security guard came into his quickly fading view.  The guard had a standard issue pistol in one hand, a walkie talkie in the other. Ian couldn’t make out the guard’s words, as darkness overcame him.   It was a sudden absence.  A duplicitous gift after a decade lived without respite. Nicole was gone, and just like that, he surrendered to the welcome peace of death.