“Tear Gas” is a short thriller about a simple bank robbery gone wrong when a wanna-be hero pushes the panic button, alerting police to the perfect situation in which to test a new method of assaulting the senses.
Originally published in Scarlet Leaf Review.
Luke’s vision narrowed with each lurching thud his heart made, the edges of the tile he gazed at swelling and shrinking as blood flowed in and out of his eyes.
The teller shouldn’t have pressed the panic button.
A tooth had come to rest directly in the middle of one of the bank’s floor tiles, the edges of the tile framing it like a poster of ideal dental hygiene.
The teller shouldn’t have pressed the panic button.
They were trained not to be heroes, to just hand the money over and let insurance deal with the fallout. Damaged employees cost more than inflated premiums in the long run.
Ricky was damaging the offending teller behind the barrier designed to separate customers from their money. Grunts followed the rise and fall of Ricky’s boot. At first, there were grunts from both men. Now, they came only from Ricky.
Radio chatter came through the panes of glass to his side. The air conditioning hummed overhead. A safe’s dial clicked away beneath a long desk.
Luke heard the sounds but kept staring at the tooth. A thin root stretched out from the base of it, torn from its home in the teller’s gums. He thought it was an incisor because it was sharp, but the more he looked at it, the more it started to look like a front-tooth, sharpened to a point by a chip in the enamel; Ricky had jammed his gun into the guy’s mouth pretty hard.
“Ell!” Janet was shouting now.
He lifted his head, looking over the barrier and its rows of service stations. Janet had a glock jammed up against the bank manager’s back as he grimaced and wiped at a stream of blood that ran from the corner of his mouth. She looked ridiculous with her ski mask pulled down, turning her mouth and eyes into some sort of reverse raccoon mask, but Luke supposed he looked just as stupid. Just as cliché. The chill of the air-conditioning flittered over his exposed mouth and eyes.
“Crowd control. Quit staring at your fucking boots!” She pushed the manager towards the back of the bank and began talking into a walkie-talkie.
“Crowd control,” Luke repeated and looked over at the crowd.
It was a crowd of three before Ricky took the guy who had alerted the cops aside for his version of a “friendly review of his work performance.” The crowd should have been only the two tellers, but there was no way of knowing about the guy in the bathroom.
The bank wasn’t a bank. It was a credit union located in a small building, rarely visited and off a side road mostly driven by long-haul truckers and drunks who frequented the dive bar a mile or so down the road. The risk was low, the reward high. When Janet and her husband, Ricky, had cased out the place a week earlier they had only seen two customers, both elderly ladies, visiting hours apart.
The customer sitting next to the teller avoiding the shit-stomping did not seem to fit in with the credit union’s regular clientele.
He was a thin black man, the shadow of stubble growing out on his face. He picked at his fingernails, and when he had scraped a bit of dirt out of one, he flicked it onto the ground next to him. If the situation bothered him, he showed no sign of it. Luke saw his mouth moving and began to walk over to the two, gripping his pistol with sweaty palms.
“You know, I came to this place hoping to avoid the bullshit surrounding big banks,” he was telling the lady next to him. She had been crying, tears cutting mascara streaks down her face. Her legs stuck out along the tiles, and she repeatedly ran her hands over her skirt, trying to smooth out wrinkles that didn’t exist. “Don’t trust ‘em, you know? Gotta respect the little guy, gotta respect you guys.” He flicked another piece of dirt onto the ground. She didn’t seem to hear him, just kept smoothing out her skirt.
“Hey,” Luke said to him. “Zip it.”
Without lifting his head, the man raised his eyes to Luke. They were dark with whites so pure they seemed to glow. “Come on, man, you gotta feel the same way. Look at these guys, trying to provide a service to the people. They’re the underdogs, you know? Like Rocky, like Rudy. These big banks, man, they take your money, and who knows what they do with it. Probably funding some fucking drug dealers or something, trying to marginalize the poor so we don’t notice they’re single-handedly writing the laws that govern this fine nation.”
“I don’t give a shit how you feel about banks. Shut the fuck up.”
The guy smiled at Luke. Luke jerked the slide back in an effort to intimidate the guy. The guy smiled even bigger, showing off big, white teeth and a couple of dimples.
“At least you guys recognized the potential here. Little security, sparse population. Hard to get to? Fuck man, if that dude over there hadn’t tripped the alarm, I don’t think the police would even know you guys were in here. Not until you were long gone at least. Where’s the driver? At the bar down the road? You think he’s gonna be able to get here through all those SWAT vans out front?”
Luke lifted his gun at the guy. The guy put on a comical look of surprise, opening his bright eyes wide and forming a perfect “O” with his mouth before making a zipper motion over closed lips. The woman next to him looked at the barrel and let out a little squeal. She didn’t stop smoothing out her skirt, just began to do it faster.
Luke sidled over to the counter and leaned over it to shout to Janet. Behind it, the manager was placing money into the duffel bag they had brought in.
“Jay, how much longer?”
She looked up at him with annoyance. “I don’t know. Just keep an eye on those people.”
Ricky had finished stomping the teller and was looking out the window through the Venetian blinds. “Another one just rolled up,” he said, wiping at the sweat that ran down the back of his neck. The big man was breathing heavy, his barrel chest rising and falling like a living mountain. “Three fucking vans. For little ole us and this little ole credit union. ‘It’ll be easier than a bank,’ she says, ‘nobody even goes down there’ she says.”
“Fuck you,” Janet replied and prodded the manager to go faster. Her ponytail seemed to tremble as she focused on the money. “We brought extra ammo for a reason. Make sure those clips are loaded. Wheels can’t get to us, so we’re going to have to get to him. That means laying down some heat.”
“I’m ready, Mama.” Ricky kissed her on the back of the head and she couldn’t help the smile that twitched at the corner of her mouth. He turned to Luke, running a finger along the edge of his ski-mask where a line of small, irritated bumps had begun to form. “You ready?”
“Because you look a little nervous.”
Luke felt nervous. His palms were sweaty, his legs were shaky, and he had started to feel hot and itchy under his ski-mask despite the air conditioning. He desperately wanted to rip it off, just to be able to take in a deep breath of air instead of the quick inhalations he was working with.
At least he was finally feeling something. Since the accident, a numbness had settled over him. He took the job because he honestly didn’t care about the outcome. If he made it out with a hefty chunk of change, great. If he got tagged between the eyes by an overzealous cop during their escape, even better.
Janet turned her head over her shoulder, the ponytail swinging around like a bullwhip. “Enough twenty questions, the man has a job to do.” Then, to Luke: “Make sure you’re watching those people!”
“Yeah,” Luke said, giving his head a shake. He walked back over to the two conscious hostages. The girl had stopped smoothing her skirt out. She was staring blankly ahead, her lip quivering slightly.
“Yo, Carla’s hungry.” The guy next to her had his knees up and was resting his wrists on them.
Luke looked around, saw a jar of lollipops at the reception desk, and handed it to her. “Here.”
“Nah man, we don’t eat sugar.”
“You know what she eats?”
“All right, I don’t eat sugar. Neither should she, and neither should you. I had this one friend, Jackie, you know on account of he liked to Jack cars. He used to chew these mints non-stop, like Mentos or some shit. Dude would say ‘they’re the freshmaker’ some corporate slogan you know, thought they covered up his nasty ass breath. He thought he could get away with not brushing his teeth, just chewing these fucking mints. We told him ‘ain’t nothing but sugar in those things, things are just horse food, man’ but he didn’t listen. Then one day his head just fucking blows up!
“I didn’t see it, of course, but I heard from someone who did. Bacteria fed on the sugar, just eating a hole in this motherfucker’s tooth. The hole got sealed up somehow, probably some shit Jackie ate stuck to it and ‘cause he doesn’t brush, became concrete. Well the bacteria trapped inside just ate that sugar. You know what happens when bacteria eats sugar, right? Makes CO2, just like a bottle of champagne. Ole’ Jackie’s tooth became carbonated because that CO2 couldn’t go anywhere. When the pressure got too much, it shattered like a fuckin’ bomb in this dude’s head!”
Luke stared at him. “So, you just don’t eat sugar?”
The guy shook his head. “I eat that aspartame shit, Splenda too. Might give me cancer, but at least I won’t get my head all fucking blown up.”
Luke placed the jar in the woman’s lap. “It’s gonna be all right. We don’t want to hurt anybody. We’ll be out of here as soon as possible.” The woman grabbed the jar but kept looking straight ahead.
“Her name’s Carla. Mine’s Carl. Ain’t that serendipitous?” The guy was back picking his nails again. “We might as well get acquainted, since we’ll probably be here a while. I already know your names though.” He smirked. “Ell. Jay. Are.” Carl chuckled. “Creative.”
“We’re leaving as soon as possible.”
“Ah, you’re gonna get in a shoot-out with the cops out there? I guarantee they got bigger guns than you do. More of them, too. They got all sorts of military shit, man. They don’t tell us about their developments. People ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ over hoverboards that don’t even hover. I heard they got shit that actually hovers! Like high up, man, real quiet. They sneak up on terrorists with ‘em, abduct them like fucking aliens. They got all sorts of shit. Nonviolent shit, too. They fuck you up, and you disappear to Guantanamo or whatever. I got protester buddies, they tell me about this new tear gas they have. Shit fucks you up in ways-”
“We’re going to have to take hostages,” Ricky shouted over the counter to Luke. He was moving quickly away from the window, forehead leading. “They won’t fire on us if we have them.”
Janet lifted the door that separated the services from the serviced and pushed the manager ahead of her. She tossed the duffel bag to her husband. “Wheels is in the car. We’ll ditch these fuckers a block away and sprint to him.”
Ricky shouldered the bag and took three large steps toward the woman on the ground. Carla. He lifted her by a thin arm.
Carla dropped the jar of suckers. It shattered on the floor. Bright shards of neon color shot across the tiles. Ricky wrapped an arm around her, putting his gun to her head. The woman began to whimper. A wet patch grew over her now wrinkled skirt, and the sharp smell of ammonia permeated the air.
“Jesus Christ, lady,” he grunted, face twisting up in a scowl.
Carl had begun to slowly get up, complying with the situation. Luke lifted him the rest of the way and wrapped an arm around his neck. He held the gun up, halfheartedly, towards the front doors.
“Man, we both know that gun ain’t loaded. Usually when you pull back the slide on an already cocked pistol, a bullet pops out the top. Your shit is dryer than southern California.”
“Shut the fuck up, just shut the fuck up and don’t make trouble.”
“Why you even doing this man? You seem like a nice guy. Why are you wrapped up with these criminals?”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replied.
Janet looked out the front door. Through the crinkle she made in the blinds, Luke could see the SWAT vans, black and boxy. Men stood in front of them with long, automatic rifles. One had what looked like a grenade launcher. Before Janet retreated nimbly from the blinds, Luke thought he saw him circling around the side of the building, loading a canister into his chunky launcher.
“We need to do this fast, okay?” she told crew , giving her ski-mask a tug to keep it secure. “Fire a couple shots at the vans, get them behind cover. They won’t fire as long as we have the hostages. Hopefully, they don’t follow us too close. This can still work.”
“I love you, baby,” Ricky told her, making a kissy face with his plump lips. She returned his air kisses with a wiggle of her nose, then tightened her hold on the manager’s collar.
A silence descended over the room as the air conditioner stopped.
“You know they’re gonna have a helicopter up there,” Carl said over his shoulder to Luke. “Unless…” He trailed off.
“What?” Luke asked.
“They might be using drones now. Cheaper to fly, harder to notice.”
“Shut up,” Luke repeated.
“Or what, you’re gonna shoot me? You don’t even have blanks in there, my dude. Do your partners know you pussied out on them?”
“Shut-” Luke began, but the sound of breaking glass cut him off. He looked towards the source of the sound. A stainless-steel canister tinkled across the tiles, coming to rest between him and Ricky. They both looked at it.
“Fuck man, that better not be-” Carl began, but he was cut off by the explosion.
Powder-blue gas filled the air. Ricky and Janet began to cough, but Luke held his breath. He backed away quickly, letting go of Carl in the process. In his haste, he slipped on a pile of the spilled lollipops. He fell on his hip, and a sharp pain shot out from it, making him wince and take a deep breath of the gas.
Luke expected a bitter sting. He braced himself against the incoming pain that would flare out from every membrane the gas touched.
There was no fire in his lungs, no tears in his eyes. Instead, he smelled the bitter-sweet scent of the ocean, of sea-life dashed upon the rocky shore he knew too well. A cloud surrounded him, becoming a pillow. It wasn’t suffocating, but all at once he was isolated. Nobody existed in his world. His eyes shot open and he saw memories, as clear as home movies you wished you misplaced.
He saw the nursery, painted a neutral yellow. The bassinet his father-in-law had built. A clean changing table. A still mobile.
He saw the empty bottles at dinner. There were two on the table, but he had forgotten how many the server had taken away. He saw his wife, Stacy sitting across from him. She was looking off, waiting for the check .
She was in the passenger seat. She was fiddling with her seat belt. It fit awkwardly under her growing belly. She was trying to get it to fit right, and Luke was driving too fast in a futile attempt to outpace the last argument that was only the most recent of a growing catalogue.
The long road that stretched along the sea was simple. There were no turns to navigate, tight or otherwise. Luke could drive that road in his sleep. He was looking out at the ocean, at the lone ship silhouetted by the setting sun. The sun set the horizon ablaze. Salt was in the air and in his lungs.
Then he was in the other lane. Then he was on the shoulder. Then he was swerving back into his lane, but he had over-corrected. They were bouncing off the guard rail and back into oncoming traffic.
He swerved protectively away from the pickup, but it clipped the side of their sedan, sending them rolling end over end before coming to rest upside down against a large pole for a billboard advertising the newest Fast and the Furious movie.
When he came to, bloodied and disoriented in a pile of broken glass and crumpled metal, he was alone.
Through the shattered windshield, Luke saw streaks of blood and mats of hair on the asphalt. Stacy had taken off her seat belt to adjust it.
The gas brought these memories. He felt the tears coursing down his face. They were hot, burning him as if he were leaking acid. It burned in his core; he felt the searing despair in his heart. He heard sobbing coming from ahead of him. A gun roared, and he saw Ricky’s hulking form slump over.
It was over. He had nothing more to live for. He had accepted Ricky and Janet’s proposal because he thought he had nothing left. Now he knew it.
Janet lifted her pistol to the side of her head and wailed. Her sorrow cut through the pillow surrounding Luke like an arrow. What was she seeing? She yowled like a cat in distress.
When she pulled the trigger, the bullet turned the left side of her head into a mess of gore. She collapsed on top of her husband forming a neat pile of lifeless meat, easy to clean up.
Luke felt her blood spray over him. It was hot, but his tears were hotter.
His way out was clear. He couldn’t do it before despite the pain and guilt he felt, sitting in the forever unoccupied nursery, but the thought of being delivered from this overwhelming grief subdued any fear he had of dying.
The inferno within him rose, then froze. It became a titanic iceberg, sending cold fingers out into his body, grasping and squeezing, suffocating him.
The front doors blew open. Heavily armed officers wearing gas masks rushed in. Luke lifted his gun to the side of his head.
I’m coming, baby, he thought.
Luke pulled the trigger. The hammer fell on a firing pin, and the roaring blast he expected was only a dry click.