by Eliza Victoria
Before the man with a gun entered the convenience store, Grace was sitting alone at a sticky, soda-splattered table, her broken arm throbbing like a heart, the roof of her mouth burning from the coffee she had drunk too quickly. It was nearly two in the morning, and there were only three other people in the store. The cashier sitting behind the counter was playing some game on his phone and having an expletive-laden argument with it. There were two guys facing each other at the table behind her. She had glanced up and had made a swift assessment (cute, also cute; dead-tired and wary, alert and looking like he's making lists in his head) when they came in earlier, talking about a cab driver who had tried to swindle them or something. One of them, the alert-looking one, was wearing a mauve rubber wristband. An Institute guest, so the other guy probably worked for the Institute.
Grace knew about the wristband because she and the rest of her class wore it when they toured the facility last month. Researchers from the Institute made her nervous. Who knew what kind of experiments they were doing up there?
The convenience store was near Grace's house. She would have gone to a coffee shop but realized she didn't have enough money. She wanted to sit in an indistinctive place, somewhere quiet and dull, where she could think about Alice and the car crash, and the fact that it was Alice's birthday today, and that in fifty years, if Grace would be so fortunate, Grace would be dead, and in another fifty years after that, maybe everyone who had ever known Alice would be dead, and there would be no one left to remember or mourn her, and so every person or thing or memory, no matter how bright or searing, no matter how kind or painful, could be defeated by time, and could disappear as though it had never even existed.
Grace was crying. Because she couldn't even toast Alice on her birthday with a good cup of coffee, because fifty years felt at once too long and too short. She was aware only of her pain and her grief, so when the man with a gun banged into the store, she didn't look up, and so didn't see what was happening until the cashier and the man got into a loud argument, loud enough to make Grace stop thinking about Alice. There was a crash, a sudden flash of fluorescence as broken glass from the lights showered the grocery shelves, a shout ("Get down!"), and Grace was down, lying flat on her back on the cold floor (How did that happen, she thought idly), and the two guys from the Institute were bending over her, the dead-tired one taking off his jacket and pressing it to her chest. Her chest felt warm but her hands were so cold. The guy with the wristband, as though reading her mind, held her hand, touched her face.