Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Daily Story 119: Armed Robbery



The below is very long; I apologize. It was originally written for the Machine of Death project, but they didn't want it.

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I didn't want to use the Machine; I wanted my death to be a surprise. I've always been a worrier, and I was sure that once I knew how I was going to die I would be neurotic for the rest of my life. I know that I can't avoid my fate, but I never would have stopped trying - so it's a little ironic that I didn't avoid getting the reading even though that WAS in my power. I thought about it. I knew that I could tell the nice man at the insurance company that it was against my religion and he would be forced to figure out my rates some other way. This was even technically true, although it's also against my religion to have sex outside of marriage, use birth control, use the Lord's name in vain, and skip church. I do all of those things most Sundays. I'm a healthy twenty-eight year old guy, no real history of anything, so I probably could have gotten a good deal on life insurance even without the reading from the Machine. Really there was no reason to do it at all, but somehow it pulled at me like a moth towards an open flame - or, less melodramatically, like a starving college student to a slice of pizza. One that may or may not contain anchovies hidden below the cheese.

Instead of actually resisting I imagined resisting. I pictured telling the insurance clerk that I wouldn't do it, at which point he would insist, and I would make an impassioned speech about religious freedom. He would try to sneak a blood sample, but I would catch him and throw the machine to the ground, smashing it. The machine would smoke and sizzle for a moment before spitting out an entire roll of paper with 'ERROR' down its length. I would sue the company for trying to force me to know my destiny, and of course I would win. Already rich, I would go on tour to promote my new book, "Just Say No to Fate". I would be an instant celebrity, be surrounded by women, and live forever. All this went through my head in the time it took for the Machine to process my blood sample and spit out the tiny slip of paper with my "mortality analysis" on it. It was as vague as all of the predictions were, giving no real information; I wasn't going to be able to avoid it. On the other hand, it wasn't 'WATER' - I actually know someone who was handed that, and just thinking about it turned me into a wreck immediately. Water? What the hell does that mean? I can't avoid water, I need water to live! Am I going to drown? Be skewered by an icicle? More than seventy percent of the Earth's surface is covered in the instrument of my death! So mine could have been a lot worse; mine just said 'ARMED ROBBERY'.

I went through most of the K├╝bler-Ross model's stages of grief, although I don't feel like I ever really hit 'anger' except in passing. Denial hit me first, which I'm guessing is common; I had a daydream where I would be in a bank making a deposit when sinister-looking commandos would rush in and fire automatic weapons into the air. They would yell for everyone to lie down and shut up, go around collecting jewelry and cell phones - but I would go unnoticed behind a particularly healthy ficus. The cashiers would fill bags with money, everything would be going okay, and then one of the badguys would decide to rape some beautiful woman from the crowd. Not able to let him get away with this, I would lunge out and hit him over the head with a paperweight - not that anyone actually uses paperweights anymore - and grab his gun as he fell. One of the others would turn and raise his machinegun, but I would shoot him between the eyes. Two more would start shooting, one on either side of me, but with a leap I would slide across a convenient desk (the same one I had grabbed the paperweight from I guess) and, in slow motion, shoot them mid-slide as I dropped onto the far side of the desk, safe behind cover. One of the men would throw down his weapons and run for it, but the last one - the evil mastermind - would shoot him in the back for his cowardice. I would shoot at the boss at that same moment, blasting the gun out of his hand and forcing him to attack me with his combat knife. The battle would be fierce, but in the end I would get him with a letter-opener - presumably because I have some sort of subconscious obsession with obsolete office equipment. The woman that I had saved would throw her arms around me and kiss me passionately, and the other patrons of the bank would stand up and applaud. The next time I tried to use the Machine it would just spit out a blank piece of paper, letting me know that I had defeated fate itself. Yes.

Depression came next, because the five stages of grief are really more of a guideline than anything, and I found myself sobbing on my couch because I had wanted to stop by the bank and simply couldn't bring myself to go anywhere near one. I also couldn't use an ATM, go to the mall (too many jewelry stores), or go on the big Las Vegas trip some of my friends were planning. I found that I could order most things I needed online - even groceries - and so for about a month I worked from home and turned down all the good-natured attempts to get me out to the bar for karaoke. There was only one problem with this situation, which was that I was lonely. I'm sure I could have found a way to order a prostitute just like I had ordered my groceries, but that wasn't really what I wanted. I wanted a girlfriend. I had lost my last one just before using the Machine, for the usual stupid reasons. I could have called her, but I knew she was already seeing someone else. Besides, even if I could find an available ex-girlfriend it was unlikely that I could lure her to my house. She would want to go out. Did movie theaters get robbed? Probably. Must have happened at least once.

That was the thought that moved me on to bargaining. Cars crash all the time, right? That's one of the most common predictions from the Machine. That and heart attacks. Even before the Machine, everyone knew that cars killed people more often than most other things. And yet they kept driving. It was some sort of risk analysis. Yes, driving can get you killed. But is the risk of death worth making it easy for me to go to the store for some peanut butter? On the one hand, I don't want to die. On the other hand, there's no way I'm walking all the way to the store just for a jar of mashed nuts. I'll take the car. We make this choice all the time, deciding that delicious, creamy peanut butter is worth risking death for - just not worth the physical effort of walking. So I made a deal with God - who was probably a little surprised to hear from me after all this time - that went something like this: You let me survive going places with a low risk of armed robbery, like the grocery store, and I'll go to church every Sunday until I die. Armed robbery of churches has to be fairly uncommon. In addition to this, when I felt particularly nervous I would add onto the agreement with the Almighty - God, if you let me live to fifty, I promise I'll walk right into a bank on my fiftieth birthday just to give you a fair shot at me. Once the nervousness passed, I would adjust the deal up to sixty-five.

This got me out of the house, but I wasn't to the 'acceptance' stage yet. In fact, I wasn't really even past depression and denial. It was a sort of ongoing cycle, waking up with denial, having a fit of depression before I left the house, and trying to convince God that carjacking wasn't really the same as armed robbery the whole drive to work. I dated some, but after the second girl to recognize my symptoms and point me towards a support group I put women on hold. It wasn't as bad as I had pictured, my heavy-duty breakdown had only lasted for five weeks rather than the rest of my life, but this low-grade discomfort and nervousness was still a problem. I started to think of a reason for someone to rob the building I was in at gunpoint, no matter where I was. What if some street thug, high on... well, on whatever it is that people get high on these days, decides to rob my doctor's office for more drugs while I'm getting my throat looked at? What if he's so high he robs the church I'm at because he thought it looked like a doctor's office? It could happen. Heck, someone in a convenience store could fire his gun off to let the clerk know he was serious, and the bullet could land a mile away - right in my brain. The only thing that kept me going out during this paranoid phase was the fear of home invasion. These things happen ALL THE TIME.

I thought about going to the support groups. Obviously I wasn't the only one having this problem. They would listen, and nod, and talk about feelings. I would cry about my abandonment issues from my childhood, explain that my father had left my mother when I was only two, and they would pull me into the group hug. They would offer kind words and try to guide me through this troubled time, explaining that my fear of death is deeply tied to my father's departure - his disappearance from my life being like an unresolved death. At that point I would sob and tell them yes, yes, finally someone who understands - but I'd probably lose my composure and start laughing, and they would realize I was making fun of them. I would admit that my parents are still happily married and the whole group would chase me out the door, throwing the little plate of free cookies at my head. It would be a bonding experience for them, but wouldn't really help my mental state and might bruise the back of my poor, tender skull.

It was this tendency of mine to drift off into a complex and silly fantasy world that caused me to wander into an alley without noticing. I thought it went through, but there was a chain-link fence blocking my way. When I turned around, he was there. He didn't look particularly desperate to me. He didn't look like a junkie either. Maybe his hair was a little greasy, but his clothes looked new and he was clean. The gun was shaking a little in his hand, but no more than you would expect from pre-crime jitters. It was a nice-looking gun. I didn't even hear him ask for my money the first time, my heart was pounding and blood was rushing in my ears. I wanted to fight back, or run, or do anything but stand there looking stupid. He asked a second time - could have been the third, for all I know - and I found myself reaching slowly for my wallet. I thought of myself back in the insurance office, letting him take my blood and look into my future while I imagined resisting. I felt spineless, hopeless, and I knew I shouldn't be calmly obeying this man. Why should I hand him my wallet if I already knew he was going to kill me? I should scratch his face, make sure the police have DNA evidence. I should throw my wallet over the fence just to make his life harder. I should have - but as usual, I did what I was told. Handed him my wallet, put my hand back in the air. He looked at my watch, ran his eyes up and down my body as if window shopping. Then he turned and ran.

I stood in that same spot for an eternity, hands in the air. Surely he was coming back for me. This was how I was going to die, so it was only a matter of time. I might have stood there all night, but after a while my arms got tired. I felt sick, felt like throwing up. My body had been so ready for something to happen that it wasn't sure what to do with all the excess energy. The nausea was joined by exhaustion and giddiness at the same time, and I sat down right there in the alley and giggled. I couldn't stop. If it's possible to die from adrenaline overdose, I must have been right on the edge. I stayed there for about an hour, just letting my body calm down at its own pace, and then stood up and walked out onto the street. The stores I passed just didn't seem scary anymore. I didn't suspect that everyone I passed was holding a concealed weapon behind their shopping bags. I had faced death, and lived. I'm not naive; I know that the Machine is always right. When I die, it will be in some way due to an armed robbery. I'm not immortal, and if I use the Machine again the slip of paper won't be blank. But not all cars crash, not all banks get robbed, and not all muggers kill the person they're mugging (what an excellent word - 'mugging'). I may still avoid some of the most dangerous places the same way someone who is allergic to dogs avoids hanging out at the vet's office, but I won't be afraid to be alive. The Machine isn't out to get you. It's not stalking behind you with a scythe. We all know death is out there somewhere, but he's in no hurry and you shouldn't be either.

I imagine myself, at the age of one hundred and fifteen. I've got terminal cancer. My wife, children, and grandchildren are all with me and we're celebrating my birthday. The banner over the cake says both 'HAPPY BIRTHDAY' and 'BON VOYAGE', and everyone is laughing, telling stories about me, and hugging me. I grab one last piece of cake, get into the car, and tell it to take me to the bank. The cars will drive themselves by then. I'll totter into the bank, a frail old man, and when I get to the front of the line I'll smile at the teller and pull out a gun. This is a hold-up.