Chapter 66 of The Empty City

By Andrew Looney

At nineteen minutes past three o'clock on a Friday afternoon in November, Doug entered the lobby of the Harding and Powell Trust & Savings Bank. Under his left arm he held the Atomic Bomb, and in his right hand he held a note. He had wrapped a large pillowcase around the bomb, in order to conceal it. He wore a baseball cap with the brim pulled down low on his forehead, and he kept his eyes fixed on the ground, so that no one would see his face.

He got into line. It being a Friday afternoon, the bank was crowded and the line was long. For several minutes he was the last person in line. The seconds ticked slowly by, and as they did, Doug squirmed. He was, of course, scared out of his wits, and with each tick of the clock he became more and more terrified. He could feel everyone's eyes staring at him, at his curious armload, and at his suspicious countenance. He was just about to abandon the project and quietly leave, when a fat woman with a fat little boy entered the bank and got in line behind him, cutting off his escape.

The line inched forward. Doug trembled. The fat little boy behind him squirmed. He was chewing gum and cracking it loudly, and his mother scolded him several times each minute. Doug became more and more convinced that he should give the whole thing up and leave before something went wrong, but since he was trapped in the looping line of waiting customers, he couldn't exit without causing disruption. He decided to wait until he was first in line and then, instead of walking up to a teller, would he just stroll towards the door and out.

Finally Doug was first in line. He stepped forward, intending to leave. A bell sounded, "BING." It was the "Teller Available" bell of the teller just before him. Doug froze, looking at the teller. The teller looked at him impatiently. The little boy behind him popped his gum and squeaked "GO! You're next!"

Doug felt as if he'd lost control of his life. It seemed to him that, even though his brain wanted him to run, his body was forcing him to go through with the plan. It was as if he were a character in a videogame. Someone else was playing the game, and by moving the joystick this way or that, was controlling his actions. He felt an overwhelming desire to abandon this crazy project and get away, to escape down the street and into the nearby subway tunnels. But the man with the joystick overruled him.

Doug's brain screamed not to do it, but Doug's body approached the teller and handed her the note.

The note said:

As the teller (in rather great astonishment) read the note, Doug took the pillowcase off of the bomb. He put the pillowcase down in front of the teller and set the bomb up on the counter in plain sight. Then he poised his index finger in front of the big red button, ready to press it, and waited.

The crowd in the bank had by this time noticed the bomb, and a quiet panic swept through them as they acknowledged the implications of what they were seeing. Several people immediately bolted for the door, and went running off down the street. Several others edged towards the door, keen to get away but also realizing that they couldn't possibly get far enough away quickly enough to save themselves. Still others thought they should try to get away but were too interested in watching the events unfold to make a run for it. Finally, there were those who couldn't rationalize their behavior at all, and simply stood there, transfixed.

The teller was stuffing cash into the pillowcase with all the alacrity she could muster.

Doug was attempting to stay calm, and even though things were going comparatively smoothly, he was so paranoid that he was convinced that things were one step from disaster. With the pillowcase only two thirds full, he screamed "That's enough! Give it to me!"

The teller, with her eyes bulging and her mouth gaping, complied.

Doug grabbed at the bag with his left hand, and then attempted to wrestle the bomb off of the counter with his right. All he had to do was get the bomb down, walk swiftly out of the bank, get to the subway entrance, and become lost in the anonymity of the underground. But he botched it.

He was off balance and trembling with terror. The swinging pillowcase combined with the act of manhandling a heavy object down from a fairly high location resulted in disaster. The bomb tipped forward and fell heavily against his chest. In the frozen silence of the bank lobby, the click of the big red button being pressed resounded like a curse word spoken during a church service prayer. The various lights on the front panel of the bomb lit up. The big red digital counter underneath the words "SECONDS UNTIL DETONATION" suddenly displayed the number "60," which after a second changed to "59," then to "58."

Doug gripped the bomb with both hands, closed his eyes, and whispered "no." The pillowcase of money fell to the floor with a quiet rustle, like leaves blowing across concrete on a cool autumn afternoon.

Now the crowd really did panic. Many of them realized the futility of attempting to run, but ran nonetheless, in blind terror. Several sat down on the floor, with vacant, horrified expressions etched across their faces. The little boy with the gum began to cry, and his mother said, over and over again, "This can't be happening, this just can't be happening."

Doug, however, simply stood there. He was frozen in place, trying to imagine what it would be like to be vaporized by the impending atomic blast. He remembered that people who were about to die always had their lives flash before them, and he thought back over the events that had led him to this fateful moment.

When the counter read "48," an alarm started ringing in the lobby of the bank, and several of the employees jumped up from their hiding places behind the counter and ran for the door.

When the counter read "27," the fat woman wailed, "Well, I'll be damned if I'm going to spend my last few seconds in a BANK!" And she grabbed her little boy by the wrist and dragged him out the door.

When the counter read "11," Doug took off his cap and looked up at the few remaining bank patrons, who stood around like zombies or sprawled like exhausted children on the floor. "I'm sorry," said Doug, "I didn't mean for this to happen." He looked down at the bomb, and the counter now read "7." He wanted to explain himself and his actions, but he couldn't figure out what to say, and his voice trailed off. "It's just that, well..."

The counter ticked off the final seconds. "3"..."2"..."1"..."0."

The counter stopped at zero.

Nothing happened.

Doug looked at the bomb, all at once realizing that it was a dud and that he might still get away with his robbery after all. He relaxed his grip on the bomb, and it fell to the floor with a loud crash. Then he grabbed the pillowcase and ran for the door. By the time he reached it, two of the bank customers had come to their senses and they attempted to grab him, but he wrestled free and escaped.

Outside, however, several police cars had arrived. Doug ran for the subway, but he didn't make it. Guns flashed out of holsters, shouted threats lashed across the concrete, warning shots echoed up and down the street, and running boots clattered on the pavement.

Half crazy with fear, Doug stopped, and again dropped the pillowcase. This time, it fell open. Three twenty dollar bills flew out, and were blown across the street by the wind.

Copyright © 1991 by Andrew Looney.

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