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A note from Brian Blose

The Participants will be released one chapter per day.  If you enjoy it and would like to read faster, the completed story is available for free through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes.

Zack

Iteration 144



The sirens were the first thing to reach him. Their strident wails pierced the haze of his mind, drawing him back towards full awareness. Zack opened his eyes to find himself in darkness. Immediately, he began to thrash his arms, striking at the space above him, wordlessly snarling in a kaleidoscope of emotions. Rage, fear, and weariness swirled within him in a corrosive solution, burning away the veneer of sanity.

“Oh my God, he's moving!”

Zack's movements dislodged a jacket from his face and the return of light banished the shadows within him. “He's moving, Kelly! Do something!”

He sat up. And then Zack remembered the robbers, the gun, and the thunder that pronounced the end of his life. But death had rejected him. Or, more accurately, his nature had rejected death just as it rejected every other harm inflicted upon his body.

Maggie was trying to climb Kelly like a pole, staring and pointing at him in horror. Zack momentarily pondered the psychology of her response. He decided the sense of revulsion had its origin in the proof that an essential assumption was false. Horror was the panicked realization of ignorance. Realizing a stick was in fact a snake forced an individual to recognize that they were not able to identify the threats in their environment. Seeing a dead body revive introduced a much greater uncertainty and therefore a correspondingly greater revulsion.

The intense curiosity which had seized him upon witnessing Maggie's reaction released him when he realized the spectacle he had made of himself. He was interfering with the events he was supposed to watch; violating the sanctity of his observations. The repercussions of his actions could ripple out to taint every aspect of his interactions in this world.

Kelly backed towards the door. “Shit, he's alive.”

Zack said the only thing that came to mind. “I can't believe that guy missed me at that range. He must have been smoking something.”

“No way he missed. Your brains are all over the cigarette display,” Kelly said.

Zack glanced over his shoulder. As expected, no bodily fluids stained the merchandise. They had returned to where the Creator intended them to be, just as they did when he got a paper-cut or nicked himself shaving. “It's not there, Kelly. Maybe you girls just had a little too much excitement today and imagined things.”

Maggie shook her head. “I swear to God I saw you dead. I threw the jacket from the lost and found on top of you it was so nasty.”

“Then why are my brains inside my head right now?”

Paramedics loped into the store with medical kits, shouting questions about who was in charge and where the body was. Kelly glanced back and forth between the medics and Zack, then threw her hands in the air. “I need some fresh air.”

One of the men approached him. “You hurt, kid?”

“No, sir,” Zack said.

“Is anyone here hurt?”

Zack shrugged. “The women went crazy for a bit. Does that count?”

Not long after the ambulance departed, a state trooper arrived to gather evidence. Zack re-enacted the scene for the female officer, claiming to slip and fall whenever the gunman cocked his gun. The officer took each of their reports, then asked to see the surveillance video.

Zack's stomach dropped. There were three cameras inside the store. One pointed directly down at the register to prevent employee theft, another sat where it caught the face of every customer walking through the door, and the third was pointed at the deli counter. Zack turned to look at the third camera. He was almost certain that the background of the shot would show a perfect side profile of the person at the register.

They crowded into the manager's office while Kelly brought the camera feed up on the computer screen. At the officer's direction, Kelly showed the door camera from earlier. The rusty Fiat backed into the spot directly before the door and two men got out. There was no license plate. The two men had their masks on before they came into view to enter the store, then retreated to their car empty-handed a minute later. The officer made notes of everything, then asked to see the other cameras.

Kelly brought up the register camera and they watched events unfold. The front of Zack's face bobbed in and out of the picture from one side of the screen throughout the conversation. The officer muttered something about stupid macho men. When the gun came out, Zack wasn't in frame. They saw the gun fire without learning anything.

Zack held his breath as the feed from the third camera came onto the screen. In perfect clarity, it showed Zack abandon customers at the deli counter to kick Maggie off the register, taunt a gunman, and take a bullet to the head. The stream from the exit wound sprayed matter onto the cigarettes and the body collapsed.

At the same moment, Kelly, Maggie, and the police officer turned to look at him. Zack presented his best scowl. “Is this some kind of hoax?” He pointed a finger at his coworkers. “Are the two of you trying to mess with me?”

They stared at him until the officer cleared her throat. “I can't write this up as a homicide when the victim is still walking around. My report will say Mr. Vernon fell to the ground before the gun went off. I'll let the three of you decide for yourselves if this was a miracle or what not.”

Zack returned to register duty once things were settled. There was a line of customers waiting to pay for gas and hear some gossip about events in the store. Zack downplayed his involvement and took cash as quickly as possible. Ideally he would leave after making himself so conspicuous. Unfortunately, he had made commitments which would keep him in western Pennsylvania for a while.

When a customer mentioned he heard from the radio that some guy died in a shooting, Zack pulled out his cell phone. There were no missed calls, but it would only be a matter of time before one of Lacey's coworkers told her the news. If he didn't contact her soon, she would call him in a panic. No matter what he did or said at that point, there would be a fight tonight.

Getting involved had been a mistake. He should have remained at the deli counter and observed. Zack glanced to the corner of the store where Maggie was texting her friends. He knew her well enough to be certain she would have complied with any request of the gunman, but he couldn't be sure how a sociopath jonesing for his drug would react. The ambulance might have been necessary if Zack hadn't interfered.

Zack felt a flash of guilt at the thought. The Divine Command, a wordless understanding instilled within him by the Creator, demanded observation. It was open to some level of interpretation, but any dictionary ever compiled would list participation as the antonym of observation. Sometimes Zack found himself sympathizing with these creatures too much. They were nothing more than figments of the Creator's imagination, temporarily granted existence for a purpose Zack did not know.

When he finished with the last customer, Zack walked over to Maggie. “I have to make a phone call. You're on register.”

Maggie kept a safe distance from him. “Lacey's gonna flip when she hears what you did. I went to school with her, remember, and Lacey's one mean bitch.”

“It would be nice if Lacey heard my version of the story first.”

Maggie smirked at him. “Too late. I texted her a pic before I tossed the jacket on your head.”

I didn't think she had the guts to do that, Zack thought. “Let me see your phone,” he said.

“No way. You just want to delete the evidence. You're too late, anyway. I sent it to like a hundred people. My friend Jess knows people. She's going to get it on the news for me.”

She must really hate Lacey. And my spooky revival did nothing to endear me to her. How did I miss the fact that she was so cold-blooded? Zack resisted the curiosity that rose up within him. He needed to perform damage control right now. There was no time to study Maggie's psychology. Maybe he could remind her of the reason she was still alive. “Did Kelly have anything to say to you this morning?”

“I don't know what that was about. When I got to her office, I told her that if she tried getting me fired she would be sorry, then she got up in my face asking what I did. After that, you went and got your brains blown out.”

No good deed goes unpunished, Zack thought. That kind of perverse incentive seemed a flaw in any sane world, but who was he to judge the Creator?

“Did you ever think that you were supposed to be on that register?”

Maggie nodded towards the door. “Your wifey just showed up.”

Lacey stood there, mascara running down her face, frizzy straw-colored hair a ragged mess from raking her fingers through it as she did when nervous, one hand cradling a protruding abdomen wrapped in stretchy maternity clothes, staring at him in shock. Then she had the worst reaction Zack thought possible. Lacey ran forward and seized him with both arms, burying her face in his chest.

“I thought you were dead!”

Zack looked down at the mess of Lacey's hair and pondered the impulse that made this woman love him. They barely spoke except to argue. Physical chemistry was nonexistent. There wasn't even respect between them. Lacey's previous boyfriend knocked her up right before a judge sent him to jail for burning down a co-worker’s house. Lacey hooked up with Zack at a bar and claimed to be pregnant with his child two days later. All these months later, Lacey still continued the charade. After every checkup, she dropped hints that her baby was growing fast and might come early. Lacey believed him to be an idiot, which he thought only fair as he had the same opinion of her. The only reason he could imagine for her devotion to him was desperation.

Zack patted Lacey's back and cleared his throat. “Let's talk outside.” Where Maggie couldn't contradict his story.

“There's video of it all,” Maggie volunteered. “Want to see it?”

“Stop this,” Zack said.

“Zack got his brains blown out, then ten minutes later they grew back. When he started moving, I freaked out. I think Kelly might have shit in her Depends.”

Lacey released him. “I want to see it.”

“You don't want to watch the video.” A flash of inspiration struck Zack. “Too much excitement isn't good for the baby. We should get you home to rest.”

Lacey's eyes narrowed in suspicion. “I need to know what happened.”

“I thought the guy was bluffing and he shot at me, but he missed.”

While less than intelligent, Lacey's limited powers of deduction were bolstered by intimate familiarity. “You were asking for it. You wanted to die.”

“Come on, Lacey, you don't believe that.”

Her skin began to flush bright red until Zack could imagine steam shooting from her ears like a cartoon character. “I am pregnant with your baby! How dare you do something like this? You're an asshole, Zack, a fucking asshole! What would I do if you died? Move back into my mom's place? You know I can't stand her.”

“You could move into section eight housing. There are programs to help people in your situation. It wouldn't be the end of the world.”

Lacey threw up her hands. “I ain't living in some welfare apartment so my neighbors can give my kid drugs.”

“Actually, they drug screen applicants for the housing assistance program, so your neighbors would be clean. But go ahead and assume people you never met are going to slip crack into your baby's bottle.”

“Oh, I forgot how damn smart you are. Well guess what. You just admitted you were trying to get yourself killed!”

Zack glared at her. “I never said that. I just want you to stop the drama.”

“Drama? You don't know shit about drama, honey. I lived with drama for eighteen years so don't talk to me about drama.”

“So screaming at me in public doesn't count as drama?”

Lacey folded her arms. “We'll talk about it later. I need to go back to work now because we can't live on your paycheck. Just do me a favor and don't kill yourself when I'm eight months pregnant.”

“I thought you were only at seven months.” Zack regretted the words the moment he said them. Lacey's face went white. “Seven months and change. I'm just rounding up,” she said. As she waddled past the door, Lacey raised both hands to her face.

Proposing to her had been a mistake. Not because of the frustration it caused him – Zack suspected he somehow deserved that. It had been a mistake because Lacey expected things from a husband he couldn't provide. She wanted love and Zack wasn't even sure such a thing existed. The best he could offer was pity.

“You should've stayed dead, Zack,” Maggie said.

I wish it was that easy, he thought. Aloud he said, “I'm on break. You handle the register.” Zack went outside to the employee break pavilion and sat on a picnic table, watching his wife cry in her car and wondering why the Creator needed an Observer. He did nothing about the former and came to no conclusion on the latter.

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Brian Blose

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