This is my entry for the Review Game's February Writing Challenge Contest. Hope you enjoy. :)

edited 11/14/10


Most of the customers figured he was a criminal before he pulled out his gun.

I was one of the last to notice, as usual, since my eyes were lost to the dancing snowflakes outside. I'd snatched a window booth in hopes of being inspired by the weather. Being an amateur writer, I had come to this small, jazzy café as an act of desperation. After a bout of stale ideas you could say I was trying to salvage my wannabe career as a writer. Normally I avoided cliché joints like this, but what's a girl to do in times of crisis? It's one of those modern places where young cosmopolitans clog the corners like cobwebs, you know?

Hand clasping a steaming coffee cup, eyes tracing snowflakes through the glass, it was the silence that alerted me. The constant tip-taps ceased as hands froze over their laptop keyboards and stared, and the clacking of dishes faded as the waitresses stopped in their tracks.

He stood just inside the door, legs apart, wearing a full-face cloth mask, and a black jacket, black pants, and gloves, leaving no skin exposed. His position commanded attention, and as soon as all eyes were on him he pulled a gun from his jacket.

"Nobody move." As if he needed to say it. No one was moving. Realizing this, the robber tried to make up for such an overused starter phrase with a second line brimming with creativity.

"Can any of you give me a good reason not to blow each of your brains out?" he asked, gun-free hand on his hip.

I stared, heart pounding. How are you supposed to respond to a question like that? Astonished businessmen and bartenders looked at each other with shifting eyes.

"No? How about we take turns?" For a slim guy, his boots thumped loudly as he marched to the person nearest to him: a redheaded waitress with a tray full of mugs. The culprit swung his arms to point his gun at her head.

The waitress yelped and flinched, dropping her tray. The mugs smashed against the floor, the crash resonating in the silent room.

"Well?" The culprit pushed the barrel to her head. The waitress cowered, starting to cry, while the spell over the rest of the customers was broken. Murmurs broke out and people started to squirm in their seats, a few reaching for cell phones.

"Got nothing?" His shout froze the room again. "Alright, then—"

"Please don't shoot!" The waitress clasped her hands together. She really did look pathetic, and I could hardly blame her. She had a gun pointed at her head, for Christ's sake. I shrunk in my seat, pushing myself against the glass, as far away from that psycho as possible. Maybe I could've dealt with it if he wanted something material. People usually leave you alone if you give them what they want, right? But this guy just wanted to kill us all. Sweating made even the chilly air by the window feel clammy.

"Three…" The culprit stepped closer to the waitress, gun pinpointed at her head.

"Please!" She stepped back.

"Two…" The culprit matched her retreat. The room was strung higher than a skyscraper, and people sat on the edge of their seats afraid to do anything but ashamed for not doing anything.

"One…"

"Because she asked you to!"

The culprit slowly turned his head toward the one who had yelled. A young, narrow-eyed businessman sat at the table opposite mine, complete with slicked back hair, a suit, and a tie.

"Because she asked you to," the businessman repeated. "That's a reason not to shoot her. Because she asked you to."

The people held their breath as the culprit stood still, thinking.

"Alright," he said after a long pause. He walked to the businessman.

"Your turn." The culprit aimed his gun at the businessman's head. "Why shouldn't I blow your brains out?"

"I…" began the businessman, hands clenching his table and sweat pouring down his forehead. "I…"

"I think he's cute." This time, all eyes went to a short brunette bartender with her arms crossed and lips pursed.

"You can't be serious." The culprit put his free hand on his hip and cocked his head.

"I am." The bartender's chin jutted defiantly.

"That's a stupid reason."

"You didn't say you needed a smart reason."

"Oh, come on!" I couldn't see the culprit's eyes, but his head made a distinct head-roll motion. As strange as it was, I couldn't help but agree with him. This was rather ridiculous.

Because I think he's cute? Honestly? I could think of something better than that!

I just didn't want to say it because then he'd want to blow my brains out.

Really.

"Fine." The culprit sighed, but drifted to the bartender. "Why shouldn't I blow her brains out, everyone? I'm dying to know." His voice had transformed into a snarl, clearly impatient to be about his task. He'd come here with the intent of killing people, and it was probably just a twisted sense of poetic justice that had kept him from killing his first two victims, but who know with the crazy types?

In my seat, I wrung my hands and hunched my shoulders, trying to look as small as possible.

The bartender didn't try to come up with anything, but glanced at the crowd pleadingly. People started to talk among themselves, addicted to the game.

"I think she's cute," said a teenager boy at the café bar.

"No repeats," snarled the culprit.

"Well, she is…" muttered the teenager, but the culprit wasn't paying attention.

"It has to be a good one this time!" The culprit waved his gun for emphasis. This time the crowd started listing answers, strangers and people who knew the bartender joining in to help her, certain that when it was their turn someone else would come to their rescue.

"She serves a mean cup of Joe!"

"She always shows up to work on time!"

"She has a three-year-old kid!"

Creeping out of my corner, I pushed myself to the edge of my seat. The culprit shook his head at the chorus of comments, signaling his disapproval. His finger twitched on the trigger and his toe tapped the black-and-white checkered floor.

"Three…"

"She let me copy her math homework in highschool!"

"She can sing pretty well!"

"Two…"

"She was in a school play!"

"Don't shoot her, man!"

"One…"

"She's a hero!" Tensed and afraid, the words shot out of my mouth. My shout cut the other comments and the room, and all stares trained on me, including the culprit's.

My hands started to tremble.

"A hero?" The culprit's stance was expectant. I jerked out of my fear-induce state and clung to his interest.

"Y-yeah. She stood up for that guy. She chose to save his life even if it endangered hers. That makes her a hero, I think." Words tumbled from my lips like they'd just been freed from a dam. They do that when I'm stressed. Heart hammering, I tried to make out the culprit's masked face as he stood contemplating.

"That'll work." He walked in my direction.

Idiot. Fool. The peak of stupidity. That's what I was. Why did I have to go and open my damn mouth?

"Now, you have to answer yourself this time." The culprit put his boot on the seat next to mine and leaned over me. I could hear him breathing. "Why shouldn't I blow your brains out, doll?"

Doll? Honestly? I scowled.

"Three…" The culprit started nonchalantly.

Oh God…

"Two… Come on, I really don't want to shoot your brains out, doll."

What that hell was with the nickname?

"This'll be a crazy one to tell the family," I said, my stressful compulsion getting the better of me.

"What?"

"I mean, think about it." I shrugged, going with it. "A guy breaks into the café, threatening to kill people if they don't answer his deep questions, and when they answer his inner frustrated self is satisfied that there's meaning to life, you know? It'd make one hell of a story. I bet criminals all over the country would copy you. They could even make a noun or verb out of it, a, uh… What's this place called?" My eyes swept the room.

"Chamberlain's!" Someone called from the back.

"Yeah, a Chamberlain," I continued. "And it would, like, become an outlet for soulful artists everywhere. The media would go nuts. Your very nature would be analyzed and wondered at by scientists around the world!"

The culprit hadn't moved through my speech. I couldn't tell if he was stunned by the ridiculousness of what I proposed or the ingeniusness of it. Out of steam, I looked at his mask hopefully. The entire café watched with anticipation.

"So? How's that sound?"

Without a word, the culprit lifted his gun in my direction. Biting back a scream, I squeezed my eyes shut. Three gunshots echoed in Chamberlain's café with piercing clarity.

Arms wrapped around myself, I opened my eyes. In front of me, the culprit stowed his gun inside his jacket. Behind me, the large glass window was patterned with thousands of cracks and three distinct bullet holes.

The room, still locked in anticipation, watched as the culprit snatched a chair and threw it at the window. The glass shattered and flew outside. The winter wind whipped at the café, seeking to include it in its fury.

Bracing himself, the culprit leapt onto my table and sprinted outside, his figure soon lost to the snowfall ballet shrouding the city.

Still under the impression that I should be dead, I gaped at the broken window. The dancing snowflakes I had admired through glass now landed delicately on my hair and face.

The crowd in the café began to applaud.