bullet in the brain

Isaac could feel himself getting more annoyed than he should’ve been right away. There was something about the tenor of the two women’s voices coming out of their thick, overly made up lips, backlit by the shriek of the other woman’s baby. The way she barely reacted when it shrieked — no apologetic glance around the room, just a vague pat at the milky lump of its body in the stroller — that prickled his skin in a way that he couldn’t shrug off.

Count to ten, he knew his therapist would say, and so he started to, but he wanted to strangle them by 3. Were they unaware that they were in a public space? That everybody else in the bank line was just trying to get out of there as soon as possible? That their voices could be heard across the street — and each cackle shredded three people’s brain stems?

He pictured himself tapping the larger one on the shoulder and asking if she could please be quiet for a moment. Maybe he’d even say he suffered from migraines. Everyone else in line would probably glance back at him with a look of disapproval, because that’s what you’re supposed to do when a cranky old man tells two women to be quiet. But once they actually were quiet, once that silence sunk in, a sense of relief would permeate the room. Everybody would relax a little — maybe not even realizing they’d been tense.

Just then the door swung open and two men in ski masks marched in. One had a sawed off shotgun clenched between his fingers.

Both the women gasped — one touching her baby’s blanket again — and even then, though his stomach churned with fright, he couldn’t help but feel irritated at how loud the gasp was. Shouldn’t they try and keep quiet?

The men strode past the line and over to the teller, who looked white with dread.

“Pass it through,” he said.

As the teller reached around for the register, keeping eye contact with the man the whole time, the worst thing happened. Isaac felt himself begin to snicker. This always happened when he was under extreme stress — it was like his body took over running itself and let out noises and reactions that he couldn’t control.

The man gathering the money glanced back and, stack of bills in hand, marched over.

Isaac’s stomach lurched, which only made him want to laugh harder. His lips split themselves into a huge grin.

“You think it’s funny?” the man spat, lifting the gun. Isaac looked down.

“No,” he made himself say, trying to look guilty. He could feel the stares like knives.

“It’s about to be real funny,” the man in the mask said, slamming the barrel of the gun to his temple. The impact rattled his skull but he couldn’t feel the pain. He swallowed over and over hoping he could push any laughter down into his stomach.

Just then the woman in front of him spoke.

“Sir, that’s my husband. This is his baby,” she gestured to the stroller. “He just lost his job and we’re here to take out a big loan.”

The man in the mask — incredibly — seemed to pause.

“He’s a little delirious with stress right now. I’m so sorry,” she continued, leaning on one Ked.

The man glanced between the two of them.

“I’m so sorry,” she said again.

The man looked her in the eyes for a minute and finally, shoved Isaac to the ground with one smack of the gun.

“Keep your mouth shut,” he spat down.

By then, the other man had stuffed as many blocks of bills into his sweatshirt as he could carry and was gesturing to the door. His partner nodded, gun held up, and together they stalked toward the exit and were gone.

Isaac looked up at the woman in front of him, who had quickly scooped up her baby, kissing the top of its head and glancing at her friend. He examined her chubby face and swollen body and for a minute, he wished desperately to be in her arms.

“I need to sit down,” she said to her friend as the bank teller shouted that she’d called the police. A throng of people gathered around the two women, rubbing their backs and ushering them to the couch.

Isaac’s throat started to close and his eyes pricked with tears for the first time in years. He squeezed his eyes closed until they hurt, hoping nobody would see.

Inspired by “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff.




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Abby Kloppenburg

Abby Kloppenburg


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